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Issue 48 - A curious tale

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Scotland Magazine Issue 48
December 2009


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A curious tale

Heidi Soholt looks at an elaborate joke that has persisted the test of time.

Imagine the scene – a select gathering of some of the most celebrated figures of the early 20th century, onboard a luxurious ship.

As they idle away the hours, enjoying drinks and Havana cigars, the conversation turns mischievous. One of the party, millionaire landowner Sir Donald Currie, who has recently bought himself a pretty little Perthshire hamlet, is boasting that his new purchase is the birth place of Pontius Pilate. Having recently found an old stone with the initials P. P. engraved on it, he thinks Pilate might have been buried there too. His friends, Rudyard Kipling and Alfred Tennyson among them, start laughing – this is his most outrageous story yet. Then, their creative minds get to work. The rest of the day is spent concocting a legend – one which has survived to this very day.

This theory about how Fortingall came to be linked with Jesus Christ’s infamous executioner has been put forward by Fortingall resident, Neil Hooper. Having carried out extensive research into the legend which claims Pilate was born in the village, Neil believes that Sir Donald Currie, a shipowning lairdand MPwho in 1885 bought the Glen Lyon estate which included Fortingall, could have made up the story, possibly with the help of his high-society friends, as “an elaborate joke”.

The story then spread through Currie’s links with publications such as the London Pall Mall Gazette and The Times.

Adding weight to the theory is the fact that no mention of a link between Fortingall and Pontius Pilate existed until Currie’s connection with the village in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is despite 16th century Fortingall having its own chronicler, Sir James Macgregor, Dean of Lismore.

Similarly, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the accounts of the parish by the Fortingall ministers in the Statistical Account of Scotland are silent on the matter.

Neil hasn’t let fact stand in the way of good fiction however, and has just finished penning a book which follows the story of Pontius Pilate’s birth in Fortingall, as if it were true.

The book, which is soon to be published, is based on the famous legend that Pontius Pilate’s father was dispatched by Caesar Augustus to foster good relations with Caledonian chieftains, among them one Metellanus, whose royal seat was at Dun Geal – the White Fort – at Fortingall.

The envoy was then said to have fathered a child with a Scots woman. He returned to Rome with the child – Pontius Pilate, who eventually became Roman Procurator of Judea.

The story has long held a fascination for Neil. Now retired, he has spent much of his life teaching English abroad. Many of his postings were in places where he was the only English speaker, and this, he explains, gave him an idea for a book.

“When I came to live here in Fortingall after years abroad, often as almost the sole European in far flung places, I began to feel some affinity with the idea of a lowly legate from the great empire, arriving unannounced among the outlandish Caledonians,” he says.

“So, I have produced a new Chronicle of the birth of Pontius Pilate in Fortingall, consisting of Marcus Pontius’s reports (he wasn’t given the surname Pilate until later), of his expedition to meet the chief of the Caledonians.

“His rather one-sided accounts are balanced by letters written by his guide Lossio, to a friend in Galatia – that is the region around Ankara in Turkey, where I worked for a number of years, and was the most easterly Celtic nation in the classical world.

“They had been slaves together and found that their tongues, from opposite ends of the known earth, were still related. This friend must have been converted to Christianity and had written to Lossio about a new faith.

This prompted Lossio to write back telling how many years before he had been responsible for guiding Pilate’s father in Caledonia, and helping his escape with his baby son back to Rome.” Neil remains unconvinced about whether there is, in reality, any truth to the legend, in fact he goes as far as to say that “no thinking person should take it seriously”.

“Many accounts have Pilate’s father being a Roman legionary, when no Roman army came anywhere near Scotland until years after Pilate’s death; and they name Pilate’s mother as a Maclaren or a Menzies, clans that were unknown until the late middle ages.

Even the less ridiculous version, that the father was an ambassador from Augustus to the leader of the Caledonians, lacks any evidence,” he says.

“It is curious the number of places throughout Europe that claim to be the birth place of Pilate, but exactly why people should claim he was buried here, no one knows.

“The first written mentions of the legend do not appear until the end of the 19th century. Then, at the beginning of the 20th is a letter which was written to The Times by Sir Donald Currie who was mainly responsible for the rebuilding of Fortingall kirk.

“He wrote that among the old stones that had been turned up at the demolition of the old kirk was one inscribed “PP”.

“He suggested, tongue in cheek presumably, that even if Pontius Pilate hadn’t been born in Fortingall, he may have been buried there.

“Now, Sir Donald was also a patron of notable writers such as Tennyson and Kipling, and it is strange how many supposedly ancient local traditions can be traced back only to his time.

“Perhaps, it was all an elaborate joke on his part. Imagine him lounging at the members’ terrace at Westminster, maybe listening to an MPfor Glastonbury regaling his friends with the claims that the boy Jesus had “walked upon England’s mountains green”, and capping this claim by boasting of how he had bought this village in Scotland where Pontius Pilate had been born.” Author and expert on Perthshire history, Peter McNaughton, has also cast doubt on the Pilate link.

Peter, who is the author of the website, Highland Strathearn, commented that in his opinion, the story was “very unlikely”.

“It was said that Pilate was the son of a Roman officer stationed in Fortingall, however, the Romans did not appear in Highland Pethshire until 80 AD, some 80 years after the crucifiction of Jesus.

“As Pilate was the Governor and Judge in Judea at the time, it is impossible to accept that he was born anywhere near Scotland, although his family would have certainly come from the upper crust set.

“Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that the Romans were ever in that part of Loch Tay, although they did have a camp at Fendoch in the Sma Glen, as well as military stations going over the Gask ridge from Ardoch (Braco) to around Perth.” Well, whether its links with Pilate are indeed fact or fiction, one thing’s for sure – Fortingall is undisputedly home to one of the oldest living things on earth – the Fortingall Yew, which stands at the corner of the church.

It is not known exactly how old the great yew is, but estimates have put it at between 2000 and 5000 years – old enough, perhaps, to have provided fun and shade for a young Roman boy.