The Fife cave ‘lit by a luminous arm’

St Fillan's Cave, Pittenweem. PIC Wikicommons.
St Fillan's Cave, Pittenweem. PIC Wikicommons.
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It is said that St Fillan could light up his dark cave in Pittenweem by the luminous glow emitted by his left arm.

He lived a hermit’s life in the cave after spending long periods wandering around Scotland, spreading his gospel, before shoring up in the Fife village.

Long after his death, his legacy was felt in Scotland with his staff and bell taken to the Battle of Bannockburn as talismans.

Following Robert the Bruce’s victory, the king built a priory in honour of the Christian missionary with his staff and bell preserved by the National Museum of Scotland.

St Fillan arrived in Scotland in the 7th Century with his mother, his brothers and his uncle, St Comgan.

At first the family settled at Loch Duich, before St Fillan moved south to what is now Strathfillan where the first recorded legend surrounding the saint emerges.

It is said he persuaded a wolf to help him build a church after it killed the ox used to carry building materials.

The Holy Pool next to the church was used as a shrine to the saint for many centuries after.

A Holy Well can also be found at the cave at Pittenweem. As patron saint of the mentally ill, sufferers would be bound in the cave and left overnight on their own to wait for intervention.

If their straps have been loosened during the night, the patient was considered to be cured.

In the 12th Century, Augustinian monks built a monastery on the hill above the cave, with the enclosure used as a natural refrigerator.

The cave was maintained by the monks until the Reformation.

Later, it was used by smugglers and as a store for fishing nets.

In 1935, it was rededicated by the Bishop of St Andrews in 1935 and it is is now a recognised place of worship.

Today an iron gate in the sandstone cliff protects the cavern. Behind the gate, the path goes down a steep slope to the inner part of the cave. The cave is shaped like a Y. The left passage leads to the small well, said to be one of the Holy Wells of St Fillan. This part of the cave seems to be mostly in its natural state. The right passage leads to a heavyly altered chamber with an altar, which is used as a church. Steps in the rock lead to the underground passage to the Prior of Pittenweem gardens above the cave.

In the 18th century the cave was used by smugglers, but once Excise men confiscated the goods in the cave. They took the goods to a house in Marygate. The smugglers tried to regain their goods, entered the house and attacked the Excise men. But they were arrested, tried and sentenced to death.

Many local people were upset at the unjust severity of the punishment. So they accompanied the transport to Edinburgh for execution. Before the execution, the crowd became restive and the officer in charge panicked and ordered his soldiers to fire on the crowd. The following riots, commemorated in the Grass Market in Edinburgh, are known as the Porteous riots, after the hapless officer who ordered the shooting. The condemned men escaped during the riots.

Later the cave was used as a rubbish dump, but in 1935 the Rector Canon de Voil and his father dug out the rubbish and built a shrine in the cave. The altar was consecrated by the Bishop of St Andrews. Since then the cave is used for occasional religious services by nearby St John’s Episcopal Church and other pilgrimages from all over Scotland. Every year on Holy Saturday night an ecumenical Easter service takes place, to commemorate the burial of Christ in a similar rock-hewn sepulchre in Jerusalem. The cave is owned by the Bishop Lowe Trust and is entrusted to St John’s Scottish Episcopal Church in Pittenweem

Giving its name to Pittenweem, Pit meaning place and weem meaning a cave, St Fillan’s cave has a important link to the Church and history as a whole. Entrance to the Cave is reached from Cove Wynd, the top of which is lead from the East end of the High Street and comes out at the East end of the harbour. In the 7th century the cave was reached by boat as at this time the harbour did not exist and was no doubt a favourite place for smugglers.

As you enter into the cave it divides at a ‘Y’, to the left is the well and to the right leads to a partly man made part in which contains an altar which is used as a focal point for local services associated with St John’s Episcopal Church and other pilgrimages from all over Scotland.

There are steps that have been roughly cut out into the rock that once lead to an under-ground passage to the Prior of Pittenweem gardens above the cave. The passage was blocked by the rubbish of smugglers over many years but was re-excavated in 1935 when the rector of St John’s cleared the cave and it has been reconsecrated as a Christian shrine and can be opened with permission to people who may be interested as well as church services

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