WHILE the debate over whether St Andrew's Day should be an official public holiday keeps going on, consider St Kessog, whom some claim to have been a patron saint of Scotland before Andrew took the honours, and whose feast day falls today, March 10.
"Who?" do we hear you shout, unfurling your saltires in indignant defence of auld Sanct Andra? Yet there are those who claim that Kessog, Kessoc, or MacKessog, a Christian missionary who settled near Luss, on Loch Lomondside, was in effect patron saint of Scotland before Andrew, and that at Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce urged on his troops in the name of "blessed Kessog".
Records of the Saint are thin on the ground, but most accounts suggest he was a Christian missionary, originally a son of the kings of Cashel, ancient capital of the Irish province of Munster, who arrived in Scotland in or around 510 and established a base on Inchtavannach ("the island of the monk's house"), just off Luss.
While still in Ireland, he is supposed to have miraculously revived some boys after a drowning accident.
And he is said to have been martyred on March 10, 560, (some sources say as early as 520), a mile and half south of Luss at Bandry, where a cairn to his name become a focus of pilgrimage until the Reformation, but was demolished by road builders during the18th century.
Today, Luss Parish Church, which in two years time will celebrate 1,500 years of continuous Christian worship on the site, still champions the name of the saint buried somewhere in its grounds, and possesses three artefacts removed from the cairn when it was demolished. These are a carved stone head thought to be of the saint and thought to date from the sixth century, an ancient stone font and a stone effigy of a bishop, which some believe to be Kessogl.
The present parish church was built in 1875, and these days maintains a pilgrimage centre – as well as its own MacKessog tartan, designed two years ago. According to its minister, the Rev Dr Dane Sherrard, Robert the Bruce knew the area, and its saint, very well.
Dr Sherrard, who will conduct a service for St Kessog today, agrees that at Bannockburn, Bruce urged his troops into battle in the name of "the blessed Kessog". "So successful was the battle that he came back to Luss and granted a three-mile girth of sanctuary to the church. A pilgrimage began again then and continued until the Reformation," he said.
One exponent of Kessoc as an alternative patron saint is Donald McKinney, the author of Walking the Mist: A Practical Guide to Celtic Spirituality, who admits that much of what we know about Kessog is anecdotal but believes the saint deserves recognition.
He said: "He was somebody who reached out to me as an inspiration and felt more real, more Celtic, than say St Andrew. I read a book which said that he was patron saint of Scotland before Andrew, and that he was also known as 'the warrior saint'."
Dr Alan MacQuarrie, who has translated and edited a brief life of the saint from the early 16th-century Aberdeen Breviary, says that not a lot is known about him: "The legend has it that he came originally from Munster in south-west Ireland, and the Earls of Lennox, in the area round about Loch Lomond, also claimed to come from there."
He added that the name crops up at Auchterarder, Comrie, Callander, Glen Finglas and Strathearn, while the Kessock Bridge at Inverness replaced Port Cheasaig – "Kessog's ferry".
St Kessog: the little we know…
THE saint's life is relatively obscure, but there are some details that shed light on his ministry.
The entry in The Oxford Dictionary of Saints says: "Kessog (Mackessog) (sixth century) Bishop:
• Born at Cashel of the royal family of Munster, Kessog went to Scotland, became a monk and eventually a bishop in the area around Loch Lomond.
• Luss was the principal centre of his cult.
• His traditional residence was the Monk's Island in the loch.
• Kessog is said to have been murdered by assassins at Bandry, where a heap of stones, known as St Kessog's Cairn, once stood. Part of this was removed during road-making in the 18th century and a stone statue of Kessog was found inside it.
• Several churches in different parts of Scotland are dedicated to him.
• Feast: 10 March."
Footprints of the Ancient Scottish Church, published in 1914, noted: "An ancient fair at Auchterarder in Perthshire (1200) recalled the feast of this saint once kept in Scotland (10 March).
"He was an Irish bishop and is said to have suffered martyrdom in Dunbartonshire (AD560).
"There were other fairs in his honour at Comrie and Callander, both in Perthshire, and on the island of Cumbrae."