5 lesser-known Scottish saints

A bust showing Saint Regulus, held in the Galleria Regionale di Palazzo Bellomo in Siracusa. Picture: Contributed
A bust showing Saint Regulus, held in the Galleria Regionale di Palazzo Bellomo in Siracusa. Picture: Contributed
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Patron saint Andrew and, to some extent, Saint Margaret are well known for their connections with Scotland. But the reality is that our country has ties with a great many saints, some well known and others relatively obscure. We’ve taken a look at four lesser-known saints associated with Scotland.

Saint Donnán of Eigg

A Gaelic priest most likely born in Ireland, Donnán (or Donan) was tasked with attempting to introduce the Picts of north west Scotland to Christianity during the early Middle Ages.

While there are many place names in Scotland, and indeed further afield, honouring this 7th century saint - including Eilean Donan castle in Kyle of Lochalsh, East Kildonan in Winnipeg, Canada and Saint-Donan in Brittany, France - little is known about Donnán’s life.

Donnán is thought to have been martyred on the island of Eigg, one of the Small Isles in the inner Hebrides just off the west coast of Scotland. A 17th century tome titled The Martyrology of Donegal refers to Donnan’s death at the hands of pirates, saying: “And there came robbers of the sea on a certain time to the island when [Donnán] was celebrating mass. He requested of them not to kill him until he should have the mass said, and they gave him this respite; and he was afterwards beheaded and fifty-two of his monks along with him.”

But there is a conflicting account in the book Warlords And Holy Men, Scotland AD 80-1000 suggesting that a pagan Pictish queen burnt Donnán and 150 others to death.

A third account, found in Adomnan of Iona. Life of St Columba, claims that a rich woman persuaded a ‘number of bandits’ to kill Donnán and his monks after his arrival on Eigg prevented her from grazing her sheep in a certain spot. Fifty-four others reportedly died with Donnán at the hands of the bandits.

Donnán is said to be buried at Kildonan, on the isle of Arran, and his feast day is celebrated on April 17th; the day of his death in 617AD.

Saint Kessog

Considered by some to be one of the first Christian martyrs in Scotland, St Kessog is thought to have been born into Irish royalty in Cashel, Tipperary, around 460AD. Hints at his holiness were revealed early in his life; one account tells how he brought a number of children back to life after they drowned.

He left Ireland for Scotland, becoming a missionary bishop and basing himself at Monks’ Island in Loch Lomond. Kessog is said to have been most active in the areas of Lennox - which at that time stretched as far as northern Wales - and southern Perthshire; indeed the parish churches of Auchterarder and Comrie in Perthshire were dedicated to him and may have been founded by Kessog himself or his followers.

Kessog was known as the soldier saint - he wore a sword around his waist and was reputed to be of Roman army descent - and even today Luss Parish Church, which in 2010 celebrated 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 comprise a carved stone head thought to be of the saint and dating from the sixth century, an ancient stone font and a stone effigy of a bishop, which some believe to be Kessog - although there are doubts over whether the effigy is of Kessog, or of a 15th century bishop of Argyll named Robert Colquhoun, hidden in the cairn during the Reformation.

Kessog is known to have travelled widely during his time in Scotland, with various place names hinting at his presence in certain areas, such as the Kessock Hill area of Inverness.

He died at Bandry, south of Luss sometime between 520 and 530AD, reportedly at the hands of mercenaries, near a well he used to baptise converts to Christianity.

A cairn was erected to mark the site of Kessog’s death, to which pilgrims added stones during visits. However, in the 1700s the cairn was removed to allow the road to be widened.

There are those who claim that Kessog 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’.

His feast day is celebrated on March 10th, and he is often depicted in military dress holding a bent bow with an arrow in it.

Saint Oda

Although born in Scotland in 680AD, Oda became a holy woman synonymous with the Netherlands, rather than in her homeland.

Born blind, Oda was sent on a pilgrimage to Liège, to visit the relics of Saint Lambert of Maastricht, in the hopes of curing her blindness. While praying at Saint Lambert’s grave, her sight was restored, and Oda made her way back to Scotland, vowing to dedicate her life to God as a nun.

But 13th century records suggest that her father - King Eugenius VII - wanted her to marry in Scotland and had selected a husband for his daughter, but because of her vow, Oda left Scotland, travelling first to Rome and then Monte Gargano in Italy.

She then travelled onwards to the Netherlands and Belgium, praying in several villages but finding herself constantly disrupted by magpies.

Attempting to escape the birds, Oda was instead led by the magpies to a small settlement in a forest, called Rode, where the villagers built a hut for her.

Legend claims that Oda planted some bushes to protect the hut from the elements, and within a day, the bushes had grown into a thick hedge.

Her father, having been made aware of his daughter’s location by her use of coins from her homeland, found the hut and attempted to approach it, only to be repeatedly driven back by magpies.

He eventually gave up and returned to Scotland without Oda.

Oda settled there as a hermit, and after her death in 726AD, many pilgrims began travelling to her hut, calling the place Sint-Oda’s-Rode (Saint Oda’s place in the woods).

This name evolved to become Sint-Oedenrode in the modern day Netherlands.

Curiously, the flag of Sint-Oedenrode is a blue and white saltire, much the same as the flag of Scotland, with a small golden castle depicted on the left-hand side.

Oda’s feast day is celebrated on October 23, and she is often portrayed in a long blue gown, carrying a staff or book, with a magpie on her hand and a crown underfoot - possibly to signify her rejection of her father’s kingdom.

Saint Regulus

Alumni of the University of St Andrew’s may recognise the name of Regulus, even if they are unaware of the saintly background.

Saint Regulus, or Saint Rule, was a fourth century monk or bishop of Patras, in Greece, who reportedly fled to Scotland in AD345 with the remains of Saint Andrew which he buried in the modern town of St Andrews, in Fife.

As with many saints of the time, accounts of Saint Regulus’ life are somewhat contradictory and unclear. However, more than one account reports an angel appearing in a vision to Regulus, warning that the Emperor Constantine planned to move Saint Andrew’s relics from Patras to Constantinople. Regulus was told to spirit the bones away as far as he could to the west, where he should establish a church dedicated to Saint Andrew.

It is unclear whether Regulus was shipwrecked, or intentionally told by the angel to stop on the shores of Fife at Kilrymont - a Pictish settlement on which St Andrews now stands - but it is claimed that Regulus brought three fingers of Andrew’s right hand along with the upper bone of an arm, one kneecap and a tooth.

Some years later in 1070, the Prior of St Andrews, Robert I, constructed St Regulus Church in the town, in order to house Andrew’s relics. Robert I hoped that the church would act as a landmark for pilgrims. Its main feature was a tower of more than 30 metres in height, which is still standing in St Andrews today and is known as St Rule’s Tower.

But without Regulus, Andrew may not be the current patron saint of Scotland. The legend of Regulus was publicised by the kings of Scotland along with churchmen and noblemen from the 1100s onwards. By promoting the story of Andrew, the Scots acquired an important saint and ultimately an identity separate from England at a time when the country’s independence was under threat.

The legend was also used during the wars of Scottish independence to persuade Pope Boniface VIII to issue the 1299 Papal Bull that called on Edward I of England to halt the war against Scotland.

According to accounts of the time, the legend is also responsible for the adoption of the saltire as the flag of Scotland.

Along with St Rule’s Tower, there is a student hall of residence in St Andrews named St Regulus Hall, named for the saint, while The Rule pub on the town’s South Street is likely a reference to the saint as well.

His feast day is celebrated on October 17.

Saint Serf

Saint Serf, sometimes known as Saint Serbán, has ties with western Fife - despite being dubbed the ‘apostle of Orkney’. Even more confusingly, Serf also has links with the Saint Mungo’s Church near Simonburn in Northumberland.

Writing in The Oxford Dictionary of Saints in 1978, David Hugh Farmer described the legend of the Saint Serf as a ‘farrago of wild impossibilities’, adding that Serf was likely the son of Eliud, King of Canaan, and Alphia, daughter of an Arabian king, born in around 500AD.

As a young man, Serf reportedly served as Pope for seven years before travelling to Gaul (comprising modern day France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, northern Italy and parts of the Netherlands and Germany), before settling in Scotland. After supposedly meeting Adomnán, the Abbot of Iona, Serf was shown an island in Loch Leven, where he established St Serf’s Inch Priory, where he remained for seven years.

The island was later called St Serf’s Inch, the name it holds to this day.

The main problem with this account is that Adomnán reportedly lived from 624 until 704 - being born more than 40 years after Serf is said to have died.

However, many of the accounts of early saints are not without error, and so it’s entirely possible that Adomnán and Serf were contemporaries.

Serf supposedly continued travelling, with legend claiming that, along with his pastoral staff, he killed a dragon that had been terrorising the residents of Dunning.

The village, which retains the name of Dunning to this day, was built up around the former parish church of St Serf, built sometime in the 12th or 13th century.

Fans of Outlander especially may be interested to know that Serf then made his way to the banks of the Firth of Forth, where he is said to have founded the former royal burgh and port city of Culross.

A legend states that when the daughter of the king of Lothian, princess - and future saint - Teneu fell pregnant out of wedlock, her family threw her off what is now known as Traprain Law in East Lothian.

Miraculously, she survived the fall unharmed and was met by an empty coracle (a small, rounded boat made from wickerwork). With no home to go to, Teneu is said to have boarded the coracle which sailed her across the Forth to land at Culross, where Saint Serf cared for her and became the foster father of her son Kentigern - who later founded and became patron saint of Glasgow.

According to J.D. Wylie’s History of the Scottish Nation, Saint Serf ‘yielded up his spirit at Dunning on the first day of the Kalends of July... after many miracles, after divine virtues, after founding many churches [and] having given his peace to the brethren... his disciples and the people of the province [took] his body to Cuilenross [Culross], and there, with psalms and hymns and canticles, he was honourably buried.’

His feast day is celebrated on July 1, and Saint Serf is still a fairly common dedication for churches in central Scotland, Fife and Edinburgh.