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Medieval Scottish Saints
A talk given by Lindsay Irvin at the Scottish Studies Fall Colloquium, 30 Sept. 2006

Often when I reveal that one of my primary research interests is Scottish saints, I am met with expressions of confusion, sometimes even expressions of doubt that there were saints north of the English border.  Although the number of individuals venerated as saints who can be claimed by Scotland pales in comparison to the host of men and women who sought the ascetic lifestyle in the “desert” of Ireland or were killed for their faith on the Continent, Scotland’s saints should not be dismissed or ignored due to their small number. This morning I would like to share with you information about the most prominent Scottish saints—Ninian, Columba, Kentigern, and Margaret, as well as touch on the process by which a Galilean fisherman became the patron saint of a small country in the middle of the North Sea.

The primary sources I will refer to are works of hagiography, or literature about the saints.  Hagiography was not written to be an historically accurate biography as we would think of today, but was intended to provide examples of exceptional individuals who led lives devoted to religion and good works.  Saints’ Lives usually include fantastic stories about miraculous events intended to grab the attention of the audience and encourage pilgrimage to a saint’s shrine.

Our first three saints played important roles in establishing Christianity in the region north of Hadrian’s Wall.  These men were hailed during the Middle Ages as the founders of monasteries and cathedrals and as the converters of the Picts.  Of this group, St. Ninian is generally accepted as the first to arrive in Scotland. In fact, the Whithorn Trust claims him as “Scotland’s first saint.”[1]  Ninian is traditionally considered the British bishop of Whithorn, who acted as an apostle to Galloway and as a missionary to the southern Picts.  However, little can be stated with absolute certainty about his life.  Scholars have used much ink debating the dates of Ninian’s career; the established view is that he arrived in Scotland during the early part of the fifth century, but more recent work argues that he was active between the end of the fifth century and the first half of the sixth.  Historians have also raised doubts regarding the extent of his missionary work among the Picts. Regrettably, Ninian is likely to remain a shadowy figure, for the written sources can create as many questions as they answer. 

The earliest extant source for the career of St. Ninian is Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written around the year 730.  According to Bede, Ninian was “a most reverend bishop and holy man of British race, who had been…instructed in the mysteries of the Christian Faith in Rome.  Ninian’s own Episcopal see, named after Saint Martin and famous for its stately church, is now held by the English…The place…is commonly known as…the White House, because he built the church of stone, which was unusual among the Britons.”[2]  Bede also claims that Ninian converted the southern Picts to Christianity “a long time before” Columba’s arrival ca. 563, but offers no specific date by which to pinpoint Ninian’s activity. 

The other two written sources about Ninian do little to clarify matters.  The first is an eighth-century Latin poem, which was probably composed at some point after Bede wrote his Ecclesiastical History.  The second is a saint’s Life from the twelfth century.  Both texts recount a series of miracles performed by Ninian, including his healing of the sick and his gift of speech to a newborn baby, but neither contains information that helps to disperse the mystery surrounding Scotland’s earliest saint.

If you are in the southwest of Scotland, you can travel to Whithorn, which is located on a peninsula across the North Channel from Belfast, and see the ruins of structures from many periods of history.  During multiple excavations, archeologists have uncovered parts of what they believe to be Ninian’s church, as well as the remains of a late medieval cathedral.  It was a common practice to build new churches on the foundations of previous structures.

Lack of information is not a problem historians encounter when examining the life of Columba, or Colum Cille (“dove”), the sixth-century founder of the abbey of Iona, located on an island off the west coast of Scotland.  Several documents about his life were written within a hundred years of his death in 597, although they focus primarily on the latter half of his life.  The most significant of these sources is the Life of Columba by Adomnan, the ninth abbot of Iona, who died in 704.  Adomnan paints a vivid picture of his saintly subject, as well as of life at the island monastery.

Columba, born ca. 521 in Co. Donegal in Ireland, was a member of the royal house of the Ui Neill clan, which dominated the northern region of Ireland.  (At that time, the northern part of Ireland and the southwestern portion of modern-day Scotland formed the Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riata.)  As a young man, he was fostered to a priest for his education and later became a deacon in Leinster.  The impetus for his departure from his homeland may have come in 561, when, according to some sources, he participated in the battle of Cul Drebene, an encounter between the northern and southern branches of the Ui Niell clan.  As a priest, Columba was prohibited from engaging in secular warfare, so that the removal from Ireland could have been an act of penance.

Whatever the reason, Columba sailed for Scotland in 563, taking twelve companions with him.  Upon his arrival, he seems to have been a guest at the court of Conall mac Congaill, king of the Scottish Dal Riatan lands.  It is probable that Iona was a gift from Conall, though this, like so much else from early Scottish history, remains uncertain.  Nonetheless, Columba soon founded a monastery on the island and assumed his role as the first abbot of that community.

You might think that as the abbot of an island monastery, Columba led a quiet and confined life, but the sources state that he was a regular traveler.  He made at least two trips back to Ireland after his move to Iona, and also traveled to the region of the northern Picts, the Isle of Skye, and the other monasteries he founded.  In addition, he was in frequent contact with some of the most prominent secular leaders of his time.

Among these figures were Conall, whom I have mentioned already, and his successor Aedan, whom Columba anointed king on Iona, thus beginning a long association between the monastery and the rulers of Scotland.  Columba served Aedan as a trusted advisor, even accompanying him on a voyage to Ireland to meet with other Gaelic lords.  Columba also had connections to Bridei, king of the northern Picts.  Both Adamnan and Bede recount Columba’s journey to Bridei’s stronghold near the River Ness.  While Bede insists Columba’s visit was made for the purpose of converting the king, Adomnan tells us it was a diplomatic mission to secure the release of hostages and ensure safe passage for monks seeking a place of seclusion in Pictish lands.  (As a point of interest, Adomnan narrates an encounter while crossing the River Ness between Columba’s party and a great aquatic monster that may well be the earliest mention of the Loch Ness monster.)

Through his interactions with lay rulers, Columba helped to build the reputation of Iona, so much so that travelers constantly sailed to the monastery seeking advice or healing or even to join the community.  For whatever other roles he played, Columba was most importantly the abbot of Iona, a vocation he performed diligently, mixing firmness with kindness and winning the love and respect of his flock.  His death in 597 caused great sorrow for his monks, but Iona, his foundation, remained a focal point of the Scottish church for several centuries. 

Today, Iona remains a center for liturgy, study, and worship, as well as a popular tourist destination.  On the ferry crossing from Mull, you can get a sense of the isolation Columba and his community must have enjoyed.  Worship services are held daily in the abbey church, and visitors can examine ancient carved stones and the graves of many early Scottish kings.

The last of the foremost Scottish saints from the early medieval era is Kentigern, also known as Mungo, which means “dear one.”  Like Ninian, Kentigern is a hazy figure.  He is considered the founder of the church of Glasgow and venerated as its first bishop.  The earliest evidence for Kentigern’s existence is a mention of his death in 612 in the Welsh Annals. Later sources for his life include two twelfth-century Lives and texts composed for the celebration of his feast day. None of these sources is contemporary with Kentigern, however. In fact, the most extensive text, the Life by the Cistercian monk Jocelin of Furness, was not written until the last part of the twelfth century, making it difficult for historians to ascertain which portions of the narrative are based on older sources that no longer survive and which sections are the invention or alteration of later authors.  However, there is little doubt that Kentigern was highly revered throughout the Middle Ages, as attested by the surviving literature and the cathedral dedicated to him.

The literature is full of fantastic episodes.  According to the two saint’s Lives, Kentigern’s mother was the Christian daughter of a pagan king in the southeast region of Scotland now known as the Lothians.  When it was discovered that, although unmarried, she was pregnant, she declared herself still a virgin (both authors go out of their way to explain that Kentigern was not the product of an immaculate conception, however). The young woman was punished according to the law; first, she was thrown off a mountain in a cart, and when she survived, she was put in a little boat and sent out to sea.  Jocelin writes that her life was spared by the grace of God: the boat washed up on the other side of the Firth of Forth, close to the monastery of St. Serf.  Serf took in both mother and child, and Kentigern, whom Serf called Mungo, became a novice in the monastery.  Kentigern became Serf’s star pupil, causing the other novices to become jealous and plot against him.

            Counseled by an angel, Kentigern secretly departed from Serf’s monastery and made his way west, where he founded a small community of his own.  Not long after, he was chosen as bishop by both king and clergy, and he established his seat at Glasgow.  The newly elected bishop worked in his diocese, converting many and attracting numerous disciples, until an argument with the pagan king forced him to flee again, this time to Wales.  In Wales, he received support from both nobility and the famous Welsh holy men Asaph and David.  Eventually, Kentigern was called to return to his seat in Glasgow by the next king of the region, a Christian named Redereech, who was his staunch supporter.  Kentigern continued his work in Glasgow and the surrounding community, converting many more to the Christian faith.  Jocelin also describes a meeting between Columba and Kentigern, at which they exchanged pastoral staves.  During his career as bishop of Glasgow, Kentigern was credited with miraculous deeds, such as healing the sick and raising the dead.  Jocelin writes that, at the impressive age of 185 and after a very full career in the church, Kentigern died peacefully among his disciples.  If you visit Glasgow, his tomb can be found in lower church of the cathedral, possibly in its original seventh-century location.  Kentigern’s importance to the city is also evident by the inclusion of his image, as well as his emblems—the ring and the fish--on the city’s seal.   The legend involving the fish and the ring is rather complicated, but the substance is that Kentigern spared the queen from an accusation of adultery by recovering her ring from the belly of a salmon.

After Kentigern’s death in the early part of the seventh century, several centuries elapse before the appearance of the only female saint among the group.  As Queen of Scotland, Margaret is also the only official royal Scottish saint, though her son David was praised for his piety.  Thanks to her high status and a biography written by her confessor Turgot, historians know much more in some regards about Margaret’s life than about those of the earlier saints.

Margaret was born ca. 1046.  Her grandfather, Edmund Ironside, King of England for only a few months, was defeated by Cnut in 1016 and fled to Hungary.  So it happened that Margaret, the daughter of his son Edward, was born and spent her childhood at the Hungarian court until her family’s return to England about 1057.  For the next decade, she resided at the court of Edward the Confessor, but her family was forced to flee again after the Norman Conquest of 1066.  This time Edward took his children north to the Scottish court of Malcolm III Canmore, whom Margaret married in 1070.  According to Turgot, Malcolm and Margaret’s marriage was an affectionate one.  They had at least eight children, the future Scottish kings Edgar, Alexander, and David and the future queen of England, Matilda, among them. 

Margaret is most renowned for her involvement in the reform of the Scottish church.  During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, sweeping changes were set in motion in all parts of Western Christendom, and Margaret has been given much of the credit for beginning the reformation of the church in Scotland.  Turgot claims she presided over numerous ecclesiastical synods, attempting to bring the practices of the Scottish church and its staff into line with the customs elsewhere.  It was Margaret who introduced reformed Benedictine monasticism into Scotland.  Historians have concluded that her influence probably was not as extensive as Turgot would have us believe, but she initiated a process that would continue throughout the next century, carried out by her sons.

Private devotion and acts of charity consumed much of Margaret’s time.  Turgot describes a rigorous schedule of worship performed by the queen and constant acts of kindness to the poor and orphaned, including banquets at the castle for the less fortunate during Advent and Lent, at which both king and queen served their guests.  In addition to her charity to the needy among her lay subjects, Margaret was a generous patron of various religious communities such as Iona, St. Andrews, and Dunfermline. 

In 1093, after more than two decades as an active and generous queen, Margaret became quite ill.  In October of that year, Malcolm led a raid into the north of England, where he and his and Margaret’s eldest son Edward were mortally wounded.  Margaret died only several days after her husband and son and was buried at Dunfermline, where her tomb became a destination for pilgrims seeking miraculous cures.  Visitors to Dunfermline Abbey today will see not only Margaret’s tomb, but those of her husband and sons, as well as that of Robert Bruce.   A beautiful chapel dedicated by her son David survives at Edinburgh Castle.

But the patron saint of Scotland was neither Margaret, nor Ninian, nor Columba, nor Kentigern, but Andrew, the brother of Peter and one of Christ’s first apostles. And it was the church dedicated to him that became the center of the Scottish church in the later Middle Ages.  Several conflicting accounts of the foundation of St. Andrew’s survive, but the essence is that an eighth-century Pictish king (Angus son of Fergus) promised a portion of his realm to St. Andrew after victory in battle, and that the saint’s relics were brought from Constantinople to Scotland at this time by the monk Regulus, or Rule.  Another possibility for the root of Scottish devotion to Andrew is the Northumbrian Bishop Acca, who prior to his flight to Pictish territory in the mid-eighth century venerated the apostle.  Whatever its origins, Irish annals indicate that the church dedicated to St. Andrew had been established by 747. Furthermore, it had become the center of the ecclesiastical hierarchy of Scotland by the first quarter of the tenth century.

The choice of Andrew as patron saint is surprising in the regard that it was Columba who was the most widely honored until the twelfth century. However, Andrew was a logical selection given the circumstances in which the Scottish church found itself at that time.  There was a constant struggle between the English and Scottish churches; the archbishops of York argued that the Scottish church was subject to their authority on the grounds of having no archbishop, while the Scottish church insisted that it was under the authority of the Pope alone.  The controversy persisted until 1192, when the Pope granted the Scottish church status as a special daughter of Rome.  St. Andrew, as the brother of the first Pope, St. Peter, was a wise political choice, therefore, because he was universally revered, whereas Columba, while beloved by Scots, was primarily a local saint.

St. Andrew’s shrine attracted hordes of pilgrims from all over Christendom throughout the Middle Ages.  The outline of the impressive cathedral built in his honor remains a popular tourist destination, although many of today’s pilgrims have traded in their bare feet and hair shirts for golf shoes and clubs. Andrew’s feast day on November 30th continues to be recognized as a national holiday.  His legacy is also obvious in the use of St. Andrew’s cross on the Scottish flag. The cross is sideways because, legend has it, Andrew refused to be crucified in the same position as Christ. 

While the saints discussed this morning may be few in number, they are each worthy of the attention demanded by their special standing.  The information provided by the literature concerning their careers offers insight into Scottish history during a period for which sources are scarce.  The surviving saints’ Lives inform readers that Ninian established a religious community at Whithorn 1,500 years ago, and that Columba came from Ireland to establish a monastery on the island of Iona in the second half of the sixth century.  They recount how Kentigern founded a church at Glasgow and acted as the first bishop of the diocese, and how, several centuries later, Margaret made time during her reign as Scotland’s queen to ensure the well-being of her subjects and bring the church into line with the rest of Europe.  But despite their dissimilarities and the questions about their lives that will probably remain unanswered, all five figures—Ninian, Columba, Kentigern, Margaret, and even Andrew—played his or her own important role in the history of Scotland.

[1] The Whithorn Trust. “Saint Ninian.” 21 September 2006. <>.

[2] Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. Rev. R. E. Latham Hamondsworth: Penguin, 1990.  III, 4. 148.


Further Reading

Macquarrie, Alan. The Saints of Scotland: Essays in Scottish Church History, AD 450–1093.    Edinburgh: John Donald, 1997.

Yeoman, Peter. Pilgrimage in Medieval Scotland. London: R. T. Batsford, 1999.

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