“You’d have thought they would have looked after it, better!’
Bernie can be highly critical on these occasions. Mind you, we had trudged all the way around the small town of Tain to find it.
The original chapel of St Duthac. The priest to whose church three Scottish kings travelled to pay their respects, sits as an unmarked ruin in the middle of the town’s graveyard, not far from the main railway line, its station and the shore. Steel barriers, leaned casually against what’s left of the old walls, prevent any access to the interior, which, presumably, is dangerous.
What happened? Why has the original place of veneration of this remarkable man been left to such a fate? Money must be one reason… but there may be another.
To build a context for the saint’s strong links to the town of Tain, we had to establish something reliable from the different versions of his life-story. The ‘Tain through time’ centre in the heart of the town would have offered some help, but it was closed – due to Covid. Our only recourse was online, and overnight.. Back in the cottage on the Black Isle, we began our research before we paid our second visit to Tain the following day. Quite a challenge, given the quality of broadband in the Scottish Highlands… Thank goodness for the iPhone and the independence of its 4G!
Several hours of coffee-assisted digging brought up an academic paper on the life of St Duthac, written by an assistant lecturer at Stirling University. We finally had some reliable information… except, as with any good study, the first thing stressed by the researcher was the fact that many different versions of Duthac’s life existed in the ‘records’.
A broad brush of St Duthac’s life reveals a straightforward and pious ‘good man’ who lived in the 11th century. He is placed in the category of those saints who gave up riches and title for their faith, thereafter following a simple life of service. In the west, we have little time for the idea of a modern saint; a view caused by our more cynical outlook on power, society and manipulation. With few exceptions, we let our saints be ‘long ago’, while science is now. But the tradition of living saints continues in Asia and the East.
To believe that a spiritual person has a deeper connection with the essential nature of life is hard for us. Yet most of us believe that layer of the human exists – and by inference – exists in ourselves, if only in potential.
Reliable records state that Saint Duthac was a man of noble birth from northern Scotland who displayed signs of unusual holiness – ‘sanctity’, as a child. He performed his first miracle by apparently carrying hot coals without suffering burns. The skeptic in me wonders where his parents were?
Duthac trained in Ireland, then returned to Tain to take up his work as a priest. Later, he was made Bishop of Tain – a position he held until his death. At the end of his life, he returned to Ireland, where his relics lay for two hundred years before being returned to Tain.
Duthac was sent to Ireland for his religious education. This period is central to his story and shows his formative education in the Irish church; the former home of the original, Celtic version of the faith which had been the Christianity in Britain prior to the advance of the rival Roman faith.
These venerated men and women of older traditions and times shared common paths: they lived simply; they were content with what they had, and they sought no more than that – including fame. Their fame was created by others, not themselves, usually long after their death.
Saint Duthac fits this profile, well… His wider history begins long after his death, when a line of Scottish kings began to visit Tain in pilgrimage to him.
Tain, the area to the north of Inverness where Duthac lived, was remote from the rest of Scotland. It had more in common with its neighbours to the north and west than the seat of power in southern Scotland, and was thought of as belonging to an ‘Hibernio-Norse’ culture. This was to change as the growing legend of St Duthac became important political capital in centralising religious control.
Online, I stumbled on another reference to the life of Saint Duthac: the statement that he had been regarded by those in power as ‘The demi-God of the north’. Such utterances are not made lightly, and demonstrated both veneration and, possibly, fear…
Aside from ‘carrying the hot coals’, records show Duthac performed three further miracles during his lifetime. Here, we might begin to consider the symbolism in the wider context of the traditional and the mystical interpretations of miracles…
Let’s begin with the literal stories. We will consider the possible deeper meanings in the next post.
In the first of the miracles, a man was struck down with a headache. In order to alleviate his pain he sent one of Duthac’s disciples to the saint with a gold ring and some meat. Because of the young cleric’s negligence, a kite stole the gifts, but the youth continued on his way and petitioned Duthac to forgive his failure. Duthac forgave the worried young man and summoned the bird, allowing it to keep the food and returning the ring to its owner.
The second miracle took place during a famine. The saint attended a feast at which a special cake was served. The saint performed a miraculous enlarging of the cake, so that it could feed the whole community. Its crumbs were seen to be bestowed with healing properties. The parallels with the Bible story of Christ feeding the five thousand are obvious.
In the third miracle the saint caused a footpath, on which a canon from Dornoch was carrying a gift of meat to Duthac, to illuminate itself through dangerous terrain, leading the young man to safety on a dark and stormy night.
Seven years after Duthac’s death, and following an exhumation of his body – found to be uncorrupted – his ‘sanctitiy’ was confirmed and he was made a Saint.
Duthac was described by scholars as leading a simple and austere lifestyle and having a reputation for the miraculous; something that surrounded him both in life and death. He was well known locally, but it took the later interests of Scottish kings to establish his wider reputation.
One historical tradition, which seems to have stemmed from the area close to the shrine, draws an important connection between the life of the saint and the establishment of Tain as a royal burgh. It places Duthac firmly in the eleventh century. This relationship between town and saint was the subject of the burgh seal. Duthac’s role as ‘guarantor’ of the burgh’s rights and privileges was emerging, which explains a lot about Duthac’s importance to the temporal and spiritual aspects of Tain’s history.
Later, King James IV was to make Duthac the subject of annual pilgrimages from Edinburgh, once even riding alone, in disguise, and arriving in two days. Historians consider James to have been a wise ruler, and a sincere follower of the spiritual life. He earned himself the name ‘The Pilgrim King’, but his life did not end well. He is said to have ‘consulted’ three of his favourite saints, including Duthac, for a decision on whether to ride south to make war with the English. Sadly, he chose to ignore their ‘oracular advice’ and King James IV died, butchered beyond recognition, at the battle of Flodden, in September 1513.
By the time of the death of King James IV, in 1513, Duthac was established as one of the three most important saints in Scotland. Yet, nowadays, He is unknown to most people. What happened? What rift created that chasm between the older and newer worlds of religious ‘sanctity’?
The answer lies in a movement that had both good and ill in it; one that shattered the papal grip on Scotland, yet, at the same time, established a regime that frequently demonised women. Singing and any other form of levity was banned or severely curtailed and the heavy hand of religious authoritarianism replaced the art and expression of the former act of worship.
And the saints were banished…
But one saint, once branded a demi-God, whose service and goodness had helped establish a town, found his legacy being protected by that town, in a form that grew more mysterious as time passed. And four ancient letters engraved in stained glass tell a story of inheritance and protection of something precious…
But that’s for next week…
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.