We were determined not to get wet, so we went to Chesterfield, on the general principle that there would be both indoor parking and a cathedral big enough to keep us both dry and occupied for some time. We got those points right… but we failed miserably in the staying dry department as the heavens open and the chill, northern rain pelted down. As my companion made a judicious dive for the porch, I found a convenient tree under which to shelter the camera and get some shots of the famous crooked spire.
The church dates to the 13th Century and the tower was added in around 1362. The tower is twisted by 45 degrees and leans 9’ 6” from true centre. Several local legends tell how it became so contorted, many have to do with the Devil and the purported virginity of brides. Wikipedia says : “One well established legend goes that a virgin once married in the church, and the church was so surprised that the spire turned around to look at the bride, and continues that if another virgin marries in the church, the spire will return to true again; with only 3 weddings in 2010 in the church it seems that this legend understandably discourages marriages at the church. Another legend is that a Bolsover blacksmith mis-shoed the Devil, who leaped over the spire in pain, knocking it out of shape.” There are others, and it is well worth looking some of them up.
I didn’t linger too long under my tree. It was raining quite heavily and my feet were already squelching in the little slippers I habitually wear for some strange and unfathomable reason. You would think I would have learned by now… Even the pigeons had given up and had taken shelter where they could, so I too followed their example.
For all the church has been embellished over the centuries, being the foremost building in the area, it still retains its atmosphere of calm peace, and every nook and cranny inside hides symbols and artistic treasures, bits of history and the evidence of the faith of hundreds of years.
The Lady Chapel, as so often for me, had the most attraction, and a curious Revelations window in the north chapel too had us thinking. There is an eclectic mixture of styles here, from a dreadful neon cross to lovely sculpture with an African feel, from medieval marble tombs to a modern St Francis window full of gentleness.
The place was full of visitors, though, and that always ends up with me documenting as much as I can with the camera while my companion wanders in search of his own inspiration… we then adjourn, usually to a local pub, and compare notes; knowing we have enough to go on in order to make a decision about coming back on a quieter day. It is these subsequent visits where you begin to really get to know a place, both by its details and by its feel.
Today was no exception, but, unfortunately for us there was a bookshop and we became a tad sidetracked as we delved through the shelves, exiting with what rapidly became known as the Book of Assassinations as we trawled its pages under an awning while the rain still fell.
It is odd, of course, we think we are going to places for our own purposes, but so often, if you are open and ready to go where you are led, you end up finding far more than you had envisioned. We had gone to see a cathedral, but came away with a couple of years of speculative thought confirmed by the well-thumbed pages of a dog-eared book. Not a bad way to spend a rainy Saturday in Chesterfield.
The Haystack seems a misnomer for the huge rock that sits beside the path that leads towards Backstone Beck and looks down to the Cow and Calf. It is a very special rock. Between archaeology, myth and the stories woven by my grandfather, it has a very unique life for me. It is an altar, a place of ancient sanctity as sacred as any other.
It stands at the edge of the Green Crag cairn-fields… a place of the dead from a time when the dead were honoured; their presence sought, their wisdom valued, and their place in the Otherworld perhaps not so far removed from the hearths of the living. This huge, altar shaped boulder, covered in carvings stands at the entrance to the necropolis which extends across Green Crag and beyond.
My grandfather showed me how to pace out the two circles of small, almost buried boulders that surround the stone and told me that this was a place of sacrifice where the groove in the rock carried the blood out to the edge of the moor. In spring you can faintly see a strip of lighter green… Of course, the lurid tale delighted the child I was, sending those delicious shivers down my spine, yet I never saw a problem with sacrifice in essence, only in the bloody practice. It always seemed to me as if they had the right idea, but had misinterpreted the deeper meaning and the death need not be physical. Then, you see, I was an odd child, I suppose, with an even odder upbringing.
These days, I still delight in sharing that tale, although the circles may now be officially classed as prehistoric walling dividing, perhaps, the realms of life and death. I feel that this may have been an altar upon which the dead rested on their journey to the cairns to be brought to birth in the Otherworld. Perhaps the carvings map the heavens or the journey through the veil to that Land of the Dead… perhaps they map the moor itself… We do not know. My grandfather told me the figure carved there was the sun god… perhaps he was right. Or perhaps it is simply a man… or a woman, a goddess, about to give birth… Or maybe it is something we cannot know. It doesn’t matter. It matters only that it shapes our thoughts and fires the imagination as it points across to the Pancake Rock.
This stone too is covered with faded carvings. It juts out from the edge of the moor with the necropolis behind it. From one angle it looks like a hawk poised for flight, but most of the time it is the profile of a face, the flat rocking stone on the top his hair, or his hat. It is said that only an honest man can move the rocking stone. It is also said, with a certain amount of local pride, that no Yorkshireman ever has… Some say it is the face of a druid, some that of a god; I was told it is Giant Rombald who sleeps there… he for whom the moor is named… guarding the sleep of the dead. These are the legends and stories of my childhood, and these are the tales I wove into the adventure in Swords of Destiny. So much more could have been written… maybe one day I will, before the old tales are lost.
We walked down to the beck, drinking first, then washing the peat stains from feet and my shoes… which, made of soft fabric, we already soaked and could dry on my feet. The menfolk were hungry and ready for breakfast by this time. We had been out for around five hours and it was only about nine in the morning. I, however, wanted to show them a hidden place, Rocky Valley, where the great stones cling to the crags like monumental totems. “We’ll never get her down…” I heard the mutter of despair, but set off up the track. They waited a while as I climbed the ridge that separates the valley from the little wood where another godlike creature is carved in a stone, and where memory lay in ashes for me. They joined me in silent companionship and we looked across the beauty of the moor.
Retracing our steps we crossed the beck a final time. I showed them the little waterfalls and the pools where I had played as a child, where my sons had dammed the stream and where my memories were all of laughter. Then we passed once more through the heather and headed down for breakfast.
The young missionary – a peregrini, meaning one on a life-pilgrimage – wore two crosses; but not around his neck nor on his simple, woven robe. The Celtic designs were tattooed onto his eyelids so that, when he slept, the original Cross of Christ was projected from both his sleeping eyes into the world… Truth never sleeps.
A Christ that he had reached out and touched, as though it were his deepest friend…
It was hot, the day he came back to Tain. May was giving way to June, and the weather had changed for the better. For years, the discomfort of the monk’s robe – a white tunic covered by a cowl – had become a thing of the background, not allowed to intrude into his finely trained consciousness. A consciousness filled with the magic of refined thought and the devotion of a mind entirely turned to the good.
In addition to the Scriptures, the Brothers of Ireland had given him everything they had: well structured and beautifully crafted writing in the universal language of Latin; a deep understanding of music and the special numbers that made it harmonic; an observation of the sun and stars so acute that he, even alone, could calculate the correct dates in the cycle of the religious year.
The mind the Irish brothers had bestowed on him was full of ‘knowing’ – his to transform to wisdom – but it was not at the expense of the practical, the how to do…
Soon, if his mission was allowed to take root in this land of his fathers, he would be building a chapel. He had all the necessary skills to transform stone, metal and wood for that purpose; and, beyond that, strong hands as delicate as a feather, when needed.
First, he had to make his tools, but for that he needed the help of a local forge. If his childhood friend, the son of a blacksmith, had survived to adulthood, he hoped to trade an education of the man’s children for the strength of metal.
Ahead of him, now, was the last of the ridges that led to Tain. His leather sandals, made by his own hands, were wet with dew and dirty. His feet were sore from the weeks of walking across Scotland from its west coast fishing village where the tiny boat from Ireland had left him. But it was a joyous pain, and no match for the joy in his heart at smelling the sweet scents of home.
He crested the last rise and stopped, fighting back tears as he looked down on the place whose people he wanted to serve for the rest of his days. The small town of Tain was just waking, the sun climbing on the horizon and painting the calm sea with a line of shimmering gold. This way, it called, as it had a hundred times on his long walk. This way…
This is fiction, but as close to the spirit and facts of St Duthac’s early life as my research has been able to take me.
Duthac was a real figure, yet the details of his life can be elusive. He was born in AD 1000 and died in 1065. Despite devoting his life to Tain, he did not die there. In his final years, something pulled him back to Ireland, presumably to the school of God and Selfless Love that had given him his spiritual wings. In 1253, long after his death, his ‘relics’ – mainly bones – were returned from Ireland by unknown benefactors, to the same tiny chapel he built in Tain.
Much later, the relics were transferred from the abandoned chapel to what is now the St Duthac Memorial Church. Much of St Duthac’s published story is based on the same potted text, some of which is incorrect. It’s an important fact that the ‘relics’ of the saint came back to the original chapel that he had built by hand and where he worked and taught.
St Duthac was one of Scotland’s most revered and well-known saints. The Scottish Reformation, in 1535, brutally erased the saints and their worship, removing all ritual and replacing decoration with plainness. Music was also banned, replaced only with the chanting of psalms.
The memory of St Duthac was removed from history… To the victors, the spoils. The truth of the long human story is constantly altered in this way. Curiously, unlike other saints – such as Columba or St Andrew – Duthac’s name was only ever preserved in Tain, the town he served and loved, and which hosts his name and his works to this day. St Duthac’s relics were later moved within Tain to the first of two churches built in his name. The relics were mysteriously ‘lost’ during the reformation, and never seen again…
Most of his life is lost to history, but much of Duthac’s appeal and status can be inferred from the folk tales that come down to us from ‘his people’. Two of his ‘miracles’ are illustrative of this.
In the first, when a young child, he was asked to transport some ‘blazing coals’ to start another fire. He did so with his bare skin, remaining unburnt. Here we have to look beyond the literal for the meaning. Certain parts of the detail stand out, in the way of such stories:
He was a child – a young soul. His life lay ahead of him, the blazing coals are symbolic of a ‘fire’ that would burn others, yet were not a danger to him. Through the gift of a ‘high nature’ – earned or by birth – he was able to hold and transport that fire. The fire can be read as deep spiritual knowledge; the transportation as teaching. It was a power that was his to transform so that it would inspire, but not burn others. He was the higher vessel. His duty was to use it wisely and to teach those ready to receive.
St Duthac is said to have been of noble birth, yet no records remain to support this. Perhaps this, too, is symbolic, and fits with the above interpretation.
In another of the ‘miracles’, a man asks one of Duthac’s younger disciples to carry a gift of some meat and a gold ring to the saint. The disciple is careless and lets a bird of prey steal them. Arriving, crestfallen, at the chapel, the young man recounts his sorry tale. St Duthac forgives him and summons the eagle. He lets the bird keep the meat, but takes the ring.
The lesson is to cherish the true and perfect ‘gold’ of the ring and let the ‘lower’ – the meat – be left to nature’s cycles of birth, maturity and decay. Duthac’s status (of ‘noble birth’) is one of mastery of nature, i.e. working completely with it. Nature is then content to conform to this ‘noble’ human will. The Creator is recognised; reflected in the Man, but governed by the degree that the man conforms to ‘God’s will’, i.e. the Good.
History tells that Duthac became Bishop of Tain, but we might want to examine this. His training in Ireland was entirely within the Celtic Christian tradition – one that would send missionaries out across Europe to found some of the most important centre of learning in history. It may have been that the Roman church tradition that drove Celtic Christianity back to Ireland, made Duthac, posthumously, into a bishop to show his historical conversion to the standard faith.
‘I saw the Holy City coming down from God out of Heaven, and he said unto me write’
In the three previous posts, (see list at end of post) we have considered each of the buildings associated with St Duthac. The history of the later Memorial Church warrants further attention. During its time as the main church of Tain, it was a more complex building.
The black and white drawing, above, shows how the interior of the church once looked. Note the elevated ‘stalls’ on the left.
The construction and use of the north wall is curious. The above plan of 1815 shows separate exterior gallery stairs into the building. These gave direct entry to ‘lofts’ or galleries belonging to Tain’s trade guilds. The guilds oversaw apprenticeships and were the guarantor of the quality of work done by their craftsmen. They were a key part of the orderly government of the town, and linked strongly with the authority of the local church.
Tain is unique in Scotland in having an intact set of Guild ‘coats of arms’. These are displayed on the north wall of the St Duthac Memorial Church, just beneath the high window (below) containing the stained glass rendering of St Duthac, gazing up at the Citadel and the four letter of the Tetragrammaton (below). To my mind, a link is implied…
It would be appropriate to bring this series of posts to an end with a return to the mysterious stained glass window high in the north wall of the Memorial Church, (see images above and below) to consider if any of these last threads of mystery can be unified.
At the very top of the mysterious window over the Guild plaques, on the the dome of the ‘Citadel’ is written (left to right) something very special in Hebrew: Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh. It derives from ancient Hebrew wisdom and is an integral part of Kabbalistic teaching.
Its name of Tetragrammaton is the Hebrew ‘highest name of God’. Jewish scholars will not speak this name, as it is taken to be sacred, even though formed of four of the standard Hebrew letters of the alphabet.
We can safely assume that this is not a legacy of the Scottish Reformation. What, then, is it doing high on the north wall of the Memorial Church of St Duthac?
Western mysticism is not so silent on the subject, though the sanctity of the inner meaning of Tetragrammaton is preserved. In Kabbalistic teaching there are four ‘worlds’ of continuous creation which result in the ever unfolding ‘now’. Each of these worlds is represented by one of the four letters of Tetragrammaton.
This mysterious stained glass window was part of the 1870-1882 restoration of the church. The design and creation were carried out by James Ballantine and Sons, Edinburgh. Ballantine was a brilliant artist and, to me, it looks like he was given particular freeway with the style of this, window, which is nothing like the others.
There are other examples of the Tetragrammaton used in highly ceremonial church and cathedral buildings, such as Winchester Cathedral. Its use in so small a building as the St Duthac Memorial Church is extremely rare. I could be completely wrong, but I sense the presence of another protector of Duthac’s legacy, here – one that arose from the chasm of the Scottish Reformation that did everything possible to destroy the saint’s legacy – the Freemasons.
The Freemasons arose, mysteriously, after the Reformation. Early records were not kept in order to protect their members. They modelled themselves on a stonemason’s guild, but added their own origin myth. They prosper today and benefit from their own carefully-crafted rituals, and progressive degrees of learning. Their higher degrees contain detailed references to Kabbalistic learning, and the Tetragrammaton is an important symbol in this. I can only suggest that they may have been the sponsors of this very different window, and, by this act, ensured that the spirit of Duthac’s work was honoured into modern times and its potentially mystical nature not lost to history.
To this day, they are well known for their generosity in preserving key aspects of history in their respective Lodges.
There is no suggestion, here, that the spiritual world of St Duthac was related to that of the Freemasons. Duthac’s world was based on a teaching in Latin, not Hebrew. The ‘Celtic’ Christians of Ireland had a rich and sophisticated teaching method, based on an individual’s ‘sense of belonging’ with Christ. The Freemasons have a broader ‘church’, in which a man is urged to better himself through application and dedication to the highest principles ‘he’ can discover within himself. In that, they are related, but the Celtic Christian oath of having no luxury, not even that of travelling by anything other than foot, is very different from our modern notions of piety.
I am not a Freemason, but have admiration for their work.
Esoteric history is full of different, but related, systems of thought, each showing us a part of the inner wisdom in a form we can remember and use. There is no single system of teaching that has all the answers. Each has its own emphasis, based upon the teaching preferences of its founder(s).
The spiritual journey is personal. Others can help, but the excitement is in discovering that everything of real importance belongs to each of us, alone.
And that is a paradox… but the most beautiful one we will ever encounter.
The Silent Eye will return to the world of St Duthac via a modern ‘pilgrimage’ to be offered sometime in 2022, subject to possible Covid restrictions. We will follow a route (part walking, part driving, in stages) from the Black Isle, across the Cromarty Firth, and explore the Tarbat Peninsula, before finishing in Tain at the Pilgrimage Centre.
If you would like to be kept up to date with plans for this, you can register your interest at email@example.com
“Saints don’t just disappear!” Bernie was getting a little exasperated with my poor attempt at stringing together a viable theory to account for the cultural disappearance of St Duthac. “There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation… we just have to find it.”
I’d already found it, But I wasn’t letting on. It’s not that I’m cleverer than she is, but one of the sources I’d been studying on the iPhone, overnight, had given the game away.
We were driving back to Tain the day after our first encounter with the abandoned Chapel of St Duthac. Our short holiday was coming to an end. Returning for a second look at Tain’s clues showed how much we had become fascinated with our mystery.
We had a puzzle…
The most popular saint in Scotland had vanished from the records of its history; yet within three hundred years, three of Scotland’s kings were making visits to his grave; one of them, James IV, making more than ten pilgrimages, and travelling across land and water with a sophisticated entourage that was part scholarly, part circus… plus one unescorted dash on horseback and in disguise, taking less than two full days to journey from Edinburgh to Tain. Quite an achievement, and not one you would undertake lightly.
“It’s probably the Reformation… the Scottish Reformation, which was different to the English one.” Bernie looked pleased.
She’d got it, and without the help of the scholarly text on which I had been relying. The Scottish Reformation, like its English counterpart, broke the hold of the Catholic Church, which it accused of widespread corruption. Martin Luther’s Protestantism ushered in a long era of ‘plain-ness’ across Europe. No singing – except psalms; No decorated churches; few rights for women, many of whom were suspected of being behind Scotland’s widespread witchcraft problem – something that paralysed several of the kings with terror.
And no saints…
All of them bundled off to oblivion, their names written secretly by loyal families, who stored these treasures in decorated boxes as the ‘plain persecution’ swept the land, and dour Kirks replaced Chapels. It was not to last forever, of course, though Scotland went through its own equivalent of the English Civil War, with powerful factions fighting over the future of the country, and even executing rivals.
Now on the final leg of the car journey to Tain, we discussed the Scottish Reformation and its effects, concluding that St Duthac was lucky to have lived centuries before it…
We parked the car close to The Pilgrimage. We had been here the day before, but it was late in the afternoon and the church-like structure was closed. This was our last chance to tie up some of the loose ends about the life of St Duthac, the vanishing saint.
To our surprise it was open, though the visitor centre was still closed due to Covid restrictions. We had the entire complex to ourselves, including the interior of the building, which felt a little strange, as though they were carrying out repairs.
I’ve learned to ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ – in a purely photographic sense, when faced with this kind of opportunity. We knew this building held most, if not all, of the answers to our questions.
What had looked like an unremarkable and recent church, re-purposed to be a pilgrimage centre, turned out to be something far more remarkable and germane to our search.
St Duthac Memorial Church was built between the 14th and 15th centuries by William 5th Earl of Ross, a very powerful Scottish nobleman and Lord of the Isles. He owned Balnagown Castle, the ancestral home of the Chiefs of Clan Ross in Kildary, Easter Ross.
In 1457 a chaplaincy was endowed, associated with the church by King James II – something we had spotted on the ferry sign at Nigg, that had prompted the whole search for St Duthac. King James III continued the endowment, and by 1487 the the church had gained full collegiate status, meaning it was dedicated ‘to the singing of masses for the souls of the founders.’ – in this case, the King, his family and heirs.
A Papal Bull of Pope Innocent VIII confirmed the foundation charter for the church and town was issued in 1492. There was a copy in the nearby (closed) museum.
The notice board states that King James IV visited the church at least 18 times over a period of 20 years, before being killed at the battle of Flodden.
And then another reference that shocked us:
‘Alhough St Duthac was born a Scot in about the year 1000, nearly two hundred years later, in June 1253, his relics were returned to Tain from the site of his death in Ireland…’
We had some more answers… and a lot more questions.
We now knew that St Duthac had, at the end of his life and before his peaceful death, returned to Ireland, the place where he received his spiritual training – very likely in the traditions of the old Celtic Christian faith. That he did this, knowing he was leaving his beloved Tain for the last time, must have been prompted by deep feelings. What was this long-lasting relationship to whoever introduced him to the depth of spirituality that led to him being declared a saint?
We knew, now, that the various pilgrimages by King James II, III and IV were made to the place of his relics – where his bones were – in the ‘new’ church built to house them, St Duthac Memorial Church.
We had found out why the original chapel in which St Duthac had carried out his ministry and performed his miracles had been left to ruin. The newer memorial church had taken its place, and provided a more refined site for the Kings’ pilgrimages. Hopefully his spirit was unperturbed by this display of the grandiose…
We took advantage of the empty church to look around, The interior was empty of pews and furnishings. It was a place no longer used for its original purpose… but, we suspected, still an active place of pilgrimage. It still had some very fine stained glass windows.
One of the stained glass windows caught my eye. It looked more modern than the rest and stood out, dramatically, high in the north wall of the church. It was a detailed image of St Duthac looking skywards to God and clutching a pen. The inscription reads:
‘I saw the Holy City coming down from God out of Heaven, and he said unto me write’
I had only the iPhone with me, so there was little chance of getting a clear telephoto shot of the very top of the glass, where I could see what looked like an inscription.
I was astonished when I looked at the picture and saw how well the phone had captured the detail. There, on the dome of the ‘Citadel’ was written something very special in Hebrew: Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh. However, I had never seen the Tetragrammaton ‘name of God’ written on a church stained glass window, before.
But I knew of its deeper mystical significance. And I knew it was a frequent motif of another organisation that had also emerged from the ‘plain’ years of the Scottish Reformation, remaining strong, independent and supportive to this day. Perhaps another ‘protector’ of St Duthac lay close by…
“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…
“There’s a little known saint with some strange royal connections…” mused Bernie, my wife.
“He has a pilgrimage centre near where we’re going today.” she said. “Want to see it?”
There was something in her tone – which is well tuned to what I really value – that suggested her words were precisely chosen. “And it’s on the same peninsula as Portmahomack… your favourite place in all the world.” she said, softly.
‘In all the world’ was a bit over the top… but not by much. ‘Royal’ had me both worried and enthused, but, sensing a triumph of hope over expectation, I pushed the button. “Yes… please… and thank you!”
And that’s how we came to be in Tain; a beautiful town at the point where the amazing Tarbat peninsula, home to some of the best Pictish artefacts in Scotland, joins the main geographic body of the Highlands between Inverness and John o’ Groats.
It wasn’t our first visit. To be honest, our first, two years ago, had been disappointing. None of the cafes we tried would allow our collie inside, so we ended up eating a cold pie and luke-warm take-away coffee in a small park whose main sign was ‘No dogs allowed’.
We were cold and hungry, Tain. I’m sorry…
It’s funny how fate will take you on very specific journeys; if you’re willing to let it lead you off into the unknown.
Two years (and two lockdowns) further on, we had returned to Tain. But only because Bernie had spotted the reference to the mysterious saint that neither of us had heard of.
“You said he was called Dufus?” I was, possibly, being picky.
“There are, apparently, many variants,” she said, reasonably. “Duthac is one of them.”
I nodded my head, looking at the strange and antique lettering on the information board before us…
Behind the sign, ‘Tain through time’ the exhibition was closed, as most things still are – doubly so if you have a dog.
But the dubious antique lettering drew me in, again, and I realised I had seen another faded and battered sign of the same format. But that one had only talked about a King’s ferry, not a route, not a road… not even a royal road.
So, to make sense of this journey, we need to go back to that moment…
Two years ago, when we first visited the Black Isle and various other points north of Inverness in the Scottish Highlands, we were standing one afternoon at the ferry point in Nigg, opposite Cromarty.
My attention was taken by a rusty notice board fixed to an industrial fence. Nigg became one of the main maintenance bases in the North Sea Oil boom of the 1970s onwards. There is little left of its former pastoral beauty. This sign was barely visible.
It had been a wonderful day of exploring, and I was busy photographing the late afternoon sun streaming through the darkening white clouds and illuminating the Cromarty Firth.
The last thing I wanted to look at was an old and rusting sign. But the presence of a small ferry here intrigued me. The information board promised some history – they often contain gems of local knowledge not easily found elsewhere, so I always photograph them for later reference in the blogs.
I studied it… Ferries have always been interesting. They are usually linked to the ancient folk-history of a place. Bernie, who is an historian by training, shares this love. When on holiday we’ll often take a local ferry just for the experience.
The notice board stated that the present ferry crossing (currently ten mins, two cars max) had been in place for well over a thousand years. King William (I) had used it to crush a local rebellion in 1179, establishing a castle on the shores of the loch in the process. The lands granted for the support of the castle had included the revenue from the ferry. It is likely that its name “The King’s Ferry” derived from this time.
The information board records that, three hundred years later, between 1488 and 1513, King James IV of Scotland used the ferry many times to visit and pay his devotions at the shrine of Saint Duthac at the nearby town of Tain, located at the neck of the Tarbat peninsula. His devotion to the saint was such that he switched the historic castle income from the ferry to pay for a chaplain in Tain.
It seems that at this point, the route across the Cromarty Firth and on into Ross became known as the ‘King’s Route’ I remember first reading this, and wondering if there might be a deeper meaning. Kings are certainly important, but there is an older and more spiritual meaning, exemplified in such phrases as the biblical ‘King of Kings’. Was this route simply a way taken by a particular king, or was this a reference to a path of devotion resulting in an ‘inner royal state’?
In the next post, we’ll return to the present moment in Tain and find that something linked to the mysterious St Duthac was open… two things, in fact, though one of them – despite being genuine – was an unmarked ruin…
‘…One of the stops we did manage to make on the way to our second ‘official sojourn’ in Glastonbury was, Merlin’s Mound.
Now, Merlin’s Mound you might have thought would be a well-known tourist attraction boasting hundreds of thousands of visitors a year just like its Big-Sister Mound of Sil-Bury Hill, so called because late legend has a king called Sil buried there along with his treasure, a golden horse.
Quite why this is not the case it is difficult to fathom although one possible reason is that Merlin’s Mound is hidden within the grounds of Marlborough College which is a private school.
Of course, there is nothing actually buried in Silbury Hill because it isn’t a burial mound at all and the Golden Horse is far more likely to refer to the sun which, knowing the folk responsible for its construction, probably set behind the hill when viewed from one of the other sites in the area, or seemingly rose from it, and I did not learn that at any school, private or otherwise…
“Which would make it Sol-Bury Hill, anyway,” says Wen.
…Now, I was lucky enough to come across Merlin’s Mound because I attended a conference in the grounds of the college and I have to say I was astonished to learn of its existence but not half as astonished as I was to learn of its size.
In fact for a long time I was fairly sure that although Silbury Hill was regarded as Merlin’s Bigger Sister, size wise, there was not an awful lot in it.
“Silbury Hill is much bigger,” says Wen.
“I’m not so sure.”
“Much bigger, Merlin’s Mound only looks comparable because it dwarfs the buildings that currently hide it so effectively.”
“I don’t think there’s much in it.”
“What does Silbury Hill have to give it scale?”
“No, there’s not a lot else in the vicinity is there.”
“This is one reason why accurate measurement is so important.”
But anyway, and more importantly than accurate measurement of any kind, work is currently ongoing in the renovation of Merlin’s Mound and we are able to walk two-thirds the way around its newly refurbished spiral path-way and I have to say although it was something of a disappointment not to be able to get all the way to top in other ways it was not such a bad thing after all for just getting two thirds the way up was giving me a rather ‘heady’ feeling.
“I know,” says Wen. “Me too. What’s the line in, ‘A House on the River’ when Aeth’s troop, in all their glory, is approaching the strong-hold of Aillil Silver-Tongue and Sweet-Mouthed Maeve?”
“My head may as well be in a vat full of wine…”
“My head may as well be a vat full of wine,” laughs Wen, and I laugh too.
Although, to be strictly accurate in our comparison, the experience is far, far better than drinking or indeed, being wine…