The Mysterious Road to Tain (2) : the Demi-god of Ross

(Above: St Duthac’s Chapel. The place of worship of the saint while he was alive)

“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.

(Above: St Duthac’s original chapel)

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.

(Above: Tain – full of history)

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.

(Above: the location of St Duthat’s Shrine at Tain)

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.

(Above: St Duthac)

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…

(Above: The Monymusk Reliquary – containing the names of all the saints. Source Wikipedia; Public Domain)

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…

(Above: the original faded sign, photographed two years ago)

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.

The Mysterious Road to Tain (1)

“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.

(Above: Tain’s town centre has many beautiful local-stone buildings)

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.

(Above: ten minutes by ferry across the loch from Nigg lies 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.

(Above: the original faded sign, photographed two years ago)

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.

(Above: early evening gold breaks through the thick clouds to shine on 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.

(Above: the location of St Duthat’s Shrine at 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’?

(Above: a genuine, though unmarked, ruin of great significance)

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…

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.