On the trail of the Northern saints

JANE COLL.

When three members of a book club in Thurso decided to make the saints of their diocese better known, they discovered ancient sites scattered across the North East.  So they created the Northern Saints Trail, which they hope will encourage visitors to discover the area’s Celtic past.

In 2016, the diocese of Aberdeen published a book ‘Together in Christ’ on the saints of the diocese, compiled by Deacon John Woodside.  A small book club in St Anne’s, Thurso, chose the book for one of their monthly meetings and were surprised to find that ten of the saints listed had Caithness connections.  More surprisingly, many of these saints were totally unknown to the group.  Most of us had heard of St Magnus of Orkney and St Fergus, patron saint of Wick.  Some knew that bishop Gilbert had succeeded Bishop Adam after Adam had been burned to death by his parishioners at Braal Castle, Halkirk.  None of us knew of Erchard, Devenick, Drostan, Modan, Fumac, Donan or the only female in the list, Triduana.

The group decided to do something to make these saints better known, and so began the ‘Northern Saints Trails’ project.  We gave ourselves three aims – to make these saints and their companions better known, to highlight that this period of our history is shared by all the Christian denominations and to encourage tourists to spend some time in Caithness instead of treating it as somewhere to pass through to get to somewhere else.

The more we dug, the more we found.  Caithness is generously endowed with ancient sites of chapels, graveyards, holy wells and hermits’ cells.  Our source material was so rich that our biggest problem was devising a way of presenting it in a logical and ‘digestible’ manner suitable for the casual summer visitor as well as the more interested or knowledgeable reader.  As the project had started with a list of names from the early days of the Church in Caithness, our first decision was to restrict ourselves to sites associated with a specific Celtic saint’s name.  We ended up with a list of 33 named saints with Caithness connections and 32 sites scattered over the county. We did include a few sites with no, or a very dubious, connection to a specific saint as they seemed to be important.

We also realised that we could not limit our sites to Caithness, as some of these saints had much stronger links with other parts of the Highlands – Duthac and Tain; Maelruadh and Applecross being the best-known examples.  The obvious step was to treat the existing North Coast 500 tourist route, which has been so successful at bringing visitors to the area but perhaps not so successful at getting them to stay a while, as our ‘outer’ route, with several ‘inner’ circles linking the local sites.  After much studying of road maps and pencilling in and rubbing out of site numbers we arrived at a list of fifty sites.  Numbers one to 34 take the traveller round the NC500 route in a clockwise direction, starting and finishing in Inverness.  Numbers 35 to 45 cover four overlapping routes of different lengths, all starting in Thurso.  Number 46 belongs to the Northern Wick-based route and the last few numbers make up a Southern Wick-based route.

The routes vary in length from 22 to 46 miles.  While they would all be suitable for cycling, we have not, so far, given any guidelines for people wanting to walk the routes.  However some information for walkers can be found on the web pages of two long-distance walks.  The John O’Groats Trail covers the coast from Inverness to/from John O’Groats and the Northern Way goes from Duncansby Head, just East of John O’Groats, to/from Cape Wrath.  The web addresses are www.jogt.org.uk and www.northhighland-way.com.

But what about the saints themselves?  The names fall into several groups. The original practice in the Celtic Church was to name centres after their founder.  Then, from as early as the 8th century, some of these Celtic names were replaced by dedications to better known names such as Mary, Peter (a popular choice of Curitan of Rosemarkie and Caithness, who had changed his own name to Boniface) and John.  To complicate matters further, historians have sometimes become confused by the Gaelic spellings of both names and places or have assumed that names similar to e.g. Columba were in fact dedications to him, when more detailed local knowledge suggests that they were in fact referring to Colm, Coomb or Colum.  Another group of names are those of saints to whom local estate owners or other influential figures had a personal/family devotion.  In this group are Martin of Tours, George, Thomas and Katherine of Alexandria.

Many of our names have little or no biographical details surviving and some names are duplicated over the centuries.  However local folklore should not be dismissed too quickly.  These early missionaries were incredibly important to the people of their day; their memories were treasured and their deeds recounted down the generations.  There is no reason to believe that this verbal history is any less reliable than written records.

Of our 32 sites in Caithness, most consist of a grassy mound in the corner of a field.  However all retain a sense of the dedication of those holy men (and they were almost exclusively men) who felt called to leave home and family to spread the Gospel message.  One interesting point that emerges from this study is that Christianity in Caithness seems to have come mainly via Aberdeenshire and Buchan and, if it owes anything to the two great names of Columba and Ninian, it is a second or third generation influence.

To find out more about these saints and the places associated with them, we have a section on the web site of Wick St Fergus Church.  The address is www.wickstferguschurch.org.uk/page16.html.

We also have an e-mail address – northernsaints@yahoo.com for any queries.

Jane Coll is a lay Catholic and member of the book club.

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