Walking in the footsteps of saints


Hugh Dougherty

THINK Scotland, think saints and pilgrimage, and you’ll come up with St Columba on Iona, St Ninian at Whithorn, and St Margaret at Dumfermline. However, a recent trip to the Mull of Kintyre showed me that there are Irish saints to be discovered in a part of Scotland that was once buzzing with Catholic culture, pilgrimages and prayer, before all was swept away by the Reformation.

Our first stop at Skipness on the eastern seaboard, brought us to 14th century, St Brendan’s Chapel (above)—now a ruin, but once the focal point of pilgrimage—to celebrate this great, exploring and voyaging, Irish saint, who gives his name to Kilbrannan Sound, separating Kintrye from Arran.

Kilbrannan—literally in Scots Gaelic or Irish, the common tongue linking Kintrye and Antrim— translates as the Church of Brendan, and it was remarkable to find that the saint is recalled by the local Church of Scotland, whose parish is named St Brendan’s. It’s a living link with the pre-Reformation days when pilgrims would have flocked to Skipness to honour St Brendan himself.

Southwards from St Brendan’s, takes you to the ruins of 12th century, Saddell Abbey, where Cistercians established a school of stone carving. Their distinctive figures of priests, saints and warriors, borrowing from the Celtic and Norse cultures, became famous up until the closure of the monastery in the 15th century, with local ecclesiastical politics, rather than the Reformation, ensuring its demise. You can view tomb slabs carved by the monks, and imagine that this site would have been a powerhouse of art and learning, fully connected to the wider Catholic world.

Saddell Bay, close by the abbey, is, of course, famous as the location of the recording of the pipe band on Sir Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre, but it’s also a reminder that it was the sea which was the superhighway of its day. It allowed saints to travel with ease, crossing the ancient Sea of Moyle, which connects Kintyre with the coast of Antrim, just 12 miles distant at its nearest part, and on, northwards to Iona.

It’s the sea, too, which recalls St Ciaran of Clonmacnoise, for, long before it was called Campbeltown Loch, the inlet was known for centuries as St Ciaran’s Loch, and, even today, St Ciaran is a popular, local saint. The town, in fact, was called Cille Ciaran, the Church of Ciaran, until the 17th century, and although the saint was deposed, he still lives on locally.

The Catholic church in Campbeltown, celebrates him as its patron saint, and Ciaran is depicted, in a painting above the altar, arriving by sea, while the local Catholic primary school shares his name with the church, and there’s even a Ciaran Court in the town. And, don’t forget the superbly-restored Celtic cross on display in Campbeltown. Dating from the 14th century, using, traditional Celtic designs, it’s another reminder of the Catholic past of Kintyre.

On, then, southwards, to Dunaverty, where you can find out if your shoe size matches that of St Columba, for, even today, St Columba’s footprints, cave and holy well, are a well-known attraction, to be found close to the remains of 13th century Cille Columcille, where the saint is believed to have landed.

One story is that he dropped off on his way out of exile from Donegal, to take a break before going on to Iona, staying overnight in one of the caves, finding time to bless the well, and leaving his footprint in the rock.

The other version is that he stopped off regularly on his trips around the Celtic sea superhighway, and the spot became a place of pilgrimage up until the Reformation, when all such veneration of saints was swept away, although there’s plenty of evidence from local ministers that it took several centuries for the customs to die out. Holy wells, especially, were valued for their healing properties.

If St Columba’s footprint is real, then he wore a size five, and I didn’t fit it with my seven, which was a bit of a disappointment, as the Dougherty Clan is descended from Donegal’s Cenel Connaill, as was Columba, and I’d always thought of him as a sort of historical, holy cousin!

But, the ad hoc ‘pilgrimage,’ we made was special, as we have a Brendan and a Ciaran as sons, with our other, son, Hugh, having Columba as his confirmation name, so we covered all three, family, saintly bases in an area that most people don’t realise has a rich, Catholic, Irish, heritage.

Time, perhaps, to establish a pilgrimage route down the Mull of Kintyre, honouring Irish Saints Brendan, Ciaran and Columba, and reminding us, that, long before the Reformation, not just the Mull, but all Scotland, was a country, in which saints—and Irish ones at that—were to the fore in everyday life. We could certainly do with their help these days—and not just in Kintyre!