Arrival of Christianity

Oh! When the Saints

Circa the 6th Century AD

Life lumbered on after the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Scotland and things settled down for a few hundred years. Small communities were formed although one could not call them clans.

They were more families associated with other families in loose ties. New immigrants continuously trickled in mainly from Ireland and possibly other parts of the island with a major influx in the Strathearn during the sixth century. It was during this century that introduced Christianity into our region. Missionaries, probably operating under a mandate from that great Christian settlement at Iona, or more possibly, the Cathedral City of Dunkeld appeared with anew message - a message of peace and hope. As Christians their task was to spread the Gospel and the Word, and, at St. Kessog’s Knowe or Knoll, called Tom A’Chaisteil, just to the right of Comrie Parish Church, worship was undertaken by St. Kessog to the indigenous local population, now called the Picts.

Their capital cities or chief towns of the Picts in Strathearn at this time were Abernethy and Forteviot. About three miles west of Comrie there can be found the ruins of a Caledonian fort. It is set upon a triangular-shaped hill called Dundurn (Dun Duirn), or St. Fillans Hill. Its Caledonian or Pictish name is translated as “the fort of the fist.” In Pictish days it was a strong fortress of the Kings of Fortrenn.

At that time the land known as Alba or Alban, as legend has it, was ruled by Cruithne, son of Cinge. One would not have liked to meet him on a dark night! Cruithne had seven sons, and each was given an area of land to control. Five of these areas have been identified: Cait-Caithness, Cirig or Circinn-Kincardineshire, Fib-Fife, Fotla-Atholl, and Fortrenn. Fortrenn was the name given to the land lying between the Tay and the Forth including Strathearn. According to Pictish Chronicles, the Vikings referred to our area as Sraithberne or Stratherne, although the place name probably comes from Ireland. The other identified regions of the Cruithne were Fidach and Ce which may represent Ross, Buchan, Moray and Mar.

Dundurn rises steeply from the level plain below giving natural predominance over the valley. Around it was placed an enormous wall of stones which would have been carried up from the fields below with the River Earn at its immense task which only required brute strength, considerable building skill, many hands, and time! The Egyptians had no monopoly on building structures although the Pyramids were not built for defensive reasons!

Evidence abounds of its magnitude as the walls have all fallen down and litter the hillside with thousands of tons of boulders and scree. Its other function of longer lasting use was that it possessed a Healing Well. “In AD 520 the Celtic monk St. Fillan, the Leper or Stammerer, brought Christianity from Ireland to the Picts of Fortrenn. At the highest point of the rock is a naturally shaped stone seat from which the Saint is said to have preached. Here, too, was a holy well which for centuries in the days of the early church was frequented by persons seeking relief from a great variety of ills. Even as late as 1791 no fewer than 70 persons visited the well seeking cure for sore eyes, barrenness and rheumatism.”

Dundurn in the middle distance taken from St Fillans Golf Course

An early Statistical Account describing the Healing Well as a place where “invalids, whether men, women or children walk, or are carried, round the well three times, in a direction Deishal, that is from East to West according to the course of the Sun. They also drink of the water, and bathe in it. These operations are accounted a certain remedy for various diseases. They are particularly efficacious for curing barrenness; on which account it is frequently visited by those who are very desirous of offspring. All the invalids throw a white stone on the Saint’s cairn, and leave behind, as tokens of their confidence and gratitude, some rags of linen or woollen cloth. The rock on the summit of the hill formed, of itself, a chair for the Saint, which still remains. Those who complain of rheumatism in the back, must ascend the hill, sit in the chair, then lie down on their back, and be pulled by the legs to the bottom of the hill. This operation is still performed and reckoned very efficacious. At the foot of the hill, there is a basin, made by the Saint, on top of a large stone, which seldom wants water even in the greatest drought: and all who are distressed with sore eyes must wash them three times with this water.” The cure for rheumatism seems to the modern eye a little extreme as the lower slopes contain thousands of tons of rock and scree. It was recorded in AD 878 that King Girig or Grig was killed or died there being recorded as “Mortuus est in Dundeorn.” He may have died as a result of the treatment for a sore back! One might call it a rocky road to health!

A study undertaken by Leslie Alcock of the Department of Archaeology at Glasgow University describes the site as: “At least two periods recognised in the fortifications of the citadel and the uppermost terrace. Few finds, but these point to an early historic (Pictish) occupation. The craggy pyramidal hill dominates Strathearn where it opens out below Loch Earn. Well-placed on the east-west route from Donollie and Dunstaffnage in Dalriada to Perth and Scone. Usually identified with the DUINDUIRN mentioned in the Iona Annals for AD 683: “Siege of Dunadd and Siege of Duinduirn” perhaps a reference to the changing fortunes of Picts and Scots.

Close traces of massive fortifications. The defences revealed by the tumbled stone of the walls, are in the form of a citadel-like boss of rock surrounded by enclosures on two levels. No wall faces can be detected in the tumble. From the evidence obtained, an oval citadel may be inferred, 20m X 15m internally, defended by a rubble wall 4m thick, laced with nailed timbers, and of unknown height.

Finds: a glass ornament, 15mm high, in the form of a black and white dome of swirled glass, decorated with five inlays and five bosses of blue and white spirals. The base is perforated for attachment. The fineness of the spirals argues for an early historic rather than a pre-Roman Iron Age date. From the burnt layer which appeared to mark the destruction of the earlier citadel wall, came a strap fastener of base silver or silvered bronze. On the main stem of this was a horse’s head, with bulging eyes and nostrils. The single rivet was still in place on the stem. The free end of the object was in the shape of a letter “B”, decorated in low relief with an animal biting its foreleg. Suggested that the burnt layer in which the strap fastener was found was a result of the siege of 683.

An iron knife blade with a sharply angled back like a scramasax (essentially this was a type of dagger).

Part of the upper stone of a quern of garnet schist. Numerous iron nails.

Things were also happening in Ireland at this time. Oddly enough they were happening all over the planet at the time, and many eyes were focussed on Dalriada or Caledonia. The internecine fighting between clans in the Emerald Isle, which they had developed into a fine art form, waned for a bit. It was not so much for lack of enthusiasm for killing others who were trying to do the same thing, but rather was due to the weather! It had happened fairly quickly and people were quite put out about it! The sky had darkened and everyone was fearful. No one knew why but the early Christians no doubt put everyone on a guilt trip about the phenomenon. We now know that the volcano known as Krakatoa had erupted around AD 535 followed by further subsequent eruptions of massive explosions sending millions of tons of ash into the stratosphere. Through wind carriage it covered and darkened the whole globe. This was the start of the Dark Ages.

The Irish probably figured that this was a form of punishment for their sins because along with it came a period of death through starvation and mounting disease. Furthermore, their subsistence crops failed, and a host of other serious ailments occurred. They decided that things would be better overseas. As they had not heard about the land mass now called America, they came to Caledonia instead! Others from the northern part of Europe were doing the same thing at the same time and the poor locals began to become squeezed between these rather vicious and fearsome factions. It could be said half heartedly that they had gone to the country now known as Scotland for the weather! As the Romans had never set foot in Ireland they had not passed on the news to the Irish that sometimes it rained in Scotland! And equally so, as the Romans had left the region, there was no one to tell the Irish that things were much the same as in the country they had just left. These emigrations to Caledonia continued for many a day, even to the present.

Religious leaders and holy men had by this time set up shop in Iona and in other centres and mission work was started. Missionaries were sent out throughout Dalriada and in our area St. Fillan and St. Kessog preached the Word to the locals. These men were no “shrinking violets” and had their work cut out for them. By this time the locals were known as the Picts. St. Fillan concentrated on Glen Dochart also known as Strathfillan, and with reason; there were many sinners up there! He brought with him several relics which were, and the surviving two relics, still are, revered. These were symbols of ecclesiastical significance and possessed not only authority, but also healing powers.

Probably the best known one of the set was the Quigrich (Coigreach). Sometimes it is referred to as the Crozier. It was made of silver and possessed a very intricate and exquisite design shaped to cover the head of a shepherd’s crook. Within its outer casing was a smaller parallel crozier of poorer design which probably served as a liner which came in contact with the head of the wooden shaft of the crook itself. The Quigrich will crop up again in our tale in the nineteenth century in Canada and, even then, its healing powers appeared to be intact.

The Quigrich

He also had a Bell no doubt to toll the worthies to his meeting point, or to let them know he was coming. It was known as the “Am Buidhean” (little yellow one) or the “Bernane.” It was also, according to William Gillies in his classic “Infamed Breadalbane,” known as “The Little Gapped One”. This name was a familiar name for many little bells carried by many of these Irish saints. It, and the Quigrich, eventually ended up in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

St. Fillans Bell

There is no trace of the remaining three relics. There is only a passing reference to the Fergy which may have been a religious site or place. Later historians mention as a possibility that it was a now ruined chapel at Auchlyne.

A fourth holy relic was called the Mayne which may refer to the left arm bone of the revered Saint. In 1314 the arm of St. Fillan, which seems to have been luminous was taken to the field of Bannockburn in a box and displayed before the Scots army and prayed over for victory against the dread English. This prayer was granted…in spades!

The Meser may have been a document or parchment. If it was a document it was referred to in a case brought against the MacGregor’s by the Campbells in the 15th century. Ah, there it is again – the Campbells having a written document or parchment proving their case!

There were also eight variously shaped healing stones used to cure the sick of their ailments. They may have be laid upon the infirm part and incantations made with the intent of curing. This practice still goes on. One of my friends had a massage recently where warmed healing stones were laid along her back, and another friend used to go to see a bone-setter in Tyndrum!

Healing Stones of St Fillans

Some, if not all of them, were used with frequency for different types of services. Like today, madness was not uncommon and in Strath Fillan where there must have been a lot of mad people (who knows, maybe they are still there!). There he created a Holy pool of water which was said to have great healing powers, and it dealt with the problem. It was called "Linne Naomh" and was believed to have worked along the lines of a ducking stool. If, after complete immersion, you survived drowning, then you were no longer mad, however you probably died of pneumonia! If, on the other hand you did not survive having drowned, then you must have been mad in the first place, and went to meet your maker. I feel there is a place for this type of service in our modern world!

As the Saints moved forward they established Holy places and seats of learning in sites such as Dundurn where St. Fillans had his seat at its summit, the Cathedral city of Dunkeld, centres at Scone and Loch Leven, the Culdees in Muthill, who eventually passed the legacy on to the founders of St. Andrews University.

After Bannockburn King Robert the Bruce declared Fillan a saint. He had lost a spur in an encounter with the MacDougalls of Lorne at Dal Righ (Dalree) in Strathfillan, and no doubt, may have been assisted afterwards by some members of the Dewar family. Possibly as a reward, the relics of the Saint were gifted to the Dewars of Glen Dochart who were designated to be caretakers of the relics, not owners though!

It is beyond the scope of this tome to record the introduction and growth of Christendom in our area but suffice it to say that when the Saints came this way they were supported by a strong team consisting of God, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Holy Ghost, and the twelve disciples! They made such an impression that the ancient story is still told today in the various churches in the region. Their grip on the population eventually became a stranglehold with, until the great disruption of 1843, all ministers had been appointed by local landowners in collusion with Church authorities. Policies created by the landowners were preached from the pulpit in tandem with repeated trumpeting of the Ten Commandments. However, as my granny used to say, “It’s not a dull thing to be a Christian!”

The names of the principal quartet are still used by supporters of the local football team, Comrie Rovers, if they see that their team is not doing well!

Comrie Soccer Team