Saints of Scotland : St Duthac

In the next of our ‘Saints of Scotland’ series, we encounter St Duthac. Famed in Medieval Scotland, Duthac nowadays is little known beyond the Ross-shire town of Tain. Bishop Hugh Gilbert OSB reflects on the legacy of Duthac.

In St Stephen’s Chapel in Cologne Cathedral of Cologne, there are remains of a small wall-painting of St Duthac of Tain, alongside another of St Kentigern. They are dated to around 1320. Cologne Cathedral housed relics of the biblical Magi, the “three Kings” and would have been visited by many Scottish pilgrims. It was presumably for their sake that these two Scottish saints were commemorated. But the presence of Duthac might surprise us. He also features in the Martyrology of Cologne printed in 1490. In contemporary Scotland, St Duthac is no household name. If people care to think of the ancient Scottish saints, it is Ninian, Columba, Mungo or Margaret who come to mind, and via his relics, the Apostle Andrew – hardly Duthac. But, as Dr Tom Turpie of Stirling University, has pointed out, in the late Middle Ages devotion to St Duthac outstripped that of these more familiar celebrities and his shrine at Tain in Easter Ross drew pilgrims in great numbers, “kings, princes and the common people”.

In the Scots College, Rome, St Duthac features in the stained glass windows that line the stairs to the crypt of St Margaret.

In the Scots College, Rome, St Duthac features in the stained glass windows that line the stairs to the crypt of St Margaret.

Who was he? The cult of St Duthac is perhaps a good place to begin. Saints might almost be defined as people who have more than one life. Beyond their historical existence, they seem to enjoy a second posthumous life in the minds and hearts of others – no less real, if we think about it. The creedal doctrine of the Communion of Saints theologically underpins these further human possibilities. So it certainly was with St Duthac. That the firth-side royal burgh of Tain housed a shrine of St Duthac, with relics, from at least the mid-13th century seems certain. That devotion to him spread locally, then in Aberdeen and finally nationally is clear from a whole range of evidence: place-names, personal names, dedications of churches, chapels and altars, mention in liturgical documents, literary references. Place-names include Arduthie, Belmaduthie, Kilduthie, Loch Duich – though we cannot always be certain of the ‘Duthac’ involved. An alternative derivation for the name ‘Black Isle (‘dubh’ being Gaelic for ‘black’) is ‘Duthac’s Isle’. Dedications ranged from the Northern Isles to the Borders, and in the current diocese of Aberdeen included St Nicholas’ Kirk in Aberdeen, Elgin Cathedral, Forres, Croy on the Moray Firth, Kintail, Inverness, Wick and Kirkwall. It seems that the burgesses of Aberdeen warmed to the figure of Duthac. So, more spectacularly, did the royal house of Stewart. James II, James III, most famously James IV, and James V all made pilgrimages there. This would have heightened significantly the status and wealth of the shrine and the cult of the saint. From 1457 Tain boasted a new church housing the saint’s relics, which included his head, a breastbone and a ‘hairy shirt’. In 1492, the church’s collegiate status was confirmed by Pope Innocent VIII. There were political reasons for a Stewart interest in Tain and demonstrations of presence and power were effective means of cementing control, not least when enhanced – as in 1504 – by a band of Italian minstrels and an African drummer! But the devotion to St Duthac that one finds in rural, urban and royal circles in the late Middle Ages – among the Gaels of the west, in the northern isles, among the townsfolk of mercantile centres like Aberdeen, and further south in the royal family and in the Lothians – go beyond the political or national agendas. They are responding to traditions of a saint who showed a closeness to ordinary life, proved himself a ‘kind neighbour’ by his miracles, blending asceticism and benevolence. Much of this finds its definitive medieval expression in the inspiring Aberdeen Breviary of 1510, Scotland’s first full-scale printed book and a monument to the high liturgical culture that prevailed in Aberdeen in the days of Bishop William Elphinstone. There, under 8 March, we find an oration for St Duthac and the nine readings used at Matins. He is designated as ‘bishop and confessor’, said to be of noble birth, partly educated in Ireland, learned in the Old and New Testaments and, after his episcopal ordination, a kind of spiritual father to other bishops. His sphere of action was around the Dornoch Firth. His miracles show a command of birds, a capacity to retrieve the lost, a gift of providing nourishment and protection from wild weather. They are kindly gestures. His shrine, says the Breviary, has become a place of healing for the sick and diseased. He ‘migrated to Christ’ on 8 March and his body was found incorrupt seven years later. ‘A very great crowd of Christian people flock to him constantly and he shines ceaselessly with the brightest miracles.’

All this was blown away by the Reformation. It’s left for us to pick our way through the fragments left behind, trying to form meaningful patterns. If a connection with Easter Ross, the Dornoch Firth and Tain itself seems sure, it is impossible to give St Duthac a definite date or to sift the reliable from the fantastic in the traditions regarding him as an historical figure. Many argue for the 11th century, but some demur. Let us call this elusive figure Duthac 1. With Duthac 2, as explained above, we are on somewhat surer ground. Clearly, in the late medieval constellation of holy Scots, St Duthac shone out. Doing so, he can remind us of the faith of our forbearers, their passion for pilgrimage, their sense of belonging to a fellowship uniting past and present, heaven and earth, the ordinary and the divine.

Built in the 14th and 15th century, this is all that remains of the Collegiate Chapel of St Duthac.

Built in the 14th and 15th century, this is all that remains of the Collegiate Chapel of St Duthac.

And what of now? ‘St Duthac’s Fair’ is no longer held, but Tain – in Gaelic Baile Dubhthaich, ‘Duthac’s Town’ – still remembers him. Historians, local and otherwise, are researching him afresh. The papal bull of 1492, confirming the status of the collegiate church in Tain and the town’s most precious possession, was recently restored and commemorated. There are pilgrims who take the modern versions of the old routes to the remaining choir of that collegiate church, to the ruins of the old parish church and those of a medieval chapel near the seashore. Are these signs of an emerging Duthac 3? In any case, the Communion of Saints remains, and our need for that ‘health and wholeness of life’ the Aberdeen Breviary hailed him as dispensing also remains. Perhaps he still has another life to live. In memory of the Kintail connection, our church at Dornie on the west coast is dedicated to him. He features in John Woodside’s ‘Together in Christ: Following the Northern Saints’. When first a monk at Pluscarden Abbey in the 1970s, I had the privilege of knowing Brother Duthac. He, like his patron saint, had an unusual history: he had shovelled coal on the express steam-trains between Edinburgh and Newcastle, and became a monk seven years after his wife mysteriously disappeared from home, never to be found again. When, a few days before his death, he told me he felt too weak to carry some newly-laundered handkerchiefs to his cell, he taught me the physical frailty of the old. He died a simple, prayerful death and rests in the monastic cemetery.

In the diocesan calendar of Aberdeen St Duthac is duly remembered on 8 March, with the prayer:

   ‘Almighty God, who chose St Duthac to be a true shepherd of your people, listen to his earnest prayer so that we may attain the goal of our earthly pilgrimage in the eternal abode of heaven. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.’  

BCOS_BpGilbertOSBBishop Hugh Gilbert OSB is the current Bishop of Aberdeen. Appointed and ordained as the 11th bishop of Aberdeen in 2011, he was previously the Abbot of Pluscarden Abbey near Elgin.

Bishop Gilbert would like to thank Tom Turpie for his help in the compilation of this article on St Duthac, noting Mr Turpie’s assistance in forwarding the article: Our Friend in the North: The Origin, Evolution and Appeal of the Cult of St Duthac in the Later Middle Ages, published in the Scottish Historical Review, Vol. XCIII, 1: No. 236, April 2014, pp. 1-28.

With thanks to Bishop Gilbert and contributors for their part in this series of reflections.

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