Saint Fillan: The Man and The Myth

Note: The following account of the St Fillan, to whom the Macnabs are connected, is reproduced here with the kind permission of “Stirling Tourism Ltd”.

‘The Christian religion, with its monastic system, became established in Ireland during the 5th century, and for the next two hundred years that island was the scene of the most amazing missionary enthusiasm and enterprise. The sons of kings, chiefs and nobles turned evangelists and monks and went forth to preach the Gospel’. A number of these Irish evangelists had come to preach the Gospel in various parts of the country. These included Saint Ninian, who founded his monastery at Whithorn about 400AD. However, Christianity only began to spread rapidly after St Columba landed on Iona in 563 and began to organise his campaign against paganism in Alba.

It was against this backdrop that St Fillan arrived in Scotland from Ireland. As with many Saints, there is no final agreement on what St Fillan did or where he travelled, or indeed on how many St Fillans there actually were. But one thing is certain, the St Fillan of Glen Dochart must not be confused with St Fillan of Rath Erenn, who belonged to a much earlier period and whose chair and well are situated between Comrie and Loch Earn and after whom the village of St Fillans is named.

St Fillan: ‘The Man and the Myth’

St Fillan, his name means wolf cub or little wolf, was the son of Prince Federach, a nobleman of the race of Fiatach Finn and Kentigerna, a princess of Ulster, who married into the Royal House of Dalriada. According to Irish legend, he was born with a stone in his mouth and his father threw him into a lake. Angels watched over him until Bishop Ibar found him and brought him up as his own child in the Christian faith. Kentigerna kept a watchful eye on her son and was thankful to Bishop Ibar and his monks for their care. She too became a Christian, and both mother and son became missionaries.

When St Fillan arrived in Scotland with his mother and cousin Comgan, they settled first in Lochalsh in Wester Ross before Fillan came to Glen Dochart and his mother retired to Inch Cailleach (‘The Nun’s Isle’) on Loch Lomond, where she died in 734AD. St Fillan’s first monastic settlement was close to the farm of Auchtertyre near Tyndrum. Also at this site is the Holy pool of St Fillan, immersion in which was said to cure insanity. In later times, St Fillan’s priory was built close to the present Kirkton Farm to the east of Auchtertyre. Little remains of this priory as the stones were used to build the farmhouse and outbuildings.

The Exploits of St Fillan

Little is known of St Fillan’s ministry in Breadalbane but tradition and stories of his exploits in Strathfillan and Glen Dochart abound. It is said, that when a wolf attacked his oxen, killing one, while they were ploughing, that the wolf returned and submitted to being yolked, helping Fillan with the ploughing and the building of the priory. On another occasion, Fillan parted company with Adoman (St Columba’s biographer) at Tyndrum, and journeyed on to Killin. When he arrived in Killin the villagers were living in dread of an enormous boar with horns the size of plough shares. St Fillan immediately set out to hunt the beast with his hound Dileas. The villagers did not expect to see Fillan again. He hunted the beast for three days and three nights, before he found it rooting in undergrowth beneath a rowan tree. St Fillan gripped his wooden club and prayed for strength. The huge beast turned and charged, scything through the vegetation with a fierce and thundery roar. St Fillan brought the club down on the boar’s had with all his strength. The boar lay lifeless.

The killing of terrifying beasts is not uncommon in Scottish hagiography (the life stories of saints). St Columba killed a boar on Skye in similar circumstances. The saint is, therefore, presented as more than godly, he is also a great hero, a man of enormous strength and courage. In this way the tradition of the mythical hero in Gaelic culture (the Ossian tradition) is carried through into religious life.

The Relics of St Fillan

It is believed that there were five relics of St Fillan (not including the ‘Healing Stones’) that were entrusted to five different hereditary Dewars, or keepers.

The Quigrich

This relic was originally the whole crozier, but only the head now remains of this symbolic crook. It is one of the most important objects in the country both for its artistic and historic significance. The shape is typical of the Scots/Irish tradition, with its front characteristically flattened. Many additions to the decorative work have been made in separate acts of devotion over the years, but, within its case of silver niello there are still traces of much earlier works.

The Bernane

The Bernane, or St Fillan’s bell, had like the Quigrich been placed in the hands of a Dewar, the Dewar-a-Bhearnain. Legend says, that when the Prior of St Fillan’s priory required the bell, he didn’t have to fetch it. He just summoned it and it came to him, flying through the air. Locals became used to seeing the holy relic flying around the priory but a soldier, a stranger to Strathfillan was startled by it and shot it out of the sky with an arrow. The crack it received when it landed can still be seen.(2)

The Bernane was ceremoniously used at the coronation of James IV. The bell was typical of those used by Scottish/Irish saints and was probably rung by being struck. Over centuries it was kept in the churchyard at St Fillan’s priory, where it was used in the healing of mad-ness (together with immersion in the Holy Pool) until 1798, when it was stolen by an English tourist. This time it was too far to find its own way home. Bishop Forbes of Brechin recovered the precious object in 1869 and the bell has since been kept ‘for the benefit of the Scottish nation’ with the Quigrich in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.

The Mayne

After Fillan had finished his day’s preaching and ploughing he would retire alone to his cell. This fascinated his followers, who marvelled at the hours he would spend in solitude. Finally Davuit, one of his young followers could not resist his curiosity any longer and he crept to the tiny building of stone and turf, that was St Fillan’s place of devotion. Through a chink in the wall he saw St Fillan writing by a light emanating from the Saints left arm. No sooner had Davuit started to spread the word of this miraculous power than St Fillan commanded a crane to peck out the offending eye of Davuit. But after intercession by St Fillan’s bretheren and Davuit asking forgiveness, St Fillan restored Davuit’s sight.

It is believed that the Mayne was this arm bone of St Fillan, which was kept in a silver case.

When King Robert the Bruce escaped a greatly superior force, led by Alasdair McDougal, at Dalrigh (The King’s Field), near Tyndrum in 1306, there is no doubt that he credited his deliverance to the intercession of St Fillan. Eight years later, he sent for the Mayne to be brought to him prior to the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

The Dewar in charge of the Mayne, however, brought only the empty case fearing the precious relic would be lost. The Bruce was at his devotions, on the eve of the battle, praying for strength in the coming battle against the greatly superior English force of horse, infantry and archers, when he heard a tremendous crack which came from the silver case. He called the Dewar and they opened the case. The Mayne lay before their eyes. The startled Dewar confessed that he had not brought the Mayne. News of this miracle fired the Scots, who routed the English, the next day and finally liberated their country from foreign domination.

The Fergy and the Messer

The Dewars in charge of the relics were not always as diligent as they should have been and two of the relics have been permanently lost. It is now no longer even certain what the Fergy and the Messer actually were.

The hereditary Dewer of the Fergy had a croft at Auchlyne in Glen Dochart and nearby are the remains of a chapel, Caibel-na-Faige, where the relic was kept in Pre Reformation times.

The Messer, has also been lost, it was referred to in a document dated 9th February, 1468, but from this document it is not possible to tell what the Messer was; but, it has been suggested that it could be the manuscript which St Fillan wrote using the light from his left arm. It may also be a derivation of meise, a portable alter used for the celebration of Mass.

St Fillan’s Mill and the Healing Stones

The mill, once a grain mill and then a tweed mill, is now the Breadlabane Folklore Centre. It is on the site of many older mills going back beyond written records. It has a strong association with St Fillan, who preached at a place near the mill, seated on a stone (St Fillan’s Seat) under an ash tree. Both have long since vanished, the stone being washed away into the river by a flood in 1856 and the tree was blown down by a gale in 1893. The tree was regarded as sacred by the villagers of Killin and they dared not use the wood. One man used a branch to repair his house and his ‘sacrilege’ was repaid when it burned to the ground.

The connection with the mill remains both in folklore and fact and The Healing Stones are the only relic of St Fillan to be preserved here on the site of his labours. They are eight river washed stones which the Saint himself used to cure various afflictions, each stone bearing some resemblance to the part of the body for which it was used to cure.

By tradition, the layer of river wrack, straw and twigs on which the stones are bedded, is changed every Christmas Eve.

St Fillan’s death is recorded as 9th January 777 (Julian Calender); which is the 20th of January (Gregorian Calendar). This date each year, is observed as the Saints day and no work is carried out in the building on that day.

The cult of St Fillan served an important function far beyond the significance of the man himself. Perhaps, because of his association with King Robert the Bruce, although it is understood that he had united, through religion the two great power centres of Scotland, the Scots and the Picts, and he was therefore of central importance to the establishment of our nation.

[nggallery id=4 template=caption ]