My wife and I recently celebrated our 10 year wedding anniversary. To commemorate such an occasion, we decided to go somewhere we had never been before, and landed on taking a trip to Scotland. Among the rolling hills, beautiful greenery, and abundance of sheep and cows (or “coos” as they are known there), I was introduced to the country’s rich history, including a number of Catholic saints who were important in the region’s Christian story. While there are Catholic saints known all over the world, a great many lesser-known saints played a meaningful role in spreading the faith. Here are three I learned about on my trip who played an important role in Scottish Christian history:
St. Kentigern (also known as St. Mungo)
St. Kentigern was born and raised in the region of Fife. As legend has it, the saint’s mother became pregnant with Kentigern before marriage and, as a punishment, was thrown from a cliff. Miraculously, she survived the fall unscathed. She found a lone boatman who agreed to take her across the Firth of Forth to Fife, where she gave birth to Kentigern. There, they met another Scottish saint, St. Serf, who raised the young Kentigern in the faith and gave him the nickname Mungo, which roughly translates to “my dear one.”
Among the many things he did in his life, St. Kentigern is best known for founding the city of Glasgow. When he was 25, he set out on missionary work and built a small monastic cell and church by the River Clyde. Fast-forward to medieval times; the site was built into a cathedral and currently stands as the oldest surviving cathedral in Scotland. In 2016, an Australian street artist named Smug completed a large mural a short distance from the cathedral to honor the city’s patron saint. The mural depicts St. Kentigern in modern-day clothes with a bird perched on his finger. The bird alludes to a miracle attributed to the saint in which he brought a robin back to life. When thinking about the formation of a city, I’d often think about things such as population growth or industrial development. It was quite fascinating to learn that the small cell of a Christian monk had such a significance to the founding of Scotland’s second largest city.
St. Columba was a sixth-century Irish monk who is credited with helping spread Christianity through the widespread conversion of the Picts, a people who inhabited the land we now know as Scotland. The tour guide on my trip explained that one can’t talk about Scottish history without talking about Ireland, and that is certainly the case in Christian history, as the initial spread of Christianity to the Scottish region can be traced back to a number of Irish saints and monks.
One interesting legend about St. Columba is that he had one of the first recorded sightings of what is known today as the Loch Ness Monster. According to the “Life of Columba,” after the monster killed a villager in the area, St. Columba and a companion went out in search of the alleged water beast. Upon encountering it, he made the sign of the cross and banished the monster to the depths of Loch Ness, much to the locals’ glee. Along with the more well-known Sts. Patrick and Brigid of Kildare, St. Columba continues to be one of the most celebrated saints from the Celtic Christian world. To walk the grounds of Scotland and learn of the saint who was key in bringing the message of Christ to that land was as moving as it was humbling.
St. Margaret of Scotland
St. Margaret was a Scottish queen. She was born in Hungary, but her father Edward the Exile was an English prince. He was called back to England in 1072, possibly to succeed the current king, King Edward the Confessor, as Edward had no children. Sadly, Margaret’s father died unexpectedly upon arriving in England. With her brother Edgar too young to be crowned king, the throne went to a man named Harold Godwinson, who was brother-in-law of the previous King Edward. Shortly after Harold’s coronation, England entered into a conflict with the Normans and was defeated in the Battle of Hastings. This resulted in the Norman leader William the Conqueror becoming the first Norman King of England. Due to her family ties to the previous English line, St. Margaret and her family fled north, ending up in Scotland. It is there that she eventually married Malcolm III, King of Scotland, and became queen.
As queen, St. Margaret was well-known for her piety and efforts to rejuvenate the Church throughout Scotland. Notably, the saint commissioned ferry boats to take pilgrims across the Firth of Forth so they could visit St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Fife. A small chapel dedicated to St. Margaret is located in the historic Edinburgh Castle. I had the honor of visiting the humble stone chapel, which was only one small room consisting of an altar, a few stained-glass windows depicting St. Margaret and other saints, and a facsimile of St. Margaret’s personal copy of the Gospels. (Her actual copy is kept at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.) Though I had not been aware of St. Margaret before my trip, her piety and reverence for the Lord could be felt in that austere, simple chapel built in her honor.
Discovering saints across different cultures can help remind us of the universality of our Church. Experiencing a bit of Scotland was enough to captivate my interest in Scottish culture. The saints I learned of during my trip lived lives of great fidelity and evangelization. Aside from sparking a continued interest in Scottish Christianity, learning of these saints helped me to better recognize that there are so many out there living out their faith in their own context, whether they are known throughout the wider world or not. While every country and culture has its own story in the history of Christianity, it is all part of the bigger story of people trying to live their lives in the light of Christ.