Some Saints of Scotland

Some Saints of Scotland

Glynn Cardy

Sun 03 Nov

Today in the Church calendar is the nearest Sunday to All Saints Day.  I call it ‘All Crazies Day’; for most of them were.  They, like us, are on the long road, the windy one, that doesn’t avoid suffering nor joy.

I think Zaccheus was crazy.  He was a respectable thug.  Climbing a tree is not what a respectable thug does.  Nor does a respectable thug gives back fourfold what he’s extorted from those he’s extorted money from.  Crazy.  I’m using the word ‘crazy’ not in a derogatory way but in a way that expresses admiration for their courage. 

When you read about the Scottish saints – the ones that don’t make it on to the front page of anything much – they’re pretty crazy too.

Have you heard of St Donan, attempting to introduce the Picts of North West Scotland to Christianity during the early Middle Ages (7th century)?  There’s little known history about his life but that hasn’t stopped our faith forbears from creating some.  He came, version one, to a sticky headless end, courtesy of pirates, on the isle of Eigg (inner Hebrides).  Version two has a pagan Queen barbequing him.  Version three blames bandits.

Or have you heard of St Kessog, allegedly one of the first Christian martyrs in Scotland?  He was born Irish around 460 C.E., becoming a missionary bishop and basing himself at Monks’ Island in Loch Lomond. Kessog is known to have travelled widely during his time in Scotland, being most active in the areas of Lennox – which at that time stretched as far as northern Wales and southern Perthshire.  Though he carried a sword, it did not prevent his violent demise at Bandry (around 520).  His miracles – and saints always have quite a few of those – included bringing drowned children back to life.

Or have you heard of Saint Oda?  Scottish born, 680 CE, miraculously cured of blindness when on a pilgrimage to Liège, Netherlands, Oda returned to serve God as a nun in her homeland.  But her father, King Eugenius VII, had other ideas (like marriage), so Oda goes AWOL: Rome, Netherlands and Belgium, praying in several villages but finding herself constantly disrupted by magpies.  Attempting to escape the birds, Oda was instead led by the magpies to a small settlement in a forest, called Rode, where the villagers built a hut for her.  Later when daddy tracked her down he was repeatedly repelled by the said magpies.  Oda stayed in the hut ‘til she died (in the 720s).

Or have you heard of Saint Serf, dubbed the ‘apostle of Orkney’.  The Oxford Dictionary of Saints describes the legend of the Saint Serf as a ‘farrago of wild impossibilities’, adding that Serf was likely the son of Eliud, King of Canaan, and Alphia, daughter of an Arabian king, born in around 500 CE.  As a young man, Serf reportedly served as Pope for seven years before travelling around Europe before settling in Scotland.  With guidance from the Abbot of Iona, Serf established a priory (called St Serf’s Inch) on an island in Loch Leven.

Serf supposedly continued travelling, with legend claiming that, using his pastoral staff, he killed a dragon that had been terrorising the residents of Dunning.  Another legend states that when the daughter of the king of Lothian, princess Teneu fell pregnant out of wedlock (actually Scotland’s first recorded rape victim), her family threw her off the hill called Traprain Law in East Lothian (and you thought so-called honour killing only happened in places like Pakistan).  Teneu miraculously (of course) survived the fall unharmed and was ferried away to St Serf who cared for her and was the foster father of her illegitimate son.  By the way, her son was Kentigern (nickname: Mungo) who later founded and became patron saint of Glasgow (to say nothing of a certain school close by).

This wee excursion into some of the lesser known Scottish saints, where history and legend blend, is simply to point out that holiness, courage, compassion, and craziness often coalesce.  For who would travel far, with all the dangers that travelling then entailed?  Who would defy a king?  Who would care for illegitmate children? 

Last week Roy Bain gave me a brief article on William Quarrier, a native of Glasgow’s streets, born 1828.  William was born poor – and grew up knowing hunger, cold, exploitation, and indifference from those better off.  As fortune would have it, and his mother’s determination, he got an apprenticeship (at age 8) to a shoemaker (who shared with him his Christianity).  With that trade, and a gift for business, William became in time the owner of a number of shoe shops.  He was also involved in philanthropic projects for the poor of his city.  But his passion and his goal was to care for the children of the street.  Eventually in 1871 a home for boys and girls was established in Glasgow.  By the time William died in 1903 he had provided a home for 20,000 children.

But that’s only part of the story.  The quality of what he provided was the other part.  For William wanted to create a home like atmosphere for orphaned children.  Rather than a massive dormitory he wanted ‘cottages’.  So he built well designed houses, no two alike, surrounded by their own gardens, with plenty of space for recreation.  He planned out a village with its own shop, school, fire brigade station, and of course a beautiful church.  He did not have huge funds for all this.  But the funds came bit by bit.  He developed a holiday home for the children and cottage parents on the Firth of Clyde.  His aim for the children was told care, covering education and practical training, encouragement in faith, advice and love – not just during their sojourn in a cottage home but throughout their lives.

It was William Quarrier’s example that was part of the inspiration for David Dingwall of this parish and his establishment of the Dingwall Trust.  Much of the vision of that Trust has echoes of William Quarrier’s work.

Maybe that’s another part of craziness – not just the big vision and the big commitment, but the contagiousness of a life and vision worth emulating.  Quarrier was a saint, as was Dingwall, though I doubt either would have liked that accolade.

Maybe too Quarrier found some inspiration from St Margaret, who is displayed here in our triptych Western window, for she also had a deep concern for children.  Margaret, born 1045 is Wessex, is groomed in the Christian royal courts of Hungary and England, and then who marries a Scottish king (Malcolm III).  She moves north to Edinburgh where in time she wins the hearts of her new subjects, and they hers. 

She’s something of a super-queen if her hagiographers are to be believed.  She reads, prays, does needlework, writes letters, and reforms the Scottish Church[i].   She restores and founds monasteries and churches.  She bears and educates eight children.  She is generous and charitable – famed for supporting and serving orphans, and the poor generally. 

One of the stanzas in the blessing today reads:  “Blessed are those who find meaning, purpose, and joy to fill the gap between birth and death; though sometimes they find us, and come to us unexpectedly like a stray cat.”  And, of course, a stray cat needs to be fed if you want it to stick around.  I would like to think that these saints/crazies I’ve mentioned this morning found, or were found by, not only the road to meaning and purpose, but also joy.

There is a passage in the Book of Revelations (7:9-17) which uses the imagery of tears of sorrow being transformed into tears of joy.  This morning you have a tear drop and a pen to write down a situation of tears – it might be a friend in need, someone sick or dying; or it might be a country or people or war or injustice that grieves you.  The writing down is a way of praying.  Then we will take the tear drops (and some blu-tack) and arrange them on the front wall panelling into flowers (symbols of hope).

[i] Like, following the Roman rite, instigating the reception of the sacrament of Holy Communion at Easter, and cessation from work on the Lord’s Day