The Saints of Mid-Deeside

Hugh Cochran

A series of articles by Hugh Cochran on the Saints who brought the Gospel to Deeside during the Dark Ages. Hugh Cochran (b1932), BA (Oxon), LIB (Edin), BA (Abdn), FSAScot, worked as a solicitor in Aberdeen, the town of his birth until his retirement in 1998. In the course of his professional career, he was Chancellor of the Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney from 1993 to 1998. Since then he has devoted his time to the study of his historical and antiquarian interests. For copies of the articles, see the links at the bottom of this page or please contact us.

Introduction

Fenton Wyness writing in his book “Royal Valley – The Aberdeenshire Dee” (1968) tells us how Christianity came to our valley from three sources –the first early in the 5th century from St Ninian’s monastery at Whithorn: the second a century later from St Moluag’s establishment at Bangor in Northern Ireland; and the third during the 7th century from St Kentigern’s foundation in Glasgow. This chronology is discredited now and it seems unlikely that Christianity made its appearance in Deeside before the 7th century. The period , from the 5th century to about 900 AD has become known as the Dark Ages covering the period from soon after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire to the ravages caused by the Viking incursions into Scotland. The period is dark in two senses. Dark because of the dark deeds that were committed at that time and dark because there is so little real evidence of what went on.

During most of this period, the people living in Deeside were Picts, and part of a Pictish kingdom stretching from Fife northwards as far as Orkney. They lived in hut circles, such as those at Loch Kinord and Tolmauds. They carved the Symbol Stones of which there are so many in Aberdeenshire, eg the Inverurie Pony at The Bass Inverurie, the combined pagan and Christian crosses at the Victory Hall Aboyne (originally from Formaston Church), and at Migvie, and finally those with Christian symbols only as at Kinord. These three types of stones show the clear progression of the beliefs of society in the Aboyne and surrounding area during this period.

About the middle of the 9th century the Pictish kingdom was absorbed by Kenneth MacAlpine’s kingdom of the Scots, and became part of the new nation covering roughly the area of what is now Scotland. By this time the evangelisation of Deeside had proceeded about as far as it was going to.

Out of this Dark Age on Deeside, only traces of evidence of the early Saints survive, a sculptured stone here, a name on a map there. But considering the general lack of written evidence, a lot can be pieced together. Legends survived and were written down later. The Saints’ feast days were celebrated in the Church Calendar. But there was no formal canonization procedure until the early 13th century and the very early saints such as ours achieved their status by popular acclaim .They post- date the two major saints of the early western Church, St Martin of Tours, and St Gregory of Hippo both of which names will have been known to our early Saints when they brought the Gospel to these parts.

The stories I will tell of our local Saints will give as much information as can be gleaned from the sources, much of which is legendary or anecdotal, or contradictory. There are no stories of martyrdom or of miracles as would be expected when a canonisation takes place now. Rather, the local Christian communities came to venerate one who had been of such outstanding holiness that none could doubt of his eternal destiny.

The most difficult area is the dating of the arrival of the different Saints. I have already quoted Fenton Wyness as saying that Christianity first came to Deeside in the early 5th century. Modern scholarship now places this at about a century later. I will not enter into the disputes about dates, except that where dates of death are quoted by recent writers, I will use those dates. As far as possible I will give each Saint’s feast day, recount what purports to be their history, along with any anecdotes which have come down to us, and I will print such photos as I am able to take of sites connected with each Saint, and will give their National Grid References. But I have to say that there are some features which I have been unable to find and others which have needed two visits to locate. I think that many readers will be surprised at how many stone features connected with our Saints there are. I myself was astonished to find that St Ternan’s wheel cross is within ten yards of where I have passed it in Banchory literally hundreds of times in my car without knowing it was there. Other features are hidden in woods, or behind hedges, and will make interesting outings for summer afternoons. Many of our Saints had sites, often a well, venerated through the middle ages, and pilgrimages would visit the well on the Saint’s feast day. Pilgrims still visit holy sites all over Europe so here is a chance, for anyone who wants to, from St Thomas’ or St Kentigern’s, or anywhere else, to make a pilgrimage on a very local and intimate basis to one of our very own very local Saints.