Monday, 16 January 2012

Saint Fillan

January 19th sees the feast day of a Celtic Missionary associated with the area, Saint Fillan...

After the victory of the Christian forces at the epic Battle of Arderryd, the growth of Christianity continued unabated in Scotland. The Celtic saints played a great part in this, Saint Columba having unified the many disjointed missions into a whole. For the next 150 years, the Christian word carried to the furthest reaches of Scotland. It was against this background that St. Fillan arrived in this country, some time around the early 700s.

Fillan, whose name literally translates as ‘wolf cub’ was born to Federach, a prince of the race of Fiatach Finn, and Kentigerna, a princess of Ulster. As the legend has it, he was born with a stone in his mouth. Federach saw this as a sign that this child was a curse to him, and threw him into a lake. However, Fillan was kept safe by angels, who watched over the child until he was discovered by Bishop Ibar. The Bishop raised him as his own child, in the Christian faith. Kentigerna kept a distant but watchful eye on her son, and was thankful to Ibar and his monks for caring for her son. Fillan’s mother, too, would later become a missionary.

When Fillan landed on our shores, his mother and cousin Comgan accompanied him, they first settled in Lochalsh, in Wester Ross; later Fillan would travel to Glen Dochart, his mother retiring to Inch Cailleach, ‘The Nun’s Isle’, on Loch Lomond, where she died in 734 A.D.

The Exploits of St. Fillan
To this day, stories are rife of Fillan’s trials and adventures during the years when he was founding his missions. One such famous tale tells of a wolf who attacked and killed one of Fillan’s oxen while he was ploughing his fields; the wolf subsequently returned and allowed himself to be yoked. The animal would go on to aid Fillan in his ploughing, and help him build his priory. This tale is seen by some as an allegory for Fillan ‘taming’ the wilder elements of ancient Celtic culture.

Another legendary tale speaks of Fillan’s battle against a fearsome boar in Killin. Fillan arrived there having parted company with St. Columba’s biographer, Adoman, at Tyndrum, only to hear the town’s tales of woe concerning this hideous beast, said to have ‘tusks the size of plough shares.’ Fillan set off into the forests to hunt down the boar, accompanied by his dog Dileas. Finding the enormous creature three days later, rooting beneath a rowan tree, Fillan held onto his simple wooden club as the boar turned on him and charged. Fillan brought the club down on the monster’s head, killing it with one blow.

Tales of saints killing great beasts are far from uncommon; it is said that St.Columba defeated a mighty boar on Skye in a similar legend. These stories, true or not, play a part in idealising the saint figure, making him almost Godlike, and ensuring that his name will carry on through history; such is the Ossianic tradition of the hero in Celtic culture.

The focal point of St. Fillan’s labours in Scotland appears to have been Strathfillan in Perthshire, where a long stone known as St. Fillan’s seat still remains. Nearby in a mill thought to have been built by the saint, seven holy stones, believed to have healing powers, are still preserved to this day. Strathfillan is not the only site with strong links to the saint, and during his many travails throughout the country he seems to have founded churches in both Skelmorlie and, more importantly, in Kilallan, near Kilmacolm.

The name itself seems to be a corruption of Killfillan, i.e. Cella Fillani - the Cell of Saint Fillan. Here, on the Kilmacolm road to Houston, stand the ruins of a medieval church said to have been established by the saint during a long period of labour in the area. Nearby, a large stone with a hollow in the middle is also remembered as St. Fillan’s Seat, the place where he is thought to have preached to a small number of followers. Such frequent and personal references to the saint certainly attest to the significance and impact of his work in the region.

However, the most famous shrine with a connection to the saint is St. Fillan’s Well, a stone’s throw from Fillan’s Seat in Kilallan. Here, under a rock, shaded by overhanging bushes, it is said that countrywomen would bring their weak and sickly children to be healed by the holy waters, leaving a small keepsake or offering hanging from the bushes. A similar practice was followed at Fillan’s well in Skelmorlie; the plethora of wells associated with Fillan testifies to his reputation as a healer. In Kilallan, pilgrimages to the well went on until the end of the 1600s when the local minister, one Mr. Hutcheson, had the well filled with stones. Fillan’s feast day was still celebrated with a fair on the same day for many years to follow, and in the nearby village of Houston the parish church still bears his name, as does the episcopal church in Kilmacolm. There are loads of great images of the church here at Derelict Places.

St. Fillan’s death is recorded on the 9th of January 777 (this, of course, is a date on the Julian calendar; on the Gregorian calendar, Fillan’s death is marked as the 19th of January).

Fillan’s followers preserve many relics associated with the saint; the most famous of these is the Mayne, the arm-bone of Fillan, which was kept in a silver case after his death. Such is the significance of this object that King Robert the Bruce requested it to be brought to him on the eve of the Battle of Bannockburn; however, the keeper in charge of the relic feared it would be damaged or lost, and brought the Bruce an empty case. As the king meditated over the case, praying for guidance during the coming battle, a mighty crack was heard from the silver box, and when opened it revealed the Mayne. The keeper, dumbfounded, admitted that he had not brought the bone with him. Whatever the truth of this story, the bone was undoubtedly carried into battle the next day, and the story may well have inspired the Scots to new bravery in this battle which liberated Scotland from the English rule.

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