Following in the Footsteps of Scotland’s Saints

You don’t have to go far before you encounter a saint in Scotland. Indeed, it is believed that some 750 saints are commemorated in 13,000 place names in Scotland.

I live in the Scottish coastal town of North Berwick which has many saintly connections. For hundreds of years, thousands of pilgrims took a ferry across the Firth of Forth to reach Fife where they would then walk to St Andrews where the bones of one of Christ’s disciples lay in a magnificent cathedral. Before travelling they could worship in St Andrews church by the harbour but as you will find out later in this book it came to a dramatic end in a storm linked to the notorious activities of witches.

Just down the road from me is St Baldred’s church, which is named after a monk who established a monastery in nearby Tyninghame. St Baldred who, like many saints, much preferred to be a hermit, is said to have died on Bass Rock, a former volcanic rock a mile off the coast of North Berwick.

Bass Rock. Image by Alasdair Nothrop

Another large hill formed from volcanic activity nearby is Traprain Law which is associated St Mungo. His grandfather King Loth ruled from a large settlement on Traprain Law and is said to have tried to have killed Mungo’s mother by pushing her off one of its steep sides when he found out she was pregnant.  She survived and gave birth to one of the patron saint of Glasgow.

The neighbouring town of Dunbar is one of the locations said to be the birthplace of one of Britain’s most important saints, Cuthbert, who for 500 years, was a major figure in the English church and his tomb at Durham Cathedral can still be visited.


So, what is a saint and why should you be interested in following in their footsteps?

The first official ‘saint’ – St Ulrig of Augsburg – was canonised in 993 just 20 years after his death by the Roman Catholic church and it is then Pope John XV but the term had been used long before that. Christ’s disciples, Peter, James and Andrew, were among the first saints and they were all said to have met violent ends. They were called saints because they had given up their own lives for their faiths.

Perhaps, above all, saints spread Christianity across the world.

In the case of Scotland, it is argued by some that Scottish saints brought Christianity to northern England and to Ireland as well as their home country. St Ninian is said to have first introduced Christianity in the fifth century. Intriguingly St Patrick, who converted the Irish to Christianity, is said by some sources to have been born in Kirkpatrick near Glasgow – the son of a Roman official.

Iona from its highest point. Image by Alasdair Northrop

The following century St Columba came from what is now Northern Ireland to convert the pagan Scots to the growing faith. St Columba founded a monastery on the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland which became a breeding ground for more saints such as Aidan who established Christianity in Northumberland in north east England centred on Lindisfarne.

Lisdisfarne Abbey. Iona from its highest point. Image by Alasdair Northrop

Saints were also associated with miracles and today the catholic church still creates saints under the proviso the person to be canonised has met that criteria. One of the most recent saints associated with Scotland is Mary McKillop, whose parents Alexander MacKillop and Flora MacDonald emigrated to Australia where she was born. Mary became a nun and established schools right across Australia during the 19th century and was canonised in 2012 becoming the country’s first saint.

Another is the Jesuit St John Ogilvie who was brutally executed in Glasgow in 1615 after celebrating Mass clandestinely in private homes after it became illegal to do so. He was canonised in 1976.

Having the bones of a major saint like St Andrew made Scotland a key destination for pilgrims from not just the British isles but also continental Europe. Pilgrims visited the relics of saints for a variety of reasons. Some hoped they would hopefully be miraculously cured of illnesses, others hope they would be expiated for a crime or they simply wanted to get closer to God and deepen their faith.

St Cuthbert being carried. Image by Alasdair Northrop

Today you can follow in the footsteps of the saints as a pilgrim – Iona is one of the most popular places – or simply as someone who enjoys beautiful landscapes as well as history and story-telling. There are a number of long distance footpaths you can follow including the 62 mile long St Cuthberts Way from Melrose to Lindisfarne and a number of new routes are being developed.

Iona Abbey. Image by Alasdair Northrop

On March 15, at 7:30 pm, I will be doing a virtual tour called Following in the Footsteps of Saints and I would be delighted if you could join me. For more information go to the event link here!


Featured image: On the left, painting of St Andrews by Artus Wolffort (public domain); in the center, St Cuthbert discovers piece of timber (digital image provided by British Library, no copyright); On the right, Stained glass windows in Bute Hall, University of Glasgow, of St Mungo (image by Vysotsky, under license CC BY-SA 4.0).


About the author:

Alasdair Northrop is a Scottish Blue Badge tourist guide and qualified in 2014. He does a variety of work ranging from driver guiding to walking tours and a wide range of interests. Before becoming a guide, Alasdair was an award winning journalist and edited Scotland’s national business magazine for 15 years. He recently wrote the history of the Scottish Tourist Guides Association which is available as an ebook on Amazon.  You can find more about Alasdair on his Guild profile or on his website