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Saint Duthac: The Birth of a Highland Town

Photo from Scots College

I recently had reason to read through a consultation paper written by Tain Conservation Area Development Trust. This stressed the importance of the town’s patron saint, St Duthac, to the town’s history. The first sentence of the paper is ‘St Duthac is the patron saint of Tain and the origins of modern Tain can be traced back to him.’ Later it says that ‘Tain’s irregular form is unlike most other Scottish Burghs … and owes everything to its medieval origins as a pilgrimage centre.

Although largely hidden from the main street, it is St Duthac’s Church and graveyard that give Tain its purpose and generate the form of the town centre.’

So who was this saint who had such a lasting influence? Well, perhaps part of his appeal was that he was a local lad, born in the area around 1000. While he spent some time in Ireland as an adult, he returned to his native Tain and became famous as a preacher and healer. He must have travelled around as there are dedications to him in Kintail on the West coast and on Orkney. Indeed, when the cathedral in Kirkwall was built, its main side-chapel was dedicated to Duthac. His links with Ireland were maintained and he had the title of Chief Confessor of Ireland and Scotland (Dubtach Albanach). He died in Ireland in 1065, as recorded in the Annals of Ulster. In 1253, Duthac’s remains were returned to Tain and placed in the chapel built over the supposed site of his birth. This became a pilgrimage site and was also regarded as a place of sanctuary. In 1066 King Malcolm III confirmed the status of sanctuary in a Royal Charter. In 1419, Duthac was officially declared a saint of the Church and his remains were transferred to St Duthac’s Church, built for the purpose and which also became a pilgrimage site. The most famous pilgrim was King James IV, who visited Tain every year for the twenty years before his death on Flodden Field in 1513. The importance of St Duthac’s as a pilgrimage site had been officially recognised in 1487 when King James III granted it Collegiate status. This was confirmed in the Papal Bull of 1492, now held in Tain Museum.

At the time of the Reformation in the mid 1500’s pilgrimages went out of fashion and after the parliamentary act of 1560, all Catholic forms of devotion to the saints was banned. St Duthac’s Church was relieved of its stained-glass windows, statues etc, the one exception being a statue of St Duthac which the locals could not bring themselves to destroy.

For the next four centuries, the history of St Duthac was passed down from generation to generation without anything new to add to the story. However our more ecumenical times are writing another chapter in the story. First came the Tain Through Time Museum displaying archive material relating to Tain’s pilgrimage heritage; then the discovery of the only known painting of St Duthac –on a pillar in Cologne Cathedral; then the decision by a group of enthusiasts to re-establish the medieval pilgrimage route between St Duthac’s, Tain and St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall. This is a most timely project as the Church of Scotland just two years ago gave its official approval to pilgrimages and the Episcopal Church declared 2021 ‘the Year of the Pilgrim’. The Northern Pilgrims’ Way follows roads and paths with a wealth of religious history attached to them, stretching from the 7th century to the present day. There is a surprising amount of history available to back-up this route as a bona fide pilgrimage route but it is scattered over various sources and is not as well-known as it should be. The Northern Pilgrims’ Way Group SCIO hope to correct this! For more information, please see where you will also find details of three pilgrimage events planned for May, July and August 2021 – almost certainly to be available on YouTube under the title of ‘Northern Pilgrims’ Way Events’. Please do join us!

Jane Coll | Caithness

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