St Serf of Culross
St Serf of Culross
By Dr Carolyn McNamara
St Serf (or Servanus) is a saint venerated in Scotland with a heavy presence especially in Perth, indicated by the spread of place-names associated with him there. His cult spreads into Fife, towards Stirling, and a bit further afield in places such as East Lothian. He is included in the sixteenth-century Aberdeen Breviary, a Scottish breviary created at the direction of King James IV of Scotland, where his feast day is given as the 1st of July.
Beginning with the Aberdeen Breviary is perhaps the easiest place to start, though you will quickly find that he is not an easy figure to understand. St Serf is noted as a bishop there, and he is claimed to have originated ‘from the race of the Scots’. The Breviary associates St Serf with Palladius, the first bishop sent by Pope Celestine to ‘the Irish believing in Christ’ in the year 432. Miracles of healing and discovering the truth are associated with St Serf in the Breviary, and even resisting questioning by the devil himself and the slaying of a dragon! The only hint we get here of the many threads to untangle is a mention at the end of the entry of ‘another St Serf, an Israelite by race, who at the time of the abbot St Adomnán shone with many miracles in the island of Portmoak; as the deeds done by him are more clearly described in his Life’. A surprise here, perhaps, is the failure to mention Culross or Lochleven as religious sites closely associated with St Serf.
It seems that multiple versions of the Life of St Serf existed, with some conflicting information arising between them. One version is bound in a manuscript alongside Jocelin of Furness’ Life of St Kentigern and may date to the twelfth century or earlier. This Life focuses on St Serf in west Fife, associates him clearly with the foundation at Culross, and places him chronologically around the beginning of the eighth century, a far cry from the time of and location of Palladius. Even more confoundingly, Jocelin’s Life of St Kentigern makes St Serf a contemporary of St Kentigern, giving him a date around 570, and even naming him St Kentigern’s teacher. St Serf’s Life itself gives yet another temporal association, noting that he asked Adomnán for lands for his familia, his religious followers, and was given lands in Fife between the Ochils and the ‘Hill of the Britons’.
If we backtrack a moment here and return to the question of St Serf’s familial origins, we have the Aberdeen Breviary associating him with Gaelic culture (through the reference to the Scoti), while an Irish genealogical tract on ‘The Mothers of the Saints’ notes in some places that St Serf’s father was the king of Canaan in Egypt. The Life of St Serf gives his parents as Obeth, king of Canaan, and Alpia, daughter of the king of Arabia. These are very different claims of origin for our saint. We can see more wild claims associated with St Serf by looking at the work of Andrew de Wyntoun.
Andrew de Wyntoun, prior of St Serf of Lochleven in the early fifteenth century wrote his own history of the saint. In his account, St Serf was elected Pope of Rome after John III (who served as Pope between 561 and 574), while St Serf’s Life only says the see of Rome was vacant when he arrived. We should note that there is no Serf or Servanus, or other similarly named person at this time in the papal lists. In this version of St Serf’s story, he took himself and hundreds of companions by ship to the Firth of Forth, meeting Adomnán at Inchkeith. Wyntoun’s version has the Pictish king Brude giving him the isle of Lochleven rather than Adomnán granting him lands. Both Wyntoun and the Life of St Serf give far more detail about his temptation by the devil than the Aberdeen Breviary does, outlining a series of questions that were answered by the saint. Even the end of St Serf’s life is not free from confusion and disparate stories. St Serf’s Life has his death taking place at Dunning and carried afterwards to Culross, while Wyntoun locates his death at Culross. The Aberdeen Breviary gives no account of his death at all.
So what are we to make of this saint, whose story is so conflicting? We can be absolutely sure of nearly none of the details of his life. Not his origins, when he lived and who he knew or even where his primary religious foundation was. We would expect there to be some evidence of an early foundation at Culross for it to be mentioned in the Life of St Serf, even if it is from the twelfth century, and indeed there are carved stones there which could be of early Christian date. We do know that a Cistercian monastery was founded at Culross by Malcolm earl of Fife in 1217, but the lack of mention of other Cistercian-associated sites in the Life of St Serf indicates this document was not a backwards looking reference trying to create a history for the new foundation. Alan Macquarrie, a noted historian, indicates the presence of ‘an echo in the exploits of Irish saga-heroes’ in the Life of St Serf, and there is a possibility these eastern origins and associations could be metaphoric references to the Easter Controversy, which saw differences in the calculation of Easter coming to a head in the north of Britain in the seventh century. From here we may look at the text itself to give us some idea of the possible truths that sit at the core of St Serf’s story.
There appears to be a heavily Gaelic-influenced core of the Life of St Serf, noted in the forms of place-names used, such as ‘Fif’, ‘Culenros’, ‘Atheren’, Cella Dunenensis’ and others being close to their Gaelic forms. Even people’s names, that of Brude f. Dergard, king of the Picts, and Adomnán’s name given as Edaunanus. The foreign origins are likely fanciful invention or meaningful metaphor rather than fact, and we should more likely believe that St Serf was either of Gaelic origin or perhaps Brythonic, which allows for him to have been Pictish. Associations with Palladius can likewise be set aside more easily than those with St Kentigern or Adomnán. He is not mentioned in Bede, but that is not necessarily a glaring mark against him, and we might comfortably associate him somewhere in the eighth or ninth century.