Sunday, 3 July 2011

Saint Kentigern of Scotland

Saint Kentigern is a Scottish missionary and Saint who founded monasteries and churches in Christ's name.

Kentigern Chief Lord and Royal Saint
Saint Kentigern was born in the year 518 and lived with his mother in the monastery of Culross in Fife. The Celtic meaning of the name Kentigern is: chief lord, and he is certainly a chief saint of Scotland. Kentigern's mother being a Pictish princess, the saint is of royal descent.

Scottish Music: chanters, drums and drones

Kentigern, a Saint of Scotland
June 2012

Birth of Kentigern and Foundation of Glasgow
The most notable historical reference to the saint comes from the Life of Kentigern, written around 1180 by a monk named Jocelyn, of Furness Abbey in Lancashire, England. His account seems to be based on at least one older manuscript written in Gaelic, but no trace of this original text has been found. Jocelyn, who was writing the book on behalf of his namesake, Bishop Jocelyn of Glasgow, took care to incorporate within it the oral accounts stemming from local tradition that had been passed down through the centuries.

In the year 518, a Pictish princess gave birth to Kentigern, the Celtic name meaning: chief lord. Leading up to the child's birth, she had found refuge with a monk named Serf, the abbot who founded the fifth century monastery of Culross in Fife, in central Scotland. Saint Serf provided sanctuary to mother and son within his monastery, and as the lad grew, he educated him in the Christian faith.

As a young man, Kentigern went forth as a missionary to Strathclyde, where he founded a monastery in the place that was to become Glasgow. As was Celtic custom, men, women and children gathered there to be part of the monastic community, and some Christians who inhabited the area asked him to become their bishop.

The name Glasgow is believed to derive from the Celtic Glas Cu, meaning “dear green place”, or possibly “dear family”. The monastery grew into a permanent settlement, one which was destined to become Scotland's largest city. Although it is possible that a settlement already existed before the saint's arrival, he is the earliest known person associated to the name Glasgow.

The Light Spreads from Glasgow
A local chieftain hostile to Christianity obliged Kentigern to leave Strathclyde, and so the abbot departed from his monastery and from his missionary territory, heading south towards Wales. There he made contact with the local Celtic Church and founded a monastery by the River Elwy, in Denbighshire. This monastic centre developed into a town that was to become known by the name of one of Kentigern's disciples, Saint Asaph, in Welsh Llanelwy.

Wherever the saint travelled, he brought with him the spirit of the early Celtic Church, the one form of Christianity that was to unite in a pure and indisputable childlike faith the Celtic peoples of Scotland, Ireland, Cumbria, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. On his pastoral journey between Scotland and Wales, Kentigern stayed in Cumbria, converting many to the Faith of Christ and founding a number of churches.

Kentigern Returns to Strathclyde
Meanwhile, in the Brythonic kingdom of Strathclyde, a new king named Rhydderch Hael, Christian in faith, summoned Kentigern to return to his homeland. Accordingly, the great founder of monasteries and churches returned to his original ecclesiastical foundation, passing again through Cumbria, crossing the lands of Galloway, and reaching Strathclyde. Along his journey, many people turned out to greet him with profound joy.

The year of his return dates back to the second half of the mid 6th century, the period when Saint Columba of Ireland was working from the Scottish island monastery of Iona. Kentigern resumed his missionary work in Strathclyde, travelling among the people, and in course of time established his itinerary bishopric in Glasgow, where he founded a church by the river Molendinar Burn. On the site of this early church now stands the thirteenth century Cathedral.

An Episcopal See Reaching to the People
During his pastoral mission dedicated to Christ, Saint Kentigern and his followers also travelled north to the heartland of the Picts, establishing churches in the province of Mar, the area to the west of Aberdeen. In this region of Scotland, Saints Finan and Nidan, two followers of Kentigern who are believed to have accompanied him from Wales, are also recorded.

Evidence to the presence of saints in a particular area is often found in the form of churches dedicated to their name. This is also the case of those ecclesiastical foundations that hold true to the name of Saint Kentigern and his disciples in central and southern Scotland, in Brythonic Cumbria and in Wales. Thus, where historical accounts may seem to fade into legendary history and ancient folklore, the life of a Celtic saint is written in a myriad of silent words through the presence of an ancient stone building, testifying that the disciple of Jesus once stood there and gathered a multitude of people in the name of the Saviour.

Ancient sources mentioning Kentigern prior to Jocelyn's book have been found in Wales and Ireland, the oldest reference being from the Annals of Wales, which record the saint's death in the year 612. A fragmentary Life of Kentigern, compiled by an anonymous author around 1150 at the request of Bishop Herbert of Glasgow, brings together the many folklore accounts regarding Kentigern's family and the events that led to the saint's birth within Saint Serf's monastery at Culross.

Kentigern was greatly loved, and as a token of this, he received the appellative Mungo, meaning “the dear one”. According to local folklore, the motto of Glasgow has its origins in a sermon preached by Saint Kentigern: “Lord let Glasgow flourish through the preaching of thy word and praising thy name.”

Written by D. Alexander

  • Jocelyn, a monk of Furness Abbey, The Life of Kentigern, 1180.
  • Cynthia Whiddon Green, Saint Kentigern, Apostle to Strathclyde, University of Houston, 1998. 

Read also: Origins of the Scottish Church

Read on: The Early Church in Scotland

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