The Lives of the Scottish Saints

Written by SBT Admin On the
Bestselling author and Scottish Book Trust patron.

The Lives of the Scottish Saints by Alexander McCall Smith

Later hagiographies tell us little of the life of Saint Jock of Carrick, an early Scottish saint and follower of the better-known Saint Ninian, who established his church in Whithorn at the end of the fourth century. But there is much of interest in the life of this saint, whose birth, or indeed death, is regrettably recognised in none of the current calendars of saints’ days. Only here and there is he remembered; for the most part he is forgotten. Saint Jock’s father was a boatman who plied his trade between the shore of Carrick, in present-day Kirkcudbrightshire, and the Isles of Fleet. These islands are today virtually uninhabited, although the foundations of one or two simple houses can still be made out, rough outlines, a few fragments of stone protruding from the thin soil, the skeletons of long-past habitation. In the days of Saint Jock, though, there were thriving communities on these islands, supported by the abundant fish that teemed in the shallow waters of the Solway Firth and the Irish Sea. Saint Jock and his father lived in a small house in what is now the parish of Borgue. The wife and mother, whose name is not recorded by history, perished in a storm which brought trees crashing down upon their roof. The saint was at that time only five years old, but in the Chronicles of the Early Scottish Church it is said that he wasted no time in mourning the loss of his parent but devoted himself to the care of neighbouring children who had lost both father and mother in the catastrophe. “Such were the qualities of this saint,” the chronicler wrote, “that any misfortune of his own only brought forth from his lips the observation that there were others whose misfortunes were greater.” When Saint Jock was twelve, his father’s boat was overturned by a large wave and he was drowned, along with two sheep he had been carrying from one of the islands. Saint Jock, it was said, buried him himself, and made a cairn to mark the grave. “Each stone of this cairn is one of my tears,” he is reported as having said. Now alone, and living in the remnants of the family home, he made a living tending cattle and making cheese which he sold throughout the area. At the age of sixteen, Saint Jock met Saint Senga, the daughter of a man with large holdings of land on the banks of the Fleet. Her father was initially unwilling to give his blessing to the friendship which quickly grew up between the pair, and he sent men in boats to set fire to Saint Jock’s house. Fortunately Saint Jock was away from home when the attack took place, but he returned to find his livestock slaughtered and his house a smoking ruin. Once again our knowledge of his reaction is derived from his anonymous chronicler, who wrote: “Saint Jock did not rant, neither did he call down vengeance on the heads of those who had wrought this damage. Rather, he immediately forgave them, shouting out into the wind that he hoped that their crossing home would be a safe one.” In spite of this discouragement, Saint Jock continued to see Saint Senga. They met on the banks of the Water of Fleet, away from prying eyes, and exchanged small gifts that each had made for the other: pieces of driftwood which Saint Jock had carved into shapes to amuse Saint Senga – an otter, sleek and polished, knots in the wood its eyes, a kelpie, with a mane woven of dried sea-weed, a small pot into which flowers might be put; and for her part, she gave him flowers that she had picked on the machair and dried in tiny bunches, the feathers of an eagle, a cloth that she had worked on her own loom, freshly-laid eggs from her father’s geese. That was in the summer. The winter was hard, and it was difficult for the two young people to see one another. Saint Jock, who had been taught to read and write at Whithorn, might have sent Saint Senga letters, but she could not read, and so he sent her small drawings on patches of home-made vellum, pictograms really, which told her of his life in the darkness of winter. There was a picture of a cow with its breath a white cloud, signifying the cold he and his livestock were feeling. There was a picture of the sun, etched bright yellow into the vellum with a dye he obtained from moss; that was to remind her that summer would return, and then they would be able to meet again on the banks of the Fleet. The following spring an attempt was made on the life of Saint Senga’s father by a suitor of her sister. This sort of thing was common in Scotland, and remained so for many years, but it made the father reconsider his attitude to Saint Jock. It was pointed out to him that having a saint as a son-in-law would almost certainly preclude that sort of ill-mannered conduct, and so he agreed to the union to the two young lovers. This took place at a ceremony at the start of summer, and in the night large bonfires were lit which some claimed were seen across the sea in Ireland. Saint Senga moved from her father’s house to Saint Jock’s house at Carrick. As a wedding gift, her father had his men construct an extension to the young couple’s house, in which were placed three small rocking cradles, carved of oak and decorated with Celtic whirls and circles. On one of these, the cradle intended for the first-born, Saint Jock requested that an additional carving be made: a sheep in the company of a wolf, signifying harmony and the power of goodness to overcome the atavism of our nature. These cradles were soon filled. Saint Senga gave birth later that year to Saint Fergus, and this was followed in due course by the birth of Saint Elspeth and Saint Rognvald. The three children were bright-eyed; two of them were musically gifted – Saint Rognvald was a fine piper – and all of them were considerate and saintly in their ways. Saint Senga surveyed them playing on the machair in front of their house, while she worked at a tapestry depicting the good fortune and happiness of their domestic life. While she was engaged in this, Saint Jock looked after the cattle and carried his message of love and concord into neighbouring, somewhat ruder areas of the country. He was always well received and returned to the bosom of his family with gifts of smoked venison and cured fish which the people he met pressed upon him. While her husband was away, Saint Senga was comforted by the company of her three children and by that of a holy cat which she had acquired shortly after their marriage. This cat, who was the object of a cult of veneration all along the shores in those parts, had shown its holiness at an early age when instead of preying upon birds, as other cats will, it brought them small offerings of food, ears of wheat which it carried in its mouth and then dropped below the branches on which the birds were perched. In the fullness of time, these birds became so trusting of this holy cat that they would fly down from the trees and perch on its back. It was a curious sight seeing this cat walking along a path with a small line of birds perched upon its back, but it was a spectacle that reminded the people of those parts just how saintly was the home of Saint Jock and Saint Senga, and how strong was the spirit of goodwill and kindness that it might penetrate the heart even of a cat, and transform the life of that creature. Some twenty years after their marriage, Saint Jock and Saint Senga died. They went within a few days of one another, Saint Senga first, and then, his heart broken, but still filled with faith, Saint Jock. Saint Fergus, Saint Elspeth and Saint Rognvald saw them to their rest, in the company of a great crowd of people who had walked many miles to pay tribute to these much-loved people. Saint Fergus made a cairn to mark the place where the two saints were buried, and he said, “Each stone of this cairn is one of my tears.” We might all of us wish that our lives were thus, especially in these dark times, with all the doubts and fears that make up the background against which we spend our days. We are, we suspect, at the end of something; these people sensed that they were at the beginning.

 

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