St Duthac and St Gilbert

Dr Tom Turpie is currently an independent historian having previously taught medieval history at Edinburgh and Stirling. For further discussion of the origins and identity of St Duthac see Tom Turpie ‘Our friend in the north: the origins, evolution and appeal of the cult of St Duthac of Tain in late medieval Scotland’, Scottish Historical Review, 93.1 (2014), 1-28. Accessible online at

March and April saw the feast days of northern Scotland’s premier saints, Duthac of Tain and Gilbert of Dornoch. According to their saintly biographies these were men from very different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The historically attested Gilbert (d.1242) was a member of the de Moravia family. His ancestors were Flemings, placed in Moray and Caithness as part of the extension of Scottish royal power into the north in the twelfth century. Duthac was from same area, but was of different stock. A Gaelic speaker he had studied in Ireland, forming part of the Scoto-Irish intellectual tradition. While documentary evidence allows us to trace the career of Gilbert and provides the date of his death, Duthac is a more shadowy figure. Traditionally the saint has been identified as one ‘Dubthach the Scot’ who died in Armagh in 1065. However, Hector Boece, who published his history of Scotland in 1527, had heard that Duthac had lived and died in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries and had acted as the mentor of Gilbert of Caithness (d.1242). He was not however, entirely convinced by this account, noting that others claimed Duthac had lived long before then.

The thirteenth century date, and the link with Gilbert, was accepted by two post-reformation writers with connections to Easter Ross. John Leslie (d.1596) noted in his 1578 work that Duthac had lived during the reign of William I (1165-1214). David Chambers (d.1592), whose work was published posthumously in 1631, was more precise, noting that the saint had died in 1253. The main sources for Duthac and his career, a petition for his canonisation sent to the papacy in 1418 and the lessons dedicated to the saint in the early sixteenth century Aberdeen Breviary (1510), may have been aware that contrasting traditions regarding the saint were in circulation. Both sources were notably vague as to when exactly Duthac had worked his miracles. Duthac was not a saint from the mists of time like Ninian or Kentigern, so why was there this confusion over his origins?

Surviving early evidence for Duthac and his cult neither fully supports, nor completely rules out, either of these traditions. It is not certain that Duthac was the man who died in Armagh in 1065. The cult that developed at Tain could equally have been based around one of a number of other holy men with the same name recorded in Ireland and Scotland in the early middle ages. The eleventh century chronology was recorded no earlier than 1439. In that year Tain burgh council claimed that their privileges, holding a market and exemption from royal and comital customs, had been granted by Malcolm III (1058-93) in honour of the recently deceased saint. An eleventh-century date therefore proved convenient for the local burgh which had to defend its rights from commercial rivals like Inverness and Dingwall until the town was finally granted official burghal status in 1588. The reason for the connection between Duthac and the thirteenth century, made by Boece, Leslie and Chambers, may have been folk memory of a translation of the relics of the saint from Armagh to Tain in that period, as is suggested by local tradition, or by efforts to promote the cult to a wider audience in the same period.

Discussion of the origins of the saint in the later middle ages was prompted by two remarkable changes in the status of the cult in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Between 1359 and c.1530 this previously local cult spread across the kingdom, with dedications to the saint found in most of the large burgh churches and as far south as Ayr and Kelso. In the latter part of the fifteenth century the saint and his shrine at Tain were also adopted by the royal house, most visibly during the reign of James IV. It was these changes that prompted interest in the saint by later medieval writers and an effort to tie down when exactly he had lived and died. They encountered a saint with an alien sounding name and a local cult in the north that they found suspicious. By connecting Duthac to Gilbert these writers both put a date on his career and, equally importantly, provided this otherwise shadowy northern saint with a firm place within the orthodox Scottish church hierarchy.

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