Exploring Cowal, whether on foot or poring over a map on your kitchen table, you can’t help but be struck by the density of saints commemorated in the landscape by place-names. Many names begin with Kil-, from Gaelic cill ‘church, chapel’, and these almost always finish with a saint’s name. They tell us two things: first that there was once a church at or near the place where the name appears, and secondly they tells us which saints attracted the attention of the people of medieval Cowal.
Some of these saints are biblical, such as Kilmorie ‘church of [St] Mary’, or Kilmichael ‘church of [St Michael]. But most of the saints commemorated are saints from the early Gaelic-speaking church – what some people call (albeit problematically) the ‘Celtic church’. We have saints such as Munnu, Modan, Mo-Laisse, Finan, Muireadhach, Brigit (in at least four different places), and the mysterious ‘Three Holy Brethren’, whoever they were.
From a historian’s point of view there are all kinds of interesting things to note about saints and the distribution of their cults in the landscape. St Munnu’s cult is strong in Argyll, appearing in no less than six different places, but it appears nowhere else in Scotland. Why is that? And absences may also be significant. Though St Columba has dedications in great numbers all over medieval Scotland, he has not a single one in Cowal. Was there some tension between Iona and the Cowal folk which made Columba less popular here?
But these are questions for the historian. From the pilgrim’s point of view the saints commemorated in Cowal remind us that ‘we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses’ (Heb. 21:1). They are men and women whose lives were icons of the Kingdom where justice and peace embrace (Ps. 85:10), So we celebrate their memory, along with innumerable generations of our fathers and mothers who also celebrated them here in the Gàidhealtachd. Our prayers and theirs are joined together, for we hope for what they hoped for.
But we can also learn from them. Some of these saints left writings of their own which survive – people like Patrick and Adomnán stand out. For other saints we don’t have writings by them, but we have writings about them: poetry, prayers, and stories about their lives. There is much to learn from them too.