Sunday, April 16, 2017

‘St Brigid and St Bride in Scotland’ by Heather Upfield

My thanks to Heather Upfield for the following article, in which she shares her understanding of St. Bride of Scotland, and for her patience and sense of humour in dealing with my comments along the way. I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I have. (And my apologies for being unable to tame the formatting madness that is Blogger.)

While St Brigid of Ireland is well known throughout the World, far less is known about her presence and influence in Scotland. Indeed, many Scots themselves are unaware of this Saint’s impact on their shores. For the past ten years, I have been researching Bridie in Scotland both recording the hundreds of sites dedicated to her and learning more about the mythology which surrounds her.

One of the most significant facts surrounding St Brigid’s crossing of the Irish Sea to what is now known as Great Britain, back in the 5th Century, is that she became known as St Bride in England and Scotland, and frequently St Ffraid in Wales. Her presence in Glastonbury in England, in AD 488 resulted in a chapel she built on Bride’s Mound on the edges of the town. St Bride’s, a famous Church in Fleet Street in London (rebuilt by Wren after the Great Fire of London), has its foundations in a pre-Mediaeval church dedicated to St Bride, beside a holy well. In Wales there is the famous St Bride’s Bay on the west coast.

In Scotland, it is thought that St Brigid arrived at the town of Kilbride (now known as West Kilbride in North Ayrshire) around AD 500, having sailed from Ireland, northwards towards the Isle of Arran. The distance between Ireland and Arran is negligible - on a clear day, it is possible to see the north coast of Ireland while standing on the southern-most beach of Arran. At a time when waterways and the sea were the prime method of transport, it makes it highly likely that this journey would have been something like routine.

Having arrived in West Kilbride, south west of Glasgow, (close to where I live) she founded small monastic communities along the south west coast of Scotland: one on the Isle of Little Cumbrae another on the mainland coast at Southannan, (at the foot of Diamond Hill south of Fairlie Station), and another at Chapelton, (south of Seamill, opposite Limpet Craig). It is likely there were others!

We have to remember, that these settlements were not grand, stone-built monasteries, the like of which appeared during the 11th and 12th centuries, but simple wooden churches within a group of wooden dwellings for adherents. Likewise, St Bride would have not have been dressed in the classic habit and wimple of the Mediaeval nun - she would have been wearing the simple clothing of the day - as illustrated in the Church window from the High Kirk of St Bride in Brodick, Isle of Arran (above). In this window, she is depicted with her guardian wolf and the goose which symbolises the beginning and end of winter. The bottom light depicts St Bride with her boar. The Feast Day of St Bride is 1 February, and her flowers are the snowdrops. She is known as The Great Shepherdess and like the Irish St Brigid, is associated with cows and sheep. There are many prayers in the Highlands of Scotland surrounding Bride and the guardianship of the livestock.

It is believed that St Brigid of Ireland was invited to Abernethy in Perthshire, Scotland, by King Nechtan Mor, King of Dalriada. Abernethy claims that she died there and was buried in the churchyard, before her body was taken back to Kildare at a later date. Another story is that she died on the Isle of Little Cumbrae and was buried there in the Priest’s Grave.

In all respects, St Bride, as she is known in Scotland, is just a different spelling and pronunciation of St Brigid of Ireland. However, the story of St Bride in Scotland becomes more interesting, as there is yet another thread in the story. This is the lustrous and enigmatic St Bride of the Isles. If St Brigid/St Bride was generally a pastoral Saint, St Bride of the Isles is largely a maritime Saint.
In the seas surrounding mainland Scotland are around 790 islands. The most well-known are the Orkney Isles, Shetland Isles, the Outer Hebrides and the Inner Hebrides. It is the Hebridean Islands where the story of St Bride of the Isles begins.

Despite official derivation showing otherwise, ‘The Hebrides’ are popularly known as ‘The Brides’ or ‘Bride’s Isles’. According to local legend, she arrived on the shores of South Uist with an Oystercatcher on each wrist. The Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) is a black and white shoreline bird, with a very distinctive call. In the Ghaidlíg (the Scots form of Gaelic), the bird is known as Gille-Bhrìde, which means ‘Servant of Bride’. In the mythology, it is said that St Bride of the Isles was being pursued along the beach by villains, when she could go no further and fell down on the sand. As she was preparing to meet her Maker, Oystercatchers on the shore noticed her plight and gently covered her with seaweed, to hide her from her pursuers. After the men had left, St Bride blessed the Oystercatcher for ever more, above all other birds.  Its plaintive call is said to be ‘Bhride Bhride Bhride’. Thus it is that along with the cow and sheep, the most potent symbol of St Bride of the Isles is the Oystercatcher. 


In the mythology, St Bride is carried from the Isle of Iona, in the Inner Hebrides, to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, to be mid-wife to Mary at the birth of Jesus. In the Ghaidlíg, she was known as ‘Ban-Chuideachaidh Muire’ ‘knee woman of Mary’, as in the Hebrides, women gave birth on one knee.  Not only is she present at the birth of Jesus, but she also takes on the role of the Foster mother of Jesus - ‘Muime Chroisd’. In the Hebridean tradition, a Foster mother was considered more important than a natural mother. They took the view that any woman could become a mother - and be good or indifferent or bad. But the Foster mother took on the rearing of a child who was not her own, and this gave her greater status. In the eyes of the Hebrideans, therefore, St Bride is more important than St Mary and it is she who is considered the true Mary of the Gaels. A Hebridean prayer during labour was ‘Bride, Bride, Come in. Thy welcome is truly made. Give thou relief to the woman and give thou the conception to the Trinity’.

Following the Nativity, the Church celebrates Candlemas forty days after Christmas. St Bride is closely connected to this Festival. When Mary and Joseph carried the infant Jesus to the Temple, St Bride walked ahead of them. She wore a crown of candles and held a lighted candle in each hand. The flames stayed completely still and were not moved by the wind. In some traditions, Candlemas is known as Feast Day of St Bride of the Candles, and she herself is known as St Bride of Brightness.  The legend of the flames also corresponds with what we know of Oimelc (or Imbolc) as a Fire Festival. 


Is this the same St Bride as St Brigid? We will never know the origins of St Bride of the Isles, whether she has a much older lineage, or whether the stories of St Brigid were reinterpreted for the people of the Islands. Kathy Jones and Brian Wright in their respective books on the Goddess, place St Bride/St Brigid as antecedents of the Ancient British Goddess Brighid (also known as Brigit-Ana, or Britannia). It is likely that St Bride of the Isles is also part of this continuum. Sir James Frazer, an anthropologist, in his book on Comparative Religion entitled The Golden Bough (1890), described St Bride of the Isles as ‘The Goddess in a threadbare Christian Cloak’.

Certainly, the mythology and legend surrounding St Bride of the Isles leads one to imagine an older Goddess related history. This is apparent in the story of the battle between St Bride and the Cailleach, which has obvious parallels with the Underworld story of Persephone and Demeter.

The Cailleach is the Old Storm Woman of the Scottish Mountains, who governs winter, and is the enemy of growth. The legend goes, that on the first of November, after a struggle, St Bride is overpowered by the Cailleach, who imprisons her in Ben Nevis - Scotland’s highest mountain. The weather changes: Atlantic storms roar across the land, plants die and growth ceases.  But help is at hand!  After three months of hardship, at the end of January, Aengas of the White Steed dreams of Bride.  He rides his horse across the sea and rescues her from the mountain, on February the First. Spring bursts into flower with the snowdrops and growth is restored to the land.

St Bride of the Isles was associated with the fishing fleets on the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides and is present in milking songs, herding blessings and churn incantations. She is known as The Golden Haired Bride of the Kine. In Kildrummy in north east Scotland, there is a St Bride well to cure cattle diseases. On the Eve of St Bride’s Day, the custom was for the women and girls to make Bridie Dolls from stalks of corn. The dolls would be dressed in white, and adorned with shells and beads. A sparkling bead would be sewn over her heart to represent the Guiding Star of Bride over the Bethlehem stable. The dolls were associated with blessing of the fields and the promise of good crops. Like Brigid, she is also known as St Bride of the Mantle - ‘Bride-nam-Brat’ - but in the Hebridean tradition she hangs her mantle on the sun. In addition to the snowdrop, her flowers are the dandelion and the daisy, both of which represent the sun. The dandelion was especially revered, as its stems produce milk. It was known as ‘Bearnan Bride’ - ‘little notched flower of Bride’. In the Highlands, there was a saying ‘the plant of Bride nourishes with its milk the early lamb’.

Whether we are referencing St Brigid, St Bride or St Bride of the Isles, more substantial stone chapels were eventually built, from around the 10th century. They were usually rectangular, about 12’ x 8’, comprising two chambers. In my research into St Bride in Scotland, I have identified over ninety such Chapels which were dedicated to her, across the length and breadth of mainland Scotland and throughout the islands, up into the Orkney Isles. In the main, these Chapels are known as ‘Kilbride’. The prefix ‘Kil’ comes from the Ghaidlíg ‘Ceal’ meaning ‘Church’ and is a common place name - as in Kilmichael, Kilbride, Kilmarnock and Kildare etc. From the Norse, we get the prefix ‘Kirk’ - again meaning ‘Church’ - so there are a number of Kirkbrides as well.

St Bride of the Isles on the shore, with a lamb., Window and detail, in Holy Trinity Scottish Episcopal Church, Stirling.

The Protestant Reformation in Scotland in the 16th Century wiped out most of these Chapels, and now they are ruins, or a few blocks of stone in a field or merely bumps in the ground. There are, however, thirty living and consecrated Churches in Scotland which are dedicated either to St Bride or St Brigid. Some have their foundations in much earlier chapels from the Mediaeval period and are generally St Bride churches, while others were built during the 19th century, in response to immigrants from Ireland needing a place to worship. In general these are St Brigid churches.

With St Bride of the Isles being associated closely with the sea, there are a number of sea and coastal features dedicated to her, for example: ‘Sloc a’ Brighide’ - Deep of Bride - off the Isle of Lismore; Kilbride Bay - close to Tighnabruaich; ‘St Bride’s Ness’ - Headland of Bride - Isle of North Ronaldsay in the Orkney Isles; ‘Rubha Bhride’ - Bride’s Point - Isle of Jura; and ‘A’Bhrideanach’ - Bride’s Point - Isle of Rum - to name just a few.

In addition to the Hebrides being taken collectively to mean Bride’s Isles, a number of little individual islands are also dedicated to her, for example: ‘Eilean Bhride’ off the south coast of the Isle of Islay and ‘Kilbride Island’ in Loch Fyne. Generally, St Bride of the Isles is thought to embrace all the islands of Scotland. Scattered across the landscape of mainland Scotland and the Isles are thirty-eight farms and steadings named ‘Kilbride’, ten rivers named after Bride, nine hills, and twenty-four St Bride Holy Wells. There is even a Kilbryde Castle! It is possible that these Bridie sites were originally connected with Brighid. Indeed, the remains of Balbridie (‘little town of Bride’ - a pre-historic settlement near Banchory in east Scotland) have been dated to around 3600 BC.

At one time in Scotland’s history, St Bride/St Brigid, or St Bride of the Isles had tremendous influence in Scotland. How much of her life is enshrined in myth and legend and how much is ‘real’ we may never know. For me she has been truly inspirational both as Goddess and Saint. I continue to research sites dedicated to her and honour her in the changing of the seasons and the flowering of the land. Bridie Blessings to all from Caledonia.

Brighid, St Brigid, St Bride, St Bride of the Isles and Scotland’ 
©Heather Upfield,, 16 April 2017.

No comments: