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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
SAINT DROSTAN IN CAITHNESS
In Caithness are to be found a number of early church dedications to St. Drostan. These are at Westfield, Westerdale, Olrig, Brabster, Canisbay and possibly Ackergill. Who was this saint and what was his connection with the county?
The name Drostan appears in many corrupted forms including Tristan, Trostan, Tustan, Trothan and Tear and it is commemorated in the old Caithness market day of Tustimas (Beaton 1909, 83) or Trothermas which was held as late as 1902 on the fourth Tuesday in November at Olrig (Munro 1981, 15).
It is necessary to attempt to trace the story back to the village of Deer in the Buchan district of Aberdeenshire where now stand the remains of the old Cistercian abbey of Deer, founded in 1219 by William Comyn, Earl of Buchan (Simpson 1964, 1). An earlier religious foundation had existed prior to the founding of the Abbey and it is thought that its most likely position would have been on the same site as the old parish church. According to a gaelic entry written in the Book of Deer in the 12th century this earlier church as founded by Drostan. A translation of the entry is as follows:
"Columcille (Columba) and Drostan mac Cosgreg his pupil came from Hi (Iona) as God had directed them unto Abbordoboir, and Bede the Pict was Mormaer of Burchan before them, and he it was that gave them that town in Freedom for ever from Mormaer and Tosech. They came after that to another town, and it was pleasing to Columcille, because it was full of God's grace, and he asked of the Mormaer, namely Bede, that he should give it to him; but he did not give it, and son of his took an illness due to refusing (the request) of the Clerics and he was about dead. Thereupon the Mormaer went to intreat the Clerics that they should make a prayer for the son that health should come to him, and he gave as offering to them from the (march) stone in Tiprat to the (march) stone of the town of Mac-Garnait. They made the prayer and health came to him. After that Columcille gave to Drostan that town and blessed it and left as word (warning) "Who soever shall come against it, let him not be many yeared (or) victorious." Drostans tears came on parting from Columcille. Said Columcille, "Let Dear be its name henceforward," " (Scott 1909, 112).
Scott (1909) considers that the above statement is incorrect and that St. Columba who died in 597 did not carry out a mission east of Inverness, but that the reference to St. Columba had been mistaken for St. Colm, (or Colum), who had worked alongside St. Drostan in Aberdeenshire. He also puts their date early in the 6th century. Cowan and Easson (1976, 47) however suggest that the Drostan who died at Ardbraccan in 719 could equally well have been the founder of the early religious foundation at Deer. There thus appears to be no certainty to within a period of about two centuries as to the exact date of the time of St. Drostan.
It is interesting, at this point, to speculate upon the origin of the placename Deer, since it may have some relevance later. Johnson (1972, 154) gives it as Dear in the Book of Deer before 1150, so called because of the tears shed here at the parting of St. Columba with his friend Drostan who founded the Abbey here. An alternative derivation he gives as coming from the gaelic 'diore', a forest, or possibly an oak wood. This will be referred to again later in connection with the site at Ackergill in Caithness.
St. Drostan had a foundation at Aberdour on the Buchan coast which probably preceded that at Deer. From this part of the Buchan coast he would have been able to see the hills of Morven and the Scarabens in Caithness across the water of the Moray Firth. This may have tempted him to sail across the Firth and along the east coast of Caithness and land in the county. This would certainly have been the easiest route to have taken rather than by land which would, at that time, have involved traversing very rough and hilly country. Where he landed is unknown but he would almost certainly have had to sail as far north as either Sinclair or Freswick bay before finding a suitable landing place.
Perhaps he may have landed in Sinclair bay because close by the shore at Ackergill (ND 367545) are the overgrown footings of a building measuring 11.2m x 6.6m said to be the remains of a chapel dedicated to St. Drostan. It appears as a rectangular hollow in the ground. There is evidence of walling at the east end, near to the small burn which flows past it to the cliff edge where it is about 0.7m high. This is also known as the chapel of St. Tear (Tayr, Tay, Ere, Aire). Bishop Forbes visited this chapel in 1762 and gives the following account.
"....we came to the Ruines of a very singular little Chapel of stone and mortar without any lime and without windows either in the East or West gable, all the windows being in the South wall. It is called the chapel of St. Tear, and the country people to this very day assemble here in the morning of the feast of Holy Innocents and say their prayers bringing their offerings along with them, some bread, other bread and cheese, others meat etc. and putting these into the holes in the walls. In the afternoon they get music - a Piper and Fiddler - and dance on the green where the chapel stands. The roof is off, but the walls are almost entire. 0ne of the late presbyterian preachers of Wick thought to have abolished this old practice, and for that end appointed a diet of catechising in that corner of the parish upon the day of the Holy innocents but not one attended him; all went, as usual, to St. Tears chapel. I saw the font-stone for baptism lying on the green at the East end of the chapel." (Forbes 1762, 211).
Writing in 1840, the Rev. James 0liphant relates that the above custom was still within living memory.
Muir (1885, 113) writing some hundred years later than Bishop Forbes states that nothing then remained of the building.
The connection between St. Tear and Drostan is not immediately obvious, but just as the D in Drostan sometimes becomes a T, as in Trostan, the name Tear may be a corruption of Deer which was the place of Drostan's earlier foundation in Buchan. Thus the Kirk o' Tear at Ackergill may be St. Drostan's original foundation in Caithness and in fact be Kirk o' Deer.
Scott (1909, 123) suggests that on coming to Caithness, St. Drostan brought his associates St. Fergus, St. Colm (Colum) and St. Moddan (Modan, Medan, Madden) with him also. Dedications to these saints are found throughout the county.
If St. Moddan sailed with him, he may have set up his first foundation at Freswick not far from that of St. Drostan at Ackergill. Here there is an early chapel site dedicated to St. Moddan (ND 376671) and, furthermore, not far away again at Brabstermire (ND 317694) is another chapel site dedicated to St. Drostan. The Rev. John Morison, writing in the Old Statistical Account (Sinclair 1791, 156) oh the Parish of Canisbay refers to
"three popish chapels mouldering into desolation in the parish, one at Freswick, another at Brabster, and a third at St. John's Head. Some superstitious rites, now in total disuse, were wont to be performed, by the ignorant vulgar, on particular days, at the sanctified ruins".
There is a further reference to a customary rite performed at the chapel at Freswick.
"Another of these chapels stood close by the house of Freswick, in the parish of Canisbay. It was dedicated to St. Moddan, and even so late as the beginning of present century devotees were in the habit of resorting to it on Candlemas day and exhibiting proof of the most abject superstition. They first crept round the walls of the chapel on their bare knees, each muttering some petition to the saint, and then going to the neighbouring burn, threw handfuls of water over their heads. After performing this latter part of the ceremony they adjourned to the nearest ale-house and got drunk!" (Calder 1887, 97).
The Inventory of Caithness (RCAHMS 1911) sites the chapel of St. Drostan on the west side of the road to the NW of Brabstermire House. When excavated it revealed a small building of the chancelled type. There is now nothing to be seen, but Beaton (1909, 49) states that the walls were four feet thick, dry built and plastered over with shell lime on the inside. He gives the dimensions of the nave as being 19ft x 11ft and that of the chancel as 8ft x 8ft. The baptismal font was at this time at Brabster House.
To the north of Brabstermire is the present parish church of Canisbay at Kirkstyle (ND 343724). This is one of the two pre-Reformation churches still in use in the county. The other being at Dunnet. The present church of Canisbay is said to have been built on the site of an earlier church dedicated to St. Drostan. To the north of the present church is marked on the large scale map a small group of rocks off the coast with the name 'Papel' which may indicate an early church connection.
In the parish of Olrig are the roofless remains of the old church of St. Trothan (ND 186671). This may be built on an earlier site of 'Seipel Trosten', as it was known locally by gaelic speakers, or the 'Chapel of Drostan'. An early font stands by the entrance to the burial ground in which lies a slab with a rectangular hole cut out in it. This was probably a socket for the support of a cross.
At Westfield in the parish of Halkirk is a burial ground (ND 066641) which is still known as St. Trostan's. An oval-shaped stone font is built into the south east wall. According to tradition it always contains water and never becomes dry. It is said to weep tears which again may be a reference to Deer. The exact site of the chapel, again known as 'Seipel Trostan", is not certain. According to Beaton (1909, 58) it is situated to the east of the burial ground on the opposite side of the channel which drains the Loch of Westfield. There are stones here but their form is uncertain.
Some 500m south east of the farm of Balantsionnach, near the corner of a field, is a slightly elevated mound of rough grass (ND 127524) around which the land has been ploughed. This is said to mark the site of St. Trostan's chapel. There are a few stones showing above the ground but it is not possible to determine the outline of a building. A little further to the north west is St. Trostan's well. On the opposite side of the river is a small burial ground known as the Aisle.
Much is unknown about St. Drostan and of his exact period, but there are six known early chapel dedications to him. Whether or not he was the first Christian missionary to come into Caithness we do not know, but perhaps because of his strong associations with the county he should be regarded as the patron saint of Caithness.