Saint Balthere (Baldred of the Bass) 3 : Saints of the Forth

Balthere is a saint of the sea and the coastlands of East Lothian and this post will concentrate on the saint’s places, beginning with the most dramatic. In Alcuin’s poem the Bass Rock, in addition to representing the rock from the gospels, is understood as a ‘desert’ in the context of the Christian ascetic tradition as received in the insular churches (the churches of Britain and Ireland). In Adamnán’s ‘Life of Columba’ we meet the monks Báeán and Cormac who sail off in search of a ‘desert in the ocean’ (‘in oceano disertum’, i.20, 25b) or a ‘hermitage in the ocean’ (‘heremum in oceano’, 1.6, 17a). This is a major theme in insular monasticism and we find many island hermitages and monasteries around the coast such as Skellig Michael in County Kerry and Eileach an Naoimh in the Inner Hebrides. Alex Woolf has also suggested frequent pairings of a monastery, sometimes itself on an island, with an island hermitage: Iona and Hinba, Lindisfarne and Inner Farne, the Isle of May and Kilrenny, Inchcolm and Aberdour, and possibly St Serf’s Isle in Loch Level and St Serf’s community at Culross or Dunning. All of these, by location or tradition, have some connection to Balthere’s community (Living and Dying at Auldhame, 167).

The Bass Rock from the site of the Church at Auldhame

We should, however, beware of just thinking of Balthere’s ‘desert’ as nothing but a way of escaping people and attending to God alone. In early medieval Britain seaways were major routes for travel and Balthere on the Bass may be likened to Antony Gormley’s sculpture the Angel of the North by the A1 today. The Bass Rock is also very visible all along the coast from North Berwick to Dunbar and we may compare Balthere to another ascetic, St Daniel the Stylite, who lived his life in the fifth century on top of a pillar just outside the great city of Constantinople, where he was visited by many including Emperors. Closer to home, the great Father of Balthere’s own tradition, Cuthbert, withdrew for prayer and ascetic struggle to the Farne Islands which, although he built a wall to restrict his own gaze, were in sight not only of his monastery on Lindisfarne but also of the royal power-centre of Bamburgh. David Petts has identified a similar arrangement in East Lothian, with the hermitage on the Bass, monastic sites at Tyningham and Auldhame and the secular power-centre at Dunbar, as shown in the map below . The map, although accurate, is actually quite deceptive. If you stand today on the site of the Bernician settlement at Dunbar, the Bass Rock looms up offshore at the end of the coast much larger than one would imagine from looking at the map. The rock with its hermit would thus be a permanent presence in the eyes and minds of the secular leadership, ensuring they could not ignore the power of God and his Church.   

The classic text on ascetic struggle in the desert for Balthere and his contemporaries was the Life of St Antony by St Athanasius of Alexandria. Although written in Greek, it had been translated into the Latin they spoke by Evagrius of Antioch in 373 and was well known in Britain and Ireland. Basil Krivoshein explains its teaching on the desert in a way that also applies to our anchorite, ‘Monasticism itself was considered by St Athanasius and his contemporaries not merely as the way to individual salvation and sanctification, but primarily as a fight against the dark demonic forces. Certainly, every Christian had the duty to take part in this spiritual war, but the monks constituted the vanguard or shock troops, who attacked the enemy directly in his refuge, the desert, which was regarded as the peculiar dwelling place of demons after the spread of Christianity into inhabited localities. Retreat from the world was not understood as an attempt to escape the struggle against evil, but as a more active and heroic fight against it.’ (Krivoshein, ‘The Eastern Orthodox Tradition’, pp.24-25). Alcuin’s poem suggests that the main arena for Balthere’s ascetic fight was the Bass Rock but the sources reveal that various sites on the nearby coast were also included.

The headland at Auldhame

Tyningham is mentioned in Balthere’s obituary as the place where he lived as an anchorite and the Bass Rock was his place of ascetic withdrawal, but what was his church at Auldhame? Today it is just a bleak headland with the ruins of a sixteenth-century house nearby in some woods, but in the middle ages it was one of the three churches with his body and excavations in 2005 have revealed its importance. These found a cemetery, which was in use from c. 650 to 1650, and a sequence of medieval buildings beginning with a timber oratory constructed at the foundation of the graveyard and ending with a stone church which was rebuilt in the early sixteenth century and later abandoned. The burials suggested a first, monastic, phase of use which ended around 900, an ending euphemistically said to be ‘an event that may or may not have been influenced by Viking activity around the coast’ (Living and Dying at Auldhame, 171). Confirmation that this first phase was monastic is found in the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon glass inkwell, one of only six found in Britain, and a pile of dog-whelk shells of the type used to produce a purple dye used in book production. These suggest the presence of a scriptorium and thus a monastery, which is also suggested by a boundary ditch or vallum across the headland, filled in during the tenth century and typical of early monasteries.

Excavations at Auldhame

Auldhame is first mentioned in 854, in the Northumbrian Annals which list a circuit of church sites claimed by the Church of Lindisfarne. This includes Edinburgh (St Cuthbert’s under the Castle?), Pefferham (Aberlady?), Auldhame, Tyninhgame and Coldinghame (Woolf, From Pictland to Alba, 82). That at this early date it is called the old (auld) minster-estate (hame) caused Alex Woolf to suggest that it was Balthere’s original church before his community moved to a more spacious home at Tyninghame, and Auldhame is certainly a convenient point from which to sail to the Bass (Living and Dying at Auldhame, 166-67). It may even be that, as the monastery of Lindisfarne pre-dated its patron Cuthbert, so, as the radio-carbon dating allows, the Auldhame monastery predates Balthere. Woolf even suggests that Auldhame remained as a church and burial place after the move to Tyninghame as part of a ritual landscape where pilgrims and monks could look out to the Bass Rock and ‘encounter the very landscape the saint had inhabited and reflect upon famous instances in his life and spiritual struggles’ (Living and Dying at Auldhame, 168). In this context he notes that Scoughall, the only other settlement in the small parish of Auldhame, is derived from the old English scucca meaning demon which may recall Balthere’s spiritual combat. Although St Baldred’s cave at Seacliffe beach was probably a nineteenth-century invention, the name dates from its discovery by a local landowner in 1831, other natural features such as the rock called St Baldred’s boat, his ‘cradle’, a rock with a deep fissure on the shore near Tyninghame, and the two wells of St Baldred may have been part of this sacred landscape.

St Baldred’s ‘boat’ (scapha – Latin for a light boat or skiff), also called his tomb (tumba), is a rock which the legend of St Baldred in the Aberdeen Breviary claims that the saint stood upon and sailed out of the path of passing shipping. Today the name is sometimes attached to the crescent-shaped rock formation with a cross-topped beacon at the end, the South Carr beacon, just to the north of Seacliffe beach. It is, however, the detached rock just to the east of the Carr which is labelled as St Baldred’s Boat on Ordinance Survey maps such as the 1894 25 inch ‘Haddingtonshire III.10. Confirmation of the boat being a small rock is found in James Millar’s ‘Saint Baldred of the Bass and Other Poems’ (Edinburgh, 1824) where he writes, ‘a small rock, at the mouth of Aldham bay, still bears the name of Baudron’s Boat’, and RP Phillimore in The Bass Rock, its History and Romance (North Berwick, 1911) who notes that the boat ‘stands close to the Carr beacon’.

St Baldred’s Boat as a detached rock on the 1894 OS map

The early burials at Auldhame are mixed and do not suggest a celibate male community, so it may have been a ‘para-monastic’ community of married lay people and clergy attached to the main monastery at Tyninghame in a manner common in the insular world. Tyninghame has not been excavated in a similar way to Auldhame but ninth-century cross fragments found in the remains of its twelfth-century church suggest that this church was built on the site of the dependency of Lindisfarne at Tyninghame listed in 854, associated with St Balthere, and burnt in a Viking attack in 941 (Living and Dying at Auldhame, 137, 140, 166). If, as is probable, the main monastery was sited there, Woolf has even suggested that Auldhame survived the move of the community to Tyninghame as an ‘associative relic’ of Baldred, in a similar way to the church of St Aidan on Lindisfarne. The Auldhame community may thus have acted as ‘the curatorial staff of the hagiological landscape’, celebrating Mass and showing pilgrims round the sites associated with Balthere. The eleventh-century History of Saint Cuthbert (Historia Sancti Cuthberti) notes that all the lands between Lammermuir and the Esk were dependent on the Church of St Baldred at Tyninghame. This suggests that it acted as a mother church for a large shire-like area in a way similar to St Ebba’s Church of Coldingham in Berwickshire (Living and Dying at Auldhame, 166-70). This gives a firm grounding for the local cult of Balthere and the idea of a sacred landscape.

Tyninghame Church

The idea of a ritual landscape sounds artificial to the desacralized modern mind and conjures up images of a holy theme park, but this irreverence is the product of a mind artificially limited by modern science and separated from God and the natural world of creation. Even for a Christian it takes an effort to separate oneself from the secular and disenchanted world in which we live. The Orthodox theologian and ecologist Philip Sherrard makes an attempt to describe the traditional view in his book The Rape of Man and Nature: ‘The medieval Christian world was a kind of sacred order established by God in which everything, not only man and man’s artefacts, but every living form of plant, bird or animal, the sun, moon and stars, the waters and the mountains, were seen as signs of things sacred (signa rei sacrae), expressions of a divine cosmology, symbols linking the visible and the invisible, earth and heaven. It was a society dedicated to ends which are ultimately supra-terrestrial, non-temporal, beyond the limits of this world. Indeed, a great deal of effort in this world went into preserving, fostering and nourishing the sense of realities which we now call supernatural. Throughout the length and breadth of this world visible images of these realities were set up and venerated, in icons, crosses, churches, shrines, in the collective ritual. They were the endless pursuit of monasteries, as of the saints and holy men who moved among the populace as naturally as birds among the leaves. Even when these saints and holy men retreated into solitude, everyone living in the world was aware that in the woods and hills, the wilderness and caves surrounding his home were peopled with these men ready to give counsel and benediction.’ (Sherrard, The Rape of Man and Nature, 63)

A sacred landscape – detail of the St Baldred window at St Andrew’s Church, North Berwick

It is, however, possible to get too rosy a view of this pre-modern world. The idea that the original foundations associated with St Balthere seem to have ended with ‘Viking activity around the coast’ is supported by evidence from the Auldhame graveyard and by the mention in the chronicles of a Viking attack on Tyninghame in 941. As the archaeologists excavated the cemetery around Baldred’s lost church at Auldhame, among a thousand years of burials one stood out as unusual. SK752 was the burial of a young man, aged 26-35, with a spear, spurs and a belt of the type worn in the Irish Sea region around 900 AD. The Viking Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin and Northumbria is recorded as having sacked Tyninghame shortly before his death in 941 and although this may be the body of a local man who served in a royal retinue, it has also been suggested that this may be one of the retinue of King Olaf or even the King himself. This burial occurred at the end of the life of Auldhame as a monastic settlement and two other burials from the same period had axe wounds to the head which could have come from the Viking attack. The Melrose Chronicle says that ‘Olaf burnt and destroyed the Church of St Baldred at Tyninghame, he soon died’ (the Latin is given below), by which the monastic author seems to imply that these two events were connected. Baldred did not protect his followers, perhaps because of their sins, but he did avenge them by the sudden death of the young King Olaf.

Jawbone of the ‘Viking’ buried at Auldhame

Killing people who burn his churches is not high on the list of virtues people look for in saints today but those whose families had been killed by Vikings with axes may have seen things differently. Moreover, if this Viking’s death was seen as the result of provoking the Saint, his burial next to one of Balthere’s Churches may be an attempt to enlist the Saint’s prayers to secure his salvation, just as he did for the lustful deacon in Alcuin’s poem. Balthere was a man of power who could move rocks in the sea and smite the ungodly, but he was also a saint of compassion for sinners. Moving rocks is commended by Jesus (Matthew 17.20-21) and a major theme in Scripture is that the Lord chastises people in order to lead them to repentance. Balthere’s rootedness in place is inextricably linked with his power as a Christian saint.


A.O. Anderson, Scottish Annals from English Chroniclers AD 500-1286 (London, 1908).

Anne Crone, Erlend Hindmarch with Alex Woolf, Living and Dying at Auldhame: The Excavation of an Anglian Monastic Settlement and Medieval parish Church (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2016)

Chronica de Mailros, (Edinburgh: Bannatyne Club, ) p.29, ‘Anlafus incensa et vastata aecclesia sancti Baldredi in Tiningham, mox periit’

Basil Krivoshein, ‘The Eastern Orthodox Tradition’, in E.L. Mascall, ed. The Angels of Light and the Powers of Darkness: A Symposium by Members of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, London, 1954, pp.22-46.

David Petts, ‘Coastal Landscapes And Early Christianity In Anglo-Saxon Northumbria’, in Estonian Journal of Archaeology, 2009, 13, 2, 79-95.

Philip Sherrard, The Rape of Man and Nature: An Enquiry into the Origins and Consequences of Modern Science, 3rd edition (Limni, Evia, Greece: Denise Harvey, 2015).

Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070, The New Edinburgh History of Scotland 2 (Edinburgh, 2007)

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