Saint Balthere (Baldred of the Bass) 4 : Saints of the Forth

The previous two posts have explored the original Balthere and his world. Now we will look at the veneration of Balthere, now called Baldred, as it was in the early sixteenth century. We can do this because of the work of Bishop William Elphinstone of Aberdeen (1431-1514) who complied the Aberdeen Breviary, published in 1510, which includes six lessons for his feast. A translation of the six readings is given below, with thanks to Alan Macquarrie. We know that Elphinstone’s team collected material from all over Scotland and so we can presume an East Lothian origin for this material, probably from one of his churches such as Tyninghame where his feast was kept and a written life preserved. To get a fuller picture of early sixteenth-century devotion to Baldred, the lessons can be read together with other sources such as the Mass of St Baldred from the fifteenth-century Haddington fragment. Given the loss of so many religious books and artefacts from pre-Protestant Scotland we are fortunate to be able to reconstruct the Mass and Office (the daily services in a Breviary) of St Baldred.

The Bass Rock from the East Lothian shore

In the second post we saw that one of the chants of the Mass, the Tract, reflected the centrality of the Bass Rock in devotion to Baldred. It is possible that the first reading of this Mass might also reveal an emphasis in this devotion. The texts of the Mass of a saint are often taken from the ‘common’, a series of texts suitable for a particular category of saint such as virgins, bishops or martyrs. By the later middle ages Baldred was believed to have been a bishop and most of his Mass texts in the fragment are, as expected, from the common of a bishop and confessor (that is a bishop who did not die as a martyr) as given in the Sarum Missal used in Scotland. This reading, however, is from the common of a bishop and doctor; in Latin the word ‘doctor’ mean ‘teacher’ and the category here refers not to healers but to one of the great teachers of Christianity such as St Augustine and St Jerome.  This reading must have been chosen because it suited Balthere better than the other options in the common of a bishop and confessor. It is a composite reading made up of two sections of the Old Testament book called Ecclesiasticus or Sirach (chapters 47.9-12a and 24.1-4). The translation below is from the reading in the Missal and departs in a few ways from the standard Vulgate Latin biblical text.

‘The Lord gave praise to his holy one, and to the most High, with a word of glory. With his whole heart he praised the Lord, and loved God that made him: and he gave him power against his enemies: And he set singers before the altar, and by their voices he made sweet melody. And to the festivals he added beauty, and set in order the solemn times even to the end of his life, that they should praise the holy name of the Lord, and magnify the holiness of God in the morning. The Christ took away his sins, and exalted his horn for ever. Wisdom shall praise his soul, and he shall be honoured in the Lord, and shall be glorified in the midst of his people, and shall open his mouth in the churches of the most High, and shall be glorified in the sight of his power, and in the midst of his own people he shall be exalted, and shall be admired in the holy assembly. And in the multitude of the elect he shall have praise, and among the blessed he shall be blessed’.

This reading may have been chosen to reflect devotion to Baldred as the founder of Churches, but the emphasis on liturgy and choirs would also make sense in a monastic setting so it may well go back before the destruction of the monastery of Tyninghame in 941. Above all, it is appropriate for a local saint, ‘in the midst of his own people he shall be exalted’. It is as such that Baldred is remembered in the Aberdeen Breviary its readings, read at the night office of Mattins, reveal that his cult has seen a number of developments from the earlier devotion to the coastal hermit-priest in the Lindisfarne tradition.

Icon of St Kentigern by Aidan Hart

In the readings from the Breviary, Baldred is now not only a bishop but the suffragan or assistant of St Kentigern who is said to have died at the age of 183 in 503. As Kentigern probably actually died at the beginning of the seventh century, an entry in the Annales Cambriae suggests 612, and we know that Balthere died in 756, this is unlikely. Likewise Balthere’s own Lindisfarne/Durham tradition recalls him as a priest and anchorite, not a bishop, and so it is highly unlikely he was ever consecrated bishop, though like a bishop he may have had oversight over a number of churches. David Hugh Farmer, in his entry on Balthere in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, posits two Baldreds, one the Northumbrian hermit Balthere and the other a bishop and follower of Kentigern. This is not necessary, something else is going on here and there is no need to divide Baldred in two. Alan Macquarrie suggests that the Bernician (Northumbrian) conquerors of Lothian wished to associate their church with native saints and there is a persistent legend that Kentigern came from what is now East Lothian. The Aberdeen Breviary says of Baldred on the Bass Rock that ‘over a long period of time he committed to memory his teacher St Kentigern and the holiness of his life.’ Macquarrie suggests that Balthere may have written a life of St Kentigern and this is not improbable. He notes that Jocelin of Furness’s Life of St Kentigern contains evidence of traditions about the saint with a strong East Lothian colouring that are no later than the first half of the eight century and thus could have been written in Balthere’s lifetime. An erroneous pious belief in the early sixteenth century may thus be grounded in fact. It is also worth noting that a saint is not just whatever an historian can find out about his or her earthly life, the legends that grow up around a saint are also part of their identity and, however fantastic, deserve to be taken seriously.

The breviary legend does, however, follow the historical report when it says Baldred ‘sought out lonely, deserted, isolated places and took himself off to the islands of the sea. Among these islands of the sea he came to one called the Bass where surely he lived a contemplative and strict life’. It links him to the parishes of Auldhame, Tyninghame and Preston, which it says he was given by St Kentigern, perhaps a memory of an attempt to bind the new Northumbrian Christianity of Balthere and his companions to the British Church that was in Lothian before the conquest. The readings also describes the miracle behind the detached rock called St Baldred’s boat. This feature was discussed in the previous post and the legend may be a link to the sacred landscape of Balthere described there. The rock is said to have been further out in the sea, closer to the Bass, and to have been a danger to shipping. Baldred had himself placed on it and sailed the rock closer to the shore ‘and to this day it is called St Baldred’s tomb (‘tumba’) or St Baldred’s boat (‘scapha’)’. The saint was thus still remembered in the landscape.

The view from Seacliffe Beach with the Bass Rock, South Carr, and Baldred’s Boat, with the Isle of May in the background

The Aberdeen Breviary says that Baldred died at Auldhame, whereas the Northumbrian Annals suggest he died at Tyninghame. As Auldhame was probably the earliest site of his monastery, it may be that the Breviary preserves an old local tradition whereas the earlier annals simply placed his death in the main site associated with the saint. The Breviary account ends with the miracle of the multiplication of his body which may have some connection with this confusion. Baldred’s three parishes of Auldhame, Tyninghame and Preston all wanted his body ‘that, by showing him due reverence, they might have him as a pious intercessor in heaven whom they had held as their teacher on earth’, a good description of the job of a saint. On the advice of a wise elder they prayed for a sign as to which church the Saint favoured. Overnight his body became three bodies so each church could have one body with a shrine. The breviary concludes that ‘there they are held and venerated in the greatest honour and reverence to the present day’. Such multiplications of a holy body are not unknown in the lives of the saints, the sixth century Welsh saint Teilo also produced three identical bodies for the churches that claimed them. One may suspect that the body was divided and also wonder, given that the Breviary says the three bodies are still in the three churches, whether the pious transfer of the bones of Balthere to Durham in the eleventh century had been forgotten.

contemporary woodcut of John Major (1505)

The legend of the three bodies was around by 1400 and known by Walter Bower who included it in his Scotichronicon. Another local writer who mentions the multiplication of Baldred’s body is John Major a century later who includes it in his History of Greater Britain and in his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (4.4.10). In both places he notes that the bodies are near to Gleghornie, where he grew up. In the Commentary on the Sentences, where he relates this bodily multiplication to the presence of the body of Christ in the Eucharist, he added that, ‘this is a trite story and an opponent will deny it and I confess that he may do so without incurring the charge of contamination of the faith, since many doubtful things are put down in the lives of the saints’. Respect for the saints could coexist with a healthy scepticism in an orthodox Catholic like John Major.

Our study of the cult of Baldred around the year 1500 is limited by the evidence, which is largely literary and liturgical. If only we still had the statue of him destroyed at Prestonkirk in 1770, some pilgrim tokens, records of pious donations, or accounts of a visit to the shrines like those of Erasmus to Walsingham or Aeneas Piccolomini to Whitekirk. It is, however, certain that there were three shrines to Baldred in addition to the chapel on the Bass Rock which was rebuilt and consecrated in 1542. The buildings, shrines and liturgy all contributed to a highly developed sacred landscape centred on the cult of Baldred in which also existed the popular cult of Our Lady of Whitekirk with its holy statue and well. All this was to be destroyed in the great religious revolution after 1559, but the memory of Baldred remained in the landscape and in people’s hearts. In the final post I intend to ask what were the characteristics of Baldred which were remembered through the ages and made him such a powerful local saint?

Mould for making pilgrim badges, possibly for the Shrine at Whitekirk, from Markle, East Lothian


Alan Macquarrie, Legends of Scottish Saints: Readings, hymns and prayers for the commemoration of Scottish saints in the Aberdeen Breviary (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2012) 

Peter Yeoman, Pilgrimage in Medieval Scotland (London, 1999) – I thank Peter Yeoman for drawing my attention to the mould for making pilgrim badges pictured above, now in the National Museum of Scotland

Proper lessons for St Baldred from the Aberdeen Breviary (Macquarrie pp.70-73).

Reproduced with permission, thanks to Alan Macquarrie and Four Courts Press. 1. After the most reverend father and holy bishop Kentigern, aged 183 years, had been carried by the power of God most high Himself to the heavens, joined with the angelic choir, on 13 January in the year of our salvation and grace 503, at the city of Glasgow over which he ruled, after he had divinely shown many and varied miracles, St Baldred, who had been St Kentigern’s suffragan while he lived in the world, flourished in Lothian by powers and shining miracles, truly a most devout man, renouncing all worldly pomp and its vain cares; and he followed (St) John the Divine as far as he could: he sought out lonely, deserted and isolated places, and took himself off to the islands of the sea.

2. Among these islands of the sea he came to one called the Bass, where surely he led a contemplative and strict life, (and) where over a long period of time he committed to memory his teacher St Kentigern and the holiness of his life, contemplating in constant meditation. Above the rest of his meditations, however, he ceaselessly imprinted the most bitter passion of Christ upon the secret places of his heart, in fasting, weeping and lamentation, by vigils and constant prayers; so much so that he rendered himself pleasing and acceptable to God Himself and to men everywhere throughout the world. .

3. Indeed though, he never forgot his parish churches of Auldhame, Tyninghame and Preston, which he had received to govern from his father St Kentigern, whose cure of souls had also been committed to him by the working of God, preaching the faith of Christ to his parishioners; but he taught and instructed them with humility and zeal as befitted the service of God; and if he found sick people there he healed them and restored them to health by divine power, intervening by words alone [and] the sign of the cross.

q. And among the other signs of his miracles, one comes to mind as worthy to be repeated: a huge rock, massive by nature, which stood fixed and immobile midway between the island (of the Bass) and the adjacent mainland, appearing level with the waves of the sea, presented a very great hindrance to [his] ships and to the rest of those sailing; they used sometimes to be given over to shipwreck [with] their ships. Moved by pity for them, St Baldred caused himself to be placed upon this rock; having done this, by his will the rock is immediately raised up and, like a ship driven by a fair wind, it came to the hither shore; it still remains there as a memorial of this miracle, and to this day it is called ‘St Baldred’s Tomb’ or ‘St Baldred’s Boat’,

But at length, coming to old age through the labours and distress of this most miserable life, so that he might better instruct those over whom he held rule, he arranged to be cared for at the church of Auldhame, where not long after, in a house of his parish clerk, on 6 March, having poured forth prayers, saying farewell, he commended his soul to the Lord, with all patience and eagerness and compunction of heart; while they all mourned the departure of such an outstanding shepherd from his flock (and) from the fleeting world.

6. When the parishioners of the three churches, I say, heard that their most sweet and gentle pastor had ascended to the heavens from this life, they came in three crowds to the location of Baldred’s most lovely body; on all sides they each in turn with great longing earnestly desired and requested the body for their own church, so that, by showing him due reverence, they might have him as a pious intercessor m heaven whom they had held as their teacher on earth. Since they could not agree among themselves, on the advice of an elder they left the body unburied overnight, and all gathered separately in prayer that the glorious God Himself by His grace would send them some sign to which church the body of the blessed man should be carried. But in the morning, a thing seldom heard of appeared: when the dispersed people gathered together as before in their crowds, they found three identical bodies, laid out with the same funereal dignity. They gave thanks with great gladness to almighty God and St Baldred for this miracle, and each parish, singing songs and psalms, lifted one body with its shrine and carried them off to their churches with all reverence, and honourably placed them there; and there they are held and venerated in the greatest honour and reverence to the present day.

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