Posted by: christinelaennec | March 17, 2015

Of saints and cattle

On March 17th, about 1994, Katharine Stewart wrote:  “St. Patrick’s Day!  It’s good that we should set aside certain days to commemorate the lives of people who left their mark on time.  St. Patrick, of all the saints, would have felt at home in these hills, I think.  So today’s a day for the ‘wearing of the green’ and for hoping that that lovely island of his will find its way again.  Two great men of comparatively recent times were Columba of Iona and Francis of Assisi.  Both were men of the world, with inner visions of how good life could be.  Both built their citadels in places apart, for both wanted close contact with the natural world, with the cycle of sun and moon, of life and death.  Both loved their fellow creatures, animals, plants, all created life. … ” (p. 54)

St. Patrick is well-known as the 5th-century missionary who brought Christianity to Ireland.  In St. Patrick’s time and for several centuries to come, until the Vikings invaded, both Ireland and the western part of Scotland were one kingdom called Dalriada.  If you look at a map of Ireland and the west of Scotland, and you consider that waterways were the highways and roads of that time, it becomes clear how close the two are.  They shared the same language (Irish Gaelic and Scots Gaelic had yet to split into two branches), and the same culture and customs.

We think of Patrick as Irish, and Columba as Scottish, but in fact each started out in the other place.  St Patrick was from the part of Dalriada that is now Scotland, and was kidnapped into slavery in Ireland when he was 16 years old.  St. Columba – Colmcille in Gaelic – came a century after St. Patrick, and was originally from what is now Ireland.  He was instrumental in Christianising Scotland and began a community on the Isle of Iona, off of Mull.

It so happens that Michael’s mother’s family come from the same place as Colmcille did:  beautiful Gartan in Donegal.  We have often gone to this cemetery, where some of Michael’s ancestors are buried:

Loch Gartan, Donegal.  Birthplace of St. Columba / Colmcille.

Loch Gartan, Donegal. Birthplace of St. Columba / Colmcille.  April 2008.

Stewart goes on to write about the significance that various animals had for the Celtic people of long ago, beginning with cattle:  “For the Celts cattle were the mainstay of life.  The bull was practically deified… The cow was regarded as the provider of earthly bounty – fertility, nourishment, clothing.  There would appear to be an Indo-European link here, as the cow is the most sacred animal of India.   Cattle were also the mainstay of later Highland people, until the coming of the ‘big sheep’ towards the end of the eighteenth century. … The cow gave milk, butter, cheese and even, in the hardest times, blood to be mixed with meal for an emergency diet.  The country is criss-crossed with drove roads used to take the cattle to far-off markets and many tales are told of the experiences of the drovers.” (p. 54-55)

I am fascinated by the stories of the drovers, who came on the scene in about the 17th century.  It is true that Scotland is traversed by old drove roads.  Many popular walking trails, such as the famous Lairig Ghru between Aviemore and Braemar, are drovers roads.  Another is the Cross Borders Drove Road, and there are many more.  It is said that as the drovers made their way with the cattle to markets in the south, they paid in advance for their dogs to be fed on the return journey.  Once the drovers arrived at the market with the cattle, the dogs were sent back to Scotland on their own, and they knew to stop at the same places they had come, where they found food.  I don’t know if this is a fanciful tale or not, but I think it is plausible.

Highland Cattle near the gate leading to Luskentyre beach.  Isle of Harris, April 2014.

Highland Cattle near the gate leading to Luskentyre beach. Isle of Harris, April 2014.

It is now much rarer to see cattle than sheep in Scotland.  Stewart wrote, “The last of the cattle have gone now from our hills here, cattle that kept the land in good heart…  Only the sheep remain, leaving the ground bald with their constant over-grazing.” (p. 55)  But perhaps cattle are making a bit of a comeback. When I was back in Harris last year, I saw there were more cattle than previously, which I like.

Michael’s Irish family were cattle farmers.  His grandfather Anton used to drive the cattle from near Garten down to Donegal Town, where he used his Irish Gaelic to get a good price.  He was a drover.  Anton’s daughter Mya, Michael’s aunt, was a gifted cattle breeder as well, though she didn’t have to walk the cattle great distances to sell them.  I loved Mya dearly, and she taught me a lot.  I was fascinated to watch her with her cattle, especially when they were expecting.  She was so gentle with them, and had such a rapport with them.  She used to say, “I’ll just go down to the field and check if she’s still in one piece” – meaning, had the cow begun to calve or not.  She was always helped by a very well-trained collie (usually named “Coolie” meaning collie).  When we went for a walk, she would command Coolie to wait at a certain corner of a field, and even if we walked for quite a distance and stopped for a picnic, returning later in the afternoon, there Coolie would be, faithfully waiting.

Katharine Stewart writes about how beneficial it was for people to live so close to nature.  “Small waves of wisdom emanate from all forms of life.  The deer, the song-bird, the leaf, the flower, they all accept life as it comes and death as it comes.  Immortality is a very old human concept, though the Christian form of it is comparatively modern.  To the ancient Celts, with beliefs, as it seems, perhaps more akin to those of the Indo-Europeans, it appeared that we all passed through various life-forms during our time on earth…  We therefore share kinship with every form of life and have much to learn from our fellows.  The American Indians had this feeling for life and would ask forgiveness of a tree which had to be felled.  The sad feature of modern times is that urban life cuts people off from the life-forces, even of night and day, of sun and moon.” (p. 55)

I have always been a town-dweller, and think that I am not completely unaware of “life-forces”.  But I agree that much sensitivity has been lost.  One of the places that I love dearly is a holy well in Ireland.  Although I’m not Catholic, I find it very comforting that people have been coming to this spring with their troubles and petitions for healing, probably since before the arrival of Christianity.  Today you will find modern religious symbols left there:

Offerings at a holy well in Donegal, Ireland.

Offerings at Doon Well in Donegal, Ireland.

But I believe Doon Well has been a source of healing since before St. Patrick came along.  To me, it is a symbol of a remaining closeness of the people to nature.  You could argue otherwise; you could say it’s a cynical enterprise.  But, being acquainted as I am with the family who are the guardians of the well, and who have tended it lovingly for generations, I would have to disagree.  This holy well, like so many others in Ireland and no doubt elsewhere, is a “place apart” where one has close contact with the source of life itself.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!



  1. You put so much into your posts Christine – they are a joy to read. Thank you!

  2. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!!

  3. Happy St Patricks day, such an interesting post today I learnt a lot.

  4. I think many people brought up in urban areas today are missing a strong link to nature and the ability to recognise its subtle fluctuations. When I go out for a walk in the countryside with my mum, who spent some of her formative years in rural areas, I’m impressed by the observations she makes automatically about her environment. I have to work hard to remind myself which flowers come out when and I often find it difficult to interpret the landscape I’m walking in. It doesn’t come naturally to me because although I was taken to the countryside as a child, it wasn’t my everyday experience. On the up side I learned road safety and how to navigate city life from an early age, so I suppose there are trade-offs. However, I think from a spiritual point of view it’s important to relate to the natural world in some meaningful way. It’s never too late though, we can all learn more if we put our minds to it.

  5. Happy St Patricks day 🙂

  6. Thanks for all you put into this post, Christine. I enjoyed thinking my way through it and was reminded of Romans 1:20 NLT “For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities -his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.” The “no excuse” part seems harsh to me on the one hand, but on the other hand I find myself encouraged as I think of the natural way God made for us to know Him through nature.

    My daughter made corned beef and cabbage for those in the household who could eat it. As we gave thanks before eating I found myself expressing gratitude to God for St. Patrick and all those faithful believers who came before me and whose walk of faith encourages my walk of faith! xx

  7. Thank you everyone for your very interesting comments. I have been enjoying crafting these Katharine Stewart-inspired posts, so I’m glad if they have brought you something as well.

    Lorna, I know just what you mean about being in the countryside with someone who has knowledge of it. My grandfather in particular was a very keen woodsman, and always wanted to impart his knowledge to us. I just wish I had been more able to appreciate it at the time. But his love of nature, and the fact that he was aware of so much more than I was while out in nature, were deeply impressed upon me.

    Gracie, I’d forgotten about corned beef and cabbage! Sometimes, when I think about those people who have come before me, and who have encouraged my faith, I feel quite overwhelmed! I am particularly grateful to St. Patrick for the prayer we call “St. Patrick’s breastplate”. And I love contemplating the seen/unseen aspects of existence!

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