I love the kind of writing commission which delivers a subject without any choice. Anxiety nags at me initially but then I discover there’s something about it I’ve always wanted to write about, even if I didn’t realise it.
When I got matched with the ‘Coigrich’ – the 16th century silver gilt case or ‘shrine’ which represents the handle of Saint Fillan’s Crozier, and became one of his holy relics — I had more of a starting point than I’d expected. I live in Perthshire, just a little east of Strathfillan, where between Tyndrum and Killin, Saint Fillan walked into his missionary territory in the eighth or ninth century, built a chapel and organised a number of miracles, not least the harnessing of a wolf to help oxen pull his plough. Robert the Bruce later established a Priory near to the chapel.
Those early Celtic saints intrigue me. I’m fascinated by their earthy-seeming beliefs, humble ways of life, their journeys on foot, and their miracles, so close in my mind to acts of magic.
I like my writing projects grounded in places, and physical activity – usually walking – helps me make the job visceral, sparking up words and images. So in preparation for my 62 words, and to get familiar with Saint Fillan, it seemed only natural to put on my walking boots for a stroll between Tyndrum and Crianlarich.
In a broad valley between some of Perthshire’s blunt-topped, high hills, the ruins of the Priory dedicated to Saint Fillan shelter in a copse of trees right on the route of the West Highland Way. The nearby graveyard, prominent on the mound next to Kirkton Farm, dates back to the eighth century. More remarkable to me though, is the holy pool about a mile away, associated with Fillan’s early life here and his healing powers. For many centuries a monthly ritual, its date dictated by the phase of the moon, drew gatherings of mentally ill people. The pool, naturally divided in two by topography, maintained a discreet segregation of the sexes. After immersion, the ill were taken to the Priory and clamped into some kind of device overnight, covered in hay, and left with Saint Fillan’s Bell (another holy relic) on their heads. If they weren’t cured by the morning, this ritual might have to be repeated. Despite the shimmering heat on the day of my walk, I shivered a little looking at the pool’s glassy dark surface, and declined a dip myself.
As with the lasting power of the holy pool, belief in the Coigrich seems to have grown over generations, surviving the Reformation and other moves against superstition. So great was its reputation that even when the relic’s keeper of the time, Archibald Dewar, emigrated to Canada in the 19th century and took it with him, Canadian highlanders still sought it out, following the tradition that waters touching it could heal cattle.
Such stories have had me scouting for words like foot rot, lumpy jaw, wooden tongue — the wonderful lyricism of cattle ailments. And for words like chrismatory, affusion, and thirdendeal, archaic words associated with the holding or scattering of liquid.
The Coigrich has further intriguing qualities, not least that the shrine encases the curved shape of, and even includes some bronze plates from the 11th century crozier head discovered inside it when it was recovered from Canada. A crystal incorporated into the design may even date back to the time of Fillan. The shrine itself, through its association with the crozier head, with miracles, with famous people, with success in battles, seems to have amalgamated greater and greater holy power, outshining its simpler and older lodger.
‘Coigrich’ comes from a Gaelic word for stranger or foreigner, attributed to it because as a relic it was so well-travelled. The family assigned to be the relic’s custodians became known by another word with a similar meaning, Deoradh, giving rise through the generations to the Perthshire surname, Dewar. And the word ’crozier’ originally referred to the bearer of the Bishop’s staff, not to the staff itself.
These are curious minglings and transformations taking place over centuries. People merge with things; things become spoken of as people; cases adopt their occupants’ power..! The 62 words I choose will have to work their magic well to embody this thicketed enchantment of stories and language.