Site icon Random Scottish History

The Bell and the Miracles, pp.19-29.

[Old Glasgow Contents]

It is not within my purpose to write the life of Kentigern, or to detail all the stories of his acts and miracles as related by his historian Jocelin. But familiar as we are with the devices or emblems on our city arms – the tree, the bird, the fish, and the bell – it will not be out of place to notice here the legends which relate to these.

As regards the bell, however, which appears on the sinister side of the shield, the story is not a legend, for it has an authentic history. It represents a real bell, which, although its origin cannot be traced, is known to have been in existence in Glasgow from a very early period till so late as the middle of the seventeenth century.

Jocelin says that the bell was brought to Glasgow by St. Kentigern among certain “sanctorum pignora et ecclesiæ ornamenta quæ ad decorem domus Dei pertinaverunt,” which he had received from the hands of the pope; but upon this legend no reliance can be placed. The popes in early times did, no doubt, in certain cases, give bells to bishops, and an instance is recorded in the Breviary of Aberdeen of a bell which Pope Gregory the Great presented to St. Ternan, the apostle of the Picts; but it is most improbable that the pope ever gave one to Kentigern, for the early Scottish Church had no connection with Rome, and did not recognize the supremacy of the Roman bishops.

Bells were held in great reverence in the ancient church. They were baptised, and anointed oleo chrismatis, and there is a ritual for these ceremonies in the Roman Pontifical. They were, indeed, among the articles which appear to have been necessary to the episcopal function. It is so stated by Dr. Petrie, than whom there can be no higher authority; and he mentions as an instance the presents given to Fiac, bishop of Sletty, near Carlow, when St. Patrick conferred on him the episcopal dignity. The passage in the Book of Armagh which Dr. Petrie refers to as his authority is as follows:- “He (Patrick) conferred the degree of bishop upon him (Fiac), so that he was the first bishop that was ordained among the Lagenians; and Patrick gave a box to Fiac containing a bell, and a menstir (reliquary) and a  crozier, and a poolire.” The poolire was a leather case for holding sacred books and reliquaries.

According to Jocelin Kentigern visited Rome seven times, and he adds that it was on the last of these occasions that he received from the pope “what was wanting to his ordination,” including the bell. This supposed visit is referred to in a hymn believed to be of the fifteenth century:-

“Romam visit septies: papa quem honorat
 Ut serviret præsuli: avi se decorat
 Et campanum sustinet que sonos dulcorat.”

But that Kentigern ever received anything from the pope, or that he was ever at Rome at all, is, as I have said, in the highest degree improbable. The same story is told of Columba in the later legends of that saint, but in the authentic Life there is not a word of it, and the bishop of Rome is not even mentioned.

The probability is that Kentigern’s bell was made at home – perhaps in Ireland – and it is quite possible it may have been given to Kentigern at the time of his ordination by the bishop who came from Ireland to perform that office. We have unquestionable evidence, at least, that bells of the same form as Kentigern’s, and of which the form is preserved on our ecclesiastical seals, were made in Ireland at quite as early a period. Dr. Petrie says – I quote from his work on the Round Towers:- “We have not only abundant historical evidence to show that many of the ecclesiastics in those early times obtained celebrity as artificers and makers of the sacred implements necessary for the Church, and as illuminators of books, but we have also still remaining the most indisputable evidences of their skill in these arts in ancient croziers, bells, shrines, &c., and in manuscripts not inferior in splendour to any extant in Europe.” Some of these old bells are of the same shape as that of Kentigern, and many of them are most elaborately ornamented. In an ancient but authentic life of the celebrated artificer Saint Dageus, who lived in the early part of the sixth century, as quoted by Colgan, it is stated that “he fabricated bells, croziers, and crosses, and though some of these implements were without ornament, others were covered with gold, silver, and precious stones, in an ingenious and admirable manner.” Some of these bells are still preserved in Ireland, and among others the bell of St. Mura of the early part of the ninth century, a representation of which is given in the Ulster Journal of Archæology, exhibits a wonderful richness of ornamentation.

The bell appearing on the early seals of our bishops, and also, as we shall find, on one of the early seals of the community, is undoubtedly a representation of a bell then in existence in Glasgow, and believed to have belonged to Kentigern. It is a quadrangular bell – a form which indicates a very high antiquity. The seal on which it is here shown is that of the Chapter of Glasgow “for Causes,” which was in use 1488-1540.

Dr. Petrie, in the learned work to which I have referred, gives a representation of a sculptured stone which formed the pediment of one of the oldest of the Irish churches, and on which there is a figure holding a bell of the same form as that which appears on this seal. Referring to that stone Dr. Petrie says: “The quadrangular-shaped bell which appears in the hand of one of the figures exhibits that peculiar form which characterizes all the consecrated bells which have been preserved in Ireland as having belonged to the celebrated saints of the primitive Irish Church, and there is every reason to believe that this quadrangular form gave place to the circular one now in use previous to the twelfth century. Indeed, (Dr. Petrie adds) we see a remarkable example of the transition to the latter form in a bell formerly in the collection of the Dean of St. Patrick’s, and now in the Museum of the Academy, which, as an inscription in the Irish character carved upon it clearly shows, is undoubtedly of the close of the ninth century.”

Some fine specimens of these quadrangular-shaped bells will also be found in the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries in Edinburgh. The workmanship of them may be classed among the earliest efforts of art in connection with the introduction of Christianity into the British isles. Their base is usually malleable iron longitudinally rivetted on either end. A coating of bronze envelops the iron, and over all there is, in some cases, a coating of gold.

A curious illustration of the great reverence in which consecrated bells were held is given in the great national work of Ireland, the Annals of the Four Masters. It is there recorded, under date 1261, that in that year “Donnell O’Hara committed a depredation upon the clann Feoraes [Mac Ioris or Bermingham, Barons of Athenry] in revenge for their having slain Cathal O’Hara and desecrated the church of Saint Feichinn; he also killed Sefin Mac Feorais, who, while being killed, had upon his head the bell which he had taken from the church of Ballysadare.” In a note to this passage the learned editor, Dr. O’Donovan, explains that “Sefin had on his head a blessed bell which he had taken away from the church of Ballysadare, thinking that O’Hara would not attempt to strike him while he had so sacred a helmet on his head, even though he had obtained it by robbery.”

We find another illustration of the importance and value of the bells of the old saints in a notice which had been preserved of the bell of St. Medan, the patron saint of the parish of Airlie. It had been assigned to the care of a hereditary keeper, who in the year 1447 resigned it into the hands of Sir John Ogilvy, and Sir John thereupon, by a formal deed, conferred on Lady Margaret Ogilvy, his wife, the bell “with its pertinents” for her liferent use.1

It does not appear whether the bell of St. Kentigern was adorned with any of those rich ornaments which are found on some of the contemporary bells. We know, however, that it was held in great veneration in Glasgow, and it forms the subject of various minutes of the corporation. It is also mentioned more than once in the ancient offices for the festival of the saint. I need hardly say it was not a church bell for calling the people to worship, nor of such a size as would have made a helmet for the sacrilegious scion of the house of Athenry. Neither is it to be confounded with that kind of bell called a skellat, such as was used in old times by the town-criers in Glasgow and other towns, and of which we find repeated mention in our burgh records. It was one of those small tinkling bells, called a sacryn bell, which among other uses was employed in the altar services of the Cathedral. In size it was probably less than that of the beautiful bell of St. Mura, already referred to, which was 4½ inches high exclusive of the handle, and 3 inches broad at the bottom. That bell was made of bronze, and that of St. Kentigern was probably of the same material.

These bells were not used exclusively at the altar services. They were also rung through the streets by the friars for the repose of the souls of the departed, especially of those who had been benefactors to the church; and we know that to this use Saint Mungo’s bell – as it was familiarly called – was put in Glasgow. There is preserved an indenture executed at Glasgow “the xviij day of the moneth of December in the yher of our Lord a thousand four hundreth fyftie and four yheris,” between “ane honorabyll man Johne Steuart the first provost that was in the citie of Glasgu on the ta part, and discreyt religious men frieris of Glasgu, and the covent of the samyn, on the tother part,” by which, in consideration of certain lands and tenements conveyed by Provost Steuart, “the saydis priour, covent, and their successouris” undertake to say certain masses at St. Katherine’s altar in the Cathedral for the soul of the donor, “and alsua, on the day of the discesse of the said Johne Steuart yherely, tyll ger Sant Mongouse bell be rungen throw the toun for the said Johnes sawle.” There are other deeds to the same effect preserved, and among them a “foundatioune donatione and legatione” by “Schir Archibald Crawfurd vicar of Cadder,” bearing date 28th November, 1509, which contains the following among other burdens on the property:- “Item I leif to Sanct Mongowes bell to pas throwe the toune one salmes day eftyre noune, and one the morne forroure nyne, to gar praye for mye faderis saule, mye moderis saule, my awin saule, and all Christyne saulis, aucht peneis of annuale of the said place.”

After the spoliation of the Cathedral which took place at the Reformation this interesting relic appears to have fallen into the hands of two of the citizens, by whom, a few years later, it was brought to the magistrates, who, with good taste, and apparently with a true sense of its archæological value, secured it for the community. On the 19th of November, 1577, there occurs in the records of the council the following interesting entry:- “SANCT MONGOWIS BELL. The quhilk day the provest baillies and counsall with dekeins, coft [purchased] fra John Mr. sone to unquhile James Mr. and Andro Laing þe auld bell that ʒed throw the toune of auld at þe buriall of þe deid for þe soume of ten pundis money quhilk thai ordainit Patrick Glen thair thesaurare to pay to thaim and also grantit þe said Andro to be maid burges gratis; quhilk bell thai ordainit in all tymes to remane as comone bell to gang for þe buriall of þe deid and to be gevin ʒeirlie to sic persoun as thai appoynt for anys in þe ʒeir takand caution for keping and delyvering thairof the ʒeiris end. And the said Andro Laing, as sone to uimquhile Mr. Robert Layng, is maid instantlie burges, as ane burges sone, gratis, for þe said caus of þe bell.”

The liberal terms accorded to those who had thus rescued the bell, and the anxious provision made for its safety by taking security from the person intrusted with it for its careful preservation, shows the value attached to it, and the veneration in which it was held as a relic dating from the foundation of the city. In October of the following year the treasurer’s accounts contain a charge of two shillings “for ane tong to St. Mongowis bell.” And under date 4th June, 1590, there occurs the following entry:- “The quhilk day the provest baillies and counsall hes gevin thair twa commoun bells viz the Mort and Skellat bells togedder with the office of pwnterschipe to George Johnstoune for ane zeir to cum bund for the soume of thrie scoir pundis to be payit in maner following:” and then follow the terms of payment and names of sureties.

A few years later the presbytery claimed to have the custody of the bell and the nomination of the party intrusted with the ringing of it, as being more within their province than that of the magistrates, and on 5th November, 1594, there is the following entry in the records of the presbytery:- “Quhilk day the presbiterie declairis the office of the ringing of the bell to the buriall of the deid to be ecclesiastical and that the electioun of the persone to the ringing of the said bell belongis to the kirk, according to the ancient canonis and discipline of the reformit kirk.” Whether anything followed on this resolution does not appear. In 1631 the bell was still rpeserved, as we learn from Camerarius, in whose work, “De Scotorum Fortudine Doctrine et Pietate,” printed in that year, it is stated that Glasgow “has for its achievment a salmon and also a bell which was used by the man of God [Kentigern] and which is preserved in Glasgow at the present day.”

But at the time when Camerarius wrote the ancient bell was probably almost worn out, and in 1640 we find an order by the town council directing a new one to be made. The order is as follows:- “Anent ane deid bell: The said daye ye deid bell delyverit to Patrick forsyth, qm. ordaines to give ye half of ye pryces [emoluments] of his part of ye bell to William Bogle during his lyfetime. And ordaines ye Dean of gild to caus mak ane new deid bell to be runge for and before ye deid under hand.”2 The new bell then made, after having been in use for many years, disappeared, but in 1867 it was discovered and restored to the corporation, in whose possession it now is.

It is 4½ inches in height, exclusive of the handle, and bears the date 1641, the year after the order by the council to have it made. It is interesting as having upon it a variety of the city arms not found on any of the other examples – the fish not being on the shield at all, but below it, just as it appears below the shield of Bishop Blackader on the basement of the rood screen in the Cathedral. But what is still more interesting is that the bell represented on the shield is not a round bell, such as were by that time exclusively in use, but an ancient square bell, the same as appears on the seal of the Chapter of Glasgow “for Causes,” and none of which were manufactured later than the beginning of the ninth century. There is every probability, therefore, that the sculptor of the shield on this “new deid bell” had before him and copied the ancient bell of St. Kentigern, then still preserved and used in Glasgow. It is possible that, notwithstanding the manufacture of the new bell of 1641, the old bell of the saint may have still continued to be used occasionally, because Ray, when he wrote his account of the city in 1661, says: “Their manner of burial is, when one dies the sexton or bellman goeth about the streets with a small bell, which he tinkleth all along as he goeth, and now and then he makes a stand and proclaims who is dead, and invites the people to come to the funeral at such an hour.” This description would be very applicable to the old bell of the saint, though it may possibly refer to the other. At all events, subsequently to this all trace of the saint’s bell, so long known to the inhabitants, and the affectionate veneration for which had survived the levelling storm of the Reformation, is unfortunately lost.

The salmon with the ring, appearing on the seals of the bishopric and on the city arms, refers to the story of the recovery by St. Kentigern of the lost ring of the Queen of Cadzow. The story is thus given in the office for the saint’s day in the Breviary of Aberdeen: “It happened that the Queen of Cadzow had laid herself open to the suspicion of an intrigue with a certain knight, whom the king had taken with him in hunting. And the knight being asleep, the king abstracted from his scrip3 a ring which the queen had given him, and flung it into the river called Clyde (Clundam). returning home he demanded the ring of the queen, threatening her with death if she did not produce it. She having sent her maid to the knight, and not receiving the ring, despatched a messenger to Kentigern, telling him everything, and promising the most condign penance. St. Kentigern, taking compassion on her, sent one of his people to the river to angle with a hook, directing him to bring alive the first fish he might take; which being done, the saint took from its mouth the ring, and sent it to the queen, who restored it to the king, and so saved her life.” The whole scene is well represented on the counter seal of Bishop Robert Wyschard,* made about the year 1271. In the upper portion of this interesting old seal St. Kentigern is represented seated, to whom a monk kneeling presents the fish with the ring in its mouth. In the middle compartment are two niches. On the dexter side appears the king, with a drawn sword in his hand, prepared to slay his frail lady unless she shall produce the abstracted ring; and on the sinister side is the lady triumphantly presenting the missing pledge. In a niche occupying the lower part of the seal the saint is again represented in the act of prayer, kneeling on a lion couchant, and on each side are heads of saints crowned with the nimbus. The legend round this fine and very curious example of ancient art tells in few and pithy words what the sculpture so well represents – REX FURIT: HÆC PLORAT: PATET AURUM: DUM SACER ORAT. The hymn appointed for the more solemn altar service of the saint’s day thus sums up the story:-

“Mœcha mœrens4 confortatur
 Regi reconciliatur
 Dum in fluctu qui jactatur
Piscis profert annulum.”

What has recently grown into an oak tree, covering a large portion of the escutcheon, was at first only a twig or branch. It is properly so expressed in all the early seals, and it appears in that form on the seal of the chapter given above. It was introduced to commemorate a frozen bough which St. Kentigern miraculously kindled into flame. The saint, then a boy, had, according to the legend, been appointed by his master Servanus to maintain in the refectory the holy fire which had been sent to Servanus from heaven. Having fallen asleep, some of his companions, out of envy, extinguished the fire, whereupon Kentigern when he awoke broke off a frozen branch from a neighbouring hazel, and, breathing on it in the name of the holy Trinity, it immediately burst into flame. This story forms the subject of the third lesson for the saint’s day, and is commemorated in the lines of the hymn-

“Ardent rami congelati
 Sacro flatu inflammati.”

It is interesting to observe, in passing, that the constant maintenance of the fire referred to in this legend appears to have been one of the customs introduced by the Asiatic ancestors of the ancient British population. In prehistoric times the sacred fire of the Aryans was kept perpetually burning on the family hearth. It was regarded in some sort, indeed, as a living household deity who watched over the family, and when the members met at meals a portion was always first offered to the fire.5

The legend of the bird is also curious. In most of the verbal descriptions of the city arms it is called “a bird” merely. One writer calls it a raven, and in the “Additions,” by Dr. Brown and others, to the third edition, published in 1718, of Captain Slezer’s interesting work, the Theatrum Scotiæ, it is stated that on the arms of Glasgow “there is an oak with a red bird on it.” This is nearer the truth. The bird was a redbreast, and it is so described in the office of the saint in the Breviary of Aberdeen. The second lesson for the day in that ancient office consists of the story which tells how the saint miraculously restored to life “quondam avicula que rubesca6 dicitur.” A tame robin, the favourite of St. Serf, was by chance killed by his disciples, who, to screen themselves, laid the blame on Kentigern. That youthful confessor, taking the bird in his hand, made over it the sign of the cross, whereupon it was restored to life, and flew chirping to its master. Mr. Robertson, in his preface to the Liber Collegiæ, says, “The bird is obviously the little favourite of Saint Serf – the avicula quæ vulgo ob ruborem corpusculi rubesca noncupatur – the tale of whose miraculous restoration to life by Saint Kentigern fills the fifth chapter of his Acts by Jocelin.” And he adds, “Long after this legend was wholly forgotten it was remembered that the bird exhibited in the arms of the city was a redbreast, as we learn from the inscription which Dr. Robert Magnus has prefixed to his epigram on the Insignia “Civitatis Glasguæ: Salmo, quercus, cui insidet rubecula avis, campana, et annulus aureus salmonis ore exortus.”

It appears to have been a common thing for these old saints to tame wild animals and make pets of them, as St. Serf did of his robin. We read in an ancient Life of the Irish Saint Kiaran of Saigher, that he had a fox, a badger, a wolf, and a fawn, who became tame and lived with him in the desert; and another Irish legend of the sixth century, contained in the Book of Ballymote, tells that Saint Carnech, who was son of the King of Alban, kept a pet fawn. And many other instances might be cited of the same kind.

1  Second Parliamentary Report on Historical Manuscripts, p. 187.
2  Council Records, 23d October, 1640.
3  Mercipio in the Breviary, being monks’ Latin for marsupio.
4  I have corrected these words from the version hitherto given by all the writers, who (following the monkish Latin of the Breviary) write them “mecha” and “merens.” The first word would be quite unmeaning, and the latter would convey a meaning the very opposite of what it was intended to express, for the lady was anything but a deserving character.
5  Dawn of History, p. 89.
6  Rubesca is mediæval Latin for Rubecula.
*  This Robert Wyschard is that same Robert Wishart who it is said, in the Annals of Fordoun chapter in ‘Scots Lore‘,
“defied Edward I., and at last was carried off into England, whence he was returned a blind broken-down man, a martyr to his country’s cause.”
In Balfour’s ‘Historical Works‘, vol. 1, it details Wishart’s rise to the bishopric of Glasgow in 1272, Alexander III.,  he was then chosen as one of the 6 governors of Scotland in 1286, Six Protectors or Governors, then we have him rescued from being held hostage in England,
[John] of Brittany was exchanged for King Robert’s wife and the old Bishop of Glasgow [Robert Wishart].”
in Robert I.‘s chapter.
Exit mobile version