Saints occupy a special place in the early medieval church, including the Celtic Church. The sixth and seventh centuries are often regarded as the ‘Age of the Saints’. The term is used of men (for example, Colum Cille [Columba], Patrick, David) and women (like Brigid) who were thought to have lived particularly holy lives and were given special status by their successors. There was no formal procedure for canonisation (the official process for recognising worthy candidates as saints) before the tenth century, when Rome introduced a formal means for recognition and regulation; until then ‘saints’ in Europe were created by popular acclaim. The special qualities which made candidates worthy of recognition as saints included their authority as monastic founders and leaders; their purity and moral stature, as models of an exemplary way of godly living; their asceticism; and their power in commanding the elements (like wind and rain), the natural world (including animals on sea and land), and humanity itself. Saints in Celtic tradition revealed their power in their ability to work miracles, to bless and to curse, and to impose stiff penances, thus controlling not only their own monasteries but also the surrounding districts.
The saints commonly attained their greatest power after their deaths. Cults of the saints were developed, often to increase the status and power of a particular church or monastery, or set of monasteries, with which the saint was associated. An important part of a saint’s cult was the writing of his or her Vita (‘Life’), that is, a biography which set out the main features of the saint’s achievements. The Life of Colum Cille (Columba), a Gael from Ireland who established his best known monastery in í (Iona) in 563 AD, was written a century after his death (597 AD) by Adomnán, ninth abbot of í . Adomnán made determined efforts to discover as much as he could about Colum Cille from earlier writings and oral tradition. In constructing his account, he also followed patterns for saints’ Lives which were known elsewhere in Christendom. Adomnán’s Life of Colum Cille gave the saint immense prestige and wide recognition. Among many other incidents, it describes some of his travels in Pictland, though Adomnán does not say that Colum Cille converted the Picts. The Origen Legend of Deer gave a special place to Colum Cille. The cults of the saints also expressed themselves beyond the written word. Frequently the names of prominent saints were used in the dedications of churches and in place-names. Commemoration of the saints was thought to bestow blessing, prestige and protection.
In medieval Scotland, some saints were apparently more important than others. Much depended on how far and how effectively the saint’s cult could be spread. Some saints, such as Colum Cille, were well known across Scotland. Others, like Drostán, associated with Aberdour and also Glenesk (where he was said to have been a hermit), had a more localised significance, though they were afforded considerable prestige in their own areas. In the Book of Deer, Drostán is said to have been Colum Cille’s disciple. This, together with the honour given in the book to Colum Cille as a monastic founder, indicates that the cult of Colum Cille was of considerable significance in the north-east in the early twelfth century. Other saints associated with the north-east include Machar and Devenick. Machar was reputed to have preached to the Picts in Aberdeenshire, but it is not at all clear that he actually existed as an historical entity. Some saints are very shadowy figures; others are mere ‘ghosts’, whose names are derived from place-names, and still others are ‘doublets’ of more important saints.