Who was St Ronan?
This is one of the most frequently asked questions so in 2009 I looked to find a definitive answer.
From the outset I discovered that there were at least twelve Irish saints called Ronan (!), a list which includes the following:
• Saint Ronan of Ulster (died 11th January 535)
• Saint Ronan, first Abbot of Drumshallon in Ireland (died 8th November 665)
• Saint Ronan of Iveagh in Scotland (feast day is the 22nd May)
• Saint Ronan of Lismore. His feast is celebrated on 9 February
• Saint Ronan the Silent. He preached throughout Devon/Cornwall and Brittany. He is venerated particularly in the village of Locronan in Brittany, which is named after him, and which has his relics. Although not on the official calendar of Saints, Ronan has been venerated on 1st June.
• Saint Ronan of Iona. The 18th August is the day designated to his honour.
…but who was ‘our’ Saint Ronan?
The Saint Ronan’s School Magazine 1905, published four years before the school’s Founder retired, tells the story of Saint Ronan the Silent. Clearly, Revd. Crick who had named the school after the Sir Walter Scott’s novel Saint Ronan’s Well had assumed that this was ‘our man’. What follows in an extract from that magazine.
Saint Ronan was born in Ireland, traditional home of most Celtic Saints; he afterwards crossed to Brittany, where he was the forerunner of the clan of Renan. The Story of his appearance is fascinating. Some fishermen on the Breton Coast were asleep in their boats when they were awakened by a strange disturbance in the water. Suddenly they saw a curious sight, a rock came sailing towards them, leaving a long, quiet track behind it as though the waves trembled at its touch. It was garlanded with unknown seaweeds, and exhaled so sweet and strong a scent, that all the air and even the sea was perfumed. On the summit of the rock a figure knelt in prayer, his head surrounded by a nimbus, the glory of which illuminated the night.
Such was the coming of Saint Ronan to the shores of Brittany. In character, Saint Ronan proved to be somewhat violent and distinctly capricious. People respected him, but owing to his determination to live alone, their respect was mingled with timidity. Such was the general fear of doing what might prove displeasing to the Saint, that at his death people were entirely undecided as to what he would have wished to be done with his body; they therefore put it on a cart harnessed to four oxen; the latter guided by the invisible hand of Ronan, went into the thickest part of the forest, the trees all bowing down or breaking off before their steps; finally in the very centre where grew the strongest trees the cart stopped dead; so everyone understood, and they buried the Saint there and built his church over him.
The story of the Saint Ronan of Iona is interesting and one of a devil-bashing bishop. If you read on, you will see that this Saint Ronan is, with little doubt, ‘our’ one and not Saint Ronan the Silent, as previously assumed. The irony is not lost on us all!
Ronan Kilmaronene was a seventh century monk, of Irish descent, who was a member of the religious community at St Columba on the Isle of Iona, just north of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. He became a leading figure in the early Christian Church in Britain and rose to be a bishop. He is explicitly referred to by the Venerable Bede in the controversy with his countryman St. Finan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, in 660. This controversy, on the calculation of the date of Easter, was ended at the Synod of Whitby, in 664, when Ronan’s views were upheld.
According to legend, Bishop Ronan drove the devil out of a Leithen valley in Peebleshire in the Scottish borders. The story says ‘He had a confrontation with the Devil, whom he whacked good and proper with his Staff!’ Later the bishop blessed the natural spring (Dow Well) at Innerleithen, which became a holy well and was renamed Saint Ronan’s Well.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the folklorist Alexander Carmichael took down the story told by ‘Old Angus Gunn’ the notes Ness traditionalist of the Holy Man and the Island. This told of a good and holy man ‘in the dark grey dawn of the ages long ago’ who came to the Isle of Lewis and settled in the district called Ness. He built himself a prayer house or chapel near the village of Fivepenny. However, the holy man found that people disregarded his teaching and pursued their wicked ways. Eventually he resolved to leave the district and prayed to be delivered, not caring where he would go. In the darkness of his prayer cell he heard a voice telling him what he must do. He must go down to the landing place on the bay to the west of the town of Eoropie where he would find a ‘messenger’ to carry him away.
The ‘messenger’ turned out to be a great sea creature called the ‘cionarain-cro’ that rose up from the depths of the sea. A rhyme taken down in 1860 gives some insight into the size of this beast.
Feast for a salmon;
Feast for a seal;
Feast for a small whale;
Seven small whales
Feast for a Great Whale;
Seven Great Whales
Feast for a ‘cioarain-cro’
Feast for the great beast of the ocean.
After they looked at each other, the holy man climbed on to the creature’s back and it slowly moved out into open sea.
The ‘cioarain-cro’ took its burden safely across rough winter miles of surging seas to the uninhabited island now called North Rona. The holy man leapt ashore and his sacred presence drove back strange beasts that were there. They retreated and were driven in to the sea.
According to Angus Gunn, Ronan had a half brother called Flannan, who went to the islands west of Loch Roag, and two sisters, Brianuil and Mionagan, who followed him to North Rona. It is not certain how they got there. Brianhuil later moved to a very small island ten miles west called Sula Sgeir and died in windswept solitude.
On North Rona. Ronan built two chapels or cells, one for himself, the other for his remaining sister. Upon his death he was buried near his cell.
North Rona lies about 44 miles north from the Butt of Lewis. It is incredibly isolated and landing there is only possible in excellent conditions.
North Rona, along with Sula Sgeir, was declared a National Nature Reserve in 1956 because of its importance as a breeding ground for birds such as guillemot, puffin, kittiwake and fulmar. North Rona is also a Special Area of Conservation with the third largest grey seal breeding colony in the UK, that’s 5% of the British annual pup production. It was, until 1844, the most northerly inhabited island in Britain.
Even today on the island there remains of ancient dwellings and a small chapel dedicated to Saint Ronan.
The cross which marked his grave was removed from the island during the last century and was later given to St. Moluag’s church, Eoropie, Ness. It has a naked man carved in outline, which perhaps suggests the merging of a pre-Christian belief with the Christian symbol of the cross.
The Friends of St. Moluags then gave the artefact to Ness Historical Society for safe-keeping and display. It is now placed in an illuminated glass case in the Ness Heritage centre at Eoropie on the west coastal road of Lewis.
An old boy, Major David Archibald (1935-41), was cruising off the Outer Hebrides in 1997 and landed his small yacht on North Rona, in itself quite an achievement. He took several photographs of the church and, in doing so, surprised a pair of nesting fulmars! These photographs are in the school archives.
In the nineteenth century, Sir Walter Scott became the honorary ‘keeper’ of Saint Ronan’s Well and it was the inspiration for the title of his book St Ronan’s Well, which is based on a fictitious town called Saint Ronan’s (which is really Innerleithen).
Saint Ronan’s Well was first published in 1824 and caused a lot of people to visit the well. On the back of this, the Saint Ronan’s Border Games were instituted in 1827 as a tourist attraction. These games are the oldest organized sports meeting in Scotland.
Since 1900 the Cleikum Ceremonies have become central to the festivities and is when the town’s association with its Patron Saint, Saint Ronan, is celebrated. The ceremonies have games that involve whacking things and people!
The following song was written to be sung in the Saint Ronan’s Border games:
ON, ST. RONAN’S!
Words and music by WM SANDERSON (Tweedside Laddie)
Rouse ye men of old St. Ronan’s
Gather in from hills and commons,
Ready aye to hear the summons,
On, St. Ronan’s, on!
Though we see no warlike foemen,
Nodding plume or flashing spear,
Call we forth the Border yeomen,
Fame awaits them here
On St. Ronan’s, join the chorus
Think of brave men gone before us
While the banner’s waving o’re us
On, St. Ronan’s, On
From the ages dim and hoary,
Come the tales of battles glory,
Linked with Border song and story,
On, St. Ronan’s, On!
Echoes wake in Leithen valley,
Plora’s shade and broad Minch Muir;
Stalwart lads will gladly rally
From the Vale of Quair
Sons from far, with joy we meet you,
Old time friends will kindly treat you,
Border maidens fair will greet you,
On St. Ronan’s, On!
Shades of great ones hover near us,
Wilson, Hogg and Glassford Bell,
Scott the minstrel’s song will cheer us,
By St. Ronan’s well
For the freedom bought so dearly
For the land we love sincerely
At the Games we’ll gather yearly
On, St. Ronan’s, On!
We have rights and we’ll preserve them
Honest men have naught to fear
Customs old and we’ll observe them
Each returning year
Today on Iona there is a small church dedicated to Saint Ronan. It served as the parish church of Iona from around 1200 until the Reformation in 1560. Thereafter islanders had no formal place of worship until a new parish church was built in 1828. St Ronan’s Church was restored in 1923 and again in 1993, and is now home to the Nunnery Museum.
The novel portrays the fashionable society of the fictional spa-town of Saint Ronan’s. The plot revolves around the enmity of two half-brothers, Valentine Bulmer and Francis Tyrrel.
Their father, the Earl of Etherington, has secretly married Tyrrel’s mother abroad, then later made a public marriage to Bulmer’s mother. Bulmer is thus the recognized heir and Tyrrel considered to be illegitimate.
Bulmer tries to sow discord between the Earl and his half-brother, by encouraging Tyrrel’s secret courtship of Clara Mowbray. Discovering however that union with Clara would bring fortune and earn the Earl’s favour, he impersonates Tyrrel at a midnight marriage. The brothers quarrel and Tyrrel spares Bulmer’s life on condition that he leave Saint Ronan’s and permits Clara to continue living under her maiden name.
The Earl dies and Bulmer inherits his title. His profligacy has led him to the brink of financial ruin when he learns that he will inherit a fortune if Clara acknowledges their marriage. He returns to Saint Ronan’s to persecute her and blackmails Clara’s brother, John, a fellow gambler, into threatening his sister’s life if she does not accept him as her husband. Tyrrel meanwhile is expecting papers which will prove his own claim to the earldom. Bulmer intercepts them and thereby learns that he is himself illegitimate. His accomplices betray him and his designs are exposed by Mr Touchwood, a benignly meddlesome nabob. The mental strain on Clara, though, proves too great and she dies from a brain haemorrhage. Bulmer is killed in a duel by John Mowbray. Tyrrel inherits the earldom but leaves Britain in despair.
Today, one of Aer Lingus’ A330 aircraft (reg. EI-EAV) is named “St. Ronan” to commemorate one of these saints. It is not known, however, which Saint Ronan it tributes!