by Willie Scobie
A modern tartan designed and woven to commemorate an early
monk who brought "the light of Christianity" to Scotland at the
time of 'King Arthur' and his legendary Knights of the Round
Scotland's earliest recorded Christian evangelist, St. Ninian,
was a Briton, as was St. Patrick. So, it is claimed, was St. Mahew
who conducted his ministry from Cardross on the shores of the River
Clyde. It has been alleged that St. Kessog was also a Briton, but a
heavier weight of tradition argues that he was Irish. Born around
460 A.D., son of the King of Munster, Kessog's childhood home is
said to have been Cashel, a 300 foot fortified rock.
Kessog was educated in Celtic monasteries by Ailbhe of Emly and
by St. Mahew at Nendrum. Mahew, in due course, placed on the
shoulders of Kessog responsibility for the on-going missionary
endeavour in that part of Scotland which was to become known as the
It should not be forgotten that the original "Scots" have long
been understood to have come over from the north of Ireland,
settling in their Argyll kingdom of Dalriada, originating many of
the Highland clans and, in the long run, giving the nation its
name. So this close relationship between the Dalriadic Scots and
their Irish kin should be borne in mind when we consider the work
of the Celtic Church.
In 510 A.D. Saint Kessog established himself on the island of
Inchtavannach on Loch Lomond - the island of the monks' dwelling -
bringing the light of Christianity to the people of these green
forests, hills and glens. Here in this magical setting, he built up
a community of monks and trained them for the work of evangelism.
These labours predated St. Columba's settlement on Iona by several
From Loch Lomond, Saint Kessog and his monks set out on missions
to the Scots of Dalriada in the west, to the Picts of the north and
east, and to the Britons in the south. So profound were the effects
of his labours that Kessog is commemorated in the names of churches
as far north as Inverness and as southerly as Ballantrae.
There is a tradition that he was the patron saint of Scotland
prior to the adoption of St. Andrew. We can say with greater
confidence that Kessog became a bishop and is remembered as the
special saint of Loch Lomond and the Lennox. He was a brave man who
lived in violent times. There was, in his day, savage warfare
between peoples and faiths. Kessog, though primarily a man of peace
who preached the God of Love, was nevertheless trained in the use
of arms. High above the doors of St. Kessog's Roman Catholic Church
in Balloch, there is a statue of the saint carrying a bow and
arrows, for he is remembered as an archer.
St. Kessog's life was contemporary with a war-leader of the
Britons who has come down to us in legend as King Arthur. The
historic person on whom this heroic cult figure is based would
certainly have had a stronghold at Dumbarton Rock, given that this
was the ancient capital of the Strathclyde Britons. Their territory
took in Loch Lomond and much of the land around it. Indeed,
Geoffrey of Monmouth specifically tells us that Arthur fought one
of his battles on and around Loch Lomond. Arthur is understood to
have been a Christian champion, so it is perfectly likely that he
and Kessog met. It is fascinating to speculate as to the nature of
We do well to remember that Kessog's was an age in which the
spiritual and martial forces of Christian peoples and those of
older pagan religions were yet pitted against each other in epic
conflict, with much ebb and flow over the centuries. Saint Kessog
died a violent death about which there is some mystery. He was
either murdered (possibly by his adversaries the Druids at the time
of their new year rituals) at Bandry Bay near Luss, or he was
killed in battle around 540 A.D.
His remains, it is said, were embalmed in fragrant herbs and
buried at Luss. Some of the herbs flourished in such a way as to
give the village its name, "Lus" being the Gaelic for a herb.
Kessog is remembered as a warrior-saint. So significant was he
in this particular role that, centuries after the saint's death,
Robert the Bruce kindled the spirit of his Scots army with the
inspiration of Kessog's memory on the occasion of the Battle of
Bannockburn, the climax of the Scottish Wars of Independence. Two
years later, the king established "To God and the Blessed Kessog"
an area of three miles around Luss Kirk as a sanctuary within which
no person, whatever crime they may have committed, could be
arrested. On Inchlonaig, an island neighbouring that of St.
Kessog's monastery, the Bruce planted yew trees to provide bows for
In mediaeval times Luss was a centre of pilgrimage - as it is
once again today. Later, during the Reformation, elements of the
Luss congregation destroyed or damaged sacred objects which they
had come to regard as idolatrous. Others, holding to the old faith,
appear to have hidden away certain revered items for safety. A
cairn had been built at the presumed site of Kessog's martyrdom,
and in the eighteenth century, when redcoats were laying a military
road along Loch Lomondside, they removed stones from the cairn.
Inside was discovered, among other things, the head of a statue of
St. Kessog. This is now preserved in the Parish Church of St.
MacKessog in Luss. The stone image is crudely carved with the
curious exception of a well-incised laurel wreath around the brow,
giving the saint a distinctly Roman appearance. History has shown
that Kessog richly deserved his victor's crown.
The minister of Luss, the Reverend H. Dane Sherrard, like Kessog
before him, is a man possessed of vision and qualities of
leadership. He was behind the setting-up, in September 2004, of the
Loch Lomond Pilgrimage Centre. With the village of Luss attracting
an estimated 750,000 visitors per years, Rev. Sherrard and his
congregation were keen to establish an effective means through
which Luss Kirk could connect meaningfully with pilgrims. The
Centre, which was built around some old outhouses of the village
manse, features a computer and video room, a pottery and a
candle-making unit. There is a Pilgrimage Walk through the grounds
of the old church glebe and the Luss International Youth Project
has brought hundreds of young people from all over the world to
this uniquely beautiful spiritual setting.
January 1st 2010, saw the beginning of a year of celebration
commemorating 1500 years of Christianity on Loch Lomondside, which
was initiated by the arrival of St. Kessog in 510 A.D. The first
celebratory event was the ringing on New Year's Day of the bell of
H.M.S. Submarines on Tom nan Clag (The Hill of the Bell) on
Inchtavannach, island of Kessog's monastery.
In 2006 the Luss folk decided to have a special tartan created
which would commemorate St. Kessog. The sett was designed by the
late Bernard O'Hagan. It was based on the Bruce tartan because of
the close historical connections between the Hero-King and St.
Kessog's Luss. Green represents the hills and glens around Loch
Lomond. Blue represents the waters of the loch. Purple symbolises
the ecclesiastical dimension. Red expresses St. Kessog's martyrdom.
A white stripe on the blue creates Scotland's national flag - the
Saltire. The colours are muted to subtle shades which suggest
antiquity and monasticism.
The tartan was initially woven by the Islay Woollen Mill.
Latterly, however, the Pilgrimage Centre was given a 1820 Armstrong
Loom on which the MacKessog Tartan is now produced. It may be worn
by all those who have come on a pilgrimage to Luss and by those who
have been married there. Each of the special guests at the 1500th
Anniversary celebrations will be gifted a travelling rug in
"MacKessog" - a beautiful reminder of a very special man.