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  • He Answered Them

The Life of Saint Serf

The Cistercian abbey of Culross was founded in 1217. It was founded on the site of an earlier church associated with the cult of St. Serf. Very little is written about St. Serf. The Vita Sancti Servani – the Life of Saint Serf, survives in the form of one manuscript; the manuscript remains intact, and dates from the 13th Century. It is understood to originally have belonged to Glasgow Cathedral and is written in Latin. It is now kept in Marsh’s Library Dublin.

The Vita Sancti Servani is a work of hagiography; a hagiography is a type of biographical writing about revered people: it comes from the Greek words hagios meaning ‘holy one’ and graphein, meaning ‘to write’. The events of St. Serf’s life likely took place at the turn of the 7th Century, meaning that the extant manuscript was written at a much later date; the authorship is attested to the order of Cistercian Monks who positioned themselves as the successors to the earlier church. To that end, the document remains a work of historical interest; by appropriating the cult of the earlier church, the Monks secured their heritage. By becoming custodians of the saint, the Monks were entitled to secure the territories attached to their patron. These lands must have been recorded locally as historical fact; so, what we read in The Vita Sancti Servani is a version of the past that was acted upon, one which guided the present, and is ultimately the one version of history that matters.

In 1895, W. M Metcalfe produced an English translation of the Latin text from a book entitled the Vitae Antiquae Sanctorum Scotae. Metcalfe believes that it was the first time the Life of Saint Serf was recorded in English. In biographical terms, the significance of the saint’s life does not stem from the temporal place he occupied in history, but from the place he occupied in history, geographically. As intercessors to the divine, the Saints always had a certain timeless quality; however, there are points of intersection with known historical events. The landscape remains the focus, and for St. Serf that landscape is the Kingdom of Fife.

The Vita Sancti Servani- early life

The story, however, begins in a different kingdom: the ancient biblical land of Canaan. Obeth, son of Eliud, and Alfia – the daughter of the King of Arabia are childless; with no heir to the kingdom, they instruct all their subjects to fast for three days and three nights. On the last night, at the last crowing of the cock, an angel of the Lord appears to them and commands the King to travel to Heliopolis where he should bathe in a fountain three times. Heeding the words of the angel and obeying all instructions from God, Alfia soon finds she is to have two sons: one called Generatius, who would become King over all the Canaanites, and Servanus who was also called Malachias.

Servanus is baptized in Alexandria by Bishop Mayonius and lived a happy life until the death of his father at age seven. The Kingdom is passed to Generatius, and Servanus returns to Alexandria where he undertook study for some thirteen years. Nothing is written of his formative years until, at the age of fifty, he became the Bishop of Canaan, where he remained for twenty years.

Called by God, he left Canaan, accompanied by an angel of the Lord and a multitude of people. Fifty and ten thousand crossed the Nile and then the Red Sea, onwards to Jerusalem they went. Servanus’ closeness with God saw him installed as patriarch of Jerusalem where he remained for seven years. He ascended Mount Zion and found the very tree that the Cross of Christ was cut from; Servanus cut for himself three staves from the tree whilst the angel of the Lord, who always accompanied him, fashioned and gifted Servanus a staff from the same wood.

Now aged eighty, Servanus travelled to Constantinople where he blessed the people with his presence for three years, before taking his large entourage to the Eternal City of Rome. Now Rome had no Pope nor teacher at that time, petitioned by the people who loved him so, he took the throne of Peter for seven years.[1]

The Romans were greatly displeased when Servanus set out to leave, many attempted to travel with him. On the Hill of Tears, Servanus split his company and sent many back to Rome. His first recorded miracle happened as the group crossed the Alps.

Miracle 1

As the company descended, black, thick darkness drew down upon them. Thunder and lightning cut across the sky; hail and a sulphurous fire rained down on the party and different beasts, some two-footed, some four-footed, began to harass them. Then came winged serpents and dragons and every torment that the devil could muster. Worst of all, and almost in preparation for his time in Scotland, what is described in the text as gnats with horned beaks – could only mean midges! – are the final punishment Servanus could no longer entertain; he blessed the valley and all the creatures vanished, but at a cost. Many died that night.

The Vita Sancti Servani – arrival in Scotland

Seven thousand thousand crossed the sea to Britain. Servanus’ reputation preceded him, and Saint Adamnan travelled to Inchkeith to receive him.[2] “How shall I dispose of my household and companions?” He asked the Abbot. Adamnan replied “Let them dwell in the Land of Fife, from the sea of the Britains as far as the mountain which is called Okhel”.

Miracle 2

Sevanus with only one hundred companions remaining came to Kinel (Bo’ness?) where he threw the staff, cut from the tree of the cross, across the river forth; where it landed in Culenros (Cullross) an apple tree sprouted. The angel of the Lord told him that the tree shall be called ‘Monglas’ and that there the Saint’s body shall be laid to rest.

The Vita Sancti Servani- King Brude of the Picts

Servanus crossed the Forth to retrieve the blessed staff; he cleared away the thorns and the thicket to build his church to the Lord. King Brude, the King of the Picts was enraged at the saint’s audacity and went to speak with Servanus.[3] King Brude also suffered from a violent disease, when Servanus met him he was moved by the King’s piety and prayers to God, so Servanus healed him (miracle 3); for his part King Brude granted Servanus a place to dwell in perpetuity; it is on this spot the Church and a cemetery is founded and dedicated.

From there Servanus travelled to the Island on Loch Leven seeking a council with st. Adamnan.[4] So moved by Servanus’ faith, Adamnan gifted the island to him as a good will gesture and a place suitable for religious practice.[5] St. Serf stayed seven years in the monastery and ‘won many souls.’ At the age of ninety-four, Serf left the Inch and traversed the region of Fife – “raising diverse edifices to the Most High.”

Miracle 4 and an encounter with the Devil

Whilst staying in a cave in Dysart, Serf changed water into wine to heal a fellow Monk who travelled with him. Thereafter, the Devil Himself appeared to him to tempt and dispute him.

What followed was a deep theological discussion that covered the following: where was God before creation? Why did God create, and why did He make it Good? Where was Adam formed, and how long was he in paradise after he sinned? Why did God permit them to sin in paradise? Why did God make a new man to deliver humanity? Why are men saved by the passion of Christ but not demons?

Serf answered all these questions quickly and confidently, and the Devil, seeing that he was indeed wise, decided to dispute with him no more; as the Devil vanished, Serf banned him from ever again appearing to any man in the cave in Dysart.

Miracle 5 and 6

During one of Serf’s many travels he found himself ministering to two separate people whilst on a sojourn around Tuligbotuan (Tillicoultry). He stumbled across a man possessed by a ravenous spirit; the poor man would eat and eat but could never satiate his hunger. Acting quickly, Serf jammed his thumb in the poor man’s mouth, immediately exorcising the demon that haunted him.

Whilst going about his business he came across a young woman, racked by sobbing and grief; she had given birth to two stillborn youngsters. Serf’s heart broke for the young lady, and he restored to life her two children.

Miracle 7 and 8

In Alva, Serf happened upon a poor peasant who had but one pig. Despite this, the poor peasant so overjoyed to meet the famous saint took up his blade and slaughtered the pig for he and Serf to enjoy a feast and each other’s company. The men spoke long into the night as the poor peasant, with naught to his name, entertained. In the wee hours, Serf slipped from the house to continue his journey. When the poor peasant awoke the next morning, he was surprised to see his dear pig back in its stall.

In Airth, Serf found himself in the company of another poor peasant who had but one sheep. The man was so guarded of the sheep that it lived with him in his house. When Serf came upon him, the poor man beseeched the mercy of the saint. For a thief in the night had entered the poor man’s house and taken the sheep. The poor man had his suspicions as to the perpetrator, but the man strongly denied the claims against him. In response to the poor man’s petition, Serf spoke with the alleged thief, but he continued to deny any involvement. Serf took his staff, the one cut from the tree of Christ, and told the man to swear an oath of truth upon it. Asking the man once more if he was responsible for the theft, the man made to speak in his defence but all that came out was the bleating of a ram.

The Miracles in Dollar

Soon after these things, Serf constructed for himself a monk’s cell in Dunning Glen in Dollar. Serf’s planned solitude was not so easy to come by; the glen was also home to a dragon! The dragon was so fierce and loathsome that no man dared set his gaze upon it; that is no man aside from Serf. The blessed saint and the dragon began a savage skirmish; seemingly only armed with his staff, Serf fought the dragon to a standstill and slayed him.

But Serf could still not find his solitude; nine men travelled to his cell from the Alpine region, seeking out his renowned healing abilities. Of the nine men, three were blind, three were deaf and three were lame of leg.

Meeting the men, he asked of them, ‘who do you think does the healing? Is it Serf himself or are those in need healed by the power of the holy spirit?’ When the men answered that indeed it was the Holy Spirit that Serf wielded, he rewarded them for their faith. Recalling the method in which his own father was blessed, Serf consecrated a certain fountain in the glen and told the men to bathe in it three times. To their surprise, but not Serf’s, the men were cured of their afflictions in turn.

But this was to be the last miracle that Serf performed. Where even the dragon had failed, Serf was assailed by a grievous infirmity and a virulent fever that he could do nothing against; and so he passed from this life.

Before he was taken up in the spirit, he bestowed peace on his brethren. Many said that they would rather die with him than live in the world without him. Serf asked them to remain in this world, and in that cell in Dunning Glen gradually he yielded his spirit to the Lord. It was the first day of the calendar in July.

After his death, his disciples and almost the entire province conveyed his body to Culross; here he was interred, by the fated apple tree, to the praise of Almighty God.

So reads the Life of St Serf.

[1] We do find a record of a pontificate of a Pope Severinus from mid-October AD 638 until August AD 640; it is also stated that he was an old man when he assumed the position; however, his ancestry is recorded differently as was his stated day of death which ended on the same day he passed from office. [2] Saint Adamnan is another historically attested person, he is recorded as the Abbot of Iona between AD 679 - 704 [3] King Brude AKA King Bridei IV was King of the Picts AD 677 – 706. This is written in the Pictish Chronicle, the oldest version and most complete comes from AD 971 and was commissioned by King Kenneth II of Scotland. [4] Known today as St. Serf’s Inch [5] St. Serf’s Inch was home of the ‘Culdee’ – the spouses of God and later an Augustinian monastic community. The Culdee was established there in the first half of the 12th century, but the monastic society lived there long before. It was allegedly founded by none other than King Bridei IV. The Monastery produced Gaelic language charters (bill of rights) that were translated into Latin; one such charter goes back to the time of King Bridei. The Pictish King impact on history is the Cain Adomnain or the Lex Innocentium. This was promulgated at a gathering of Irish, Dal Riatan and Pictish nobles at the synod of Birr in AD 697- named after Adomnan the 9th Abbot of Iona. It was Europe’s first human rights treaty protecting woman and non-combatants. The Synod of Birr was instigated after Adomnan had a vision in which his Mum came back from the dead to scold him for not looking after the woman and children. We can place Adomnan, King Brude and St. Serf not only as contemporaries but also as acquaintances!

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