St Drostan the Wanderer
Saints should possibly still be honoured, even in an irreligious age; kept in mind in a different way. There is no patron saint of Angus,but if we were to look at the early saints who laboured here, the prime candidate would be St Drostan, even though his reputation and name is stamped over the landscape of widely scattered places in the north. While we know that this saint was resident in Glen Esk and died further north at Deer, the details of his life are frustratingly brief. One source is the 12th century notes contained in the 10th century Book of Deer:
Columcille and Drostan, Cosgrach's son, his disciple, came from Iona, by the inspiration of God, to Aberdour. And Bede, a Pict, was mormaer of Buchan when they came there; and he made the offering of that town to them, in freedom forever from mormaer and from toiseach. They came afterwards to another town; and it pleased Columcille, because it was full of God's grace: and he asked of the mormaer Bede, that it should be given to him. But he did not give it. After he had refused the clerics, his son fell ill, and was upon the point of death; whereupon the mormaer went to beseech the clerics to pray for his son, that health might come to him: and he gave to them as an offering the land from the boundary stone of the well to the boundary stone of Gartnait's son's farm. They prayed, and health came to him. Thereupon Columcille gave that town to Drostan, and blessed it; and he left a curse that whoever should oppose it should not be long-lived or victorious. Drostan shed tears upon parting with Columcille. Columcile said: 'Let tear henceforward be its name'.
There we have succinctly a legend legitimising ancient rights bestowed by a local secular ruler, a link to a saint of greater fame (Columcille/Columba) and a folk explanation of the name of the monastery-dear being Gaelic for 'tear'. But no mention of Glenesk, unfortunately. There are possible mentions of the ancient monastery of Deer in the Annals of Ulster in the years 623 and 679 under the name of 'Ner'.
The 16th century Aberdeen Breviary contains more information about the saint's wanderings. It states that he was 'born of the royal race of the Scots' and was sent for education to his uncle Columba in Ireland. He was educated at Dalquongale and became abbot of that place. After some years he went to live a solitary life in desert hermitages in Scotland and 'build a church in the place that is called Glenesk, leading the life of a hermit there'. Further detail is scant. It is related that a blind priest named Simon was restored to sight by the saint, perhaps in Glen Esk. The saint's time in Angus is not detailed; nor is his foundation or settlement in Deer mentioned, which is strange, so this story links back to a different origin legend. The account merely concludes by stating that his bones were laid in a stone tomb. The Martyrology of Aberdeen relates of miracle working relics of the holy man at Aberdour.
Possible Origins and Traces Elsewhere
Tracking this saint, in terms of geography and even racial origins, is difficult. Alan Macquarrie believes that he was undoubtedly of Pictish origin and thinks that Dalquongale may represent Dercongal, near Dumfries, also known as Holywood (site of a later medieval abbey). He also identifies Drostan with a Drostan Dairtaighe ('of the oratory'), whose death is recorded in the Annals of Ulster in the year 719 - a considerable time of course after Columba- at Ardbraccan in County Meath. This was an early Columban church. A further Irish sources includes this Drostan as one of seven saintly sons of a man named Oengus who crossed from Scotland to Ireland. Such diffusion of territory ascribed to early clerics is not unusual. To those so inclined, saints are anything that you want them to be and this extends as far as experts and scholars who drag up illogical theories for their own satisfaction. Sp Archibald Scott in his book The Pictish Nation (1918) may make Drostan the son of a prince of the Demetae (Dyfed in Wales), but it is almost certainly untrue. (Though there is a Llan-Trostroc, now Trosdre, there.)
Drostan's cult in Scotland seems to have been widely spread as well, but concentrated in the north and east, the old Pictish territories: Old Deer, Aberdour, Glen Esk, and also in the Inverness-shire district of Glen Urquhart, called St Drostan's Urquhart (Urchardan Mo-Chrostain) in Catholic times. In this locality there was a plot of ground that Drostan is said to have cultivated while he lived here as a hermit, known as St Drostan's Croft. In St Ninian s Chapel, in the glen, was preserved the saint s cross, and the custodian of the relic had the use of the 'Dewar s (or keeper s) Croft' as a reward for his services. This place was called in Gaelic Croit Mo-Chrostain. The close association of the saint with this place has not entered the traditional written record of the saint.
Churches in northern Scotland dedicated to Drostan include - Alvie and Urquhart (Inverness-shire); Aberlour (where there is Skirdurstan, St Drostan's Parish, above Craigellachie) and Rothiemay (Banff); Dunachton, Deer, Insch and Aberdour (Aberdeenshire); plus Cannisbay and St Drostan's Burial Ground at Westfield (Hallkirk parish) in Caithness, where the saint is also credited as being the founder of the Chapel of St Tear near Ackergill, Wick; also anciently Ard Trostain at Loch Earn (Perthshire). A southern outlier is the Church of Mo-Dhrust at Markinch in Fife.
The feast day of St Drostan was 14th December and fairs were held to him usually around this date. The one at Old Deer in Aberdeenshire is recorded from the beginning of the 17th century and is certainly much older. The fair here lasted for eight days, while that at Aberlour lasted three days. Another fair was held at Rothiemay. Pope Leo XIII restored the feast of this saint in 1898.
Apart from the wells in Angus considered below, there were other wells dedicated to the saint at Aberlour, and around five in the area between Edzell and Old Aberdour. Are we, from all this, to infer that we are dealing with an originally Aberdeenshire holy man? There is too little evidence to determine that. We can also go along with the caution of K.H. Jackson by agreeing that 'the "cult" of Drostan was concentrated in the north-west triangle within a curving line drawn roughly from Montrose to Kingussie and thence to the head of the Beauly Firth'.
It should also be mentioned that the name Drostan was not unique to the saint. Variants include Drostan, Trust, and Trusty (plus Drystan and Trystan) and it was borne by Pictish rulers and possibly other early clerics as well.
The Settlement in the Glen and Memorials in the Area
Drostan may be one of three locally venerated clerics found on the 'Drosten Stone' at St Vigeans, in southern Angus, but this is by no means certain. Colm, Medan and Fergus are three saints supposed to be his acolytes, and these names are found in the countym, but any certain link to the early medieval saint called Drostan is insubstantial indeed. The linkwith one area of north Angus is very much stronger. We can safely say that the association of Drostan with Glen Esk definitely dates from the 16th century and almost certainly dates from many centuries before this time. In this area we have Droustie's Meadow and Droustie's Well, plus the church known as Kirk of Droustie. The well, near the kirk, was described in 1860 as being muddy from long disuse, and by the 1960s was all but obliterated by an infill of rubble and debris. The chucrh dedicated to the saint is described by Alexander Warden in Angus or Forfarshire (volume 4, 1884):
The ruins of the kirk of St Drostan of Glenesk stand near the north-west corner of the old kirkyard, at the east end of Lochlee, on the left bank of the stream which issues from the loch, and on the south of the road leading up the glen. Down to 1784 it was thatched with heath. It was then covered with grey slates...A new Parish Church was erected in 1803 on the peninsula between the Mark and the Brawny, about a mile to the east of the old kirk ; and a comfortable manse stands near to the church. The site of the manse is called Droustie, and near by it is a fountain called Droustie's Well. As these are corruptions of St Drostan, it may be inferred where his residence had been. The name has been retained for more than a thousand years.
Andrew Jervise states in Land of the Lindsays (1882):
the site of the present manse of Glenesk being called 'Droustie,' and a fountain near by 'Droustie's Well,' it may be inferred that these are corruptions of the name of St. Drostan, and point to the site of his ancient residence and church. 'Droustie's Meadow' is also the name of a piece of ground near the parsonage at Tarfside...
In his article for the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Jervise further says of the relevant places in the glen:
An adjoining field on the glebe lands of the Episcopal Church, and one of the best fields of the locality, is called Droustie's Meadows...There is, indeed, another place about four miles farther up the glen, also called Droustie, near the old kirkyard and Loch of Lee. It is probable that St Drostan had one of his cells or residences at or near to the meadows, and that this ancient place of sepulture was the burial place of,if not the aborigines, some of his devoted followers...It ought also to be observed, that near to the site of that primitive place of sepulture, there stands a large boulder, with a rudely incised cross upon it. This, too, is said by the peasantry to have reference to the engagement between Bruce and Cumyn ; but, as it was removed within those sixty years from a place nearer both to Droustie's Meadows and to those graves, perhaps (for its original site is quite unknown) it had been connected with St Drostan's Cell at the Meadows, or with the burial place.
A pool in the river here named the Monk's Pool hints at religious settlement of some date, as does the simple cross carved into the stone which Jervise mentions (though it has apparently been moved from its original location). Elsewhere in the region, at Newdosk over the border in the Mearns, Drostan had a church dedicated to him at Piper’s Shade. There was a well here renowned for its curative powers, but jealous local healers tried to poison it. Followers of the saint were outraged and slew the healers, burying them in a rather pagan fashion around the holy spring.
The site in Glen Esk has all the inferential hallmarks of a small, early Christian settlement, but we will never know for sure, barring extensive archaeological investigation - which seems unlikely. But, barring challenges from others, I would happily accept Drostan as our primary county saint.