James IV of Scotland, the Pilgrim King

James IV was one of Scotland’s most colourful kings, who lived life to the full. He sought glory through the pursuit of warfare, although this ultimately led to disaster; he was killed by the English at the Battle of Flodden, in 1513, when he was still only forty. In spite of the awful end to his reign, several modern historians have presented him as an effective ruler – not least because he offered more than military leadership. He was assiduous in the exercise of justice; he lived up to late-medieval ideals of kingship through his interest in learning and patronage of the arts; he excelled in the management of his fractious nobility, many of whom eventually followed him to the death. James also conformed to contemporary expectations in his personal brand of piety, which he expressed most notably through pilgrimage.

James IV
James IV, King of Scots (National Galleries of Scotland)

James succeeded to the Scottish throne in 1488, at a time when pilgrimage was an important aspect of European religious life. Large numbers of pilgrims made trips to holy places in the belief that this could bring them a range of benefits, both in life and after death – especially through contact with the relics of saints. Saints, of course, were not seen as gods, but they were thought to have the power to intercede on people’s behalf. Some pilgrims therefore hoped for miraculous cures; others sought to atone for sins which they believed would imperil their immortal souls. Presumably many pilgrims also appreciated more commonplace benefits of pilgrimage – such as the opportunity to see new places, and a welcome break from the daily routine – although of course they would not have given these as their primary concerns!

People from all levels of society became pilgrims, and kings were no exception. But James was unusual in the frequency of his pilgrimages, and the survival of his treasurer’s accounts has enabled historians to reconstruct his movements in remarkable detail. From 1491 onwards we can be sure that James took part in at least one pilgrimage each year – and almost always more regularly than this.

In the mid-1500s James made tentative plans for a journey to the Holy Land (he also expressed some interest in joining a crusade), but ultimately all of his pilgrimages took place in Scotland itself. James visited a variety of holy places (such as St Adrian’s shrine on the Isle of May and the Cross Kirk at Peebles), but two locations stand out above all the others: the shrine of St Ninian at Whithorn and the shrine of St Duthac at Tain. Whithorn was probably James’s favourite place of pilgrimage, which he tended to visit in the spring or summer; his journeys to Tain were usually reserved for the autumn (although by no means exclusively so).

Whithorn was then Scotland’s foremost centre of pilgrimage (its most obvious rival, St Andrews, had recently experienced a decline in popularity). While the details of his life are still debated by scholars, St Ninian was almost certainly a real man who lived and worked at Whithorn in the early fifth century. His cult appears to have developed shortly after his death, and by the end of the Middle Ages the saint had gained an international reputation. Whithorn attracted pilgrims from various parts of Europe, as well as from Scotland. Visitors included several members of the Scottish royal family, perhaps most famously Robert the Bruce.

By James’s time there was a large priory church at Whithorn which included St Ninan’s beautiful shrine (the surviving ruins give little indication of the church’s former splendour). In the first years of the sixteenth century further building work took place; this included a remodelling of the ancient crypt, which had once housed Ninian’s tomb. During his visits to Whithorn James regularly gave ‘drink silver’ to the masons. He also provided support in other ways, for example by commissioning new reliquaries to hold St Ninian’s bones (or at least the ones which still survived). A silver reliquary to hold St Ninian’s arm bones was apparently particularly impressive; in the wake of the Reformation this found its way to Douai, although unfortunately it did not survive the French Revolution.

In his devotion to St Duthac, James was also following existing custom, but in this case the cult was not so well established. Duthac is an even more obscure figure than Ninian (he was perhaps active in northern Scotland during the eleventh century), and Tain did not really begin to flourish as a pilgrimage centre until the late fourteenth century. By this time, however, Duthac’s cult had developed a substantial following in the north, both in the towns of the eastern seaboard and also amongst the Highland clans. In the early fifteenth century there was a campaign for Duthac to receive official canonization (intriguingly, this was led by a prior of St Andrews), and pilgrimage to Tain became more popular as the years progressed.

St Duthac
St Duthac’s Kirk, Tain (Anne Burgess)

It is worth noting that Tain can be found in a region that had often proved troublesome to the Scottish kings, and this might well explain a growing royal interest in the site – at least in part. Several historians have suggested that James IV’s northern pilgrimages provided a non-confrontational way to assert royal power in the area – not only through a projection of his ‘majestie’, but also by demonstrating to his northern subjects that he shared their interests and appreciated their traditions.

Most of James’s pilgrimages must have presented something of a spectacle. He almost always travelled with a large entourage, sometimes including a party of Italian musicians and an African drummer. News of the king’s plans would surely have drawn people to the roadside, as well as to the places at which the royal party stayed en route. And doubtless James’s eventual arrival at Tain or Whithorn would have been a source of great excitement, eagerly awaited by people in the area – particularly once it had become apparent that this would be a regular addition to the calendar. James’s presence was a boost to the local economy, as it naturally entailed payments to innkeepers, ferrymen and others who helped to sustain the king and his company. He also made generous gifts to people who crossed his path: especially the poor and sick, including fellow pilgrims.

Medieval pilgrimage was generally expected to involve a degree of hardship, but it must be said that James often took advantage of various comforts along the way. During his pilgrimage to Whithorn in 1503, for example, James stopped off at Bothwell Castle to visit his mistress Janet Kennedy – whose nickname of ‘Janet bare ars’ leaves little to the imagination! James also spent evenings while travelling playing cards – like his contemporary Henry VII of England, he frequently lost large sums – and on some occasions he took the opportunity to indulge his love of hunting. During one of his trips to the Isle of May, for instance, the local lairds arranged a pleasure cruise in which the king enjoyed shooting at seabirds with guns.

At other times, however, James’s pilgrimages were deliberately more arduous. February 1507 saw the birth of his first legitimate child (another James), but the boy was soon ailing – as was his mother, Queen Margaret. According to the later writer John Lesley, King James ‘grevit him sa sair that he wald not be comforted’. St Ninian had a reputation for healing, and on 10 March James set off on foot from Edinburgh towards the shrine at Whithorn: a distance of over 120 miles. The journey took him just over a week – although this did include a two-day rest at Penpont (where he paid a cobbler 16d to re-sole his shoes). The last leg from Wigtown was completed overnight (with the assistance of a local guide), which enabled James to arrive at Whithorn on 18 March in time for morning mass.

James’s prayers were only partly answered, as his son did not survive infancy, but the queen was soon restored to health. Lesley tells us that Margaret attributed her recovery to ‘the pietie and devocions of her housband throuch the help of St Ninian under God’. Later in the year she joined James on yet another pilgrimage to Whithorn, in order to give thanks.

Whithorn Crypt
The crypt at Whithorn Priory (Billy McCrorie)

Norman Macdougall has argued that James was sincerely troubled by his conscience around this time, ‘dreading God’s judgement on his house as a response to his sins’. Apparently he felt a deep sense of guilt about the death of his father, King James III, who was murdered after the Battle of Sauchieburn in 1488. James IV was not directly implicated, but the old king’s downfall was certainly the result of a rebellion in which he was personally involved. Thereafter he reputedly wore a heavy iron chain as a form of penance, adding a new link every year. While his behaviour on some of his journeys might suggest otherwise, it remains very likely that James similarly saw pilgrimage, above all, as a means of atonement.

James’s last pilgrimage was a visit to St Duthac’s shrine at Tain. This took place in August 1513, shortly before he invaded England. The Scots were initially very successful, although James eventually met a terrible fate in battle; hacked and pierced by numerous blows, his body was so mangled that it was difficult to recognise. The English later claimed that St Cuthbert had come to their aid at Flodden. As Peter Yeoman has observed, ‘it is ironic that the death of Scotland’s pilgrim king was attributed to the intercession of another saint [as opposed to St Duthac], taking his enemies’ part’. But of course if we wish to understand James, he should also be remembered for how he lived, not only for how he died. His devotion to pilgrimage reveals a different – though equally significant – facet of a complex and intriguing man.

Further Reading:

David Ditchburn, ‘‘Saints at the Door don’t make Miracles’? The Contrasting Fortunes of Scottish Pilgrimage, c.1450-1550’, in Sixteenth-Century Scotland: Essays in Honour of Michael Lynch, ed. Julian Goodacre and Alistair A. Macdonald (Leiden, 2008), pp. 69-98.

Norman Macdougall, James IV (Edinburgh, 1989).

Tom Turpie, ‘Our Friend in the North: The Origins, Evolution and Appeal of the Cult of St Duthac of Tain in the Later Middle Ages’, Scottish Historical Review, 236 (2014), pp. 1-28.

Peter Yeoman, Pilgrimage in Medieval Scotland (London, 1999).