This mysterious son of a ‘witch’ founded Glasgow

St. Mungo’s miraculous story is a murky mix of fact and fiction. Whatever the truth, his legacy is still felt—and celebrated—in Scotland’s biggest city.

As tourists wander Glasgow, they frequently pass an image of a gray-haired monk who, despite founding this Scottish city, remains shrouded in mystery. The most influential person in Glasgow history, he adorns its city crest, looms in its cathedral, graces street murals, and has his name on museums, schools, charities, and sports clubs.

He is St. Mungo, the illegitimate son of an alleged witch thrown from a cliff while he was in her womb. Baby Mungo somehow survived, the first of many miracles linked to Glasgow’s patron saint.

Despite living some 1,400 years ago, he remains relevant in Glasgow such that each January a large festival celebrates his legacy. What began as a small event in 2010 has bloomed into a flagship fair for Glasgow, a proudly working-class city of 630,000 people in the country’s south. Now held over 11 days, St. Mungo Festival offers free lectures, musical performances, and guided tours of locations linked to this holy man, also known as St. Kentigern.

Festival lecturer Dauvit Broun, a professor at the University of Glasgow, says even centuries of scholarly dissection haven’t unravelled St. Mungo’s mysteries. His story remains a murky melange of fact and fiction. “It is very difficult and, in many cases, ultimately hopeless, to try to recover what actually happened in a saint’s life,” says Broun.

No matter how slippery, this holy man’s tale helps explain the origin, evolution, and medieval wonders of Glasgow, particularly to travelers who follow the St. Mungo Heritage Trail or attend his festival.

Miraculous beginnings

St. Mungo was inexplicable from birth, says Alan Macquarrie, honorary research fellow of history at the University of Glasgow. In A.D. 528, Scottish princess Thenue became pregnant from an affair with a cousin, and her furious father had her pushed off Traprain Law peak, 18 miles east of Edinburgh.

When Thenue somehow survived, the king, now convinced his daughter was a witch, set her adrift in an oarless vessel on the nearby River Forth. The boat landed safely at Culross in Fife, Macquarrie says, where she was met by St. Serf, the abbott of Culross monastery, who acted as midwife at Kentigern’s birth.

St. Serf cared for Thenue, helped raise her boy, and guided him into priesthood. After completing his religious training, Mungo left Culross and encountered a dying holy man named Fergus, whose final wish was to be hauled on a cart by bulls and buried wherever they halted.

Eventually, these beasts paused in the green and serene Clyde Valley. It was there Fergus was interred, and Mungo established a church and a new community he named “Glasgu.” This chapel developed into the magnificent 12th-century Glasgow Cathedral, now the city’s oldest building, which is decorated by four symbols shared with the Glasgow crest.

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That coat of arms, which embellishes buildings throughout the city, depicts a tree, bell, robin, and salmon. Each of these icons represents a famous St. Mungo miracle, says Patricia Barton, lecturer in the history department at the University of Strathclyde Glasgow.

When students at St. Serf’s monastery accidentally killed a pet robin, and blamed Mungo, the boy held this bird, engaged in prayer, and sent it flapping back into the sky. In another tale, Mungo fell asleep while guarding the monastery’s holy fire, woke to find it extinguished, and so snapped branches from a tree and prayed until they were set ablaze.

The image of a salmon biting a golden ring is linked to the king of Strathclyde, who gifted his wife this jewelry, Barton says. When the king saw a knight wearing the queen’s ring, he became jealous, stole it, threw it in a river, and demanded his wife retrieve it. In desperation, the queen sought help from Mungo, who had a fish scooped from the river and cut it open to reveal the lost ring.

The bell, meanwhile, represents one that Mungo brought back to Glasgow from Rome, Barton explains. “It was said to be miraculous,” she says of the bell. “If one prayed while it tolled during services, St. Kentigern would intercede.”

On the trail of St. Mungo

Tourists can learn these wondrous tales while following the St. Mungo Heritage Trail, an online guide created by the Glasgow City Council. Although the trail doesn’t include St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries, the fictional facility to treat wizards in the Harry Potter books, it does visit Culross and Traprain Law, a 725 feet-high hill where the largest Roman silver hoard from anywhere outside the Roman Empire was found in 1919. It also weaves through central Glasgow past two exquisitely detailed murals of St. Mungo, both more than 30 feet tall, covering the sides of buildings on High Street.

A few minutes’ walk north from there lies St. Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art. This timeworn stone building hosts exhibits highlighting the many ways different religions shape local cultures.

St. Mungo himself rests beneath the nearby Glasgow Cathedral. Or so the story goes. Such is his mystery, there’s no proof St. Mungo’s remains are inside the cloth-covered coffin in the cathedral’s crypt. A sign alongside it even concedes that, in regards to his life story, “much of it was made up.”

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That uncertainty fades in relevance during the St. Mungo Festival, held this year from January 9-19. This gala event has grown enormously since its inception, says Stephen McKinney, spokesman for Mediaeval Glasgow Trust, which helps organize the festival. All of its events are free, the most popular of which are lectures on Glasgow’s heritage by experts in history, literature, art, and archaeology.

On January 14, visitors to Glasgow’s enormous Mitchell Library can see a facsimile of Vita Kentigerni. This 12th-century book provides the most detailed account of St. Mungo’s life.

The festival’s growth underscores the enduring influence of St. Mungo. “I don’t know of another city in Europe where a [patron] saint’s legends are as well known,” says Macquarrie. To this day, Glasgow schoolchildren learn a rhyme about St. Mungo: “This is the bird that never flew, and this the tree that never grew. This is the bell that never rang, and this the fish that never swam.”

The short poem encapsulates the tall tale of a mystifying figure with a clear legacy—a miraculous monk who, more than a millennia later, is still helping to define Glasgow.

Ronan O’Connell is an Australian journalist and photographer who shuttles between Ireland, Thailand, and Western Australia.

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