While searching for a possible origin for the unique cross that Scottish Heraldry has defined as the “cross, crosslet fitchee, gules” (a cross with crosses on each tip and a pointed staff, red in color) I came across the legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller. Unlike most crusader’s, or warrior’s crosses, St. Julian’s cross is an exact match to the cross, crosslet fitchee, gules. Both St. Julian’s cross and the cross, crosslet fitchee, gules are traditionally red (the Heraldic term gules means red). St. Julian was a French knight in the first Crusade. This exact match compelled me to search out the legend of this Saint. I was immediately struck with how St. Julian’s story is very similar to the ancient Celtic legend ofFionn mac Cumhill. Some believe the Highland legends of Finghael are the Scottish version of the Irish Fionn mac Cumhill. But the legends of Finghael are more likely about our ancestor Somhairlidh (Somerled). This striking similarity would have been obvious to his grandson, Donald of Islay.
It is Somhairlidh‘s grandson, Domhnaill Íle (Donald of Islay) from whom we get our surname,MacDonald, meaning son of Donald. His home, and the seat of the Lords of the Isles was Finlaggen, Islay, Scotland. A 1990 archaeological dig at Finlaggen discovered a buried head of an ancient standing cross with a cross, crosslet fitchee carved in its crest. So the question is “Why would a 14th century Celtic standing cross from Finlaggen have a French Crusader’s cross engraved on its highest point?”Is it an indication that one or more of the Lords of the Isles participated in the Crusades within St. Julian’s order of Hospitaller knights? Clan Donald history does not offer any indication that any of the Lords of the Isles or clansmen participated in the Crusades. So why has this French Crusader’s (warrior’s) cross become a symbol of Clan Donald (and subsequently, several other clans)? I believe the answer is found in the legend.
The legend of St. Julian is more like a Celtic legend than the traditional stories of the other Roman Catholic Saints. That may be why this legend became popular all across 13th century Europe including Ireland, Scotland, and England (and the Kingdom of the Isles between them). Such legendsproved to be a valuable tool for the Catholic Church to keep war lords and kings such as our ancestor, Donald of Islay in hope of salvation through penance shown by generosity to the Church (Indulgences). The legend began by identifying St. Julian as having lived 300 years before (in the 1100’s). Just as the 3rd century warrior Fionn was cursed by a Druid that he would kill his own grandfather the king, Julian was cursed by a talking beast (some accounts say a witch). The terrible curse uttered was that Julian would slay both of his own parents. Julian loved his parents and tried to avoid the curse
by going to fight in the first crusade. Like Fionn, Julian became known for his fearless combat because he actually hoped to die and thereby avoid the curse (referred to in the Irish Annals as the curse of Fingal). When Julian returned from the Crusades he rescued, fell deeply in love with, and married a renowned, beautiful lady of means. Could they live “happily ever after”? Tragically, Julian’s fate was determined. He was an avid hunter and returned home to find a man under the covers of his bed with a woman he assumed was his new bride. In a jealous rage he ran his sword through both. He left his bed chamber, still feeling the rage, only to find his wife standing in the hall excitedly explaining that his parents had come to visit! And she had provided them with their very best accommodations, their own bed! There is no doubt why such a horrific tragedy became the basis of an enduring legend.
The struggle to escape a predetermined fate is a reoccurring Celtic theme through ages. It is even found in the modern Celtic fairy tale “Brave” by Pixar. Fate not only dominated ancient Irish & Highland legend but remains a major element of modern Scottish culture through John Calvin’s teachings of the role of predestination in the Christian doctrine of salvation. Whatever your current cultural, social, or religious beliefs it will help you better understand your ancestors to realize how fate played a dominant role in every aspect of their culture.
What gave such moral value to this legend was how Julian and his bride responded to this fateful event. Julian and his wife first disposed of all their earthly possessions and gave to the poor. They then spent the rest of their lives in penitence providing hospitality to every stranger they encountered. Some sources for the legend of St. Julian include a Divine test of his penitence by an angel who appeared as a homeless leper drowning in a raging river. Julian risked his own life to rescue and give comfort to the stranger, even wrapping a blanket around himself and the leper to warm the pitiful pilgrim. When Julian awakened in the morning the traveler had vanished from his side. It was not long after he died that the Pope granted Julian Sainthood due to his remarkable example of penitence and miracles attributed to Julian’s intervention. The legend states Julian exemplified every beatitude of the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount for the remainder of his life. He became the patron Saint of murderers, warriors, rescuers, travelers, hospitallers, and pilgrims. He is usually depicted with his sword in hand.
Like St. Julian, Clan Donald history records that Donald of Islay, when in his 60’s, sailed to Rome seeking absolution (plenary indulgence) from the Pope for a long life of violence as a warrior king. Donald killed his own uncle, an envoy of the King of Scotland, and hundreds in battle in order to lay the foundation of the Kingdom of the Isles. This kingdom remained under his family’s rule for the next two hundred and thirty years. Who better for this penitent warrior king to model his life after than the patron Saint of warriors and murderers? Donald most likely heard the Legend of St. Julian from the Bishops & Priests in his own island kingdom. But even if he had not heard it from them, it is very plausible that Pope Innocent IV told the penitent Donald of Islay how a man who had even killed his own parents had obtained Sainthood. The cross of St. Julian would have been a symbol of hope to the aging Donald of Islay as he coped with memories of a long life of violent combat. Other crosses at Islay, from the same period, haveengravings of the taking of life such as the Kildalton cross. It has engraved Biblical scenes of Cain slaying Abel, Abraham preparing to slay his son as a sacrifice, and David slaying a lion (the Hebrew word for lionאַרְיֵהis only one letter different than Uriahאוּרִיָּה , Bathsheba’s husband whom David had slain). The man who commissioned this cross had obvious concerns about the standing of someone who had taken a life. St. Còllum cille even suffered self imposed exile as the result of a battle fought in Ulster over a sacred manuscript. Donald of Islay dedicated his last 20 years to the building of Abbeys & Chapels in Finlaggen, Kintyre, Iona, and Glasgow as did many of his heirs in their later years. It is obvious that the legacy by which Domhnaill Íle (Donald of Islay) wished to be remembered was more than just a warrior king. Like St. Julian, Donald of Islay’s last decades were devoted to Christian ideals.
What Scottish Heraldry calls the cross, crosslet fitchee gules is exactly like the warrior cross of St. Julian. It is a logical symbol for Donald Islay to have had engraved on the crest of the Celtic standing cross at Finlaggen for it represents the legacy of hope he wished to leave. There is evidence the legend of St. Julian was well known in Britain. The oldest surviving document recounting the legend in French is dated 1268 and the British Anchoress Julian of Norwich took the name of St. Julian, and his unique cross in its missionary form, as she gave hope and care for English plague victims with the message “All is well, all will be well”. St Julian’s cross was a symbol that there is hope even when all appears lost. Hope & inspiration that even a murderer could become a Saint through penitence.
The legend of St. Julian fits into known Clan Donald history like a long missing puzzle piece and gives us a plausible explanation for how a French Crusader Saint’s cross found its way to Finlaggen. The cross, crosslet fitchee, gules has become one of the most recognizable symbols of our clan for over 700 years, yet no logical explanation of why this particular cross has symbolized Clan Donald through the centuries has been offered – until now.