St Fillan's Cave



St Fillan's Cave is a Y-shaped natural hollow in a rock outcrop in Cove Wynd, about 70m north of Pittenweem harbour. It is such a remarkable geological phenomenon that it gave the town its name - Gaelic pett + an + uaimh = 'the settlement of the cave'. It is 30m long, divided into two by a wall 10m in from the seaward entrance, with a wall and 17th-century doorway across it. About 7m from the end of the inner cave there is a sacred well, with water dripping from the side wall. A stairway, built by the monks, leads up from the cave to a vaulted cellar at the bottom of the priory garden.

This cave may have been a focus of religious activity before the advent of Christianity, though there is no evidence for this in the cave itself. In the mid-twelfth century, the land above it was granted to the monks of May Priory by David I. It is perhaps they who gave the cave its medieval name of 'the well of Mary Magdalene' (Fontem Marie Magdalene). Locally, she was a saint of some importance, for one of Pittenweem's two annual fairs was traditionally held on Mary Magdalene's Day (22 July). Nowhere in the pre-Reformation record is the cave associated with St Fillan. The Christian saint most strongly linked to Pittenweem was St Ethernan / Adrian, supposedly martyred on the Isle of May in the seventh century. He was venerated all along the coast of the East Neuk, notably in Kilrenny and Anstruther, and an echo of this is to be found in Pittenweem's burghal seal, where he is the central figure. The second of Pittenweem's two annual fairs was the feast of St Adrian (2 March).

The Protestant reformers outlawed the veneration of saints in the sixteenth century and succeeded in effacing all local memories of a spring dedicated to Mary Magdalene. The cave was totally de-sacralised and, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries put to a variety of mundane uses as a fisherman's store, even as a smugglers' hideaway. The stairway down to the cave from the garden above was filled with rubbish and forgotten about. It was during the first half of the nineteenth century that the Episcopalians, who now occupied the priory, re-discovered the cave and made the (largely spurious) connection with St Fillan. The cave was restored and reconsecrated in 1935 and visitors to this spiritual place are welcomed. It is now owned and maintained by the Bishop Low Trust.

We ask that people respect the silence of the cave and its spiritual atmosphere.  Today it is a shrine to the memory of St Fillan and to the people of Pittenweem who have lived and worked here over the centuries.

From time to time Christian services are held in the Cave, such as at Easter and Christmas.. Back in 2011 we were very happy to welcome children from Pittenweem Primary School to join with us in a crib service just before Christmas, which was recorded by the BBC and broadcast on TV. 




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