Adrian of May
Life and martyrdom
Little is known of the life of this Scottish saint and martyr. He is held by some to have been an Irish monk and bishop, with the Gaelic name of Ethernan, who, though he might have been the Bishop of St. Andrews, was drawn to remote locations and had built a series of monasteries and hermitages on the Isle of May (which is five miles out to sea in the Firth of Forth) and along the coast of Fife. Later he withdrew from his see of St. Andrews due to the invading Danes and took refuge on the island. It is also held that he might have been a missionary monk from what is now Hungary, perhaps even a member of the Hungarian royal family.
What is known is that about A.D. 875, marauding Vikings invaded the island of May. They then slaughtered the entire population of the monastery, traditionally numbered at six thousand six hundred. The bodies of Ethernan/Adrian and the other monks were buried in what is now a huge burial cairn, possibly of pre-Christian origin, measuring thirty meters (nearly 100 feet) across and made up of an estimated 1.5 million fist-sized cobblestones. The island was then abandoned for centuries.
In 1145, King David I of Scotland gave the island to Reading Abbey in Berkshire, England, at which point, the island again became a religious center. The English monks started the erection of a small monastery dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, with a shrine to St. Ethernan. The monastery housed as many as 13 monks, supported by lands and tithes from the surrounding countryside.
Early building was hampered due to raiding parties by the Scandinavians settling on the nearby island of Orkney. The privations and isolation of the location finally led the monks to transfer the island in some manner to the Bishop of St. Andrews in A.D. 1288. Shortly thereafter, in 1296, war broke out between the Kingdoms of Scotland and England over territorial claims along the border between the two realms. This was paralleled in a legal fight between the abbey and the bishop over who actually owned the island. Initially, the abbey was confirmed as the lawful owner. This, however, was overturned in 1313 and the island was declared a part of the diocese. In consequence of this, English forces attacked the island and leveled the monastery. English invaders seized their chance to pillage the island's treasures and torch the buildings - recent excavations found evidence of extensive fire damage.
After the conclusion of hostilities, the island then became an important symbol of national pride, and pilgrimages to May became a common feature of religious life for the Scottish people. The practice arose that pilgrims would pick up stones at the nearby beach and place them on the cairn as a remembrance of their visit, and as a request for prayers by the holy martyrs. This accounts for the current size of the cairn.
When the Scottish Reformation took hold in the 16th century, public devotion to the saints—and thus pilgrimages to the site—came to a halt and the Protestant bishop of St. Andrews soon decided to sell the island into private ownership. Slowly the island sank into ruin, with most of the surviving monastic buildings disappearing. Recently the island has become the site of archaeological excavations seeking the remains of the original monastic community which died at the hands of the Vikings.