West Kilbride is one of numerous places on the Celtic fringes of the British Isles that takes its name from Saint Brigid, who stands alongside Patrick and Columba as a patron saint of Ireland. There is no evidence that Brigid ever set foot in Scotland, despite her widespread influence and esteem.
In large part the testimonies about Brigid are fanciful and unreliable, yet there is a consensus that she was born in 451, in County Louth, to a pagan chieftain and a Pictish slave-girl who was converted and baptised by Patrick. Refusing offers of marriage, she preferred to take religious orders. Her vocation as a nun eventually led her to settle in Druin Criadh where, under a large oak tree, she founded a convent – Cill-Dara, or Kildare, the church of the oak. This grew into an internationally renowned centre of religion, learning and arts, with cathedral city status.
For all her influence, she is more affectionately remembered for her generosity, care and homeliness. It is here that reality and myth become most entwined. It is indeed likely that she tended livestock, and sang to her cattle as she led them across the moor. It is also plausible that she converted a dying pagan chieftain and, as she prayed with him, plaited reeds into the prototype Bridget Cross. Less likely are tales of her giving away her mother’s entire store of butter, only to find it miraculously replenished. Or asking the King of Leinster for a mere cloak’s breadth of land on which to found her convent, only for her outspread cloak to wondrously cover the entire Curragh.
Brigid is reputed to have died on 1st February 525, which continues to be celebrated as her feast day. In her alternate name of St Bride, she is still commemorated in stories and customs in the Western Isles, including rituals to ensure healthy cattle or a bountiful harvest. She is the patron saint of numerous groups, from blacksmiths and midwives to dairymaids and sailors. In places that bear her name, including West Kilbride, the site of a healing well is often to be found.