In the early twentieth century, the mission church of St Roque was opened in St Roque’s Lane to serve the pastoral needs of the Blackscroft area of Dundee, to the east of the city centre. In 1956, redevelopment and a declining population in central districts led to its closure.  The Altar, Reredos (the panel behind the Altar decorated with painted wooden figures) and War Memorial from St Roque’s are now housed in the North transept of the Cathedral, and they provide a fascinating link, both with the legend of St Roque and with Dundee history.

According to legend, Saint Roque – originally Saint Roch or Roche, San Rocca in Italian, Roque or Rock in English – was born in the French city of Montpellier around 1295. He was a wealthy young man, but when his father died,  Roche , aged 20, gave away his worldly goods in emulation of St Francis and went on pilgrimage to Rome. On the way, Roche encountered an outbreak of plague in Viterbo and began to tend to the sick, curing many people by making the sign of the Cross. This miraculous healing continued as he travelled onwards. When he arrived in the town of Piacenza, Roche finally contracted plague himself and withdrew to a hut in the forest. Legend says that a hunting dog found and befriended him, bringing him bread each morning and licking his sores. A spring arose to provide him with fresh water. Roche recovered and returned to his home in Montpellier, but he was not recognised, accused of being a spy and thrown into prison, It was said that God sent angels to guard over him in captivity and he died in prison on 16 August 1327.

Because of his miraculous life story, the Catholic church canonised St. Roche and adopted him as the patron saint of plague and contagious diseases, dogs and dog owners – and AIDS today. He was a very popular saint in the late middle ages, especially during plague outbreaks in northern Italy and France. Our Reredos reflects typical Catholic imagery. There is a Crucifixion scene in the centre, the figure of Christ on the Cross, with the Virgin Mary and St John. The figure of our patron, St Paul, is depicted to the right of this scene, holding a sword. St Roque stands in the left-hand panel, displaying his customary attributes. He is dressed as a pilgrim, wearing a hat and cloak (with shell brooch) and holding his walking staff in his left hand. His right hand is lifting his robe to display his plague sores, and he is accompanied by his faithful dog. Look closely to see the bread roll in his mouth!

The dedication of St Roque’s Church commemorates an important part of Dundee’s pre-Reformation religious heritage. This location (once known as ‘Semirookie’) stood outside the town walls and the Cowgate (or East) Port, to the east of the outflow of the Dens Burn on the lands of Wallace Craigie. Since these belonged to the Scrymgeour family, hereditary Constables of Dundee, it is probable that they founded and endowed this chapel. Here stood the ‘Seekmen’s Yairds’, the town’s leper house, and ‘the lodges appointed for those afflicted with the pest’, to which plague victims were exiled.[1] The medieval St Roque’s Chapel stood nearby, as well as the plague burying ground at Roodyards. This meant that sufferers were able to intercede with St. Roque for healing, receive essential religious ministrations and be buried in consecrated ground.[2]

Dundee was subject to repeated outbreaks of plague up to the mid-seventeenth century, and the town council took quarantine measures seriously, enforcing separation of the sick. This explains why the Protestant reformer and martyr George Wishart was said to have preached from the top of the Cowgate Port in 1543 (now known as the ‘Wishart Arch’), in order to address both the town dwellers and the sick outside the town walls.[3] During severe outbreaks, for example in 1603-4, the town gates were closed and traffic across the Tay forbidden, with the threat of death for anyone who broke this order.

The name ‘Capella Sancti Rochi’ and the presentation of a priest appear in church records up to the mid-sixteenth century, but in the upheaval of English invasion and the Reformation crisis from the 1540s, many of Dundee’s religious houses were sacked and fell into disuse – most likely including St Roque’s Chapel.[4] We are privileged that through the fortunate planting of an Episcopal mission church in this historic area of Dundee, we have become the custodians of a surviving altar to St Roque – a unique and evocative reminder of our city’s past.

[1] Bubonic Plague (yersinia pestis) originated in central Asia and reached northern Europe and the British Isles in the 1340s, the first wave known as the Black Death. In the medieval period also referred to as the pest or pestilence.

[2] Roodyards cemetery, named from the nearby chapel of the Holy Rood, closed in the nineteenth century. It can still be seen on the south side of Broughty Ferry Road, near the junction with A92.

[3] Sadly, this story is apocryphal. In 1543, George Wishart did return to the Dundee area after his travels on the Continent and visited the town to offer spiritual comfort during a plague outbreak. However, Cardinal Beaton had forbidden him to preach. Wishart was captured and burnt to death for heresy outside St Andrews Caste on 1 March 1546. The present Cowgate Port, or ‘Wishart Arch’, celebrating his connection with Dundee, was most likely built when Dundee’s defences were strengthened in the 1590s. It still stands in its original position. See The Life and Times of Dundee, pp.47-8.

[4] ‘James Cokburn, clerk’ [sic] was presented 11 April 1554, but not notified to magistrates. According to Maxwell, the chapel may already have been in ruins.  See Old Dundee, p54.

Selected Sources

Maxwell, A., Old Dundee Prior to the Reformation (Edinburgh 1891)

Whatley, C.A., Swinfen, D.B., Smith, A.M., The Life and Times of Dundee (Edinburgh 1993)

Foyster, E., ‘Life outside the Medical Centre: Health and Sickness in Early Modern Dundee’, in McKean, C., Harris, B., Whatley, C.A. (eds.), Dundee, Renaissance to Enlightenment