Introduction to the Saints of Scotland

When we speak of Scotland, Britain, Wales, Ireland we today naturally think in terms of a more or less united country. It was never like that in the period we are covering though there were some steps taken in that direction. Rather the political and social reality was that of tribes eking out their existence in geographical isolation and more or less in continual warfare with one another. In such circumstances, where ancestry was a lot more important than history which scarcely existed it is never going to be possible to trace the coming of Christian missionaries with any form of completeness and accuracy. All we get often is hints of names and places. It probably all happened quite differently than we think.

Looking through the names of the missionaries to the various tribal areas we seem to have a predominance of Irish names, a few British, some Pictish, even the occasional Welshman, – and we must never forget that there are many whose names and exploits have long been forgotten.

The Irish however always loved their islands. It was no less so with the islands of the south west and north west. Their names form an honourable roll call: St Kessog, St Mirin, St Moluag, St Columba, St Ernan, St Kenneth, St Donnan, St Cormac, St Maelrhuba, St Finan, St Flannan, St Ronan. Others however penetrated more to the east, St Adomnan, St Bean, St Fechin, St Drostan, St Ethernan, St Duthac, An unknown number pursued their dream and their passion far far to the north along the busy highway of the sea – well off our mental horizons. Not until we have pondered the dwellings of the hermits on their seastacks will we really get a glimpse of people who deserve to be considered along with the Desert Fathers of Egypt and the sea dwellers of the Irish Atlantic.

Most of the early saints in Scotland seem to be overwhelmingly Irish. But evidence of Pictish Christian life is just as important, though it is not as abundant.

Pictish stones date from 6-9C the period in which the Picts were Christianised. Their purpose is not well understood, particularly the symbols carved on some of the crosses. Some of the most beautiful ones are at Aberlemno in Angus,the Dupplin Cross at Dunning, another at Dunblane in Perth, Eassie in Rosemarkie Museum, Hilton of Cadboll, Nigg and Shandwick, these last three on the perimeter of the land on which the Portmahomack monastery was built. The Meigle museum in Angus has a fine collection and so has St Vigeans in Arbroath.

The Picts were an Iron Age people living in different tribes in Eastern and northern Scotland i.e north of the Clyde-Forth line. They were subject for a time to the Gaels in the west and to Northumbria in the east but then freed themselves from the control of both. The Vikings helped them by taking out both of their enemies. Eventually in the 10C the Gaels and the Picts formed one kingdom called Alba. The Picts had an important centre in Perth and Angus and another in Moray. Much of what we know of them comes from these large monumental stones, probably grave stones of the Pictish elite who had converted to Christianity. The process of their conversion may have begun much earlier than previously allowed.

The monastery at Portmahomack on the Tarbat peninsula on Moray Firth has recently been excavated. This was a large and important Pictish monastery dating as early as 550; it may even have been founded by St Columba (Colmoc) after he penetrated up the Great Glen. Fine Pictish cross slabs, metalwork and calligraphy were made in the monastery’s workshop. Though the Vikings destroyed it, religious life continued.

Rosemarkie on the Black Isle of Easter Ross on the Moray Firth is associated with St Moluag and St Curetan. The museum contains a fine large cross and several carved pictish stones.

Other major Pictish centres include Abernethy, Dunkeld and St Andrews.

Dunkeld (15 miles north of Perth) was the site of an early monastery to which some of St Columba’s relics came for safety, thus forming a major religious centre before the rise of St Andrew’s.

Abernethy in Perth and Kinross lies 8m south east of Perth. It was the place used by an early Pictish bishop. Nechtan king of the Picts gave land for the building of the church which was founded by Dairlugdach second abbess of Kildare and dedicated to St Brigid. The abbess trained them in the singing of the liturgy. Abernethy is one of only two places to have a Round Tower. It dates from 11/12C
Brechin in Angus has the other Round Tower dating to 11C.

St Andrew’s is on the east coast of Fife. There was an important church there since 8C. In 877 king Constantine (I or II) built a new church for the Culdees. In 906 the town became the seat of the bishop of Alba and with that the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland. The predecessor of the Cathedral was St Rule’s church. St Rule (Regulus) was a monk of Patras who ‘saved’ the relics of St Andrew from going to Constantinople and was shipwrecked with them on the coast of Fife.

The Seastack hermits of the North

One of the geological features of the Scottish coast line are sea stacks. This phenomenon consists of a tall pillar of rock which the sea has created by eroding the rock that once surrounded it, thus detaching it from the ‘mainland’. A few people found them good for protection; hermits found these ideal for impregnable solitude. They remind us of the ‘stylites’ of Syria. They were the stylites of our northernmost islands. The Vikings found the sea stacks as good for defense; but they also built chapels (e.g.the Brough of Bursay and the Brough of Deerness on mainland Orkney. This makes it difficult to know which is which, and really only excavation can tell. Even then, the hermits may have left no evidence at all of their existence. It is however especially thrilling to gaze upon even some of the places they might have lived, Tam’s Castle, the Malme, and the Brough of Burghead on Stronsay in the Orkneys, the Kame of Isbister and the Birrier of Yell in the Shetlands.

The Irish monk Dicuil (825) speaks of the wandering ‘holy men’ of the North and the Norsemen speak of the Papar ‘fathers’,hermit or priest, living on Iceland when they arrived there. There are 3 islands in the Shetlands, 5 or 6 districts in Orkney and 8 in the Shetlands bear the name, and three islands in the Outer Hebrides (8 instances of the name in all) carry this same word in their name. There are also some instances of the word in Caithness.

When the Norse came they mentioned the papar in their records (of the 12C), ‘Christian men’ who left because tey did not want to mix with the Norwegians. They left behind ‘Irish books and bells and croziers.’

Excavation has shown that when the Norse became Christian and churches were built some of them at least were built on earlier foundations e.g. Papa Stronsay in Orkney and St Ninian’s isle in Shetland. Sometimes the finding of significant stone carving indicates an early Christian community

Other Sites with Holy Wells