The Conversion of Scotland to Celtic Christianity

Part 2

From st. Ninian to the Norse Invasion

(A.D. 397 To The 9th Century)

Chapter 4

The Conversion of Scotland to Celtic Christianity

The Church can do without saints no more than a school can do without teachers. For it is the saints (the specially holy men and women among Christians) who live close enough to God to inspire us and to teach us the many roads that lead to the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Fortunately, there are plenty of saints about to-day, though we Protestants prefer to call them Christian heroes or heroines. And fortunately, throughout the Dark Ages, the Church in the Far West produced a great regiment of saints to lighten the darkness and to change the course of history.

St. Ninian was one of the first of these heroes. He was a Briton born in Roman Cumberland about 360. Brought up a Christian, he went on Sundays to the little British church, though many of his friends still worshipped in pagan temples. The Romans gave scholarships to clever British boys and one of these St. Ninian must have won, for he went off to Rome to continue his education, just as you might go on to the university.

In Rome he led the life of a scholar for ten years; then did his military service, by which time he was twenty-three. He had always known he would dedicate his life to Christ, and in Rome he prepared for the priesthood while studying Greek and Latin literature. He was ordained deacon and then priest, finally, just before he left Rome, he was consecrated bishop by Pope Damasus himself. This was the good Pope who asked St. Jerome to get to work on a new Latin translation of the Bible. Ninian probably knew both men quite well and also discussed the future of the Church with St. Augustine of Hippo who had left North Africa to teach in Rome at the time. He read The Life of St. Anthony and began questioning people about what St. Martin’s monks were doing in Gaul. Their lives seemed a splendid contrast to the lives led by some of the ambitious, worldly clergy around him. You may be sure too, that St. Ninian noted the discontented soldiers, the ill-treated slaves, the dishonest civil servants, the idle rich and the starving taxpayers – all signs that the Empire was sick.

St. Ninian Follows St. Martin

But there were still good Romans working for the recovery of the Empire, and it was probably a Christian Roman general who entrusted the remarkable young British bishop with the task of winning Pictish Scotland for Christ, thus conquering the unconquerable Picts for the Empire

No wonder, then, that St. Ninian thought it necessary to learn the missionary methods of St. Martin, one of the ablest organizations of his age. It is true that St. Martin paid no attention to the Roman rule that each bishop should work only in his own diocese. He trespassed all over Gaul. But St. Ninian well knew that you must seize opportunities if you are to achieve as much as St. Martin had done in so short a time. Both men knew that, with the Empire in grave danger, there was not a moment to be lost. St. Ninian determined that the Picts, like their Celtic cousins in Gaul, should be prepared to play their part in converting the invaders should the Roman defences fall.

When, in 397, St. Ninian and his British disciples built Candida Casa, their first monastic settlement on the coast of Galloway, two hundred years had passed since Roman soldiers had set foot north of Hadrian’s Wall. Indeed so fierce were the Picts that a new line of Roman forts had had to be built against them much farther south. But trade with the Romans had prevented the Pictish chiefs of Galloway from forgetting Latin.

The Church of St. Martin

Why did the Picts, who hated anything to do with Rome, not kill St. Ninian and his followers at once? One of the chiefs did want to; but more were curious to see what these unarmed Britons would do. Perhaps they remembered vague stories of early missionaries to their country. At any rate, St. Ninian walked safely among them with his shepherd’s staff; they listened respectfully when he beat the little iron bell that was the monastery clock and they watched with interest while the little church was built and called after St. Martin, who had just died.

This church stood in the place where the chief’s fortress stood in their own settlements – that is, in the very middle of the picture. Though it was small and humble (there are stories of Celtic churches in Ireland flying away in a great gale), all that was colourful and lovely flowed into it from the outside world. The walls were being painted with stories from the Bible. The altar was probably cut from an extra beautiful bit of marble, and the cups and plates use for Communion were much discussed by Pictish metal-workers, being the work of British artists in gold, silver and enamel. Flowers and richly-dyed materials added to the colour softly lit up by candlelight. A cross stood in the place of the chief’s sword.

Help from Library and School

Grouped about the church were the huts that were the class-rooms, sleeping quarters, kitchens and dining-hall of the monks and their abbot. But to reach the centre of the settlement, Pictish visitors had to walk through the outer gate and past two earth walls and ditches built as in their settlements, to keep cattle in and thieves out. They walked on up a straight path bordered with busy workshops. They could talk to Christian workmen, for British and Pictish dialects were much the same. So they asked questions about the church, about the library where St. Ninian’s precious books hung on pegs in their leather satchels, and about the school where their children could be taught to write Latin letters. Soon even the disapproving chief was so impressed by the mercy, charity and tenderness the British showed to the poor and the sick, that he asked to be baptized.

From then on the school was alive with boys and girls and for four hundred years it continued to be so. Their parents paid the monks with livestock or land. As for the little church, on Sundays people stood outside it in hundreds to take part in the service. Best of all, some of the young Picts soon became such keen Christians that they decided to help to convert their country to the rule of love by joining the monastery as monks.

This was just what St. Ninian had hoped for. He thanked God for it when he prayed in the sea-washed cave you can still visit to-day. This cave is a mile from Candida Casa and St. Ninian used it as a refuge from his busy monastery, just as Egyptian abbots used their caves in the desert.

In his cave he planned where to place monastic settlements that were to convert north-eastern Scotland. When he had trained enough men, he explained how they must be prepared to live in their far-off monasteries so that the Picts should grow to love and respect their Master Christ. Then, like St. Martin’s monks they set off in groups of twelve different craftsmen, led by the priest they had chosen. They dressed very like St. Martin’s monks, with the addition of sandals, staffs and pointed hoods. But the churches they built were all named after their leader, St. Ninian. Most of their walled settlements lay close to the road made long before by the unsuccessful Roman armies. But St. Ninian’s strange soldiers were so successful that, in time, they reached Navidale in Sutherland. There they founded a monastery to serve the Picts of the far north. It must have been bitterly cold in winter, preached as it was on the rocky edge of the North Sea. But Celtic monks loved the sound of the waves.

The Picts Support St. Ninian

For thirty-five years St. Ninian laboured in Scotland. Like St. Martin, he went every year to visit his monasteries, however far off, riding on the faithful horse; for after 410 he got no more letters from his friends in Rome. The terrifying invaders, he knew, ad over-run Gaul too, and there were no Roman soldiers left in Britain to stop them arriving in Scotland. But St. Ninian never wavered.

The Picts were now his friends. More and more of them became Christians, and these converts saw to it that not one monk was killed in their land. Indeed, the Picts felt wonderfully happy and peaceful now that St. Ninian’s monks had explained how God loved the world even more than they loved their children and their flocks. They smiled at the way St. Ninian had his beasts brought to the Sunday service to share in the blessing. They admired the way in which his monks were so much stricter with themselves than with other people.

Pictish Joy of Life

Pictish joy in living is plain to be seen if you look at the things they made during the next four hundred years. Their gold, silver, and enamel work grew more lovely than ever. They cut mysterious Christian symbols on stones and they made equal-armed stone crosses surrounded by the Celtic ring of glory. These crosses lay on the ground cut on slabs of stone, or they stood on stone pedestals. Nearly all of them were smashed by the Norsemen who began their raids in the eighth century, but a few remain. On some you can admire the lively horses and dogs cut in the stone, and on others you can trace the complicated curly pattern that ornaments the stone. When Pictish monks made a copy of the gospels, they loved to make huge capital letters at the beginning of a page. These they coloured and ornamented. Some of the skins they worked on still exist. They are rough, but we would be hard put to it to copy their delicate designs, even on the finest paper.

It is odd to think that the monks read the Bible to the Picts in Latin, and that the Picts themselves sang psalms and hymns in the same language. Indeed, Latin, in which so many of the great books of the world had been written, remained the language of the Church until the Reformation. Sermons, however, were always preached in the people’s own language. In St. Ninian’s monastic Church there were no married clergy, as in the rest of the early Church. Nor did the bishops play nearly as active a part in the Celtic Church as did the abbots – that is unless the abbot happened to be a bishop, as was St. Ninian himself. The bishops St. Ninian consecrated were specially holy men whose only task, apart from their craft, was to ordain the new priests and deacons of their monasteries. The abbot, not the bishop, chose these men; and the bishop obeyed his abbot just like the rest of the monks.

The Church Spreads to Ireland

Candida Casa’s position on the map explains why young Scots from Ireland sailed across to St. Ninian’s school. But so many scholars wished to come that, during the fifth century, several monastic settlements were founded for them in Ireland, in the district surrounding Strangford Lough by Scots taught at Candida Casa. One of these abbots, St. Finbar, became so famous a teacher that even St. Columba, studied in his monastery. And thus it was that St. Ninian’s monastic Church spread very rapidly in Ireland. St. Patrick’s fifth-century Church was not monastic. But the simple, hard life led by St. Ninian’s followers appealed so strongly to the Scots (and indeed to all the Celts) that, by the sixth century, Far Western Christians had forgotten what the early Church was like. They fought of Rome as an important monastery and of the Pope as Rome’s abbot. They even wrote of the Devil as the abbot of hell!

After St. Ninian’s death in 432, the work at Candida Casa went steadily on, despite the pagan Angles who started settling in the eastern Lowlands at the beginning of the sixth century. As they pushed their way inland, the fighting made it impossible for Candida Casa to keep in touch with the far monasteries of the far north. Farther south, the Britons were also at war with the invaders. Only the Scots of Ireland were left in peace, and it was during the troubled sixth century that monks from St. Ninian’s corner of Ireland proved to be faithful friends to Candida Casa. Again and again they sent missionaries to the far north along St. Ninian’s route. These Scots monks cheered the lonely Pictish monasteries, and they helped to build new ones where they were needed. When the Angles finally reached the west and burnt down Candida Casa, killing the monks and stealing the cattle and crops, Christians from Ireland only waited till they had moved on before they began repairing the damage. St. Ninian’s books were burnt; but, fortunately, the Scots could replace them, for irish scholars had written copies of all of them to take back to Irish monasteries.

St. Kentigern’s Monastery on the Clyde

Sixth-century British missionaries, however, still worked among the Picts. The greatest of these was St. Kentigern, whom his Pictish friends nicknamed Mungo (my dog). Brought up by an abbot who knew Candida Casa, he founded his first monastery by the Clyde, to serve the Christian Britons (later known as Welsh/Wealas) who had fled north from the Angles. The place helped so many unhappy people that it came to be known as Glasgow, which means ‘Happy Family’. St. Kentigern had to go to Ireland to be consecrated bishop because, at the time, Candida Casa had just been burnt down again. But after 573, peace returned and he was able to use Glasgow as a mission base. His monks, with Picts among them, made new settlements along St. Ninian’s route and all over Aberdeenshire.

Undaunted by the sea, they crossed to Orkney and Shetland, where you can still see some of the things they made for the many churches they built, such as iron bells and stone crosses. A group of the boldest monks even attempted to settle on the coast of pagan Norway; while another group, equally brave and surprisingly successful, set off for Iceland in their little boats, to carry Christ’s Church to the fringe of the Arctic Circle. They taught people and followed their daily life of prayer learning and work. Perhaps they kept themselves warm through the dark winters by telling stories of how St. Anthony and his monks used to live in the hot deserts of Egypt. For hundreds of years, the people of Iceland remembered what they had been taught and treasured the staffs and bells brought across the water by their beloved ‘papas’. This Greek name for father was used by the British and Pictish monks, but not by Scots. So the names you see in the Orkneys and Shetlands, such as Papa Westray and Papa Stour, help to prove which branch of the Celtic Church converted the islands.

Scots Convert the Picts

Scotland is divided by a mountain range running north and south from Ben Lomond. Now St. Ninian and most of his followers chose to work among the Picts to the east of this barrier. It was the Scots from Ireland who converted most of the people living to the west of the mountain barrier; and this is how it happened. Pushed out of their land by stronger chiefs, some Scots tribes decided to cross the water and make their home in Argyllshire at the end of the fifth century. The Picts let them alone at first; but when they found more and more of them arriving and spreading inland, King Brude became worried. He held a meeting of the chiefs at Inverness. Then a Pictish army marched over the mountains and drove the Scots back to the coast. Shortly after this disaster, in 563, St. Columba arrived with twelve followers to found a monastery like Candida Casa, on the little island of Iona.

In Ireland, St. Columba had been a great prince by birth, so the Scots (many of whom were Christians) hastened to tell him their troubles. He made so splendid a leader that the country he worked in is not called Pictland to-day, but Scotland. Not only did he put new heart into his fellow Scots, but he saw to it that they had monastic schools and churches wherever they needed them. Then he set about converting the people who had been already living in western Scotland and the Isles when the Scots arrived. St. Moluag of the Brito-Pictish Church had been working for some time from his missionary base on the island of Lismore, near Iona.

The Work of St. Columba

But St. Columba’s Irish monks were tireless. Like their abbot, whose poetry makes you hear and smell the sea, they were never happier than when rowing up a sea-loch or sailing from island to island to build new monasteries. It is incredible how many places you find in the west still called Kilcolmcille or the Church of Columba of the Cell.

Like the Pictish monks from Candida Casa, the Scots from Iona made beautiful things. St. Columba himself was a famous scribe who enjoyed copying books as much as composing poems, preaching sermons, advising chiefs or being kind to animals. In Iona, the stone crosses of St. Martin and St. John still stand outside the Norman abbey. They are much taller and more elegant than Pictish stone crosses, and their arms stretch beyond the Celtic ring of glory. They are adorned with lovely carving and are the work of Irish followers of St. Columba. Many crosses were smashed by the Norsemen, but the few that still stand in the west are among Scotland’s oldest and most wonderful works of art.

St. Columba died in 597, exactly two hundred years after the foundation of Candida Casa. By that time, the whole of Scotland, including the Angles living in the Lowlands, had been converted to Celtic Christianity, by the British, Pictish or Irish monks. In the eighth and ninth centuries, the little monastic settlements with their schools were still there, but so sleek were the church cattle and so well farmed was the church land, that monasteries were repeatedly burnt down and raided by the terrible Norse invaders. Candida Casa and Iona suffered again and again. At last, the monks decided to ship St. Columba’s body across to Ireland to lie in safely beside that of St. Patrick. But this was by far the darkest part of the Dark Ages. The Norsemen, having ruined Christian Scotland, crossed over to Ireland and burnt down every single monastery in that land of saints.