Coming of Christianity to Scotland

The Coming of Christianity to Scotland

Period Years 350 AD — 1005

350 AD Ninian born.

411 AD The Romans finally abandon Britain.

563 AD Columba arrives on Iona.

597 AD Columba dies.

612 AD Death of St. Kentigern.

664 AD Synod of Whitby.

685 AD Battle of Nechtansmere.

795 AD Skye and Iona raided by Vikings.

843 AD Kenneth MacAlpin crowned King of Alba.

997 AD Kenneth III begins his reign as King of Alba. He is known as the brown haired one, and is thought to have been the grandfather of Macbeth's wife Gruoch.

1000 The end of the first millennium. Scotland, like the rest of Europe, is gripped by fears that the world will end. It doesn't, so everyone goes back to killing each other again.

1005 Macbeth born, most probably in the North east of Scotland. His father is Finnleach, High Steward of Moray.

1005 Kenneth III murdered by his cousin Malcolm at Monzievaird, who then takes the throne of Alba (Scotland) as King Malcolm II.

The arrival of Christianity on these shores was to be a major force in binding together the people. The new faith, taught by early missionaries such as Ninian, Kentigern and Columba, helped to begin to bring the different races of what would eventually become Scotland together. However, the move towards unity was to be a long struggle, with much blood spilt on the way.

CHRISTIANITY has been one of the most potent forces in the whole history of Scotland - but when it arrived here, it did so almost imperceptibly.

The story of the life of Jesus Christ was brought initially not by great saints such as Ninian and Columba, but quietly by word of mouth from the continent.

No-one knows for sure exactly how and when Christianity arrived, though it seems likely that word originally spread through Roman soldiers and also from sailors trading goods such as oil and wine from the Mediterranean.

What we do know, however, is that the messages of the Gospels helped to pull post-Roman Scotland together into a nation.

Before Christianity arrived, the country was essentially divided into four main racial groupings. The Picts, who are believed to have been related to the ancient Caledonians who fought against the early Romans, were based mainly in the East, and in particular in Fife.

Another grouping, the Britons, lived in present-day Strathclyde, with their main base the rock at Dumbarton. Their kingdom was extensive, taking in lands in Cumbria and even Wales, meaning it was difficult for them to maintain unity as a people.

The Scots, who originally came from Ireland, settled near Lochgilphead in Argyll and later colonised the Western Isles and moved east, though they too were not really a single united people. The fourth and last group were the Angles, based from the Humber up to the Firth of Forth, including present-day Northumbria.

As Christianity spread, so each group began to adopt its own saints. St Patrick, for instance, was a Briton born in Strathclyde, and spent much of his life travelling between Scotland and Ireland.

St Kentigern - later known as St Mungo - was thought to also be a Briton from Wales or Cumbria. He went on to found Glasgow Cathedral. St Oran was a Scot, and is thought to have established early monasteries in Iona, Mull and Tiree.

Other early saints included St Machar, a Pict from Aberdeen; St Miren, an Irish monk who founded Paisley Abbey; and St Conval, who is said to have prayed with such power that he floated across the sea from Ireland and up the Clyde on a block of granite.

Yet the most significant of the early Scottish saints was undoubtedly Ninian. He began his pilgrimage as a bishop, having been born in about the year 350AD. He was sent to Rome for religious instruction after his parents adopted the faith from Roman soldiers.

Ninian, a Briton, then returned to Scotland and began his missionary work at Whithorn in Galloway, where he established a church called the Candida Casa, or white house. He is thought to have later travelled throughout the country, converting the Picts of Angus and Fife and possibly conducting missionary work as far north as Orkney and even Shetland.

The greatest Scottish saint of all, however, is undoubtedly Columba. Ironically, he is thought to have come to Scotland by force rather than choice, having fled Ieland in a dispute over ownership of a rare Gospel.

Columba arrived on Iona in AD563, when he was 42. He quickly established the island as a centre of religious learning, and rapidly became a revered, almost mystic figure. His colleagues claimed he talked to the angels and was sometimes bathed in light as he prayed.

Despite having established a powerful monastic retreat on Iona, Columba did not stay on the island. He was a tireless missionary, often dealing directly with kings to obtain safe passage on what could be extremely dangerous journeys converting their people to Christianity.

Though his journeys, Columba gradually began to convert first the Picts and then the Angles to the new religion. His legacy to the Celtic church was immense - he turned Iona into a spiritual powerhouse, and his disciples such as Aidan helped spread the message of the Gospels into places such as Northumbria,

Though his work, Columba began to pull the disparate races of what would one day become Scotland together. But he was not civilising a nation of barbarians, Many of these people were highly civilised.

The Picts, for instance, carved their intricate designs on mysterious standing stones, and many examples of their art remain to this day. They also recycled Roman silver to create some magnificent jewellery.

Although they left no formal record of their lifestyle, history, or language, they did leave us one of their greatest treasures - the Book of Kells, a Bible manuscript created on Iona and later taken to Ireland, where it can be seen to this day.

The conversion of the Picts to Christianity was slow but sure. By the eighth century, an abbot had been settled in the heart of Pictland at Kilrymond, later to be renamed St Andrews.

However, there were already tensions emerging in the Christian church. Columba's church was a Celtic one, celebrating Easter at a different date to the Roman church, whose followers were mainly in the south of Britain.

The issue was resolved at the Synod of Whitby in 664AD. The Roman church won the day, and Celtic Christianity started to decline as a result. From then on, Rome's influence gradually gained superiority.

As Christianity fought its battles, so took did Scotland's differing races. The Picts pushed the Angles south into Lothian in a critical battle at Nechtansmere near Forfar in AD685.

However, they were soon forced to face a new and dangerous enemy - the Vikings. Looking for new territory to populate, these Norse raiders arrived in Orkney in AD800 and then quickly captured Shetland.

Later, the Vikings colonised Skye and Lewis and, as their confidence grew, began to attack the mainland itself. The Scots, under their leader Kenneth MacAlpin, moved East and in AD 843 MacAlpin created a new kingdom called Alba, crowning himself on the ancient Stone of Scone.

Gradually Alba began to absorb the differing tribes of Scotland. A new and highly civilised Celtic state was slowly being formed , with the Picts giving way to the Scots. There were still strong links with Ireland - they were to remain for the next 500 years or so - but the character of a new nation was gradually being forged.

Because there was a tradition of sub-kings under the main King, MacAlpin's tentacles spread wide. His relatives ruled the Picts and Strathclyde, appointed by a group of contemporaries.

The system of a king being appointed by his fellow had just one flaw - if they didn't like the man in charge, they killed him off and appointed another in his place. Sometimes the slaughter was wholesale - Malcolm II, for instance, murdered as many potential claimants to the throne as he could find so his grandson Duncan could succeed him.

Unfortunately, he had not calculated on one man, who had a legitimate claim to the throne. His name was Macbeth, and he was to become one of the most prominent characters in early Scottish history.

Q1: Why did Columba become such an important character in early Scottish history? Answer: Because of the tremendous influence he had both in establishing Iona as a Christian settlement and in evangelising Scotland. He was a scholar and a teacher, and had a charisma which allowed him to influence even the kings of the time. He was also a great traveller, taking the Gospels to the people.

Q2: Is he famous for anything else? Answer: Yes - he is believed, during his journeys through the north of Scotland, to have been the first recorded person to see the Loch Ness monster.

Q3: Did he set up monasteries anywhere else? Answer: He's rumoured to have also established a settlement at a place called Hinba. The trouble is that we don't know where it is. Best bets appear to be Jura or Oronsay.

Q4: Were the Vikings as fierce and warlike as we have been led to believe? Answer: Well, you certainly wouldn't have been wise to have taken the mickey out of their funny helmets. In fact, they were highly civilised, with great farming skills, and their longships made them masters of the seas.

Q5: But they didn't care much for Christianity, did they? Answer: That's another myth. True, they didn't have any qualms about desecrating holy ground - they sacked Iona, for instance, at least three times - but they became quite enthusiastic about the new religion. In fact, in 995AD the Norwegian King came to Orkney and threatened to kill anyone who didn't convert.

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