Sunday, 31 March 2013

Religious studies: The Roots of Christian Scotland


Donald E. Meek


Right at the outset, I would like to lay out my stall, so that there can be no misunderstanding of who I am or what I aim to achieve in what I want to say. Let me therefore say what I am not: I am not an ecclesiastical historian, I am not a secular historian, and I am not an expert on Britain or even ‘Scotland’ in the Dark Ages.   My talk therefore will not be a treatise on the latest research in the relevant areas.  I will not present any dazzlingly new theories or unearth some staggeringly fresh facts.  I can claim currently to be no more than a ‘Professor of Scottish and Gaelic Studies’, and before that I was ‘Professor of Celtic’ (i.e. Professor of Celtic languages and matters pertaining thereto).  That remit is broad enough in itself, but I would have to say that my research interests across the years have been largely modern, in the sense that much of my work has been concerned with Gaelic language and literature in the time-frame from the later Middle Ages (the Early Modern period, in some people’s jargon) to the present day.  Of course, I have strayed beyond these limits from time to time, partcularly in my reflections on the nature of how people arrive at certain views of the past.  My concern in The Quest for Celtic Christianity (published in 2000) was with the challenge of interpreting the past, and particularly the spiritual and ecclesiastical past, of Britain and Ireland.   As you may be aware, ‘Celtic Christianity’ was all the rage in the 1990s, and I was constantly being assailed with requests to support and validate the popular trend.   It was assumed that, because I was a Gaelic speaker, and therefore a ‘Celt’ in the eyes of some, I would be able to say ‘Amen’ to everything.  I offered my response in the book, and, to the absolute horror of some readers and to the delight of others, I took issue with many aspects of the movement.  I gave myself a crash course in philosophy and the principles of history, reflected on patterns of  interpretation, and came broadly to the conclusion that the ‘intellectual cutting edge’ of rational thought was being abandoned in the search for a comfortable historical validation of the problems of the present day.  That, to me, was no way to read or to interpret the past.

This morning, then, I want us tor reflect on how we tackle the question of ‘The Roots of Christian Scotland’, and to consider the best approaches to a complex problem.  I will lay out the principles, so to speak, and leave you to gather the evidence beyond what I say.   It is easy to ‘short-circuit’ debate or enquiry by ‘parcelling up’ everything into a neat package of prejudices and presuppositions.  We all do it in different areas.  So let me challenge myself, and challenge you, to consider how we should see the ‘Christian past’ in Scotland and especially the ‘roots of Christian Scotland’, by which we would mean the earliest ‘glimmers’ of Christianity in what is now our country.

One of the first things that we need to do at the very outset in considering ‘The Roots of Christian Scotland’ is to look at each word in the title of the talk.   Nowadays, we are aware of how very large, generalised concepts can be packed into individual words. Such words need to be ‘unpacked’.  Concepts like ‘roots’ and ‘Christian Scotland’ are immensely emotive, and carry a fair amount of ‘baggage’ which we have to put through an intellectual security check, to see what potentially misleading or even explosive material may be hidden inside.



Underlying the notion of ‘roots’ is the concept of an organic growth of some sort, be that a plant or a family.  It is easy to see how the idea that a family has ‘roots’ can develop, and why those of us who indulge in ancestor-hunts like to see how far back we can go with our own ‘roots’.  The further back, the better; it all seems to become much more respectable as we push into the mists of time, and we are also that bit more secure when we perceive a ‘root’ that runs through the centuries.  It tells us that ‘we have been here for a very long time’, and from that sense of ‘having been’ we may conclude optimistically that ‘we will be here for a long time in the future’.  A student of mine told me just the other day that she could trace her family line back to the thirteenth century, and that she was sure that her family represented the genuine chiefly kindred of a particular island.  I too was asked about my ancestors last week, and I had to confess humbly that the Meeks could not boast of any nobility at all.  Naturally, I am very upset about that.  We have traced our line back to that well-known cultural hot-spot of central Scotland – Whitburn! – and we can just about make it into the eighteenth century.  My people on the Meek side were originally weavers who diversified into trades and crafts in the course of the nineteenth century.  But then I was asked another question, ‘How did the Whitburn Meeks become Gaelic speakers?’, and I had to explain that one of the Meeks married a MacDonald from Tiree, and that the family later emigrated to Vancouver, leaving my father in Tiree, where he became a naturalised Gaelic speaker.  For that reason alone, I am extremely wary of being called a ‘Celt’, with all the contradictory and self-reinforcing baggage that the ‘C word’ carries.  On my father’s side, I have Lowland ‘roots’, but I am very much a Gael, in language and worldview – and these too have ‘roots’.

Roots, in short, are usually complex, and, in my experience at least, they do not lead back to one single ‘tidy’ origin.  So many shoots and runners intertwine.  Some grow, some survive, some die.  So it is with the Christian faith.   The story of Christianity in Scotland is not that of a simple, single organism that was washed up on the Scottish shoreline at the dawn of history.  It is much more complex and multi-faceted.   It is not a simple matter of growth from a single ‘Celtic’ source of eccelesiastical purity, back in the so-called Dark Ages.    Recently I was asked by a well-known ferry company to translate the phrase, ‘Iona, Cradle of Christianity’, into Gaelic, and I found the words sticking in my throat as I did so.  I thought of Whithorn (not Whitburn this time!), and wondered how Ninian was feeling, and then I remembered that some historians have even been bold enough to suggest that Ninian never existed – that he was a scribal error or misreading of a manuscript.  I felt my brain pulsating.   Slick sloganising it was, certainly, to dignify Iona in that way, but it was very poor history, resting on popular presuppositions.   The ‘roots of Christian Scotland’, whatever they are, are unlikely to begin with twelve men in a boat coming over from Ireland.  There are, in my view, numerous beginnings across the ages, and numerous possible metaphors of process.

Let’s try waves, for example.  When I was a schoolboy in Tiree, I read Matthew Arnold’s great poem, ‘Dover Beach’ for the first time, and I never forgot it.   I knew the sea and the waves at first hand, and I watched, and still watch, with delight and admiration, as the waves surged in from the cold Atlantic, burst on the island shore, and spread their white, creamy foam across the sand.  Then they pulled back, leaving clumps of bedraggled seaweed and a gloriously wet outline, which reflected the sunlight back into the heavens.   Arnold’s great poem was written from an English perspective, and caught the receding tide of faith in contemporary England.   Broadly, however, it is a metaphor that deserves a hearing; wave after wave coming in, breaking, and sinking back into the deep – the Sea of Faith.  So it has been with Christianity in Scotland.

I think too of the idea of a rope, with all its various strands or cords, woven together to give strength and power.  That is another emotive image.   Take the image into the modern day, and think, for example, of the Forth Road Bridge and its immense cables which hold the roadway in place.  Some are beginning to decay, we are told, and will require to be replaced.  The metaphor is transferrable to the Christian faith.  ‘Change and decay on every hand I see’, wrote the composer of the hymn, ‘Abide with Me’, and we must always remember that the various strands that make up our faith as an historical entity are subject to decay. They have come and gone across the years, and we do not have the full picture.   What does not, of course, decay is the Deity whose Being is the securing-block of these cables, the one who never changes, and is the same yesterday, today and forever. ‘O Thou who changest not, abide with me.’  And bridges can be built in all sorts of different ways – as the utterly magnificent cantilevers of the Forth Railway Bridge always bear witness, standing like a gigantic Meccano model, alongside its more modern ‘Airfix’ successor, constructed by engineers particularly skilled in working out the stresses and breaking points of metal rope rather than metal girders.  Change and decay affect both structures, of course. 

That point – variability and diversity – is perhaps more important than we think, for there is a very subtle danger in thinking of ‘Christian Scotland’ and its ‘roots’, stretching back in time; and it is that we suddenly begin to be ‘proud’ of ourselves.  We have long roots, supposedly; we have longer roots than most other countries; and so we have something to boast about.   We begin to boast, or quietly to take pride in, the wrong things, and we can arrive at a jingoistic position.   When the mania for ‘Celtic Christianity’ was sweeping Britain in the 1990s, I found myself asking why I should be happier to subscribe to ‘Celtic Christianity’ than to any other form of Christianity.  The concept of an ongoing form of ‘Celtic Christianity’, from Columba to Concord, so to speak, was alien to me; I did not know about it from my own Gaelic-speaking Tiree background, although I knew many, many little rhymes and sayings and invocations from ‘popular, demotic  Christianity’.  What was wrong with going back to ‘New Testament Christianity’ for some definitions?  Why did we have to move sideways so to speak, or exit left, in order to rejoin the motorway further down the track?   It all seemed nonsensical to me at the time, and it still does.

I suspected then, and I still suspect, that ‘agendas’ are at work when one style of Christianity, ‘Celtic’ or otherwise, is championed over another.  Over the years that I have reflected on Christianity in Scotland, I have found it fascinating to consider its many forms, its many likely origins, its many different shapes and expressions, meshing so often with the different forms of cultural expression in Scotland itself, from the scarf-wearing ‘hard men’ on the terraces of Glasgow, mouthing empty Protestantism or Catholicism, to the fishermen of the North-east of Scotland, with their strong sense of family identity and their deep and profound commitment to being ‘Brethren’ second and New Testament Christians, first and foremost; from the monks of Pluscarden in their white habits to the evangelical Presbyterians of Lewis and Harris, with their (stereotypically) dark suits and hats, and the Roman Catholics of South Uist and Barra, with their colourful variety of Holy Days and small chapels.  The ‘roots’ of Christianity in Scotland are both diverse and different.

Christian Scotland?

We must now ‘unpack’ the phrase, ‘Christian Scotland’.   It is a handy phrase, which seems to sum up the character of the nation, in much the same way as ‘Celtic Christianity’ sums up what some people believe to be a ‘Christian tradition’ of some kind.  Like ‘Celtic Christianity’, it seems valid on the surface, but was there ever a time when ‘Christian Scotland’ existed, in the sense that the nation was the home of Christianity from east to west and from north to south?   If so, when?  Scotland itself has changed with time, and we need to be careful about geographical and cultural definitions, to say nothing of the religious ones.   I do not doubt that there may have  been a Christian presence in Scotland since the time of the Romans, but I am not at all sure that that presence has been pervasive and fully national.   We have a ‘national church’ in the present day, but what does that mean?  It certainly does not mean that ‘the nation as a whole’ adheres to it.  The fact that there is a ‘national church’ does not mean that it is the sole ‘national church’ in the eyes of everyone, nor does it mean that there are not other churches.  ‘Christian Scotland’ is a mosaic of spiritual expression of different kinds, but the mosaic does not cover the entire landscape.

This was a problem that was more than evident to Professor Gordon Donaldson when he wrote his book, The Faith of the Scots, which offers a very useful overview of the many strands of Christianity in Scotland.  Professor Donaldson concluded with characteristic clarity:

Ever since the first conversions, Scotland has contained a Christian community, but whether or not that community has ever been co-extensive with the nation is simply not a realistic subject for debate, because there is such limited evidence about faith, which is largely imponderable…No doubt there have been periods which were more religious and periods which were less religious.

There are other phrases, much more questionable and ‘loaded’ than ‘Christian Scotland’, which show even more clearly that Scotland’s religious history can be compressed misleadingly.  One that springs to mind is ‘Bible-loving Scotland’, which is usually employed as a rebuke to modern secularism.

If we pick up Professor Donaldson’s point about the limited evidence of ‘faith’ and its imponderable nature, we can apply it even more strongly to the early stages of Christianity in Scotland.  ‘Imponderable’ indeed.  The problem is lack of firm evidence.  


Disentangling the ‘roots’

Nevertheless, let us turn to the question of ‘roots’ as some would see them, and try to see broadly what was happening in the early Middle Ages, with a modicum of reflection on more recent times.  As I have said, I prefer to think in metaphors other than ‘roots’, such as strands or cords in a rope.  

In trying to find answers, we must reject a number of assumptions emanating from the present day, besides the concept of ‘roots’ itself.  It is not, for instance, particularly helpful to think in ‘denominational’ terms when reflecting on the early Middle Ages in Scotland or elsewhere.  There were no ‘denominations’ of the kind we envisage today.  ‘Denominationalism’ is a post-Reformation phenomenon, and belongs principally to the Protestant side.  That is one of the reasons that I have to part company with the promoters of ‘Celtic Christianity’, who often assert that the ‘Celtic Church’ was a different entity from the ‘Roman Church’.  In what ways was it different?  Did it differ in major points of belief or practice?  The answer quite simply is, ‘No’.  There were, however, distinctive ways in which the Christian faith in the regions now called ‘Celtic’ expressed itself.  The buildings, for example, were different; the vernacular languages were different; the culture was therefore different too, and that was the key point of divergence.  There was, of course, a famous arithmetical dispute, which had to do with the date of the celebration of Easter – but it was a matter of arithmetic, and not of belief.  Wherever Christianity takes root, it adapts itself to the culture of the region concerned, and even when there is a lingua franca (like Latin) which is used by the church in its offices and services, the locally spoken languages encapsulate the names of saints, the locations of churches, the high days and ‘holidays’.  That does not mean that basic beliefs are jettisoned; what it means is that they are made meaningful to different people, or population groups, in different ways, through their individual cultures.

Nor is it always helpful to operate in terms of chronology (‘the early Middle Ages’, ‘the later Middle Ages,’ ‘the Reformation’ etc.) because this can disguise continuities and create false distinctions. 

There is no easy solution to the question of ‘roots’, and there is no point in a spiritual ‘ancestor-hunt’, given the arguable nature of the evidence.  For the moment, I will remain with ‘strands’ or ‘cords’, and offer you an approach based on culture and context. To my mind, the ‘strands’ are best expressed in terms of prevailing cultures – prevailing, that is, at particular times, and in particular parts of Scotland, and at periods of ‘domination’ by a religious group, which was often identified with a powerful secular authority.  Christian belief, of different shades, is ‘fed’ into these channels, if you like, and adopts and adapts them, to varying degrees.

Let me therefore list a few of the ‘strands’ that come to mind when I think of Christianity in Scotland in the early Middle Ages.  You may think of ‘roots’ if you like, and ‘roots’ of some sort may well be there, but I fight shy of the concept!

(1) The Latin strand:  I prefer this to ‘the Roman strand’, as the word ‘Roman’ can lead to all sorts of false distinctions.  I would suspect that the ‘Latin strand’ does go back to the time of the Roman presence in Britain, but that is not the same as a direct link with Rome in the ecclesiastical sense – and there was no Roman occupation of Scotland.   I think here of the early memorials in Scotland to religious officials, which are in Latin, and can be found on stones such as those at Kirkmadrine, with its sixth-century memorial to Viventius and Mavorius.  The Latin strand is also found in saints’ lives, like those of Kentigern and Columba, and through it the Scottish tradition of Christianity links into a broader European framework, with the Latin Vulgate of Jerome at its heart.  The use of Latin continued in certain churches well into our own time.

Unfortunately, the vitae of the saints were written considerably later than their deaths, and it is extremely difficult to extrapolate firm historical evidence from them for the period of the saints.

(2) The Gaelic strand: This is perhaps the strand that people will think of most readily, and associate in some way with ‘Celtic Christianity’.  It is found in the close connection between Ireland and the early Gaelic kingdom of Dalriada, roughly coterminous with present-day Argyll, with its principal religious centre at Iona, made famous by Columba when he arrived from Ireland in 563 AD.   The Gaelic strand of Christianity in early Scotland can be appreciated in different ways, as it is still with us through the hymns attributed to Columba, but perhaps most noticeably in our early place-names, which often include dedications to saints.  The cella of the saint, which becomes ceall in Gaelic, and cill in its locative form (‘at the church’), is regularly followed by the name of the saint, as in Cill Mhearnaig (‘Kilmarnock’) and Cill Mo Naomhaig (‘Kilmonivaig’).  Church lands too are commemorated in Gaelic, as we can see in the Falkirk place-name, Bantaskin, which comes from Pett in tSoisgeil, ‘the portion of land set apart for the Gospel’.

The Gaelic dimension of Christianity has, of course, remained alive to the present, but that does not mean that it contains the same form of Christianity as Columba had in his time.  ‘Roots’ of many different kinds are to be found under the Gaelic cultural umbrella.  The ‘root’ that takes us back no further than the Geneva of Calvin and Knox is now well represented in Gaelic, as is the Catholicism of the Counter Reformation.  Culture and language, in short, disguise many different ‘roots’ and pull together numerous fresh starting-points.  Not all ‘roots’ are old ones, by any means, and we cannot assume continuities.

(3) The Anglo-Saxon strand: In the early Middle Ages, what we now know as Scotland had close connections with Anglo-Saxon England.  These connections existed mainly in the south of Scotland, which was, of course, hotly disputed territory, liable to incursions by the Anglo-Saxons.  When I was a student in Cambridge in the early 1970s, studying Anglo-Saxon, I was captivated by an Anglo-Saxon poem called ‘The Dream of the Rood’, which described Christ’s crucifixion, and especially his ascending of the cross.  One of the versions of that poem was inscribed on a beautiful stone cross which you can still see in the church at Ruthwell, Dumfries-shire.  It is a reminder of the fluidity of political boundaries, as it belongs, in all likelihood, to the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.  That, in itself, is enough to silence the arguments of those who advocate wall-to-wall ‘Celtic Christianity’ in Scotland.  Bede, the Anglo-Saxon historian (who wrote in Latin), gives us some our earliest accounts of Columba and Ninian.  Anglo-Saxon saints such as Cuthbert operated in the south of present-day Scotland.

(4) The Pictish strand:  Scotland, and particularly the eastern side of Scotland, has a rich heritage of Pictish symbol-stones, often carrying the cross, incised in relief on the stone.  The Picts are often regarded as mysterious people, but we do know that they were in contact with both the Gaels and the Anglo-Saxons.  The practices of the Anglo-Saxons influenced the Pictish forms of religious expression.

(5) The Norse strand: The presence of a substantial Norse population in the Hebrides is well attested.  After 1000 AD, Christianity began to take effect in Norse-occupied territory, and for a long period, from 1153 to c. 1350, the diocese of Sodor (the ‘southern isles’, meaning the Hebrides) and Man was placed under the metropolitan authority of Trondheim in Norway.  The Christian legacy of the Norse is just as evident in the Hebrides as that of the Gaels, and finds lasting expression in such place-names as Crossapol and Circinis in my native island of Tiree, in the southern Hebrides.

(6) The Continental strand: Following the Norman Conquest, Normans arrived in Scotland, and the country was also opened up to the monastic orders which were to be found in France and beyond.  Benedictines, Cistercians, Premonstratensians and numerous other orders came to Scotland, where they set up their monasteries and abbeys, with their rich farmlands and beautiful locations.   Here the vernacular culture would originally have been French, in many instances, though that strand too was doubtless adapted to the prevailing culture in the new location in Scotland.

As such orders came into Scotland, they often found themselves in conflict with existing practices, and reformation – in its twelfth-century guise – could be painful.  The older, ‘Gaelic’ models of monasteries were gradually phased out, and the Iona of Columba, for example, eventually became Benedictine.

So there we have six strands or cords in our rope.  Several of the ‘strands’ that I have identified ran in parallel or even intertwined, as in the case of Gaelic and Latin, and Gaelic and Norse.  It is therefore misleading to see ‘Celtic Christianity’ as the principal or pure ‘root’ of  ‘Christian Scotland’.  Some of the strands petered out in the course of time.  In truth, and if I may be permitted a rather obvious pun, there were various ‘routes’ by which Christianity came into Scotland. 


We could go on, but it may be best to stop before we reach the high Middle Ages. I hope I have said enough to convince you that a pure and simple search for ‘the roots of Christian Scotland’ is misguided, if we have a self-glorifying ancestor-hunt in mind.   A more ‘grown-up’ approach will look for interactions as well as co-existences, and it will avoid wishful thinking.  The truth appears to be that Christianity came to Scotland through different channels and conduits, some of them now obscure, some still clear (we think), and that it was reformed and revitalised at different times.  It is a complex story, and one needs patience as well as even-handedness when handling the surviving evidence fairly.

One final point, if I may.  For me, Christianity is not about some ancient root that we can trace back to a particular chronological point.  It is a religion of new beginnings, not old ones, as the faith is not kindled through history or culture.  The impulses may be transmitted through culture, but culture does not make Christianity, nor will the study of history or culture make one a Christian.  I am always wary when I hear that people have been forced to become ‘Christians’ by such and such a force, political or otherwise.  Yes, there may be contextual facilitation,  but what makes Christianity what it is, and what makes the Christian faith real, is that it takes root in the hearts of human beings.  It has done so across the ages, and it continues to do so.  That, as I see it, is the real root of the matter.

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