Columba and the Seal Thief

Female grey seal
Saint Columba, founder and first abbot of the monastery on Iona, died in AD 597. A hundred years or so after his death, a hagiographical Vita or ‘Life’ was written by Adomnán, the ninth abbot of Iona. Among many tales related by Adomnán is the story of Erc moccu Druidi, an inhabitant of the island of Coll, who came to Columba’s attention for all the wrong reasons.

The tale begins when Columba informs two of his monks that ‘a thief called Erc’ has turned up on Mull, on the shore directly opposite Iona. With only a narrow strait separating the two islands, Erc is rather too close for comfort. More than that, he is plainly up to no good, as Columba explains:

“He arrived from Coll last night, alone and in secret, and has made himself a hiding place under his upturned boat, which he has camouflaged with grass. Here he tries to conceal himself all day so that by night he can sail across to the little island that is the breeding-place of the seals we reckon as our own. His plan is to kill them, to fill his boat with what does not belong to him and take it away to his home. He is a greedy thief.”

Map of Mull & Iona
Columba ordered the two monks to bring Erc to him. Taking a boat across the strait, they sailed over to the Ross of Mull and located the thief, whom they escorted back to Iona. Erc was brought before Columba, who gave him a stern rebuke:
“To what end,” said the saint, “do you persistently offend against the Lord’s commandment and steal what belongs to others? If you are in need, and come to us, you will receive the necessities you request.”

As a gesture of goodwill, Columba offered some freshly slaughtered sheep as compensation for the seals Erc would otherwise have stolen. What happened next is not reported by Adomnán, but Columba presumably told Erc to return to his own island of Coll.

Grey seals

Seal pup sleeping.


An epilogue to the story tells of a vision experienced by Columba in which he perceived that Erc was close to death. The saint immediately ordered his cousin, a senior monk, to take a gift of meat and grain to the dying man. Adomnán does not say where Erc spent his final days but we can probably assume the location was Coll. The gift from Iona arrived almost too late, on the day of Erc’s passing, so it was consumed at his funeral feast instead.

Among a number of interesting points in the story I’ve highlighted five:

1. The monastery of Iona claimed the right to cull seals on one (or more) of the small rocky islands off the Ross of Mull. This may have been one of a bundle of informal rights exercised by the monks along the shoreline on the east side of the strait, or it may have been a formal concession granted by a landowner. In another story, Adomnán makes it clear that the monks did not have free rein to take whatever they wanted from the opposite shore: Columba compensated a man called Findchán who was upset to find monks cutting branches on his land at Delcros, probably an estate or farm on the Ross of Mull. The wood was being shipped back to Iona as building material for a new guesthouse, but it was being taken without Findchán’s permission.

Grey seals

Grey seal female and newborn pup.


2. The island of the seals is described as a breeding-ground, a place where females come ashore to give birth (Adomnán uses the Latin phrase generantur et generant). It must have been an extensive area, attracting large numbers of seals, to tempt a poacher like Erc to make a sea-journey of sixteen or seventeen miles. This might help to identify the location of the island, especially if it is still used by grey seals in the breeding season.

3. Archaeological evidence from excavations on Iona shows that seal-meat was on the monastic menu. The animals also yielded other useful products such as skin and oil. Sealskin is a naturally waterproof material, while the soft fur of the pups provides a warm lining for clothes. The sporrans worn with Scottish kilts are traditionally made from sealskin, although synthetic versions are less controversial (seal products have been subject to a European ban since 2010). In Adomnán’s time, Irish seal-hunters used a special harpoon called a murga (‘sea spear’) or rongai (‘seal spear’). Adult grey seals are large predators and can seriously injure any human whom they perceive as a threat. Erc moccu Druidi would have been well aware of this danger, but he did not sail to the Ross of Mull to challenge full-grown male seals (which can grow to 10 feet in length). His target, as Columba observed, was the breeding-ground where mothers and newborns would have been particularly vulnerable. British and Irish grey seals breed in the autumn, so Erc’s visit to Mull probably took place in October or November.

Grey seals
4. Erc does not seem to have been a person of high status. He owned a boat small enough to be turned upside down and used as a rudimentary shelter – it was most likely a small currach or coracle, a light but sturdy craft with a hull of animal skin. He was probably not a landowner or farmer, hence his need to hunt seals. Back home on Coll he had family or friends who valued him: when he died, they arranged a funeral and held a feast in his honour. They may have been members of moccu Druidi, ‘the people of Druidi’, the kin-group or clan to which he belonged. This group was presumably based on Coll and evidently spoke Gaelic rather than Pictish or British. Erc was seemingly a Christian, but not – as Columba points out – a rigid devotee of the Eighth Commandment (‘Thou shalt not steal’).

5. Erc lived on Coll and would have been answerable to a local lord there. He was not answerable to Columba on secular (i.e. non-religious) matters and could have refused the saint’s request to come to Iona. His acquiescence suggests that Columba’s authority as a spiritual leader was recognised by Christians on Coll. We might infer from this that any clergy working on the island in the late sixth century were members of the Iona brethren.

* * * * *

Notes

The story of Erc moccu Druidi appears in Book 1, Chapter 41 of Adomnán’s Vita Columbae. For this blogpost I have used the Andersons’ edition (1961; revised 1991) for the Latin text. The passages in English come from Richard Sharpe’s translation, published by Penguin Classics in 1995.

For Adomnán and his contemporary audience, the main point of the story was Columba’s miraculous power of farsight in knowing when Erc was about to die. Vita Columbae, like many hagiographical texts, is basically a collection of miracle stories testifying to the special status of the saint (and, by association, to the importance of his monastery and the authority of his successors).

My information on early Irish seal-hunting and on the archaeological evidence (animal bones) from Iona can be found on pp.302-3 of the Penguin Classics translation, where Richard Sharpe cites useful references.

Adomnán says Erc lived on insula Colosi, ‘the island of Colosus’. This is not, as was once thought, the isle of Colonsay. Scholars now accept that Colonsay has a name of Norse origin (probably ‘Kolbein’s Island’) coined long after Adomnán’s time. Its original Celtic name may have been Hinba, an idea I’ve discussed in an earlier blogpost.

Erc and the seals get a brief mention on page 97 of my book on Saint Columba.

The photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling. They were taken in November 2013 at Donna Nook in Lincolnshire, a traditional breeding ground for grey seals. Hundreds of bulls (adult males) and cows (adult females) come ashore onto the beach each autumn. The Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust has a webpage for the Donna Nook Nature Reserve.

Grey seals

Seal pup near the fence alongside the visitor path at Donna Nook Nature Reserve.

* * * * * * *

The lost island of Saint Columba

Colonsay Cross

Sculptured cross from Riskbuie Chapel, Colonsay. Illustration from Allen & Anderson The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (1903).


According to the vita or ‘Life’ of Saint Columba written by Adomnán at the end of the seventh century, the monastery on Iona had a number of satellites on various islands and coastlands around Argyll. One of these was on an island called Hinba and seems to have been the chief daughter-house of Iona. Adomnán tells us that it was founded by Columba himself and comprised not only a monastery but also a separate hermitage. Frustratingly, the precise location of Hinba is not made clear, so we are left to wonder which of the numerous Hebridean islands it was.

People have been suggesting possible identifications for Hinba for a long time, ever since modern historians first began to study Adomnán’s Vita Columbae. The obvious starting-point is to rule out those islands which are clearly identifiable in Adomnán’s narrative, such as Skye, Islay, Tiree, Eigg, Mull and of course Iona itself. None of these was Hinba, so the search is immediately narrowed. It also seems clear that Hinba lay at no great distance from Iona, for Columba was able to visit the satellite monastery quite easily and frequently. His uncle Ernán, who served as prior on Hinba, was able to undertake the sea-voyage to Iona when very elderly and in poor health.

Columba

The hermitage on Hinba was situated near what Adomnán calls Muirbulc Mar, ‘Great Sea-Bay’. As with some other places in Vita Columbae he gives the name entirely in Gaelic – his own native language – rather than rendering it into a Latinised form. Muirbulc Mar must have been a prominent feature, so any island without a large bay can effectively be ruled out in our search for Hinba. For example, the small island of Eileach an Naoimh, ‘Rocky isle of the Saints’, in the Garvelloch archipelago has been suggested as a possible candidate for Hinba but it doesn’t have a prominent sea-bay. Also, Hinba is a Gaelic name, so it is very unlikely that it would be given an additional or alternative Gaelic one. Indeed, it is far more likely that it today bears a name of Norse origin, as do many of the Hebridean islands.

The eminent place-name scholar William Watson proposed that Hinba derives from inbe, a Gaelic word meaning ‘incision’. In this context, the ‘incision’ would presumably be the great sea-bay of Muirbulc Mar. If Watson’s derivation is correct, the bay must have appeared to slice through the island, as if the sea had bitten a big chunk out of the coastline.

Only two candidates seem to tick all the boxes: Jura, which has a large sea-bay called Loch Tarbert; and the single island which is formed by Colonsay and Oronsay when the sea-bay between them is at low tide. Jura and Colonsay/Oronsay have Viking names, and we don’t know what they were called in Adomnán’s time. Jura has an early church dedicated to Columba; Oronsay has a medieval priory with a Columba dedication and an old tradition of having been founded by the saint. In favour of Colonsay and Oronsay is the observation that they are closer to Iona.

The upshot is that the puzzle of Hinba remains unsolved. This mysterious island, so important in the early history of the Columban familia or network of monasteries, seems to float beyond our reach. My own view is that it is now the single island formed by Colonsay and Oronsay at low tide, and that Oronsay Priory stands on the site of Columba’s monastery.

Oronsay Priory

Oronsay Priory

* * * * * * *

Notes

References to Hinba in Adomnán’s Vita Columbae occur at: Book 1, chapters 21 & 45; Book 2, chapter 24; Book 3, chapters 5, 17, 18 & 23. The Latin edition I use is the one edited by Alan and Marjorie Anderson in 1961 (revised in 1991). For an English version I use the Andersons’ translation and the one by Richard Sharpe for Penguin Classics (1995).

I discuss Hinba on pp.109-11 of my book on Saint Columba.

A useful summary of the various Hinba theories can be found on pp.91-102 of Alan Macquarrie’s The Saints of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1997).

Hinba is the island where Saint Columba narrowly escaped being murdered. The story is told in my blogpost Columba and the Pirates.

* * * * * * *

Columba and the Pirates

Pirates
Two hundred years before the first Viking longships appeared off the west coast of Scotland, the Hebridean seaways were stalked by home-grown pirates. One band of cut-throats plied their trade in the late sixth century, when Saint Columba was abbot of the monastery he had founded on Iona. They were led by the sons of Conall mac Domnaill, an obscure figure of whom we know almost nothing beyond the name. According to Adomnán, author of Vita Columbae (‘Life of Columba’), Conall’s sons were members of the royal house of Gabrán, by which he presumably meant the Cenél nGabráin dynasty of Kintyre, but their position within this powerful kindred is unknown. They may have belonged to a rogue branch, perhaps to a family regarded as rivals of the chief lineage headed by Columba’s royal patron Áedán mac Gabráin. The actual number of Conall’s sons is unknown, as are the names of all but one of them: Ioan mac Conaill mac Domnaill, a ruthless sea-robber far removed from the image of the ‘jolly buccaneer’ embodied by Jack Sparrow.

Adomnán introduces us to the sons of Conall in the tale of a visit by Columba to the mainland, to the peninsula of Ardnamurchan above the north end of the Isle of Mull. There dwelt a farmer called Colmán whom Columba had befriended. Columba sometimes stayed with Colmán as a house-guest, presumably when he needed a base for religious work on the mainland. The saint was not there, however, on one fateful day when the sons of Conall came to Ardnamurchan in search of easy pickings.

Columba
The pirates came ashore and attacked Colmán’s house, breaking in to snatch whatever they could find. Filling their boat with the farmer’s belongings, they headed back out to sea. Colmán and his family survived the assault, no doubt by running to safety as soon as the raiders appeared, but their ordeal was far from over. In a grim replay of the first attack, the sons of Conall paid a return visit and did the same thing all over again. Colmán was not a wealthy man and had no means of defending his home and kin. The pirates were no doubt aware of this, hence their return for a third raid. This time, however, Columba was on Ardnamurchan with some monks from Iona. Although not at Colmán’s house when the attack came, the saint was not far away and reappeared just as the raiders were about to sail off with their loot. He confronted them on the seashore, urging them to yield up their plunder and abandon their violent ways. His pleading brought a scornful response from the pirate-chief Ioan, who promptly sailed away without any hint of remorse.

Stung by Ioan’s mockery and indifference, Columba waded out into the water and lifted his hands in prayer. There he stayed until the pirate ship disappeared over the horizon. He rejoined his monks, who had watched the entire incident, and together they went up to a higher point above the shore. Columba told his companions that Ioan’s wickedness would not go unpunished, for God was about to deal out a suitable retribution. Sure enough, even as the monks gazed out to sea, a terrible storm arose in the distance. Sweeping southward, it caught the pirates as they sailed between the islands of Mull and Coll, capsizing their vessel and drowning all who were aboard.

The sudden storm did not, however, end the menace of the sons of Conall. It appears that not all of Ioan’s brothers were on the boat that capsized, for Columba encountered the gang again during a visit to the island of Hinba. On this occasion he found himself in serious danger and only narrowly avoided being slain. The encounter came after he received disturbing news that these same pirates were attacking churches on Hinba, where one of his own satellite monasteries was located. Arriving on the island, he gathered a small party of monks and again confronted the sons of Conall. Castigating them for defiling the sanctity of churches he announced that he had decided to excommunicate them. This threat clearly enraged the pirates, who were at least nominally Christian. One of them – a henchman of Conall’s sons who went by the nickname Lám Dess (‘Right Hand’) – strode towards Columba and lunged viciously with his spear. A quick-thinking monk called Findlugán bravely put himself in the way and took the thrust, but was miraculously unharmed (according to Adomnán, this was because Findlugán happened to be wearing Columba’s hooded cloak). Amid the confusion, Lám Dess was sure he had hit his intended target and believed that a mortal wound had been given to the saint.

What happened afterwards is not reported by Adomnán but the excommunication was presumably put in place. Whether it changed the behaviour of the sons of Conall seems unlikely, given that they plainly had no qualms about attacking religious settlements. It was, nevertheless, the most drastic punishment Columba could deal out and, in an age of superstition, it may have worried some of the gang. It was evidently of little concern to Lám Dess, who was still living a life of violence one year later when he was killed in a fight on another island. After a brief notice of his death, we hear nothing more of the sons of Conall in Vita Columbae.

Saint Columba

A depiction of St Columba by J.R. Skelton (1907)

* * * * *

The story of the pirates appears on pages 118 to 121 of my book Columba.

The relevant references in Vita Columbae are in chapters 22 (Ioan) and 24 (Lám Dess) of Book Two.

Although Adomnán mentions the island of Hinba a number of times its precise location is unknown. Several theories have been proposed, based on clues given in Vita Columbae. One theory identifies Hinba as the two-part island formed by Colonsay and Oronsay, and this is the one I favour at the moment. See my blogpost on The lost island of Saint Columba.

* * * * * * *

Kirkmadrine: a major monastery?

Kirkmadrine Church

Kirkmadrine Church (Photo © B Keeling

The Centre for Scottish and Celtic Studies at the University of Glasgow hosts a series of lectures, many of which I would dearly love to attend if I could get there easily. Those of us who don’t reside within a 200-mile radius of Glasgow can, however, see useful summaries of the lectures at the Centre’s blog.

Back in May, a lecture that I was particularly sorry to miss was given by Katherine Forsyth and Adrián Maldonado. Their title was A magnum monasterium in South West Scotland? New work on Kirkmadrine and its stones. Kirkmadrine, as many readers of this blog will know, is in the Rhinns of Galloway, ten miles south of Stranraer. It has a little church – in a quiet, rural setting – and three Early Christian memorial stones, one of which commemorates two sacerdotes (‘chief priests’ or bishops). I’ve visited Kirkmadrine a couple of times and it’s definitely one of those places with a special kind of aura.

In the first part of the lecture, Dr Maldonado placed the church in its topographical context, looking at the pre-modern landscape via old maps and antiquarian accounts. He drew attention to the surrounding boggy terrain and to a number of nearby springs and suggested that the church seems to be located within a pre-Christian ritual landscape. He also pointed out that no archaeological excavations have taken place at Kirkmadrine since 1889.

The lecture continued with Dr Forsyth explaining that the Early Christian stones can be dated to the mid-sixth/early seventh century. They are therefore earlier than the oldest ecclesiastical sculpture at nearby Whithorn, traditionally identified as the site of a monastery associated with the famous sixth-century saints Ninian and Finnian (who might be one and the same). Moreover, Dr Forsyth observed that Whithorn didn’t become an important ecclesiastical centre until a later period, its earliest Christian stones being memorials to a secular elite. Kirkmadrine, on the other hand, with its high-ranking sacerdotes, was evidently an organized religious community at the very time when Ninian and Finnian were active. Perhaps, then, we should think of Kirkmadrine, not Whithorn, as the place associated with these two saints? In this scenario, Kirkmadrine’s early importance would have been eclipsed when Whithorn became the centre of an English (Northumbrian) bishopric in the late seventh century and, subsequently, the focus of a major cult devoted to Ninian. The scenario is certainly worth considering, not least because it fits rather neatly with the sculptural evidence from both sites, but it has significant implications for our traditional view of early monastic settlement in Galloway.

Kirkmadrine Stone

The sacerdotes stone, now protected behind glass (Photo © B Keeling)

Below is a link to the lecture summary at the CSCS blog.

A magnum monasterium in South West Scotland? New work on Kirkmadrine and its stones

* * * *

A note on the place-name

Kirkmadrine probably means ‘Church of Mathurinus’ or ‘Church of My-Drine’ (where ‘my’ has the honorific meaning ‘my dear’). William Watson in CPNS (The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland, 1922) thought Drine might be an Anglicized form of Gaelic Draigne (pronounced ‘Droyn’). An otherwise unknown Draigne, identified as a Briton, appears in an ancient Irish list of saints. See CPNS, pp.162-3.

* * * * * * *

Columba 1450

Iona Abbey

Iona Abbey (engraving by J Greig, 1817)


Three days ago, on Saturday 20 July, the President of Ireland – Michael D Higgins – visited Iona Abbey to attend an ecumenical service marking the 1450th anniversary of St Columba’s arrival on the western shores of Britain in 563. Scottish Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop gave a speech in which she drew attention to the numerous historical links between Ireland and Scotland: “St Columba’s journey to Iona is just one of the many events which have created our strong bond with Ireland and it’s important that we recognise and celebrate the continuing significance of this remarkable man and the community he founded.”

With a small band of companions, Columba left his Irish homeland to establish a monastery on the tiny Hebridean isle. He died there in 597, after a long and distinguished ecclesiastical career which brought him into contact with some of the key figures of the sixth century – renowned abbots and powerful kings on both sides of the Irish Sea.

To celebrate the 1450th anniversary, I’m planning a short series of blogposts on Columba, highlighting episodes from his career as presented in the vita or ‘Life’ written by Adomnán, ninth abbot of Iona. The series will be fairly random, in topic as well as frequency, and will simply reflect those parts of the vita that particularly caught my eye while writing my own book about Columba (see below).

Columba

* * * *

Newsnet Scotland, 20 July 2013 – President of Ireland visits Iona

* * * *

Whitby

Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey


As this blogpost is about a place in England I’m putting it in my ‘non-Scottish’ category, but that’s not the whole story, because Whitby has an important connection with early medieval Scotland.

Today, Whitby is a busy town and seaside resort on the coast of North Yorkshire. Its most striking landmark is the ruined abbey on a high headland overlooking the harbour. The abbey stands near the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery which was the venue for a hugely significant event in AD 664: an ecclesiastical synod where matters of grave concern were discussed. The synod was hosted by Abbess Hild, a princess of the English kingdom of Northumbria, who also chaired the debate. Among the attendees was the Northumbrian king Oswiu (husband of Hild’s kinswoman Eanflaed) at whose request the gathering was summoned.

At stake in the debate was the future direction of Christianity in Oswiu’s kingdom. Would the Northumbrian churches continue to follow the ‘Celtic’ religious customs of Iona, the Hebridean island monastery founded by Saint Columba? Or would they instead adopt the so-called ‘Roman’ customs practised throughout much of Western Europe? The Celtic case was put by Colmán, bishop of Lindisfarne, while the chief spokesman for the Roman side was Wilfrid, abbot of Ripon. After hearing the arguments and counter-arguments, King Oswiu decreed that the Northumbrian churches should adhere to Roman customs alone. At a stroke, Iona’s authority among the Northern English clergy was ended. Even those who felt strong loyalty to the old Celtic ways, such as Hild herself, were obliged to obey the royal command.

Nothing now remains of the seventh-century monastery at Whitby. Although archaeologists have found traces of timber buildings on the seaward edge of the headland, as well as a large cemetery of Anglo-Saxon graves beneath a car park near the Abbey, the precise layout of the monastic site is unknown. Modern visitors are instead left to imagine how the headland might have looked in Hild’s time. When they reach the top of the 199 steps leading up from the town, they encounter an impressive rendition of an Anglo-Saxon cross.

Caedmon's Cross

Caedmon’s Cross, Whitby.


This monument, known as Caedmon’s Cross, was erected in 1898 to commemorate Caedmon, a herdsman at the Whitby monastery, whose talent for poetry caught the attention of Hild. Both he and the abbess are carved on the front, together with Jesus Christ and the Israelite king David.
Saint Hild of Whitby

Caedmon’s Cross: St Hild, abbess of Whitby.


Caedmon

Caedmon’s Cross: Caedmon the poet


Caedmon's Cross

Caedmon’s Cross: commemorative text


The cross stands in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, an interesting old building which is well worth a visit. The church has a number of stained glass windows depicting key figures connected with the Synod of Whitby (Hild, Wilfrid and Colmán) as well as Caedmon and two seventh-century Northumbrian kings (Oswiu’s brother Oswald and Hild’s kinsman Edwin).
Hild and Wilfrid

St Mary’s Church: Hild and Wilfrid


Caedmon and Colman

St Mary’s Church: Caedmon and Colmán


Finally, a Scottish connection from a rather later period: a stone memorial, high on a wall inside St Mary’s Church, honouring the English general Peregrine Lascelles (1685-1772) who fought in the battle of Prestonpans near Edinburgh in 1745. This famous Jacobite victory, in which an English army was flung into disarray by a wild Highland charge, evidently niggled the old general to the end of his days. His memorial refers to a fruitless exertion of his Spirit & ability at the disgracefull rout of Preston pans.

St Mary's Church, Whitby: memorial to General Lascelles

General Lascelles (left) and his memorial at St Mary’s Church, Whitby (right).

* * * *

All photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

I’ve written in more detail about the Synod of Whitby in my book on Saint Columba.

Hild has been brought vividly to life by award-winning author Nicola Griffith in a historical novel scheduled for publication later this year.

* * * * * * *

Blogging about Pictish Christianity

Isle of May & St Ethernan's Church

The Isle of May, with the ruined medieval priory in the foreground.


Earlier this month I wrote a blogpost about the presumed Pictish ritual site at Dunino Den, a place seemingly used for pagan ceremonies before being taken over by Christianised Picts in the 8th century or thereabouts.

I had hoped to continue this religious theme by reporting on my visit last year to the Isle of May, a small island in the Firth of Forth. There I explored the remains of a 12th-century priory occupying the site of an earlier church allegedly founded by St Ethernan 300 years earlier. Ethernan seems to have been active in Fife and other Pictish territories in an era of Viking raids.

Unfortunately, I haven’t got around to writing it. I’ve been keeping it on the back-burner because I first wanted to read Peter Yeoman’s paper ‘Pilgrims to St. Ethernan: the archaeology of an early saint of the Picts and Scots’ which I figured would give my report some useful scholarly beef. I still haven’t made any effort to obtain this paper, but I’m now thinking I should go ahead and write something about St Ethernan anyway. So that’s what I’ll do – but not just yet, as I’ve got an item on the Strathclyde Britons in the pipeline for Heart Of The Kingdom, and (like most of you, no doubt) I never seem to have enough time to do all the things I want to do with social media.

In the meantime, and in the absence of my delayed blogpost on Ethernan, those of you with an interest in Pictish Christianity should hike over to A Corner Of Tenth-Century Europe where Jonathan Jarrett has written an excellent and enlightening summary of the current state of play, woven around notes on a lecture delivered last year by Alex Woolf. Our old pal St Ninian or Nynia – formerly a key figure in the story but now increasingly remote – gets a namecheck, as does the slightly less enigmatic St Columba (about whom I have written a book).

In his blogpost Jonathan reminds us that the traditional picture presented by Bede simply doesn’t hold water. What this means for Columba and Ninian is that neither of them can justifiably be called ‘The Apostle of the Picts’, regardless of what Bede says. The old image of two well-organised ‘missions’, respectively evangelising the northern and southern Picts, can no longer be sustained. It’s ecclesiastical propaganda designed to promote the interests of later generations of clerics in Pictland and elsewhere. The story also has to take account of new archaeological evidence from major sites such as Portmahomack. The picture of how Christianity became established in Pictland seems instead to be a multi-textured patchwork of individual missionary endeavours, woven by an unknown number of largely unsung characters working quietly in various districts, setting up their own churches and liaising with local secular elites. These patches were somehow knitted together to form what we now think of as the ‘Pictish Church’ with its primary centres at St Andrews and Dunkeld, but it must have been a slow process. Somewhere along the way, at quite a late stage, St Ethernan slots into the picture. He gets a mention in Jonathan’s blogpost, and Peter Yeoman’s paper gets cited too. As for me, I’m reminded to write my long-overdue report about the old ruined church on the Isle of May.

* * *

Reference:

Peter Yeoman, ‘Pilgrims to St Ethernan: the archaeology of an early saint of the Picts and Scots’, pp.75-91 in Barbara Crawford (ed.) Conversion and Christianity in the North Sea World (St Andrews, 1998).

See the notes at the end of Jonathan’s blogpost for other useful books and articles on Pictish Christianity.

* * * * * * *

New book on Saint Columba

Columba
This is my fourth book, a biographical study of Saint Columba, the founder of Iona. Like my previous books it draws on primary and secondary sources to present a narrative history of its subject. In this case the main primary source (Adomnán’s Life of St Columba) is so central to the narrative that its author features almost as prominently as Columba himself. In fact, I’ve used Adomnán as my chief guide. My narrative sticks fairly closely to the Life throughout the first part of the book, which deals with Columba’s career in Ireland and Scotland. The second part looks at Columba’s legacy: the cult that grew around him and the federation of churches that regarded him as their patron.

One aspect of Columba’s story that particularly interests me is his interaction with secular powers, especially with ambitious rulers such as his kinsman Áed mac Ainmerech in Ireland, Áedán mac Gabráin of Dal Riata and the Pictish king Bridei. His relationships with these three, and with other powerful lords, are examined in this book, as are his dealings with folk of lesser social status.

Contents
Introduction: Finding Columba
Chapter 1 – The Sources
Chapter 2 – From Ireland to Iona
Chapter 3 – King Áedán
Chapter 4 – Abbot
Chapter 5 – Iona and her Neighbours
Chapter 6 – The Picts
Chapter 7 – Saint
Chapter 8 – Paruchia and Familia
Chapter 9 – Legacy

Like my second book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland, this one has detailed references which are gathered into a Notes section at the rear, with an accompanying bibliography. Illustrations include maps and black-and-white photographs.

Columba is published in Edinburgh by John Donald. It is available from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

* * * * * * *

St Andrew’s Day

Saint Andrew

None of my usual mumblings this time. Just a wee blogpost to wish a happy St Andrew’s Day to all!

View of St Andrews from St Rule's Church (photo © B Keeling)

* * * * * * *

The place name ‘Paisley’

Paisley Abbey

Paisley Abbey (photograph © B Keeling)

Paisley is a large town on the southern fringe of the Greater Glasgow urban area. It lies on the White Cart Water, a tributary of the River Clyde, and is the largest settlement in Renfrewshire. Paisley’s best-known landmark is the impressive abbey which developed from a priory founded in the 12th century by Walter FitzAlan, High Steward of Scotland and forefather of the Stewart dynasty. The abbey has connections with the Stewarts and Bruces, and with the great Scottish hero William Wallace. Among its treasures is a sculptured tomb said to be that of Princess Marjorie, daughter of Robert the Bruce of Bannockburn fame. Marjorie married into the House of the Stewards in 1314 and was the mother of Robert II, the first Stewart king. A more recent addition to the abbey’s monuments is the Barochan Cross, carved c.900, a fine example of sculpture from the old kingdom of Strathclyde. It formerly stood in an exposed position at Barochan five miles to the northwest before being brought to Paisley Abbey for protection.

The abbey reputedly stands on the site of a church founded by Saint Mirin in c.600. Mirin, also known as Mirren or Murrin, was an Irish monk who came to Scotland as a missionary. Little is known about him but he presumably preached among the Britons of Renfrewshire. Today he is commemorated in Paisley by a modern statue and the name of the local football team ‘St Mirren’. Inside the abbey his carved image can be seen in wood and stone.

Saint Mirin at Paisley

Paisley Abbey: wooden carving of St Mirin (photograph © B Keeling)

Older forms of the place name Paisley include Passaleth (1157), Paisleth (1158), Passelet (1163) and Passelek (1296). Although the suffix -ley is reminiscent of Old English leah, ‘a clearing’, the medieval forms belong to a period when Celtic languages were spoken in the area. The dominant speech around c.1100 was Gaelic but its arrival in this part of Scotland was fairly recent at that time and most people in Renfrewshire had previously spoken Cumbric, the language of the North Britons. The shift from Cumbric to Gaelic began in the second half of the 11th century after the Scottish king Mael Coluim III conquered Strathclyde and deposed its native rulers. Mael Coluim and his fellow-Scots spoke Gaelic but the place name Paisley did not originate in their language. Its early recorded forms show it to have been formed in Brittonic, the language group to which Cumbric belonged.

Strathclyde churches

Three major churches of Renfrewshire, c.950 (Note: Govan was partly in Lanarkshire)

The consensus of opinion sees Paisley deriving ultimately from Greek basilikos, ‘royal’, a word borrowed into Latin as basilica which in Christian times came to mean ‘church’. From Latin the term basilica passed into the Brittonic languages where it evolved into forms such as Old Welsh bassalec. The latter is still preserved in Wales as the village-name Bassaleg, written as Basselek in medieval documents. Paisley, too, is generally assumed to mean ‘basilica’. The change from initial B to P may have been due to local dialect and is not unknown in Celtic borrowings from Latin, e.g. Irish peist, ‘monster’, from Latin bestia. In Paisley’s case, the 12th-century forms Passaleth and Passelet probably arose from mistranscription of -ec by medieval Scottish scribes, perhaps under the influence of Irish baslec which also meant ‘basilica’. Passelek, recorded in the 13th century, might be a fairly close rendering of how the original Cumbric name was pronounced.

Basilica is actually very rare in place names in the British Isles. It occurs in Ireland only twice, at Baslick in County Roscommon and Baslickane in County Kerry. The former was originally Gaelic Baisleac-mor, ‘Great Basilica'; the latter derives from Baisleacan, ‘Little Basilica’. In Britain the only examples are the Welsh village Bassaleg and, if we accept the conventional view, Paisley itself. In places where Brittonic speech survived until quite late (i.e. to the 11th century) we might expect native ‘church’ names to contain eccles (from Latin ecclesia) or the prefix llan-, ‘enclosure’ (i.e. ‘monastic enclosure’) rather than basilica. The latter’s rarity in place names is consistent with its specialised use in Continental Europe where it denoted an important relic-church containing the bones of a major saint. Did the original church at Paisley hold the remains of such a person? By this definition the tomb or shrine was unlikely to commemorate a local or regional saint such as Mirin but one of international renown like a famous martyr or even an Apostle. It may seem surprising, then, to find no folklore at Paisley comparable to the elaborate foundation-legends of St Andrews which claim that the eponymous Apostle’s bones were brought from Constantinople to Fife. If Paisley did indeed have an early basilica, and if the latter term is usually associated with an important saint, why is there no local tradition of major relics being enshrined? The absence of such lore may seem, at first glance, to cast doubt on the usual derivation of the place name.

Or maybe the term basilica was not used so narrowly in the British Isles? Perhaps the Britons and their Irish neighbours associated it with any category of saint, even a minor local one? When we look at Baslick in Ireland, for instance, we find stories about St Sacell, an obscure disciple of Patrick and hardly a figure of international importance. At Bassaleg in Wales we find a similar picture: tales of a local saint (the female hermit Gwladys) but nothing about anyone of major significance. To me, this raises the possibility that the Irish and Britons regarded basilica as simply another word for ‘church’. Its occurrence (or survival) in only a handful of place names suggests that it was well down the list of preferred terms, perhaps being seen as exotic and pretentious. If Baslick and Bassaleg are the relic-churches of Sacell and Gwladys respectively, then maybe Paisley is in fact St Mirin’s basilica and the place where his bones were venerated.

* * * * * * *

Barochan Cross

The Barochan Cross (now in Paisley Abbey)

Notes
* Alternative Brittonic origins for Paisley from Welsh pasgell llethr, ‘pasture slope’ or pas lle, ‘exit place’ have been suggested (by James Johnston and William Oxenham respectively).
* Although basilica is usually associated with churches of the highest status in Western Christendom this appears not to be the case in Eastern Orthodox areas.
* William Oxenham makes the following interesting observation on Paisley: ‘Kuno Meyer the originator of the suggestion that the name is a corruption of Latin Basilica later withdrew it as being based on unsatisfactory evidence.’ (Oxenham 2005, 210) Having not yet tracked down Meyer’s text I’m not sure what reason he gave for withdrawing the basilica idea.

—————

References

Stephen T. Driscoll, Oliver O’Grady and Katherine Forsyth, ‘The Govan School revisited: searching for meaning in the early medieval sculpture of Strathclyde’, pp.135-58 in S.M. Foster & M. Cross (eds) Able Minds and Practised Hands: Scotland’s Early Medieval Sculpture in the Twenty-First Century (Leeds, 2005) [see p.151 on Paisley as an early relic-church]

James B. Johnston, Place-Names of Scotland. 3rd edition (London, 1934)

William Oxenham, Welsh Origins of Scottish Place-Names (Llanrwst, 2005), pp.210-11

William J. Watson, The History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926), p.194

* * * * * * *

This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde