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.

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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.

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7 comments on “Blogging about Pictish Christianity

  1. Thankyou for this Tim; Isle of May, indeed, I must fix that where I referred to the Black Isle instead; I only ever remember this when I actually look Yeoman’s article up, somehow I learnt it wrong. I look forward to your post!

    • Tim says:

      I’ve been able to get the gist of Yeoman’s article from snippets here and there, so I’ll press on and write the post. I’d like to get hold of Conversion and Christianity at some point, as the entire volume looks well worth reading, but I think it might be a while.

  2. Jo Woolf says:

    I know what it’s like trying to juggle the demands of social media. It’s great for spreading the word, but not at the expense of actually doing what you do best! Looking forward to your posts.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Jo. Social media sometimes feels like a lot of plates spinning all together, but I’m learning how to ration the time I devote to each one. For instance, I’m now finding Twitter and Tumblr fairly quick and easy to keep ticking over. The biggest chunk of my social media time is eaten up by blogging, which I just can’t seem to streamline in the same way.

  3. […] some, weirdly, padlocked, also arrive in the record over the seventh century. This applies to the Isle of May and to Inchmarnock, both of which are known to have housed monasteries, and of course a similar […]

  4. Claire Brodie says:

    Just chanced upon your site after googling the Rodney Stone which stands outside Brodie Castle. Fascinating. I didn’t know before that the Rodney Stone has Ethernan’s name in Ogham writing down its side. Have you any ideas why the stone would end up there? Strangely, I’ve just written a book and linking up the Brodies with Fife and Moray going back to Pictish times and with the Culdees at St Serf’s Inch.

    • Tim says:

      Hi Claire,
      It’s interesting to hear of your research on the Brodies and their possible Pictish origins.
      To answer your question about the the Rodney Stone…. it was originally found in the old kirkyard of Dyke & Moy, before being moved to Dyke village as a memorial to Admiral Rodney’s defeat of the French in 1782. At some point it was moved to the grounds of Brodie Castle.

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