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.
* * *
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.
* * * * * * *