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

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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.

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5 comments on “Kirkmadrine: a major monastery?

  1. Madrine as a corruption of Old Irish ‘Mo-Draigen’ seems very plausable to me. The name is attested as an ancestral figure of an early ecclesiastical dynasty named ‘Mac Dregin’ in the earliest Patrician hagiography (recorded in late 7th Cent); who are associated with specific areas in Co. Mayo and Co. Sligo. His son ‘Mac Erce mac Dregin’ is portrayed as inheriting ecclesiatical books of law and going on to play a big role in the area. Dregin, (also draigen, draigne, droighen, droighin, draigean; meaning ‘blackthorn, sloe’) is well attested in Irish placenames too, where it is regularly anglicized to both ‘drine’ and ‘dreen’.

    Hagiography aside, the name has definite seventh century ecclesiastical attestations & associations in Ireland. Possibly even earlier, considering that the above was being written down then as a projection back into events/ancestral figures of the sixth/fifth centuries. Ecclesiastical psuedo-history, of course, but firmly stratified psuedo-history nonetheless.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Terry, for posting this useful information on Dregin. The name and its ecclesiastical connections offer interesting possibilities in the search for Kirkmadrine’s founder or patron saint. It’s pseudo-history, as you say, but of the kind that need not be rejected outright.

      I’ve made a note to track down the Dregin references.

  2. This might suggest the later date for Ninian-Finnian that is compatible with Columba’s teacher rather than someone linked with St Martin of Tours. Its possible that Ninian-Finian was the one who moved the major center to Whithorn, or set up a rival site at Whithorn. Bede does say the stone church was already there at Whithorn before the English see was established.

    Nice picture up top too.

    • Tim says:

      Yes, we’d be looking at a later date for Ninian, i.e. c.540. I guess it’s feasible that he was originally based at Kirkmadrine, but later founded a church at Whithorn to serve the secular elite who controlled the trading emporium there.

      On the pre-Northumbrian stone church mentioned by Bede, I’m not sure what the current thinking is. I’d need to check the Whithorn archaeology report of 1997, or maybe some of the articles that have appeared since then, A useful source of information would be Adrián Maldonado’s Feasting with Latinus: rethinking early medieval Whithorn, a talk given to the Glasgow Archaeological Society in April this year, but I don’t know if it’s been published yet.

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