Early Christianity in Glen Lyon

Next week, on Thursday 30 August at 1.00pm, Dr Anouk Busset of the University of Glasgow’s archaeology department will be giving a talk at Govan Old Parish Church. This is an event I would very much like to get to but unfortunately can’t make it. Those lucky enough to attend will hear Anouk speak on the following topic:

The Early Christian landscape of Glen Lyon: investigating sacred movement in the Early Middle Ages

Glen Lyon is a place I’ve visited a few times. It’s a scenic gem – a long valley in the Highlands with picturesque views of the surrounding hills. It’s also an area rich in history and archaeology. Cairns, stone circles and standing stones bear witness to the glen-dwellers of prehistory. Those same folk probably held sacred the majestic old yew of Fortingall at the eastern end of the glen, a tree that is still alive thousands of years later.

Fortingall Yew

The Fortingall Yew in the early 1800s.

Christianity eventually supplanted the local pagan religion, bringing a new package of beliefs and rituals. At Fortingall, the village church has long been assumed to occupy the site of an ancient predecessor, perhaps a monastery founded by missionaries from Iona. Fragments of finely carved Pictish cross-slabs are displayed in the present building while other, simpler Early Christian monuments can be seen outside. In September 2017, to widespread dismay, a Celtic hand-bell dating from the seventh or eighth century was stolen from a niche inside the church.

Further along Glen Lyon, a standing stone known as St Adamnan’s Cross bears the name of the famous abbot of Iona who died in 704. According to local tradition, Adamnan (Adomnán) undertook missionary work among the glen’s pagan inhabitants and performed a miracle that the monolith supposedly commemorates.

Anouk Busset gained her PhD from the University of Glasgow in 2017 and is one of the new generation of up-and-coming archaeologists whose work is making a difference to our understanding of Scotland’s early medieval past. This year she was part of a team undertaking a project in Glen Lyon, hence the theme of next week’s event at Govan Old. Her talk is sure to be enthralling, and I recommend it to any Senchus readers who want to know more about the Early Christian archaeology of the Highlands. It’s free to all, with no need to book a seat in advance (and with free refreshments too).

Anouk Busset's talk at Govan Old

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LINKS

Anouk Busset on Twitter

Jo Woolf’s articles on St Adamnan’s Cross and the Fortingall Yew.

Website of the Govan Stones at Govan Old Parish Church

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6 comments on “Early Christianity in Glen Lyon

  1. David Ash says:

    The Christianisation of existing pagan sites is a fascinating subject matter.

    Practically speaking, the sanctification of an existing pagan site of worship is a master-stroke of the early Christian missionaries… it would be like an auto-Christianisation of the local people… they would continue to congregate in the same spot on the same sacred dates as they had done for generations… I suppose this is why we see so many Celtic Pagan / Christian crossovers (Holly, Saturnalia, Resurecrion, Stone Crosses, etc.)

    In your research / studies have you seen much evidence of pagan monoliths / stone circles being re-carved into crosses / built into churches, etc.?

    • Tim says:

      You’re right, David. It undoubtedly made sense to appropriate pagan sites to Christianity. Local people would then continue to congregate at a familiar place – formerly sacred to their old gods – that had been re-designated as a focus of veneration for the newly arrived Christian God.

      A re-used pre-Christian monolith that immediately springs to mind is St Adamnan’s Cross, mentioned above, which is evidently a prehistoric standing stone with a much later cross carved on both sides. Another is the Sun Stone at Govan which again is thought to be a prehistoric standing-stone refashioned as a Christian monument. I am sure there are other examples elsewhere in Britain but none of them is ringing a bell at the moment.

  2. Jo Woolf says:

    This sounds fascinating and I wish I could go, too! Glen Lyon is a very special place, with a lot of hidden history. The Fortingall Yew is amazing as well. Thanks for the links, Tim!

    • Tim says:

      You’re welcome, Jo. I’m really miffed at missing this event. I had an interesting chat with Anouk in 2016 (in a bar in Glasgow) but haven’t managed to catch any of her talks yet.

      The main objective of my own visits was the Glen Lyon Gallery where the landscape artist Alan Hayman used to be based. I think he moved to the west coast some years ago.

  3. jimthemorr says:

    Thanks, Tim. Will try to go. Jim

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