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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New book on Saint 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.

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.

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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)

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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.

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Barochan Cross

The Barochan Cross (now in Paisley Abbey)

* 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.



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

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

Crail Pictish cross-slab

Crail Pictish Stone

(click to enlarge)

Crail is a picturesque village on the coast of Fife. It lies 9 miles south of St Andrews in an area called the East Neuk which forms part of the northern shore of the Firth of Forth. Near the centre of the village stands the parish church with its fine 13th century tower. Formerly known as St Mary’s, the church once had a much older dedication to St Maelrubha, an Irish missionary who reputedly preached among the Picts in the late 7th and early 8th centuries. Among many items of historical interest inside the church is a Pictish cross-slab of c.800, now standing against a wall near the main entrance.

Crail Pictish Stone

from Scotland in Early Christian Times (1881)

The slab was retrieved in 1815, having been used as a paving-stone in the floor for about fifty years. Its carvings are therefore quite worn and any detail is difficult to see. There are no Pictish symbols and the style of the cross is late, hence the slab’s usual designation as a ‘Class III’ stone carved at the end of the Pictish period when the symbols were probably obsolete. Because of the slab’s position against a wall the reverse is no longer visible but, given the date, it is most likely blank. Current thinking among archaeologists and art-historians identifies the following sculptural features on the front face:

* a large cross of a common ‘Celtic’ type surmounted by an arc containing key-pattern decoration. The arms of the cross and the upper and lower parts of the cross-head are decorated with interlace. A key-pattern adorns the shaft below the head.
* the legs and arms of a human figure who is holding or supporting the base of the cross.
* left panel: various unidentifiable beasts.
* right panel: a seated figure with another standing behind; a horseman; two beasts, one of which could be a cow with a bell around its neck.

Crail Pictish Stone

The seated figure

The seated figure seems to be holding a child in its lap and might represent the Virgin Mary, with Joseph standing behind the chair. Other interpretations are elusive because the badly-worn carvings are too indistinct. The horseman is clearly a secular figure and presumably represents a member of the local nobility, perhaps the individual commemorated by the stone.

Crail Pictish Stone

Horseman on the Crail cross-slab

In the absence of a modern archaeological excavation we cannot trace the early history of the church but the Maelrubha dedication and the cross-slab hint at an ecclesiastical presence in Pictish times. The churchyard contains an ancient well which may have been a focus for pagan rituals before the arrival of Christianity. Was a monastery founded here by Irish missionaries, disciples of Maelrubha, on land granted by a local Pictish family? It is interesting to consider the possible relationship between such a settlement and the ecclesiastical centre at St Andrews which lies only nine miles to the north. A monastery certainly existed at St Andrews before 747, when the death of its abbot was noted by the monks of Iona. At that time it was known as Cenrigmonaid, ‘the end of the royal grazing’, but had not yet achieved the importance it held in later times. If a religious community was indeed established at Crail in the 8th century was it independent of Cenrigmonaid or was it merely a satellite?

Crail Kirk

Crail Parish Church

The place name Crail, earlier Caraile, is often seen as being of Gaelic origin, comprising carr+ail where both elements mean ‘rock’. This kind of duplication using two synonyms from the same language doesn’t look right to me. I prefer Watson’s suggestion that the name is more likely to be a contraction of Cathair Aile, where Gaelic cathair represents a North Brittonic (Pictish) term related to Welsh caer, ‘fort’. A castle formerly stood near the harbour and might have occupied the site of an old Pictish coastal stronghold, perhaps the residence of the patrons of the church. This leaves us with the second element aile which Watson left unexplained. If it is indeed Gaelic ail, ‘rock’, this would make Caraile a Pictish-Gaelic hybrid meaning ‘Fort of the Rock’. Such a name is certainly consistent with the craggy landscape around the harbour and would not be the only hybrid place name in the East Neuk. A few miles along the coast, at Pittenweem, we find Pictish pett, ‘portion’, with Gaelic na h-uamha, ‘of the cave’. Another possibility is that Caraile is not a hybrid name at all and that aile has simply replaced a synonymous Pictish term related to Brittonic al (Welsh alt), as in Alt Clut, the Old Welsh name for Dumbarton (‘Rock of the Clyde’). I’ve not seen this explanation given for Crail but it’s the one I feel inclined to run with at the moment, although I also wonder if Aile could be the name of a person (e.g. ‘Aile’s Fort’) or of a nearby topographical feature (e.g. ‘the Fort beside the Aile’).

Map of Fife

Notes & references
* The photographs used in this post are all copyright © B Keeling
* My information on the place names comes from William Watson’s The History of the Celtic Place-names of Scotland (1926) and George Mackay’s Scottish Place Names (2002).
* A detailed history of Crail Church can be found in a booklet produced by the congregation entitled The Kirk of Crail. The latest edition was published in 2003. It has an interesting drawing of the Pictish cross-slab by Reverend William Macintyre who served as minister from 1956 to 1989.
* I’m hoping to delve deeper into Crail’s early history and will put any new findings on this blog. A separate post on Pittenweem is in the pipeline.

Crail harbour

Crail harbour

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St Aebbe and Coldingham

Coldingham Priory

Coldingham Priory. Photo © B Keeling

St Aebbe, daughter of King Aethelfrith of Bernicia, founded a monastery on the Berwickshire coast sometime around the middle of the 7th century. The site she selected was a fortified settlement on top of a hill overlooking the sea. Its name, in Latin, was Urbs Coludi, ‘Colud’s Fort’. Although we don’t know anything about Colud his name appears to be Celtic so he was probably a native Briton or a local god. Aebbe established a community of monks and nuns on the summit of the hill, no doubt utilising the ramparts of Colud’s Fort as a boundary. Nothing can be seen of her monastery today but the site is still known as Kirk Hill and is part of a dramatic coastal feature called St Abbs Head. Among the impressive cliffs and deep-cloven bays a large number of seabirds make their nests, hence the designation of the entire headland as a nature reserve.

St Abbs Kirk Hill

St Abbs Head: Kirk Hill (in the distance). Photo © B Keeling

In the early 680s the monastery was accidentally destroyed by fire. By then, Aebbe was already dead and her community had acquired a reputation for sleaze and scandal. After the fire the monks and nuns abandoned Urbs Coludi to join other religious houses where, we may assume, their behaviour improved. At some point in the next two hundred years a new monastery was established slightly inland, at nearby Coldingham, eventually becoming the centre of a cult devoted to St Aebbe. Little is known of its history and it possibly didn’t survive the perils of the Viking period. Whatever its fate, the religious settlement at Coldingham was re-founded in 1098 as a priory of the Benedictine Order to whom the Scottish king Edgar granted the site and surrounding district. In the 14th century a small church, an offshoot from Coldingham, was built on Kirk Hill, on the seaward side of the summit, but it almost certainly fell into disuse when the priory itself was dissolved in the 1600s.

Coldingham Priory

Coldingham Priory: foundation of tower, c.1100. Photo © B Keeling

The parish church of Coldingham now occupies part of the Priory site and is still used as a place of worship. Next to it a medieval arch has been reconstructed in the style of the 13th century, partly from old stonework and probably on its original base. On one side of the arch lie the visible foundations of a tower built c.1100, with the inscribed grave-slabs of two priors from the early 1200s placed in the centre. On the other side stands the ‘Lapidarium’, a wall erected in Victorian times using sculptured blocks and other objects unearthed at the site. Among the various interesting items in the Lapidarium are several piscinae or stone basins for washing vessels and vestments used in the Mass. One of these is thought to be a genuine 7th-century relic from St Aebbe’s original monastery on Kirk Hill.

Coldingham Priory

The presumed 7th-century piscina. Photo © B Keeling


* More about St Aebbe can be found in this post by Michelle of Heavenfield

* I haven’t yet looked for detailed information on the ancient piscina so if anyone knows something about it please feel free to add a comment below

* Two useful links: one for the Coldingham village website, the other for the Priory

* Bede wrote about St Aebbe, her monastery at Urbs Coludi and the lax morals of its inhabitants in Book 4, Chapter 25 of his Ecclesiastical History

Coldingham Priory St Aebbe

Coldingham Priory: modern memorial to St Aebbe. Photo © B Keeling


The Saints of Kilmadock

St Aedh's Church and graveyard, Kilmadock.

Doune in Stirlingshire, a village famous for its 14th century castle, is the main settlement of the ancient parish of Kilmadock. The parish church has been at Doune since the 18th century, succeeding a much older site two miles northwest on the bank of the River Teith. The river runs through, and gives its name to, a district known since medieval times as Menteith, formerly ruled by a mormaer or ‘great steward’ before becoming an earldom of the Scottish Crown. It is possible that Menteith originated as a province or sub-kingdom of the Picts, with a southern border loosely defined by the River Forth.

The location of Menteith

The old parish church of Kilmadock is now a forlorn ruin, reduced to a single gable-end in a disused graveyard. The entire site lies on a natural mound and is enclosed by a wall of roughly oval shape. Even if we knew nothing of its history we would be in no doubt that this has been a place of Christian worship since very early times. Its topographical setting (at the junction of a stream and a river), its elevated position and its curvilinear wall are key characteristics of an ancient ‘Celtic’ foundation. The name of the adjacent stream, the Annat Burn, derives from the old Gaelic word annaid denoting a church containing relics of a saintly founder. In the words of the place-name scholar William Watson: ‘wherever there is an Annat there are traces of an ancient chapel or cemetery, or both’.

The church at Kilmadock is known as ‘St Aedh’s’, and this is where the mystery begins. No source tells us who this saint was, or when the place was dedicated to him. Several saints called Aed or Aedh are mentioned in Irish ecclesiastical tradition but none has any connection with Menteith. Local lore around Doune makes no mention of Aedh and identifies the saint of Kilmadock as Cadoc, a Welsh priest of the 6th century who allegedly visited Scotland. The element ‘madock’ in the place-name is usually interpreted as ‘Doc’ (commonly believed to be a shortened form of ‘Cadoc’) prefixed by Gaelic mo/ma (meaning ‘dear’ or ‘beloved’) which in turn is prefixed by ‘Kil-‘ (from Gaelic cill, ‘church’). Numerous churches in western Scotland have names based on the formula Kil + mo/ma + a saint’s name but it is very rare in the east, in the land of the Picts.

According to place-name experts the Kil- prefix in eastern Scotland indicates a name bestowed before c.1000, perhaps even before c.800. At Kilmadock, it implies a church founded by Gaelic-speaking missionaries from Ireland or Argyll rather than by a Welshman who spoke a Brittonic language similar to the native ‘Pictish-British’ dialect of Menteith. However, Gaelic was undoubtedly influencing Pictish-British by c.800 so it is possible that a Kil- place-name in Menteith could have been coined by Gaelicised Picts at some point in the 9th century, perhaps replacing a Brittonic name of the 6th. This removes an etymological objection to the idea of Cadoc being the founder of Kilmadock. The fact that the place-name is stressed on the final syllable appears to support the local tradition that Cadoc, here abbreviated to ‘Doc’, is indeed the holy figure commemorated. But is the tradition really based on authentic history, or merely on legends and folkore?

St Aedh's Church: the surviving gable wall.

Turning back to the Aedh dedication I wonder if this might be a red herring. It looks to me like an afterthought or back-formation devised from the element ‘madock’ in the place-name. Could the dedication be erroneous, arising from a superficial similarity between ‘madock’ and ‘Maedoc’ or ‘Modoc’? These were alternative names for the Irish saint Aedh of Ferns who died in 632. Such a sceptical view seems justified when we consider the syllable stress noted above: if the original name of Kilmadock was ‘Kil-Maedoc’, ‘Maedoc’s church’, the stress should fall on the second syllable (i.e. Kil- MA-dock) rather than on the final one (i.e. Kil-ma-DOCK, the local pronunciation).

That the original dedication was to a saint called simply ‘Doc’ rather than to Aedh/Maedoc gains support from the prominence in the local area of the surname Dog (now Doig). Genealogical lore suggests that this derives from Gaelic Gille Doig, ‘Servant of St Doc’. A connection between Clan Doig and the area around Kilmadock appears in documents dating back to the early 1500s when Walter Dog was appointed as a royal official in Menteith by Queen Margaret of Scotland. Doig tombstones can still be seen in the old graveyard at Kilmadock and a 17th century example is shown below. Were the ancestors of Clan Doig the hereditary keepers of the church at Kilmadock, perhaps even the guardians of relics of St Doc? Such a role might have been an honorary one granted to this prominent local family by the abbots of the monastery.

Detail from the tombstone of James Dog of Ballingrew, Chamberlain of Menteith, who died in 1620.

But what of St Cadoc? Is he really the mysterious ‘St Doc’ of Menteith?

Unfortunately, we don’t have much reliable information on Cadoc, despite the survival of a vita or ‘Life’ written in the late 11th century. Its author was Llifris, a monk at the monastery of Llancarfan in South Wales. He was not a biographer by any modern definition of the term, nor was he a historian. His genre was hagiography, a form of pseudo-biographical literature crafted to glorify the holiness of saints and to promote the interests of their medieval cult-centres. Although Llifris lived in the decades around c.1100 he was as far removed from Cadoc’s lifetime as we are today from the early 1500s. His knowledge of Cadoc therefore relied on 500 years of ecclesiastical folklore, most of it transmitted down the centuries by word of mouth. How much of the resulting Vita Cadoci is based on fact rather than fiction is uncertain but modern historians generally regard it as being of minimal historical value. As far as Scotland is concerned, the vita describes a journey made by Cadoc to a place citra montem Bannauc, ‘this side of the mons (hill) of Bannauc’, where he founded a church. ‘Bannauc’ is almost certainly the range of hills where the Bannock Burn rises before running down towards Stirling and the battlefield of 1314. It is far less likely to be the Cathkin Hills further south, although these have been suggested. The church on ‘this side’ is usually identified as the parish kirk of Cambuslang in Lanarkshire which, according to local tradition there, was founded by Cadoc. The entire Bannauc episode looks suspiciously like a collection of routine hagiographical motifs. Cadoc’s visit to Scotland might be fictional, a story concocted at Llancarfan to promote the Welsh monastery’s patron saint as a wide-ranging traveller. The date of the dedication to Cadoc at Cambuslang is unknown but, if it was pre-1100, Llifris may have invented Cadoc’s Scottish sojourn to explain it. Such a tale would have served the additional purpose of linking Cambuslang more closely to the primary cult-centre at Llancarfan. This was a well-trodden strategy in hagiographical writing and can be seen, for example, in the vita of St Kentigern written by Joceline of Furness in the 12th century. Joceline describes journeys made by Kentigern from his bishopric at Glasgow to faraway places where churches dedicated to him existed in Joceline’s own time. Most, if not all, of these journeys never happened. Similarly, in the Vita Cadoci we see Cadoc visiting not only Scotland but Brittany where chapels commemorating him existed in Llifris’ lifetime. I suspect Cadoc never actually visited the Breton sites, or that he ever came north to ‘this side of Bannauc’, or that he personally founded a church at Cambuslang or anywhere else in North Britain. Cambuslang is not actually mentioned in the Vita Cadoci so we cannot even be sure that it was the place Llifris had in mind. It is worthwhile to note that Llifris does not mention Kilmadock either. In any case, Menteith is north of the Bannock Burn and could hardly be described by a Welshman as being situated ‘this side of Bannauc’. If Kilmadock really had a Cadoc dedication in the 11th century, Llifris would surely have known about it and mentioned it. Perhaps he ignored Kilmadock because it had no connection with Cadoc at all and instead commemorated a different ‘St Doc’.

This brings us to the key question: Who put the ‘Doc’ in KilmaDOCK?

There are two possible candidates. One is St Docus, mentioned in an 8th-century Irish list of saints where he is described as a British bishop of the 6th century. Alongside two other Britons – the famous saints David and Gildas – Docus is credited with influencing how Mass was performed in Ireland. Closer inspection reveals him to be none other than Cadoc of Llancarfan, who thus returns to our list of possible suspects. The other is the Welsh saint Madoc, an obscure 6th or 7th century figure. Madoc is easily confused with his Irish namesake Aedh of Ferns who, as we have seen, was nicknamed Maedoc or Modoc (and sometimes Madoc!). To complicate things even further, the Welsh Madoc himself has an Irish connection: he is described as a pilgrim who travelled from Ireland to South Wales to establish Llanmadoc, ‘Madoc’s church’, a place whose name looks at first glance like a direct Welsh equivalent of Kilmadock. Unfortunately, as with the Irish name Maedoc mentioned above, the stress in ‘Madoc’ does not fall on the final syllable as it does in Kil-ma-DOCK. Llanmadoc is pronounced Llan-MA-doc, so the St Madoc of Wales might be another red herring as far as our search is concerned. Curiously, a cleric called ‘Maidoc’ appears in Vita Cadoci as a witness to one of Cadoc’s pronouncements. He is usually identified as Aedh of Ferns (‘St. Maedoc’).

The River Teith, from St Aedh's Church.

With so many vague and tangled traditions we are unable to identify the real St Doc of Menteith from whom the ancestors of Clan Doig took their name. And, as if the puzzle wasn’t insoluble enough, the annual fair held at Kilmadock Church until the 17th century was known as ‘St Mittan’s Day’. Setting the various saints aside for a moment, I think we can be confident that the old church beside the River Teith occupies the site of a predecessor founded in the 6th-8th centuries. The original church or monastery lay in an area ruled by a local Pictish aristocracy whose spiritual needs it served. Beyond this we cannot say much more. An archaeological excavation would no doubt confirm the antiquity of the site but not, alas, the name of the founder.

I’ll end this post with a list of candidates, any (or none) of whom could be the patron saint of Kilmadock.

1. St Aedh of Ferns, known as Maedoc, Modoc or Madoc
….who is not the same person as….
2. St Madoc of Llanmadoc
….who founded a church in Wales, just like….
3. St Cadoc of Llancarfan
….who is also known as….
4. St Docus
….and who might (or might not) be the same person as….
5. St Doc of Menteith
….whose name seems to underlie the Scottish surname Dog or Doig. And last of all….
6. St Mittan, of whom nothing is known.


W.J. Watson, The history of the Celtic place-names of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1926)

Simon Taylor, ‘Place-names and the early church in eastern Scotland’, pp.93-110 in B. Crawford (ed.) Scotland in Dark Age Britain (St Andrews, 1996) [includes an excellent study of the Kil- prefix in Scottish place-names]

Llifris of Llancarfan, Vita Cadoci. English translation in W.J. Rees (ed.) Lives of the Cambro-British saints (Llandovery, 1853), pp.309-95

Entry for St Aedh’s Church, Kilmadock at the RCAHMS Canmore database

The Dogs of Menteith (Clan Doig)

Kilmadock photographs © B. Keeling 2010

Who was Bania?

Saint Catroe or Cathroe was abbot of the monastery at Metz in Lorraine in the tenth century. His patrons were Frankish royalty and nobility, among them King Otto who later became Holy Roman Emperor. Catroe himself, however, came from Scotland, probably from Perthshire which at that time was ruled by a Gaelic-speaking dynasty founded by Cinaed mac Ailpin (‘Kenneth macAlpine’) in the 840s. Contemporary annals call Cinaed ‘king of the Picts’ but we don’t know if he himself was a Pict or a Scot. He ruled from centres of power in Perthshire where most of the population were Picts.

Catroe died at Metz in c.971 and, within a few years, a vita or ‘Life’ was written about him by one of the monks. From this we learn that the saint was born in c.900. As with Cinaed we don’t know his ethnic affiliation (if indeed it mattered much by then). His father Fochereach bore a Gaelic name and was presumably a Gaelic-speaking Pict, or perhaps a Scot whose family had migrated westward to Perthshire in Cinaed’s time. The name Catroe is either Brittonic (the language of the Britons) or Pictish (itself a branch of Brittonic) or Gaelic and therefore doesn’t tell us much about Catroe’s ethnicity.

At around forty years of age, in c.941, Catroe embarked on the long pilgrimage that would eventually take him to the Frankish kingdoms. Along the way he stayed with King Dyfnwal of the Strathclyde Britons, described in the ‘Life’ as Catroe’s kinsman, and also with a king called Eric who ruled the Anglo-Scandinavian kingdom of York. Eric’s wife (name unknown) was another relative of the saint. Can these two alleged kinships give us any useful clues about Catroe’s ancestry?

The author of the ‘Life’ calls Catroe’s mother Bania, a name we cannot assign to any particular ethnic or linguistic group. She came from a wealthy family of high status and, like her husband, was a pious worshipper of Saint Columba. Religious devotion to the patron saint of the Scots might seem to suggest that she herself was a Scot but we should remember that Columba was an iconic figure in Pictish Christianity too. Bania could therefore have been a Pict, and not necessarily from a Gaelic-speaking family. Her devotion to Columba may even have begun after her marriage to Fochereach. So who was she, and where did she come from?

King Dyfnwal of Strathclyde was Catroe’s kinsman but the ‘Life’ does not pinpoint the nature of their kinship. The author used the Latin term propinquus which is a very general term for a relative. It carries no implication of ties by blood and could be used, for example, of links by marriage alone. Since Dyfnwal and Catroe were roughly the same age they may have been first cousins (by blood) or brothers-in-law, or related even more distantly (e.g. cousins once or twice ‘removed’). One possibility is that the link between them came via the mysterious Bania, who might then have been a Briton of Strathclyde and a close relative of Dyfnwal. Was she, for instance, Dyfnwal’s aunt? Another possibility is that Catroe’s kinship with Dyfnwal was due not to Bania but to Fochereach, via a marriage alliance between his family and the Strathclyde royal house.

Either Bania or Fochereach might be the link between Catroe and the unnamed wife of Eric, king of York. This Eric is unlikely to be the famous Viking warlord Erik Bloodaxe whose first reign as king at York began four or five years after Catroe’s pilgrimage. Maybe a different Eric ruled during the years 941 to 943 when Catroe most likely visited the city? Whoever this king was he was apparently married to a relation of the saint. Was this lady linked to Catroe through his father’s family? Or was she a kinswoman of his mother Bania? If Eric was a Viking then his wife may also have come from the same stock, in which case Bania could also have been a Scandinavian.

The possible permutations and speculations are almost limitless. In so far as we possess any ‘evidence’ of Bania’s origins her devotion to Columba should carry considerable weight in hinting at a Perthshire origin. Her favoured place of worship is unknown but if it was Dunkeld, where Cinaed mac Ailpin established a cult of Columba, then she may have been a member of the local Pictish aristocracy.


Alan Macquarrie, The saints of Scotland: essays in Scottish church history, AD 450-1093 (Edinburgh, 1997)

David Dumville, ‘St Cathroe of Metz and the hagiography of exoticism’, pp.172-88 in J. Carey, M. Herbert & P. O’Riain (eds) Studies in Irish hagiography: saints and scholars (Dublin, 2001)

Saint Ninian

The Scottish journal Innes Review is a rich treasure-trove of information on early medieval studies. Many of its articles feature research at the cutting edge of scholarship, written by authors who are not afraid of upsetting some long-established applecarts.

One article that springs to mind is a detailed study of Ninian by Thomas Owen Clancy, who proposes that this controversial saint should be identified as the sixth-century cleric Finnian of Movilla. Clancy constructs a picture of Finnian as a Briton who founded churches and monasteries in Ireland and Scotland, the most famous of these being at Whithorn in Galloway. The original British form of the saint’s name was Uinniau which became Finnian among speakers of Irish Gaelic. Clancy suggests that the name was further amended by English clerics at Whithorn in the eighth century, who devised the “literary” form Ninian in order to promote the site as a cult centre through the medium of hagiography.

The traditional or conventional view of Ninian is that he founded Whithorn in the fifth century and undertook missionary work further north in Pictland. Clancy exposes the flaws in this view and pushes Ninian/Uinniau into the mid-500s, to a time that provides a better fit with Whithorn’s archaeology. Mysterious old tales of Irish monks studying there during the sixth century thus find a plausible context, as too does the reference to the British king Tudwal who might have been the Tudwal who ruled at Dumbarton in c.570. In fact, even a brief perusal of Clancy’s argument is likely to make anyone question the notion of a fifth-century Ninian. Having read John MacQueen’s seminal study Saint Nynia and having noted the more recent work of Alan Macquarrie and Dauvit Broun I now believe that the matter of Ninian is finally settled. Clancy’s article offers a “best fit” for this enigmatic figure’s place in history.

Thomas Owen Clancy, ‘The real Saint Ninian’. Innes Review 52 (2001), pp.1-28.

John MacQueen, St Nynia. Revised edition (Edinburgh: 1990).

Dauvit Broun, ‘The literary record of St Nynia: fact and fiction?’ Innes Review 42 (1991), pp.143-50.

Alan Macquarrie, ‘The date of St Ninian’s mission: a reappraisal’. Records of the Scottish Church History Society 23 (1987), pp.1-25.

Alan Macquarrie, The saints of Scotland: essays in Scottish church history, AD 450-1093 (Edinburgh: 1997).