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How Scotland became Christian

Saint Columba preaching to Bridei MacMaelchon's court

Christianity has been present in Scotland for over one-and-a-half thousand years, and so is very important to understanding her history, since it shaped how medieval and more recent Scots have perceived the world. While we don't yet have the census data for Scotland, Christians are now in the minority in England and Wales1 and it's most likely the same in Scotland. For a long time it was practically unthinkable that they could be anything else, so deep was the influence of the Church (or 'Kirk' in Scots) in folk's lives. My focus here will be on the conversion process, which began at its earliest through the influence of Roman Britain (Christianity was finally legalized and adopted by Emperor Constantine I in 312, though there may have been Christians among the garrisons of Roman forts in Scotland before that), but the most influential conversions came from Irish monks such as St Columba.

The earliest archaeological evidence we have of Christianity in Scotland comes ironically from the early 5th century, just as Roman power had collapsed in Britain, at Whithorn in Galloway. It is a memorial stone dedicated to a man named 'Latinus' (“descendant of Barrovadus”) and his unnamed daughter and features a chi-rho and the phrase: “We praise you, Lord” before giving the ages of the deceased2. Another monument from the same time is called the 'Cat Stane' at Edinburgh Airport and marks the grave of Vetta, child of Victicius3.

Antiquarian sketch of the Cat Stane

Thus, the earliest evidence we have suggests that at least some local aristocrats in Southern Scotland had converted to Christianity by the beginning of the 5th century, no doubt through contact with their Romano-British brethren to their south. We can then infer from these inscriptions that the Latin Rite adopted in the Western Roman Empire was transferred to Brythons outside of the empire; Christianity more effectively spread Roman culture into what is now Scotland better than the Romans themselves. Unfortunately, there are no surviving stories pertaining to Christianization in Lothian or Galloway (or for that matter the areas south and east of them), so we can only imagine what exactly took place in these areas that convinced the locals to become Christian.

The closest we have are stories of St Ninian, who himself was Bishop of Whithorn and thus represents an already converted Brython held to have converted the Picts to Christianity. As far as the Anglo-Saxon historian, Bede, was concerned this was a permanent conversion. However, the fact that St Patrick referred to the Picts as “apostates” hints that they may have decided to revert to their ancestral beliefs; assuming St Patrick wasn't simply being rhetorical around the fact that the Picts enslaved (other?) Christians during raids. Aside from the Latin stones, archaeological evidence for Christianity in Scotland predating the 8th century is hard to come by4. Perhaps the Picts retained old ways even after formal conversion, meaning that the process of conversion was long and drawn-out.

On this basis, we can probably assume that Christianization was slow and sporadic across Scotland in the 5th and 6th centuries, with the strongest influence in the south and west (the Gaelic Kingdom of Dál Riada was likely converted by monks following St Patrick's missions in the late 5th century). However, the fact that there was: “A strong anti-Christian movement in Strathclyde, headed by a certain King Morken”5 during St Mungo's mission in the 6th century suggests that even in this part of Scotland, Christianity was not so firmly entrenched that there was still a pagan faction among its royalty strong enough to oppose it.

The most famous of Scotland's missionaries is of course St Columba, who preached to the Picts in the late 6th century. He is usually held to have been active in 'Northern Pictland' on Bede's testimony (meeting the Pictish King Bridei McMaelchon at Inverness, perhaps the hillfort of Craig Phadraig), but an earlier poem talks of Columba preaching to: “the peoples of the Tay”.6 This is supported by the fact that at the foot of the King's Seat hillfort near Dunkeld (next to the Tay), there is a 'St Columb's Well'.

Nevertheless, the fact that Bede claimed that Iona (the monastery Columba founded) supervised: “all the Pictish monasteries”7 suggests that Columba and his monks were probably more successful in convincing the Picts to accept Christianity more fully than earlier missionaries such as Ninian. Perhaps the Brythonic missionaries were somewhat 'too Roman', whereas the Gaelic monks may have had a better understanding of how to make Christianity appealing to Celts such as the Picts, whom the Brythons seem to have considered a completely separate people (despite place-name evidence suggesting they spoke a very similar language).

We should also consider the conversions of the Germanic peoples in Scotland, as these are intimately tied together with the locally established forms of the religion. The Anglo-Saxons arrived as pagans and two hillforts in the Borders named after their god, Woden (Woden Law near the English border and Edin's Hall Broch, originally named 'Woden's Hall' between Duns and Grantshouse), testify to pagan Anglo-Saxon settlement in the area. The Annals of Ulster record a 'Siege of Etin' in 638, which is usually taken to be Edinburgh and to mark the annexation of Lothain by King Oswald of Northumbria. Oswald was already Christian by this point, as he had converted while living in exile in Dál Riada (for he was son of King Æthelfrith of Bernicia, who was succeeded by his rival, Edwin of Deira, after Æthelfrith was killed in battle).

Woden, chief god of the Anglo-Saxons, known as 'Odin' to the Norse

This means that Oswald converted to the Scottish variety of Christianity, which was somewhat different from that introduced to England by the Gregorian Mission in 597 (the latter was directly commissioned by the pope, whereas the former was a result of Christianity spreading independently from Britain to Ireland through St Patrick and then to Scotland through subsequent missionaries, including St Columba). Both forms of Christianity were present in Northumbria during his reign, but it was only when his son, Oswiu, became king that it became a political issue. While Oswiu followed 'Scottish Christianity' like his father, his wife, Eanflæd, was the daughter of Edwin of Deira, who was baptized by one of the Gregorian missionaries, Bishop Paulinus of York (his own wife, Æthelburg, was the daughter of King Æthelberht of Kent, who had received the Gregorian Mission in the first place).

However, it was Oswiu's son, Ealhfrith, who was convinced by Bishop Wilfrid of York to abandon his father and grandfather's Christian practice in favor of that done by the rest of the English kingdoms. The key issue was over the dating of Easter, as most of the Celtic Christians held to an older method of calculation, while the English and Southern Irish Christians used an updated, papacy-approved version. The result was the Synod of Whitby in 664, which resulted in Oswiu accepting the authority of the Bishopric of York and the Archbishopric of Canterbury, leading to the departure of the Irish Bishop Colmán of Lindisfarne from Northumbria.

This was to have implications for the Picts, whose king, Nechtan MacDer-Ilei, became convinced that this form of Christianity was better and requested Abbot Ceolfrid of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow to help bring the Pictish Church in line with mainstream Catholicism and build stone churches in the 'Roman style' c.710 8 and expelled the monks of Iona from Pictland in 717 9. Thus, the Picts and Anglo-Saxons followed a broadly similar and mainstream version of Catholicism, while the Scots and Brythons retained older traditions from when they were first converted (though they had also accepted the papal calculation of Easter by this time).

Like the Anglo-Saxons, the Norsemen were pagans when they arrived in Scotland. We actually know less about the process of their Christianization despite it being later in time, though they are most famous for their sacking of monasteries including Lindisfarne and Iona (Iona was sacked multiple times) beginning in 793. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, the Orcadian and Shetlandic Norsemen were forced to convert by King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway when he arrived there in 995, because he threatened to kill Earl Sigurd of Orkney on the spot and to: “ravage every island [of Orkney and Shetland] with fire and steel”10. The Norsemen of Ireland and the Hebrides were probably converted by local Gaels, so those that settled on the south coast of Scotland in the 10th century were likely already Christian when they arrived.

Vikings, presumably on their way to sack a monastery

Once Christianity was fully established (or perhaps 're-established'), religious reforms continued throughout Scotland's history. It is arguable that the Scottish takeover of Pictland in the 9th century led to a reversal of Nechtan MacDer-Ilei's reforms and reasserted the primacy of Iona (or perhaps simply the traditions of Iona, since the monastery itself was ransacked for all it had by the vikings). Whether this was the case or not, the traditional Scottish variant of Christianity was finally overturned by King David I (1124-1153) when he introduced ecclesiastical reforms to bring Scotland up-to-date with the Gregorian Reform of the 11th century and to establish feudal kingship modelled on Norman England. This involved disenfranchizing the local monks known as 'Culdees' and replacing them with Continental orders such as Benedictines (a process which began with David's mother, Margaret of Wessex).

This system remained in place for roughly 400 years before the Reformation, which in Scotland was driven by members of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy who favored alliance with England over France and who came into conflict with Mary of Guise, mother and regent of Mary Queen of Scots, who was herself French and a devout Catholic. However, upon Mary of Guise's death in 1560, the Scottish Parliament voted to abolish papal authority and Scotland was now Protestant, specifically in the Calvinist tradition. However, there was still conflict between the Kirk and Scottish kings, in particular James VI and Charles I, due to their preference for 'Episcopacy' akin to England where the monarch was also the head of the Kirk.

Mary Queen of Scots was the target for Scottish reformer John Knox's misogynist rants, who considered women unfit to rule. Her son, the future James VI, was taught to hate her by his tutor, George Buchanan.

This conflict partly drove the wars that plagued the newly United Kingdom in the 17th century and the matter wasn't fully settled until 1691, when Presbyterianism was finally confirmed over Episcopacy as the official doctrine of the Church of Scotland. The Kirk was so essential to Scottish society that one of the terms of the Treaty and Act of Union of 1706/7 was that it would remain autonomous (alongside Scotland retaining her own educational and legal systems). Nevertheless, Scotland in particular embraced the Enlightenment in the 18th century and this can be seen as the beginning of Christianity's decline, as it encouraged folk to put their faith in reason rather than dogma.

The Industrial Revolution only continued this development, despite the fact that more kirks were built across Scotland in the 19th century than in any previous period. At that time, new religious (or simply irreligious) movements began to emerge and atheists and so-called 'occultists' began to disidentify with Christianity. This trend has only increased, with Christians now a minority in Britain. Ironically, many of us are now choosing to return to pre-Christian ways as Christianity becomes less essential to everyday life for most of us. Nevertheless, it has also been a key part of our history for the better part of two thousand years, for better or worse.

Conor Cummings


2Clarkson, 2010: The Men of the North – The Britons of Southern Scotland, p.50

3Clarkson, 2010: The Men of the North – The Britons of Southern Scotland, pp.52-53

4Maldonado Ramírez, 2011: Christianity and burial in late Iron Age Scotland, AD 4-00-650 (PhD thesis, University of Glasgow),p.13


6Fraser, 2012: From Caledonia to Pictland – Scotland to 795, p.99

7Fraser, 2012: From Caledonia to Pictland – Scotland to 795, p.100

8Bede: Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 5:21

9Annals of Ulster, 717

10Orkneyinga Saga, 12


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