Early Christianity in Scotland

Nothing was now too gross, too whimsical, or absurd, for the folly, ignorance or superstition of the age; but streaks of light  were beginning  to glimmer athwart this fearful condensity of circumvolving darkness.
Select Memoirs, Thomas Smith (1828)

The Presbyterians were not the first Protestant church in Scotland although they eventually became the authorised Church. Before them there were the Lollards, in Kyle, Ayrshire, in the fourteenth, fifteenth,  and early sixteenth centuries who were followers of the English preacher and translator of the bible John Wyckcliffe.  Before them the Culdees were influential in the sixth and seventh century through to the  thirteenth century. Their influence seems to have expired ca 1292 when they lost a claim to the right of electing the Bishop of St Andrews. The remains of a Culdee Chapel was discovered  in 1865 when a new church was raised at Boarhills , St Andrews. There are suggestions of direct connections with the travels of the Apostle Paul. Sad to say that St Andrew, who was an Apostle and brother of Simon Peter, did not get as far as Scotland.

It is more likely that Christian ways first came to Scotland following the persecution in Rome by Domitian ca 96 AD when disciples of the Apostle John are said to have fled to the British Isles. The earliest christenings are said to be that of King Donald I , his Queen and some courtiers who were baptised ca AD 203. There followed the persecution during the rule of  the Emperor Severus  in which, for about seventy years the rites and idolatry of the Druids held sway.  They were expelled by King Cratilinth ca AD 277 from when Christianity began a steady growth in Scotland with a church and refuge for those driven out of England  at Sodor in Icolumbkil, in the Western Isles. During the reign of Cratilinth and his successor Fincormac, the Culdees gained a foothold and prospered although they suffered again in the late fourth century.

St Columba is sometimes give the credit for bringing Christianity to Scotland but  St Ninian began his work ca 397 AD .The Venerable Bede writing in the 8th century tells of a holy man called Nynia born among the British people. The traditional story is that Ninian was the son of a Christian tribal chief somewhere in the Solway region, possibly Whithorn. Ninian was consecrated by Pope Siricius as a missionary to the Picts and roamed widely in Scotland where there are many places named after him up as far as the islands of Orkney and Shetland. A partly restored `St Ninians chapel` from ca 1300 stands today on a promontory beside the entrance to the Isle of Whithorn Harbour, in Galloway. Alongside is a memorial cairn made up of stones left by modern day pilgrims, over 1500 years after St Ninian.

Columba came to Iona on the west coast of Scotland with twelve companions in AD 563 and established a monastery which was his base for evangelism among the Scots and Picts. He preached to people who had been brought up with Druidism and managed many conversions, including King Brude of the Picts. There were many churches founded and Scotland gained a religious, political and social life from this time. A feature was simplicity in form and service which was reinforced by a meeting held at Scone in AD 956 at which King Constantine attended

The meeting is one of the few records of the Age  which makes clear the constitution of the Scottish Church at the opening of the tenth century. One of these points is her complete Independence. No. "Letters Apostolic" summoned the convocation and no papal legate presided over the meeting assembled on the Mote Hill. No ecclesiastical functionary of whatever grade from outside Scotland took part in the debate, or offered advice, The Scottish Church met of her own volition, for the transaction of her own business, and recognised no church authority outside her own territory. At the opening of the tenth century she is seen to be Free. Significantly it resolved to maintain first principles. The goal at which they wished to arrive, as distinctly defined in the words of the original record, is the "faith," the "church," and the "gospel",  not Rome but Iona.

St Augustine`s influence started ca 597 AD and was followed by the works of Wilfrid, Bishop of Northumbria , the resurgence of Celtic monks the Culdees, and Regulus or St Rule and his vision to go to Mount Royal, or Kilrymont in Fife. The church known as St Rule`s was built about 1070 AD with a square tower, 30 meters high, that pilgrims could see from afar. The town of St Andrews became one of the prime centres for pilgrimage in Europe such that King David I of Scotland passed laws to protect pilgrims. The importance given pilgrims even led to the population of the city being capped at 5,000 inhabitants so that they were able to house and feed the visitors. This focus on pilgrimage may explain the lay out of the town in the rough form of a scallop shell, the symbol of the pilgrim, with the main roads radiating from (and leading to) the religious centre.

In short, it was under Augustine in the mid seventh century that Romanism began to spread its influence. The Synod of Whitby in AD 664 confirmed the use of the Roman method of calculating Easter in Scotland from which flowed Romanisation of British Christianity. Having accepted Rome`s views the embrace of Catholicism soon grew. Although the primitive Scottish Church and its clerics maintained a sturdy independence  for a while, they eventually succumbed to the organisation of Roman Christianity and its educated priests. It was in many ways a successful migration that was inevitable in the circumstances. Further formal organisation came with Malcolm Canmore and Queen Margaret, and their sons between 1070-1153  with the introduction of monastic orders and diocesan episcopacy into Scotland. The monasteries have been called the pioneers  who prepared the way for the bishops in the early church; both existed side by side until the Reformation swept them away.

Pivotal events that contributed to the Reformation began with the adverse  influence of Edward I in 1296 when the War of Independence with England broke out. For two hundred years  since Malcolm Canmore  there had been close and friendly association with the English church; Edward`s invasion led to isolation of the Scottish Church and the degeneration that followed. In the Great Schism of the papacy (1303-1377) Scotland supported the wrong Pope while moral degradation reached a peak during the time of Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503). In Scotland there were many abuses, including the matter of pluralism - a person holding more than one benefice, and the  abuses from buying and selling dispensations;  diversion of tithes, mort dues, and the like. Clerical chastity was significant in its absence.

By the time any serious effort was made (1549) to deal with abuses  the spirit of the Renaissance had reached the Scottish universities, and there was a thirst for knowledge that undermined Roman theology. The greatest motivator in change was the circulation of the English Bible among the people. As in England, the advent of printing generated more books and religious tracts that disseminated new ideas and beliefs.  Although in a strange dialect to the average Scot, the English Bible was a revelation that appealed to them and, moreover, it did away with the endless demands and abuses by the clergy that impacted daily life from the cradle to the grave. The Bassandyne Bible of 1576 was the first complete vernacular Bible printed in Scotland.

The simplicity of the Scriptures, and the conviction that  it was the true path, vitiated the Reformation in Europe . In England John Wyckcliffe and the Lollards were pursued to the death, but the seed was sown. In Scotland It fell to John Knox to keep the momentum for change going, and to drive through the establishment of Presbyterianism in 1560.

Monasteries and the people.

The Beggars Warning.


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