8.6 Religion and Ritual

The religious beliefs at the start of the early medieval period are still obscure. During this period Christianity was introduced, but exactly where, and in what circumstances, is still a matter of some debate. Traditionally the view is that much of the Highlands was converted via the Irish tradition, with missionaries spreading the word from the west (Grant 2000, 3ff). Much is based on Adomnán’s biography of St Columba, written at the end of the 600s, together with an assumption that saints’ names, as part of place-names, refer to early missionary activity, although dedications could be later, given the lack of contemporary written sources (Noble and Evans 2019, 143). Place-names containing annait, cill and kirk in particular have a religious basis, but again dating is an issue. Names containing cill  cluster in Easter Ross and Sutherland, along the Great Glen, and in the western Highlands. Taylor (1996) proposed that the cill– names related to the spread of Columban and/or Irish religious tradition.

There are also likely to have been religious differences, especially without a strong religious organisation to enforce orthodoxy; this holds true for pagan as well as Christian times (ScARF Medieval section, 4.3). The founders of the only archaeologically confirmed church/monastery, which is at Portmahomack, are unknown. However, the radiocarbon dates, the presence of the 8th century continental coin, the comparison of sculptural styles on the sculpture and hints from Anglo-Saxon sources have been used by the excavators to suggest a theory that the monastery was a Northumbrian initiative (Carver et al 2016, 337).

8.6.1 Burial Evidence

8.6.2 Pagan Viking Burials

8.6.3 The Coming of Christianity

8.6.4 Pictish Carved Stones

8.6.5 Norse Runic-inscribed Stones

8.6.6 Holy Wells

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