8.6.3 The Coming of Christianity

Our knowledge of the late Iron Age and very earliest medieval belief systems in the Highlands, or indeed throughout Scotland, is conjectural. Written sources are few, and date long after the time; they are also biased. Adomnán’s Life of St Columba, our main written source for northern Scotland, dates to over a century later than its events, and separating fact from hagiography has been a difficult task (Sharpe 1995; Noble and Evans 2019, 135). Archaeological evidence provides little help given the sparse burial evidence cited in Chapters 8.6.1 and 8.6.2.

With the establishment of Christianity, places of worship were presumably founded, but no evidence survives for the Highlands and it is sparse for Scotland as a whole (Foster 2019). Even at Portmahomack, where the monastic settlement must have had a church, the evidence for the first church consists only of fragments of a wall and pieces of architectural sculpture (Carver et al 2016, 168-9, 178ff).

No traces survive of the monastic church, buildings or burials at the other likely monastery at Rosemarkie, Easter Ross, although a large number of sculptural fragments survive. Among the carved stones from Rosemarkie is evidence for the internal fittings of an early medieval church. These take the form of two complete carved stone panels and fragments of two others, plus two end-slabs and a possible reredos. All of these pieces relate to one or more altar tables, tomb-shrines, or other architectural embellishments. The crispness of the carving suggests they were used indoors and they provide crucial evidence for the existence of a Pictish church of some elaboration in the 8th or 9th century (Henderson and Henderson 2004, 205–11). Related relief-carved panels, corner posts and fittings survive from neighbouring sites in Moray at Burghead and Kinneddar (Noble and Evans 2019).

Monasteries were clearly not uniform in nature. On the west coast, the Irish tradition of an enclosure, central chapel, burial grounds and ancillary buildings that depend on the size of the community was the norm. Most were defined by an enclosure, though it is unclear if these might relate to any prehistoric divisions (ScARF Medieval section 4.3.1). Portmahomack was defined by a vallum, and its territory perhaps by sculpture and topography (Carver et al 2016, 338). But there were also monks who chose not to live in communities, and occupied small huts. In the Highlands, as elsewhere, some proposed monastic sites are associated with prehistoric structures, particularly promontory forts (ScARF Medieval section 4.3.1), which were also high-status settlements in this time (Noble and Evans 2019).

Identifying monasteries of the early medieval period in the Highland region is difficult. Many have been proposed (see Table 8.7), but of these only four, including Portmahomack, have had any excavation, and one of these excavations was undertaken in the 19th century. Many of the attributions are based on place-names or local tradition and must be treated with caution. The find of porphyry at Kirk Stones, Caithness is paralleled at other early medieval church sites but also at Norse settlements (Adrián Maldonado pers comm). Further work is needed to test some of the possible sites, and gain an understanding of these more remote potential monastic enclosures. Applecross would also be a good candidate for further work (MHG7685), with its cross slab and local traditions. It would allow comparison with Iona and the eastern monastery traditions revealed at Portmahomack. 

Placename Area Excavation Place-name Comments Reference
Ballachly C Y   Chapel site. Monastery attribution based on tradition there was a pre-Reformation chapel & graveyard, and remains of a wall. OS visit 1982 thought unlikely. Excavations 2007-2010. Pictish sculpture MHG1145. Laing et al 2013
Aodann Mhor C     Unconfirmed promontory fort with rows of turf huts and rampart of earth and stone. Further investigation needed MHG11939
St Catherines Monastery C     Tradition, recorded as such on ONB. No remains MHG2307
Kirk Stones (Moorland Mound) C Y Y Excavated in 19th c. Reports of wall, and four mounds inside. Finds include a porphyry fragment. May be monastic or may be shielings. More investigation needed MHG412
Olrig Mains C     Tradition – rejected by OS. Unlikely MHG1377
Neck of Brough C     Promontory fort with hut circles. Inconclusive MHG1031
An Tornaidh Bhuidhe   S     Promontory fort, enclosed area with irregular platforms interpreted as sites of building MHG9739
St Findbarr’s Monastery, Dornoch S     Tradition. Evidence of monks in Medieval period, but no evidence earlier. No remains MHG11754
Portmahomack ER Y   8th century monastery. Our main evidence for monasteries in the period   MHG8473 Carver et al 2016
Rosemarkie ER     Pictish sculpture; tradition; later first see for Ross and Cromarty. Little potential for further work, as built up area MHG25214
Clach na h’Annaid, Strathconon ER   Y Place-name evidence – Annait names in area. Possible church and remains of graveyard MHG7801
Kilmuir Easter ER     Tradition; source not always reliable MHG8615
Congash B&S     Pictish sculpture, enclosure (cropmark) MHG4621
Rubh Na Griosaich NWS     Promontory with traces of 2 rectangular buildings, but need not be monastic MHG11938
Eilean Nan Caorach NWS     Promontory fort, mutilated by bombing practice limiting further investigation MHG12069  
Applecross WR     Enclosure wall. Pictish sculpture. Local tradition MHG7685/ MHG57777
Priest’s Island WR   Y No structural evidence MHG9152
Badavanich WR   Y Standing stone called Clach an t’Shagart (‘stone of the priest’) or Suidh Ma-Ruibh (Maelrubha ‘s seat), and place-name Bad a Mhannaich (monk’s grove), all leading to tradition of early monastery. No structural remains MHG7854
Rubha na h-erraid   WR   Y Based on Annait place-name, some uninvestigated structural remains MHG7854
Eilean Chaluim Chille[AH1]  Skye     Crannog with ‘cashel’ made of drystone wall, connected to island with chapel (as at Finlaggan, which dates to medieval period). No dating evidence MHG5781
Annait Skye   Y Traces of walls, with cells within thickness. Charles Thomas thought church within an earlier fort. Later shieling huts on site. Surveys have been done but no excavation MHG4743/ MHG44140  
Camus na h’Annait Skye   Y Annait name   MHG1382; MHG4985
Dun Hasan / Rudha nam Brathairean Skye     Promontory with defences, with remains of 2 small turf-covered structures. Both dun and monastic settlement proposed MHG5255  
Skeabost Island Skye     Churchyard with ruins of 2 churches; antiquarian tradition of enclosure and monastery MHG5135
St. Finnan’s Chapel, Eilean Fhianain L     Chapel site reputedly on site of early monastic cell MHG4159
Sgorr Nam Ban-Naomha   Canna   Y Place-name is Skerry of the Holy Women. Enclosure wall, with 4 structures built against outside wall, and 3 freestanding. Site of cross slabs MHG5631
St Columba’s Chapel, A’ Chill   Canna     Tradition. No structural remains. Cross slabs. Geophysical survey 1994, further investigation needed MHG3179
Kildonnan Eigg Y   Tradition.  No enclosure remains near church. Early carved stones. Excavation 2012 found late Iron Age activity, coarse pottery, ditch and timber enclosure (undated), and some medieval pottery MHG5453; Canmore Kildonnan
Rudha Na Crannaig   Eigg     Fort, and conjectural site of St Donan’s monastery, but church site thought more likely MHG3963/ MHG44136  
Papadil Rum   Y Irish annals record in 677 death of Beccan of Rum. Placename means ‘dale of the priests’. No obvious ruins MHG27081
Table 8.7  Proposed early monastic sites

Many of the proposed sites are traditionally considered sites of early churches, and some have Pictish sculpture. In some cases, the churches have dedications to early Celtic missionaries, but such dedications could be later. Whether these are early chapels or small monastic sites will be difficult to determine. Few chapel sites have been dated, though work at Hilton of Cadboll revealed a windblown sand layer with charcoal, human bone and animal bone of early medieval date (James et al 2008). Other sites which might be early church sites include Kirk o‘Banks, Caithness (MHG2254) where a Viking silver hoard was discovered and Ashaig, Skye (MHG5226), site of a later church and burial ground, which has a simple rectangular building within an enclosure, an ancient well and an early medieval Hiberno-Scandinavian belt fitting with parallels from pagan Norse burials. Ashaig has a traditional association with St Maelrubha  and Applecross (MHG18619; Paterson and Stanford 2020, 93–4).

Early medieval Hiberno-Scandinavian strap end from Ashaig. ©Skye and Lochalsh Archives Centre

Chapel sites with early sculpture like Congash in Strathspey would also repay further investigation which might confirm if this was an early medieval church (Noble and Evans 2019, 149ff). St Finnan’s Chapel on the island of Eilean Fhianain in Loch Shiel, Lochaber (MHG4159) is another major candidate for future work. The dedication is to an Irish saint called Finan, and there are at least three early Christian crosses, including a rare cruciform stone. It housed a fine example of an early type of bronze handbell, possibly 10th century style, until it was sadly stolen in 2019. It was the only surviving bronze handbell from the region, although iron examples are known from Barevan, Nairnshire (MHG7043) and Insh, Badenoch and Strathspey (MHG42037; Bourke 1983).

Detail of Pictish symbol stone 1 from Parc-an-caipel, Congash. ©HES

Aerial view of St Finnan’s Chapel, Loch Shiel. ©HES

How long native beliefs co-existed with Christianity is unknown and difficult to determine. Evidence from Bede’s writing about the northern Anglo-Saxon kingdoms shows that conversion was sometimes related to royal patronage, and was also not a steady progression, but whether this is the case for Pictland is not clear. The dates of initial conversion are also obscure, but it appears that by the 7th century Christianity had become well established in Pictland, and presumably the Highlands as a whole. Some scholars have suggested that Adomnán exaggerated the extent of paganism in his Life of St Columba (Noble and Evans 2019, 140ff).

The parish system was established by the medieval period, though Ross (2011; 2015) argued strongly that it dated to the early medieval period. The Annals of Ulster mention a bishop of Fortriu, and even a hint of the presence of superior and lesser bishops. It is not clear what their territories comprised or whether they related to secular kingdoms or lesser divisions (Cant 1986, 47-51; Ross 2011; Noble and Evans 2019, 143-4). Many cross slabs have been found at or near what would become medieval parish churches, and if cross slabs are in their original locations perhaps they suggest an earlier focus and maybe even a church. Nevertheless, no physical evidence remains, and targeted excavation at one of these sites might provide a sequence of activity.

The Conan Stone. ©HES

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