6.7.2 Christian Sites

Little is understood about the development of the early Christian Church in Scotland before the 11th century (Driscoll 2011, 270). Historical accounts have placed missionary saints like Fillan and Columba at the heart of conversion myths for this region (Taylor 2000, 2001; Clancy 2001). However, these narratives simplify a wider, more complex story (Fraser 2009). Archaeology has the potential to disentangle these pseudo-historical narratives (Foster 2019). The foundation date of most sites and the form of the earliest buildings are largely unknown; however, it is likely that the earliest churches built of timber. In Perth and Kinross there are 20 possible early medieval church sites recorded in the HER, as well as a further 37 miscellaneous ecclesiastical sites. Over the last 30 years, research excavation conducted by academics and volunteers have largely focused on church sites outside of Perth and Kinross (Foster 2019, 36–7).

Meigle 2 on display at Meigle museum ©️ HES

Place-name evidence is also invaluable in charting a path through the complexities, and the University of Glasgow’s online Saints in Scottish place-names database (2014) provides the identification and classification of different church sites.  Place names containing the element ‘annat’, from Gaelic andóit meaning ancient or mother church, may indicate the sites of early medieval chapels or churches. In Perth and Kinross, these include Tobbermore ‘Annatland’ (MPK2196); Annatybank, New Scone (MPK3254); and Balnahanaid (MPK199). This is supported at Balnahanaid where a cast iron handbell, possibly early Christian, was discovered in the 19th century. It has since been lost (Bourke 2020, cat. 73, 378–9).

Several churches have saint’s dedications that point to early medieval origins or the desire on the part of the Church to demonstrate early foundation. The church at Longforgan (MPK5117) was supposedly established by St Modwenna, a disciple of St Patrick around AD 500 but her legend has become deeply entangled with that of St Modwenna of Burton-upon-Trent. Taylor’s recent (2017) discussion of St Vigeans in neighbouring Angus reminds us of the complexity and caution needed when interpreting such dedications. Early church sites and monastic sites often have a vallum, usually an oval or curvilinear boundary ditch or wall, denoting the extent of the sacred enclosure. More recently it has been recognised that rectilinear, sub-rectangular enclosures as found at Iona, Portmahomack, Easter Ross, and Fortingall in Glen Lyon (MPK457) are in fact the main form of vallum used by major monasteries in Scotland (Campbell and Maldonado 2020, 58–63; Hindmarch 2014). Surviving church buildings on these, and other sites, tend to be late medieval at the earliest, however.

Early medieval carved stones and handbells also provide indications of an earlier foundation at some sites. There are ten bells which have survived down to modern times, from major monasteries like Forteviot (MPK1865), Dunkeld (MPK5447) and Fortingall, to lesser known sites like Cladh Bhranno (MPK66) and Balnahanaid in Glen Lyon (see further discussion below). In the lowlands, the importance of Meigle (MPK5400) as an early Christian site is primarily indicated by the range and quality of the 27 carved Pictish stones, matched only by the collections at St Andrews and St Vigeans (Hall 2014; Geddes 2017). The sub-circular graveyard may indicate the original church site (Ritchie 1995). Excavations at Forteviot church, said to have been founded in the 8th to early 9th century, revealed multiple phases of remodelling; the foundations of the 11th–12th-century building were visible on the east side of the present building. (Campbell and Driscoll 2020, 107–16).

The Forteviot Hand Bell © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2015 and courtesy Forteviot Kirk Session

A similar sequence was encountered through keyhole excavation at the base of the square stone tower of St Serf’s Church, Dunning (MPK1999). The square tower is no earlier than the 12th century, but a small-scale intervention to investigate its relationship with the nave of the later parish church revealed the foundations of an earlier structure (Campbell et al forthcoming). Radiocarbon dating of an inhumation burial cut by this earlier foundation shows it can be no earlier than the 11th century. However, disarticulated bone from these layers returned 9/10th century dates, showing there was an early cemetery matching the date of the carved cross-slab fragment now on display inside the church. In addition, a hearth bottom for possible ironworking from this trench was dated to the 7th/8th century. Earlier excavations at Dunning Primary School (MPK15522 and MPK17457) had identified what may be the monastic vallum for St Serf’s Church, returning two eighth-century dates from the basal fill of the large ditch (Cook 2008). Subsequent excavations outside the north wall of the churchyard at Castle Wynd encountered another section of the same ditch turning toward the church, as well as a fragment of 9th/10th century cross-slab (Maldonado and Gondek 2012, 10, fig 8; Hall et al 2020, 162–3).

St Serf’s, Loch Leven ©️ Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust

At Abernethy (MPK3088), a possible early dedication to St Brigid may suggest an early church, or may reflect church-politics in the later first millennium AD. There are conflicting early royal associations with Pictish kings suggested by historical sources (Anderson 1922 vol. 1, 247; Macquarrie 1992; Macquarrie 1997, 175–81). One version of the legend suggests that a king Gartnaid was buried there in the late 6th/early 7th century and that he refounded the monastery and dedicated it to Brigid. Another records that a king Nechtonfounded the church in the 7th or early 8th century. Both accounts make the church of Abernethy older than Dunblane, where the diocese of Strathearn was based from at least the 13th century, and not strongly Columban, a political issue that may have influenced the creation of the foundation legends. Limited excavations at the School Wynd near the round tower revealed evidence for an early medieval occupation at the site at least as early as the 8th to 9th centuries (Fyles 2008). The clutch of Pictish sculpture from the site (Butler 1897; Proudfoot 1997) gives an 8th–10th-century focus, with perhaps earlier symbol stones (MPK3076 and MPK3078), although one is fragmentary and so of uncertain date.

Abernethy multi-headed stone ©️ Perth Museum and Art Gallery
Abernethy cross slab shaft ©️ NMS

The multiple-headed quadricephalos stone (Perth Museum 1997.432; Proudfoot 1997, 58–9) hints at pre-Christian ritual practices, perhaps connected to a well site and which may be linked to later activity at the Iron Age fort on Castle Law, Abernethy (MPK3069; Strachan et al 2020; 46–53; Strachan et al forthcoming). The presence of both a religious and an elite power centre here would have been attractive to an early church foundation. The site was later adopted by the Culdees before the 22m high round bell tower was constructed in around 1100, one of only two known in Scotland. The Culdee / céli Dé ascetic movement originated in early 9th-century Ireland, practising extreme abstinence (Clancy 1996, 114, 117–8). Their influence is known at other early church sites in the area, including a small monastery with a modest sanctuary enclosure around the church on St Serf’s Island (MPK3030) on Loch Leven which has been studied (Hall 2007b; O’Grady 2018). Despite the rather derogatory nature of the term ‘Culdee’ in later historical sources, Abernethy received major royal investment in these centuries, with a number of ambitious stone crosses in Irish style surviving in fragments (eg NMS X.IB 255, X.IB 290; Maldonado 2021, 179–81). There was an important Gaelic scriptorium here as well, producing works such as the 11th-century Lebor Bretnach, a Gaelic translation of the Historia Brittonum (Clancy 2000). When William I of England brought his army north in 1072, it was at Abernethy where he and Máel Coluim III came to terms (McGuigan 2021, 253–75). A small priory of Augustinian canons was subsequently founded in 1272, which replaced the Culdee house.

Struan Church has a cross-slab, two cross-marked stones and an early medieval handbell (MPK1184; Hall 2004; Bourke 2020, cat 72, 377–8) and is dedicated to St. Fillan, whose cult is particularly strong in Highland Perthshire and includes Strathfillan, now in Stirlingshire (Taylor 2001). Fortingall Parish Church is dedicated to St Coeddi, abbot of Iona, and was founded around AD 700 (MPK430; Robertson 1997; Taylor 1999). It has fragments of Pictish cross-slabs, a Celtic handbell and an early font (Robertson 1997; Bourke 2020, cat 75, 380). A monastic vallum, visible as a cropmark, has been dated to the 7th–9th centuries AD while other finds and radiocarbon dated features attest to early medieval settlement activity from the 6th to as late as the 11th century AD (MPK457; Hindmarch 2014; O’Grady 2011).

St Fillan’s handbell, Struan Church ©️ Perth Museum and Art Gallery

Dedications preserved in the landscape also suggests early sites now lost, such as St Mary’s chapel, with the place-name ‘Maolrubha’s ford’ indicating an early Christian church site ‘Cill Ma-Ruibhe’ (MPK5227; Watson 1926), although no trace of a chapel survives. At Dunfallandy (MPK1645) although no trace of a chapel is visible, there is a circular or oval boundary wall. Another strong candidate for finding evidence of early medieval Christian structures is Dull (MPK1015), dedicated to St Admonan of Iona, with numerous early stone crosses of various forms including one inscribed Becli– in 8th-century script. Early but undated clay-bonded stone walls were found underneath the floor of the parish church (Will et al 2003). Other promising targets for future work are the churches at Fortingall and Meigle, already discussed, and Logierait, also dedicated to St Coeddi, with two elaborate Pictish cross-slabs surviving from the churchyard (MPK1676, MPK5378). Two other interesting sites are Cladh Bhranno (MPK66) in Glen Lyon, with an evocative place-name, an early handbell and early medieval sculpture; and St Fillans chapel (MPK345), said to have been built by St Fillan, has a 16th-century ruin on the site.

Early medieval font outside Dull Parish Church ©️ HES