The Storm Breaks
The final decade of the eighth century brought the first Viking raids on the British Isles. As worshippers of pagan gods, the Scandinavian warriors gave no immunity to Christian religious settlements and regarded them as soft targets. Isolated monasteries in the Hebrides were particularly vulnerable to seaborne marauders and offered rich pickings. They often possessed items of great value, such as finely decorated chalices and reliquaries, many adorned with gold and silver. Weaponless monks and nuns, armed only with prayer, gave little or no resistance and were easily slaughtered or enslaved. The earliest record of a Gaelic religious settlement being attacked by Vikings appears in the Irish annals under the year 795, when the island of Rathlin between Ulster and Kintyre was pillaged. Seven years later, Iona endured a devastating assault, the first of many, but the surviving monks resumed their vocation and the primary centre of Gaelic Christendom endured. Nevertheless, the era of Iona’s power and influence was drawing to an end. The tiny isle’s exposed location made it an unsuitable home for monks in an age when heathen pirates controlled the surrounding seaways.
Viking attacks intensified as the ninth century dawned. In the raid on Iona in 802 the monastery was burned and it is hard to imagine the great library and scriptorium remaining unscathed. Many precious and irreplaceable books undoubtedly perished, together with other unique objects deemed worthless by the heathen plunderers. The human cost, in terms of murder and enslavement, must have been considerable. At that time, the abbot of the monastery was Cellach, a far-sighted man who perceived that his community now lay in deadly peril. In 804, faced with the inevitability of further raids, he obtained land in Ireland for the building of a new monastery. The chosen site lay forty miles north of Dublin at Ceannanus Mór, a place better known today as Kells, where a church allegedly founded by Columba had existed since the sixth century. Construction of what was to become the new Columban headquarters began, but it was a major project and the work required considerable time to complete. In 806, Iona again endured a brutal assault in which sixty-eight monks were mercilessly slaughtered. By the following year, the work at Kells was completed and some of the brethren came down from the Hebrides to take up residence. Their old home was not, however, abandoned: contemporary notices in the Irish annals suggest that it continued as a residence for part of the community. Modern historians are divided on the question of how many monks remained, but the annalists imply that the leaders of the community, perhaps even Abbot Cellach himself, did not immediately transfer to Kells. After Cellach’s death in 814, his successor Diarmait seems also to have stayed behind, despite the persistent threat of Viking aggression. One violent raid on Iona in 825 claimed the life of Blathmac, an Irish monk and former soldier, whose murder was described in a contemporary poem. This was written within a decade or two of Blathmac’s death and portrays him as a courageous seeker of the bloody ‘red martyrdom’ bestowed by heathen swords. The story of his last hours tells of his foresight of an impending raid and of his resolve to complete his spiritual duties. Having sent many of his companions to safety, he prepared to celebrate mass in the church, even as the fearsome longships approached. When the Scandinavian warriors eventually arrived, demanding to know the whereabouts of the richly adorned tomb and shrine of Columba, they were confronted by a defiant Blathmac. Enraged by his refusal to divulge the tomb’s secret location, they slew him savagely, thereby granting his desire to perish as a ‘red’ martyr. This brutal episode highlights Iona’s unsuitability as a home for the founder’s relics, even when the tomb-shrine or reliquary was hidden in the ground. Columba’s mortal remains were of little interest to a Viking warband, but their preservation was at risk while their repository lay on an isolated Hebridean isle. After further raids in the 840s, a decision was made to remove the precious bones to safety. Centuries of royal burial meant that Iona was also the ancient spiritual home of Cenél nGabráin. Indeed, it may have been regarded by Cináed mac Ailpín himself as the ancestral church of his dynasty, even after he established his main power-base east of Druim Alban. Later tradition shows Cináed playing a key role in the decision to move Columba’s tomb. He is said to have requested that the bones and other relics be divided between the community’s new headquarters in Ireland and his own domains in Perthshire. In 849, when Abbot Indrechtach brought some of the relics to Kells, the rest went eastward to be housed in the mac Ailpín royal church at Dunkeld. A religious house had already been established there by Constantine, son of Fergus, earlier in the ninth century. One tradition attributed its foundation to Cináed, but this is not generally regarded as reliable. It is more likely that Cináed selected Dunkeld for special patronage by his family because it already had a connection with Pictish royalty. He evidently refurbished, expanded or otherwise redeveloped the existing church. In 865, the abbot of Dunkeld was also prim-escop Fortrenn (‘chief bishop of Fortriu’), a title referring to lands north of the Mounth towards the Moray Firth. This looks like a claim by the eccleiastical elite of the mac Ailpín kingdom on a Pictish region that may not have been answerable to their secular patrons at that time. By the end of the century, when the southern Pictish overkingship was held by Cináed’s grandsons, the dynasty’s major seat of spiritual authority had already been transferred to St Andrews.
Blathmac’s violent death epitomises the vulnerability of holy men and women in the Viking period, but not every ‘red martyrdom’ came on the point of a Scandinavian sword. Another member of the Columban brethren, no less a figure than Abbot Indrechtach, was slain while on a pilgrimage to Rome in 854. His assailants were not pagan Vikings but Englishmen, a band of robbers whose religious affiliation was presumably Christian. They slew him during his overland passage through the southern regions of Britain. It seems highly unlikely that they were unaware of his identity or profession. Nevertheless, we are left in no doubt that the principal danger to ecclesiastical personnel and property came from Viking pirates rather than from English brigands. This must have been especially true in the period before the Scandinavian colonies began to embrace Christianity. Iona thus remained vulnerable throughout the entire ninth century, although its value as a source of booty may have waned if precious artefacts were moved to Kells or Dunkeld. Later tradition claimed that the island’s ancient burial ground continued to serve as a resting-place for abbots and kings. Both Cináed and his brother Domnall were supposedly interred there, as too were their sons and grandsons. How far these traditions reflect ninth-century fact rather than twelfth-century fiction is unclear, but they are increasingly doubted by historians. Giric, the presumed mentor of Eochaid, son of Rhun, was one of the rulers allegedly buried on Iona after his death in 889. In spite of the mystery surrounding his origins, he emerges as a figure of some importance in contemporary religious developments, at least according to one tradition which asserts that ‘he was the first to give liberty to the Scottish Church, which was in servitude up to that time, after the custom and fashion of the Picts’. This curious statement seems to imply that Giric freed the clergy from a burden formerly imposed upon them by Pictish secular authority. It could be a veiled reference to a repeal of the reforms introduced by Nechtan, son of Derile, by royal decree in the early eighth century. Perhaps, as some historians suggest, Nechtan introduced a tax obligation which diverted substantial church revenues to his treasury? If this was indeed the ‘servitude’ ended by Giric, its removal may have brought the Pictish churches into line with those on the western side of Druim Alban, in the Argyll homelands of the Scots.
The Church in Alba
By the end of the ninth century, some Scandinavian communities around the isles and shorelands of northern Britain were starting to adopt Christianity. Intermarriage with Scots and Picts, or with Britons and Anglo-Saxons, paved the way for a rejection of pagan gods by sons and daughters of mixed parentage. Even the fearsome armies of Viking Dublin now included Norse-Irish warriors of hybrid ancestry and Christian belief. There was, however, no mass conversion of warriors and colonists, nor did the warlords of Orkney and the Hebridean isles invite missionaries from Kells or Dunkeld or St Andrews to preach the Word among their people. The decline of paganism among the Scandinavian settlers was therefore a random process driven by individual choice and kinship. It was neither imposed nor actively encouraged by their political leaders, but nor does it seem to have been forcefully discouraged.
The principal churches of the mac Ailpín dynasty lay at Dunkeld and St Andrews. Both places enjoyed the patronage of kings and each served as the primary ceremonial centre for a saintly cult. At Dunkeld, a shrine containing Columba’s bones was venerated with honour by Cináed and his successors, while at St Andrews the alleged relics of the eponymous Apostle sanctified a major royal monastery. Other places rose to prominence in regional contexts, but Dunkeld and St Andrews retained their special importance as the main royal churches for the early kings of Alba. In the tenth century, St Andrews became a centre of the Culdees or Céli Dé (‘clients of God’), a movement of religious reformers which had its roots in Ireland. The Céli Dé sought a return to traditional monastic values of ascetism and discipline. They held strong views on the roles of monks, abbots and bishops within the ecclesiastical and secular communities. Their ideas began to appear in southern Irish monasteries in the eighth century and from there permeated the Columban familia, reaching Iona before 800 and Dunkeld by c.850. It is even possible that Dunkeld was founded on Céli Dé principles.
The tenth century saw the development of an additional role for Columba as a spiritual standard-bearer in time of war. This role was not without precedent: three hundred years earlier, the Northumbrian king Oswald had received the saint’s blessing in a dream on the eve of his decisive battle against Cadwallon. In the last century of the first millennium, Columba’s role in warfare evolved into something more tangible. Not only did the soldiers of Alba invoke his name in prayers for victory, they also carried his staff or crozier when they marched into battle. This holy totem was borne in the front rank and became known as Cathbuaid (‘Battle Triumph’). In peacetime it was probably kept at Dunkeld with other relics, but, unfortunately, it has not survived. Other items associated with Columba seem to have conferred less protection from hostile foes. In 920, a Scandinavian force attacked and devastated Kells, the Irish headquarters of the familia, where some of the founder’s remains were enshrined. During the onslaught, many monks were wantonly slain as they prayed in the church. Dunkeld, too, suffered similar outrages during the same century, as in 903 when it was caught up in a Norse raid.
Attacks on the churches and monasteries of northern Britain continued to the end of the millennium, despite the adoption of Christianity by some Scandinavian colonies. In the Hebrides there were many folk of mixed blood – descendants of early Norse colonists who had intermarried with local natives – who turned their backs on paganism. Others stayed fiercely loyal to the old beliefs and continued to maintain a callous disregard for Christian sites. At Tyninghame in 941, the church founded by Saint Balthere was plundered and burned by Olaf Gothfrithsson of Dublin. More puzzling, and perhaps more shocking to contemporaries, were acts of violence directed at holy places by Christian allies of the heathens. An example of this type of sacrilege was the plundering of Kells in 969 by a Viking force accompanied by Irishmen from Leinster who, we may presume, were men of Christian birth. Equally disturbing, at least to modern eyes, is a reference to a battle in 965 where Abbot Donnchad of Dunkeld was listed among the casualties. The event in question occurred at the unidentified ‘Ridge of Crup’ where the rival mac Ailpín princes Dub and Cuilén contested the kingship of Alba. Whether or not Abbot Donnchad took part in the fighting is unknown, but the fact that he perished on the battlefield suggests that he was no passive bystander. Indeed, we may note that military service by clergymen was not unheard of in this period, in spite of Adomnán’s prohibitive Law.
Aside from the risk of robbery and destruction, the churches of Alba continued to fulfil their spiritual role. The reforms traditionally ascribed to King Giric in the late ninth century were presumably still in place at the dawn of the tenth. Further changes were implemented by Constantine mac Áeda, grandson of Cináed mac Ailpín, in the early years of his reign. In 906, at Scone in Perthshire, Constantine summoned the great assembly. Here, the secular and religious elites of Alba gathered to witness a royal pronouncement on ecclesiastical matters. At Constantine’s side stood Cellach, bishop of St Andrews, taking the role of high priest of the kingdom. Together, these two decreed that ‘the laws and disciplines of the faith and the rights in churches and gospels should be kept in conformity with the Scots’. The venue for the ceremony was Moot Hill, a man-made mound whose focus was the revered Stone of Destiny. It seems likely that the event marked a change in the relationship between the mac Ailpín dynasty and the senior clergy of Alba. Perhaps Constantine used the occasion to grant greater autonomy to the bishops? Something significant certainly occurred, even if the precise context cannot now be recovered.
During Constantine’s reign a young nobleman called Catroe embarked on a remarkable religious career that began in Perthshire and ended in France. Catroe was born around 900, at the start of Constantine’s kingship, among a wealthy Gaelic-speaking family. His mother might have been a Briton connected to the royal house of Strathclyde. Whatever her origin, she and Catroe’s father were devoted to the memory of Columba and probably worshipped at the saint’s shrine in Dunkeld. They gave their son into the keeping of Saint Bean, an obscure figure holding ecclesiastical rank either at Dunkeld or at another Perthshire monastery. Under Bean’s guidance Catroe trained as a monk and, after studying in Ireland, returned to Alba to instruct his mentor’s other pupils. At around forty years of age, c.941, Catroe grew restless and felt a strong urge to embark on a pilgrimage. His journey took him first to a church dedicated to Saint Brigit, perhaps at the old Pictish monastery at Abernethy, where he met King Constantine. From there he travelled south under royal protection to Strathclyde, where he stayed as a guest of King Dyfnwal, described as his kinsman. The Clyde Britons escorted Catroe on the next stage of his pilgrimage, bringing him to their border with Anglo-Scandinavian Northumbria at a place called Loida which may have been on the River Lowther near Penrith. From there he journeyed east to York before turning south and eventually reaching the royal palace of Wessex at Winchester. The West Saxon king Edmund instructed no less a personage than the archbishop of Canterbury to arrange Catroe’s safe passage across the English Channel. On the European mainland, various high-ranking members of the Frankish secular and religious elites offered patronage to the Scottish pilgrim, whose piety and austerity won him many admirers. He was eventually chosen as abbot of the great cathedral at Metz, close to the centres of eastern Frankish imperial power. It was while travelling back there from a visit to the court of the Empress Adelaide in 971 that he died. In later times, his tomb at Metz became a place of veneration and he was accorded the honour of sainthood.
Catroe was in the early stages of his Continental career when Constantine mac Áeda exchanged the rich trappings of royalty for the robes of a cleric. Racked by age and infirmity, and after a forty-year reign, the king of Alba abdicated to spend his remaining days as abbot of St Andrews. The religious community there included many Céli Dé and it was these reformist brethren whom the old warrior-king now found himself leading. He was not the only tenth-century ruler to relinquish earthly authority in the twilight of life. In 965, the Irish prince Áed, a son of King Maelmithid of Brega, journeyed as a pilgrim to St Andrews and died there. Ten years later, a rather longer voyage of penitence was made by Dyfnwal, the king of Strathclyde who had given hospitality to Catroe. Like his kinsman and erstwhile guest, Dyfnwal embarked on a pilgrimage, but he died en route to Rome. He had already transferred the Clyde kingship to his son Malcolm, with whom he had hauled the oars of King Edgar’s boat on the River Dee in 973.
Dyfnwal’s fellow-pilgrims among the powerful men of the time generally chose destinations closer to home, such as St Andrews or Iona. In the late tenth century, the old Hebridean home of the Columban monks still held an allure for penitents opting out from the world of secular politics. One of its more unusual pilgrims was Olaf Cuaran, the archetypal Viking warlord. He arrived on Iona as an old man after relinquishing the throne of Dublin in 980. In the place where his heathen countrymen had inflicted so much distress he lived out his final years as a pious Christian convert, perhaps even being interred in the ancient burial ground. By then, of course, the role of the old monastery was dwindling. It was still occupied by monks and still ruled by an abbot, but the headship of the Columban familia had already passed to men based at Irish churches such as Kells and Armagh. In 986, an unidentified abbot of Iona was slain by Vikings while celebrating Christmas on the island with his brethren. He was not, however, the head of the wider familia, for the symbolic title comarba Coluim Cille (‘successor of Columba’) was at that time held by a contemporary whose own violent death at heathen hands occurred in Dublin.
Acts of destruction at holy sites remained a hallmark of Viking raids until Norway, Denmark and the overseas Scandinavian colonies adopted the Christian faith. The slow process of conversion began in the ninth century and continued to the end of the tenth, not attaining its final goal until Iceland adopted Christianity around the year 1000. Among the settlements in northern Britain, those on Orkney were converted after the baptism of Earl Sigurd in 995 on the orders of the Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvasson. Olaf subsequently encouraged the people of Shetland and the Faeroe Islands to abandon paganism, thereby bringing the outer Scandinavian colonies into the Christian fold. By then, most of the Viking lordships in the western seaways were already moving along the same path, under the guidance of Irish and Scottish missionaries. The age of the heathen marauder was almost over.