William Chambers.

The Scottish church from the earliest times to 1881 to which is prefixed an historical sketch of St. Giles' Cathedral online

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few days after his conversion,' ^ says the writer we have already
quoted, * a son of a householder was attacked with a dangerous
illness, and brought to the very borders of life and death.
When the Druids saw him in a dying state, they began with
great bitterness to upbraid his parents, and to extol their own
gods as more powerful than the God of the Christians, and
thus to despise God, as if he were weaker than their gods.
When all this was told to the blessed man (Columba), he
turned with zeal for God, and proceeded to the house of the
friendly peasant.' The saint, of course, triumphs over the
Druids, and raises the boy who had died to life again.

Among the Irish Scots, St Patrick had conflicts of a similar
nature, in which he also came off victorious. A Druid pours
poison into the cup of St Patrick, who blesses the cup, and the
fluid it contains congeals. He inverts it, and the poisonous
drops fall out. The Druid then by his incantations covers the
plain with snow, but adrhits his inability to remove the enchant-
ment till the same hour on the morrow; Patrick blesses the
plain, and the snow disappears. The Druid brings on a thick
darkness, but is unable to remove it. Patrick prays, straight-

1 Life of St Columba, by Adamnan, Book II., chap. xxxv.
■■' Ibid., Book 11. , chap, xxxiii.

ro Sf Gilei Lectures.

way the darkness vanishes, and the sun begins to shine.^ In
an ancient Irish manuscript,^ these magicians are represented
as drying up by their spells and incantations all the rivers,
lakes, and springs of a district. A great Druid shoots an
arrow into the air, and a fountain bursts forth where the arrow
falls. Many allusions are found in these old manuscripts to
the necromancy of the Druids, and to their different spells and
incantations. A favourite method of divination with them was
by sneezing,^ or by the song of a bird perched on a tree. In an
old poem attributed to St Columba, these and other similar
practices are referred to and abjured. ' Our fate,' sings the
poet, ' depends not on sneezing :

Nor on a bird perched on a twig.
Nor on the root of a knotted tree,
Nor on the noise of clapping hands.
Better is He in whom we trust —
The Father, the One and the Son.'*

And in another verse of the same poem, he says :

* I adore not the noise of birds,
Nor sneezing, nor lots in this world,
Nor a son, nor chance, nor woman —
My Druid is Christ, the Son of God.' ^

In another poem, in the form of a prayer, the same saint
alludes to the magical arts of his adversaries. He recognises
their power over the elements of nature, and exclaims :

* My Druid — may he be on my side ! —
Is the Son of God, and truth with purity.'®

1 Todd's Life of St Patrick, p. 452,

' Professor Occury's Lectures, p. 271.

3 Both among the Greeks and Romans, sneezing was used for the same
purpose. In the middle ages, this method of divination was denounced by
ecclesiastical councils.

* Todd's Life of St Patrick, p. 122. » Ibid., p. 132. ^ Ibid., p. I20,

Heathen Scotland.


These notices are probably sufficient to shew what was the
character of Druidism among the Celts. It was a system of
necromancy like that which has ever been inseparably con-
nected with heathenism ^ — a . belief in men who can bring
storms, and bewitch fields, and bring down rain — a belief in
oracles and divinations and charms. Belief in such men has
always accompanied the lowest forms of religious faith.

The religion of the northern kingdoms of the Picts and Scots,
of which the Druids were the ministers, was in itself, as might
be expected from what we have said, of a very debased and
grovelling kind. It seems to have been mainly a kind of
fetichism, an adoration of natural objects and of the powers
of the external world — the rocks, the wind, the thunder; and
if the people rose in thought above what came within the
knowledge of the senses, it was only to people the material
world with demons and malignant spirits, to whom all pheno-
mena were attributed, and whose aid was to be sought, or
whose wrath was to be averted, by means of charms and magical
spells. Among the pagan Scots, pillar stones were objects of
worship,^ and were either overthrown, or consecrated with the
sign of the cross, by the early Christian teachers. On a great
plain in Ireland stood, it is said, a great stone idol, called Ce7i7i
Cricaich, ornamented with gold and silver, with twelve other
idols around it, ornamented with brass, which were worshipped
by the natives, and which St Patrick cast down by simply
raising his pastoral staff.^ In a poetic life of the same saint, it
is said that

' He preached three-score years
The cross of Christ to the Tuatha of Feni ;
On the Tuatha of Erin there was darkness.
The Tuatha adored the Sidhe.'*

1 Conflict of Christianity, by Gerhard Uhlhorn, Book II., chap. iii.

2 Todd's Life of St Patrick, p. 127.

^ Professor Occury's Lectures, p. 539 ; Todd's Life of St Patrick, p. 127.
* The Celts, by Rev. G. R. M'Lear, p. 23.

ti 5/ Gibes' Lectures.

The sidhe were spirits who were supposed to haunt nature,
and to dwell underground, and a belief in their dread power
remained long after Christianity had obtained firm hold on
Scotland, and lingers in some parts of our country to the
present day.^ St Columba seems to have had full belief in the
existence of these demons, which were believed to have their
usual dwelling-place in fountains and green hillocks, and
delighted in exorcising them. ' While ^ the blessed man was
stopping,' says his biographer, ' for some days in the province
of the Picts, he heard that there was a fountain famous among
this heathen people, which foolish men, having their senses
blinded of the devil, worshipped as a god. For those who
drank this fountain, or purposely washed their hands or feet in
it, were allowed by God to be struck by demoniacal art, and
went home either leprous or purblind, or at least suffering from
weakness or other kinds of infirmity. By all these things the
pagans were seduced, and paid divine honours to the fountain.
Having ascertained this, the saint one day went up to the
fountain fearlessly ;• and on seeing this, the Druids, whom he
had often sent away vanquished and confounded, were greatly
rejoiced, thinking that, like others, he would sufier from the
touch of that baneful water.' The saint then blessed the foun-
tain, ' and from that day the demons departed from the water ;
and not only was it not allowed to injure any one, but even
many diseases amongst the people were cured by this same
fountain after it had been blessed and washed in by the saint.'
At another time, when the saint began to pray, he beheld * a very
black host of demons fighting against him with iron darts;'
and in an ancient life of St Patrick, mention is made of his
meeting with nine Druids clad in white garments with a magical
host.^ These invisible spirits pervaded the elements of nature

^ See a curious book on the underground people, by Mr Kirke, minister
of Balquhidder.

'^ Adamnan's Life of St Columba, p. 45.
3 Betham, Ant, Res., II., Ap., p. xxxi.

Heathen Scotland,


— the clouds, the waters, the earth, the trees. One of the legen-
dary kings of Ireland is stated to have received as pledges from
the nation, ' sun, moon, and every power which is in heaven and
in earth,' that the sovereignty should always remain in his own
race ; and in a striking poem, said to be by St Patrick, there
are signs that even he had not altogether shaken himself free
from a sense of the mysterious power of the elements of
nature. He realised it very vividly. He says :

* I bind to myself to-day
The power of Heaven,
The light of the Sun,
The whiteness of the Snow,
The force of Fire,
The flashing of Lightning,
The velocity of Wind,
The depth of the Sea,
The stability of the Earth,
The hardness of Rocks.'

He invokes these with Christian powers, such as the power of
Christ's incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, to defend
him from the magical and evil influences by which he believed
himself surrounded.

' I have set around me all these powers.
Against every hostile savage power
Directed against my body and my soul ;
Against the incantations of false prophets ;
Against the black laws of heathenism ;
Against the false laws of heresy ;
Against the deceits of idolatry ;
Against the spells of women and smiths and Druids ;
Against all knowledge which blinds the soul of man.'

The same saint is described as having an interview with the
daughters of the Irish king, who supposed him and his com-

14 Sf Giles^ Lectures.

panions to be Duine Sidhe'^ — gods of the earth. Then
the following questions are put by one of the princes to the
evangelist — and they shew traces of the nature-worship of the
inquirer :

* Who is God ?
And where is God ?
And what is God ? , . .
Is He in heaven or in earth ?
In the sea?
In rivers ?

In mountainous places ?
In valleys ?
Declare unto us the knowledge of Him.*

The Scots and the Picts were in that low religious condition in
which Nature and her powers are objects of dread. Their
religion was one of fear. It was a fetichism, and can scarcely
be called anything more. Polytheism or Monotheism it was
not, for they seemed to have had no idea of higher powers than
these spirits of evil, governing and controlling all visible things.
* They knew not God.'

The religion of the Britons of Strathclyde was not very
different from that of the northern kingdoms which we have
described ; any Christianity they had been taught had vanished.
They were as heathen as their neighbours, and followed the
customs of their forefathers. They gave a high place in their
society to the bards or poets, some of whose effusions have
come down to us, and like the Picts and Scots seem to have
venerated natural objects, grafting on their own original pagan-
ism some of the superstitions of their Saxon neighbours. In
the account given of the preaching at Hoddam, in Dumfries-
shire, of Kentigern, who finally converted the Britons to Christi-
anity, there is a reference made to their religious practices,

1 Todd's St Patrick,

Heathen Scotiatid. 15

which is suggestive enough. That teacher shewed them ' that
idols were dumb, the vain inventions of men, fitter for the fire
than for worship. He shewed that the elements, in which they
believed as deities, were creatures and formations adapted by
the disposition of their Maker to the use, help, and assistance
of men. But Woden, whom they, and especially the Angles,
believed to be the chief deity from whom they derived their
origin, and to whom the fourth day of the week is dedicated,
he asserted with probability to have been a mortal man, king
of the Saxons, by faith a pagan, from whom they and many
nations have their descent.'^ From this extract we can glean
an idea of what was the religious condition of the inhabitants
of the British kingdom.

Such is a slight sketch of the paganism of the three Celtic
kingdoms — those of the Picts, Scots, and Britons. Many traces
of this paganism survive to the present day. In the belief in
fairies, in charms, in witchcraft, that still lingers in many parts
of Scotland, we have the remains of the old Celtic heathenism ;
and any one who is familiar with what is called folk-lore will
find abundant evidence of old druidical superstitions still existing
in the midst of our present civilisation. Many of these super-
stitions were treated not a little kindly by the Christian teachers,
and perhaps on this account have survived. Pillar stones had
engraven on them the sign of the cross, and became objects
of Christian veneration.^ Fountains were blessed and became
holy wells. Demonology was fully recognised and exorcism
practised. Heathen festivals were converted into Christian
holidays. Few who observe May-day and All-hallow E'en know
that these were festive days before even the name of Christ was
heard in this land ; and the very ceremonies by which they are
still observed have their origin in far-away pagan times. It was

1 Jocelyn, Vit. S. Ken., chap, xxxii., quoted by Skene.
* Todd's Life of St Fah'ick, p. 500.

1 6 S^ Gile£ Lectures.

an advice given by one of the popes to British missionaries *
that they should disturb as little as necessary pagan practices.
' The temples, cleansed with holy water, were to be hallowed for
Christian worship ; and heathen festivals, instead of being rudely
abolished, might be devoted to the celebration of the festival
of the saints ; ' for, as he argues, ' you cannot cut off everything
at once from rude natures — he who would climb a height must
ascend step by step, and not by leaps and bounds.' It is on
this principle, so clearly laid down by high authority, that the
Christian teachers of Scotland seem to have acted, and hence
the existence in our own time of many traces of that paganism
against which they contended.

When we turn from Celtic to Saxon heathenism, and come
from the mountains of the north, and the regions of the west,
to the kingdom of Northumbria and the eastern Lowlands of
Scotland, we feel that we are upon sure ground ; for the religion
of the Teuton or Saxon was well defined, and we have ample
information as to its character. It prevailed over a great part
of Europe. It was a polytheism ; for it had a system of recog-
nised deities, and it also had a cosmogony, or theory of creation,
and a doctrine of a future state peculiarly its own.^ Let us
glance at some of the main features that distinguished it.

The greatest of the Saxon gods was Odin, or Woden, whose
name is given to the fourth day of the week — Wednesday,
or Wodensday. To him warriors were dedicated ; and when
they went to battle, they vowed to give him a certain number
of souls. He was the supreme deity. The next among the
gods was Thor, after whom the fifth day of the week is called
Thursday, or Thorsday. He was the thundering god — powerful

» Bede, H. E., i. 30.

''This sketch of Saxon heathenism is chiefly founded on the following
authorities : Ten Great Religions, by F. Clark ; Kemble's Saxons itt Eng-
land ; Mallet's Northern Antiquities; The English, by the Rev. G. F.
M'Lear ; and Dasent's Burnt Njal,

Heathen Scotland.


over the elements, guiding the storms, sending rain. He carried
a hammer or club which, as often as he hurled it from him,
came back to his hand again. Tiew, whose name the third day
of the week bears, was the giver of victory, the god of battle.
Frea was the god of fertility, of the life-giving sunshine, of
fruitfulness and peace. Balder was the god of light and grace,
of splendour, manly excellence, and beauty. The goddess
Friege was the wife of Woden, and gave the name to the sixth
day of the week. And lastly, there was Saetere, of whom we
know little more than that he gave his name to the seventh

Inferior to these, there were other gods and goddesses too
numerous to mention, and in addition a plentiful supply of
demons or evil spirits who wrought woe to the human race, and
whose machinations were unending. The chief of these was
Loki, who bore a fearful character as ' the calumniator of the
gods, the grand contriver of deceit and fraud, the reproach of
gods and men,' beautiful in figure, and surpassing all mortals
in his powers of craftiness. ' Three monsters owe their birth
to him — the wolf Fenris, the serpent Midgard, and Hela or
Death. All three are enemies to the gods, who after various
struggles have chained this wolf till the last day, when he shall
break loose and devour the sun. The serpent hath been cast
into the sea, where he shall remain till he shall be conquered by
the god Thor ; and Hela or Death has been banished into the
lower regions, where she has the government of nine worlds,
into which she distributes those sent to her. Here she
possesses a habitation protected by exceedingly high walls and
strongly barred gates. Hunger is her table, starvation her knife,
delay her man, slowness her maid, precipice her threshold,
care her bed, and burning anguish forms the hangings of her

The life and transactions of the various deities are very
particularly chronicled. In their manner of life they are thor-
oughly human. Their court is kept under 'a great ash-tree,


1 8 Sf Gi/es' Lectures.

where they distribute justice. Its branches cover the face of
the earth. Its top reaches to the highest heaven. It is sup-
ported by three vast roots, one of which extends to the ninth
world. An eagle whose piercing eye discerns all things, perches
upon the branches ; a squirrel is constantly running up and
down it to bring news, while a parcel of serpents fastened to
the trunk endeavour to destroy it. From one of the roots runs
a fountain where wisdom lies concealed. From a neighbouring
spring (the fountain of past things) three virgins are continually
drawing a precious water with which they water the ash-tree.
These three virgins always keep under the ash, and it is they
who dispense the days and ages of men. Every man has a
destiny appropriated to himself, who determines the duration
and events of his life; but the three destinies of more special
note are Urd ^ (the past), Werande (the present), and Sculde
(the future).'

The account of the creation of all things was of the same
definite yet imaginative character, and it is instructive to com-
pare it with the Scripture and other cosmogonies. ' In the day-
spring of the ages there was neither sea nor shore, nor refresh-
ing breezes. There was neither earth below nor heaven above
to be distinguished. The whole was only one vast abyss with-
out herb and without seeds. The sun had then no palace, the
stars knew not their dwelling-places, the moon was ignorant of
her power. After this there was a luminous, burning, flaming
world towards the south ; and from this world flowed out
incessantly into the abyss that lay towards the north, torrents
of sparkling fire, which, in proportion as they removed far
away from their source, congealed in their falling into the abyss,
and so filled it with snow and ice. From the icy vapours,
melted into warm living drops by a wind from the south, came
the giant Ymir. From him came a race of wicked giants.
Then arose in a mysterious manner Bor, the father of three

^ Hence the word weird.

Heathen Scotland. 19

sons — Odin, Vili, and Ve. The sons of Bor slew the giant Ymir,
and the blood ran with such abundance from his wounds that
it caused a general inundation, wherein perished all the giants
except one who, saving himself in a bark, escaped with all his
family. Then a new world was formed. The sons of Bor
dragged the body of the giant into the abyss, and of it made the
earth; the sea and the rivers were composed of his blood ; the
earth of his flesh ; the great mountains of his bones ; the rocks
of his teeth and of splinters of his broken bones. They made
of his skull the vault of heaven, which is supported by four
dwarfs named South, North, East, and West. They fixed there
tapers to enlighten it. The days were distinguished ; the nights
were numbered. They made the earth round, and surrounded it
with the deep ocean. One day, as the sons of Bor were taking a
walk, they found two pieces of wood floating on the water ;
these they took and out of them made a man and a woman.
The eldest of the gods gave them life and souls ; the second,
motion and knowledge ; the third, the gift of speech, hearing,
and raiment. From this man and woman, named Askus and
Embla, is descended the race of man who now inhabit the

Such is the account of creation which the Teutons believed.
It resembles the Greek story of the origin of the gods, and in
its idea of the origin of all things from nebulous vapours
and heat, it reminds us of some of those scientific theories
which are frequently set forth at the present day. Not less
striking than their cosmogony, was their theory of another
world. It is as materialistic as can well be conceived, but at
the same time most characteristic of the race that held it.
'The realm of Hel was cold, cheerless, and shadowy. No
simulated war was there from which warriors desisted with
renovated strength and glory. No capacious quaichs of mead
or cups of life-giving wine : chill and ice, frost and darkness,
shadowy realms without a sun, without song or wine or feast.'
While Hel was of this gloomy character, the heaven of the

iS/ Giles^ Lectures.

Saxon, Waeheal or Valhalla, was very different. ' The heroes
who are received into the palace of Odin have every day
pleasures among themselves, of passing in review, ranging
themselves in order of battle, of cutting one another to pieces ;
but as soon as the hour of repast arrives, they return all safe to
the hall of Woden, and fall to eating and drinking. Though the
number of them cannot be counted, the flesh of the boar
Serimner is sufficient for them all ; every day it is served up at
table, and every day it is renewed entire. Their beverage is
beer and mead ; one single goat, whose milk is mead, furnishes
enough to intoxicate the heroes. Their cups are the skulls of
the enemies they have slain.' It is evident how strongly this
conception of the future takes its colour from the whole
existence, temperament, and history of the warlike race who
believed in it. It was the shadow projected by their life.

The legends of their gods would occupy, and indeed do
occupy volumes. They were not, like the classic deities, dwell-
ing in unbending dignity on Mount Olympus ; but roamed to and
fro, and were as much given to adventure as their worshippers on
earth. We will give only one of these legends as a specimen of
many. It is supposed to be, like them all, parabolic — to have
a deep moral and spiritual meaning — to set forth the ' struggles
of the soul against the inexorable laws of nature, freedom against
fate, the spirit with the flesh, mind with matter, human hope
with change, disappointment, loss.' Thor goes to visit his
enemies the giants of cold and darkness. The king of the city
where they dwell inquired what great feat Thor and his com-
panions could perform. ' One professed to be a great eater, on
which the king summoned one of his servants, called Logi, and
placed between them a trough filled with meat. Thor's companion
ate his . share, but Logi ate meat and bones too, and the trough
into the bargain, and was considered to have conquered. Thor's
other companion was a great runner, and was set to run with a
young man called Hugi, who so outstripped him that he reached
the goal before the other had gone half-way. Then Thor was

Heathen Scotland. 21

asked what he could do himself. He said he would engage in
a drinking-match, and was presented with a large horn, and re-
quested to empty it at a single draught, which he expected easily
to do; but on looking, the liquor appeared hardly diminished.
The second time he tried, and lowered it slightly ; a third time,
and it was sunk only half an inch. Then he was brought to try
a new feat. He was asked to lift a cat from the ground, and
ignominiously failed. Lastly he wrestled with an old toothless
woman, and lost his footing. Afterwards the discomfiture of
Thor was thus explained. The triumphant eater was fire itself,
the devourer of all things, disguised as a man. The successful
runner was thought, whose fleet step none can outstrip. The
horn out of which he tried to drink was the ocean, which was
lowered a few inches by his tremendous draughts. The cat
was the great Midgard serpent which goes round the world, and
Thor had actually pulled the world a little way out of its place ;
and the old woman was old age, with whom the strongest will
wrestle in vain.'

In legends like these, through which ran a thread of moral
meaning, the Saxon delighted. They were the reflection of
the qualities that distinguished him, and the outcome of
his own daily life in its struggle with the severities of a
northern clime. His worship corresponded to his mythology.
Temples of the gods abounded. Plentiful sacrifices of
animals were offered to them, and human sacrifices were not
spared on occasions of importance. * Near every gathering-
place of a tribe stood the stone of sacrifice, on which the necks
of the victims were crushed and broken ; and the holy pool, in
which another kind of human sacrifices were sunk.'^ There were
great feasts, religious in their character, which were frequently
held. At these the people gathered round smoking caldrons,
in which the animals that had been sacrificed were boiled,
and all in turn partook. The feasts ended with much

Online LibraryWilliam ChambersThe Scottish church from the earliest times to 1881 to which is prefixed an historical sketch of St. Giles' Cathedral → online text (page 6 of 37)