William Chambers.

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

. (page 7 of 37)
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 7 of 37)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

1 Dasent, Btirnt Njal, xxxviii.

2 2 Sf Giles^ Lectures.

drinking, and cups were solemnly drained in honour of the
gods. ' The first bowl, for victory and strength, was drained to
Woden; the second to Freye, for peace and good harvests.' All
the other gods were remembered in the same way, and the last
bowl was drunk to the memory of the dead. The superstitions
which clustered round the Teutonic religion were more numer-
ous than we can even mention ; and in the laws of Christian
times, which denounce them, we have them tabulated with
great minuteness. They were of the most grovelling kind.^
Magic was common. Well-worship, divinations, enchantments,
spells ^ of all kinds are continually mentioned ; and in many
particulars they resemble the practices to which we ha^e referred
as connected with Celtic paganism.

This is an account, necessarily slight, of the state of heathen
Scotland in its various parts .previous to the advent of Chris-
tianity. The heathenism that prevailed was of the darkest
kind, and in its best form can hardly be called higher in
character than that which exists to-day in China or any other
missionary field : but little impulse could come from it to
civilisation and progress, hardly any to morality. It seems
strange indeed to think that little more than a thousand years
ago Scotland was peopled with idolaters, and the greater
part of it with idolaters of the most benighted description —
that amid the hills and valleys and islands of the north, there
dwelt ' savage tribes and roving barbarians,' fierce as the New
Zealander, cunning as the Red Indian, degraded in their
belief as the Zulu — that here, in the capital of Scotland,
perhaps on the site of this ancient Christian church where
we now worship, there may have stood a temple to Woden
or Thor, and have been witnessed the orgy of an idol's feast,

^ See Kemble's Saxons, vol. i., appendix, where many of these notices
are given.

2 Such as sticking pins into a clay figure, which was supposed to injure
the person represented.

Heathen Scotland. 23

or the horrors of human sacrifice. It is difficult to realise
this; to place ourselves even in thought in these dark ages;
to pass even in imagination from the light of our Chris-
tianity and civilisation under the veritable 'shadow of death'
that rested upon our land. Students of comparative theology
know how in the heart of many of the old religions there
lay a hope of a good time coming to the race ; and the ' uncon-
scious prophecies of heathenism,' telling of a great conqueror
to come, have been often referred to.^ Whether these were mere
dim longings for something better, that took shape in words,
or whether they were the echoes of the Jewish prophecies which
had reached distant lands, it is impossible to determine. When
we read in Zoroaster that ' Osideberga will manifest himself to
the inhabitants of the world, promote religiousness, destroy
iniquity, and restore the ancient order of things. In his time
rest and peace shall prevail, dissensions cease, and all grievances
be done away ' — Or in the works of Confucius, ' that a great
and holy one shall appear in the latter days, to whom nations
look forward as fading flowers thirst for rain ' — When we
hear Plutarch saying that ' the god of the lower world will
eventually be utterly deprived of his power, and then men be
happy, and will no longer stand in need of nourishment, or
throw a shadow ' — Or Virgil, as he tells how a child was to come
from heaven, a dear offspring of the gods, Jove's great descend-
ant, and the golden age was to arise over the whole world' — we
feel as if we were listening to an echo of the sublime strains of
Isaiah. ' Unconscious prophecies,' like those of other religions,
were not wanting in Scottish paganism : the early Christian
missionaries to the Picts and Scots appeal to such prophecies
existing among these peoples. There were sages, one of
them tells us distinctly, before their own coming, ' who had fore-

^ Christianity confirmed by yewish and Heathen Testitnony, by T. Steven-
son (Edinburgh : David Douglas) ; an interesting work. Also Walsh,
Donellan Lectures, p. 213.

24 S^ Giles^ Lectures.

told the bright word of blessing that would come to the land
of the letter; for it was the Holy Spirit that spoke and pro-
phesied through the mouths of just men, as he had prophesied
through the mouths of the chief prophets and fathers in the
patriarchal law ; for the law of nature had prevailed where the
written law did not reach. ^ In the religion of the Saxons,
there is a very marked and distinct announcement of a great
deliverer who was to restore all things, and harmonise those
discordant elements which were ever present to the Teutonic
mind, and close for ever that warfare which he saw prevailing
on every side around him. The central idea of his curious
belief was the struggle of the soul against natural obstacles —
the conflict of life with death, of freedom with fate, of choice
with necessity, of good with evil. The gods of the Teuton
were always at war. His religion was a dualism in which sun-
shine, summer, and growth were waging perpetual battle with
storm, snow, winter, ocean, and terrestrial fire.' ^ This conflict
was to grow more intense as the ages succeeded each other,
and at last to end in harmony. The poetry in which this is
expressed is of a lofty character.^

' Brothers slay brothers ;
Sisters' children
Shed each other's blood ;
Hard is the world ;
Sensual sin grows huge.

There are sword ages,
Earth cleaving cold ;
Storm ages, murder ages.
Till the world falls dead,

1 The Senchits Mor, vol. i., p. 27.

2 Clark's Ten Great Religiotis.

3 Clark's Ten ReligioJis, p. 366 ; Kemble's Saxons in England, p. 410 ;
Brace, Travels in Norway and Sweden.

Heathen Scotlarid. 25

And men no longer spare
Or pity one another.

Black wanes the sun ;
In waves the earth shall sink ;
From heaven shall fall
The friendly stars ;
Round the tree
Red fire shall rustle ;
High heat play
Against the heaven.'

But when all the powers of evil are conquered, a better state
shall arise :

' " In Gimle " the lofty ;

Then shall the hosts

Of the virtuous dwell,

And through all ages

Feast of deep gladness.

Then unsown

The swath shall flourish,

Back come Baldr.'

Then shall descend the mighty one from above — He who ruleth
over all, whose name man dares not to utter.

Then one is born

Higher than all.

He becomes strong

With the strengths of the earth ;

The mightiest King

Men call him ;

Fast knit in peace

With all powers.

26 Sf Giks^ Lectures.

Then comes another
Yet more mighty ;
But him I dare not
Venture to name,
Than to where Odin
To meet the wolf goes.'

With mysterious and weird prophecies like these, familiar to
them, sung by their bards, repeated by their priests, our fore-
fathers found themselves face to face with Christianity and its
message of hope.

It does not fall within my province to tell how that message
was received, or what change its reception wrought on the
personal and national life of the inhabitants of Scotland. This
much I may say, without trenching on the ground of those who
are to follow me, that Christianity took up and consolidated
the national characteristics of our forefathers. Among the
Celts it enlisted the spirit of clanship in the service of Christian-
ity. Among the Saxons it allied itself ' with what was dearest
and what was highest — with their homes, their assemblies, their
crowns, their graves.'^ It fused the different races — Picts, Scots,
Britons, Saxons — into one great strong people through the idea
of a spiritual society which it inculcated and held up before
them, the purest, perhaps, which ever drew men together.^
They seem to have embraced Christianity with wonderful
facility when it was presented to them, and, though there were
occasional relapses into paganism, and some heathen practices
were tenaciously retained, the converts appear to have adhered
with wonderful constancy to the rites and worship of the new
faith. Their teachers were gentle with them, tender to their
superstitions, and forbearing with native usages of which they
might not altogether approve. Many notices have come down

"^ Influences of CJmstianity on Naiional Character, by R. W. Church.
^ Guizot, Lecture xii., p. 230.

Heathen Scotland. 27

to us illustrative on the one hand of the way in which the new
religion approached them, and of the manner in which they
embraced it. Of these we may give two instances — one from
Celtic, the other from Saxon sources. They are voices from
out of the heart of the old paganism of Scotland, that touching
in their character. In an ancient Gaelic poem the heathen
poet Oisin is represented as holding a dialogue with the first
Christian teacher of the Scots — St Patrick. This poem is found
in many forms in Irish and Gaelic manuscripts, and though it
may not be of much historic value, it must, I think, be regarded
as a last voice of Celtic heathenism. The old bard rejoices in
the worship of nature, and records the prowess of his heroic
forefathers ; the missionary tells of the power of God beyond
all visible things, and speaks in dogmatic terms of the future
state. ^

* Patrick of the solemn psalms,' begins the old pagan,
* how great your love for God must be, since you do not close
your book and listen to the voice of the blackbird ! Sweet
blackbird high on yon bending bough, how soothing is your
song ! Although you never heard mass said by priests, how
delightfully you whistle.' He then goes on to tell of the music
of his warlike ancestor, Fionn : * He played melodiously with
the harp, while I am here in grief with the clergy ; ' and then he
sings in heroic strains of the prowess of the forefathers, and
mourns that he should have survived them and fallen on an
evil time. * When I think of the men who were so brave, I
feel cheerless, without friendship for my heart. Here I am
weak, living after the Fenii and Fionn MacCumhal. Small is
my esteem for thyself and clergy — O holy Patrick of the
crosier. I have greater regard for the white-handed king of
the Fenii — but he is not near me now.' The saint has little

* This poem is found in various forms. One version is in the Book of
Lismore. We quote from a very interesting translation by Simpson, in
Poems of Oisin, Bard of Erin.

28 Sf Giles^ Lectures.

sympathy with his regard for the heroes of other days — he
warns his Hstener that he has not long to live — his great
forefather died a pagan and is in hell, and he will soon follow
him unless he accepts the Christian faith,

' He is now shut up in torment ; all his generosity and
wealth do not avail him now for lack of piety towards God —
for this he is in sorrow in the mansion of pain.' The old bard
rises in incredulity and indignation, and there is something
pathetic in the way he refuses to accept the cruel dogmatism
of his teacher. ' Is Fionn in hell — the hero mild who bestowed
gold ! in forfeit for sins against the great God — is he in the
house of torment under sorrow ? I do not believe it possible
for God, though great his power and his strength, nor for any
devil who came ever, to put under lock Fionn of the Fenii —
Fionn the hospitable to be under locks ! heart without malice
and without aversion ; heart stern in defence of battle ! It is
plain your God does not delight in giving gold and food to
others. Fionn never refused strong or weak, and shall he
receive hell for his abod.e ! ' The saint contends against such
unorthodox views with an earnestness which would do credit to
some modern theologians. ' However much he may have
divided gold and venison, hard are his bonds in the den of
pains ; no glimpse of hght for him, no sight of brightness such
as he first received from God ! ' The bard replied that he
would rather be in hell with his forefathers than in the heaven
of the saint.

* I would rather return to the Fenii once more, O Patrick,
than go to the heaven of Jesus Christ to be for ever under
tribute to him. I would rather be in Fionn's court hearkening
to the voices of hounds in the morning, and meditating on
hard-fought battles, than in the court of Jesus Christ.' The
dialogue goes on at great length. What we have quoted is
probably sufficient to indicate its character — the heathen
clinging to his old beliefs ; the saint entreating him to ' smite
his breast and shed tears, and believe in Him who is above

Heathen Scotland. 29

him.' It exhibits in poetic form the meeting of the old and
new. It belongs to the transition time ; the daAvning hour ;
the twilight of Scottish Christianity.

Another memorial of the same time comes to us from Saxon
sources, and refers to the Saxon kingdom now incorporated in
Scotland. In a council of the wise men of the court of Edwin —
who gives the name to our own city — of his aldermen and thanes
and nobles, the Christian teacher stood ready to plead his cause.
No scene in the history of missions is fuller of romance^ than
that which ensued. Coifi, the high-priest of Woden, arose and
confessed that he was moved by the new doctrines. He had
served his gods long and faithfully, yet there were those in the
kingdom who were richer and greater than he — if the deities
had power, he would have been richest and greatest of all.
He asked that the new doctrine should be explained to them.
The missionary declared his message to the assembly, and at
the close of his address the high-priest exclaimed : '■ Long since
have I known full well that what we have been worshipping is
naught, and the more diligently I sought after truth therein, the
less I found it; but now in what this stranger preacheth I
openly confess there shineth forth such truth as can confer on
us life, salvation, and eternal happiness. I advise therefore,
O king, that we straightway break and burn down those temples
and altars which we have hallowed, and whence we have
gained no good.'^

The advice was followed. The temple of Woden was
thrown down by the high-priest himself, who hurled his spear
at it, and bade his men break down the temple, and burn the
hedge ; but before this demolition of shrines was agreed to, one
of the assembled thanes gave his opinion in words that are
full of deep feeling, and cannot fail to touch us still, though so
many centuries have passed away since they were spoken.
They are words which speak, on the one hand, of the hopeless-

^ M'Lear's Conversion of the English^ p. 51. 2 Bede, H. E., ii. 9.

30 iS/ Giles^ Lectures.

ness of the old religion, and of the gleam of hope which the
new threw on the life and destiny of man. ' The life ■"■ of man
in this world, O king,' said the speaker, 'may be likened to
what happeneth when thou art sitting at supper with thy thanes
in the time of winter. A fire is blazing on the hearth, and the
hall is warm ; without, the rain and the snow are falling, and
the wind is howling. There cometh a sparrow, and fiieth
through the house. She entereth by one door, and goeth out
by another. While she is within the house, she feeleth not the
howHng blast; but when the short space of rest is past, she
flieth out again into the storm, and passeth away from our
eyes. Even so is it with the brief life of man ; it appeareth
for a little while, but what precedeth it or what cometh after it
we know not at all. Wherefore, if this new lore can tell us
aught, let us hearken to it and follow it.'

What that new lore told them regarding the present life and
destiny of man we know, for we have heard it ourselves. The
contrast between the paganism of that time and the civilisation
of to-day is so overwhelmingly great as to be indescribable.
The change in social life — political organisation — the rise of
art — the discoveries of science — these things mark the distance
we have travelled since the first Christian missionary set foot
upon our shores. Year by year there has been a steady
advance in all that pertains to the elevation of man ; and the
Scotland of to-day is as unlike the Scotland of that early time,
as the well-tilled and cultivated fields are unlike the rough
forests, swamps, and morasses, in which our wild ancestors
were wont to dwell. How difficult it is for us, as we travel
through some of the more fertile parts of our country, to think
of them being formerly only inhabited by painted barbarians,
living by the spoils of the chase ; and that where now the busy
city stands — its spires and noble buildings springing up against
the sky — were groups of huts in which they lived in all the

^ M'Lear's Conversion of the English, p. 51.

Heathen Scotland. 31

squalor of savage misery. It is impossible to deny that it
is Christianity that has been the chief source of all that
has made our country great; that it caused barbarism to be
exchanged for purity of life, and the heroism of savages for the
virtues of Christianity ; that it gave an impulse to civilisation
that has not yet spent itself. Above all, it brought comfort
to those who knew no mitigation of human sorrow, and
hope to those for whom the future was full of dread. It is
well for us who now hear the sound of peaceful industry and
the chime of the church bell, where once ascended the screams
of devil-worshippers and the smoke of sacrifices, to remember
how the change has come, how mighty it has been, and to
have faith in the power of the same cause ever to produce the
same result. Heathenism still confronts us in many quarters of
the globe with which we have a close connection and a direct
interest — heathenism, many of the forms of which recall that
from which our own country was delivered. Let us not deny
to those that ' sit in darkness ' the same blessings that have in
God's mercy come to ourselves. ' You have seen,' it has been
eloquently said,^ ' the fresh spring bursting up from the earth,
and after it has filled its own little basin, overflowing into a rill
that causes fertility and bloom all over the neighbouring valley.
Like this is the living water of the love of Christ, that gleams
and leaps with life, and then starts forth to convey its fullness
and exuberance to barren places. The church that has no
love to spare is the standing pool that " creams and mantles "
with unwholesome things bred in its bosom by reason of its
deadly stillness.' If this imperfect sketch which we have given
you to-day of the paganism of old Scotland, make you more
earnest in striving to enlighten that which still exists even in
the Scotland of the present day — the heathenism in the heart
of the Christian Church and under the shadow of our temples,
and which sheds its baleful shadow over so large a portion of

^ Word, Work, and Will, by W. Thomson, Archbishop of York.

32 Sf ales' Lectures.

the globe ; if it fill you with a sense of gratitude to Almighty-
God for your own privileges, and deepen a sense of your
responsibility to extend these privileges to others ; if it bring
you into greater sympathy with those who are seeking to
extend the kingdom of Christ ; if it lead you even ' to hold the
rope ' for those who bravely go down into the pit, I shall not have
spoken in vain. If, looking to the past and to the present, we
can say with the Psalmist : ' Blessed be the God of Israel, who
only doeth wondrous things ; and blessed be his glorious name
for ever,' we will surely not refuse to add also with him the
prayer : ' And let the whole earth be filled with His glory.
Amen and amen.' ^

1 Psalm Ixxii. 18, 19.





By the Rev. A. K. H. BoYD, D.D., First Minister of St Andrews.

TV /r Y time is short ; and I have to tell you the story of six
■'■-*■ hundred and ninety years ; from the beginning of the
fifth century to near the end of the eleventh : a period which
may be taken as including the Introduction of Christianity
into Scotland, and its progress till earlier organisations were
merged in the great Mediaeval Church. Not one sentence,
therefore, of introduction, save this : that it would be easier
to compile a moderate volume than to prepare the thirty-two
pages to which these lectures are restricted. For the materials,
though often unreliable, are more than abundant. They are
sometimes of deep interest. Above all, they afford opportunity
of fighting over again still-continuing controversies under
ancient names. But this is just what I am not going to do.
My course is plain. For having, by aids quite familiar to most


34 Sf Giles^ Lectures.

scholars^ (there is no room here for original investigation),
gained a fairly-clear idea for myself of that period, I wish to set
it as clearly as may be before you ; the truth uncoloured by
any bias. I do not hold a brief.

I take for granted that you know what was said in this place
as to Heathen Scotland to the Introduction of Christianity.
It is generally supposed that during the Roman occupation of
Britain, the Christian religion had made its way into the
country. For Christianity, after Constantine, was part of the
constitution of the Roman Empire ; and the British Church,
such as it was, was part of the Church of the Empire. The
better faith was gradually undermining the ancient paganism.
But of the personnel nothing Avhatever is known. The late
Bishop Forbes of Brechin tells us that there was 'a regular
hierarchy, with churches, altars, the Bible, discipline ; ' but
there is no authority whatever for the statement, except in so
far as the existence of Christianity may be taken to imply all
these ; and the names of the earliest preachers and priests have
absolutely perished.

1 The following are the authorities from which the facts stated in this
Lecture have been derived :

1. Celtic Scotland: A History of Ancient Alban. By William F. Skene.
Volume II. Church and Culture. Edinburgh : 1877.

2. Lives of St Ninian and St Kentigern : compiled in the Twelfth
Century. Edited from the Best MSS. by Alexander Penrose Forbes, D.C.L.,
Bishop of Brechin. Edinburgh: 1874.

3. Life of St Coliimba, Founder of Hy. Written by Adamnan, Ninth
Abbot of that Monastery. Edited by William Reeves, D.D., M.R.I.A.,
Edinburgh : 1874.

4. Scoti-Monasticon. The Ancient Chtcrch of Scotland. By Mackenzie
E. Walcott, B.D., F.S.A., Precentor of Chichester. London: 1874.

5. The History of Scotland. By John Hill Burton, Volume I. Edin-
burgh : 1867.

6. Scottish Abbeys and Cathedrals. An Article in the Quarterly Review
for June 1849. Known to be by the late Dr Joseph Robertson.

7. Some information has been derived from various writings of the late
Robert Chambers, LL.D., notably from the article Icolmkill in his Gazetteer
of Scotland. Glasgow : No date,

Early CJiristian Scotland. 35

The first, whose name and career are in any way known to
us, is St Ninian. In a troubled time, when the Empire was
pressed by outlying barbarians and had yielded before them,
shrinking within that northern frontier formed by the wall drawn
across the country from the Forth to the Clyde in 369 a.d.,
Ninian founded a Christian community on the north shore of
the Solway Frith. There, at a place which took the name of
Whithern, and which still abides with slight change in name,
the Saint built a church of stone, the first built of stone in that
region, which was called Candida Casa, the White House. The
title tells us how it looked in the eyes of the rude inhabitants
of Galloway : how it looked to such as saw it rising on its
promontory above Wigtown Bay.

It is a faint outline, the figure of St Ninian : it is hard to
realise him as a living and working man. It is said that his
father was a British king. It is more certain that through
many years he was trained at Rome in the doctrine and disci-
pline of the Western Church. It seems established that he
laid the foundation of his church at Whithern in 397 a.d.
Tradition gives the derivation of the name. Coming into
Galloway, he asked a night's lodging of a churlish smith and
his son : and being denied, the Saint fixed his staff three fingers'-
length in the anvil, so that no human strength could move it.
Terrified, the smith and his son besought pardon. The staff
was removed. And Terna and Wyt (for such were their names)
hastened to offer their land to the Saint, who called it Wytterna
in memory of its givers. St Ninian's object was the conversion
of the Picts who inhabited Galloway. He accomplished his
end and more. The inhabitants of Scotland, as far as the
Grampian range, renounced idolatry and became Christians.

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 7 of 37)