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A History of the County of Renfrew from the Earliest Times
Chapter III.—Religion


Many conjectures have been made respecting the religion of the early inhabitants of Scotland, but comparatively little appears to be known about it. Both Iberians and Celts were pagan, but what their faith and rites and ceremonies were is not so certain.

The Iberians buried their dead, sometimes in caves which they had previously used as dwellings, and sometimes in tombs, which probably represent the huts of the living. Both caves and tombs contain skeletons of all ages, and both of them appear to have been used as vaults common to the family or tribe. The interments were successive, not simultaneous. This appears from the bones being in various stages of decay, as well as from the fact that the bodies could not have been crowded into the space in which the skeletons are found. The tombs consist of barrows or cairns of different sizes, and are long, oval, or circular in plan. The more important contain a small chamber. In a number of instances the mounds have a boundary wall of rubble stone from two to three feet high, with large upright blocks at intervals, which recalls the saying of Aristotle that the Iberian people were in the habit of placing as many obelisks round the tombs of the dead warrior as he had slain enemies. From the number of cleft skulls found in these tombs, it has been argued that human sacrifices were offered, as was the custom in Gaul. The domestic and wild animals which were offered in sacrifice were afterwards eaten in honour of the dead. Along with the bones are found various implements, some of them broken, such as arrowheads, scrapers, celts and pottery, the presence of which indicates a belief in a future state.

The bronze-using Celts introduced the practice of cremation. Their barrows or cairns are usually round. In Scotland, as in Ireland and France, it is not uncommon to find large sepulchral chambers in them, and for a barrow or cairn to contain examples of both modes of disposing of the dead. In cases of inhumation the dead were usually buried in a contracted posture. Sometimes, however, the body was covered with a linen or woollen cloth, and laid at full length in a coffin formed of the trunk of an oak tree, split and hollowed. Drinking-cups, implements, weapons, and personal ornaments, as among the Iberians, were usually, if not always, deposited in the tombs. When cremation was practised, the ashes of the dead were collected into a funeral urn, usually from twelve to eighteen inches in height, and placed in a chamber, sometimes in an upright position with the mouth closed, and sometimes upside down. Various articles and implements in daily use were thrown into the fire, and their burnt remains were sometimes placed among the ashes in the urn. Cremation, it has been argued, indicates a change in religious belief. Possibly it does; but the practice of including the remains of charred implements, etc., in the urns containing the ashes of the dead, proves that the bronze-using Celts held, like their forerunners, the belief in a future state.

The Celts had a fairly numerous pantheon, which included female as well as male divinities. They were believed to be invisible, but were supposed to have the power of making themselves known under various forms whenever they chose. The priests and priestesses did not form an hereditary class, but recruited their ranks from among the people. As they were believed to be the depositories of all the wisdom of the time, to give instruction was regarded as a part of their ordinary duties. The doctrine of the transmigration of souls appears to have been one of the principal tenets of their faith. For their restoration to health, slave owners afflicted with a painful malady would sometimes cause one or more of their slaves to be offered in sacrifice.

Christianity was probably introduced into the district during the Roman occupation. About the middle of the fourth century the father of S. Patrick served as a priest or deacon at a Christian church situated on the north shore of the Clyde opposite to Renfrewshire, either between Bowling and Dumbarton or at one or other of these places, and it is not unlikely that the first preachers of the Cross in the shire came from there. Subsequently, if we may trust Ailred’s narrative, Renfrewshire fell within the mission field of S. Ninian.

During the internecine strife which followed the withdrawal of the Romans there was a great falling away from the faith. “ Different tribes,” it is said, “ poured into the kingdom of Cumbria and maintained paganism rather than the cultivation of the faith.”

One of the first acts of Roderick the Liberal after the victory obtained by the Christian princes over the pagans at the battle of Arderydd in 573, was to invite S. Kentigern to resume the work of evangelization in Strathclyde, which he had been obliged to relinquish in consequence of the opposition of Morken. S. Columba had then been in Iona ten years, and his disciples were already beginning to pass to and fro in the land. S. Modwenna had also visited the country and built her seven churches, one of which was at Dundonald in Ayrshire, and another at Dumbarton. About the same time a number of monks from Ireland had crossed over, and penetrated into the County of Renfrew, and from their several churches were carrying on their work of conversion and civilization among the people.

Among the best known of these monks was S. Mirin, a native of Ireland who had been educated under the famous S. Comgall, at Bangor, where he had become a monk and was appointed prior of the monastery. Leaving Bangor and Ireland, he finally settled at Paisley, where he appears to have laboured long and successfully. The church which he built had a parochial territory attached to it some time before the neighbouring monastery was built, and continued down to the period of the Reformation to be used as the Parish Church of the town of Paisley, the original part of which stood around or near it in the Seedhill. The priest who served it was known as the chaplain of Paisley. The churchyard in which it stood and the priest’s house are referred to as late as the year 1620, and the tomb of the Saint is mentioned in a charter dated at Paisley, May 21, 1491, whereby George Shaw, the Abbot, conveyed to the Bailies and community of the newly-erected Burgh of Paisley the Heyt House to be used as a common Tolbooth.

S. Berchan or Barchan is less known for his labours in Kilbarchan than for the series of prophecies attributed to him but written in the eleventh century, when it was the fashion to write history in the shape of prophecy. The most important of them have been printed and translated by Dr. Skene. Doubt exists as to Berchan’s date and even as to his day, there being several saints of the same name. According to Dr. Skene he lived towards the end of the seventh century, and in the opinion of his latest biographer while “there is no reason whatever for putting him later than 700 A.D., he may have been as early as 550 a.d.”  In the Four Masters he is mentioned in conjunction with Columba (521-597) and his contemporary and friend, Brendan of Birr. Ussher, says that he was “ the contemporary of Keivinus,” who died in 622, at the phenomenal age of 120. We shall not be far wrong, therefore, if we set him down as living in the second half of the sixth century and as contemporary with S. Mirin in Paisley and S. Kentigern in Glasgow. He was bishop of Clonsast, King’s County, Ireland, and is mentioned by Colgan as one of the Four Illustrious, who gave a name to the church near which they are buried—a church in Inishmore, the largest and most northerly of the Aran Islands in Galway Bay. The Calendars mention a S. Berchan on April 6, August 1, August 4, and December 3. This last, as the old style of reckoning is used, agrees fairly well with the date on which the Kilbarchan fair is now held, the first Tuesday after December 12. Of S. Berchan’s labours in Kilbarchan nothing is known. He is supposed to have built a church there, and then, after labouring for some time, to have returned to Ireland. It may be, however, that the parish was the locality in which one of his disciples or admirers laboured, and that the church was built by him and dedicated to the saint’s memory, just as the church at Whithorn was built by S. Ninian and dedicated by him to his friend S. Martin of Tours.

The church of the ancient parish of Killallan, which by a decree of the Court of Teinds in 1760 was united to the adjoining parish of Houston, is dedicated to S. Fillan. At a little distance from its ruins is a large stone with a hollow in the middle, called S. Fillan’s chair. Under a rock, a little beyond it, shaded by overhanging bushes, is S. Fillan’s well, to which sickly children used to be brought for the healing of their diseases. In the month of January a fair used to be held in the parish called St. Fillan’s Day, and the festival of S. Fillan was kept by the church on January 9. With this evidence it is impossible not to assume that S. Fillan, or at least some disciple or admirer of his, built the church and laboured in the parish of Killallan, and that too at an early period.

The S. Fillan referred to was the son of Feradach, a nobleman, and Kenti-gerna, daughter of Killach Cualann, King of Leinster. His mother died in 734, and his maternal grandfather in 715. He was educated by S. Ibar, and received the monastic habit from S. Munna, who died in 635, and whose name is preserved in Kilmun, on the Holy Loch, in Argyllshire. Dedications to S. Fillan are numerous. The esteem in which he was held in Scotland was greatly increased by the part he was supposed to have taken in the battle of Bannockburn. Boece gives the Latin legend, which Bellenden has translated as follows :—“ All the nicht afore the battall, K. Robert was right wery, hav-and gret solicitude for the weil of his army, and micht tak na rest, bot rolland all jeoperdeis and chance of fortoun in his mind, and sum times he went to his devoit contemplatioun, makand his orisoun to God and Sanct Phillane, quhais arme, as he belevit, set in silver, ves closit in ane cais within his palyeon ; traisting the better fortoun to follow be the samin. In the mein time the cais chakkit to suddanlie but ony motion or werk of mortal creaturis. The priest astonist be this wounder went to the alter quhare the cais lay ; and quhen he fand the arme in the cais, he cryit, ‘ Heir is ane gret mirakle ’ ; and incontinent he confessit how he brocht the tume case in the field dredand that the rellik suld be tint in the feild, quhair sa gret jeoperdeis afferit. The King rejosing of this mirakill, past the remanent nicht in his prayaris with gud esperance of victorie.” It was to this “ merakle ” that the King alluded in his speech before the battle, after the Abbot of Inchaffray, had “ said masse on ane hie mote, and ministret the Eucharist to the King and his nobillis.”

The chief scene of S. Fillan’s labours in Scotland appears, however, to have been Strathfillan, in Perthshire, where, besides a long stone called S. Fillan’s seat, are seven small stones which he is said to have endowed with the power of curing diseases, and a pool, called the Holy Pool, in which insane people were dipped to cure them. The name and the tradition alone connect the saint with Killallan, but considering the vagrant habits of his class, it is not an impossible supposition that he at one time laboured in the parish, though it is more likely that the church was erected and the traditions imported into the parish by one of his disciples or admirers.

Convallanus, to whom the ancient church of Pollok was dedicated and assigned, is described as abbot in Scotland and confessor under King Couranus. According to Boece, he introduced the Rogation or Gang Days into Scotland. The same writer makes him Abbot of Iona, but among the abbots of that monastery his name does not appear. The same writer’s statement to the effect that he had the gift of prophecy is of about the same value as that just referred to. “ This Convallanus,” it is said, “ was in the time of Arthure, quhilk was King of the Britonis effcer the deith of Uter.”

Convallus is said to have taken up his abode at Inchinnan. A recent writer has identified him with Convallanus or Convallane of Pollok, but apparently on insufficient grounds. According to the legend, Convallus of Inchinnan was the son of an Irish prince, an ornament of the primitive Church of the Scots. “Wishing to leave his native country, the stone on which he chanced to be standing by the sea, suddenly became a skiff, whereon he was borne across the sea to the River Clyde, where he landed. The stone was thereafter called S. Convall’s Stone, and by the touch of it men and cattle were healed.” The stone stood near the ancient fort of Inchinnan, and is now called Argyll’s stone as marking the spot where the Earl of Argyll was taken in 1685. Boece attests that the relics of S. Convall were honoured at Inchinnan in his day. Cumnock is dedicated to him, and according to a pre-Reformation will his dust lay there. Leslie makes out that he preached at the coronation of Kenneth I., and Camerarius says that he was honoured by Aidan, whom S. Columba ordained King of the Scots.

Another dedication to S. Convall stood in the village of Fereneze, to the south of Paisley. The church had no territory attached to it, and appears to have been of late date. It belonged to the Semple family, by whom it was given to the Collegiate Church of Semple, which they erected in the parish of Lochwinnoch.

S. Winoc, who is said to have built the church around which the Kirktown of Lochwinnoch grew up, is described as an abbot. He is also described as a bishop, and sometimes bears the name of S. Gwynoch. He is said to have excommunicated the Scots for their war against the Picts, and to have assisted King Kenneth by his advice and prayers at a great battle in which the power of his enemies was completely broken. About 853, April 13, is given as the date of the saint’s death.

Two of the above mentioned saints—SS. Mirin and Convall—it has been conjectured, set up monasteries after the Irish type in the county. There is nothing incredible in the conjecture. The construction and organization of one of these monasteries were by no means formidable undertakings. For the construction all that was needed was a few huts made of wattle, a church, a hut somewhat larger than the rest for the abbot, a scriptorium, a guest house— all enclosed by a mound of earth, with a byre and mill standing beyond it.

The Irish monasteries were then teeming with students, all more or less capable of teaching the small amount of scholarship which was then to be had, and an abbot would have no difficulty in securing the assistance he needed.

But whether SS. Mirin and Convall set up monasteries or not, they and their companions who were labouring in Renfrewshire, would, as elsewhere, be obliged to keep school, in order to teach the men and boys, and probably the women and children, of their flocks to read and to chant the Psalms and to make the responses in .the services of the Church. Doubtless, too, they were continually on the outlook for youths of promise to train and educate for taking up and carrying on the work they themselves had begun and would one day be obliged to lay down. If their success in spreading the lights of civilization and religion was not great, it was due less to their want of zeal and more to the barbarous condition of the people whom they tried to raise.


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