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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 1, Chapter 25 - Iona and Rome; or The Second Roman Invasion


After these commotions the three nations—the Northumbrians, the Picts, and the Scots—settled down into what might be termed, in that era of world-wide revolution, tranquillity. Nectan’s Mere—the Flodden of the seventh century—had adjusted and sweetened the relations betwixt all three. The humiliating defeat on the Pictish moor had purged Northumbria of its ambition, and made it content to abide within the narrower limits. The Picts had recovered their corn lands on the south of the Forth. The Scots of Dalraida were no longer struck at through the side of Galloway with the Northumbrian spear; and the Cymric Britons were allowed to possess in peace the vale of Strathclyde, all that was now left them, Wales excepted, of a country once wholly their own. The Lamp of the North, the Latin corps having been arrested in its covert advance to inflict eclipse or extinction upon it, continued to burn and to diffuse, among the two nations of the Picts and Scots, its vivifying and healing influences. Of all the instrumentalities which combined to lift up the country, this was the first and greatest, and pre-eminently so. Without it the rest would have been powerless to subdue the barbarism of the people. The touch of Iona had in it a plastic power that was omnipotent. It planted a conscience in the breast of the savage; and conscience is the first thing to sweeten the bitterness of humanity, by curbing its selfishness and passion. Every decade that Lamp continued to burn was an inestimable gain, not only to the country in which it shone, but to every land to which its rays. extended.

At that juncture, moreover, two princes, exceptionally enlightened and wise, exercised sway over the two nations of Northumbria and the Scottish Dalriada. This helped to deepen the peace that happily prevailed, and prolong the period of its duration. Egfrid, who had fallen in the great battle with the Picts, was succeeded by his brother Alfred. The Alfred whom we now see mounting the throne of Northumbria is not to be confounded with the Alfred of the ninth century, whose name has come down to us across the ten intervening ages in the pure gold of leader in the Divine work of Bible translation. Nevertheless this earlier Alfred was a learned and magnanimous prince. Eschewing the war path, in which his brother had found only destruction, he sought in the pursuit of peace and letters the glory of his reign and the welfare of his subjects. It was now that English literature had its spring-time, and ventured to put forth its earliest buds, though the air was not as yet genial enough to expand them into blossom. It was under this king that Bede—the venerable Bede, as we now style him—the father of English ecclesiastical history, flourished. He lived in the convent of Jarrow, and spent his whole life in the tranquil grandeur of study. His fame for learning drew round him six hundred scholars, to whom he ministered daily instructions. His school rose into great repute, rivaling those earlier seminaries in Ireland, which had been the glory of a former age. Now at their light was waning, the school of Bede was beginning to take their place in the eyes of the nations of the West. His life was one of unbroken labour; he was monk, schoolmaster, and historian all in one; upwards of forty volumes from his pen, on all the sciences, as his age knew them, are the monument of his prodigious industry. His favourite study was Holy Scripture; and his last labour, as well known, was the translation of John’s Gospel; the last line was dictated with his last breath, and written down by a young scribe with the last ray of eve—Bede and the day setting together, but the one as sure to reappear as the other, and to have dark night turned into glorious morning.

But truth compels us to add that the great scholar and devout Christian did not wholly escape the blight which the Latin Church, ten years before he was born, at the Conference of Whitby, had begun to inflict on England. The shadow of Rome was upon him. But for this how much clearer would have been his vision, and how much wider his sympathies! He speaks lovingly, it is true, of the Columban missionaries who came to enlighten the pagans of Northumbria: he awards them the praise of humility and piety, and lauds the exemplary diligence with which they travelled from village to village instructing the ignorant; but one thing was lacking to their perfection, the Roman tonsure even. It was hard for those who had not received the mark of the bishop of Rome to enter into the kingdom of heaven. So Bede thought, nor has he a word of condemnation for the cruel slaughter by the pagan Ethelfrith, instigated by the Romanising party of the twelve hundred clergy of Bangor who had stood up for the independence of the British church by refusing to have their heads shorn by the agent of Pope Gregory’s missionary. The same cause abridged the good flowing from his labours after he was gone. When the great Alfred arose in the middle of the next century, he found that the goodly promise of the school of Jarrow had come to nothing. It had been mowed by the sword of the Dane, who descended on the coast of England after Bede’s death; but its premature extinction had been mainly caused by the breath from the cemeteries of ancient paganism on the banks of the Tiber, now creeping over England. Christian products cannot flourish in the air of the grave. The pious king, without very clearly perceiving what had wrought the ruin he lamented, sought how he might remedy it. He began working on the lines of Bede, but his own labours, in their turn, crumbled into dust in the same poisonous air which had blighted those of the monk of Jarrow, and which, so far from being purified and healed, became, century after century, only the more deadly and killing.

It so happened at that epoch (about 690) that there was, as we have already said, a scholar on the throne of Scotland also. He figures in the list of our early kings as Eugene the sixth. Congeniality of taste and study cemented the bonds of friendship between him and Alfred of Northumbria. Accordingly, during their reigns, there was peace betwixt their kingdoms. "Both kings," says Buchanan, "Were profound scholars, according to the literature of the times, especially in the theology."1 Fordum, speaking of the Scottish king, says, "He was, for those times, a learned prince, being educated under Adamnan, abbot of Icolm-Kill." Fordun affirms of Alfred of Northumbria also, that he was trained in the Monastery of Iona; a not improbable occurrence, seeing his youth was passed in adversity, and at a distance from the Northumbrian court. The western world of that day may be divided into three great zones in respect of knowledge. There was a broad and dark belt in the middle space, and on either side a zone of light. The Gothic nations had brought night with them into Europe, extinguishing the lamps of ancient learning, and obscuring those of the Christian faith before they were well kindled. On the south, science, art, and philosophy flourished among the Saracenic nations—a distinction which they owed to their possession of the writing of the Greeks and of the eastern nations, which strengthened their minds and stimulated their inventive faculties. On the north of the central zone was, too, an illuminated region, in which sacred letters especially were studied. It owed its light to its possession of a Book of all others the most powerful in quickening and enriching the mind and expanding the soul. In the southern region the light was scientific and artistic solely. In the northern it partook largely of the humanistic and moral element, and the civilisation based on it was therefore deeper and more varied. We can give full credit, therefore, to Fordun and Buchanan when they tell us that in the North, scholars were found, not only in the church and in school, but even on the throne itself.

The reign of Eugene VI. of Scotland lasted ten years. The peace betwixt him and the king of Northumbria was profound. His relations with his neighbours the Picts, whose kingdom had become of late very powerful by the accession of the Lothians, so as greatly to overshadow the little Dalriada, were less satisfactory and at times critical; but their occasional quarrels that threatened the peace betwixt them were adjusted without the intervention of a pitched battle. Ever as either king put his hand on his sword’s hilt, a voice was heard from Icolmkill in the interests of peace, before the weapon could be unsheathed or blood spilt.

The eighth century of our country rises in a hazy light, and that haze overhangs it to its close. Its kings, Scottish and Pictish, pass before us without individuality, and therefore without interest. Doubtless some of them, perhaps many, were worthy prices, and did worthy deeds, but they have failed to find a historian who was able to do more that cite their names and say of a particular king, that he fought so many battles, reigned so many years, and died. It does not follow that these kings lived in vain. Not one of them but helped to make Scotland what it is; each brought his stone to the building; although now it is impossible to assign his stone to the individual king, or award the measure of praise due to him for placing it there, and contributing thereby to the solidity and grandeur of the edifice.

It is with events, rather than men, that our history has to do, and from the shadowy potentates of Dalriada—for the Scotland of the eighth century was still enclosed within the narrow boundary of the Clyde and the Drumalban chain—we turn to a transaction which we see taking place on the larger stage of the Scotland of the future, known as yet as Pictland. The occurrence we are about to narrate did not receive great attention or awaken much alarm at the time—the loss of a battle would have occasioned more—but its consequences did not die out for nine centuries. We have already animadverted on the extraordinary eagerness of the first Roman to occupy Britain. The second Rome was not less eager and persisted in her attempts to seize our country. The imperial legions had hardly left our soil till the feet of an army of monks were planted upon it. The burden of the mission of these foreign propagandists was the supremacy of the Roman See, and the authority of the ecclesiastical constitutions. The badge of submission to these two powers, on the part of the convert, was the Roman tonsure on his crown, the same which distinguished or dignified the priests of Isis and Osiris. The Columban missionaries laboring in Northumbria did not object to have their heads shorn after any pattern that seemed good in the eyes of the monks of Augustine. It was a matter of indifference to them what form the tonsure took, whether a circle, or a square, or a triangle. What they objected to was the yoke thereby imposed upon their conscience. The tonsure in the form proposed—the coronal, to wit—was the badge of subjection to a strange bishop, and of the reception of constitutions which they has not examined, and which, for aught they knew, might contain things contrary to Holy Scripture. Would not this new obedience be a manifest renunciation of their prior vow to their own church, and especially to the Word of God as the supreme and infallible standard of faith and duty? They would virtually perjure themselves. It was the sheerest tyranny to exact such a thing; and compliance would have been cowardice and treachery. The Columban missionaries resolutely stood their ground. Mindful of the honour of Iona, on which their submission would have entailed disgrace, and mindful, too, of the honour of their brethren, on whose integrity their fall would have brought suspicion, they chose to quit their adopted country and the work they were so zealously and successfully prosecuting in it, rather than submit their heads to the scissors of Rome in token of passing under the crook of the shepherd of the Tiber. Finan, Coman, and their brethren disappeared from the halls of Lindisfarne and the mission-walks of Northumbria, and their place was taken by men whose heads bore the orthodox tonsure, but whose words were strange. By this victory the Latin pale was extended to Edinburgh and the Forth, the farthest limit of the old empire.

But the chief of that church was not content that this should be the final boundary of his spiritual dominions. Beyond that limit there were burned in the northern sky a star of apostolic brightness, and till its light should be extinguished he deemed that his own kingdom was not secure. The order was now issued to march on Iona. Accordingly, in the second decade of the eighth century (about 717), we find the Italian monks at the court of Nectan Macderiloi, king of the Picts, and there setting on foot the same maneuvers which had resulted in the Roman victory at Whitby half a century before. Nectan, on a certain day, assembled the nobles of his court at Restenet, Forfarshire, and gave audience to the papal envoy and his attendants. Nectan and his people, according to the envoy, whose name is said to have been Boniface, were sunk in three deplorable heresies. They celebrated Easter on the wrong day; their clergy lacked the true tonsure; and their churches were not so constructed as to permit of an efficacious administration of the Christian rites. The Picts were in peril of losing their salvation by indulging in these gross and wicked courses. They might be ever so well instructed in the doctrines of the faith, but to what avail when they sinned so grievously in the all-important matter of form? What benefit could they hope to receive through Christ’s death, unless they commemorated His passion on the anniversary of the day on which it was endured? And what power to convert could possibly be possessed by a clergy whose crowns were not shorn, or not shorn in the orthodox fashion? Was it not immense presumption in Nectan and his Picts to set themselves, in these vital matters, in opposition to the whole of Western Christendom? Was he not cutting off himself and his people thereby from the body of the church and from the channels of grace, for what grace could the Eucharist contain if celebrated on the wrong day, or by a heretically-tonsured clergy? These were pertinent interrogatories, and Nectan felt that there was great weight in the arguments which they implied. The Christian system, he saw, had been wonderfully simplified! All its doctrines were here gathered into the one great doctrine of the Eucharist, and all the duties of the Christian life were comprehended and summed up in the one cardinal virtue of keeping Easter on the right day of the moon. It was not the Bible but the Calendar that must be Nectan’s guide. It was not the one anointed priest in the heavens to whom he was to life his eyes, it was a tonsured priesthood on earth which was to be to him and his people the fountain of grace. So did Boniface teach him.

In an evil hour for himself and his kingdom the Pictish monarch permitted himself to be persuaded by Boniface. Nectan exchanged the Gospel which Columba had preached to his predecessor, Bruidi, for the sweeter doctrine and the easier yoke, as he believed it, of Rome. He issued an edict from the "Hill of Faith," at Scone, appointing Easter to be observed henceforward on the day fixed in the calendar of the Roman Church, and commanding all the clergy of his dominions to receive the coronal tonsure. To complete the reformation of his kingdom, Nectan sent to Coelfred, abbot of Wearmouth, for architects skilled to build churches so constructed as that all that was said, and especially all that was done in them, might be efficacious. The ecclesiastical revolution was now complete. The three instrumentalities by which Nectan had effected his new reformation were the calendar, the scissors, and the architects.2

The first fruit of the new faith was persecution. The Columban clergy were required to have their heads shorn in the orthodox way, and from this time forward to take their instructions, not from Iona, but from Rome. On their noncompliance they were straightway separated from their flocks and driven across Drumalban into the Scottish kingdom of Dalriada, where the lamp of Iona still continued to burn, though with decaying brightness. The livings left vacant by their expulsion were filled by priests from the kingdom of Northumbria and the south of Ireland. In both countries the novel doctrines and rites of which Boniface was the propagator, had already taken root and were flourishing.

The second consequence of these ecclesiastical changes was the interruption of the peace which had so long existed between the two nations. For a full century, as we have already seen, after the arrival of Columba, hardly was there a battle betwixt Scot and Pict; but now the period of amity comes to an end, and it is Rome that is seen stirring the embers of strife. Those whom the evangelist of Iona had united in one Christian confederacy the emissaries of the Vatican again part into two rival and hostile kingdoms. The flag of battle is again unfurled, and an element of intense bitterness is infused into the strife than had ever been known even in the days of Druidism

What success these new teachers who filled the vacant charges and walked so straightly by canon and rubric had in convincing the ancient Caledonians that they could not be saved unless they observed the great Christian festival on the right day, and were soundly instructed by a tonsured clergy, we know not. One thing is certain, however, that Nectan did not much prolong his reign after these events. On the seventh year after he had driven out the Columban pastors, he vacated his throne and entered a monastery. Whether, in assuming the cowl, he sought escape from the cares of government, or whether he was drawn to the cell in the hope of doing expiation as a monk for the sins he had committed as king, or whether he simply yielded to the importunities of his monkish advisers and masters, who may have wished to place a more pliant ruler in his seat, we know not, but the fact is that Nectan adopted the fashion, even then becoming prevalent, and since his time followed by mighter monarchs, of forsaking, in their last days, crown and courtiers, for the sombre, if not sanctified, companions of the cloister, and engaging in the mortifying but not purifying observances of asceticism.3

From this date there opens an era of trouble and convulsion in the Pictish kingdoms. The conversion of Nectan to the Roman rite had disrupted the bond which joined the two peoples in one. The flight of the pastors of the old faith across the Drumalban into Dalriada, carried thither the tidings of the spoliation to which they had been subjected in the Pictish realm, had also inflamed the wrath of the Scots. That mountain barrier, virtually annihilated so long as the faiths of the two peoples were one, was upreared again; and instead of the feet of those "who bring good tidings, and publish peace," there were now seen upon these mountains heralds bearing the flag of defiance, and blowing the trumpet of war. Armies crossed and recrossed Drumalban, carrying into the territories of Pict and Scot battle and bloodshed. It were unspeakably wearisome to recount the story of these savage and sanguinary conflicts, even were it possible. Who could dwell with interest over such a recital, or who could be the wiser or the better for it? We look down into a mist, as it were: we see combatants rushing to an fro, we see host encountering host, we hear the din of battle perpetually rising; anon there comes a cloud that hides all, and when it again lifts and the light is let in, new champions are seen struggling on the stage, and the new battles are going forward, but the cause in which they originate, and the interests they advance, we find it hard, often impossible, to ascertain. The ages seem running to waste. Now it is the Picts and Scots that are seen contending with on another. Now it is the Scottish clans that have fallen out among themselves, and are laying waste their country by intestine broils. Now the Dalriadans are seen rushing across the Clyde to assail the Britons of Strathclyde. And now the Picts and Scots make peace between themselves, that they may join their arms against the Angles of the kingdom of Northumbria. But what fruit comes of all these bloody encounters does not appear; nor of many of them does there remain record or memorial, save the cairn which has come down to our day through the tempests of a thousand winters, and the sepulchral urn which the plough or the mattock lay open, to tell that here warrior fought and died, and though his name and deeds have long since passed into oblivion..


FOOTNOTES

1.  Buchanan, lib. v. cap. 57.

2.  Bede, Eccl. Hist., bk. v. c. 21; Skene, bk. i. c. 6; Robertson, Early Kings, vol. i. p. 9, 10,

3. Tighernac, Skene, vol. i. p. 284.


 

 


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