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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 3, Chapter 15 - Translations of the Chair of Columba; The one Bishop of Alban


Iona has fallen, and yet Iona lives and flourishes. The great evangelical work inaugurated by Columba goes on despite the defection of the fathers of the monastery, and the devastation accomplished by the fire and sword of the Danes. The power of the latter to destroy extends no farther than to the material fabric of Iona; they have no power over the grand missionary spirit which the fabric enshrined. That spirit is not tied to this or to any spot of earth. If it shall continue to linger round the grave of Columba, and haunt the scene of his earthly footsteps, it will by and by become a fetish, and draw men into the debasing worship of material objects and dead men’s bones. It is better that it should be set free from temples and tombs, that it may be able to put forth its mighty expansive force, and show that its power is wholly spiritual, and not dependent upon any man however holy, or any spot of earth however sacred. The tendency of the age was to connect t holiness with certain men and certain things. That tendency was growing stronger every century. The fire and sword of the Dane came to counteract that tendency. The remedy was a drastic but a much needed one, though we fear it was but little appreciated by the men of that day.

We have come to the ninth century, but we have not come to the close of the career of Columban Church. Her footprints are still distinctly traceable. She is still a powerful organisation, despite the troops of Romanisers which from across the Tweed are invading the country and laying siege to Iona. At home we see her struggling to maintain her ancient independence and preserve the scriptural faith of her people in the face of hostile edicts and of many painful sacrifices. On the continent of Europe we behold her putting forth still mightier efforts, as if resolved by her foreign conquests to compensate for the losses and defeats she is beginning to experience at home. We see her spreading the light over vast areas, combating the darkness all round, civilising barbarous tribes, permitting neither the inhospitable plain nor the stormy ocean to turn back her steps, and pushing on into the lands of the Viking, and taking revenge for his many bloody raids into her own native country by enriching the lands under his sway with the blessings of the gospel.

This untiring and hopeful energy on the part of the Columban Church has been certified to us by many concurring testimonies. No small portion of the evidence that attests the continued action of the Columban Church has been supplied by Rome herself, and it is perhaps n not the least convincing and conclusive portion of it. Against what society is that that the Rome of that day enacts her decrees and fulminates her excommunications? It is not against the Church of Columba, with her missionaries and her customs so diverse from that of Rome? Either Rome imposed upon the men of that day when she directed her councils to promulgate these edicts, or she now imposes upon us when she would have us believe that at the period when the edicts were concocted and fulminated the Columban Church had sunk into significance and was just passing from the stage. If, as has of late been repeatedly and boldly asserted, it was a fact that the Columban Church by this time had the locks of her strength shorn, and was giving signs of speedily disappearing from view altogether, would Rome have given herself so much concern and trouble about her? Would she not have seen that her true policy was to permit her great rival and antagonist to quit the field without observation, and pass out of the remembrance of the world? Her fears would not permit the Roman Church to maintain this prudent silence. She must be perpetually thundering against the Columbites, repudiating the orders of their clergy, denying the effiacy of their sacraments, and by this course of procedure drawing deep and broad the line of distinction and separation betwixt herself, so genuinely apostolic, and this body which followed perverse customs and was cut off from Peter. Do we not find Rome expelling them from the kingdoms where she was dominant, in short, taking every means in her power to make it plain that she was sensible of the life and vigour that still existed in the Church of Columba, and that, while affecting to despise, she in reality hated that church as a rival, and dreaded her as a foe. This attitude on the part of Rome towards the Columban Church is sufficient proof of its continued organization and influence. It is an attitude of antagonism in both doctrine and rite. Rome distinctly tells her northern rival, "Your faith is not my faith, nor is your worship my worship."

It was a long way from the shores of Iona in the western sea to Chalons-sur-Saone in France. But long as the way was, it was often trodden by the foot of Culdee missionary. We have this fact under the hand of a council of Romish ecclesiastics which met in the city in the year 813. Among other matters the question of the orders of the Scottish missionaries cam up for discussion. The decision of the council was that these orders were invalid on the ground that they had no metropolitan, and that it was unknown through whom their orders had been derived. The council had no assurance of their having come through a Roman channel, and they could recognise no other as apostolic.

It would seem at first sight as if a council sitting at Chalons-sur-Saone went out of its way to deal with this matter. Yet a moment’s reflection will show that the question was one that deeply concerned its members. The Culdee evangelists had, for nearly two centuries, been busily at work in France. They had planted stations on the banks of the Clain beside Poitiers, and now they had appeared on the banks of the Saone, and were making numerous conversions. It was this that alarmed the fathers now assembled in the city which is washed by the Saone. Their flocks were in danger, and they could not do less than warn them against the heretical doctrines and spurious sacraments of the men on whose heads had never come the hands of Roman Bishop nor the scissors of Roman pontiff.1

We meet a like occurrence three years later. In 816 a council of Anglo-Saxon bishops was held at Celcyth, south of the Humber. The English council follows in the wake of the French one. They repudiate the orders of the Scottish clergy, and interdict them from administering the sacraments or performing any priestly act in England.2 The Columban clergy were just as willing to claim relationship with the Romans as the Roman ecclesiastics were to own connection with the Columbans. This mutual antipathy came out in rather a curious way at an earlier period. In 604, Bishops Laurentius, Mellitus, and Justus were deputed by the Pope to visit Britain. They expected to find there a people that walked in the ways of the universal Church. On arriving in England, however, they were mortified to discover that the Britons did not come up to the expectations they had formed of them. But they comforted themselves with the thought that they would find the Scots, who had a high repute for sanctity, more observant of the Roman customs. They found, on the contrary, as we learn from Bede, that they had made a second and greater mistake.3 The missionary from Iona, Daganus, would not eat at the same table with the Pope’s bishops, nor sit in the same apartment with them. The farther northward they journeyed the stronger they found this mutual repugnance and aversion, and the broader the separation betwixt the disciples of Iona and the partisans of Rome. The instinct of both parties kept them apart. They refused to amalgamate.

Even in the thick darkness that shrouds Scotland at the beginning of the ninth century, the Church of Columba does not pass wholly out of sight. We feel her influence and action even when we cannot see her. We have seen how the Columban clergy were expelled from the dominions of the Picts in the previous century, for refusing obedience to King Naiton’s decree enjoining upon them conformity to Rome. Subsequent events show that their expulsion was resented by the people, and that the measure was unpopular. A few years after, King Naiton was driven from his throne. We have a yet more decisive proof that the hearts of the people went with their religious instructors, now sent into banishment, and that they continued to cherish the hope of their recall. When Kenneth Macalpin ascended the throne of the united nation, one of his first acts was to bring back the Columban pastors—that is, the descendants of the men who had been driven out—and restore them to their old position in the Pictish territories. The policy of Kenneth was dictated obviously by the hope of strengthening himself with his new subjects. He appears also to have taken steps to revive the Columban houses in Lothian, originally founded by evangelists from Iona, but latterly fallen into decay owing partly to the wars with England, and partly to the ascendancy of the Roman Church in Northumbria.4 We see in these measures a tribute to the influence of the Church of Columba, and a proof that it was still a power in the country.

The removal of the chair of Columba (850) from Iona to Dunkeld within the territories of the Picts has also its significance. Kenneth decreed that there should be the centre of the Church for the whole Kingdom. The spot was well chosen, lying midway betwixt the eastern and western boundaries of his kingdom. Some relics of Columba were brought hither at the same time to give prestige and sanctity to what Popish writers love to call the "Primatial See" of Scotland. It was easier translating the relics than the spirit of Columba to the newly-founded primacy, and it was easier to give a high-sounding name to this chair than to invest it with the spiritual power it possessed when it stood at Iona and was filled by Columba. The Abbot exercised from Dunkeld the same titular presidency which Columba had held at Iona, but without his moral dignity, which was not irretrievably departed from the Scottish abbots. At Dunkeld the chair of Columba was not far from the royal residence. Why were the kings of Alban so desirous of having the chair of the great founder of the Scottish church in close proximity with their throne and capital? Obviously because they felt that the veneration in which the memory of Columba was still held by the Scottish people made is a support to their power. They found the Columban Church the mainstay of their throne.

The chair—the term is a figure—was continued only a short time at Dunkeld. In the reign of Constantin, the son of Kenneth, who succeeded to the throne in 863, it was removed to Abernethy. Its establishment here shed a brief gleam upon this ancient seat of Pictish royalty. Even yet it had not found a permanent resting-place. Before the century was out it underwent a third removal. We now behold the chair or Columba, somewhat damaged, we fear, in prestige by these frequent translations, established at St Andrews. This place had acquired, even at this early day, a sort of mysterious importance, which mad it stand out from the other cities of Scotland. The line of its ecclesiastical history, as one attempts to trace it up, becomes lost in a haze of fable and wonder which monkish legends have thrown around it. This made it a fitting site for a chair which depended for its influence and authority more on the memories of the men who had sat in it aforetime than upon any substantial powers and jurisdictions which were lodged in it now. Both Wyntoun and Bower tell us that Cellach was the first to occupy it on its removal to St Andrews. He sat in it under the title of Epscop Alban, or Bishop of Alban. Beside him other bishop there was not in Scotland. We shall return to Alban’s one bishop immediately.

The Alban of King Constantin and Bishop Cellach was comprehended between the Forth and the Spey. These two rivers formed the boundaries of Scotland at the opening of the tenth century. As respects the region on the south of the Forth, it was shifted about and passed from master to master by the ever-changing tide of war. Now it was subjected by the kings of Alban, and now it was dominated by the monarchs of Northumbria or of Wessex, the inhabitants meanwhile enduring painful vicissitudes and intolerable miseries. In the reign of Indulf (954-962), as we have already said, Edinburgh and the district betwixt the Forth and the Avon were permanently joined to Scotland. In 1018 came the great victory of the Scots over the Northumbrians. The battle took place, as already noted, at Carham-on-the-Tweed. The slaughter was immense; the Northumbrian army was all but annihilated, a disaster of which a terrible presage had been given to the men of Northumbria by a comet which appeared for thirty nights in their sky. The effect of that great battle was the surrender to Malcolm, King of Alban, of the whole region south to the Tweed, which now became the southern boundary of the Scottish kingdom.

We turn to the north. The Spey was there the boundary of the kingdom of Alban in the tenth century. In the region beyond, that is in Ross, Sutherland, and Caithness, the N Norwegian Viking was master. The full rights of sovereignty, however, were never conceded to him, for the kings of Alban an always claimed these provinces as dependencies, and when their arms were strong, disputed possession with the Norwegians. In Orkney and Shetland reigned Sigurd "the Stout." There the power of the kings of Norway was more firmly established than on the mainland where their government was more an assertion of dominion over the native mormaers than a substantial sovereignty.

The Norwegian and Danish irruption swept round Cape Wrath and descended along the coast. The invaders established their dominion over the islands in the western sea, and the chain of their possessions extended as far south as to include the isle of Man, over which, however, they were able to exercise only an intermittent sovereignty. Thus it came to pass that Scotland was begirt on the north and on the west with a Norwegian zone, and only by being ever on the alert and ready for battle, was it able to preserve the body of its territory intact and its throne independent. But the little kingdom did n not fare worse in this respect than other and greater nations. The tenth century was universally a time of commotion and change. The fever of invasion and conquest which five centuries before ad precipitated the Goths upon the Roman Empire, appeared to have broken out anew, and was stirring the nations in the East and in the North into frightful tumult and savage war. The Saracens in countless hordes had burst into the south of Europe, and their victorious arms had conquered Spain, overrun the south of France, and were threatening even Italy. At the other extremity of the Continent, the Danes and Norwegians, less cultured in art than their contemporary warriors from the deserts of Arabia, but not less expert in war, were spreading terror and conquest over the northern kingdoms, and restoring the reign of barbarism and desolation. The kingdoms of the earth had become like the ocean when the great winds are abroad. In the midst of that raging sea was Alban in which Columba had lit his lamp, and in which it still burned, but though sore buffeted by the tempest, it was not submerged in its stormy billows. Other countries had had their religion changed, the line of their kings cut off, and their population swept away, or so largely mixed with a foreign element as to be a new people; the Angles, the Saxons, and the Danes had conquered England; the Norman commanded in France, and the Moor was master in Spain, but Scotland retained its old Church, its old kings, and its old inhabitants.


FOOTNOTES

1. Wilkins, Concilia, i. 170. "Incertum est nobis unde et an ab aliquo ordinenter." Vide "Scottish Nation," vol. ii. 338, 339.

2. Labbe, Concilia, vii. 1281.

3. Bede, Hist. Eccles., ii. 4.

4. Bellesheim, History of the Catholic Church of Scotland, i. 215.