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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 3, Chapter 3 - Eth; Grig; Pictish persecution of Columban Church; Toleration

When Scotland looked up from the battlefield of Crail there appeared on every side nothing but disaster and apparent ruin. The throne empty, the flower of the army fallen on the field, and the adhesion of the Picts become doubtful, the Union appeared to be in greater peril than at any time since the great battle on the banks of the Tay, which brought the Scots and Picts together in one nation. But the dynasty of Fergus is not to end here; the little country must gather up its strength and repair its losses before the Danes have time to return and strike a second blow.

The first care of the Scots was to select one to fill the vacant throne. The choice of the nation fell on Eth or Aodh,, the brother of Constantin. This prince had been present in the recent battle, and when the king fell he rallied the broken ranks and led them off the field. Of all his exploits this only has come down to us. He is known as Eth of the Swift Foot, from an abnormal nimbleness of limb which enabled him to outstrip all his fellows. John Major calls him an Asahel, and tells us that no one could keep pace with him in running.1 Of Eth, as of all the Scottish monarchs of the time, very different portraits have been drawn. It were vain to plunge into the darkness of the ninth century in search of the real Eth. He is gone from us for ever, but we have no proof that he conspicuously possessed the talents fitting him for governing in the unsettled and unhappy times in which it fell to his lot to occupy the throne. A brief year summed up the period of his reign, and "Swift Foot" was carried to Iona.

While events of great importance are passed over as unworthy of record, the early chroniclers often detain us with occurrences of no significance whatever, especially if they have about them as much of the marvellous as to make them pass for prodigies. If we may credit these writers, the earth, the sea, and the air were, in those ages, continually sending forth supernatural omens to warn or to terrify men. During the reign of Eth a shoal of the fish called "sea monks" appeared on the coast. These denizens of the deep had their name from the resemblance they bore to the cowled fraternity whose habitat is the land. They looked like an army of monks immersed in the waves and struggling to reach the shore. The peasantry who regarded them as the certain prognosticators of disaster, beheld their approach with alarm if not with horror. There was no need surely to send a shoal of sea-monks to foretell calamities which were already palpably embodied in the war galleys of the Danes, in the graves at Balcombie Bay, and the sounds of grief that still echoed in castle and cottage throughout Scotland.

With the next reign came better complexioned times. The deep wound Scotland had received in the battle-field of Crail began to be healed. We now find Grig, or, as he is sometimes termed Gregory, on the throne. The lineage of this man cannot be certainly traced. The presumption is that he was outside the royal line, or at best but distantly related to it, and that he opened his way to the crown by his ambition and talents, favoured by the distractions of the time. He stood up amongst the kings of Scotland as Cromwell at a later day stood up among the monarchs of England, to show that men not "born in the purple" may nevertheless possess the gift of governing, and that nations are not shut up to accept a foolish or a wicked prince as their master simply because he happens to be sprung of a family which has given kings to them aforetime. The vigour and firmness of Gregory steadied a reeling state, and brought back to the throne the prestige it had lost during the previous reign. He had won his high position over not a few rivals, but he knew how to conquer enemies by pardoning them. The first act of his administration was to issue an indemnity to all who had been in arms against him. An act of grace which augured well for his future reign.

The reign of Gregory has been made famous by a law passed by him in favour of the ministers of religion . It is recorded of him in the "Pictish Chronicle," and in the "Register of the Monastery of St Andrews," both ancient documents of the highest authority, that "he was the first who gave freedom to the Scottish Church which had been in bondage till that time, according to the rule and custom of the Picts."2 The church of those days is kept very much out of sight. The old chroniclers, so full of talk on other things, are very reticent on this subject. Columba and Iona would seem to have fallen out of their memory. But there come in the course of their narrations incidental statements which are a lifting of the veil, and which give us a momentary glimpse of the position of churchmen and the state of religion. This is one of those incidental statements. It is brief but pregnant, and warrants one or two not unimportant conclusions.

First of all, it is noteworthy that this is the first time that we meet in history the term the "Scottish Church." This alone is of great significance. We have not yet met the name "Scotland" as applied to the whole country. It is still Alban. The church takes precedence of the country, and we read of the "Scottish Church" before we read of the "Scottish Kingdom." There can be no question that the " church" which we here see Gregory liberating from Pictish thraldom was the church of which the Columban clergy were the ministers. There was as yet no foreign priesthood in the c country. There were, it is true, a few propagandist missionaries and itinerant monks in the land doing business for Rome, butter their proselytising labours were confined mostly to the court of princes or the monastery of the abbot, where they strove to insinuate themselves into confidence by an affectation of a sanctity which they did not possess, and all the while scheming to supplant the clergy of the nation by accusing them of practising a worship of barbarous rites, and throwing ridicule upon them as wearing the tonsure of Simon Magus. They were shut out, however, from carrying on any great scheme of propagandism among the people by their ignorance of the tongue of the country. No ecclesiastical body at this hour in Scotland had any pretensions to the status of a church, save that spiritual organization which had its cradle in the Scotch colony of Dalriada, its centre in the Scotch school of Iona, and which from that centre had spread itself over the Scottish land. This church had all along been served mostly by Scotsmen in both its home and foreign field, and when this little sentence lifts the veil in the end of the ninth century it is seen still existing in its corporate condition, and receiving royal recognition as the National Church of Scotland.

It may be that neither trunk nor bough are so robust and vigorous as they were in the sixth and seventh centuries, but there stands the old tree still, and there around it are the Scottish people, and in this royal edict we see room made for its spreading itself more widely abroad. We may venture to infer further that the "Church of Scotland" of that age enjoyed a measure of liberty among the Scots which was denied it among the Picts. The bondage in which the "Scottish Church" is here seen to be held is spoken of as a bondage distinctively Pictish. Whatever may have been the nature of that bondage, which it is not easy to conjecture from so brief a statement, it would seem to have been restricted to Pictland, and unknown in the territory of the Scots, where a more liberal treatment was adopted toward the clergy.

It may throw a little light on this matter if we recall an occurrence that had taken place among the Picts a century and a half before the days of Gregory, the first liberator of the Scottish Church. Nectan was at that time on the Pictish throne (A.D. 717). There came to Nectan’s court certain missionaries, "ecclesiastical touters," from the South, who cried up the Roman rites in general, and mightily extolled in particular the tonsure of Roman and her Easter celebration, and as loudly decried all the usages of the Scottish Church. "The rites of your clergy," said these strangers to the Pictish monarch, "have no efficacy in them, and are displeased to the Deity. Your priests have no true tonsure and no true Easter. The courses they follow are contrary to the universal Church; we come to lead you and your people into the right path, that you may no longer offend God and hazard your salvation by the observance of a barbarous ritual." These words had all the more influence with Nectan that they were fortified by a letter from Abbot Ceolfrid of Jarrow, Northumbria, who was of great repute as a canonist and churchman, and to whom King Nectan had previously written on the subject, for he had begun to weary of the simple Columban rites, and to long for the more ornate ceremonies and the more pompous worship of Rome, with which he desired to ally himself. It required, therefore, no elaborate argument to make a convert of a man who was already more than half convinced. Having tasted the new wine of Rome, the juice of the vine of Iona had lost its relish for him. The new, said Nectan, is better than the old.

The historian Bede has given a minute and graphic description of the scene, and in doing so he is narrating what took place in his own day. The letter of Abbot Ceolfrid is addressed in as magniloquent terms as if the monk had been writing to a great Eastern potentate instead of a Pictish king. The inscription runs: "To the most excellent Lord and most glorious King Naiton." "This letter," says Bede, "having been read in the presence of King Naiton, and many others of the most learned men, and carefully interpreted into his own language by those who could understand it, he is said to have much rejoiced at the exhortation, in so much that, rising from the midst of his great men who sat about him, he knelt on the ground, giving thanks to God that he had been found worthy to receive such a present from the land of the Angles, and, said he, ‘I knew indeed before that this was the true celebration of Easter; but now I so fully know the reason for the observance of this time that I seem convinced that I knew very little of it before. Therefore I publicly declare and protest to you who are here present, that I will for ever continually preserve this time of Easter, together with all my nation; and I do decree that this tonsure, which we have heard is most reasonable, shall be received by all the clergy of my kingdom.’ Accordingly he immediately performed by his regal authority what he had said. For the cycles of nineteen years were by public command sent through all the provinces of the Picts to be transcribed, learnt, and observed, the erroneous revolutions of eighty-four years being everywhere obliterated. All the ministers of the altar and the monks adopted the coronal tonsure; and the nation being thus reformed, rejoiced as being newly placed under the direction of Peter, the most blessed prince of the Apostles, and made secure under his protection."3

Bede drops the curtain while the scene is at its best, the king praising and giving thanks, and the nobles and people joining their acclamations with their sovereign over this great religious reformation! A whole clergy had been transformed into orthodox by a few "clips" of the scissors fetched from Rome. The festivals of the Church had been placed on the sound and solid basis of a reformed calendar; and a kingdom, aforetime blighted and mocked with heretical and barbarous rites, and ministered to by priests with the horrid tonsure of Simon Magus, had become enriched and fructified by ordinances full of efficacy and mystic grace, and served by priests without doubt holy, seeing they have "holiness" written upon their heads by the scissors which have imprinted upon them the orthodox tonsure. Well might Pictavia rejoice! It has opened a new epoch! And well might "the most excellent Lord and most glorious King Naiton" rejoice, seeing he has found—what has he found?--that Word which maketh wise unto salvation? That Word which a king of old made a lamp to his feet? That Word which has showed to nations the road to greatness?--no! "the most excellent Lord and glorious King Naiton" has found—a rectified Easter Calendar!

There is another side to this bright picture. Voices not altogether in unison are heard to mingle with this chorus of national rejoicing. Whence come these discordant sounds? These are the protests of certain recalcitrant members of the Columban clergy who refuse to submit their heads to be shorn after this new and strange fashion. It matters not, we can hear them urge, whether the head to be tonsured after this mode of after that, or whether it be tonsured at all. Ours is not a gospel of tonsure one way or other. Columba did not cross the sea and institute his brotherhood at Iona merely to initiate Scotland into the mystery of the tonsure. The truth of our doctrine and the efficacy of our sacraments do not lie in the peculiar tonsure of the man who dispenses them. That were to make Christianity a system of childish mimicry or of wicked jugglery. Nor does the power of the eucharist to edify depend on its being solemnised on a particular day. It is the grand fact of the Resurrection that gives the Christian festival its sublime significance. Tonsure or no tonsure is therefore noting to us. But it is everything it is to submit our heads to have imprinted upon them the badge of subjection to Rome. That were to renounce the faith of our fathers. It were to arraign and condemn Columba and the elders of Iona as having been in error all along, and guilty of schism in living separate from Rome, and following rebelliously the precepts of Scripture when they ought to have submitted to the councils of the Church. Know therefore, O King, that we will not obey our command nor receive your tonsure.

This was conduct truly faithful and magnanimous. It shows that the spirit of Columba still lived in the Scottish Church, and that the people of Scotland, instructed by pastors who could intelligently and firmly sacrifice status and emolument at the shrine of truth, had not so far degenerated as the silence of the monkish historians of after days would make us think. There must yet have been no inconsiderable amount of piety and Christian knowledge in Scotland.

But to Nectan these pleadings were addressed in vain. He was so filled with the adulation of Abbot Ceolfrid and the flatteries of the missionaries of Rome that he had no ear to listen to the remonstrances of his own clergy. He could ill brook the slight on his authority which their courageous resolution implied, and was but the more sent on carrying out his "reformation." Accordingly, as Bede informs us, "he prayed to have architects sent him to build a church in his nation after the Roman manner, promising to dedicate the same in honour of the blessed Peter, the prince of the Apostles, and that he and all his people would always follow the custom of the Holy Roman Apostolic Church, as far as they could ascertain the same in consequence of their remoteness from the Roman language and nation."4 He followed this up by immediate steps for completing the revolution in his church and kingdom by sending messengers throughout his dominions to have the Easter tables altered from the cycle of eighty-four to the cycle of nineteen years, and the festival kept in accordance with the new reckoning; and further, the messengers were commanded to see that all the ministers of religion had their heads shorn after the Roman fashion, and if any one refused to conform he was to be told that there was no longer place for him in the dominions of King Nectan. We do not know how many, but there is reason to conclude that a very great number of the Columban clergy refused compliance, and had to go into exile. They were hospitably received by their brethren on the Scottish side of Drumalban.

In this occurrence we see the "Scottish Church" in the Pictish dominions passing into bondage. She must submit henceforth to the royal will, and do the royal bidding in the matter of the tonsure and Easter. It is probable that these two things were only the beginnings of the servitude in which the clergy were kept by the Pictish kings. It is of the nature of such bondage to grow. The men who had so far yielded, rather than go into exile with their brethren, would have to yield still farther, and have other burdens imposed upon them. Possibly secular exactions were in time added to their ecclesiastical and spiritual sacrifices and disqualifications. Burdens would be laid on their estates as well as on their consciences. It had been customary to exempt their lands from the imposts and taxes of the State: these immunities they would no longer enjoy. Possibly they were spoiled of their lands altogether. And now for a century and more the Columban clergy had been subject to this servitude in the Pictish dominions.

When we know what the bondage, was, we can the better conjecture the kind and extent of the extent of the liberty which King Gregory gave the "Scottish Church." In the decree of Nectan we have the "law and custom" of the Pictish monarchy in ecclesiastical affairs. It enjoined, under heavy penalities, the Roman observance. It was this that drove the Columban clergy across the Drumalban, and not the secular burdens and imposts which possibly were added afterwards. The latter they could have submitted to with a good conscience, although they might have accounted them unjust and oppressive; but the first, the Roman observance to wit, touched the conscience, and left them no alternative but to leave their country. Here then, in the revocation of Nectan’s edict even, must the liberation of the "Scottish Church" begin. This was the part of the "servitude" that pressed on the soul. Release from the burdens and exactions of a secular kind which may have been laid on their lands, and which would be exigible by the King or the Mormaer, would follow in due course; but first, release must come to the conscience, and that could be given only by revoking Nectan’s decree, and leaving the Columbites at liberty to resume the customs of their ancient Church. That this decree was revoked, and the ancient liberty of worship restored to the Columban clergy, we have undoubted proof. Two hundred years afterwards, when the Columban pastors met in conference with Queen Margaret and her bishops, the charge against them was that they practised barbarous rites, and neither in the matter of the tonsure nor the matter of the eucharist did they conform to the lawless of Rome. No more satisfactory evidence could we have of the liberty which Gregory gave the Scottish Church, and the use she made of it. It gave her two hundred years more of her ancient discipline and worship.

This tyrannical measure recoiled on Nectan and his kingdom. It created a rupture between the Picts and Scots, which issued in long and bloody wars betwixt the two races. The conversion of the Pictish nations by Columba was followed by an instant sheathing of the sword; and now for a century and a half, hardly had there been battle betwixt Pict and Scot. No mightier proof can we have of the power of Christianity to bind nations in amity and banish war, than in a country like the Scotland of that day, and between two such nations as the Picts and Scots, there should have been a peace of more than a century’s duration. Yet such is the fact. The two nations were drawing together, and the union betwixt them would have come without fighting and bloodshed, had not the bigotry of Nectan rekindled the old fires, and made it impossible that the two races should unite till first it had been shown in a series of terrific and bloody contests which of the two was the stronger on the battlefield. Nor is this all. It is probable that Nectan’s policy cost the Picts the sovereignty of Scotland. They were the more numerous, and in some respects the more powerful of the two nations: and had the union come by peaceable means, the Picts undoubtedly would have given kings to the throne and their name to the country, but when they forced the matter to the decision of arms, they found that the injustice and cruelty of Nectan to the Columban Church weighed upon their sword and turned its edge in the day of battle. They fought with the valour of their race, they shed their blood in torrents, but they failed to win the kingdom, and their name perished.

King Nectan and his line disappear, but the church of Columba which he has chased out of his dominions comes back to dwell again in the old land. One of the first measures of Kenneth MacAlpin after ascending the throne of the united kingdom was, as we have seen, to recall the Columban clergy and place them in the old ecclesiastical foundations left vacant by the expulsion of their fathers. Another half century passes, and the Columban church obtains another enlargement under King Gregory, and now, after having been plucked up and cast out of the Pictish territory, we see her again taking root and flourishing in the enjoyment of her ancient privileges and liberties. Historians have been little observant of this fact, and certainly little observant of its lesson, but it is full of instruction, It adds another to the many examples in history of the truth of Beza’s saying, not yet uttered, that "the church is an anvil which has worn out many a hammer." Nectan struck with all his force, but when dying in the cowl of a monk he saw doubtless that the blow had effected little, and had he lived longer he would have seen that it had missed the anvil and struck his own throne. These well-authenticated facts make the silence of the monkish chroniclers of the tenth century regarding the condition of the Columban church a matter of less moment. We are independent of their testimony; for here have we great historic monuments which assure us that the church of Columba had not passed out of existence, as their silence would among lead one to conclude, but, on the contrary, that it remained rooted in the land as an independent organisation, maintaining divine service according to the simple formula of Columba; that it lived on into the darkness of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, keeping alive the Christian knowledge of the Scottish people, of whose successive generations it was the instructor, in short, that it was the sheet anchor of the country staying it in the midst of the furious tempests that burst upon it, now from the mountains of the north, now from the Danes beyond the sea, and now from the Saxons of England.


1. Historia Britannioe, Lib. iii. cap. ii. p. 90.

2. "Hic primus dedit libertatem Ecclesiae Scoticanae, qui sub servitude erat usque ad illud tempus, ex constitutione et more Pictorum."—Chron. Picts and Scots, p. 151.

3. Bede, Hist. Eccl., Lib. v. c. xxi.

4. Bede, Hist. Eccl., Lib. v. c. xxi.



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