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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 3, Chapter 17 - The Culdees; Their Origin; Their Functions; Their Diffusion

The period we have so rapidly traversed, that is from King Constantin to Malcolm Canmore, was a time of transition to the Columban Church. The monastic arrangement was being superseded by the order of secular clergy. We have already seen that when Columba began the Christianisation of Scotland, he proceeded on the plan of planting, at suitable sites, little colonies, or brotherhoods of trained missionaries, commonly twelve in number, with one to oversee the rest, who received the title of abbot or father. These spots were the basis of evangelistic operations on the surrounding district. That district was their parish or diocese, though as yet there was neither parish or diocese established by law in Scotland. In an unsettled and lawless state of society, as was the condition of Scotland when Columba began his labours in it, it was hardly possible to act on any other plan. Solitary missionaries or pastors were out of the question from the savage assaults to which they would be exposed. But not under a settled government, and with the nation Christanised, the necessity for this mode of operation was at an end. Accordingly the monasteries, as the Columban houses were often termed, are now seen to be in a state of dissolution: the apostolic "twelve" with their abbot, the image of the great Abbot at Iona, are disappearing: the "brotherhoods" are breaking up in many places, and their individual members are going forth to select their spheres of labour according to their own predilections, and as the necessities of the country may appear to them to demand.

Other causes acted along with this one in bringing abut a change of the old Columban arrangements. The religious houses were the first to be attacked when a Viking invasion took place. They owed this distinction, one, of course, which they did not covet, to the idea entertained by the Norsemen that such places contained store of treasure. If the brethren should disperse and live apart, they were not so likely to draw down upon themselves the northern lightnings. Besides, the tendency was growing to adopt the anchorite or solitary life as a higher form of spirituality, and one more acceptable to the Deity. Ever as the evangelic idea declined and the self-righteous principle gathered strength, asceticism asserted itself. It filled the deserts of Sinai and Egypt in early times with crowds of men whose emaciated and hideous bodies were but the picture of their souls, overrun and defiled with all manner of spiritual maladies and sores. The disease was far from having reached this acute stage in Scotland; still we hear of anchorites seeking out caves by the sea-shore, or a separate cell in some island,1 or a retreat in a landward desert, under the idea that in proportion as they were unserviceable to the world and to themselves, they were serviceable to the Church and to God. Another abuse of the times contributed, doubtless, to the dissolution of the Columban establishments. The abbeys waxed in riches till at length they became too great a temptation to be withstood by powerful laymen. They first set covetous eyes upon them, and finally they laid violent hands on the lands of the greater institutions. The powerful abbey of Dunkeld was dealt with in this manner and converted into a lay-earldom, the owner calling himself abbot, but leaving the spiritual duties to be discharged by the prior, while he himself put on a coat of mail and rode into the battlefield, and took his risks of life and limb with other mail-clad mormaers and armed knights.

It is at this period, that is, in the ninth and tenth centuries, that the Culdees prominently make their appearance. Romish writers have laboured hard to invest the rise of the Culdees with mystery, and break them off from the Columban stock, and establish for them an original and independent origin. They present us with a number of minute, curious, and legendary accounts to show how the Culdees arose, and what was their relation to the Church of Columba on the one hand and the Church of Rome on the other. They trace their first origin to the ascetics whom we have seen retiring to caves and solitary places, and there devoting themselves to the service of God in what they accounted the highest form of the religious life. These men were styled Deicoloe, that is, God worshippers. This was the name given them on the Continent, where, as we have seen in the course of this history, they proved themselves zealous and successful preachers of the Gospel. In Ireland they were styled Ceile De, which signifies Servants of God. The name given them in Scotland was Keledei, which has the same signification. These three names are applied to the same people, those even known in our common histories as the Culdees.

An interesting people were these Ceile De, and we should like to know the truth about them. Those who have a faith in the legends of the eighth and ninth centuries, speak as if the truth about the Culdees was to be learned only from these traditions. The Culdees, say they, were not the development or continuation of the Columban Church: on the contrary, their rise was the signal for the fall and extinction of that Church. They were a new body, projected through the old ecclesiastical strata of Scotland to the disruption and displacement of the old Columban system. The Culdees, they tell us, at their first appearance, lived separately as anchorites. In course of time they formed themselves into communities of anchorites or hermits. By-and-bye, that is in the ninth century, they were brought under canonical rule, and finally they were engaged as secular canons in conducting the services in the cathedrals. Such, in brief, is their history, as traced by those who regard them as a new order of clerics under the influence of the Roman Church, which superseded the Columban clergy.

The facts on which this theory is based are meagre indeed, and if they did not contain a hidden meaning, which the initiated only can perceive, they could not be accepted as warranting the conclusions drawn from them. The evidence resolves itself into three legends. The first is the legend of St Servanus or Serf. This legend traces the genealogy of the Culdees through Oleath, son of Eliud, King of Canaan, and his wife Alphia, daughter of a King of Arabia. The worthy couple, long childless, were at last blessed with tow sons, to the second of whom was given in baptism the name of Servanus. This Servanus came to Rome, carrying with him such a reputation for sanctity that he was elected pope, and reigned seven years. Vacating the holy seat, for what reason it is not said, the saint travelled through Gaul and England, and finally arrived in Scotland. Here he made the acquaintance of Adamnan Abbot of Iona, who showed him an island in Lochleven finely adapted for the foundation of a new order of monks. So rose the Culdees of Lochleven. It is one of the greatest instances of humility on record, a pope becoming abbot of a Scottish Culdee monastery, and fixing his seat in the island of Lochleven.

Some additional particulars regarding the founder of the Lochleven monastery are given us by Dr Skene. In his island monastery, we are told, Servanus remained seven years. "Thence he goes about the whole region of Fife, founding churches everywhere. The other places mentioned in his life in connection with him are the cave at Dysart, on the north shore of the Firth of Fourth, where he had his celebrated discussion with the devil, and where the memory of St Serf is still held in honour; Tuligbotuan or Tullybothy, Tuligeultrin or Tillicoultry, Alveth and Atheren, now Aithrey, all in the district on the north side of the Forth, extending from Stirling to Alloa. The only other place mentioned is his ‘Cella Dunenense.’ Or cell at Dunning, in Stratherne, where he slew a dragon with his pastoral staff, in a valley stilled called the Dragon’s Den."

"Finally, after many miracles, after divine virtues, after founding many churches, the saint, having given his peace to the brethren, yielded up his spirit in his cell at Dunning, on the first day of the Kalends of July; and his disciples and the people of the province take his body to Cuilenross, and there, with psalms and hymns and canticles, he was honourably buried."2

We have another form of this legend in an old Irish document. "In the tract on the mothers of the saints," says Dr Skene, "which is ascribed to Aengus, the Culdee, in the ninth century, we are told that Alma, the daughter of the King of the Cruithnech, or Picts, was the mother of Serb or Serf, son of Proc, King of Canaan, of Egypt; and he is the venerable old man who possesses Cuilenross, in Stratherne, in the comgells between the Ochil Hills and the Sea of Guidan. . . .The Scotch part of the legend, like that of Bonifacius, is supported by the dedications; all the churches in the places mentioned in connection with him being dedicated to St Serf. . . .There is in the chartulary of St Andrews a memorandum of some early charters in the Celtic period, and one of the is a grant by which ‘Bride, son of Dergard, who is said by old tradition to have been the last of the Kings of the Picts’—which however he was not—gives the isle of Lochlevine to the omnipotent God, and to Saint Servanus, and to the Keledei hermits dwelling there, who are serving and shall serve God in that island.3

The second legend gives us, with even more minute detail—in which we shall not follow it--the foundation of St Andrews, with its monasteries and monks. We learn from it how it came that St Peter, to whom King Nectan dedicated his dominions after driving out the Columban clergy, lost his supremacy, and St Andrew came in his room as the patron saint of Scotland. The legend begins with the crucifixion of St Andrew at Patras. There his bones rested in the grave till the age of Constantin—that is, two hundred and seventy years. An angel appeared to Regulus, Bishop of Patras, and command him to exhume the relics of the apostle, and set sail with them to a land to be afterwards shown to him. After long voyaging, first among the Greek islands, and afterwards in more northern seas, Regulus came to a place where Hungus, King of the Picts, was about to engage in battle with Athelstan and his Saxons. Before the battle St Andrew appeared to the Pictish King and promised him victory on condition of his dedicating his dominions to him. In virtue of the intercession of St Andrew, the arms of Hungus were victorious, and he and the Picts vowed to hold the apostle "in honour forever." This legend, however,, does not end here. Three days after the battle, Bishop Regulus is bidden by angels to sail northwards with the apostle’s relics, and to build a church at the spot where it should happen to his vessel to be wrecked. "After many wanderings," says Bellesheim, reciting the legend, "they are cast ashore on the eastern coast of Scotland, at a place formerly called Muckross, but not Kyrlimont. Here (where St Andrews grew up in latter times) Regulus erected a cross which he had brought from Patras; and King Hungus gave the place to God, and St Andrew, his apostle, as a gift for ever.4

It is vain to look for accuracy of date in a legend. The reference to Constantin would fix the translation of the relics of St. Andrew to Scotland not later than the fourth century, but King Hungus did not reign till four hundred years after that date, namely, from 731 to 761. In a dream, the most incongruous and impossible occurrences do not in the least disturb us, or appear at all impossible, and neither ought incongruities and discrepancies to stumble us in a legend. "Some notion of the true date," says Bellesheim, "seems to have been preserved; for we read in one chronicle that in the year 761, ‘ye relikis of Sanct Andrew ye Apostel com in Scotland,’ a date which corresponds with the last year of the reign of the King Angus (MacFergus) mentioned in the legend.5

The legend consists of four parts, or rather four legends, and no little ingenuity is required to make the four parts hang together, and form one consistent story. According to the third form of the legend, "Bishop Regulus, accompanied by holy men, direct their ships towards the north, and on the eve of St Michael arrive at the land of the Picts, at a place called Muckros, but now Kylrimont, and his vessel being wrecked, he erects a cross he had brought from Patras, and remains there seven days and nights. . . .King Hungus then went with the holy men to Chilrymont, and, making a circuit round a great part of that place, immolated it to God and St Andrew for the erection of churches and oratories. King Hungus and Bishop Regulus and the rest proceeded round it seven times, Bishop Regulus carrying on his head the relics of St Andrew, his followers chanting hymns, and King Hungus following on foot, and after him the magnates of the kingdom. . . . King Hungus gave this place, namely Chilrymont, to God and St. Andrew, his apostle, with waters, meadows, fields, pastures, moors, and woods, as a gift for ever, and granted the place with such liberty that its inhabitants should be free, and for ever relieved from the burden of hosting and building castles and bridges and all secular exactions. Bishop Regulus then chanted the Alleluia, that God might protect that place in honour of the apostle, and in token of this freedom, King Hungus took a turf in presence of the Pictish nobles, and laid it on the altar of St Andrew, and offered that same turf upon it." So far the legends relating to Lochleven and St. Andrews; but we are unable to see that they throw any light upon the point at issue, which is: were the Culdees a new order of monks in alliance with the Roman Church, and hostile to the old Columban clergy which they are held to have displaced?

This monkish generation, springing silently up in Scotland, and living as anchorites in seaside caves or landward deserts, were at length brought under canonical rule preparatory to their final end, which was, it is alleged, the subversion of a church whose clergy were neither tonsured after the Roman fashion, nor celebrated Easter according to the Roman reckoning. Of their subjection to rule, we have a highly poetical or symbolical representation. "like the Deicoloe, too, the Ceile De of Ireland were brought, early in the ninth century, under canonical rule. This important fact is found in the form of legend, in which, however, say the supporters of this theory, the historical germ is easily detected. The Irish annals record, under the year 811: ‘In this year the Ceile De came over the sea with dry feet, without a vessel; and a written roll was given him from heaven, out of which he preached to the Irish, and it was carried upon again when the sermon was finished.’" 7

The gloss of Bellesheim on this legend is as follows: "The date of the coming of this Ceile De was sixty-eight years after Chrodegang drew up his canonical rule; and it was subsequent also to the publication of the letter addressed by a certain Deicola to the Deicoloe all over the world, and only five years before the Council of Aix-la-Chapelle. The legend above quoted may therefore," says Dr. Bellesheim, "be reasonably interpreted to refer to the introduction into Ireland of the canonical, rule."8 It may be so. There is a saying that truth dwells at the bottom of a well. This legend may be one of those wells in which the truth is pleased to hide herself, and were we to descend to the bottom of it we would doubtless be rewarded with a clear sight of the mystery. But, verily, the well is deep and its water muddy!

We do not presume to gainsay these venerable authorities. They are oracular voices from out a very thick darkness, and it becomes us to hold our peace and let them speak. But were we to be allowed just a slight expression of feeling it would be to intimate a wish to have these three legends supplemented by a fourth, in order to make clear some things left dubious and even dark in the first three. On the supposition that the Culdees were friends of Rome who had taken the field against the Columban Church, the history of the four or five following centuries becomes full of enigmas. What, for instance, shall we say of King David I. He was a devoted son of the Church of Rome. No one has questioned his sincere attachment to her, which indeed he placed above suspicion by the benefactions which he showered on that Church in Scotland. One of his royal descendants complainingly remarked of him that he was a "sair sanct to the croun." But it is just as true that he was a "sair sanct" to the Culdees. History attests that he laid a heavy hand upon them, spoiling them of the few earthly goods left them, and in some instances driving them out of their abodes. How are we to explain this on the supposition that both the Culdees and King David were members of the Church of Rome and zealous supporters of her? Was King David acting a double part? Was he with one hand showering wealth upon the Church, and with the other dealing out stripes to some of her best children? If it should please the Ceile De, who came over the sea with dry feet, without a vessel, in the year 811, to come back, he may perchance bring with him another roll containing a solution of this riddle.

But this is little compared with the difficulty we encounter when we turn our eyes to the continent. There a whole army of Culdee missionaries have gone forth and are taking possession of northern Europe. It is acknowledged by Romanists that the continental Culdees were a branch of the great Culdee family of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.9 That this great army was ScoticScotic in birth, Scotic in dress, and in characteristics, history permits not to be doubted. In proportion as their sphere contracted at home, they turned in increasing numbers to the vast field opened to them beyond seas. In whose name do they wage this war? In that of Rome or in that of Iona? It was their boast that they had sat at the feet of the "elders" of Iona, and they made no secret of their mission, which was to preach the doctrine they had learned in that famous school, and which its founder had drawn from the unpolluted fountain of Holy Scripture. They adhered as closely to the instructions of Columba on the continent, as they had done in England, where, as Bede informs us, they taught "those things only which are contained in the writings of the prophets, evangelists, and apostles, diligently observing the works of piety and purity."10 Selecting a suitable suite, they set themselves down as a brotherhood, and went to work on the plan of Columba, exhibiting to the natives the whole economy of civilised life at the same time that they communicated to them the doctrines of the Christian faith. Their institutions stood out in marked contrast to the Roman confraternities. We have already traced them all over northern Europe,11 and have seen them kindling the light in the midst of the immemorial darkness, planting centres of civilisation where till then had reigned an ancient and unbroken barbarism, sowing the seeds of knowledge in nations which they found shrouded in gross ignorance, and teaching the idolater to worship "Him who made the seven stars and Orion." This was the work of the Culdees. They claim to be judged by their works. The Rome of our day claims them as her allies. The Rome of their own day made no mistake regarding them. They were not born in her camp: they did not wear her livery" and she showed what she thought of them when she sent her agents with the English pervert Boniface at their head, to chase them from the continent and uproot the institutions they had founded.

What, then, is the truth about the Culdees? It is simply this, that the Church of the Culdees was a continuation of the Church of Columba. The preponderance of proof from history and from all the probabilities of the cases in favour of this proposition is overwhelming, while all attempts to establish the opposite theory are utter failures. It is to be considered that from the first the anchorite system had formed part of the Columban arrangements. It was customary for the brethren at stated seasons to retire to some solitary place, some isle or cave, for rest and meditation. The practice was analogous to the holiday of a modern clergyman. The hard-worked ministers of our cities find it good to become anchorites for a few weeks once a year and rusticate in our highlands or by the sea-shore. This was what the Columban clergy did, with this difference, that their seclusion was perhaps a little more strict than their successors of the present day deem it requisite to subject themselves to. When in process of time, and by the operation of the various agencies we have already explained, the Columban houses began to be broken up and the brethren dispersed, the number of solitaries or anchorites would be greatly increased. But though they now lived apart and had dwellings of their own, it does not follow that they would abandon the public duties of their office, which were to maintain the worship of God in the churches, and instruct their countrymen. They would rather feel it all the more imperative to keep up the practices of piety and the public acts of devotion. From amongst them little bands of missionaries were continually going forth into the foreign field, and, while caring for it, surely they would not permit the home field to sink into practical heathenism.

In the historic glimpses we obtain of them they are seen acting in this very capacity, that is, keeping up the service of God in the churches. What, then, so probable as that now they began to be known as Ceile De,12 that is, the "servants of God," all the more so that the name agreed so well with the fact. The church of Dunkeld was founded by Constantin, the son of Fergus, King of the Picts (810-820), that is, about thirty years before the union of the two nations. It is recorded by Alexander Mylne, a canon of that church in 1575, the Constantin placed there "religious men who are popularly called Keledei, otherwise Colidei, that is, God worshippers, who, according to the rite of the Oriental church, had wives." Their office was to "minister," that is, to conduct t the public worship of God; and such also was their function in the "church of St Regulus, now at St Andrew."13 Not at the seats of the principal churches only were the Culdees of Columbites—for we have not met a particle of proof to show that they were different—congregated, but throughout the country there were still small communities of these religious men who maintained Divine service in their localities. In remote parts where there was only a single Culdee living solitarily, the public worship of God would not be permitted to fall into disuse.

Were we to enumerate all the places where Culdee establishments existed the list would be long indeed. Abernethy, Aberbrothoc, Montrose, Arbirlot, Brechin, St Andrews, Dunfermline, Dull, Dunkeld, Mortlach, Blairgowrie, Ratho, Kinghorn, Lesmahagow, Applecross, Dornoch, Turriff, are a few centres of the Culdee family in Scotland. Around these were grouped smaller communities, too many to be here enumerated, with others now wholly forgotten. There were then no parishes and no tithes in Scotland; how, then, did this large staff of Culdee pastors subsist? By this time the bulk of their original endowments had been appropriated by laymen, and the chief means of subsistence left them were the voluntary offerings of the people.14

"The great religious establishments which existed in the middle of the ninth century were still kept up in the beginning of the twelfth, and with the exception of Iona, were all seats of the Culdees."15 This is a most important admission, coming, as it does, from those who maintain that the Culdees were a new order of monks, different in faith and worship from the old Columban Church. The name Culdee does not appear till the year 800: it then represented, we are led to understand, only a few anchorites. But half a century afterwards the "great religious establishments," with the exception of Iona, "were all seats of the Culdees." How came a few anchorites in so short a space of time to fill the land? How came they to render the Roman doctrine so palatable to a people who had so long sought their spiritual food in the schools of Columba? How came they to plant themselves down on the old foundations of the Columbites, and enter possession of what remained of their lands and heritages? This implies both a civil and an ecclesiastical revolution. Where is the record of such a revolution? And further, how came the Culdees to be objects of aversion and hatred to the same parties who had disliked and opposed the Church of Columba? Why did Queen Margaret adopt a policy of repression, and her son David I., a policy of extermination towards them? We do not see what rational answer can be given to these questions in accordance with the new theory of the Culdees. That theory has its birth in an earnest and, we do not question, conscientious desire to show that the line of Columba failed, that Iona after all had only a mushroom existence of two centuries, or so, and that Scottish Christianity had its rise not on the bar Rock amid the western storms, but on that imperial mount on which Caesars and Pontiffs have left their proud traces. With that view, however, one authority of no mean order refuses to concur. That authority is history. Her clear verdict is that the Culdees were no new sect of religionists, which had arisen on the soil, or had been imported from abroad; that they were the adherents of the old faith which had entered Scotland at a very early period, which after a time of decay had again shown out in greater brightness than ever in the mission of Columba, but becoming again obscured by Roman innovations had found maintainers of its ancient purity in the Culdees, the true sons of Iona, and the pioneers of the Reformation, the dawn of which they saw afar off, and which, as we shall afterwards show, some few of their number lived to welcome


1. These cells were of stone, without mortar, the walls thick and the roofs dome-shaped. They looked very like large bee-hives. A cell of this description, the abode most probably of some anchorite in the centuries under review, is still to be seen in Inchcolm, in the Firth of Forth. Anderson, Scotland in Early Christian Times, i. 69.

2. Skene, Celtic Scotland, iii. 257.

3. Skene, Celtic Scotland, ii. 258, 259. Chron. Picts and Scots, 201. Registrum Prioratus St Andreoe, pp. 113-118.

4. Bellesheim, Catholic Church of Scotland, i. 192.

5. Chronicles of the Picts and Scots, p. 387; Bellesheim, Catholic Church of Scotland, i. 196, 197.

6. Skene, Celtic Scotland, ii. 265, 266.

7. Reeves, British Culdees, p. 79.

8. Bellesheim, Catholic Church of Scotland, i. 187, 188.

9. Bellesheim, Catholic Church of Scotland, i. 184; Skene, Celtic Scotland, ii 252.

10. Bede, Hist., iii. 4.

11. Hist. Scot. Nation, ii., cap. xxvi., xxvii., xxviii.

12. "In the Gaelic, Ceile signifies a servant, hence Ceile De, the servants of God, De being the genitive of Dia, God."—Chalmers’s Caledonia, book iii., p. 134.

13. Mylne, Vitoe Episcoporum Dunkeldensium, p. 4 ; Skene, Celtic Scotland, ii. 276.

14. The existence of Culdee establishments at all these places and at others is authenticated by the oldest existing records, viz., the Old Registry of Aberbrothoc, the Registry of the Priory of St Andrews, Chartulary of Glasgow, Charters of Holyrood, Chartulary of Aberdeen, Register of Dunfermline. See also Robertson’s Scholastic Offices of the Scottish Church; Miscellany of the Spalding Club, vol. v., 73, 74.

15. Grubb, Ecclesiastical History of Scotland, i. 241.



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