A most telling Chapter on the role the Culdees played in all churches of North West Europe.
HISTORY OF THE SCOTTISH NATION
by J.A. Wylie
A. D. 906. SPECIAL MISSION OF SCOTLAND- SYNOD OF SCONE- A TENTH CENTURY REFORMATION.
GOING aside from the noise of battles, let us withdraw for a brief space into a region where quieter forces are at work. Although quieter it by no means follows that the forces in the presence of which we now find ourselves are weaker. On the contrary, they possess a strength unknown to those agencies .which in the midst of tumult and uproar overturn the throne of kings and dissolve the fabric of empires. It is the silent influences that accomplish the mightiest results. The turbulent activities dwell on the surface, the still powers descend into the depths, and working there unheard make their presence known and their power felt only when they have prepared the way for some tremendous revolution, or brought to the birth some epoch of new and grander promise for the race.
Were the rude. agencies of the battlefield the only influences that were at this hour shaping and molding the nation of the Scots? Above most countries in Christendom, Scotland possessed a dual character. There was an outer Scotland, the theater of wars, invasions, and battles; and there was an inner Scotland, the seat of a great spiritual movement which had for its end the educating and training of a nation to serve the cause of truth and liberty in the ages to come. Was this education making progress? It is the chronicles of the inner Scotland we should most like to write. Amid the wars in which we see the Scots engaged now with the Dane and now with the Saxon was the soul of the nation growing. Was Scotland becoming fitter for its great purpose? Scotland was growing in skill and valor on the battlefield, but this was not progress with reference to its special end.
Scotland was not destined to build up a great empire by arms like Rome. Its mission came nearer to that of Greece: it came still nearer to that of Judea: only it was greatly more intellectual and spiritual than that of either. The special mission of Scotland was to apprehend and hold forth to the world Christianity- the last and perfected form of Divine Revelation- in all the simplicity and spirituality in which man on earth is able to receive it. To say that this was the special mission given to the Scottish nation may seem a merely transcendental idea. Second thoughts however will satisfy us that it is far indeed from being so. Of all systems in the world Christianity is the most powerful in both its individual and its national action. But the power of Christianity is in the direct ratio of its spirituality. The man who rises to the full realization of what is spiritual and eternal in Christianity, dropping what is temporary, symbolical, and mundane, is the highest Christian. In him we are sure to find the fullest development of its moral and spiritual virtues, because on him Christianity acts in the plenitude of its power. It is so as regards a nation. The nation that attains to the fullest conception of Christianity as a purely spiritual system is the nation where we shall be sure to find the finest manifestation of both the evangelic graces and the civic virtues such as patriotism, valor, philanthropic enterprise, which Christianity nourishes, because it there operates in the fullness of its moral and spiritual power. It is like the sun shining direct from the firmament without any intervening or obstructing medium to weaken the power of his beams.
It is instructive in this connection to mark that, contemporaneously with the corruption of Christianity at Rome, there came in Britain a great revival of it in its purely spiritual character, first in the ministry of Patrick, and next in that of Columba. In the early days of Iona Christianity was severely simple- simple to severity, and it was then that it won its greatest pre-Reformation triumphs. This simplicity or austerity has all along been a characteristic of Scottish Christianity, and has been conspicuous at every period of its revival. This, doubtless, it owes to the stamp impressed upon it in the age of Columba. This characteristic is sometimes mistaken for coldness or rudeness, nevertheless it is in this that the strength and glory of Scottish Christianity lies. In this form only, disrobed of the garments of Paganism, and set free from Jewish symbol, Greek ceremony, and Roman rite, and presented in all the simplicity that appertains to a spiritual system, can it go round the earth and convert the nations. Observing the behavior of the Scots at all the testing periods of their history, we discover in them a disinclination to permit their religion to be mixed with ceremony, and a steady desire to preserve the ancient simplicity of their faith and worship. This was shown in the Synod at Scone, which is now to come under our notice; it was shown again in the days of Malcolm Canmore, and it was shown still more conspicuously at the era of the Reformation. So far Scotland ins understood and fulfilled its mission.
The materials are scanty for constructing the religious history of Scotland all down the centuries since Columba’s day, and noting the advance of the nation at each several epoch in moral righteousness and spiritual power. That the Columban Church continued to exist all down these ages we know. We come upon the incidental notices of it under the various names of Iona, the Columban Brotherhood, and the Culdees. But we should like to know in what state of purity did that Church exist, and what amour of influence did it exert on the population. The interest of knowing this is great, but the difficulty of ascertaining it is equally great. These ages passed away and left us no written records of the state of personal and family religion in Scotland during them. We know the church arrangement and services, but we are unable to enter the homes of the people and mark the forms in which social and domestic piety displayed itself. We have pictures of the great leaders, but we should have liked a nearer view of the converts and ordinary workers. The first book known to Scottish literature- Adamnan’s “Life of Columba “- is not very satisfactory on this head. As our earliest information it is invaluable. It brings out the grand personality of Columba, and the thoroughly evangelical and spiritual character of his great enterprise,- an enterprise which redeemed the age from darkness, and filled half of Europe with light; but around Columba and his work Adamnan has hung an atmosphere of miracle and prodigy. This environment has the effect of lifting him up into a region above the earth, and makes us fain that he would come down and walk among men. It also shrouds his work in an atmosphere that magnifies and mystifies it, and we rise from its perusal uncertain and unsatisfied. Legend, and not fact, was plainly the forte of Adamnan’s pen.
The next earliest composition in our country’s history is the “Book of Deer.” Its genuineness is unquestioned. To Celtic scholars it is a curious and precious relic, and it determines some not unimportant points in our nation’s history, and attests, along with other proofs, the marvelous facility of the clerical caligraphists of those days, the extraordinary beauty that marked the productions of their pens, and the delight they took in transcribing the Holy Scriptures. But when we have said thus much, we have exhausted the claims of the “Book of Deer” on our admiration and gratitude. It is not till we come to the reign of David I. (A. D. 1124) that we find anything like firm historic footing. With the times of David we reach the age of charters. Among the earliest engrossed charters extant is one given by that monarch, and is contained, with some six hundred others, in the chartulary of the monastery of Dunfermline. The period covered by this collection extends from the end of the thirteenth century to the middle of the sixteenth. These chartularies form the earliest history of our country, though they do not furnish much information on the special subject of our present inquiry- the Church’s purity and doctrine, and the knowledge and piety of her people.
In truth the evidence for Iona as the great Christian Institute of the ageless than Rome in one sense, far greater than Rome in another- is not so much written as monumental. There is the tradition, which time has not been able to conquer, of its vast renown. There is Pictland, rescued from the darkness of Druidism, and opening its astonished eyes on the dawn of the Christian day. There are hundreds of spots throughout the country, where the names of the great Columban missionaries are still living names, being perpetuated in the churches the Columbites founded, and the parishes in which they labored, and where they made to flourish the industrial arts and the Christian virtues. Nor is it Scotland only that offers these indubitable proofs of the learning and evangelical ardor of the pastors of its early church. In what land of northern Europe do we not see the footprint of the Culdee? We trace his steps- blessed of all peoples to which they came- from the Apennine to the North Sea, and from the borders of Bohemia to the shores of the Atlantic. Whose hand save that of the Culdee created those inimitable manuscript volumes which are the pride of so many princely cabinets and conventual libraries on the Continent? These are the memorials of the large development attained by the Columban Church, and the wide area over which it diffused its spirit and teaching. These memorials are daily multiplying as the past comes to light under the researches of the Celtic scholars. But already we know enough to justify the remark that there are few things in history more marvelous than the blaze of intellectual and spiritual light into which our remote and barbarous country burst forth in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries under the presidency of Iona. Could letters and philosophy alone have kindled such an illumination? The history of nations supplies us with no similar example. The glory into which Greece burst under Pericles, and the splendor of the Renaissance in Western Europe in the fifteenth century; were but fitful and short- lived gleams- meteors of the night- compared with the Columban evangelization of the centuries named. The eloquent tribute of Dr. Johnson to the little isle which was the focus of that illumination is often quoted with applause; it is just, nay generous, and yet it expresses only half the truth, and not even half: and were the great lexicographer to pronounce a second eulogium, if he did not express it in more glowing terms, he would give it a wider application, and in doing so, make it more in accordance with the fact. In addition to “the savage clans and roving barbarians” of the ancient Caledonia, to whom Iona gave “the benefits of knowledge and the blessings of religion,” he would speak of tribes beyond the sea, of famous schools, of princely courts and great monarchs who saw and rejoiced in the light which shone from Icolmkill.
We get glimpses as we pass on of the Columban Church. These however occur at very considerable intervals of time; they are moreover exceedingly fragmentary, and we can only doubtfully infer from them the real state of that Church at the epochs when these glimpses bring her before us. We have come to a record of this sort. In the midst of the wars and calamities of Constantin, whom we have just seen exchanging his throne for a Culdee cell at St. Andrews, the Columban Church comes into view. She is seen only for a moment, and again disappears. But as these glimpses are rare, it is all the more incumbent on us to mark rightly what they disclose, touching a society in which was bound up the life of the nation.
In the sixth year of the reign of Constantin (A. D. 906), a great church assembly was holden at Scone. It was presided over by Constantin the king and Kellach the bishop. It was attended, we are told, by the nation of the Scots, that is, by both clergy and laity. The object of this national convention was the reformation of religion, in accordance with the laws and discipline of the faith, the rights of the Church and the precepts of the Gospel. F395 How much one wishes that one had in full the proceedings of this assembly. How interesting to read at this day what was proposed, concluded, and sworn to nine centuries ago. We would willingly give any half- dozen battles of the time for the record of this assembly on the Mote Hill, Scone. But brief as the statement regarding it is, it makes clear and undoubted some not unimportant points in the constitution of the Scottish Church at the opening of the tenth century. One of these points is her complete INDEPENDENCE. No “Letters Apostolic” have summoned this convocation: no papal legate presides over the pastors and members assembled on the Mote Hill. No ecclesiastical functionary of whatever grade from outside Scotland takes part in the debate, or offers advice, or, so far as we can discover, is even present in the gathering. The Scottish Church has met of her own motion, for the transaction of her own business, and she knows nothing of any church authority outside her own territory. At the opening of the tenth century she is seen to be FREE.
And farther, as a second point to be specially noted, she reforms herself on the lines of her own original constitution. Her standard of reformation is the “laws and discipline of the faith,” the “rights of the churches,” and the “doctrines of the Gospel.” Nothing is here said of the canons of Rome; no extrinsic rule or model fetters her in her reformation: what she aims at is a return to the “old paths.” It is to Iona, not Rome, that the faces of this great gathering are turned. The time is not now very distant when a cardinal legate will be seen taking his seat in the synods of the Scottish Church, lint as yet no such functionary had crossed the Tweed, nor had the Roman purple come to mingle its gleam with the woolen robes of the assembled Culdee pastors.
And further, we accept this national convention as a confession on the part of the Columban clergy of the declension of their church. Their church was now nearly four hundred years old, but when they thought of what that church had been in its youth, when not content with cleansing its own territory from the impurities of Druidism, it had flung itself into the heathenism of Germany and dethroned its time- honored deities, nay made the thunder of its protest, as in the case of Columbanus, be heard at the gates of Rome itself; and when they contrasted these achievements of its past with its powerlessness now, when not only had it coursed to extend its conquests abroad, but even on its own proper territory it was losing its footing and falling back before its great rival, it was impossible not to feel how melancholy the change which had passed upon their once aggressive and triumphant church. In truth the Columban Church for a century and a half had been on “the down grade.” The scissors of Rome had passed upon the heads of some of her clergy, and the very touch of these scissors was benumbing. But now again, by some means or other, there had come to be an awakening; and that awakening was not confined to a class or to a locality, it was general and wide- spread in the land, for here is the nation gathered together to discuss the evils of their time, and set on foot a reformation, not in the way of an approach to Rome or Canterbury. There is not the slightest evidence that this assembly wished to move in that direction; their course is the very opposite; it is back to first principles. The goal at which they wished to arrive, as distinctly defined in the words of the original record, is the “faith,” the “church,” and the “gospel”: not Rome but Iona.
This assembly fittingly crowned their proceedings with a vow or oath in which they bound themselves to prosecute their reformation. So we are expressly told. F396 Nothing could better attest the importance of this council, and the gravity of the matters determined in it, than the solemn act with which they close it. We are not told the shape into which they put their resolutions, nor the heads of their projected restoration, but there can be no doubt about the leading aim and general scope of their reform, and as little can there be doubt about the unity of sentiment and the earnestness of purpose that animated the members of the council. Errors and corruptions had crept in during years of deadness; these must be purged out. The discipline of the church had been relaxed; it must be invigorated. The standard of national morals had been lowered; means must be taken to elevate both the social and family life of the nation. A growing languor and feebleness had afflicted the clergy; fresh oil must be brought to the dying lamp of Columba. And whence was this oil to be fetched? Not from the Seven Hills, not from the traditions of the Pope, but from the fountain at which this lamp had been replenished at first, and its flame lighted, even Holy Scripture. This was the reformation needed. Raising their hands to heaven, the Scottish nation, king, clergy, and people, vow to go forward in this work. A remarkable assembly for the tenth century! We owe not a little to the scribe who has handed down to us this brief but pregnant record of it. It discloses, if only for a moment, the undercurrent of moral and spiritual influence that was flowing in the nation, on the surface of which little was to be seen save the spectacles of oppression and distraction and war. The church of Columba was not dead. Nay, it is seen to have still some centuries of life in it.
The Council at Scone has finished its business. The Columban presbyters have descended the Mote Hill, henceforward to be known as the “Hill of the Faith,” and once more the darkness closes in around the Scottish Church. Much would we give to be able to follow this Assembly in subsequent years, and trace its workings in the Columban brotherhoods and in the homes of the people. That it bore fruit in a quickened zeal and in purer lives we cannot doubt; but here our information abruptly stops, and our knowledge for a century onwards is only inferential. The Columban church kept its place at the heart of the nation, and though no pen of scribe has given us the picture of those days, and the higher prosperity that brightened them, many incidental facts assure us that for years to come the Scottish Church was instinct with a new life, and, doubtless, gave proof of in the greater vigor and success with which she worked. We think we may fairly ascribe to this assembly, and the new departure it gave the nation, the arrest of the Roman advance, and the delay for an hundred and fifty years of its triumph. And when at last this triumph was accomplished in the days of Queen Margaret, it was not by the conversion of the Scotch people to the faith of Rome, but by the intervention of the royal power, and the influx into Scotland of a crowd of foreign partisans which brought Rome with them.
This convention was held in the beginning of the tenth century; in the end of the twelfth century we find the Columban churches still in existence and in action throughout Scotland. This fact, we think, warrants the conclusion that there was a rallying of the spiritual forces and a revival of religion in this Assembly on the Mote Hill, and that the movement did not expire when the members broke up and returned to their homes. They felt the obligation of their oath, the people caught the quickened zeal and new spirit of their pastors, and the forces set in motion continued to act as propelling powers on the country, and kept it on the road of progress despite the retarding influences of war, and of other calamities.