Our Roots

(From Aspects of the Religious History of Lewis by Rev M. Macaulay, pages 1-4.)

Few chapters in the Ecclesiastical history of Scotland are more interesting than the religious history of Lewis, and few also are so little known.

Of the very early religious life in the Island of Lewis our knowledge is scanty. There are no records of the Synod of Argyll and the Isles before 1638, and it is to this Synod that the Church in Lewis then belonged. The earliest parochial register is dated 1780, and it was discontinued in 1791, but since 1825 records have been regularly kept. Although we have few documents to consult, it is generally accepted that salvation through Christ was known, at least to some of the Lewis inhabitants, before the arrival of St. Columba in lona in 563.

The Celts are a branch of the family of nations known as Aryan, (also referred to as Indo-Germanic, or Indo-European, or Japhetic), who moved west into Britain, coming as far north as the Forth and the Clyde. These Celts moved from central Europe, southward, eastward and westward. In the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. fresh hordes moved after the first wave, and pushed them westwards to the extremities of the British Isles, to become the ancestors of the people in the Highlands and Islands, Isle of Man and Ireland. The second invaders became the inhabitants of Brittany, Wales and Cornwall.

In the North they mingled with the original natives, and became known as the Picts and Caledonians. They alone were able to resist the Romans. They had a practical religion, and their priests were known as Druids (c.f. Acts 8.9) Gaehc Druidh. They believed in immortality, but also in the reincarnation of their heroes. Their priests were supposed to have power over the elements, and in every undertaking their people moved sunwise, or 'deiseal'. This latter custom was practised in Lewis up to the 18th century. Their feasts were Bealltuinn, Lunasdail and Samhainn, names which are still with us.

Three hundred years after Paul brought the Gospel to Europe, Scotland lay in dark paganism. The Roman army which occupied most of Britain had many Christians in it. Emperor Hadrian visited Britain in 120 A.D., and built a wall 73 miles long from the Solway to the Tyne, as a barrier against the Caledonia tribes. It was repaired by Severus in 209.

The first Christian missionary we hear of in Scotland was St. Ninian. There are unauthentic stories about his parentage, such as that one of the Roman soldiers, who was a Christian, married a British girl. The actual fact is that Ninian himself has not left a single word that has come down to us, and his parentage is unknown. Even his place of origin is doubtful. The earliest mention of Ninian is about 300 years after his death, (d 432), when Bede states he was a Briton, and gives his name as Nynia. He states that he had been regularly instructed at Rome, that he was a bishop, and founded a church of stone called Ad Candidam Casam.

Bede says the Southern Picts, i.e. those south of the Grampians, had received the true faith long before St. Columba had preached to the Northern Picts.

Ailred, who died in 1166, says Ninian was the son of a British king, who was a Christian, and stresses Ninian's connection with Martin of Tours, to whom after Martin's death he dedicated his church — the first known Christian foundation in Scotland. St. Martin was never at Whithorn. The one certain date of Ninian's life which can be approximately fixed is his arrival in Britain as a bishop about the time of St. Martin's death in 397, when Ninian would be 40 to 45 years of age. This would place Ninian's birth at c. 355, a time when Roman Britain was officially Christian, and had an organised church. Martin became bishop of Tours in 371, and it is likely that Ninian received his training under St. Martin in Gaul. There was no Pope in Rome then, but the bishop of Rome was the chief man in the early church because Rome was the capital of the Roman Empire. After completing his period of training, Ninian with a few disciples preached the gospel in the South of Scotland and up the East Coast.

As St. Martin of Tours, like the Celts of Gaul, followed the Roman customs in their Christian presentation, Ninian's differed from that of the Celtic Church, which came with St. Columba from Ireland. The Celtic Church's type of Christianity came not from Gaul or Rome, and its observance of Easter was identical with that of Asia, from which it obviously came.

The divergency of Rome and Asia on Easter resulted in the excommunication of Asia by Rome c. 195. Polycarp says the Asian custom was Apostolic. No church in Rome or in the provinces attached to it would dare follow the Asian practice. Had Columba followed the Roman custom there would have been no Synod of Whitby in 664.

About the same time as Ninian came to Whithorn, Christianity came to Ireland through St. Patrick, who was born in Dumbarton in 373. He felt called by God to go lo Ireland, and within 200 years Ireland had its own colleges for the training of students for the ministry.

From Ireland in 563 came St. Columba. Many Scots had crossed to Argyllshire from Ireland before this, but they drifted into paganism. Columba was of royal descent. Born c. 521, he was educated for the church. He founded two monasteries, Derry in 546, and Durrow in 550. He was blamed for causing a battle between the Dalriad Scots and Diannad, king of Eastern Ireland, and so was excommunicated by the Irish Ecclesiastical Synod. He then crossed to lona with twelve disciples and about 200 followers. Here he founded a monastery, and began the work of his life as the "Apostle of the Highlands". He built a church in lona, but not the one seen there today.

The gospel was preached by Columba and his disciples from Lindisfame on the Northumbrian coast to Applecross on the North West of Scotland. Applecross later became the lona of the North West. Its Gaelic name "Comraich" means a sanctuary, and one of its islands is known as Eilean nan Naomh — the Isle of the Saints.

Columba, moving north from lona, evangelised Morven, Appin and Lochaber, and then went on to Inverness where he was instrumental in the conversion of King Brude of the Picts. He is reputed to have been a powerful preacher, and was credited with miraculous powers. He established monasteries throughout Pictland, travelling west as far as Skye, and north to Orkney. The Columban Church was the national Church of Scotland for about 150 years. It differed from the Roman Church in points of doctrine and ceremonials, and owed no allegiance to the Roman system.

The Columban students were licensed and ordained in the Presbyterian fashion. The sacrament was given to the laity in both kinds, and not as in the Roman Catholic Church which gives only the bread to the laity, on the pretext of the doctrine of Transubstantiation, a doctrine brought in in the eleventh century.

Columba was born on a Thursday, and in a Gaelic M.S. we find the statement, "St. Columba used to go to heaven every Thursday, when he wished." In the Western Isles this day was regarded as lucky for engaging in certain exercises, such as a journey, warping thread, putting sheep to the pasture, etc.

The name Calumcille, i.e. Columba of the Church, was given to him because of his regular attendance at church services. The Celtic Church was an exact replica of the church in Ireland. Its government was in the hands of Abbots, who regulated the spiritual as well as the temporal affairs of the church. Succession to Abbacy was hereditary, and it had rich temporalities. Even women could have this high office, and Brigitt was the Abbess of Kildare. Bishops were subservient to them. In the Celtic Church the offices of Bishop and Presbyter were synonymous. It did not practice celibacy, nor auricular confession, nor did they pray for the dead. The Church of the Reformation in Scotland can thus trace her evangelical succession "back through Columba and Patrick to the apostolic age." In the monasteries of the Celtic Church there was usually observed an unbroken service of praise. Relays of monks took up the chants for 24 hours.

In its attitude to the Sabbath, Prof. MacLean in his preface to his little book, "The Law of the Lord's Day in the Celtic Church", says:— "Of almost equal value is the clear proof the Cain affords that the prohibition of baking, washing, shaving, fetching of fuel and other forms of labour on the Lord's Day . . . had its origin, not in the austerity of the Puritans . . . but in the zeal of the founders and builders of the Christian Church in Ireland and Scotland." Some of the monks in the Celtic Church spent much of their time in writing beautifully illuminated copies of the Gospels. Examples of these have come down to us, and show us the finest illuminated Manuscript work ever produced, and retaining still their original colour and freshness. The two finest examples of these M.SS. are the Book of Kelts, written in Ireland about the 7th century, and the Lindisfarne Gospels, written in the Lindisfarne Islands, off the Northumbrian coast, by missionaries from lona or their disciples.

Times of Refreshing...