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Mid-Argyll Theme - 4
Christian Conversion

People are sometimes tempted to think of Christian conversion in terms of great preachers, pagan repentance, mass baptisms and the building of churches.

So there is the myth of Patrick as the apostle of Ireland, converting a pagan country and founding churches all over the place. Similarly in Scotland, where Columba is often credited with converting the Gaels of Dál Riata or the Picts in the north of Scotland.

But these stories don't really hold water. Patrick was not sent to a completely pagan Ireland. He was probably not even the first bishop there. Palladius was sent in 431 by Pope Celestine, and even he was not bringing Christianity to a pagan nation, but was sent 'to the Irish who are believers in Christ'. Bishops like Palladius were not sent to convert folk, but to minister to existing Christian populations.

Columba left Ireland and went to Iona as 'a pilgrim for Christ' according to Adomnán, as a monk doing penance, not as a missionary to convert people. Scottish Dál Riata was already Christian by the time Columba arrived. So Adomnán depicts Columba as the chief clergyman in a territory already fully engaged with Christianity.

As to the conversion of the Picts, there is very little evidence that Columba did much of that, either. He certainly didn't baptise their king, Bruide mac Maelchon - perhaps because he was a stubborn pagan, as tradition has it, or perhaps because he was already a Christian and had been baptised years earlier by someone else!

An illustration from the
Book of Deer, an early
Scottish Gospel book.

An alternative model

The traditional model of great preachers moving the hearts of whole nations to Christian faith is only one way of seeing things. The evidence for sixth century Scotland, however, suggests that we have to look for far more diffuse processes.

Officials of the Roman empire settled in Britain, traders brought religious ideas from abroad, and Christian slaves were brought to the homes of pagan owners who would then hear of the new religion. Perhaps Christian belief had a certain cachet, a certain exotic prestige, as the intellectual and artistic cutting-edge of European culture. In that case we can imagine rulers happily adopting it as a mark of sophistication, acquiring the kudos that went with having a priest in their entourage, or Christian symbols on their household goods

Signs of faith

If we can't identify clear patterns of evangelisation, there are nevertheless early evidences of Christianity in Scotland. In the fifth century, St Patrick wrote a letter of fierce condemnation of a British king called Coroticus, who had attacked and enslaved members of Patrick's Irish congregation. Patrick curses not only Coroticus, but his accomplices, 'apostate Picts'. Apostates are people who have received the faith and then fallen away from it. Patrick clearly believes that 5th century Picts have become Christians at some point, but through their wickedness have violated their Christian commitment.

By the year 600, when the poem Y Gododdin was written somewhere near Edinburgh, local British warriors and Picts joined forces to attack the Saxons at Catraeth (modern Catterick in Yorkshire). Before they set out, the poem says that they confessed their sins and received communion. By this time, both Britons and Picts are seen as Christian.

Outside these literary sources, we must rely on a few traces of material evidence: the burials of human remains in east-facing long cists is a reasonably reliable indicator of Christian presence. A more explicit one is the presence of a cross - though of course the scratching of a cross-symbol on a stone is not easy to date.

The Christian Norse

Just as the conversion of the Gaels and Picts is a haphazard and gradual process, with only occasional 'visible' incidents with named protagonists, so it was with the Norse invaders and settlers. At first the word 'heathen' is used in Gaelic as a synonym for Norse - thus in 798 the Annals of Ulster record 'the burning of Inis Pátraic by the heathens - (o genntibh') and so on for many decades.

There are no great moments of visible conversion in the record of the Norse in Ireland and Scotland. It happens in the same gradual way that it had happened before, as the Norse settled among the Christian Gaels.

In 921, Armagh was attacked by the 'foreigners of Dublin'- not 'the heathens' this time, note. According to the Annals of Ulster they spared the prayer houses and the culdees (a kind of monk) and the sick from destruction, and didn't burn the monastery - 'except for a few buildings which were burned through carelessness'. Is this an early sign of Norse sympathy for Christianity?

Certainly Olaf Cuarán, Norse king of Dublin from about 945, was a Christian. He called his daughter Mael Muire, 'Servant of Mary' and died in 980 on pilgrimage to Iona.

The last reference in the Annals of Ulster to the Dublin Norse as 'heathens' is in the year 942. Thereafter they are simply 'foreigners'. Does this mean that they became Christian in the 940s?

Thus it was in the tenth century as it had been in the beginning: though there were probably preachers spreading the Gospel too, Christianity spread through the innumerable contacts - trade, raid, marriage and enslavement - that had brought it to these islands in the first place.

 

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