The Columban Church in northern Britain, 664-717: a reassessment
By Kenneth Veitch
Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Vol. 127 (1997)
Abstract: This paper challenges the accepted view that the Columban Church in northern Britain underwent a period of decline during the late seventh and early eighth centuries.
Introduction: During the past decade, there has been an encouraging revival in interest regarding the spread of Christianity in early medieval northern Britain, stimulated particularly by historians studying the development and role of the Columban Church in Scottish Dal Riata and Pictland, but also by those investigating the forces which facilitated the union of the Picts and Scots. Thus, from studies revealing further details about Columba’s life and legacy, to those highlighting specific aspects of the Columban Church’s importance in the formation of the cultural and political entity known as Alba, such as the enduring ties with Ireland and rapprochement with the post-union Scottish dynasty, our knowledge of the subject has been broadened and enriched.
Despite this wealth of historical literature, however, one facet of Columban Church history has been somewhat neglected. This is the consideration of the underlying threads of continuity which linked the religious society established in northern Britain by Columba, his followers and contemporaries, not only to the Church of post-union Alba, but also that of medieval Scotland. The reason for this having been the case is no doubt due primarily to the persistence of the belief that the Columban Church was not only demoralized and largely ostracized after the ecclesiological disputes with a supposedly hostile Roman Church, but also suffered a damaging hiatus in its influence in Pictland during the eighth century. This can lead to the perception that the vibrant and confident missionary Church of the sixth and early seventh centuries was gradually superseded by a secularized, decaying anachronism.
This has dominated any potential study of the Columban Church in northern Britain, with the famous events of 664, c 711 and 717 providing conveniently dramatic historical pegs upon which to hang theories of decline and extinction. However, through a reassessment of these events in particular, and the period from 664 to 717 in general, this study aims to demonstrate that, on the one hand the differences between the Columban traditionalists and the Romanists and the divisive effects of their disputes have been over-exaggerated, while on the other, there was no drastic break in the Columban Church’s hegemony over Pictish religious society. Moreover, it will argue that the Columban Church played a continuous and ideologically constant role first in Pictland and then in Alba, while at the same time adapting and modifying itself to accommodate both religious and political developments within the universal Church and society as a whole.