‘Far is Rome from Lcohlong’: Gaels and Scandinavians on Pilgrimage and Crusade, c. 1000 – c. 1300
By R. Andrew McDonald
Scripta Mediterranea, Vol.18 (1997)
Introduction: The thirteenth-century Gaelic poet Muiredach Albanach O Dalaigh, returning from travels in the eastern Mediterranean that included a pilgrimage to Rome, is supposed to have remarked, as he sat down at the head of Loch Long in Argyll, in western Scotland:
As I sit on the hillock of Tears,
Without skin on either toe or sole;
0 King! Peter and Paul!
Far is Rome from Lochlong!
Were it not for the survival of other of Muiredach’s verses in more contemporary versions, we might be inclined to regard the proverb as purely apocryphal, and relegate his Mediterranean cruise to the realm of Gaelic folklore. But the connection between a Gaelic bard of the thirteenth century and the lands ringing the Mediterranean immediately raises a host of other questions: if one Gaelic poet could undertake such an adventure, were there others, pilgrims or warriors as well as poets? To what extent was the Mediterranean terra incognita to the inhabitants of the fringes of northwestern Europe – Gaels and Scandinavians – in the central Middle Ages? The aim of this paper is to explore these basic questions, with particular emphasis on the centuries between A.O. 1000 and 1300, a period that coincides with the so-called “Golden Age” of pilgrimage in the eleventh century, and the era of the Crusades, that remarkable phenomenon which brought northern Europe back into close contact with the Mediterranean between 1095 and 1291.
Before addressing these basic questions, however, it is appropriate to begin by considering an earlier era, in order to demonstrate that traditions of Gaelic and Scandinavian contact with the Mediterranean did not emerge from a blank slate in the eleventh century. One example serves above all others to illustrate this fact. Sometime between 679 and 683 a bishop of Merovingian Gaul named Arculf, returning from extensive travels in the eastern Mediterranean, was driven by storms into the waters off the west coast of Britain. He eventually ended up on the tiny Hebridean island of Iona, where he was received warmly by the abbot of the monastic community there, Adamnan. During what appears to have been a comfortable sojourn on Iona, Arculf narrated his experiences to his host, who, as he says, “wrote it all down on tablets”. From these notes, Adamnan produced a fascinating work entitled De locis sanctis. Popular enough in the Middle Ages that some twenty-two manuscripts survive today, the text is relatively little known, perhaps because Adamnan himself went on to bigger and better things, writing a Life of St. Columba of Iona, and promulgating his “Law of the Innocents” at the end of the seventh century. The connections represented by De locis sanctis provide a wealth of information on the horizons of a place like Iona in the early Middle Ages: a Frankish bishop, shipwrecked on this Hebridean island, narrates to the Irish abbot his account of travels in the Holy Land, Alexandria, Crete, and Constantinople, thereby drawing together the diverse early medieval worlds of Byzantium, Islam, and Northwestern Europe.