Norse Influences in the Organisation of the Medieval Church in the Western Isles
Ronald G. Cant
Northern Studies: Volume 21 (1984)
Introduction: In its definitive form of a system of local churches serving identifiable districts, usually known as parishes, grouped together under a diocesan bishop, the medieval church cannot be said to have existed in the general area of Scotland until the twelfth century. At this time, and for some three centuries previously, the islands to the north and west, with parts of the adjacent mainland, were under Norse control. Hence it was to be expected that in these particular regions ecclesiastical organisation would, in its details, follow a Norwegian rather than a Scottish norm, all the more so when in 1153 the two bishoprics that had come into being there in the preceding century were placed by Pope Adrian IV in the new province organised under the Archbishop of Nidaros or Trondheim.
Long anterior to this development – and to the Norwegian conquest and settlement of the Northern and Western Isles in the ninth century- the two regions in question had come under the influence of Christianity, conceivably in the fifth and sixth, and unquestionably by the seventh century. It is probably unnecessary for the purposes of the present study to consider whether these early influences were “Ninianic’ or “Columban’ since the resulting Christian presence was inherently “Celtic’. That is to say: its principal generative centres were monasteries closely linked with the social and political order of their neighbourhoods and having outposts in the form of hermitages, small chapels, or more simply ‘preaching centres’ (indicated by large stone crosses or cross-slabs) throughout the surrounding area.
These monasteries, on which the effectiveness of Celtic Christianity so depended, were early casualties of the ‘Viking’ attacks, the most influential, Iona, being sacked no less than four times between 795 and 826. And when the period of raids was succeeded by one of settlement, as the ninth century developed, not only was organised Christianity overwhelmed in the north and west but the population content of the region drastically altered. Yet this process was by no means uniform and even where Norse political power was dominant the demographic base on which it rested differed from one area to another. The evidence so far available suggests that the greatest change probably took place in Shetland with Orkney only slightly less affected. In the west .. however, Norse settlement was on a lesser relative scale, and while it was probably predominant in Lewis and certain other places in the “Northern Hebrides’, in the I.Southern Hebrides’ (between Ardnamurchan and the Mull of Kintyre) a “Celtic presence’ persisted to form the basis of a notable political and cultural revival from the twelfth century onwards.