Canticle for a Lost Nation—Unlocking Ancient Interlace Woven into Cultural Myth

CANTICLE FOR A LOST NATION
Unlocking the Ancient Interlace woven into Cultural Myth

Neolithic Carved Stone Ball, found at Towie, Aberdeenshire 3000BC, in Museum of Scotland Edinburgh

For a nation proud of its heritage, its oral tradition and roots–supported by faithful descendants in all corners of the globe–we Brittonic Scots are remarkably careless with it. In part this stems from a history of being conquered. But suppressed belief and myth have a way of being treasured: a precious relic to be hidden from secular eyes.

Twenty-first century culture today celebrates fifth-century Brittonic peripatetic monk, Patrick who ‘brought the Church’ to Ireland. They wave shamrocks, hold parades and declare green themes in diverse locales through New York, L.A., Dublin and Hounslow. Rio de Janeiro and Boston, too.

A little background may be in order.

Britannia was an island of subdued people, glad to be abandoned in AD420 when the Romans walked out, left to themselves in a rich land with its own ancient culture.

Many great historical documents have been lost in intervening centuries of ‘acquisition’ or political manipulation by other races since Patrick’s time. He preached when sacred secret knowledge of the Dark Age was kept dark–maintained in recesses of the cultural mind, secrets rehearsed in saga and song–known in the historic Pictish era–to all.

Brittonic Patrick sent as a Slave to Ireland

Illuminated Chi Rho Gk. first letters of name of Christ in A.D. 8thC Celtic gospel Book of Kells, held Trinity College, Dublin

Ninth-century church annals, the Book of Armagh, includes a work by Patrick, his Confessio, in which he describes his life at a Roman villa in Britain, his capture by Irish raiders, and his seven years of slavery in Ireland.

Recovering his freedom, he returned to Roman Britain, recording that he was educated and ordained into the priesthood. He eventually succeeded in being sent as a missionary back to Ireland. He concentrated on the north and west of the country, achieving strong connections.

Patrick never claimed to have converted all of Ireland. But tradition has it that his mission began around A.D. 432. It was C.7th biographers Tirechán and Muirchú who credited him with converting ‘all the Irish to Christianity’ and won for him the status of national apostle.

Confused chronology in Patrick’s life came about when tradition merged the work of two monks—continental Palladius and (‘Irish’) Patrick of the Confessio.

There is not enough evidence to support traditional date, A.D.432, for the start of his mission, but a date of 492/493 is given for his death in Annals and biographies.

Little is known of the first impact of Christianity in Ireland. Traditions in the south and southeast refer to early saints who allegedly preceded St. Patrick, whose missions may have come through trading within the Roman Empire. The earliest date is A.D.431, when St. Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre in Gaul, with the approval of Pope Celestine I, proposed to send ‘Palladius to the Scots believing in Christ.’

After that, missionary history in Ireland is dominated by St. Patrick.

Caledonians Unsubjugated, Rome Withdraws
By A.D.368, just thirty years before Roman withdrawal from Britain, Ammianus Marcellinus describes tribes of the Priteni [Picts] split into two by the Mounth: northern Dicalydones and Verturiones in the south. To Roman authors, Priteni-Britanni were linguistically just another people of Prydein. By the post-Roman Dark Age, Caledonians had re-possessed their northern forests, the Fortriu people their rich lands of Perth and Fife.

Although Scots history is still untaught in schools, few deny knowing that Kenneth mac Alpin, c.AD843, united the kingdoms of Picts and Scots. Fewer seem aware that his dynasty–so bold and so desperate for fertile plains–carefully perpetuated the title of those he deposed, calling themselves Kings of Picts for another sixty years.

Alongside Pictish lands they annexed Pictish Law–a remarkable piece of diplomacy which survives in the basis of Scots law today.

Between the fifth and seventh centuries, the great forests of the Northeast were the domain of kings–Stocket, Kintore, Deer–a resource which ensured royal entertainment [the boar hunt] and feasts [deer and lesser animals] for warriors and entire communities, as well as wealth of timber and grain.

While none but the lordly burned wood in the fireplace of the great hall–most people cast peat for fuel–bounty of the forest—kindling—was available to all. This convention remains today in the understanding between tenant farmer and landowner/laird that while he may not cut down the laird’s trees, all windfall is his.

At least two royal strongholds survive.

These are not small domains like those confirmed in later medieval charters to royal burghs, but whole estates crowned by forests, nourished by rivers and centered round the ‘castle-hill’ [Brit.caer] of a noble family: in the south the Kingdom of Fife points to the king’s mound–Cinrimonaid, St.Andrews—made famous by Constantin king of Picts [789-820]; in the north the Kingdom of Forgue has its Place of Ferendracht–‘place’ in old Scots indicating a ‘peel’ or fortified mound of the heroic age.

There are others.

A.D.5th century pre-Christian Pictish carved stones in Aberdeenshire heartland Romans couldn’t sudue

In the North, earliest placenames give fairly good timelines, where the castle-hill [Brit/Pict. caer, castell] usually denotes early-historic occupation of the pre-Scotic Pictish period, like Kintore, Inverurie, with attendant royal chapels [Lat. capella, Welsh/Brit. eglys]-in the Northeast often seen in telltale ‘chapelton’ within ancient church boundaries, but separate from the later parish church. Compare rath/roth element at Rathmurriel, Rothney in Insch, which derive from 12th century settlements, like Flemings [Flinders] at Leslie.

Second early element Brit. eglys, easily identified south of the Mounth like Ecclesgreig in Mearns, ‘church of Giric’, is more elusive farther north, but does occur. There is one on the Banff coast–conveniently close to Pictish stronghold Dundarg–Strahanglis Point, ‘point of the valley of the church’.

Another clue to Pictish Christian foundations is the presence of a circular enclosed burial ground, like the one at Deskford within the precinct of the medieval laird’s Tower. At Fordyce on the North (Banff) Coast where remains of a Pictish tower dedicated to St. Talorcan stand, there is another. At Tullich-Aboyne one remains where the former church was dedicated to St. Nathalan, [d.679].

Language survival of Pictish Doric in Aberdeen
There are delightfully archaic, short, stubby single-syllable names in the language too, to satisfy our yearning for earliest beginnings.

It helps to remember that the parish system, discarded by modern mapmakers, transmits a clear layout of medieval churchlands, themselves descended from earlier chapels attached to Pictish strongholds.

By the seventh century, Pictish kings were fully Christian, educated from youth in the cultural milieu of a monastery. In the centuries before Gaelic became a court language, it was the language of the Northern Irish Scot [Americans have a convenient term for these Ulstermen: Scots-Irish]. More significantly, it was the language of Irish monastics, keepers of annals, copiers of sacred texts, educators of the nobility.

It is no accident that Iona came into prominence following the ministries of saints like Columba [d.597] and Adamnán [d.704].

The Church was common education for young nobles of ‘all four peoples’ of Britain, according to Northumbrian cleric Bede, writing at the end of the seventh century–Angles, Britons, Picts and Scots. By 690, there was a long tradition of wandering British monks, educated in the Irish church, returning to convert the peoples of their homeland.

Patrick, interestingly, is one of the few Britons who took the Christian message to Ireland [mid-fifth century].

Four apostles in simple illuminated manuscript endpages of Book of Deer, Aberdeenshire, c.f. Book of Kells below

British Ninian, d. c.432, founder of Whithorn in Galloway, is credited with inspiring several Pictish clerics of Northeast tradition. Drostan, Medan and Colm are sixth century saints, giving their names to foundations at Deer/Insch, Pitmedden/Fintray on Donside and St.Coombs in Banff.

Finnian and Brendan, both mid-sixth-century travelers, spread the word and their names to churches planted throughout Pictland; Brendan, known as the wanderer, did his conversions by sea; his name in Banffshire is Brandan or Brangan where his dedications run along the North Coast.

Ethernan patron of Rathen in Buchan died, according to Irish annals, in 669 ‘among the Picts’. He is patron of Kinnernie (Donside) and Banchory-Ternan (Deeside) [contra Brev.Ab where he is called St.Ternanus].

Illuminated apostles: 10thC Iona Book of Kells, now in Trinity College, Dublin shows Matthew as Man, Mark winged Lion, Luke the surgeon as winged Bull and John as Eagle

A contemporary Briton celebrated in southern Pictavia was St. Serf whose dedication at Culsalmond is rare north of the Mounth. St.Sair’s Fair was held here near Colpy until well after the Reformation. His other foundation was at Monkeigy [Keithhall], now Inverurie.

Marnan, 7thC patron of Aberchirder-Marnoch and Leochel, Lumphanan was celebrated long after his death with Marnoch Fair, held traditionally on second Tuesday in March.

Recent research suggests that portable crosses–roughly circular stones like pillows carved with a simple cross and pre-dating the eighth century [class II] Pictish cross slabs were the hallmark of these holy men. They reach far and wide.

Fish-shape ogham carved on rear of Pictish stone at St Fergus Chapel, Dyce-Aberdeen hidden in mortar for 12 centuries

Such compact Christian amulets surface in Aberdeenshire, temptingly close to early foundations. Cross-inscribed stones—with no other ornament—appear at Aboyne, Afforsk, Banchory, Barra, Botriphnie, Bourtie, Clatt, Crathes, Culsalmond, Deer, Dyce, Ellon, Fintray, Inverurie, Kinnernie, Logie-Coldstone, Logie-Elphinstone, Monymusk, Ruthven and Tullich.

A saint’s well where converts were baptized invariably lies close to these foundations. After the patron died, their relics—ranging from pillows of stone to crozier and bell—were treasured by the community.

A Fintray legend persists that St. Medan’s head was kept—wrapped in beaten silver—until melted down to make a communion cup for the (reformed) kirk. The head of the saint was kept at Banchory where t’Ernan’s bell, the ‘Ronnecht’ did not survive the Reformation; t’Ernan was patron of Findon, Arbuthnot and Slains.

One further legacy is the former pagan alphabet—ogham—carved in stone, reintroduced by early pilgrims as means of explaining Christian doctrine to the illiterate. Few remain in the north [Newton, top and Dyce, left] but their clear fish-tail shape had meaning to a populace venerating the salmon, carved locally on pre-Christian Pictish [class I] symbol stones. To new converts it simultaneously represented the fish symbol of Christ, Gk. Ikthos.

Ogham served as (Christian) stopgap until the art of [class II] cross slabs appeared in the next century. These cross-carved monoliths heralded nationwide conversion under King Nechtan who was to drag his kingdom out of the Dark Age and shine the light of revelation into early medieval Europe.
©2019 Marian Youngblood

Explore posts in the same categories: Art, Celtic ritual, culture, language, legends, mythology, pre-Christian, prehistory, ritual, spirituality, world religions

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