Archive for September 2019

Nechtan’s Pictish Nation—8thC Strongholds of the New Religion

September 29, 2019

PICTISH PETERKIRKS IN ABERDEENSHIRE & MORAY—
King Nechtan’s 8thC Stone Strongholds of the New Roman Religion

Pictish 8thC stronghold of Duffus, near Elgin had its own stone Peterkirk at Gordonstoun, Morayshire

If Pictish sagas were unearthed from oblivion into which they descended after A.D.843 ‘union’ with the Scots, Nechtan, High King of Picts, last in the Heroic Age of Pictish warriors, anointed leader of his people, evangelizing monarch, would top the bill.

In a reign of less than thirty years (706-729), Nechtan of Derile—who held matrilineal sacred stronghold lands of Darley-Fyvie in Aberdeenshire, and hunting forests stretching as far as royal Duffus on the Moray coast, above—brought deliverance to his northern peoples from Dark Age beliefs. Dissolving petty rivalries with Scots’ Dal Riata on the West, he united his nation through church, wealth, and powerful alliances. He was one of few Pictish royals to die in his bed (†732).

In Northumberland, just south of the border with Pictland, Anglian church historian Bede wrote a contemporary account during Nechtan’s reign. He died within three years of the great king. Contemporaneous Annals written at Iona are particularly detailed at this time too; so accurate sources are not lacking. Bede was a meticulous researcher, especially in ecclesiastical matters, and Nechtan was considered both spiritually and socially enlightened by the Anglian church.

Aberlemno Class III (mid-9thC) Pictish carved stone depicts seminal battle of Nechtansmere, 685, which consolidated Pictland/Prydein independent of Northumbria & Anglian church

In the quarter-century prior to Nechtan’s modernizing ways, two of the most powerful northern nations fought a battle which was to be a cultural watershed. Nechtansmere—A.D.685, May 20th—was fought on Pictish soil at Dunnichen Moss near Forfar, in southern Pictish heartland between Angles and Picts under Bridei son of Bili. A Pictish victory—and death in battle of Anglian King Ecgfrith—it radically put an end to Northumbrian interference in Pictish affairs. The solitary small outpost of Anglian religious education at Abercorn-on-Forth was closed, and its monks politely asked to return to Northumbria. Bridei paraded Northumbrian Ecgfrith’s body around the country and had him ritually buried on Iona.

The two nations returned to relatively amicable relations until the end of the century.

Six years later Nechtan was to take the throne.

He came from impeccable matrilineal succession of the Royal house. He was cousin to Bridei son of Bili, c.672-693, who had fought ‘for the inheritance of his (maternal) grandfather’ at Dunnichen, when Nechtan was an impressionable child at court.  So the cataclysmic turnaround of affairs which resulted, of great Northumbria having to hand back part of conquered Pictland to the Picts, must have made a deep impression on him.

When he came to the throne in 706, following his brother Bridei son of Derile (697-706), Nechtan son of Derile was well-versed in power, spoke fluent Latin, knew ecclesiastical ropes and how to wield them—and understood the importance of allying himself with Rome. By contrast, the rustic, colonial Celtic Church of Columba centered on Iona, was fumbling along traditional lines—out-of-date and unaware of major changes happening with its powerful neighbor. In addition to works of its celebrated founder, Iona was famous for one other historical gem, without which we would all be lost in the Dark Ages.

Iona kept a series of remarkable ‘Chronicles’.

Eight Great Brittonic Nations
For the most part these were written contemporary accounts of major incidents and alliances of the eight great nations which made up ancient Britain: from Cornwall in the south, through ancient Wales, Man, Anglesey, Dunbritton (Dumbarton), Strathclyde, Anglia (Northumberland) and Prydein (Pictland).  Many copies were made and originals are now lost. It is accepted within historical circles that each ‘nation’ had its own chronicle and an original Pictish Chronicle existed as a separate series of documents held at Pictish church centers like Deer, St Andrews and in the Pictish capital, Forteviot. None survives.

While not available to us until recopied in the 12th century, the ancient origin legend of the kingdom of the Picts is preserved in an Irish quatrain:

Royal Forteviot’s triumphal Arch fragment, c.8thC, from the Pictish palace in the capital Fortriu—Dunning—modern Perth & Kinross

‘Morsheimer do Cruithne clainn raindset Albain i secht raind: Cait, Cé, Cirig, cétach clann Fib Fidach, Fotla, Fortrenn Ocus is o ainm gach fir dib fil for a fearand’ Seven of Cruithne’s children divided Alba into seven divisions: the portion of Cat, of Cé, of Cirig a warlike clan, the kingdoms of Fife, Fidach, Fotla and Fortriu and the name of each of them remains upon his land

These were sub-kingdoms of Nechtan’s great realm—in the north, Cat (Caithness), Cé (Mar and Buchan)* and Fidach (Moray and inland Banff)*; south of the Mounth—Cirig became Magh Circenn, plain of the Mearns; Fib (‘Kingdom of’ Fife), Fotla (Atholl) and center of the court, Fortriu (Forteviot). By contemporary standards, it was a massive kingdom to administer and rule.   *Kingdoms of Fife and Forgue in Buchan retain ‘kingdom’ status to this day.

Thirty Years of Peace—and Peterkirks
Nechtan’s childhood included education at court by monks from the highest monasteries of the day. He was fluent not only in Latin but in all northern British dialects, and learned Gaelic on visits to Iona, which he maintained through contact with a Columban familia of monks who attended his brother Bridei’s court. An enclave persisted from the time Anglian Abercorn mission returned south of what became the permanent border. In spite of Abercorn’s closure, good relations were maintained with the Anglian church through contact with Northumbrian Jarrow. This was a clever device allowing the Pictish court to be fully informed on church doctrine via both outlets: Iona created a Celtic connection with the Irish church; Northumberland provided a direct line to Rome.

Within five years of his accession, Venerable Bede records that Nechtan decided to ask his powerful Northumbrian neighbours—descendants of those who fought and lost in 685—for advice on how to go about building stone churches throughout his kingdom, along the lines of those already spreading in Anglia, ‘in the manner of Rome’.

He was aware of the strategic nature of his request. As a powerful ally, not only would his wish be granted, but by spiritually kneeling before Rome, he was joining a European alliance of other wealthy and powerful nations.

Bede’s superior, Abbot Ceolfrith of the Jarrow monastery, responded volubly, subsequently sending architects to Nechtan to assist in his nationwide reform.  They helped build the first Peterkirks, revolutionary buildings in stone named, like the citadel in Rome, after the first apostle of the Roman Christian mission. It served to create another schism with Iona, whose missions were rustic, simple constructions of earth and rubble.

Ruinous Cistercian Abbey on site of Deer foundation & Peterkirk in Buchan, where Pictish monks penned the 10thC Latin Book of Deer

These stone structures were to become the first network of Peterkirks throughout Pictland, many of which survive, at least in name. From St Peter’s at Restenneth in Forfarshire through the Mearns (Meigle, Tealing). Over the Mounth—mountain range dividing present Kincardine and Aberdeenshire from Mar and Buchan—foundations to Peter were placed at Glenbuchat, Peterculter, Aberdeen (Spittal), Fyvie, Peterugie (Peterhead), Deer, Rathven-in-Enzie (now Buckie), Bellie, Essil-Dipple, Duffus, top, Drumdelgie and Inveravon.

Because they were made of stone—compared with earlier turf monastic cells—they were in the later Buchan vernacular called ‘fite kirks’—white, as in gleaming stone. Two of these survive, albeit altered, at Tyrie in Buchan and Rayne in the Garioch.

‘Hammer of the Scots’ Edward I sends Oaks in Apology

Morayshire’s Peterkirk at Gordonstoun School’s west avenue is a 13thC reconstruction of the original 8thC stone building. Recorded as ‘savagely burned’ by Edward I in 1298, the English king repented and sent the then Rector a ‘gift of twenty oak trees to help with repairs.’ Now roofless, remains of Duffus Peterkirk feature a 14th-century tower and finely vaulted 16th-century porch.

Along with his request for physical assistance, Nechtan asked for guidance in the correct calculation and maintenance of Easter tables. This question had been a matter of stigma among northern kings since the religious controversy at the 664 Synod (gathering) of Whitby—present Yorkshire—nearly fifty years earlier. Columban Iona maintained calculations by an antiquated calendar, a lumbering process which sometimes had east and west celebrating on wildly differing dates. Anglian Northumbria was more modern, calculating according to tables approved by popes in Rome.

Essentially papal calendars were never going to celebrate alongside their Jewish counterparts. Easter had to fall after spring equinox, but separate from Passover.

Easter for the Picts was obviously a festival which was going to catch on, accustomed as they were to sacred seasonal celebrations. A wave of new religion spread like wildfire through a nation only recently converted in pockets by wandering monks.

The North did not have to wait long for Iona. It ‘converted’ officially in 716. By then Nechtan was already in full progress: Roman tables were in use, stone churches were being built nationwide in the name of Peter; Pictish monks now wore ‘Roman’ tonsure. All the Pictish king had left to do was to thank his southern neighbors politely for assistance and, equally politely, ask the Jarrow monks at court to leave.

In his first decade as king, he consolidated a strong alliance, formed the matrix of a new religion for all his peoples, and, because with religion came learning, initiated a process to educate at least his Pictish upper classes, thus making his kingdom a superior Christian power. If he had retained the Columban familia at court, its monastic simplicity would have continued to relate religious matters to ‘conversations with God’. By introducing a building program, Latin instruction via the church and the correct way to celebrate the highest festival of that religious body, he elevated his nation into the light—but a light which he as supreme ruler controlled.

Church Under ‘Servitude’ After Fashion of the Picts
It was a brilliant concept by a northern king to spread religion by secular means.

Significantly, 175 years later, when Scots ruling dynasty was struggling with an essentially Pictish concept it had inherited in its takeover–the power of ‘lord over church’—King Giric (c.889) made history by ‘liberating’ the Church which was ‘under servitude up to that time, after the fashion of the Picts’.

Nechtan’s new wave relied heavily on his nobility for its introduction. In his large but scattered nation, wherever there was a lordly stronghold, there would be a private chapel. If no foundation already existed dedicated to British holy men of the previous century’s wave of wanderers, a stone church would appear in Peter’s name–the new fashion.

Copying out Easter tables and sacred Latin texts became the norm in schools for the educated. A Latin Pictish chronicle appeared. Previously the sole domain of Irish and Welsh monasteries, it contained a Pictish king-list celebrating and chronicling Nechtan’s royal line which Anglian, Welsh and Irish chroniclers were quick to copy. But, with the new wave came something which Picts across the land understood. The message was carved in stone.

Pictish Class II carved Cross slab in laird’s wing, Monymusk kirk

Class II cross-slabs date from Nechtan’s reform: either mounted warriors conversing with angels, or the cross carefully fused with pre-Christian symbols which were familiar, the message was clear: landed Pictish aristocrats are following in the ways of Christian heroes–and you can too!

In Nechtan’s second decade as king, centers for carving sophisticated new imagery sprang up everywhere: in Angus there is a cluster of Class II stones—at Meigle, Aberlemno, Brechin. The new religion took hold at centers around the Moray Firth—at Rosemarkie–a former Peterkirk–and at Kineddar-Spynie near the great Elgin stronghold of Duffus which had its own Peterkirk, above. There at least 26 fragmentary slabs have been found. An equal number have been unearthed at Tarbat-on-Beauly on the Black Isle, within monastic walls.

Easter, Roman Style, and St.Fergus as Pictish Emissary
Conservative Cé—Aberdeenshire provinces of Mar and Buchan—seem to have held out the longest: with only the merest scattering of cross-slabs within a huge proliferation of Class I pre-Christian symbol stones.

Four apostles in simple illuminated manuscript endpages of 10thC Book of Deer, Buchan, with 12thC margin notes in both Latin and early Gaelic

Exceptionally, it was at Deer in Buchan within that conservative culture that monks produced the exquisite sacred calf-vellum pocket gospel, left, The Book of Deer, now held at University of Cambridge.

A number of Pictish holy men played a rôle in Nechtan’s great plan. After all, Latin was not exactly a language the countryman was going to pick up spontaneously. Bede says Nechtan promised to introduce Latin usage for his people ‘insofar as their remoteness from the Roman language would allow.’

It was essential that his bishops–already fluent in Latin–should be completely familiar with Pictish patterns of speech.

St.Fergus chapel, Dyce Aberdeen 8thC Class II relief-carved Pictish cross stone with familiar symbols

Gone were the days before 585 when Irish Columba had needed an interpreter to speak to king Bridei son of Maelcon, at the Pictish court in Inverness. Nechtan used Picts to speak to Picts.

One of them—Bishop Fergus—attended Rome in 721 to sign papal decrees, on behalf of his royal patron. This saint features both south and north of the Mounth: as patron of Glamis at the center of cross-slab carving in Forfarshire; but, as Northerners know him, patron of Moy in Moray, St Fergus in Buchan and, most significantly, Dyce which has one of the few magnificent Class II cross-slabs, right, in Aberdeenshire. Cé was conservative, not pagan. The simple cross was already understood.

Nechtan’s Golden Age had begun, and it looked as if it might continue forever.
©2009-2019 Marian Youngblood


%d bloggers like this: