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Scoto-Hibernian Monasteries

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A convenient term under which to include the monastic institutions which were founded during the sixth century in the country now known as Scotland, though that name was not used in its present sense until four hundred years later. These institutions owed their origin to the zeal and energy of St. Columba, whose labors among the Picts and Scots extended over a period of nearly forty years, and whose biographer, Adamnan, the ninth abbot of Iona, is our chief authority on the subject, although his list of Columban foundations is probably incomplete, and the exact dates of their erection are uncertain. What is certain, however, is that these monastic houses grouped themselves round Iona as their centre, and long remained in close connection with her. Like the Columban houses in Ireland, they acknowledged the jurisdiction of Iona as that of their mother-house, and the communities belonging to them together formed the widespread organization known as the family of Iona, or muinter Ioe. Not all these monasteries were actually founded by St. Columba in person, some of them owing their origin to his immediate followers, whose names have in many cases survived the disappearance of all material traces of the establishments in question. Reeves, Skene, and other Scottish and Irish antiquarians have devoted much time, labor, and research in the endeavor to identify the localities mentioned by Adamnan and other early writers. With out following them into these topographical and philological details, it may be stated generally that vestiges of Columban foundations are to be found in the northern, eastern, and western districts of Scotland, formerly occupied respectively by the Northern and Southern Picts and by the Scots of Dalriada. Many of these monasteries were established on the islands off the west coast, including Tiree, Skye, Garveloch, Harris, Lewis, North and South Uist, Lismore, Mull, Eigg, Canna, Colonsay, and numerous smaller islands.

Adamnan makes no mention of the monasteries founded by Columba and his contemporaries and followers in the Pictish territories north and east of the great central mountain-range known as Drumalban; but from other sources we know that there were many of such foundations, several of them being in the remote Orkney Islands. The Book of Deer, a notable foundation in the Buchan district, records the method in which these isolated monasteries were established among the heathen tribes, the head of a tribe granting a cathair, or fort, which was then occupied by a colony of clerics or missionaries a system of settlement in every respect similar to that prevailing in the Irish Church at the same period. All down the east coast, as far as the Forth, we find the name of Colum, Colm or Comb constantly associated at the present day with churches, chapels, parishes, fairs, and wells, showing how widespread were the influence and labors of the saint of Iona. In the territory of the Southern Picts, who as a nation had been converted to Christianity a century before by St. Ninian, though many of the faithful had since fallen away, the faith was revived, and new centres of religion and of missionary work were formed by the monasteries established by Columba and his friends. The monastic church of Abernethy was founded, or rather refounded, by King Gartnaidh, son and successor of Brude, Columba's own convert and warm ally. Another friend of the saint, Cainnech, founded the church and monastery of Kilrimont, celebrated in after times as St. Andrews. The monastic church of Dunkeld, though founded much later, at the eventful period when the Picts and Scots were united under the sceptre of Kenneth McAlpine, was essentially a Columban foundation, though by that time the influence of the venerable mother-house of Iona had greatly waned, and the jurisdiction over the Irish monastic churches had in fact been transferred to Kells in Meath.

In Scotland Dunkeld, under royal patronage, took the place of Iona as the head of the Columban churches; and so clearly was this recognized that when the diocesan form of church government was established in Scotland, Iona was included in the Diocese of Dunkeld, and remained so long after Argyll, of which it formed a part, became the seat of a bishopric of its own. By that time, however the Columban or monastic church, dominant in Scotland for nearly two centuries, had, as an organized body, decayed and disappeared. Early in the eighth century the remnant of Columban monks were expelled by King Nectan, and the primacy of Iona came to an end. The numerous Columban monasteries, or at least such of them as were not abandoned and in ruins, came into the hands of the now dominant Culdees; and they in turn, when the Scottish Church came to be reorganized on the English model under the influence of St. Margaret and her family, found themselves gradually superseded by the regular monastic orders which were introduced into the country by the munificence of kings, princes, and nobles, and reared their splendid abbeys on the sites of the humble monasteries of Columban days. One Columban house only, the monastery of Deer already mentioned, which had been founded by Columba himself, and placed by him under the care of his nephew Drosden, preserved its original and Celtic character for fifty years beyond the reign of David I, who granted it a new charter, and showed it special favor. Early in the thirteenth century, however, it was extinguished like the rest, the monastery being made over to the Cistercian monks, who held it until the Reformation. The building, however, seems to have preserved something of the primitive simplicity of the Columban foundations; for one of the Cistercian abbots is recorded to have resigned his office and returned to the stately abbey of Melrose, which he preferred to what he called that poor cottage of the monks of Deir". Today a certain number of place-names up and down the country, the patronal saints of a certain number of Scottish parishes, and a few grass-covered earthen mounds or fragments of walls, are all that is left to recall the numerous houses of the muintir Iæ, the cradle of Scottish Christianity thirteen centuries ago.


SKENE, Celtic Scotland, II (Edinburgh, 1877); Chronicles of the Picts and Scots (Edinburgh, 1861); ADAMNAN, Life of St. Columba, ed. REEVES, Historians of Scotland, Vl (Edinburgh, 1874); ALLEN, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1903); TRENHOLME, The Story of Iona (Edinburgh, 1909); Origines Parochiales Scotiae (Edinburgh, 1850-5); BELLESHEIM, Hist. of Cath. Church of Scotland, I (Edinburgh, 1887), 33-109; DOWDEN, The Celtic Church in Scotland (London, 1894); The Book uf Deer, ed. STUART for Spalding Club (Edinburgh, 1869).

About this page

APA citation. Hunter-Blair, O. (1912). Scoto-Hibernian Monasteries. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Hunter-Blair, Oswald. "Scoto-Hibernian Monasteries." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph E. O'Connor.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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