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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

Saint Donnan the Great - Helmsdale’s Patron Saint (by Audrey Munro)

(This was the first of two talks given by the author based on the Rev. Dr. Scott’s article of 1906. Reverend Doctor Scott was the parish minister in Helmsdale for fifty-three years until his death in 1947, at the age of 83.)

Saint Donnan was martyred at Easter, on the seventeenth of April, in the year six hundred and seventeen A-D. And here we are, fourteen hundred years later, remembering the saint and his work here in our parish.

This talk is intended as a commemoration on several levels.

Firstly, we are here to celebrate the life and work of Saint Donnan, the patron saint of Kildonan, after whom the parish is named. Saint Donnan was an Irish Pict, one of only three martyrs of the Pictish Church. He was a contemporary of Saint Columba, but not one of his missionaries, as we’ll see. He came here as part of a mission which more or less covered the length and breadth of Scotland, founded his muinntir, that is his religious community or family, then sent his followers out from Kildonan to found Churches all over the North of Scotland.

Those who went to school in Helmsdale will remember that the badge on the school blazer was a picture of Saint Donnan crossing the river. And the friends of Kildonan Church still use the Saint as their logo.

Secondly, Christianity and the Church have been part of daily life here in the parish of Kildonan continuously for more than a thousand years; for about sixteen hundred years in fact. Nothing else is present throughout our history, linking us to our ancestors. Our homes, our jobs, our daily life have all been transformed, but of all the changes through the centuries, our form of worship is perhaps the one thing that would be recognisable to a visitor from the seventh century.

Finally, I also want to pay tribute to the Reverend Doctor Scott, who was the parish minister in Helmsdale for fifty-three years until his death in nineteen forty-seven, at the age of eighty-three. As well as his involvement is all aspects of parish life, he wrote books and articles and lectured all over the country on Church history and the Pictish saints of the early Celtic Church. Without Doctor Scott, we wouldn’t be here now, as without his writings on the saint, we wouldn’t know about him today, or at least we certainly wouldn’t know enough to understand the importance of Saint Donnan and his ministry.

One of the first tasks Mr Scott, as he was then, undertook when he arrived in Helmsdale in eighteen ninety-four was the renovation of Kildonan church, because he recognised its importance. He conducted services and he celebrated Communion there for the first time in sixty years. The Free Church minister, Mr Andrew Grant, then approached Mr Scott and asked if they could use it too. Mr Scott passed on the request to the Presbytery in Dornoch and recommended it be granted. In other words, this was a church for the whole parish, not just the Established Church.

It crossed my mind that I could, and it might just be best, just for me to read out Doctor Scott’s article “Saint Donnan the Great and his Muinntir.” However, by putting together this talk, I’ve been able to include information from some of Doctor Scott’s other writings, including his excellent book, The Pictish Nation, so about ninety-nine per cent of this talk is from Doctor Scott’s works!

So, today we’re going to look at Pictland and the Pictish Church in the late sixth and early seventh century when Saint Donnan was here, who he was, his route from Candida Casa at Whithorn to Kildonan, and his martyrdom on Eigg; then next week we’ll look at his work and sites here, and his disciples and their sites here.

Let’s begin then by looking at Scotland and Christianity at the end of the sixth century/beginning of the seventh century when Saint Donnan was establishing his missions in what was then Pictland. Today, we would think of Scotland in terms of north and south, the Highlands and the Lowlands, but fourteen hundred years ago, Scotland was divided on an east/west split, with the Picts in the east, and the Irish Gaels of Dalriada in the west – roughly Argyll and parts of the Hebrides.

The two kingdoms were eventually united in a later century. But at the time we are looking at, the two were quite separate, even speaking different languages. The Gaels in Ireland and the west of Scotland of course spoke an early form of Gaelic, while experts, including Doctor Scott, agree that the Pictish language was similar to Welsh and whereas modern Scottish and Irish Gaelic speakers can easily understand each other, the ancient Picts and Gaels could not. You may remember the story of Saint Columba visiting King Brude, when we are told they used an interpreter to converse.

The common view we have of the Picts is to see them as savages – fierce warriors who painted themselves blue to frighten their enemies as they went into battle, people given to human sacrifice, but remember who told us this – the Romans, the empire which had failed to conquer the Picts. No wonder they wanted to portray them as fierce savages!

Doctor Scott tells us in The Pictish Nation: The Picts, like many other fighting nations who gave their enemies a bad time, were wantonly libelled by their foes. Roman historians repeated the slanders of the mercenaries, and stated that the Picts were cannibals, and that they offered human sacrifices. The Gaidheals called the Picts savage and cruel. The Angles spoke of them as vile. Yet, there is not a word from the dealings of the Christian missionaries with their Pictish converts to suggest that these charges were true, or that the Picts were worse than their unscrupulous assailants.

In trying to understand or explain the Church of the Picts, we have to visualise the ancient pre-Christian life and religion of the Celtic people. The aspects of Christianity to which they adhered most strongly were those which were similar to their ancient religion. For example, they believed that time began in the night of the underworld, out of which they grew to Light and activity, after God the Father had given them life. A people who believed this were already prepared for the revelation of God the Creator and Father creating the world, creating Light out of Darkness, and of course Mankind, as told in the Bible. The call of Jesus for disciples who would convert the world was especially suited to the Pict, who was reared to live in brotherhood, in a clan, and to follow a leader. The old Celtic religion taught the doctrine of rebirth, which explains why the Picts so readily accepted the Christian teaching on immortality and the resurrection.

All of which explains why Christian missionaries were not ill-treated or killed. Remember, Saint Donnan was not murdered because of his religion, as we will see.

As for Christianity here, it was our parish’s other Pictish saint, Saint Ninian, the founder of the muinntur at Navidale – muinntir as Doctor Scott tells us is the Celtic name for a clerical family or community – it was Saint Ninian who began the first ever Christian missions in Scotland at the end of the fourth century, in the year three nine seven A. D. This is roughly a hundred and sixty years before Saint Columba arrived on Iona to minister to the Gaels of Dalriada. When Ninian began his missions, Christianity wasn’t unknown in Scotland; there were Christians among the Roman occupiers to the south; Scottish traders had come across Christians in Europe, and some individuals had converted, but there was no Church, and no missions, until Saint Ninian came back to Scotland from France, where he had been a disciple of Saint Martin of Tours.

So, Saint Ninian first brought Christianity to our parish sixteen hundred years ago. There must have been a village or township here then, as the Pictish saints didn’t establish their muinntirs in isolation to withdraw from the world – they founded them in the aim of converting the local population.

Similarly, when Saint Donnan followed in Ninian’s footsteps, nearly two hundred years later, he established his muinntir at Kildonan, among the local people. Doctor Scott writes: After Ninian, Saint Donnan may justly be considered the greatest apostle to the Northern Picts. Not to mention the churches which he planted between Galloway and the Garry, nor the churches of his disciples, he himself planted churches from the Garry to the Pentland Firth, and from the North Sea to the Atlantic.

And we had both of them, Ninian and Donnan, in this parish, ministering to our ancestors!

In general terms, we have very little information about Donnan himself. We know he was an Irish Pict, but we don’t know where he was from, when he was born or anything about his life in Ireland.

We can’t really know what he looked like, but we can see, in this image and in others which represent him, the Celtic tonsure. We’ve all seen pictures of mediaeval monks with tonsures at the crown of their heads, showing they belonged to a religious order. The Celtic tonsure was a frontal tonsure with the hair-line cut back from the forehead, from ear to ear, to represent slavery. It must have looked quite striking and I wonder if that’s where we get the belief that a high forehead is a sign of intelligence?

There’s a very interesting book called The History of the Province of Cat by the Reverend Angus MacKay, with an excellent chapter on Celtic saints, and it tells us that Donnan means brown, as in the poet, Rob Donn, so maybe our saint had brown hair, just as Saint Maelrubha had red hair, rubha meaning red. He also carried a bachul; this was the pastoral staff of an Ab, which is the Celtic word for abbot, or bishop. A cleric only parted with it to delegate authority to someone to carry out a particular task, for example, when sent by a messenger who was the bearer of a verbal order from the Ab, the bachul was a sign that the order had been authorised. Later, signet rings and seals were used in the same way. The exchange of bachuls wasn’t a sentimental act done in friendship or intended as a gift. An exchange signified the ratification of an agreement. Just as we often see world leaders today signing an agreement and then swapping pens.

After the time of the Celtic Church, the bachuls of the saints were venerated as relics, used in healing the sick, and, in order to bring victory, they were carried in front of fighting-men as they marched into battle. Saint Donnan’s bachul was kept with great veneration in Auchterless Church in Aberdeenshire, until it vanished at the Reformation.

We don’t know how long Saint Donnan remained here. Doctor Scott says he devoted the best part of his life to this parish; and, in fact, his name was so closely associated with his churches here, that one of the ancient records located his martyrdom at his Church here.

The Reverend MacKay says he must have resided here for a considerable time, because of the various references to him in local names, and of course he is the local patron saint. If we compare this with Saint Ninian who first brought Christianity to the area, the area of Navidale isn’t named after him, and this is something we’ll look at next week when we consider Donnan’s disciples. And, this theory is backed up in our own day, where the name of Doctor Scott is remembered in his church here seventy years after he died, which is more commonly known as Scott’s Church, rather than by its proper name of Saint John’s, whereas more recent residents have come and gone and their names are forgotten.

Now turning to:
We do know, amazingly after fourteen hundred years, quite a lot about his work. He became known as Donnan Mor, Saint Donnan the Great, which tells us how important he was in the Celtic Church! It is calculated that he came to Scotland about the year five-eighty A.D.

He came from Ireland to Candida Casa, the Mother Church or headquarters of the Pictish missionaries, and began his work among the Picts of Galloway. It looks as if Whithorn inspired Saint Donnan to take up work amongst the Northern Picts here, especially as we find Churches set up by Saint Donnan or his disciples in the immediate vicinity of Ninian’s Churches, continuing his work, not just here, but in Caithness, Ross-shire and Inverness-shire.

Donnan set out on his mission with fifty-two followers, an unusually large number, when we remember that Saint Columba arrived on Iona with twelve disciples; even allowing for the Biblical symbolism of twelve, Donnan’s mission is more than four times larger, so this mission meant business.

The Pictish Nation tells us: The last of the big missions associated with Candida Casa, the ancient community of Saint Ninian, while it still remained part of the Celtic Church, left its gates circa A.D. five eighty, under Donnan Mor, Saint Donnan the Great, an Irish Pict. The story of the life of Saint Donnan has been lost; but many of his Church-foundations survive to speak for themselves. His itinerary is clearly traced by these foundations stretching from the doors of Candida Casa to Caithness, and then across Pictland to the island of Eigg, where he and his followers were martyred. It is of some importance to note that the first and intermediate Churches which he founded on his journey, except where he turned aside to visit Iona, are all near to Churches originally founded by Saint Ninian, a decided indication in itself of his interest in the charges of Candida Casa. His foundations are Cill-Donnan in Kirkmaiden, Cill-Donnan, two miles west of Kirkcolm, both in the same district as Church-foundations of Saint Ninian, and in the same county as Candida Casa; Cill-Donnan in Colmonell, and another Cill-Donnan in Carrick, both near to foundations of Saint Ninian; Cill-Donnan in Arran, and Cill-Donnan in Cantyre; Cill-Donnan on the Inverness-shire Garry, not far away from Tempul Ninian on Loch Ness; and our own Cill-Donnan in the same parish as Saint Ninian’s Church at Navidale.

Therefore, after fourteen hundred years, we can map out the greater part of Saint Donnan’s route after he left Ireland, with perfect certainty. We know that at the interview with Saint Columba, which we’ll come to shortly, he was on the eve of going north. We also know that he passed to the Atlantic sea-board from Sutherland. Consequently, he must have founded his Churches in southern Ayrshire, Arran and Kintyre on his way to Iona.

Interestingly, the Church which he founded at Munerigie on Loch Garry even indicates the route he took to Sutherland.

Although it doesn’t feature in the following list, Saint Donnan’s Church at Auchterless was probably founded by a voyage across the Moray Firth from Helmsdale. It is near another Annat, or mother-Church, founded by Saint Ninian, and as we’ve mentioned, Saint Donnan’s bachul was housed at Auchterless.

The following are the places where Saint Donnan founded churches.
They are given in the calculated or known order of foundation:
Kildonan in Colmonell
 Kildonan in Carrick
Kildonan in Arran
Kildonan in Kintyre
Kildonan on Loch Garry
Kildonan, Sutherland
Kildonan, Little Loch Broom Eilan-Donnain,
Kintail Saint Donnan’s,
Uig Kildonan in South Uist
Kildonan in Eigg

The Pictish Nation tells us: An interesting effort of Saint Donnan on his northward journey was his attempt to renew communion between the Pictish Church, and Saint Columba, as representing the Church of the Gaels. One district of Pictland had been left practically uninfluenced by the many missions that had entered Pictland under Pictish leaders, namely, the district on the north-west between Cape Wrath and Loch Moidart. It is evident from what happened afterwards to Saint Donnan that he had contemplated organising a muinntir there, to minister to the Picts of that long stretch. Now, such a design would have been obnoxious to the political designs of the Gaidheals, owing to their ambition to extend their power and influence northward from Argyll. With this purpose in view, Saint Donnan went to Saint Columba at Iona to secure his friendship, and mutual communion between his own and Saint Columba’s clerics. Saint Columba’s recognition would also have meant protection for himself and his workers against Aedhan, the king of the Gaidheals. When they met, Saint Columba refused Saint Donnan’s request, indicating that there was to be no communion between the Churches. As Doctor Scott puts it: The story of the interview is best told in a translation of the quaint account in Celtic, by the early scholiast in the Feilire of Aengus.- It is this Donnan who went to Columcille to get him to be a soul-friend, anmcharait. Columcille replied to him, “I shall not be soul-friend to folk destined to red-martyrdom. Thou shalt go to red-martyrdom, thou and thy muinntir with thee.”

Martyrdom means death in the service of the Lord. “Red martyrdom” was the term used when life was taken in a violent death. "White martyrdom" was used for those who aspired to martyrdom through strict asceticism. Most recently, Doctor Scott’s death could be described as white martyrdom, as he died in his church on a Sunday afternoon between services, just before he was to carry out a christening. A soul-friend, or anam-charaid, was what we would nowadays call a mentor.

We don’t have the exact date but Saint Donnan was driven from Kildonan by the early Viking invaders a year or two before his death in six one seven A.D. Before the Vikings developed long-ships to accomplish the dangerous passage of the Pentland, or Pictland, Firth, they had to maintain a land route to the north-west and west from the few creeks on the east coast, of which the mouth of the Helmsdale is one of the most convenient. In the Strath of Kildonan, all the Viking positions are on the south bank of the river, while Saint Donnan’s settlements are on the north bank. This cut the Saint off from the people. When he left, he recalled to his muinntir all those who had been sent forth to preach the Word, and to plant Churches in the surrounding area – which is why all fifty-two of his followers were murdered along with him on Eigg.

The tradition of Wester Ross is that he went there from Cattaibh to seek safety and solitude in an island of the sea. After leaving his cell here, he is believed to have attempted to settle first at Loch Broom, and then at Eilan-Donnain in Kintail.

Saint Donnan’s foundations among the Western Picts after he left Sutherland are at Cill-Donnan, Little Loch Broom; at Eilan Donnan, Kintail; Cill-Donnan at Lyndale, Skye; Cill-Donnan on Little Bernera, Uig, Lewis; Cill-Donnan in South Uist; and Cill-Donnan in Eigg, where he and his muinntir perished. And many ancient foundations from Caithness to Aberdeenshire, and from the North Sea to the Atlantic, bear the names of his known disciples.

Can I just stress here that all of these were foundations, not dedications. Saint Donnan actually went to all of these places and established Church missions there. It’s not that others set them up in his name either at the time or at a later date. And so Saint Columba’s prophecy came to pass. Thirty-seven years after he set out on his mission from Candida Casa, Saint Donnan perished with fifty-two members of his muinntir, in the refectory adjoining his Church on the island of Eigg, on the seventeenth day of April, A.D. six-seventeen, after celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The Kalendar of Donegal calls the authors of the massacre bergaigh – robbers. The scholiast in the Kalendar of Gorman calls them pioraiti na fairgi – pirates of the ocean, which would indicate the early Frisian Vikings who were on the coasts of Scotland long before the Scandinavian Vikings.

Doctor Scott writes: The unadorned story of the martyrdom of Saint Donnan and his companions as contained in the older records is as follows: Before Saint Donnan settled in Eigg a certain woman of position was in the habit of grazing her cattle, or sheep, on the island. She resented the presence of the Saint and his people, and ordered them to be killed. The native people were shocked at the idea, and pointed out to her that such a thought was contrary to religion. Thereupon she persuaded robbers of the sea to fall upon the community and slay them all. The pirates came to the church while Saint Donnan was celebrating Holy Communion. Either because he was granted a short respite or for some other reason they permitted him to conclude the service.

Then, according to one account, the Saint invited his people to march to the living-quarters. "We may not die," he said, "so long as we remain in the joy of the Lord; - in other words, the church - however, let us go where we refresh our bodies and there pay the mortal penalty." When they were gathered together in the refectory it was set on fire, and the whole company perished in the flames, or by the weapons of the enemies who had closed them in.

We can picture the Saint proceeding unfalteringly with the celebration of the Eucharist while the heathen fretted outside for his life and the life of his companions, and at the close of the sacred rite marching with his people to where their blood would not desecrate the Holy Place.

Tighernac and the Annals of Ulster designate this tragedy as a combustion, which would indicate that the buildings were set on fire, and such clerics as came forth, slain by the sword. Up to this time the Pictish Church had only one martyr on its roll of honour, Saint Kessoc, who died in battle against the Gaels. And, more than a hundred years after Saint Donnan, Saint Maelrubha was killed in Strathnaver in seven-two-two A.D. by Vikings.

Next week, we’re going to look at Saint Donnan’s time here; as we’ve seen, he devoted the best part of his life to this parish. We’re also going to look at the muinntir in Kildonan; the headquarters were at Suisgill, and the Suisgill-based sites we’re going to look at include the muinntir itself, Saint Donnan’s Seat and the Sanctuary – their importance then as a Christian mission serving the north of Scotland and their importance now as historic sites.

We’re also going to look at the churches founded by Donnan’s disciples and see how Saint Iain’s cell became the mediaeval Church of Saint John.

And we’re going to see if we can possibly identify the Field of Perpetual Praise.

And finally, we’re going to look at Saint Donnan’s future. The Suisgill site is one of only three ancient Pictish muinntirs known by the name “College”. So, we have one of the three ancient college sites, and in Saints Ninian and Donnan we have two of the most important saints of the Celtic Church. We need to take this further and we’ll consider how, next week.

Let me leave you with one final thought – This church is built on the site of Saint Donnan’s cell, so let’s remember that as we leave here today we will be looking at the same fields, the same hill and the same river that Saint Donnan saw fourteen hundred years ago.

The Pictish Nation its People and its Church by Rev. Archibald Black Scott
Saint Donnan the Great and his Muinntir by Rev. Archibald Black Scott
Place Names in Kildonan and Loth by Rev. Archibald Black Scott
Memorabilia Domestica by Rev. Donald Sage
The History of the Province of Cat by Rev. Angus MacKay
Holy Wells in Scotland, by J. Russel Walker, Architect, F.S.A. Scot. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquities, Vol Seventeen, 1882-3 Old Statistical Account by Rev. Alexander Sage
New Statistical Account by Rev. James Campbell
Second Report and Inventory of Monuments and Constructions in the County of Sutherland by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments and Constructions, 1911

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