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Iona, Lindisfarne and the Glory of the North

Report of the lecture given by Patricia Wright
on February 27th 2013

When we consider the rugged terrain that the early Celtic evangelists covered, it is a miracle that they spread their belief so far, and achieved such outstanding works of art and religion. Patricia Wright, undoubtedly a master of detail, gave us a fascinating overview of these early stirrings of Christianity: a new religion which brought a cultural awakening to the British Isles.

There are many half-remembered names:  Patrick, Palladius, Ninian, Columba, Augustine, Aidan, Bede, Caedmon, Hilda, Wilfrid and Cuthbert, but where do they fit in?

The Romans had first brought Christianity to Southern Scotland, but it was only two centuries later in the 430s that Patrick and Palladius evangelised Ireland, along with Ninian in Scotland.  The Irish evangelists, who had no written language, were amazed to realise that they could, in Latin, communicate with their God, and so they travelled, as sole interpreters of this new civilisation, to Rome, where they acquired knowledge of Latin, which subsequently allowed for the Gospels to be set down in books and spread through the Christian kingdom. 

In 560, St Columba left Ireland in a coracle-like boat, with little food for survival, to settle with his monks on Iona.  He was a charismatic envoy, hot-tempered and having a voice “like the trumpet of God”.  It was he who faced an unknown monster whom he quelled with his shouting – Patricia describes this as the first recorded sighting of the Loch Ness monster!

Aidan of Lindisfarne

Gradually the beliefs spread south into Northumbria, despite the endemic fighting. By the mid seventh century, Aidan from Iona established Lindisfarne, and from there many tiny churches (of four or five monks) developed.  Initially the Irish had preached in the open air, in front of a cross they brought with them, but now the first stone buildings, looking like beehives, appeared.

The Lindisfarne Gospels

Lindisfarne became the hub of literacy for Christians not only in Britain but all over Europe.  Paintings, metalwork, carvings and books are found far and wide bearing marks of the Celtic gift.  Originally, the designs bore no human figures, but they were incorporated later, to illustrate the humanity of Christ.  Each page of the Gospels produced by the monks had to carry a mistake, for only God is perfect.

"Carpet Page" from the Lindisfarne Gospels

As churches were constructed by monks who were sent to Europe to learn the lost skills of mortar and glass production, local craftsmen were trained, and villages were encouraged in husbandry to support these skills, and thus civilisation was raised gradually from subsistence level.

The first British poet, Caedmon, was discovered by the abbess Hilda. Originally a cowherd, he entertained the monks with verse stories, and so Hilda persuaded him to become a monk, to spread the Gospels.

But all this ended with the arrival of the Vikings, who sacked and pillaged the churches, monasteries and villages. The monks fled far and wide, carrying whatever treasures they could, including Cuthbert’s body, relics, and books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Our warm thanks to Patricia for filling our imaginations with the events of these long-gone centuries.

Lesley Austin