The Celtic Church

celtic-chCeltic Christianity, and the early Celtic church, is a subject of growing interest today, along with increased interest in the Celtic saints and, especially, the places of pilgrimage relating to early Celtic monasteries or churches, such as Iona, Kells, Whithorn, or St. Illtud’s Church in Wales. This is a very complex and multi-faceted topic, so this particular article will focus on one of the famous Celtic saints of Scotland – St. Columba of Iona. We tend to think of the Celtic saints as dedicated missionaries, devoted monks or nuns, lovers of God’s creation in nature, egalitarian, good healers, lovers of poetry, somewhat mysterious and, perhaps, even as shining examples of a long-lost Golden Age of Christianity. Accurate or not, such portrayals of these men and women of God are prt of their powerful legacy, which remains with us today.

The “heyday” of the Celtic church was from the early 5th through the 8th centuries. Some monasteries, such as Iona in Scotland, Kells in Ireland, or Lindisfarne in northeast England, are renowned for their beautiful, illuminated manuscripts. Lindisfarne is often misrepresented as having been an exclusively “Celtic” church community when, in fact, it was an important part of the Northumbrian church, which had its own distinct identity. However, Lindisfarne received many ideas and monks from Iona, making it a key community of the time in an extensive network – Glastonbury, too, has connections with St. Patrick, for example.

The major areas of the Celtic Christian communities were in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, Brittany, and other parts of Gaul (France). The early Celtic missionaries were among the most successful ever, travelling great distances to spread the Word. Remnants of some of the Celtic Christian communities lasted beyond the Synod of Whitby (664 AD), where, briefly put, the Celtic church as an institution decided to adopt Roman customs, and was then assimilated into the Roman church. The Celtic church in Wales finally submitted to Rome in 768 AD. In Scotland, the “Culdees” (Keledei) – clergy and monks who attempted to keep to the earlier Celtic ways – are mentioned in documents relating to legal and property matters up to the early 11th century but, by the time of David I, were largely forgotten. But the memory of the Celtic saints and their communities lives on.

The very idea of a single, organised “Celtic Church” is actually quite misleading, implying a uniformity throughout the Celtic parts of Europe, which was not the case. It does not properly acknowledge the considerable organisational differences between the various early Celtic churches and their diverse communities. To simply lump them all together does great disservice both to their sophistication, and to their complexity as a field of study. Dr. Ian Bradley, of St. Andrews University, in his book entitled Celtic Christianity, describes these communities as “the early indigenous Christian communities of the British Isles”. (And, I might also add, also those of Brittany). This is perhaps a more accurate phrase than simply “Celtic Christian” – what exactly, then, does one mean by “Celtic?” It is also unfortunate that certain Celtic saints have acquired highly romanticized personality cults – as “stars” – which does not really do justice to the hard work of their largely forgotten contemporaries, who also did major missionary work, in equally difficult conditions.

The early British church is known to have sent Bishops to the Council of Arles in 314 AD – well before the arrival of St. Augustine in Canterbury in 597 AD., which is often assumed to be the “beginning” of Christianity in Britain. Although the early hagiographers – those who wrote the Saints’ Lives – sometimes deliberately embellished a tale about a saint for their own reasons (such as to glorify a certain monastery and its founding saint, for instance), this doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the saints’ legends and place-lore tales are false, or that the study of such tales has nothing to say to us today.

St. Columba of Iona:

A number of Celtic saints lived and worked in and around the kingdom of Dalriada in northwest Scotland. One of the best known is St. Columba, or Columcille, of Iona (521-597 AD). The Dalriada were a Gaelic tribe from the coastal districts of what is now County Antrim in northern Ireland, and play a major role in early Scottish Celtic Christianity. Most of the information we have about Columba’s life comes from Adomnan’s “Life of Columba”. Adomnan was the Abbot of Iona and, it is believed, he wrote this work in about 690 AD – nearly a century after Columba’s death. The other major source of information about him is Bede, who wrote about forty years after Adomnan. In turn, oral tradition among the monks of Iona was a major source of their information, and it is also believed that Adomnan had access to an earlier “Life of Columba” written by his predecessor.

St Columba is believed to have been born in about 521 AD, in northern Ireland, of Fedlimid, son of Fergus, an aristocrat of the family called the Cenel Conaill, which ruled over much of county Donegal. When he was young, Columba was fostered to a priest, and learned from some of the greatest teachers in Ireland at the time. Little is known for sure about Columba’s life in Ireland, prior to coming to Iona, even of two apparently significant but mysterious events in his life. The first was the battle of Cul Drebene, which was fought and won by Columba’s kin and their allies, in 561 AD, against the ruling southern UiNeill. Two years after this battle, Columba left Ireland in exile for Britain, the exact reasons for which, researchers have been unable to determine. The second, chronicled but unexplained, is the story that Columba copied from a precious book, and was caught doing so, and admonished.

It is known that in 563 AD., two years after the battle of Cul Drebene, Columba came to Iona accompanied by twelve monks and was given the island by Conall son of Comgall, the king of the Scottish Dalriada. There were other foundations besides Iona, including the island of Hinba – which has yet to be positively identified – and Mag Luinge on the island of Tiree, where Columba sent those who came to him as penitents. It is also known that Columba went back to Ireland on a number of occasions, to speak with religious leaders and kings. He appears to have had an important role in a conference of kings in 575 AD, with Aed mac Ainmirech (later king of Tara) and Aedan mac Gabrain, king of Dal Riata, attending. It is here that Columba also made his famous defence of the bards.

Columba died on 9 June 597 AD, at the age of 76, on Iona, as told by St. Adomnan in his “Life of Columba”. One of the most enduring and beloved anecdotes about St. Columba is the account of his last days and hours. This is described by Dr. Alan Macquarrie in his book The Saints of Scotland:

Adomnan describes how, in the month of May…..Columba was taken in a cart to visit the monks who were at work…He told them that his end was drawing near, and blessed them…on the Saturday after that, he and his personal attendant Diarmait went out for a short walk, but Columba’s age…prevented him going further….he told the sorrowing Diarmait that he expected to die that night. On the way back to the monastery he sat down to rest….While he was resting, he was approached by one of the monastery’s horses….The horse placed its head in the saint’s bosom and seemed to weep, as if it knew that its master would soon be taken from it….Diarmait wanted to drive the beast away, but Columba would not allow this; rather he allowed it to nuzzle against him, before he blessed [it]…….

Here, Columba is portrayed as having particular sensitivity to animals. Scottish painter John Duncan featured this episode in Columba’s life, in his now famous painting of Columba and a white horse. From folklore records, we know that in earlier times, on the islands of Benbecula, South Uist, and Barra, at Beltane (eve of 1st May) the people dedicated their hymns to not only the Holy Trinity, but also to St. Columba, as guardian of their cattle.

Several other early manuscripts exist about Columba. The Cathach of St. Columba, part of a psalter dated around 600 AD, is among the oldest examples of Irish Latin in existence. Its style is unique, in that the initial letters are sometimes surrounded by red dots, a feature earlier found in Coptic manuscripts. The Coptic Church is Egyptian, leading one to ponder about possible “desert father” connections with the early Celtic saints, who seem to have used them as a monastic model. Some say that this Egyptian conection may have been Alexandrian, while others believe that the early Byzantine and other eastern Christian sects may have had an influence. The early Syrian monastic communities, with their strong emphasis on the Anchorite desert hermit tradition, were a likely model for the Celtic monastic saints. Certainly they shared a severely ascetic lifestyle. I believe that there are also other plausible, though lesser known possibilities to consider, but this is another topic in itself.

Iona became a great centre of scholarship and learning, and was renowned for its scriptorium. It is increasingly believed among scholars that the beautifully ornate Book of Kells was actually made on Iona by monks of the Columban church, and probably taken to Ireland in around 800 AD to preserve it from the Vikings, who had devastated Iona in 795 AD[*]. These Celtic scriptoriums were very important for many reasons. We would have very little of the earlier tales and stories from the pagan era, were it not for the Christian scribes who wrote down their versions, somewhat coloured though they might have been.

The Celtic saints and the early Celtic church and its communities continue to inspire many today. Many questions about them remain unanswered, but further research continues to shed light on their extraordinary lives. Their light, in turn, continues to shine, even into our modern, secular times.

Dr Karen Ralls

*The Book of Kells is now displayed in Trinity College Dublin, where one page is turned each day. A facsimile is housed in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.


This select bibliography does not aim to be comprehensive, but to suggest major works on this topic, both popular and academic, and from a variety of perspectives.

To get started…

recommended texts:

  • Bradley, I., Celtic Christianity, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 1999
  • Lines, M., Sacred Stones, Sacred Places, St. Andrew Press: Edinburgh, 1992
  • Mackey, J.P., [Ed.], An Introduction to Celtic Christianity, Edinburgh, 1989
  • Ralls, K., Music and the Celtic Otherworld, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 2000
  • Armit, I., Celtic Scotland, BT Batsford: London, 1997
  • Chadwick, N., The Age of the Saints in the early Celtic Church, London, 1961
  • Clancy, T., and Markus, G., Iona; The Earliest Poetry of a Celtic Monastery, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 1995
  • Herbert, M., Iona, Kells and Derry, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 1988
  • Hughes, K., and Hamlin, A., Celtic Monasticism, Seabury Press: New York, 1981
  • Jackson, K., A Celtic Miscellany, Penguin: Harmondsworth, rev. ed., 1971
  • Smith, D., Celtic Travellers: Scotland in the Age of the Saints, The Stationery Office, Edinburgh 1997

Illustrated lectures and more detailed seminars
by Dr Karen Ralls can be arranged.
Please contact Ancient Quest for details.

Ancient Quest, and Dr. Karen Ralls, do not necessarily agree with, or endorse, material in the publications noted above, but provide this list as a general introduction to learning more about this topic.

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