About 23 miles east of Edinburgh, near Haddington, stands Traprain Law, a hill raised by volcanic activity a long time ago. It is poised like a sentinel surveying the surrounding Lothians in a commanding position. Over 3,000 years ago this hill fort was the stronghold of the British tribe known as the Gododdin, or Votadini, as the Romans called them. Later they moved to Dyn Eiddyn, or Edinburgh.

In 1919 archaeologists excavated at Traprain Law and found something that exceeded all expectations: a buried stash of silver, weighing 22 pounds. The plates had been cut into pieces, whilst spoons, flasks, and other items had been left in one piece. It seems that the silver had been stolen from wealthy people and had been hidden by the thieves, but they perhaps never lived to unearth and use their buried treasure. There it lay undisturbed for fifteen hundred years. Now it is displayed for the public to see in Edinburgh’s National Museum. Some of the artwork on the silverware depicts pagan gods, like Venus rising out of the sea, or Hercules, but other work shows biblical scenes, such as paradise and the adoration of the Magi.

One of the recurring symbols that appear is the Christian chi-rho, which became the sign of Constantine the Great, who ruled the Roman Empire in the fourth century. This symbol is depicted as a saltire cross with the vertical letter P running through the centre of the cross. The two letters are the abbreviation for Christ from Greek, written as χρ. From the time of Constantine this symbol appeared on his coins, and on those of his successors, on the soldiers’ shields, and everywhere throughout the Roman Empire, including Britain. We know that the Roman soldiers left Scotland in AD 410 when the Goths sacked Rome, leaving their Gododdin allies exposed to the fierce hatred of the Picts and Scots. Scholars reckon that the Traprain silver hoard dates to this period. If Christians were living near Traprain Law, a day’s walk from Edinburgh, then it is likely that Christians were also living in this city too, by then.

Modern chi-rho symbol in Newbattle Parish Church

Modern chi-rho symbol in Newbattle Parish Church. Photo: Paul James-Griffiths

Although early records of Scottish history have been lost, most historians reckon that Christians arrived in Scotland in the third century. They most likely would have brought the gospel with them as British merchants and as Roman soldiers and traders. Tertullian, the Roman scholar from North Africa, wrote in about AD 200 of  “the places of the Britons not reached by the Romans but subject to Christ (Against the Jews, 7). It is clear that this would have meant areas north of the Antonine Wall, which was started in AD 142. This ties in well with the well-worn tradition of the first Christians being in Scotland when King Donald I, his wife, and courtiers were converted to Christ in AD 203.  Scholars, such as Calderwood, McCrie, Spottiswoode, and others, rely on the earlier writings of Boece (1465-1536) and Fordun (d. 1384) for this, for they had access to documents long since lost.

Calderwood suggests a second century date for the first Christians in Scotland: “It is likelie, therefore that there were manie Christians among the Scots [he means Britons, as the Scots only started coming over in the fifth century] before the conversion of King Donald, as there were among the Britons, before the conversion of King Lucius.” 1

John Spotiswoode, Archbishop of St Andrews, wrote in 1639:

“In the year of our Lord 203 (which was the fourth of Donald the First his Reign), the Faith of Christ was in the kingdom first publickly embraced; King Donald with his Queen and divers of his Nobles being then solemnly baptized…Cratilinth coming unto the Crown in the year 277 made it one of his first works to purge the Kingdom of heathenish superstition, and expulse the Druids…But that which furthered not a little the propagation of the Gospel in those parts [southern Britain] was the persecution raised by Diocletian [AD 303], which at that time was hot in the South parts of Britain. This brought many Christians, both preachers and Professors [believers], into this Kingdom, who were all kindly received by Cratilinth …” 2

If Christians were quite widespread in southern Scotland by AD 303, then it is likely that there was a Christian community in Edinburgh by the fourth century, as it was a key city in this period. Certainly when Ninian began his apostolic mission among the Britons and Southern Picts at Whithorn in AD 397, “a great multitude” of Christians greeted him, as Aelrud relates in his Life of Ninian.

Roman Cramond and Inveresk (AD 142-410)

It is clear from archaeological and historical evidence that the Romans viewed Edinburgh as a strategic city. On the west side of Edinburgh they established Cramond as a place for their military barracks, and on the east side Inveresk, near Musselburgh. Although archaeologists have only found evidence of the Roman pagan gods at these sites, so far, it is very likely that Christians would have been among the soldiers, certainly by the time Emperor Constantine was stamping his Christian symbol on his coins from AD 327 onwards. Perhaps, in time, archaeologists may discover the chi-rho or other Christian symbols from the fourth century in Edinburgh and the surrounding areas. As the Romans and the Gododdin had a firm alliance against the Picts and Scots, it would also make sense that Christianity had been readily accepted among the locals by this time.

Palladius, Serf, Kentigern and Cuthbert

Bede tells us that in AD 423 the Roman bishop Celestine “sent Palladius to the Scots, who believed in Christ to be their first bishop.” 3 This would mean the Irish who had come over and settled on the west coast of Scotland. Palladius appointed Serf as leader at Culross, on the other side of the estuary to Edinburgh. Serf himself trained Kentigern, whose mother Theneu, had come from the Gododdin hill fort at Traprain Law. Kentigern, or Mungo, became an apostle to the southern Picts at Glasgow. It makes sense that mission was going on in this geographical area in the fifth century, including Edinburgh.

In AD 605 Archbishop Laurence wrote a joint letter with his bishops about the Easter debate “To our dear brothers the lord bishops and abbots throughout Scottish lands…” 4   This extract from Bede demonstrates that by this time Christianity was established in an advanced form all over Scotland, with its own bishops and abbots.  King Edwin of the Angles defeated the Gododdin and took Edinburgh from them. He was baptised as a Christian in AD 627 in York, along with his nobility and many of his subjects, and became an evangelist amongst the Angles, his faith having “been spoken of throughout the world” 5. Edwin was defeated in battle in AD 633 by the British King Cadwalla, who then took his lands and caused great devastation in Northumbria, slaughtering many Christians. However, King Oswald retook Edinburgh from the Britons in AD 638. He had been converted to Christ as a boy in exile through the Columban community at Iona.

Having re-established his kingdom, King Oswald was keen to evangelise his lands throughout Northumbria, with Edinburgh being his most northerly part. In AD 635 Aidan had been sent from Iona to establish his mission base at Lindisfarne. An extraordinary relationship began between Aidan as evangelist and King Oswald acting as his interpreter, because Aidan only spoke Irish, and not English.


Cuthbert painting at St Cuthbert’s Church, Lothian Rd, Edinburgh

Cuthbert painting at St Cuthbert’s Church, Lothian Rd,
Edinburgh. Photo: Paul James-Griffiths

In the AD 650s Trumwine was bishop of the Angles at Abercorn, just west of Edinburgh, where he stayed until he was driven out by the Picts in AD 685. It is reckoned that Cuthbert, who was Trumwine’s friend, was involved in mission to the Angles in the Edinburgh area. Having been brought up in Scotland, Cuthbert had trained as a monk in Old Melrose Abbey. Cuthbert, against his own wishes, was appointed bishop of Lindisfarne by King Egfrid in AD 685. According to a strong tradition, Cuthbert consecrated the first known church building6 in Edinburgh at about this time. Symeon of Durham does mention a church in Edinburgh as part of the diocese of Lindisfarne, in his Historia Regnum Anglorum, written in AD 854, but scholars are uncertain whether he meant the church of St Giles, or St Cuthbert’s church. In St Cuthbert’s graveyard there is a sign saying, “It is believed that St Cuthbert himself founded a church that was built by a stream, which became the Nor Loch below the Castle Rock of Edinburgh.”

Notes

1.Calderwood, David, The History of the Kirk of Scotland, Volume 1, p. 37, edited from the original manuscripts preserved in the museum, Edinburgh, printed for the Wodrow Society, 1843.

2. Spotiswoode, John, The History of the Church of Scotland: Beginning the Year of our Lord 203, and Continued to the end of the Reign of King James VI of Ever Blessed Memory, Book 1, p. 3-4, 3rd edition, London (original edition 1639).

3. Bede, A History of the English Church and People, 1:13, p. 53, Penguin Classics, 1983.

4. Bede, ibid, 2:4, p.106.

5. Bede, ibid, 2:17, p.133.

6. The earliest churches would have been very simple and were made of wattle. It is unlikely that archaeologists will find any of the remains of earlier churches in Edinburgh.