The Culdees in Scotland
Records tell of a form of Christianity in the location now known as Scotland from around 37AD. The Culdees, who date from 37AD, appear to have settled in, or close to, an existing holy/power site. Many Mediaeval chapel locations often coincide with older Culdee church sites which themselves were built on earlier Druidic/pagan sites.
The Culdees initially lived in caves or beehive cells. They were Gnostics, teachers and healers and practised meditation.
They are alleged to be Essenes, who escaped from threats to their way of life in the Middle East. They carried with them secret, sacred knowledge, which they passed on to their members. Like the Druids, they believed in reincarnation and an evolving soul. They moved through Europe (some settling in France), into Ireland and from there to Scotland. They established many religious sites throughout Scotland. These sites include one on the island of Iona. They founded one site in England at York, one in North Wales and some in Ireland. Their favourite symbol was the dove, which is said to represent the feminine symbol of the Holy Spirit. Like the Druids before them and the Knights Templar/Cistercian monks who followed them, the Culdees wore white robes.
The origin of their name is unknown and there has been much learnéd debate on this. One school of thought is that it comes from the Irish, ‘Ceile-De’ meaning companion of God. Another source states that the name comes from ‘Cele Dei’ or ‘Keledei’ meaning the children of God, or, yet another states it comes from ‘Culdich’ – strangers from afar. Whatever its origin, the term came to be applied generally to monks and hermits in Scotland. They represent the primitive Celtic Church prior to Romanisation.
These autonomous groups of hermit brothers had a role to play analogous to the role attributed to the eastern side of the Christian Church, the spiritual descendants of the Essenes. The Culdees are also included in the spiritual line of descent from the builders of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. It is believed by many today that the Culdees mission was to integrate the old Druidic beliefs with that of the eastern philosophy of the Essenes.
They were separate from the Columban monks who preached Christianity throughout Scotland and northern England from the late 6th century. Interestingly, when the Vikings raided Iona from the late 7th century onwards, whilst they looted the Columban Abbey and Nunnery, they left St Oran’s church unscathed. This small, ancient church that is still in use today, is thought to have been the home of an early Culdee monk.
From the latter part of the 6th century AD, there was mounting pressure from Rome for all monks to follow the Roman ecclesiastical style. This was a very gradual process working from the south of Britain and many in the north refused to accept the changes decreed by Rome. The Culdees are often referred to as the ‘hidden church’ in Scotland and they seemed to be overlooked by those in power when other monks were being forced to conform to Roman practices. The Culdees continued as before, until in the 8th and 9th centuries they came more to the fore in public life, converting some powerful people such as King Constantine of the Picts. He retired from office to become abbot of the Culdee settlement at St Andrews.
Their solitary life was ideally suited to the harsh, rugged land they lived in and they continued unobtrusively to teach, preach and heal. However, by the 11th century, under the influence of Queen Margaret, most of the Celtic churches had become part of the Church of Rome. The Culdees were still tolerated in some areas (St Andrews and Loch Leven being two notable sites) but eventually they faded from our history.
However, their philosophy continued to influence religion in Scotland until the Reformation in the mid-16th century. The reformers wanted a return to simplicity in their religious practices, which strangely seems to echo that of the Culdees.
As the public life of the Culdees faded, other groups took over their role as bearers of the sacred knowledge. For instance, the Knights Hospitallers who made their headquarters at Torphichen (a place of tremendous power) near Cairnpapple (an ancient ceremonial and burial site dating from around 2,800 BC) in west-Lothian. The Knights Hospitallers built their sanctuary on top of a major Culdee settlement.
Locally, it is thought that the many ruined beehive cells
found there were once inhabited by Irish monks (Culdees) who probably
trained under St Ninian at Candida Casa in Galloway. This would date
from sometime in the 4th century AD, long before Columba arrived on
Iona in 563AD.
The Knights Hospitallers were a knightly order of crusaders, dedicated to John the Baptist. They maintained herbal gardens and had healing water that was used in their work with the sick and needy, much in the same way as the Culdees.
Similarly, the Knights Templar also took on much of the role/philosophy of the Culdees in Scotland. There is a common spiritual root between the Druids, Culdees and Knights Templar, that of Gnosticism, and it would seem that the Culdees influenced and moulded Scottish minds over the centuries and prepared the ground for the fleeing Templars in the 14th century.
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