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History Index : Christianity

St Ninian : St Columba : The Culdees : The Brecbennoch
St Ninian

It is thought that St. Ninian, St. Moloug and St. Finan and their followers may have converted the area from Paganism to Christianity in the 5th Century. St. Ninian is the first known Christian missionary in Scotland and believed to be the son of a Roman soldier stationed at Hadrian's Wall. He studied in Rome and Gaul and travelled to Galway, Ireland and parts of the East coast of Scotland. The first Christian church in Scotland was founded by him near Whithorn.

St Columba
St Columba
St Columba

Around a hundred years later the famous Irish Christian missionary St. Columba arrived in Scotland to carry on the missionary work. Columba is the Latin form of the Gaelic name Colum which means dove. In Ireland he was known as Columcille meaning dove of the church. St. Columba was born into the Irish royal family in 521 AD in County Donegal and founded many monasteries and churches in Ireland. In 563 he sailed with 12 companions, all mainly blood relatives, to the island of Iona in Scotland and built a Monastery there.

The Monastery at Iona played a leading role in the conversion of Scotland, and later after Columba's death in 597, the scholars and missionaries of the Monastery continued to spread their Christian faith and the teachings of Columba throughout the British Isles and to the rest of Europe; to Iceland, Norway and even as far as Italy.

St. Columba travelled extensively in Scotland over a period of thirty-four years, covering the whole area of the North Highlands, including Aberdeenshire and founded many new Monasteries and Christian colonies here.

Culdees, or Celi-dei (Latin: Keledei) meaning servant of God

From around the 7th or 8th Centuries during the Dark Ages, as Columban Christianity waned on the mainland, early Christians known as Culdees begin to appear. The Culdees lived holy lives, ministering to the people and reading the scriptures. When Queen Margaret, wife of Malcolm Canmore, affiliated these early Christians to the Catholic Church in the 12th Century, there was great resistance to this change. The new order tried to obliterate all trace of these early Christians and very little is now known about them.

The Monymusk Reliquary - The Brecbennoch

An interesting link between St. Columba and Monymusk is found in the form of the 'Monymusk Reliquary' or the 'Brecbennoch'.

The Monymusk Reliquary
The Monymusk Reliquary

Click here for drawings showing front and side detail.

The Monymusk Reliquary is a small casket that was preserved at Monymusk House for over 600 years. In 1933 it was put on sale at Christies in London by Sir Arthur Grant (11th Bt.) and received a great deal of public interest, as it was identified by scholars as being the Brecbennoch. The Brecbennoch was thought to have been used to bless the Scottish Army before the famous battle of Bannockburn in 1314, in which King Robert the Bruce defeated the English. It was also believed to have once contained some small bones of St. Columba, or have been a gift from the Saint himself.

The Monymusk Reliquary belongs to a small group of early Irish and Scottish house-shaped reliquaries, of which nine examples survive. From its ornamentation, it is thought to have been made towards the beginning of the 8th Century. The casket is carved from a solid piece of wood, and covered in bronze and silver plates carved with animals. It is decorated with bronze medallions bordered in a red glaze, and has one remaining enamelled hinge from the original two, which would have been pierced to take a carrying strap so that it could be worn around the neck.

The Monymusk Reliquary is widely believed to be the Brecbennoch, and is currently depicted on Clydesdale Bank 20 pound notes. However, there are some who believe that the Monymusk Reliquary may not be the Brecbennoch. See Dr. David H Caldwells paper in the 'Society of Antiquaries of Scotland'. There is much evidence given in support of the theory that it is the genuine relic, but as yet no conclusive proof that it isn't.

Clydesdale Bank Note
Clydesdale Bank Note

The Celtic name Brec-bennoch has been translated in Gaelic as both 'the blessed shrine' or 'the speckled, peaked one'. Breac means either house-shaped, peaked or speckled, referring to its ornamented appearance. Bennoch means 'blessed'. The Brecbennoch was linked to the lands of Forglen, in that whoever owned the lands of Forglen also took on the role of custodian. It is believed it was the duty of the custodian of the Brecbennoch to carry it before the Scottish army before they went into battle. The custodian would bless the soldiers and their arms, pray for victory and show them the Brecbennoch. It is thought that the Brecbennoch came to be linked to the lands of Forglen when it was taken there by St. Eunan (i.e. Adomnan), a 7th Century abbot of Iona and biographer of St. Columba, who founded the church of Forglen in Banffshire.

King William I granted the lands of Forglen, and perhaps the custody of the Brecbennoch, to Arbroath Abbey in 1211 but the Brecbennoch probably often went between Arbroath and Forglen during this time. It is known that the Abbot of Arbroath was present at the famous Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and it is therefore presumed that the Brecbennoch was used to bless the army before this battle. Over the Centuries there have been many different custodians of the Brecbennoch. In 1315 the Lands of Forglen and custody of the Brecbennoch were given to Thomas de Monimusk by King Robert the Bruce. The de Monimusk family may have lived in a tower which is now part of the present House of Monymusk, which might explain how the Brecbennoch first came to Monymusk. It was then passed to the Irvines of Drum, the Urries, the Frasers, the Forbeses and finally the Grants, who moved to Monymusk in 1712.

When the Brecbennoch was put up for sale by the Grants in 1933 to pay for death duty, the Scottish people and their relatives all around the World were urged by the The National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland to raise the money by subscription to secure the casket for the Nation. This was achieved, and it has been housed in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh ever since.

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