When Lismore was the centre of Christianity in Argyll

lismore audience

An important and interesting talk was given recently on the Isle of Lismore – on the little known history of the pre-reformation church when Lismore was the centre of Christianity in Argyll.

Few have any idea how important the island was then.

It is a crucial issue since Scotland’s relationship to its Catholic past often seems ambivalent.

Dr Macdonald with moluag copy

Dr lain MacDonald’s talk in the Gaelic Heritage Centre’s Museum room  at the end of May was  ironically titled  Among a people rude and barbarous: the later medieval Bishops of Lismore -  reflecting the casual and convenient stereotyping of the highlander as peripheral and barbaric, more inclined to fighting than to serving God.

Dr MacDonald, of Glasgow University, traced in some detail the story of the later medieval bishops of Argyll and the importance of  Lismore as the centre of Christianity between the 12th and 16thcenturies. This very significant part of Lismore’s  pre-reformation history is neglected  as far as scholarship and wider awareness is concerned. Dr MacDonald’s work is therefore of great importance to the island

He showed just how pre-eminent Lismore and the cathedral were and that many of these  churchmen were highly educated  men of influence and many (though not all) had Lismore’s and Argyll’s best interests at heart.

The exploring, restoring and preserving of Lismore’s  artefacts, history and stories of clerics, clansmen and Liosachs is the reason for the Lismore Gaelic Heritage Centre’s coming into being and continuing to grow. Inviting such speakers is part of the very important work the centre is doing.

In Clerics and Clansmen, Iain MacDonald’s book – which he has kindly donated to the David White Library at the Heritage Centre – he shows how the medieval Church in Gaelic Scotland, often regarded as isolated and irrelevant, continued to function in the face of poverty, periodic warfare and the formidable powers of the clan chiefs.

LIsmore cathedral

He analyses the life of the Argyll Bishopric, as well as considering  the parochial clergy and, surprisingly, he reveals a Church deeply embedded within its host society while remaining plugged into the mainstream of Latin Christendom.

Finally Dr Macdonald cast doubt  on the reason for the Bishopric’s final move from Lismore to Dunoon.

This was said to be the  result of the violent encounter at Killandrist  between George Lauder, Bishop of Argyll (1427–73) and two Gaelic speaking clergymen,  Gilbert Maclachan, Chancellor, and Maurice MacFadyan Treasurer of Lismore – an incident which is described in the Auchinleck Chronicle.

In the ecclesiastical context of the time, Dr MacDonald argues that it is wrong to depict this simply as a confrontation between highlander and lowlander but to see it as the consequence of the ecclesiastical politics pursued by the bishop, which were exacerbated by ongoing political problems in Lorn.

It was a pretty resonant occasion, hearing this story while sitting only yards from the site of such a pivotal historical incident.

Pauline Dowling

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