Sacred Connections Scotland
The Celtic Church and the Monastic Tradition of the Middle East
(Extracted from The Holy Land of Scotland: Jesus in Scotland & the Gospel of the Grail by Barry Dunford – out of print)
In a paper delivered to an ecclesiastical society entitled “Church life in the time of St. Blane” by J. Hutchison Cockburn, a former Minister of Dunblane Cathedral, Scotland, the author observes: “The Celtic Church in Ireland and in Scotland owed its origin not to Rome, but to Egypt and the East; its customs, traditions, methods, government came from Egypt through Athanasius of Alexandria, Hilary, Martin of Tours, Ninian, and through that religious channel, more than a little independent of Rome. The religious ideas of Egypt came to Scotland and Ireland and were absorbed easily into the tribal life of these countries.. There is no doubt that the Celtic Church owed its ritual, its architecture, its worship and its law to Syria, Egypt and Palestine, and that its allegiance to Rome was slight.”
This is confirmed in a treatise entitled The Celtic Church and the Influence of the East (1923) by Rev. John Stirton, B. D., F. S. A. (Scot.), who notes: “S. Ninian, carrying from S. Martin at Tours the enthusiasm for monasticism and culture of the East, and, later, S. Patrick, likewise imbued with monastic zeal which he had acquired both at Lerins and at Tours-returned to their respective countries, Scotland and Ireland, and founded religious settlements which, before many years should elapse, were calculated to wield an influence universally felt not only in the British Isles but on the Continent of Europe.. We thus see that the influence of Asia Minor and of Egypt came to the early Celtic Church in Britain from Gaul in two streams which eventually met and merged into one; the first came from S. Martin through S. Ninian to Whithorn, in Galloway, whence, through S. Finnian it passed to Moville in Ireland and from Moville through S. Columba to Iona and the Celts of Scotland in 563 A. D. The second originated at Lerins and through S. Martin at Tours and S. Patrick it passed to Ireland, where it joined the other.. There seemed to be a peculiar affinity between the tribal or clan system of the Celts and the monasticism of Egypt. The monasterium or collegium both in Egypt and in Celtic Ireland and Scotland consisted of a number of huts which were the dwellings of the clerical and lay monks and their families, for many of the latter were married.. The clergy of the Celtic Church were missionaries rather than theologians.. In this respect they were like the early apostles and disciples in the Churches of Asia Minor.”
The link between the British Celtic Church and the monastic tradition of the Middle East is further supported in the following extract taken from a scholarly essay entitled The Coptic Church and Egyptian Monasticism by De Lacy O’Leary: “The formation and development of monasticism did not take place in Alexandria which was Greek-speaking and participated in Greek culture, but amongst the native Coptic-speaking Christians of Egypt, which strictly denotes the Delta, and Thebais or Upper Egypt, the whole area watered by the Nile between Aswân and the Mediterranean coast. The formation of monasticism took place in two stages: first came the solitaries, some, but by no means all, of whom were hermits or ‘desert men’; then came the formation of coenobia or monastic communities, at first simply groups of disciples gathered round some well-known and revered teacher.. The monastic life of Egypt became famous throughout the whole Christian Church, and for a long time Egypt was regarded as the ‘Holy Land’ in preference to Palestine, because there could be seen the multitudes of saintly ascetes, and Christians came as pilgrims from all parts to see and hear them. Amongst these were St. Basil the Great, the founder of Greek monasticism, Hilarion, who introduced monasticism into Palestine, Rufinus and a Roman lady named Melania who spent six months in Egypt in 373. Then in 386 St. Jerome and a wealthy widow named Paula visited the monasteries of Egypt, and of this visit St. Jerome has left us an account (Epistle 108). Palladius, Bishop of Helenopolis, spent the years 388-99 and 406-12 amongst the monks of Egypt, the former period in Thebais, the latter in Nitria.”
This writer continues: “In due course monasticism spread abroad and was copied in other lands; indeed one of the most striking features in its history is the rapidity with which it developed and then spread. As the movement passed westward along the Mediterranean various settlements were founded in some of the islands, the most secluded places available where there were no deserts. One of these was founded about 400 at Lerins (St. Honorat) and became a great centre of monastic activity, sending out missionaries and founding monastic colonies in other lands. There, it is said, the young Patrick was trained and, if this be so, it would help to explain the presence of several Egyptian details in the Celtic Church of Ireland, for the monastery of Lerins was organized and conducted on Egyptian models. Thus it came about that the Irish Church was monastic rather than diocesan. There were a few diocesan bishops, but the ruling dignitaries of the Celtic Church in Ireland were abbots who kept a bishop in their monastery ready for use at ordinations and consecrations, but otherwise living as an ordinary monk. The old Celtic monasteries of Ireland did not resemble the medieval abbeys of England: like the Egyptian coenobia they were simply villages where the huts of the ascetes were gathered round a modest oratory used for the week-end Eucharist. There were no deserts in Ireland, but it was the fashion to call the place where a monastery stood a desert, and so we find the term ‘Disert’ or ‘Desert’ in many Irish place-names, as Disertmartin, Disert in Westmeath, Killadysert in Clare, and many others.. In spite of its remoteness the Celtic Church of Ireland retained direct contact with the monasteries of Egypt. In the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris there is still preserved a guidebook for the use of Irish monks travelling to Egypt in order to visit the Fathers of the desert. As late as 1320 Simon FitzSimon and Hugh, Franciscans of Dublin, made the pilgrimage to Egypt and left us a record of their journey.”
The desert/dysart connection is confirmed in The Towers and Temples of Ancient Ireland by Marcus Keane, M. R. I. A. (Dublin, 1867): “There are upwards of twenty ancient Ecclesiastical foundations in Ireland bearing the name of Disart, Dysart, or Desart.. Ancient ruins are found at several places of this name. The following are a few of these, at three of which Round Towers exist, viz., at Dysart O’Dea, Co. Clare; Disart Carregin, Co. Limerick; and at Dysart in Queen’s County.” This author goes on to list the following Irish placenames: Dysart and Rath, Clare; Desert, Waterford; Dysart, Westmeath.
Much of what has been said about the early Celtic Church in Ireland equally applies to the Celtic Church in Scotland, bearing in mind that many of the Irish Celtic monks were in fact tutored at Candida Casa in Galloway, Scotland. There are a number of desert/dysart placenames found throughout Scotland. For example, Dysart in Fife, traditionally connected with St. Serf; Dysart in the Parish of Maryton, in Forfarshire; and An Diseart near Pitlochry, Perthshire. The village of Dalmally at the foot of Glen Orchy was called Clachan an Diseirt, ‘the Kirkton of Dysart,’ and the parish of Glen Orchy was sometimes called Dysart. There is also a placename Cladh an Diseart (Buriel-ground of the Hermitage) to be found on the sacred Isle of Iona. In The Story of Iona (1909) by the Rev. E. C. Trenholme, the author remarks: “The word ‘disert’ is unknown in present-day Gaelic, but it was a common old Irish term when the Celtic Church flourished in Iona. Irish monasteries often had a disert near by, consisting of one or more hermits’ cells. The Iona disert seems to have been for a solitary anchorite.” Furthermore, there would appear to have been a major pilgrimage route, coming from Iona and the West of Scotland, which passed through Glen Orchy (Dysart) into Glenlyon, Perthshire. The most ancient Gaelic name for Glenlyon is Glen Fasach which translates as the ‘desert glen’. Within this Glen, on the north side of Loch Lyon, is to be found a mountain called Beinn-Mhanach which is Gaelic for ‘Ben of the Monks’. In The Book of Garth and Fortingall (1888) the author, Duncan Campbell, a former school teacher at Fortingall, comments: “Who, then, were the monks that gave its name to this ben? .. This region would truly have been ‘a desert’ for monks seeking seclusion from the world.”
James King Hewison, M. A., F. S. A.(Scot.), in The Isle of Bute in the Olden Time (1893, vol. I) makes the interesting observation: “.. the inmate of a deiscirt or cell was a Culdee, and the reference is one of the first importance, in so far as it suggests a different explanation of the special functions of that order from what is generally accepted by historical students.. This call of the Culdee from the solitary life of the desert, where, cut off from all human interests, the life of another was of small moment to him, to undertake humane work in its most difficult form, prompts the inquiry whether or not the Culdees were not the Christianised successors of the Druada, or priestly magicians, who pretended to possess miraculous powers.” The Culdee/desert connection is also noted by the Benedictine scholar historian, Sir Hugh Cressy, who when writing about “the Culdees or Religious servants of God” goes on to say: “If we speak of the prime originall of these Culdei, we have already shewd that they began long before, when by reason of the furious persecution rais’d by Diocletian [3rd century A. D], a world of Christians retir’d themselves into desarts, there with safety and vacancy to attend to God by Prayer and Religious austerities, who therfore were call’d Colidei, and corruptly Culdei.” (The Church History of Brittany from the Beginning of Christianity to the Norman Conquest, 1668, Rouen)
Can we trace any specific links between the Druid/Culdee tradition in Celtic Britain, particularly Scotland and Ireland, and the Essenes and other monastic traditions of the Middle East and Egypt, such as the Egyptian Coptic Christian Church? The monastic Culdees appear to have had their origin in the roots of Celtic Christianity in the British Isles dating back to the early centuries A. D., with possible apostolic connections. Indeed, the Culdees appear in some respects to have carried forward elements of an earlier pre-Christian Druidic tradition, and they have been called “Christian heirs of the Druids”. Many of their monastic sites and settlements overlaid earlier pre-Christian Druidic sites of worship, Iona being a prime example, which was known anciently as the ‘Druid’s Isle’. Moreover, the Culdees claimed that the tenets of their teaching derived directly from the disciples of St. John, who would have come either directly, or indirectly, from the Middle East.
The Essene-Culdee connection is confirmed by the researches of the 19th century antiquary, Godfrey Higgins, who in his erudite work The Celtic Druids (1829) states: “The result of all the inquiries which I have made into the history of the Culdees is, that they were the last remains of the Druids, who had been converted to Christianity, before the Roman Church got any footing in Britain. They were Pythagorean Druidical monks, probably Essenes, and this accounts for their easily embracing Christianity: for the Essenes were as nearly Christians as possible  …. The fact of the Culdees having succeeded by hereditary descent, is extremely important. It is so very different from the practice under the Christian religion, that it tends strongly to confirm the suspicion that these people were Druids. It is nowhere to be found except where the Druids have been.” Moreover, according to James Bonwick: “Iona had certainly a Druidical college till the community was expelled by Columba for his own community, and the Highlanders still recognise it as the Druid’s Isle. An old statistical work says, ‘the Druids undoubtedly possessed Iona before the introduction of Christianity.’ It must be admitted that the Culdees wore a white dress, as did the Druids, [and the Essenes] and that they occupied places which had a Druidical reputation. They used the Asiatic cross, now called that of St. Andrew’s.” Notably, in an Irish version of the gospel of St. Matthew, the phrase “there came wise men from the east” is rendered “the Druids came from the east.” In like manner, in the Old Testament, Exodus vii. II, the “magicians of Egypt” are made “Druids of Egypt.” ……..
The nexus between the early Celtic Church and the monastic tradition of the Middle East has also been noted by the Rev. John Stirton in his essay The Celtic Church and the Influence of the East (1923), in which he relates: “The illuminations of those splendid manuscripts the Book of Kells (seventh century), now in Dublin, and of the Gospels of Lindisfarne (seventh century) are all Eastern in character. In these, and in the Book of Deer, the figures of the Evangelists reflect the Eastern type, and the Egypto-Greek title o agios is attached to some of them. A Roman origin is impossible, because not a single Italian MSS can be produced, older than the ninth century, having a close resemblance to those of this country. The illuminations resemble Assyrian or Egyptian work. Much of the Celtic ornamentation is similar to that found in early Syriac, Egyptian, and Ethiopic MSS by a resemblance in the delineation of birds and animals to Egyptian fresco painting, in the manner of drawing the wings, in the conventional representations of eagles, lions, and calves, also in the swathed mummy-like figures of Christ. The theory of such an origin is facilitated by the early commercial intercourse which is known to have existed, and to which reference has been made, between this country and the East, and by the frequent expeditions recorded to have been made by early Christian pilgrims of the Celtic Church to the Holy Land, and by the immigration of foreign ecclesiastics.”
The Rev. John Stirton further says: “No church is known to have existed in Ireland before the Norman Conquest that can be called a basilica, none of them being divided into aisles either by stone or wooden pillars, or possessing an apse, and no circular church has yet been found; there is nothing, in short, that would lead us to believe that Ireland obtained her architecture direct from Rome. Everything, on the contrary, tends to confirm the belief of an intimate connection with the further East. In Greece and Ireland and in the Hebrides of Scotland the smallness of the churches is remarkable. They never were, in fact, basilicas for the assembly of large congregations of worshippers, but oratories, where the priest could celebrate the divine mysteries for the benefit of the laity. It is not only at Mount Athos, and other places in Europe, but also in Asia Minor, that we find the method of grouping a large number of small churches together, seven being the favourite number and one often attained. The circular domical dwellings-which are older than the churches, and which are, in the western islands, constructed of loose stones, in horizontal layers, approaching one another till they meet at the apex, like the old so-called treasuries of the Greeks, or the domes of the Jains in India-are also traceable to the East. Similar Christian architectural remains have been found in Cornwall, and in the remote Highlands and Islands of Scotland.. The earliest type of monumental cross in Scotland is an Egyptian or Coptic wheel cross. It appears on several stones at Kirkmadrine in Wigtonshire, along with the Alpha and Omega.. The Crux Ansata, the emblem of life in Egyptian hieroglyphics, is found on a stone at Nigg in Ross-shire, and on another at Ardboe, in Ireland. There are many symbols on the Celtic stones of Scotland which are still unexplained.. The Crescent, the Serpent, and the Elephant must all be Eastern in origin, and these are commonly met with on the Celtic symbol-bearing stones.”
A possible ancient Egypto-Celtic connection is also indicated in Egyptian Belief and Modern Thought (1878) by James Bonwick, F. R. G. S., who states: “It is singular to find a white race spoken of in the ancient monuments. Dr. Brugsch, the learned German, notices the word Tam-hou or white men. As it occurs on tablets dating 2,500 years before Christ, it is puzzling to indicate the people. Brugsch traces them to Libya. Champollion recognized in the Tamh’ou a type of European ancestry. M. Deveria remarks upon hieroglyphics recording the fact of Horus, the god, leading and guiding a white race. As there are still many Celtic monuments in the north of Africa, over many hundreds of miles, he contends for the existence of an original Celtic people in Egypt, or, in modern language, that the Welsh and Irish were once in Egypt.”
There is clearly a strong Egypto-Scottish connection which can be traced back at least as far as Scota (c. 1500 B. C), an Egyptian Princess of the Hyksos Pharaonic Dynasty, from whom the ancient Scots claim their heritage.
 The Legacy of Egypt, 1942, edited by S. R. K. Glanville, pp. 317-325.
 Prof. William J. Watson, The History of the Celtic Placenames of Scotland, 1926, p. 256. Alexander Stewart, A Highland Parish or the History of Fortingall, 1928, p.10. Ward Rutherford, Celtic Lore: the History of the Druids and their Timeless Traditions, 1993, p. 114. According to the Rev. Robert Taylor in his work The Diegesis: being A Discovery of the Origin, Evidences, and Early History of Christianity, 1844, p. 238: “The Pythagorean doctrines are still traceable in the Christian Scriptures: the Christ of St. John’s Gospel is evidently a Pythagorean philosopher. Ye must be born again (John iii.), is the characteristic aphorism of the Pythagorean school.” Taylor also notes that the Jesuit, Nicolaus Serarius, asserted that the first Christian monks were Essenes. p. 55. James Bonwick, Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, 1986, USA reprint, p. 282. Rev. John Williams Ab Ithel, The Traditionary Annals of the Cymri, 1867, p. 166.