St Machan, although far less well known, left a more permanent mark in this area: He gave his name to the little village Ecclesmachan: Eccles from the Greek word ecclesia or church so The Church of St Machan. Part of the evidence for this is that when they built a stone church on the site in the 12th century it was named after an obscure Celtic saint from the west indicating that it may well occupy an earlier Christian site where the church was built of wood. St Machan appears to come from the kingdom of Strathclyde, like St Ninian a Northern Briton However this time educated by the Gaels in Ireland before traveling to Rome for ordination as a bishop. After which he was sent back to evangelise his own people and the Picts. His cult appears to have focused the villages at the foot of the Campsie Hills and certainly his relics were buried in a stone church there in 1175 AD, with a side altar erected to him in Glasgow Cathedral in 1458 AD.The defeat of Gododdin and other Celtic warriors by Germanic (Anglian) invadors at the Battle of Catraeth around 600AD signaled the beginning of the end for Gododdin. In 638 AD its capital Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) fell to the Angles of Northumbria under their king Oswald. Abercorn became the centre of a Northumbrian diocese around 681 AD. All of which brings us to the third saint of our area St Cuthbert.
Importantly King Oswald had spent some time in exile on Iona (at this time part of a Gaelic (Irish) Scottish settlement on the North West coast of what was only later to become Scotland) and imbued the spirit of ‘Columban’ Christianity. As king of Northumbria he invited St Aiden to establish a mission notably at Melrose and Lindisfarne. The historical information we have on St Cuthbert is far more reliable than that on St Ninian (from well over 200 years earlier) and again much of it comes from the Venerable Bede; this time, however, only a generation or two away.
Cuthbert was born in North Northumbria (now southern Scotland) in about the year 635AD – the same year in which St Aidan founded the monastery on Lindisfarne. He came from a well-to-do Anglian family and like most boys of that class; he was placed with foster-parents for part of his childhood and taught the arts of war.
It seems, from stories about his childhood, that he was brought up as a Christian. He was credited, for instance, with having saved by his prayers, some monks who were being swept out to sea on a raft. There is some evidence that, in his mid-teens, he was involved in at least one battle, which would have been quite normal for a boy of his social background.
His life changed when he was about 17 years old. He was looking after some neighbour’s sheep on the hills. (As he was certainly not a shepherd boy it is possible that he was mounting a military guard – a suitable occupation for a young warrior!) Gazing into the night sky he saw a light descend to Earth and then return, escorting, he believed, a human soul to Heaven -that night St Aidan died. This was his moment of decision; He went to the monastery at Melrose, and asked to be admitted as a Novice.
For the next 13 years he was a monk at Melrose. When Melrose was given land to found a new monastery at Ripon, Cuthbert went with the founding party and was made guest master. In his late 20s he returned to Melrose and found that his former teacher and friend, the prior Boisil, was dying of the plague. Cuthbert became prior (second to the Abbot) at Melrose.
In 664AD the Synod of Whitby decided that Northumbria should cease to look to Iona for its spiritual leadership and turn instead to Roman practices and St Peter’s successor rather than successor of St Columba. The Scottish monks of Lindisfarne went back to Iona. The abbot of Melrose subsequently became also abbot of Lindisfarne and Cuthbert its prior.
Cuthbert seems to have moved to Lindisfarne at about the age of 30 and lived there for the next 10 years. He ran the monastery; he was an active missionary; he was much in demand as a spiritual guide and he developed the gift of spiritual healing. He was an outgoing, cheerful, compassionate person and no doubt became popular. But when he was 40 years old he believed that he was being called to be a hermit and to do the hermit’s job of fighting the spiritual forces of evil in a life of solitude.
After a short trial period on the tiny islet adjoining Lindisfarne he moved to the more remote and larger island known as ‘Inner Farne’ and built a hermitage where he lived for 10 years. Of course, people did not leave him alone – they went out in their little boats to consult him or ask for healing. However, on many days of the year the seas around the islands are simply too rough to make the crossing and Cuthbert was left in peace.
At the age of about 50 he was asked by both Church and King to leave his hermitage and become a bishop. He reluctantly agreed. For two years he was an active, traveling bishop as Aidan had been. He seems to have journeyed extensively. On one occasion he was visiting the Queen in Carlisle (on the other side of the country from Lindisfarne) when he knew by second sight that her husband, the King Ecgfrid, had been slain by the Picts at the battle of Dunnichen.
Feeling the approach of death he retired back to the hermitage on the Inner Farne where, in the company of Lindisfarne monks, he died on March 20th 687AD.From our perspective churches dedicated to St Cuthbert are to be found all over southern Scotland and a county, Kirkcudbrightshire, is named after him. Edinburgh has a long and ancient connection too him and the village of Mid Calder to the south of our parish is associated with him in that the medieval church, built on an earlier ecclesial site, was once dedicated to him. While St Cuthbert, the so called Apostle to the Lothians, was certainly not the first missionary saint to bring the gospel to our area he seems certain to have visited the area either as a monk from Melrose or from Lindisfarne, founding little churches for the newly arrived Northumbrian settlers in what was still frontier territory. Only four years after the establishing of the new diocese and before Cuthbert’s death the Anglo Saxon bishop and monks abandoned Abercorn and fled to Whitby. Like the Romans before them they found the Picts too turbulent neighbours to live beside!
Although it is hard to pin St Ninian down with anything approaching historical certainty – not surprising given the period – nevertheless he is celebrated as the first real missionary or apostle to the Northern Britons and Picts. What information we have is based on later writings such as the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People from the 8th Century. What follows might best be described as part of the ‘Ninian Tradition’.
He was born in Galloway and educated in Rome. His manner and eagerness to learn brought him to the notice of the Pope, St Damasus, who decided to train the young man. After St Damasus died, his successor, St Siricus, consecrated St Ninian a Bishop and commissioned him to return to Britain to preach the Catholic faith. Traveling back to Britain through France he heard of the great work being done by St Martin de Tours (c. 316 – 397AD) at his abbey in Marmoutiers. St Ninian stayed at the abbey for some time and was encouraged and helped in his work by St Martin who became his friend and left a lasting impression on him. St Ninian returned to Scotland to begin an evangelical mission there. With the help of masons from St. Martin’s Monastery in Tours he began to build his church. The first church he built in Scotland (c.397AD) was the first Christian settlement north of Hadrian’s wall, and it was said to be a whitewashed stone building (Most churches of this time were wooden), which could be easily seen. He named it Candida Casa (The White House), and in the language of that time it became known as Whithorn. During recent archaeological excavations, remnants of a white plastered wall were found which could possibly be from this first church. St Ninian used this church for his base and from it he and his monks evangelized the neighbouring Britons and the Picts. He was known for his miracles, among them curing a Chieftain of blindness, and these led to many conversions. Following St Ninian’s death, the missionary foundation he helped to create, allowed Christianity to grow in strength and survive in Scotland.
From ancient traditions in this area St Ninian is said to have visited Torphican a few miles to the north west and Abercorn a few miles to the north east of Strathbrock, – both important Celtic Christian sites. St Ninian presumably visited these sites on the sort of missionary journeys he was famous for possibly on his way to the Picts in what is now Fife.