From Rome to 'the ends of the habitable world': the provision of clergy and church buildings in the Hebrides, circa 1266 to circa 1472

Thomas, Sarah Elizabeth (2009) From Rome to 'the ends of the habitable world': the provision of clergy and church buildings in the Hebrides, circa 1266 to circa 1472. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

Due to Embargo and/or Third Party Copyright restrictions, this thesis is not available in this service.
Printed Thesis Information:


This thesis examines the late mediaeval Church in the Hebrides from 1266 until 1472. The late mediaeval Church was culturally significant: it imposed rules and regulations on lay society throughout western Christendom. Hitherto, studies of the Hebridean Church have focused on its organisation and its bishops. My research goes beyond these studies to examine the effectiveness of the Church in bringing Christian religion and piety to mediaeval Hebridean society. This is accomplished through a prosopographical study of the clergy in the Hebrides and analysis of the church and chapel sites.

The mediaeval Church transcended countries and peoples and through the provision of parish clergy, it managed to establish and maintain a certain level of Christian faith and belief. The majority of the recorded clergy were Gaels who came from the dioceses of Sodor and Argyll and were therefore able to communicate with their parishioners. Some of the clergy can be identified as belonging to the territorial, professional and ecclesiastical kindreds and can be described as of high social status. Determining educational status is particularly tricky, given the absence of any evidence for any schools in the Hebrides. However, we can reasonably conclude that the high status clergy undoubtedly were educated, although not all to university level.

The scarcity of accusations of non-residence implies that non-residence was not widespread. An examination of rectors and perpetual vicars at the parish churches reveals that there was usually one or the other at the parish churches. A more common accusation regarded pluralism, although we have to acknowledge that sometimes the accusations might be exaggerated. Whilst allegations of offences such as simony are rare, failure to comply with canon law on clerical celibacy is clear from all supplications seeking dispensation for illegitimacy as the son of a priest.

The churches, chapels and grave-yards were a focal point for these priests and for secular society. As important as the provision of clergy are the adequate numbers of, and maintenance of, church buildings. The church building had enormous significance for both mediaeval theologians and the laity. The parish church, in particular, was very important as the central focus for baptism and burial and therefore access is very important. The key issues are, therefore, access to the parish church, the visibility of the churches and their relationship with secular settlements. Access is determined by location and the location of the forty-three parish churches in the Hebrides can, on the whole, be described as accessible. None of them are inaccessible locations, indeed most can be accessed both from land and from the sea. They are relatively visible, but not outstandingly so. However, their visibility would have been enhanced with use of plaster on the exterior of the buildings. Secular settlements were dispersed and consequently there were always some settlements nearby the parish church and others more distant.

A major issue which has arisen is the identification of categories of chapels. Using models established by Orme, there are four main categories of chapel – dependent, cult, locational and oratory chapels. Effectively, the numerous small chapels meant that, in general, it can be said that people were never very far from some kind of church building. Identifying the type of chapel allows us to understand how the parishes functioned.

The final two chapters consist of case-studies of the islands of Tiree, Coll and Skye. There are a total of 12 parishes on these islands and within these parishes 68 church and chapel sites. The relationships between parish church and chapel have been analysed in each and we have been able to identify some dependent chapels. It is also clear that we have a number of early mediaeval chapel sites which may have been abandoned by the late Middle Ages. However, other early mediaeval sites may have continued in use, perhaps as cult chapels for particular saints. The cults of saints such as St Columba, St Comgan and St Maelrubha were especially strong in Skye whilst St Columba, St Finnan and St Findoca were popular on Tiree and Coll.

Above all else, this study demonstrates the vitality of the late mediaeval Church in the Hebrides; its parish churches were not overwhelmingly appropriated and there were sufficient numbers of apparently educated clergy available to serve the churches. The range of ecclesiastical sites also shows the breadth of provision.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Late mediaeval Church, clergy, church buildings, chapels, Scotland, Gaelic world, Hebrides
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
C Auxiliary Sciences of History > CC Archaeology
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Humanities > Archaeology
College of Arts > School of Humanities > History
Supervisor's Name: Driscoll, Professor Stephen T. and MacGregor, Dr Martin
Date of Award: 2009
Depositing User: Miss Sarah E Thomas
Unique ID: glathesis:2009-684
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 15 Apr 2009
Last Modified: 10 Dec 2012 13:24

Actions (login required)

View Item View Item