Bishopric of Caithness, pp.70-85.

[Sketches Contents]

Our next sketch of cathedral life shall be taken from a wilder region.

When the Bishopric of Caithness was founded, whether by Alexander I. or by his brother King David, the Scotch monarch exercised but a partial and uncertain sway over the territory of the new northern diocese. The peninsula beyond the Moray Firth was for long afterwards in the hands of the Norsemen, who acknowledged their allegiance to the kings of Scotland only when it suited them to resist the more distant authority of the crown of Norway, or when divisions among themselves rendered it impossible to assert an absolute independence.

The Dalesmen of Caithness and Sutherland, however, unlike their island neighbours, drew their ecclesiastical institutions from Scotland;1 and this must have been one means of preserving the connexion between them and Scotland proper, when the authority of the Crown was little felt so far. David I., early in his reign, addressed a letter to Rognvald Earl of Orkney, and to the Earl (he does not name him) of Caithness, and to all good men of Caithness and of the Orkneys, praying that, for love of him, they would favour the monks who dwelt at Dornoch in Caithness, and protect them wherever they came within their bounds, and not permit any to do them injury or shame.2

The Abbey of Scone was from an early period peculiarly connected with Caithness and Sutherland. Harald, styling himself Earl of Orkney, granted a mark of silver yearly to the canons of Scone, for the weal of the souls of him and his wife, and for the souls of his predecessors.3 In the reign of Alexander II., when the king’s writ was of some potency, the Abbot of Scone obtained a royal precept to the sheriffs and bailies of Moray and Caithness, for the protection and defence of the ship belonging to the convent, while on her voyage within their jurisdictions. These transactions prepare us for finding the Abbey, at a somewhat later period, the proprietor of the church of Kildonan, with the lands of Borubol, which were the subject of a curious bargain in 1332.4

The first of the bishops of the northern diocese, of whom we have any knowledge, was Andrew. He cannot have resided much in his bishopric, and indeed appears to have been in almost constant attendance on the court of King David I., and his grandsons, Malcolm and William. He was present, however, at one memorable transaction, the beginning of great calamities to his diocese. In the time of Pope Alexander III., Earl Harald, for the redemption of his sins, granted to the Roman see a penny yearly from each inhabited house in the earldom of Caithness;5 and that grant was attested by Bishop Andrew, and other nobles of the land. Bishop Andrew was once a monk of Dunfermline. Deriving probably a scanty revenue from his bishopric, he had a grant of land of Hoctor common from David I., and held the church of the Blessed Trinity of Dunkeld; which was bestowed by Malcolm IV. upon the Abbey of Dunfermline, as soon as it should fall vacant by his death.6 He was undoubtedly a person of eminent qualities, were we to judge only from his being so constantly attached to the court and person of a monarch like David I., and his grandsons.7 He is quoted, as an authority on the geography of his country, by the English author of the little fragment, “De situ Albanie,” which has been attributed to Giraldus Cambrensis.8 Andrew was bishop from about the year 1150,9 and he held the see till his death, on the 3d of the kalends of January 1185.10

The next Bishop of Caithness was John. It appears that at first he declined to exact the Papal contribution; but the Pope (Innocent III.) summoned him to obedience, and even granted a commission to the Bishops of Orkney and Rosmarky to compel him to levy the tax, by the heavy censures of the church.11 Whether the poor bishop complied, or attempted to enforce the exaction of the tax, we are not informed; but his subsequent fate, as narrated in the wild sagas of the Norsemen, might appear in credible, were it not singularly corroborated by a Roman record. Earl Harald Madadson, who had been deprived of his Caithness possessions by William the Lion, resolved to recover them by force, and crossed from his Orkney kingdom to Thurso, with a great fleet There was no force capable of resistance. The bishop, who was residing in his palace of Skrabister, went out to meet him, as the intercessor for the poor Caithness men; but the savage Earl took him and cut out his tongue, and dug out his eyes with a knife.12 The saga goes on to tell us, that Bishop Ion recovered the use of his tongue and his eyes, by the miraculous intervention of a native saint, written Tröllhæna.

The latter part of the story is not vouched by any good authority; but some part of the barbarity of the Earl, and the bishop’s sufferings, is confirmed by the following letter of Pope Innocent, ascribed to the year 1202, addressed to the Bishop of the Orkneys:- “We have learnt by your letters that Lomberd, a layman, the bearer of these presents, accompanied his Earl on an expedition into Caithness; that there the Earl’s army stormed a castle, killed almost all who were in it, and took prisoner the Bishop of Caithness; and that this Lomberd (as he says) was compelled, by some of the Earl’s soldiery, to cut out the bishop’s tongue. Now, because the sin is great and grievous, in absolving him according to the form of the church, we have prescribed this penance for satisfaction of his offence, and to the terror of others – That he shall hasten home, and, barefooted, and naked except breeches and a short woollen vest without sleeves – having his tongue tied by a string, and drawn out so as to project beyond his lips, and the ends of the string bound round his neck – with rods in his hand, in sight of all men, walk for fifteen days successively through his own native district, the district of the mutilated bishop, and the neighbouring country; he shall go to the door of the church without entering, and there, prostrate on the earth, undergo discipline with the rods he is to carry; he is thus to spend each day in silence and fasting until evening, when he shall support nature with bread and water only; after these fifteen days are passed, he shall prepare within a month to set out for Jerusalem, and there labour in the service of the Cross for three years; he shall never more bear arms against Christians; for two years he shall fast every Friday on bread and water, unless, by the indulgence of some discreet bishop, or on account of bodily infirmity, this abstinence be mitigated. Do you then receive him returning in this manner, and see that he observe the penance enjoined him.”13

William the Lion did not fail to exact the penalty of such an outrage. In 1197, he collected a mighty army, crossed the Oikel, and, perhaps for the first time, entirely subdued and intimidated the provinces of Northern Caithness and of Sutherland. As usual, the blow fell upon the people. The guilty chief made terms, and left his Caithness subjects to pay the enormous fine of a fourth of their whole possessions.14

In the midst of such fierce manners, civilisation held the same course here as in the southern districts of Scotland. The Church had taken the lead – laying her hand heavily indeed upon the poor victims, but through all obstacles vindicating the supremacy of the spiritual power. Following as her ally, the sovereign used the policy of his grandfather, and introduced into his new province settlers of a different race. The chief of these were the family which soon began to be known by the surname of De Moravia, transplanted from the opposite shore of the Moray Firth. The first whom we find beyond the Firth, Hugh Freskyn, must have been possessed of a wide territory, if not the whole of Sutherland, in the reign of William, when he bestowed extensive estates there on his kinsman, Gilbert, then Archdeacon of the diocese of Moray, under the condition, that they should be destined by the churchman to some of his own lineage. William, the son of Hugh Freskyn, was styled “Lord of Sutherland;” and it was probably for him that Alexander II. erected the earldom out of this “Southern land” of old Caithness. HIs son, undoubtedly, was Earl of Sutherland, from whom the land and territorial honour have descended in an unbroken line to the present day.

It was, perhaps, some time before the province was reduced sufficiently to bear the experiment of another tithe-gathering bishop. At least, we hear of none intermediate between John (who is supposed to have died of the effects of his mutilation) and Adam, who was elected Bishop of Caithness on the nones of August 1213, and consecrated by the Bishop of St. Andrews on the day of St. Mamertus, the 11th of May 1214.15

He had been previously Abbot of Melrose. The Orkney Saga tells us, that no one knew the family of Bishop Adam, for he was a foundling exposed at a church door.16 King William, however, imitating his grandsire, in zeal for the church, and labouring to enforce the payment of tithes in the remotest and most barbarous districts,17 found the Abbot of Melrose a fit person for his purpose, and placed him over the northern diocese. It was the established usage of Caithness, that for every score of cows a span of butter should be paid to the bishop. Bishop Adam was not contented with this proportion, and at first exacted the same quantity from fifteen cows; then from twelve; and at length demanded a span for every ten cows.18 Here the endurance of the people ceased. They assembled in a threatening manner on a hill near the bishop’s manor of Haukirk, in Thorsdale. The Lögmadhr, or lawman, besought the bishop to yield, and to spare his oppressed people, but Bishop Adam was not to be moved. The Earl refused to interfere for reconciling the difference. The populace rushed to the house, in a loft of which the bishop and his party were drinking (says the Saga). A monk, his prime adviser, Serlo of Newbottle, went to meet them at the door. Him they fell upon, and threw back his dead body into the loft. The chronicler of the bishop’s old monastery of Melrose maintains that Adam coveted martyrdom, and preferred death to abandoning the rights of the church, or to allowing the flock intrusted to him to remain longer in error. The Skald of the north tells us, that, after his councillor’s death, he entreated Rafn, the lawman, to endeavour to make terms; and the wiser part of the people met him joyfully. But it was too late. As the bishop came out to confer with them, the violent part of the crowd became infuriated, seized him, thrust him into a hut, some say his own kitchen, and set fire to it; and thus miserably perished Bishop Adam, on Sunday, the octaves of the Nativity of the Virgin, 1222.*

At these tidings, says the saga, King Alexander of Scotland was so wroth, that men still remember the dreadful vengeance he took on Caithness for the burning of the bishop; harrying the land, slaying or expelling the inhabitants.19

After all these deeds of violence, it became necessary to set a new bishop in the see of Caithness; and while it must have been difficult to find a fit person for the office, the fate of the former bishops had not been such as to render churchmen in general ambitious of it. The person chosen was Gilbert, the Archdeacon of Moray – a member of the great family of De Moravia, and himself already possessed of great estates in Sutherland, by the gift of his kinsman Hugh Freskyn. Gilbert was son of the Lord of Duffus, one of the chief castles of the family of De Moravia before they left their native province;20 and although his father’s name is nowhere precisely given, it may be asserted, without much doubt, that he was the son of William de Moravia, Lord of Strabrok and Duffus, and thus cousin-german of William Lord of Sutherland. The policy of selecting a man so connected, is otherwise eligible, for a bishopric in the difficult circumstances of Caithness, is sufficiently obvious; and Bishop Gilbert appears to have turned to account for the diocese all the means which his position and connexion put in his power. He wielded not only the influence of his family and his own possessions, but the power of the Crown. He administered the affairs of government in the north, and superintended the building and fortifying of several royal castles for the security of the country.21 He exercised his influence with Alexander to mitigate the severity of the punishment of the Caithness people for the burning of their bishop, his predecessor. He built the cathedral church of his see at Dornoch at his own expense, and its endowments were evidently of his gift, or procured by his means.

In the charter-room at Dunrobin is his charter of constitution of his newly built or projected cathedral. It is not dated, and its era can only be limited by the period of Bishop Gilbert’s episcopate, extending from 1223 to 1245. About the same time many Chapters were engaged in defining and authenticating their cathedral constitutions; and we have recorded acts of this kind, of Aberdeen, and of the great Cathedral of Glasgow, whose Chapter sent to Salisbury for the model of its constitution. But the diocese of Moray was the one to which the Bishop of Caithness would naturally look for his example, as his native diocese, in whose Chapter he had held a dignified office, and where the present bishop, Andrew de Moravia, was of his own kindred.

As Salisbury had furnished the model adopted by the Chapter of Glasgow, so the Chapter of Moray took Lincoln for its guide and rule; and, in the beginning of the thirteenth century, Bishop Bricius of Moray had despatched the Dean Freskyn and Andrew de Moravia, the Chancellor of his diocese (destined to be his successor), to learn accurately the customs and privileges, the constitution and order observed in the Cathedral of Lincoln. In framing his constitution for his northern diocese, again, Bishop Gilbert followed that of Moray in all particulars but one. There were the same number of canons, the same dignitaries in each; but in Moray, as in others of the Scotch cathedrals, the bishop sat in the Chapter as a simple canon, without pre-eminence of rank or authority. In Caithness, the bishop, legislating for himself, and dealing with endowments of his own granting, determined it otherwise.

Our record bears that, in the times preceding the episcopate of Bishop Gilbert, such was the poverty of the place, and so much had it suffered by continual wars, that in the cathedral church there was but a single priest celebrating service. The bishop, desirous to set forth more worthily the Divine worship, determined to rebuild the cathedral at his own charges, and to erect it into a conventual church, with such endowment as his narrow means admitted.

The Chapter of the Cathedral of Caithness was declared to consist of ten members, the Bishop being the chief and pre-eminent, and receiving the fruits of six parish churches (unluckily not named) for his use. Of the other five dignitaries, the Dean had for his prebend the church of Clun (Clyne), the great tithes of the city of Dornoch and of the town of Ethenboll (Embo), with a fourth of the altarage of Dornoch and the whole land of Nethandurnach. The Precentor had the church of Creich, the parsonage tithes of Pronci, Auelech (Evelix), Strathormeli (Strachormlary or Achormlary, in Dornoch parish), Askesdale (Ausedale), and Rutheverthar (Rhiarchar), the fourth of the altarage of Dornoch, with the whole land of Huctherhinche at Dornoch. The prebend of the Chancellor was the church of Rothegorth (Rogart), the parsonage tithes of the twelve dauachs of Scelleboll (Skelbo), and another fourth of the altarage of Dornoch. The Treasurer’s consisted of the church of Larg (Lairg), the rectorial tithes of Scitheboll (Skibo) and Sywardhoch (Sydera or Cyderhall) (except those of Strathormeli), and the remaining fourth of the altarage of Dornoch. The Archdeacon had for his prebend the churches of Bauer and of Watne (Bower and Watten). Of the undignified canons, the first had the church of Olrich for his prebend; the second the church of Donot (Dunnet); and the last the church of Cananesbi (Canisbay). The churches of Far and Scynend (Skinnet), the lands of Pethgrudie (Pitgudie in Dornoch), two Herkhenyis, and the common pasturage of Dornoch, were common to the prebendaries, and assigned in an artificial manner, in the view of securing cathedral residence. The canons had each a toft and a croft in the city of Dornoch. The dean was obliged to residence for half the year; the other canons to three months yearly of residence. The bishop and dignitaries were bound to provide priests as their cathedral vicars or stallers; of whom the bishop’s vicar alone had a provision from the cathedral – the rectorial tithes of Thoreboll (Torboll) and of Kynald, and twenty acres of land at Dornoch, with a toft and croft there. The simple canons were allowed to find vicars in deacons’ orders. The church of Dyrnes (Durness) was bestowed upon the cathedral, to find light and incense. A singular part of the constitution of the Chapter was, that the Abbot of Scone was of right a canon of the casthedral, although not bound to give residence. His prebend was the church of Kelduninach (Kildonan), the property of the monastery of Scone.22

It is not merely the love I bear to a beautiful old charter – though that is something – nor the interest that gathers round the good Bishop Gilbert, nor the taste I confess for a bit of Christian antiquity of any sort – not to speak of such a perfect specimen of early diocesan constitution – that leads me to copy these details with such minuteness. There is something, I find, infinitely attractive in this first record of civilisation, forcing its way through the black barbarism of the North; to see Bishop Gilbert’s cathedral rising, but a few years after the savage murder of his predecessor; to find churches and parishes now established on the rocks of Cape Wrath and the desert of Reay, and all through the former dominions of the fierce old Jarls, looking to the little cathedral city as their mother and guide. Even the requirement of cathedral residence – depriving those remote parishes for a time of their ministering teachers – had some compensation when the rustic priest was the only organ of communication with the outer world, and brought back yearly to his wild home some rumours of the events and speculations that were agitating Christendom.

As regards the little city and its cathedral society, it is difficult for a Scotchman now to call up to his imagination the cathedral towns of old Scotland, even of a much later period than we are glancing at. The effect of such a society of dignified churchmen, holding a high position for influence and example, cultivating letters, preaching peace, and (for the most part) practising it, must have been great and beneficial in any rural district, and at any time; but a glance at the past history of Caithness enables us to appreciate better the benefits conferred upon Dornoch by the establishment of its bishop, its cathedral, and its chapter.

There are a good many mistakes in the common lives of Bishop Gilbert de Moravia.23 It does not appear that he ever held the office of High Chamberlain of Scotland, though he probably administered the Crown property in the north. The story of his having distinguished himself at the Council of Northampton in 1176, and thereby winning a rapid promotion to his bishopric, when his election to the see of Caithness happened forty-seven years after that Council, needs no refutation. He had better titles to respect. He had a large share in civilizing his rude province. He interposed between the vengeance of the king and the ignorant multitude. He made himself popular and beloved where his predecessors had been murdered; and, for whatever other miracles he was canonized, for these benefits he deserved to live in the affectionate memory of his people as “Saint Gilbert.” His festival was celebrated on the first day of April; and Saint Gilbert was among the Scotch saints restored to the kalendar of the Scotch church in the ill-starred Service Book of King Charles the First.24

The legendary history of the Church in Caithness, pointing to a time before the Northmen had nay footing there, connects it still more with the missionaries of Ireland and Scotland.
The legend of St. Fimbar, or St. Barr, the bishop, “qui in Cathania magno cum honore habetur” (Brev. Aberdon. mense Septemb. fol. cxv.) is plainly identical with that of St. Fimbar, first Bishop of Cork, who has been rudely transplanted to Scotch ground, with all his miracles and renown – marking, perhaps, the early settlement of some Irish colonists, bringing with them the veneration they had rendered in their old country to the patron saint of their tribe or province.
Saint Duthac was connected with Caithness. He is said to have wrought a miracle at Dornoch, on the festival of St. Fimbar, to whom, perhaps, that cathedral was of old dedicated. – Brev. Aberdon. mense Marc. Fol. lxv.
Saint Fergus, bishop and confessor, is likewise numbered among the missionaries who preached the faith in Caithness. He was consecrated to the episcopal office in Ireland, from whence, sailing with a few priests and clerks to the western parts of Scotland, he reached Strogeth. There, for some time, he led a solitary life; but seeing the land that it was good, he put his hands to the work, and founded and endowed three churches there. Thence he retired into Caithness, still preaching Christianity and converting the people, not more by his eloquence than by the lustre of his virtues. From Caithness he sailed to the shores of Buchan, to a place known to the vulgar as Lungley, where he built a church that still bears his name. Last of all, he came to Glammis, in Angus, where he chose his place of rest. There he died and was buried; but his relics, after many years, were translated to the Abbey of Scone, where they did many famous miracles. – Brev. fol. clxiv. Certain other of his relics were preserved in the treasury of the cathedral church of Aberdeen. – Regist. Aberdon. II. 143, etc. The ultimate deposit of the bones of the saint of Caithness in the church of Scone marks their early connexion. It is remarkable, that the great house of Le Chene, so much connected with Caithness, was proprietor of the parish in Buchan, which derived its name of St. Fergus from the Caithness saint.
2   Regist. Dunferm. 23.
Liber de Scon. 58.
Liber de Scon. 162.
Epist Innoc. III. I. No. 218. A similar grant was made to the Monks of Paisley by the Lords of the Isels in the twelfth century – singulis annis unum denarium ex qualibet domo totius terre sue unde fumus exit. – Regist. Passelet, 125. It was an imitation of the hearth-tax, called Peter’s Pence, or Romfeoh, in Saxon England. The same principle of assessment prevailed in the vexatious petty rents that so long oppressed the Orkneys, and some of which are yet known among us, as “kain.” It is not yet beyond memory, even on the mainland, that each fire-house of a barony paid its “reek hen” – unam gallinam de qualibet domo unde fumus exit.
Regist. de Dunfermlin.
There is much reason to think he was a man of property, and that the Church of Dunkeld was his of inheritance. Bishop Richard of Dunkeld confirmed to Dunfermline “donationem regis Malcolmi et Andree episcopi Katenensis secundum quod eorum carte testantur, ecclesiam s. trinitatis de Dunchelde et omnes terras juste ad eam pertinentes.” – Denmylne Col. of Orig. Ch. No. 81.
“Sicut mihi verus relator retulit Andreas videlicet vir venerabilis Katanensis episcopus natione Scottus et Dunfermelis monachus.” – T. Innes’s Critical Essay, App. I. Innes’s reference is now antiquated. The fragment still exists, however, in the Royal Library at Paris. – MS. Reg. 4126, fol. 16. A collation by M. Teulet of the Archives de l’Empire has furnished very few and unimportant corrections of the text as settled by Innes, and none that affect the sense of this curious piece of antique geography.
Regist. Glasg. 11.
10  Chron. Mailr.
11  Epistol. Innoc. III. I. No. 218.
12  Orkn. Saga, 414.
13  Epist. Innoc. III. III. No. 77.
14  Orkn. Saga, 416; Fordun; Hailes.
15  Chron. Mailr.
16  In opposition to this statement, one authority makes Bishop Adam the son of King Alexander II., by his second wife, Queen Mary – a very glaring anachronism; but the note, is worth attention at all, may point either to another king or another bishop. – Erroll MS., quoting “An anonymous MS. History of Scotland, writ under James V., a copy of which is now in the King’s College, Aberdeen.”
17  As in the wilds of the diocese of Moray. – Regist. Morav. Nos. 1, 5; in Carrick and Lennox – Regist. Glasg.
18  It must be observed, that this is given differently by our Scotch chroniclers. Wyntoun tells the story:-
“Adam the byschape of Catenes
That abbot of Melros before wes,
For he denyid hys tendis then
For til set til hys awyne men;
Thre hundyre men in cumpany
Gaddryt come on hym suddanly,
Tukhym owt quhare that he lay
Of his chawmbyre befor day,
Modyr nakyd hys body bare;
Thai band hym, dang hym and
woundyt sare
In-to the nycht, or day couth dawe.
The monk thai slwe thare, his falawe,
And the child that in hys chawmyr lay,
Thare thai slwe hym before day.
Hymself bwndyn and wowndyt syne,
Thai pwt hym in his awyn kychyne;
In thair felny and thare ire
Thare thai brynt hym in a fyre.” – VII. 9.
19  Orkn. Saga, 424; Chron. Mailr.; Extr. e Var. Chron.; Fordun, &c.
20  Iste Gilbertus erat filius domini de Duffus” – marginal note on the ancient chartulary of Moray.
21  Sir R. Gordon, the historian of the Earldom of Sutherland, mentions a tradition, that he was the builder of the Castle of Kildrummy, in Mar – the noblest of northern castles.
22  The places in the charter are for the most part easily identified. Helgedall is now Halladale. Ra is the parish of Reay, partly in Sutherland, partly in Caithness. Herkhenyis is not known. Scynend is the church of St. Thomas of Skinnet. Sytheraw now figures as Cyder hall, a place near Dornoch. It will be observed, that besides receiving the seals of the Bishop and his Chapter, both of which are now gone, the deed has been prepared for their subscription of their names, which was much more unusual. Neither the Bishop nor the Canons, however, have actually subscribed.
23  Spottiswood, Keith, etc.
24  It would appear that the relics of St. Gilbert were had in reverence till a recent period. On the 23d day of April 1545, in presence of John Earl of Sutherland; of Thomas Murray, Precentor, and Thomas Stewart, treasurer of the Cathedral church of Caithness; of Duncan Chalmer, Chancellor of the Cathedral church of Ross, and Paul Freser, pensioner of the Deanery of that church – ibn the chapter-house of the said Cathedral church of Caithness, appeared John Gray of Kilmaly, and made oath, touching the relics of the blessed Saint Gilbert, that he was altogether innocent of the coming of the servants and accomplices of Donald McKy of Far, within the bounds of the Earldom of Sutherland, and of the slaughter, depredation, and spulzie of goods there by them committed, and that he was not aiding or counselling of them therein. Then, John Matheson, Chancellor of Caithness, and the said John Gray, gave their great oath, touching the relics of the most blessed Saint Gilbert, to be faithful to the said Earl of Sutherland. And thereafter, Murquhard Murray in Pronsi, and Walter Murray in Auchflo, made oath – tactis sacrosanctis beatissimi Gilberti reliquiis – that, in riding with their complices in the month of October last, to the harbour of Unis, they nowise intended the hurt of an honourable man, Hugh Kennedy of Girvane Mains. – Protocol Book of Mr. David Seatton, 1534-1577, among the Records of the City of Aberdeen. For the events, see Sir R. Gordon’s History, p. 111.
Sir Robert Gordon, far more accurate than the common herd of genealogical writers, refers to the WILL of Bishop Gilbert de Moravia as still extant in the Registers of the See of Caithness in his time, or about 1636. If that document chance to have escaped destruction, it would be of singular interest to the law antiquary.
*  Bishop Adam of Melrose’s fate is mentioned in Alexander II.’s Chapter in Balfour’s ‘Historical Works’ for the year 1222.