Friday, 30 December 2011

The Bones of St Nicholas Part I

No, no, not the relics of the Bishop of Myra who became the most famous patron saint of children … no, it is the mortal remains of our Celtic forebears who named their settlement Aber Da Abhainn, ‘At the mouth of two rivers’, the Dee and the Denburn, to which I refer in my title.

These bones were discovered by local archaeologist Alison Cameron back in 2008; the burial of twenty-three skeletons of infants and children were revealed outside the curved wall or apse of the earliest known stone church in Aberdeen.

Received wisdom stated that the ‘Great Church’ dedicated to St Nicholas which appears prominently on Parson Gordon’s 1661 map was founded in the twelfth century. Imagine Alison’s surprise at the ‘extraordinary’ result of the carbon dating on the children’s graves which placed them in the period between 890 and 1020AD!  This was history in the making – confounding centuries of previously accepted knowledge.

The burials apparently could not have predated the church building as they are laid out to follow the curved wall in a fan-shape, and they were undamaged unlike later burials above.  Therefore that Celtic community on the upper slopes of the Denburn Valley was in existence more than a century before chieftain, Gillecoaim, who gave his name to Gilcomston, witnessed the royal charter granted to the monks of Deer in 1152.

Aberdeen Civic Seal from 1150-1424
showing Nicholas with nautical symbols
These Celts, who spoke a tongue closer to Welsh than Gaelic, were fisherfolk who exploited the rich harvests of salmon in the rivers and white fish in the North Sea.  It is no surprise then that they should choose ‘Blessed Nicholas’ in his aspect as patron saint of seafarers as their spiritual protector.

The Christian faith of these fishers would have been rooted in the mission work of early wandering preachers like Saints Machar, Ternan and Molaug who came to NE Scotland in the 5th and 6th centuries.  Aberdeen did not become a bishopric until 1124AD, but was moved from Mortlach in Banffshire, a religious centre from the 1060s.

Oddly enough, the only person to ever suggest an earlier date for the building of St Nicholas’ kirk was historian Alexander Gammie, who gives the date 1060AD in his Churches of Aberdeen, published in 1909.  Those little graves of the ‘Mither Kirk’, hidden for so long, now tell us that he and those medieval chroniclers, dismissed by modern historians, might have been closer to the truth all along.
St Nicholas, Bishop of Myra

No comments:

Post a Comment