Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Bones of St Nicholas Part II

In October I stood on the oldest known floor in Aberdeen, a true ‘hidden’ gem as the above image shows.  It belongs to the Kirk of St Nicholas. How old?  Around a thousand years according to the carbon dating of the graves discovered in the recent dig.  The fish-rich diet of our forebears skews the results of the dating, changing the mineral content of those old bones, but certainly some time during the 11th century.

So why build a stone church in a small, Scottish coastal settlement in 1000AD?

David I's seal
By the 1100s, Aberdeen had the status of a royal burgh, granted by David I.  David also invited Bishop Nechtan of Mortlach to settle here and make it the centre of the new bishopric in 1124.  The fact Nechtan and his successors concentrated their efforts on building a cathedral in Old Aberdeen, then Villa Aberdon, rather than in the centre of the burgh, suggests there was a considerable church here already.   The 1157 ‘bull’ or charter from Pope Adrian IV to succeeding bishop, Edward, refers to churches in both burgh and ‘villa’.

But why was the bishopric not founded there in the first place? What was the significance of Mortlach?  Despite the romantic notion it was founded in 1012 after the Danes were defeated there by Malcolm II, modern historian, Alex Woolf believes that the actual founder was the former’s great-grandson, Malcolm Canmore, in 1065.

Malcolm Canmore
This Malcolm is better known to us as the hero of Shakespeare’s infamous ‘Scottish Play’, when he returns to slay the murderous Macbeth.  However, the English playwright’s grasp of Scottish history was practically zero.  Macbeth had a perfectly legitimate claim to the Scottish throne; whereas Malcolm’s family had spent the last three generations bumping off their enemies to gain the prize.

Mortlach, located near modern-day Dufftown, was in the ancient Pictish state of Moray, Macbeth’s territory.  Malcolm founded the bishopric here out of political necessity rather than religious fervour, so the churchmen could keep order amongst Macbeth’s supporters and allies, natural enemies of the new king.

Perhaps Malcolm felt a little guilty after all and decided to fund the building of a new church as a means of atonement for his bloody deeds.  Aberdeen profited.  Whatever the case, the bishopric of Mortlach was instituted just at the time Alexander Gammie suggested that the kirk of St Nicholas was begun.  Only time … and archaeology will tell!

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