St Brigit, Naomh Brìde, often rendered as St Bride in Scots, was clearly an important figure in modern devotional Christianity in parts of the Outer Hebrides. Even if, as usual, Alexander Carmichael’s portrait of the place of Brìde in 19th-century Hebridean tradition was something of a composite, rather than a precise record, there is much there that seems to reflect earlier accounts and traditions of the saint (Carmichael 1900, 164-76; and see project blog 2011). But does Brìde also belong to the earlier strand of Christianity in Uist?
Some basics. Brìde, or Brigit as she was in early Gaelic, was a religious woman associated with the foundation of the monastery of Kildare, in Co. Kildare in Ireland. She is recorded as having died in the 520s and the Irish annals are in disagreement about her age at death (70, 87, 88 are all ages given: AU 524.2, 526.1, 528.3). While there has been persistent discussion over the years about her historicity—a common line of discussion is to argue that she was a pre-Christian goddess turned into a saint (Ó Riain 2011, 123-5; MacQuarrie with Butter 2012, 334-5; McKenna 2002) —these speculations are in fact no more robust than assuming she was, in fact, a real woman who founded a real monastery. Doing so has the added virtue of not reducing strong women to mere figments of the imagination in the past. We know that Brigit had many successors as abbesses in Kildare, and that the monastery became one of the most powerful in Ireland, the only predominantly female religious house in the Gaelic world to attain such status (Bitel 2009, 167-75; Etchingham 2000-1). In one early Irish law-tract, the phrase ‘a woman who turns back the streams of war’ (ben sues sruta cocta for cula) is glossed ‘…such as the abbess of Kildare… one who turns back the manifold sins of war through her prayers’ (ut est bancomarba cille dara… impodus imad peccad na cocad for cula trena hirnaigthi) (Binchy 1938, 26-7).
By the 7th century, a series of Lives had already been composed for her in Latin, and they were joined by a Life in Gaelic (McCone 1982; Ó hAodha 1978), as well as poetry, in the 8th century. One of these, the 7th-century Life by Cogitosus, depicts Kildare as a big, bustling monastery, her relics flocked to by pilgrims from many regions (Connolly and Picard 1987; Bitel 2009, 137-62). Like Columba and Patrick, Brigit was at the centre of an expanding network of anecdotes, hymns, tales and traditions spanning the middle ages. Brigit’s biography in these has some exciting aspects: daughter of a druid and a female slave, for instance, she abjures her parentage and becomes a nun (for a modern Gaelic take on her parentage from South Uist, see Carmichael 1940, 154-9). The fact that many of the miracles associated with her are in some sense ‘domestic’ (i.e., have to do with food and drink, livestock, houses) has been much commented on. (For a later Gaelic Life, see Stokes 1877)
We have evidence of her importance in parts of Scotland from as early as the 9th century. In the 860s, an account of the foundation of the monastery of Abernethy was composed, in which Brigit’s immediate successor, Darlugdach, comes to Scotland along with the new king of Picts, who had been in exile in Ireland. He founds the new monastery and dedicates it to Brigit (Anderson 1980, 247; Evans 2009 for the dating). There is good evidence to show that the commemoration of Brigit was part of the local landscape around Abernethy into the later middle ages (Clancy 2014, 25-7). In 865, Cellach son of Ailill died in the land of the Picts, as abbot of Iona and abbot of Kildare, and he may have been instrumental in the promotion of her cult (AU 865.2) in both east and west.
Crucially, however, Brigit was commemorated in church sites the length of the western seaboard of Scotland (DoSH: Brig, Brigit, Bride; Brigit ingen Dubthaig of Kildare; on this see Clancy 2014, 23-33). While there are a number of dedications in the Hebrides, what is striking about her cult is the sheer volume of dedications in Argyll and the south-west of Scotland. This has led to the suggestion that her cult was particularly prominent among the Gall-Ghàidheil, the Gaelic-speaking people with Scandinavian heritage or overlordship whose name came to be applied to the whole of south-west Scotland over the course of the 10th to 12th centuries, and who were the main vector for the expansion of Gaelic into the south-west. Fiona Edmonds has connected the cult of Brigit in the south-west particularly with the fact that Kildare was in the hinterland of the Viking town of Dublin, and argued compellingly that she was a saint transmitted across and around the Irish Sea via Viking networks in the 10th and 11th century (Edmonds 2013). This does not entirely explain her prominence in Argyll, and so the real picture is likely to be more complex.
Added to this is a sense that Brìde was, for Gaels, a sort of surrogate Mary (Auslander 2000-1). From the Middle Ages into modern tradition, epithets like ‘the foster-mother of Christ’ (muime Chrìosda) appear, suggesting that somehow Brìde was built into the framework of Christian belief in a rather extraordinary way—she even gets described as ‘the Mary of the Gaels’, and the prayer to Brigit given below calls her not foster-mother, but ‘mother of Jesus’ (mathir Ísu)! Given this, Brìde’s ubiquity in the Scottish landscape may owe something to her serving similar functions for the devout to the Virgin Mary. Although there are many churches called Cille Bhrighde, Kilbride or Kirkbride, there are fewer parish churches dedicated to her, perhaps suggesting that devotion to her was often an adjunct to other saints, much as one might find with Lady Chapels. Supporting this idea may be the fact that she is very frequently associated with holy wells, much like the Virgin Mary (Clancy 2014, 23-33).
For Cille Bhrìde in South Uist, our only commemoration in Uist, in thinking about her presence here, it is striking how close her church was to that of Cille Pheadair (the medieval parish church), and even Cille Donnain. It may be that, initially at any rate, this church had that adjunct function suggested above. Whether chapels to Brìde emerged as a particularly female-oriented form of devotion, or if they served another purpose is yet to be determined.
The prominence of Brigit throughout the middle ages, means that it is impossible to really have a good sense of when this church might have been established, and whether this belongs to an early phase of Christianity in Uist; was introduced by abbots of Iona (see above); belonged to the Scandinavian Irish Sea phase of church development; or even the later middle ages. A plausible explanation could be provided for all of these.
An early medieval Gaelic hymn to Brigit
One of the earliest prayers we have to Brigit is the Old Gaelic ‘Brigit, bé bithmaith’, preserved in the 11th-century Liber Hymnorum (see Ní Ghormáin 2016), but probably written a few centuries earlier. The Altramar Ennsemble set this hymn to music, and you can listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZZa2Y7SNEU&list=PLA68Z1znY3SUkqMo186cqyhpkuXMc3mkV&index=4&t=0s
Below, find the edition and translation by W. Stokes and J. Strachan (1903), 325-6:
Brigit bé bithmaith, breó órde óiblech,
don-fé don bithflaith, in grén tind tóidlech.
Brigit ever excellent woman, golden sparkling flame,
Lead us to the eternal Kingdom, the dazzling resplendent sun.
Ron-sóira Brigit sech drungu demne:
Ro-róina reunn cathu cach thedme.
May Brigit deliver us pastthrongs of devils:
may she break before us the battles of every plague!
Dirodba indiunn ar colon císu,
In chóib co mbláthib, in máthir Ísu.
May she detroy within us the taxes of our flesh,
the branch with blossoms, the mother of Jesus.
Ind fír-óg inmain co n-orddon adbil,
bé sóir cech inbaid lam nóib di Laignib.
The true virgin, dear, with vast dignity,
I shall be safe always with my saint of Leinster.
Lethcholbe flatho le Patricc prímde
In tlacht ós lígib, in rígin rígde.
One of the columns of the Kingdom with Patrick the pre-eminent,
[ornament over beauties], the royal queen.
Ro-bet ér sinit ar cuirp hi cilicc;
Dia rath ron-bróina ron-sóira Brigit.
May our bodies after old age be in sackcloth!
From her grace may Brigit rain on us, save us!