OG Peter, St Peter

DoSH - dedications to St Peter

St Peter, commemorated in Cille Pheadair in South Uist (the medieval church of which seems to have fallen into the sea), and in Cille Pheadair in North Uist, is the apostle Peter, venerated throughout the early medieval church as the first Pope, and the founder of the episcopal see of Rome. Peter is commemorated in a very large number of churches and other sites in Scotland (see map).

Because of St Peter’s association with Rome, there has been a tendency for historians to think about church dedications to him as reflecting moments of reform, or of renewed closeness to Rome. Encouraging this view is the 8th-century Northumbrian scholar and historian Bede, who makes it clear that churches in honour of Peter were being founded to underline links with Rome, for instance, by the early 8th-century Pictish king Naiton or Nechtan.[1] This has prompted one scholar, Raymond Lamb, to suggest that the many churches dedicated to Peter in the Orkneys are a product of a moment of Northumbrian influence on the northern Pictish church, though there are difficulties with this idea.

Equally, we know that in the 11th and 12th centuries, when the Gregorian reform was in full spate, allegiance to the new mode through dedication to St Peter was an option. So, for instance, we can see a new church being founded by the monks at Deer, in Aberdeenshire, in the 12th century, dedicated to St Peter (this is the origin of Peterhead).[2] This is another moment into which the dedications to Peter in the Orkneys might be placed--the establishment of the bishopric there, and the dedication or re-dedication of parish churches to the first bishop of Rome, and the first called of the apostles.[3] As a result of this, it is very tempting to see any such place-name, like Cille Pheadair, as emblematic of one of these moments. But caution is demanded. These views fit very much into a “Celtic church” v. “Roman church” way of understanding the early history of the church in Scotland which is both wrong, and outmoded.[4] We know that Gaelic churchmen venerated Peter as much as anyone else did. One of the earliest Christian objects in Scotland is the Petrus stone from Whithorn, declaring the site to be "in the place of Peter the Apostle". In Ireland, there is clear evidence of Peter being commemorated in churches, such as at Kilnasaggart, where a pillar-stone dedicates the place to St Peter. It is clear that Gaelic churchmen in the early period, i.e., contemporary with Columba, could have introduced dedications to St Peter into the landscape of the Uists.

The distribution of dedications to Peter, regularly along the western edge of the Long Isle, does however prompt a consideration that these might be, like those in Orkney, the product of the consolidation of the 12th century diocese of the Isles. In this case, we might wonder if St Peter has in some of these sites replaced an earlier dedication to another saint, as we know happened at other churches in eastern Scotland. But Peter’s universality, in both time and across geographical regions, makes this a very uncertain conclusion.

It is worth noticing one small odd “pairing” of dedications to saints that occurs in a number of places in Scotland, including South Uist, the pairing (perhaps) of St Donnan and St Peter. In South Uist we find Cill Donnain and Cille Pheadair in close proximity. So too do we find them in Helmsdale in Sutherland, where Kildonan and Kilphedir lie close by. The churches of St Peter and St Donnan lie close to each other in Uig parish, Lewis. Perhaps this presents some sort of clue to the origins of the commemorations of Peter in Uist--perhaps it is somehow linked to the spread of the commemoration of St Donnan.