The Culdee, Kuldee or Céli Dé (lit. "vassals of God") formed a monastic order with settlements in Ireland, Scotland and England. In early Irish manuscripts the name is Cele De, that is, God's sworn ally. Thence the term was Latinized to Coli dei, leading to Boece's culdei, which term seems to have been applied generally to monks and hermits.

Early beginnings

It was long fondly imagined by Protestant and especially by Presbyterian writers that the Culdees had preserved Celtic Christianity, free from supposed Roman corruptions, in one remote corner of western Europe. This view was enshrined in Thomas Campbell’s Reullura:

Peace to their shades. The pure Culdees
Were Albyn’s earliest priests of God,
Ere yet an island of her seas
By foot of Saxon monk was trod.

Another view, promulgated like the above by Hector Boece in his Latin history of Scotland (1516), makes them the direct successors in the 9th to the 12th century of the organised Irish and Iona monasticism of the 6th to the 8th century. Some have suggested that these views were disproved by William Reeves (1815–1892), bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore.

In this regard, very few trustworthy ancient sources of information survive, but one theory suggests the possibility that the Rule of Chrodegang, archbishop of Metz (d. 766), was brought by Irish monks to their native land from the monasteries of north-eastern Gaul, and that Irish anchorites originally unfettered by the rules of the cloister bound themselves by it. In the course of the 9th century we find mention of nine places in Ireland (including Armagh, Clonmacnoise, Clones, Devenish and Sligo) where communities of these Culdees were established as a kind of annex to the regular monastic institutions. They seem especially to have had the care of the poor and the sick, and were interested in the musical part of worship. Meanwhile in Scotland the Iona monks had been expelled by the Pictish king Nechtan son of Derile in 717.

However, a different view than that of William Reeves is presented by James A. Wylie (1808-1890). He makes a strong case that the Culdees (Keledei) of Scotland are related to the Celtic Christian spirituality of the monks of Iona. Over the course of several hundred years, the Culdee leaders of the church in Scotland were edged out of positions of authority and temporal support by outside church officials. These officials appear to have been brought into the country for the sole purpose of dispossessing the existing local officials in order to snuff out the independence of the Celtic Christian tradition. Wylie presents numerous historical references for the persecution of the Kelede by the Roman church at large to support this view, as well as noting the opposition of both Queen Margaret and King David I who were staunch supporters of the practices of the continental church and who would have no reason to fear a sect professing the continental practices.

Saint Aengus the Culdee (or Oengas) lived in the last quarter of the 8th century, and is held in imperishable honour as the author of the Feliré, or Festology of the Saints.

High Middle Ages

Those who accept the orthodox Roman viewpoint generally believe that the features of their life in Scotland, which would be the most important epoch in the history of the order, seem to resemble closely those of the secular canons of England and the continent. From the outset they were more or less isolated, and, having no fixed forms or common head, tended to decay. In the 12th century the Celtic Church was completely metamorphosed on the Roman pattern, and in the process the Culdees also lost any distinctiveness they may formerly have had, being brought, like the secular clergy, under canonical rule.

The pictures that we have of Culdee life in the 12th century vary considerably. The chief houses in Scotland were at St Andrews, Scone, Dunkeld, Lochleven, Monymusk in Aberdeenshire, Abernethy and Brechin. Each was an independent establishment controlled entirely by its own abbot and apparently divided into two sections, one priestly and the other lay and even married. At St Andrews about the year 1100 there were thirteen Culdees holding office by hereditary tenure and paying more regard to their own prosperity and aggrandizement than to the services of the church or the needs of the populace.

A controversial reform inaugurated by Queen Margaret was carried through by her sons Alexander I and David I; gradually the whole position passed into the hands of Thurgot and his successors in the bishopric. Canons Regular were instituted and some of the Culdees joined the new order. Those who declined were allowed a life-rent of their revenues and lingered on as a separate but ever-dwindling body till the beginning of the 14th century, when, excluded from voting at the election of the bishop, they disappear from history.

Crínán of Dunkeld, the grandfather of Máel Coluim III, was a lay abbot, and tradition says that even the clerical members were married, though unlike the priests of the Eastern Orthodox Church, they lived apart from their wives during their term of sacerdotal service.

The Culdee of Lochleven lived on St Serf’s Inch, which had been given them by a Pictish prince, Brude, about 850. In 1093 they surrendered their island to the bishop of St Andrews in return for perpetual food and clothing, but Robert, who was bishop in 1144, handed over all their vestments, books, and other property, with the island, to the newly founded Canons Regular, in which the Culdees were likely incorporated. There is no trace of such partial independence as was experienced at St. Andrews itself, possibly because the bishop's grant was backed by a royal charter.

In the same fashion the Culdee of Monymusk, originally perhaps a colony from St Andrews, became Canons Regular of the Augustinian order early in the 13th century, and those of Abernethy in 1273. At Brechin, famous like Abernethy for its round tower, the Culdee prior and his monks helped to form the chapter of the diocese founded by king David I in 1145, though the name persisted for a generation or two.

The culdee chapel in St Andrews in Fife can be seen to the north-east of its ruined cathedral and city wall. It is dedicated to 'St Mary on the Rock' and is clearly seen as a cruciform. It is used by the local St Andrews churches for their Easter morning service.

In Ireland the Culdee of Armagh endured until the dissolution in 1541, and enjoyed a fleeting resurrection in 1627, soon after which their ancient property passed to the vicars choral of the cathedral.

Extract from "St Bryce Kirk" (Kirkcaldy Old Kirk Building) :

In those early days there were several Culdee establishments in Fife, probably small rude structures accommodating 30 or 40 worshippers, and there is a distinct possibility that such a structure stood at or near the site where our church now stands.

In 1075 AD the foundation charter of Dunfermline Church was granted by King Malcolm III, and amongst the possessions he bestowed on the church was the Shire of Kirkcaladinit, as Kirkcaldy was then known.

England and Wales

Similar absorptions no doubt account for the disappearance of the Culdees of York, a name borne by the canons of St Peter’s about 925, and of Snowdon and Bardsey Island in north Wales, mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis (c. 1190) in his Speculum Ecclesiae and Itinerarium respectively. The former community was, he says, sorely oppressed by the covetous Cistercians. These seem to be the only cases where the Culdees are found in England and Wales.

North Atlantic

The Icelandic Landnámabók (Book of Settlements) mentions that the Norse found Irish priests in Iceland when they arrived, together with bells and crosiers. This is also hinted at in the works of Dicuil. The Norse called the priests papar, and this name can be found as an element in many placenames of Orkney, Shetland, the Faroes and Iceland. The traditional accounts state that the papar left when the Norse arrived. It has been suggested that their influence may have helped Christianity spread in Iceland. It is by no means clear that the papar were Culdee monks.

Name "Culdee" in fiction

In The Railway Series by Rev. W. Awdry there is a rack railway called the Culdee Fell Railway. One of the steam locomotives is named Culdee. In the Island of Sodor's fictional language of Sudric, 'Culdee' is said to translate as 'Companion of God', the mountain being named for the island's Patron Saint, Machan. The Rev. Awdry often used names from religion and the Anglican Church as placenames in his books. The island of Sodor where the series takes place, for example, is named after a Church of England Diocese.

Stephen Lawhead's novels Byzantium, Patrick, and the Celtic Crusades trilogy focus on the Cele De.

J.P. Moore's short story "Useful Visions" is set in a Culdee monastery.

See also

External links


  • B. Olsen, Sacred Places North America, CCC Publishing, Santa Cruz, California (2003)
  • J. A. Wylie "History of the Scottish Nation" (London: Hamilton/Adams, Edinburgh: A Elliot, 1886-1890) vol. ii and especially vol. iii, chapters 17 and 21
  • W. Reeves, The Culdees of the British Islands (Dublin, 1864)
  • W. F. Skene, Celtic Scotland (1876–1880), especially vol. ii.
  • W. Beveridge, Makers of the Scottish Church (1908).

For the older view, see J. Jamieson, Historical Account of the Ancient Culdees (1811).

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