Scotlands History

Religion, festivals and beliefs

In the Middle Ages religion was an important part of everyday life. Many people dedicated their whole lives to God as monks or nuns, or worked as lay members of monasteries and nunneries. Scotland was home to cathedrals, chapels, collegiate churches, monastic buildings, shrines, altars, holy wells, religious relics, carved stone crosses and burial grounds.

Men and women left their everyday lives to go on crusade or to take to the road as a pilgrim. People believed in the devil and all his works and feared a very real hell.

The year was laid out as a series of festivals, saints' feast days and holy days. The Christian Apostle St Andrew was the patron saint of Scotland while St Kentigern, also known as St Mungo, was the patron saint of Glasgow. Hundreds of saints' days were celebrated in Scotland.

Religious services were conducted in Latin. Stone carvings, wooden rood screens, wall paintings and embroideries would have brought Bible stories to life. The three Magi were depicted as medieval kings. Stories of sinners, purgatory and the Easter cycle were acted out in medieval plays. Craft guilds funded different stories that fitted their trade.

Many Christian religious sites were built upon earlier sacred places. Pagan sacred wells became holy wells dedicated to the Virgin Mary of a local saint. In some places ancient standing stones were built into the walls of churches and chapels. Pre-Christian festivals like Samhuinn evolved to become Catholic celebrations like Halloween.

During the Middle Ages, earlier Christian sites were often expanded and rebuilt as monastic communities grew wealthy from the wool trade or influential patrons ensured their place in Heaven by making generous donations to the church.

  • Reconstruction drawing of Jedburgh Abbey
  • Photograph of ornate text on a page of a medieval manuscript that was illustrated by cistercian monks

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Listen to Vir Perfecte, a piece of medieval church music adapted to be played on a solo clàrsach, or small harp. This piece was written in the 13th century in praise of St Andrew.