In the very earliest days of Christianity, this northern part of Scotland demonstrates a tradition which is entirely separate from the influence of Iona and St Columba. The presence of a school of Celtic Art, with a style and characteristics of its own, in particular the presence of what are admitted to be Pictish symbols, restricted geographically to Pictland, supports the theory that the Pictish Church of Ninian extended over the area. the northern parts of Scotland do not seem to have been much affected by the Dalriadic invasion of the Scots from Ireland.

From the earliest days of the Vikings, the northern parts of the Diocese were in many ways 'united' to the northern isles (Orkney and Zetland) and even today, one can detect a very distinct trace of this influence. A short distance to the south-east of Thurso there was a chapel between Bleachfield and Stainland. No trace can now be seen but its remains were visible up to the end of the 19th Century. Tradition tells that, "... the floor had been strewn with Holy grass brought from Norway," and in it was "a little God, or image that ... the country people used to clothe with a little white shirt on Christmas night."

In 1098 the Pentland Firth was the boundary between the lands of the Earl/Jarl of Orkney, Magnus Barelegs, and King Edgar of Scotland. Caithness was seen as an Earldom in its own right separate from but under the Earl of Orkney.

The fact that there were bishops, who were in some way related to these northern lands, from at least 1097 is without question, but they were probably bishops who 'came from, i.e. were born in', or 'worked in' Caithness as opposed to being Bishops of a regular diocese. Sir Robert Gordon in "Genealogy of the Earls of Sutherland, p25" speaks of Barr as the first Bishop and William as his successor. William is said to have flourished in 1097. The names of other bishops are suggested - Darrus (1066); Gilaldan, consecrated by Thurstan of York in 1134; Christian, consecrated by the Archbishop of Rouen at Bermondsey in 1154. This has led other authors to consider that the diocese was founded in the time of Malcolm III (1058-93) although, in the absence of evidence, it is difficult to be certain. That there were bishops is certain but one must remember that in the Pictish Church there had always been bishops - it was only much later that any diocesan 'structure' was established.

Other writers consider the see of Caithness to have been founded by King David I, c.1128.  Some, indeed, suggest a slightly later date around 1146 .  It extended over what are now the counties of Caithness and Sutherland. About this time too it is thought that a cell of benedictine monks from Dunfermline was established at Dornoch since, c1136, the King issued a mandate to the Earls of Orkney and Caithness, "to respect and maintain free from injury the monks at Durnach, their servants and property."

In 1139 Harald Maddason, a boy and son of the Earl of Atholl, was accepted as the joint Earl of Orkney by Earl Rognvald.  Some say that it was Harald, when he came of age that established a bishopric in Caithness c1150.

This diocese was to see some of Scotland's most bloody episcopal histories in it early years. It was a lawless land ruled by Norse Earls, who rendered a nominal homage to the Kings of Norway, as well as to the Kings of Scotland. In this light it is perhaps somewhat surprising to find a bishopric being founded at all. However, in many of the later charters of David - the earliest of which must be dated between 1147 and 1150 - we come upon the name of "Andrew, Bishop of Caithness," as one of the attesting witnesses. It is possible that he was merely a titular bishop, who, although his nominal seat was probably at Dornoch, resided at the court of the King, and whose ecclesiastical title served to mark the royal claim to sovereignty over the territory designated by the title.  The Norwegians called these court-bishops Hirdbiskupar.

Andrew, Bishop of Caithness, was present, with other Scottish bishops, at the Council of Northampton, 25 Jan 1175-6, at which Council, Gilbert de Moravia, then a young priest, valiantly defended the rights and independence of the Scottish Church (from the metropolitan of York).

That, long after the reign of David I, it was safer for the Bishops of Caithness to reside at the royal court, was amply evidenced by what happened to certain of Andrew's successors, who ventured to visit their uncivilised diocese: John, the next bishop, was barbarously mutilated in Skarabolstad (Scrabster) - his tongue and his eyes being torn out at the order of Harald, earl of Orkney and Caithness in 1201; and Adam, the third bishop, was, on 11 September 1222, burned to death in the episcopal manor called Halkirk in Thorsdal on account of his exactions of butter. His body is said to have been first buried before the altar of the baptismal church (of Skinnet), which in all probability was then used as the cathedral.  In 1239 his body was translated to the cathedral at Dornoch.


Diocese of Caithness pages were last updated on: 29 July 2005
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