‘Hospitality, Pastoral Care and the Church in the medieval and early modern Highlands’

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On 19 February 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr. Iain MacDonald who discussed ‘Hospitality, Pastoral Care and the Church in the medieval and early modern Highlands’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

‘Hospitality’ is a very general term, encompassing various customs, including charity to the poor or the sick, payment of rent and guesting/feasting. There has been little written in secondary literature on this topic, outside of certain choice statements found in more general historical works. For example, Ranald Nicholson and James Kirk (among others) have presented a negative impression of the Highland church’s provision for social welfare. The vast expanses of land seemingly without any monasteries or guest-houses contrasts poorly with small, church-heavy, Lowland parishes. 

This ‘blank map’ in the Highlands reinforces age-old stereotypes of a ‘lack of civility’, with the area potentially interpreted as a ‘wilderness’. However, Dr. MacDonald sought to argue against this impression, as hospitality took a different form from the Lowland definition of pastoral care. While there were few known medieval hospitals in the Highlands, places like Ardchattan Priory or Iona Abbey would presumably have been rest-houses. The latter in particular, due to its status as a major pilgrimage site. 

Other smaller churches may have followed the Rule of Benedict, ch. 53, which stressed the importance of accepting guests, whether strangers or locals. A petition by Donald, Lord of the Isles states that the monks of Iona were ‘bound’ to provide hospitality, even unwillingly. This expectation was buttressed by a native Gaelic tradition that highly valued hospitality. Local chiefs were expected to look after their kindred in a reciprocal relationship. Clan legends and poetry often rewarded the giver of hospitality with lavish gifts and praise. Dr. MacDonald presented a complementary and symbiotic relationship between clan chiefs and the clergy in providing hospitality. Many of the higher clergy were close related to local kindreds, emphasising this strong connection.

Dr. MacDonald observed the parallel in Ireland, where there was a greater number of hospitals yet still an expectation for parochial care. Following Katharine Simms, this again seems to highlight that hospitality was a custom deeply embedded in Gaelic society. The consequences of not hosting visitors, especially poets, was a frequent fear of the Irish Annalists.  

Dr. MacDonald then moved onto the practice of sorning, the often aggressive exaction of free lodging. Seemingly, this was widespread in the pre-Reformation Highlands, with a possible influx of ‘masterless men’ after the forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles in 1493. The Scottish Crown viewed this practice with particular disdain and attempted to stamp it out, as seen in the Statutes of Iona of 1609. It was also frowned upon in later clan histories and poetry, yet in the early period it may have been a form of exertion of lordship by the local chief, proving his dominion over the region. Only later did it develop more negative connotations, possibly influenced by the Crown crackdown.  This practice may also be associated with wider European trends of vagrancy and the criminalising of the able-bodied poor.

Overall, there was clearly a widespread, if somewhat reluctant, acceptance of the practice of hospitality across the West Highlands. It was a custom woven into the fabric of society, with clan chiefs, along with the clergy, expected to observe it. There was less emphasis on direct hospital care, yet provisions were made on a local level.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

Our seminar series returns on Tuesday 5 March, with Ewan Campbell’s discussion of ‘Picts, Palaces and Prehistory’. This will take place in Room 202, 3 Uni Gardens at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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