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Beginnings: Early times to 1560

Learning and Beliefs

Monastic Communities

By Thomas Clancy

The urge to withdraw from the world and spend one's life in contemplation, striving towards a perfect life and the salvation of one's soul, is a common one in religions throughout the world. The Christian version of this, monasticism, has its origins in the deserts of Egypt in the 4th century and the ideal of living in community with others under the rule of an abbot, regulated by a daily and annual cycle of prayer, manual labour and study, rapidly spread to western Europe. By the 6th century it had begun to spread throughout Britain and Ireland.

The possibly early 6th century foundation at Whithorn aside, our evidence for monastic communities in southern Scotland belongs to the later 6th and early 7th centuries. Both Glasgow and Govan can lay claim to being early monasteries, though the evidence for each is different. In Govan, there were Christian burials of the 6th century; in Glasgow, there is the tradition of a monastery preceding the 12th century bishopric, linked with St Kentigern, who flourished around 600.

During the 12th century, new monastic communities were formed all over Scotland taking their impetus from European reform movements. Near Glasgow, the Cluniac abbey at Paisley was the main centre, but Glasgow also had close ties with the Cistercian monastery of Melrose and the Tironensian community at Kelso, both of which supplied early bishops to the Cathedral. The Cathedral itself had a looser community of canons, ruled by quasi-monastic principles, whose main function was to support the bishop.

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