St Aidan's Way
The coming of the holy men to Aberlady has its origins in the 7th century Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira.
Following the defeat of the Bernician king Aethelfrith in 616 AD, his heirs were exiled to the Irish Scotti kingdom of Dal Riata (roughly present day Argyll). Here they were educated and introduced to the teachings of the early Columban Church by the monks of Iona. When Deiran King Edwin died some years later, Aethelfrith’s eldest son Oswald sought to regain his father’s kingdom. The night before the great battle, he is said to have received a vision of St Columba. In the thankful aftermath of the battle he named the site Heavenfield and instructed that the monks of Iona should establish a great monastery in his new won kingdom of Northumbria.
So it was that in 634 or 635 AD the Irish monk Aidan set out from Iona. The monastery he established was, like Iona, on an island site. It was known then as Medcaut but is known to us today as the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Place names linked to Bathene, St Columba's cousin and successor as abbot of Iona, across a route from Aberlady south to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, are most likely the result of those monks travelling from Iona, and presumably in both directions. It is most likely too that this was the overland route to the Northumbrian kingdom taken by Aidan and his monks. The only other identified possibility would have required travel through the hostile heartlands of the Strathclyde Britons while most of Lothian was already under Anglo Saxon dominion (the Gododdin stronghold of Din Eidyn - today's Edinburgh Castle Rock - was finally besieged in 638 AD). Our interpretive panels within the village show Aidan arriving at Aberlady while another shows the monastic foundation in c.720 AD under the church of St Cuthbert.
A fully descriptive tourist leaflet outlining the general direction of this route - St Aidan's Way - has been published and may be accessed along side Simon Taylor's place name research at the foot of this page. The tourist information includes places of interest along the route and pleasant places to eat and stay. We hope you find it useful. The route also links to St Cuthbert's Way from Old Melrose to Lindisfarne and to St Oswald's Way from the Holy Island to Heavenfield as well as traversing the route of the Southern Upland Way at Abbey St Bathans. At its northern end at Aberlady, the route links to the John Muir Way, which is particularly fitting given the immediate proximity of the Aberlady Bay Nature Reserve (for more on this look under Footbridge to Enchantment). It is striking that our connections to the Holy Island embrace not only Early Christianity but extend to our salt marshes, sand dune structures, wildlife and castles.
Pilgrimage Routes from Iona to Lindisfarne
Images (C) Simon Taylor
As they did not make lasting change to its name - although the writings of Symeon of Durham suggest that 'Pefferhame' may have been adopted for a short time - it is probable that Aberlady was known to the Anglo Saxons as a Christian centre before its absorbtion into the Northumbrian kingdom during the first half of the seventh century.
We know from the concentration of stray Anglo Saxon objects found here, the largest yet discovered in Scotland, that the settlement continued to thrive and prosper under Northumbrian overlordship. The finely carved cross installed here in c.720 AD indicates a significant ecclestiastical foundation as a daughter-house of Lindisfarne and there would have been strong links too to the monastic settlement at Abercorn further west along the south side of the Forth and in modern West Lothian. It was from here that the Northumbrians and Bishop Trumwini would seek to monitor developments within Pictland and seek to exercise influence over the Picts. At any rate, research indicates that the carved crosses at Aberlady and Abercorn were the product of the same master craftsman.
The carved designs on the Aberlady cross fragment - which may now be seen in situ in the magnificent cross reconstruction - bear a strikingly close relationship with the illuminated artwork in the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of Britain’s greatest national treasures.
Other links to an ecclestiastical foundation at Aberlady include the finely engraved tip of a bishop's (or abbot's) crosier head of probable 8th or 9th century date, a gilt ring engraved with the words "Maria" and "Jesus" and a silver figurine of Madonna and Child.
The Bernician Heartlands
Image (C) David Rollason
The ecclesiastical finds suggest that Aberlady continued to be used by pilgrims until medieval times.