Saint Patrick born in Roman Nemeton (Old Kilpatrick)

Today is St.Patrick’s day. Whilst Patrick is well known as the patron Saint of Ireland, his birthplace in Scotland is less well known and this is not helped by several variants of fake history that have grown up suggesting other locations.

Patrick was a descendent of a Roman citizen, so presumably at one time his ancestors came from Rome or another location in the Roman empire, but his grandfather was a Roman citizen & a priest with property which many think must have been in Roman Britain. But the early lives of the Saint tell us he was born in Nemthur near Alt Cluid (Dumbarton Rock), so, at some point his family moved to Strathclyde, possibly as a result of one of the persecutions of Christians. Unfortunately we are not told whether his Grandfather inherited the estate after he moved to Strathclyde, or perhaps never moved, or indeed his grandfather’s estate may have been outside the empire.

But why did they move to Strathclyde? To understand this we must go back several hundred years before Patrick was born a Roman named Antonine decided to build a wall across Scotland from the Forth to Clyde┬áin 142AD. This finished at the ford across the Clyde at the fort of Old Kilpatrick. We know that these forts would have had civilian “vicus” attached to them so undoubtedly there was also a large civilian settlement attached to the fort. And being on the Clyde near an important iron-age fort at Dumbarton, there is no doubt that this settlement would have seen a lot of trading ships coming up and down the west coast between Scotland and the Roman empire.

The Roman occupation of Scotland was not long lived as the wall was abandoned about 162AD. But clearly Strathclyde did not end it links with the Roman empire. The evidence for this comes from the numerous Roman coins found through the area of Strathclyde which continues and even increases toward the end of the Roman occupation of Britain. It seems Strathclyde continued to have close connections with Rome long after they formally left. Indeed, this was a typical pattern for the Romans that used to maintain pro-Roman “client kingdoms” on their borders. These were Kingdoms that the Romans kept sweet by limited train and even bribes, which acted as a “buffer” to more hostile states. If these client Kingdoms were attacked, Rome may offer support t them, but it often demanded that they in return furnish them with soldiers. This was likely the relationship between Rome and the Kingdom of Strathclyde or Alt Clud.

So, why would a Roman like Patrick’s family come to Strathclyde? The answer appears to be that there was a “little Rome” in Strathclyde very much like we might get “little China” – an area where immigrants tend to come because there are already immigrants. This may have started with the wall, but it kept going because of a regular influx of news immigrants in the form of runaway slaves. They could have come from anywhere in and around the Roman empire, so far from the idea that people have had of a barbaric mono-cultural Scotland Strathclyde was probably a very multi-cultural place!

But why did it become a Christian centre? We know that Christianity was particularly strong amongst the slaves of Rome, it is likely that increasingly amongst the runaway slaves would be Christians. This gives us a reason why Patrick’s grandfather priest may have come to Strathclyde. The slaves may have been Christians – the congregation of Christians were there, but they may have lacked priests and Patrick’s Grandfather may have moved simply to fulfil this role.

However, a less benign cause was the numerous persecutions of Christians. We know that St.Albans was beheaded in the late 3rd century for sheltering a priest. We are not told what happened to the priest – but it’s a fair bet they got out the Roman empire ASAP. And where would they go? Strathclyde – which was conveniently outside the empire, and because of the Roman Wall a hundred years early already had a sizeable population of Christians.

Is there any proof that Strathclyde was a Christian centre? Yes!

  1. First we have Patrick’s own writings telling us his grandfather was a priest and his father a deacon. So at least Old Kilpatrick had some Christians of Patrick’s own family.
  2. Then we have the earliest Christian graves in Scotland dating from the 5th or 6th century (the time of Patrick) just across the Clyde from Old Kilpatrick in Govan.
  3. Then we have the foundation of Govan by “St. Constantine” who is said to be of the Strathclyde Royal family. This shows that even royalty were Christianised, presumably at the date of the earliest Graves in Govan in the 5th and 6th century.
  4. Finally we are told that Gildas (the first Church historian of Britain born ~500AD) came from Strathclyde. It seems highly unlikely people in Strathclyde would be sending their sons to become monks, unless they were already Christian.

But the final clincher for me that proves beyond doubt that Patrick came from Old Kilpatrick (known as Nemthur) is that we have a record of this place in the early list of British places known as the Ravenna Cosmography. This gives us a list of places “where Britain is thinnest”, that is where the Antonine wall is located, but it doesn’t say “on the wall”, so although some were undoubtedly on the wall, not all of them were. This had long confused Roman Scholars who assumed the places were a list of forts solely on the wall. This was wrong! The clue they were not aware of was a note to Nennius which tell s that there were only 7 forts along the wall. If we look on the list we find that (assuming a small copy error combined two place names), the seventh entry for the last fort at Old Kilpatrick is Nemeton which is clearly a Romanised version of Nemthur. The previous one is Medio (Bal-mulidy) and the next is SUB-DOBIADON which is clearly Dumbarton.

 

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