St. Columba or Colum cille (Colum of the Churches), died on Iona on the 9th of June, 597, at the Monastery he founded after arriving from Ireland, in 563.
Of all the Scottish saints of the ‘Dark Ages’, Columba is the ‘A-list’ celebrity, outshining his contemporary, St. Mungo, or Kentigern as he was also known. Albeit Columba was Irish, he played a significant part in Scotland’s history, founding a monastery on Iona, which became one of the leading centres of Christianity in Western Europe and the base from where he launched his mission to convert the Pictish nation to Christianity, a significant feat, along with many others, with which he is credited.
No doubt Columba would have remained an enigmatic and little known figure if it hadn’t been for a Monk called Adomnán, the ninth Abbot of Iona, who wrote a book called the ‘Vita Colum Cille’ (Life of Columba) about a hundred years after his death. This Latin tome ensured that Columba’s reputation eclipsed that of the other Scottish Saints and spread Iona’s fame across Christendom.
In Ireland, Comumba fell out with King Diarmit (Diarmait or Dermott) and, instead of turning the other cheek like a good christian, he raised an army and defeated the King at the battle of Cooldrevny, in 561. Despite the Latinised form of his baptismal name of Colum signifying a dove, he had a fiery temper and the battle was a direct result of his impetuous nature. Whether or not he had an attack of conscience, a further result was his banishment from Ireland with a hefty penance. His spiritual father, St Molaise, commanded that Columba bring as many souls to the Church as he had caused to die.
The motives for this migration have been frequently discussed. Bede simply says: “Venit de Hibernia . . . praedicaturus verbum Dei” (H. E., III, iv); Adarnnan: “pro Christo perigrinari volens enavigavit” (Praef., II). Later writers repeat the story about his inducing Clan Neill to rise against the King. Whatever the facts and true reasons, the obvious destination for an Irish emigrant was the Kingdom of the Gaels of Dalriada (Dál Riata). This enclave lay in present day Argyll and was home to the Scotii, the Irish tribe who ultimately gave their name to Scotland. Columba arrived, in 563, with twelve companions (note that convenient number). After introducing himself to King Conall, he was granted permission to establish a Monastery on Iona, off the island of Mull.
Soon after that, with appropriate religious fervour, equaled only by later Scottish missionaries in Africa or the Jesuits in South America, Columba began the great work of his life, the conversion of the Northern Picts of Caledonia. Together with St. Comgall and St. Canice (Kenneth) he visited King Bridei (Brude), near Inverness. The Picts took one look at the raggedly-habited Monks and their wild looks and promptly closed and bolted their gates. However, Columba was not to be denied and summoning up all his power, just like Gandalf in Moria, he shook his staff. The ground trembled, the skies thundered lightning flashed, and before the mighty sign of the cross, the bolts flew back and the doors burst open. Not bad for an entrance, but you should’ve heard the soundtrack.
King Bridei was so gob-smacked by this mirkel that he promptly converted to Christianity and commanded all his people so to do. They were all baptized, the King first, of course, probably in Loch Ness. Legend has it that during this ceremony, the Loch Ness Monster appeared near the shore, perhaps attracted by the proximity of so many potential lunches, and Columba summoned up another of his mirkels to drive the creature away. In such ways are momentous occasions celebrated. Christianity had come to Caledonia, albeit there was still some resistance from the Druids, who interpreted the wonders of the world in a different manner, which was to them no less authentic.
Columba was one of the first to go ‘bagging’ and not only made it through the Great Glen on foot, but eastwards into the territory of Aberdeenshire. The ‘Book of Deer’ tells how Columba and Drostan came, as God had shown them, to Aberdour in Buchan, and how Bede, a Pict, who was High Steward of Buchan, gave them the town in freedom forever. Another of his journeys brought him to Glasgow, where he met St. Mungo, the Apostle of Strathclyde. He is also credited with persuading the people of Dalriada to elect Aidan, who proved to be a powerful warrior, as successor to Connal.
There was a controversy surrounding Columba, which had to do with his ability to calculate the date for Easter. The venerable Bede excuses him thus; “He [Columba] left successors distinguished for great charity, Divine love, and strict attention to the rules of discipline following indeed uncertain cycles in the computation of the great festival of Easter, because, far away as they were out of the world, no one had supplied them with the synodal decrees relating to the Paschal observance.”
Columba wandered the land, clothed in the habit and cowl usually worn by the Basilian or Benedictine monks, with a Celtic tonsure and his mighty crosier. I recommend half closing your eyes and imagining a grey cloaked, Gandalf-like figure, standing near the shell strewn shore, with a currach pulled up on the beach, and the Celtic cross and ruins of Iona in the background. Columba died on Iona, on the 9th of June, 597AD. His relics were finally removed in 849 and divided between the new formed Scotland and his homeland of Ireland. The Monymusk Reliquary, from around 750 and thought to be the ‘Brechbennoch’ that was carried into battle at Bannockburn, probably contained a relic of St Columba.
At its peak the magical Scottish island of Iona produced ‘The Book of Kells’, which was a masterpiece of Dark Age European art that now resides in Ireland. A couple of hundred years after St. Columba, the nasty Vikings descended on Iona and, within fifty years, it was in ruins. The significance of Iona can be measured by the fact that there are forty-eight Scottish kings buried on the island. It later became the site of a Benedictine Abbey and of a miniature Cathedral, but these were dismantled by the Covenanters, in 1561, when a part of Columba’s prophecy was fulfilled: “In Iona of my heart, Iona of my love, instead of Monks’ voices shall be lowing of cattle, but ere the world come to an end Iona shall be as it was.” Iona also had an affect on Samuel Johnson, who observed; “That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.”
Nigel Tranter wrote about him in the novel entitled simply ‘Columba’, which a truly engaging and entertaining read.