Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed. Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.

Iona
By The Duke of Argyll
Chapter 1


No two objects of interest could be more absolutely dissimilar in kind than the two neighbouring islands, Staffa and lona:—Iona dear to Christendom for more than a thousand years;—Staffa known to the scientific and the curious only since the close of the last century. Nothing but an accident of geography could unite their names. The number of those who can thoroughly understand and enjoy them both is probably very small. There can be no doubt which is the more popular of the two. The Aspects of Nature will always be more generally attractive than the History of Man. It requires no previous knowledge, and no preparation of the memory or of the imagination, to be impressed by "Fingal’s Cave." I have heard well-travelled men declare that nothing they had seen in any part of the world had ever produced such an effect upon them. There are many larger caverns—there are many more lofty cliffs. But there is nothing anywhere like that great Hall of Columns standing round their ocean-floor, and sending forth in ceaseless reverberations the solemn music of its waves. This is a scene which appeals to every eye, which all can understand, and which none are likely to forget. With lona it is very different. Its interest lies altogether in human memories. The stranger must bring with him the knowledge and the reflection which can alone enable him to enjoy what is of real interest in the associations and in the appearance of the place. What he sees upon the Island will not help him much, and a great part of what has to be read about it, will help him less. The buildings which have risen and have decayed upon the ancient sites, and the controversies which have raged around them, belong, one and all, to times far removed from that in which the fame of Icolmkill arose. The most recent description of Iona, and perhaps also one of the most eloquent, is altogether misleading, and gives the traveller a very imperfect idea both of what he ought to remember and of what he may expect to find. And yet no one, perhaps, ever visited the Island who was in some respects better qualified to rejoice in its associations than the distinguished author of the "Monks of the West." But an indiscriminate admiration of mediaeval superstitions, and the absence of all endeavour to sift fact from fiction in the narrative we possess of Columba’s life, mar the reality of the picture which Montalembert gives us of the Past. Nor does the present fare better in his hands. His disposition to extol the self-sacrifice of his hero, and the incapacity of every Frenchman to understand any forms of natural beauty except those to which he has been accustomed, combine to make his description of Columba’s adopted home in the highest degree fanciful and erroneous. It may well be, however, that different minds should find themselves attached by very different ties to the recollections of lona, and that there should be a corresponding difference in the form which their impressions take. Its history touches an immense variety of interests—the migration of Races,—the rise of Nations,—.the conquests of Christianity - the developments of Belief. Without venturing into very deep waters on any of these subjects, something perhaps may yet be said of interest to those who visit lona, and to some also, possibly, who will never see it.

The first great interest of lona lies in the age to which it takes us back. More than thirteen hundred years have now passed since Columba landed on its shores. It is very easy to speak of such numbers, or to write them; but it is not quite so easy to have before us a definite idea of the place occupied by the last thirteen centuries in the history of the world. Does the year of our Lord 563 appear to us a very ancient or a very modern date? This will depend entirely on the point of view from which we may choose to look at it. For there is no difficulty in placing ourselves in imagination in a much more distant age, and then, when we turn and look in this direction, the sixth century of the Christian era will appear a long way on towards the present time. On the banks of the Nile it would seem an hour ago. Even on the banks of the Tiber it would not be old. On the other hand, when we measure thirteen hundred years by the changes they have brought, the days of Columba’s correctly the depths into which we look. For ministry will appear remote indeed. And this method of taking our stand at different points of past time, and turning our face alternately in opposite directions, is the only way of estimating the tracts of Time are foreshortened like the tracts of Space. Very often, in a landscape, some difference, hardly perceptible, in the tints of blue, is all that distinguishes between mountains which are really separated by wide valleys or by whole gulfs of sea. In like manner we forget the long intervals of unmemorable time that have elapsed between events which we look at across the space of more than a thousand years. And then, as the sunlight falls very unequally on different parts of a wide horizon, so does the light of History fall very unequally on different epochs of the past. On the sayings and the doings of some men, who are, nevertheless, among the Fathers of Mankind, it shines so brightly that we hear them speak as if they were speaking at our side; whilst there are many periods, some of them containing many centuries, which are much closer to us, but which lie, as it were, in hollows. We look across them. Columba’s age is one of these. The eye ranges over it to those civilizations of the ancient world with which great historians and great poets have made us so familiar. Thus, in some aspects the age of Ceasar, or of Tacitus, may well seem nearer than the age of Adamnan or of Bede. And yet, if we suppose ourselves to be standing at that point of the history of Rome when her legions first landed in Britain, or a few years later, when the long line of her Emperors began how far on, and how far down that line, would the days of Columba seem! If a Roman of the time of Augustus had seen Rome as she was to be five hundred years later, he would have felt as if the end of the world had come. And so it was—the end of the world which he knew and lived in. His eye would have ranged from Rome pushing her conquests on the Nile, the Danube, and the Clyde, to Rome deserted as the seat of government—taken and retaken by Northern hordes, and pouring forth her senate and people to welcome with Imperial honours a barbarian King. And yet, to us, on the other hand, looking back to the days of Columba from the present time, they may well seem to belong to a world which has passed away. We have only to remember that Columba was the contemporary of Justinian and Belisarius: of the great Emperor, whose genius, or whose fortune, restored for a time the splendour of Roman government; and of the great General who re-established the supremacy of the Roman arms. These events seem to belong altogether to the ancient world. Not one of the great nations of modern Europe had yet been born. The very elements of which they are composed were only then being brought together. All Europe, and a large part of Asia, was one great encampment, not of armies merely, but of Races on the march. Wave was following wave from the exhaustless breeding grounds of the North, sweeping away the dying civilizations of the world, but depositing a fruitful soil from which later civilizations were to rise. It was the seed-time of all our later harvests. Long before Columba’s time these movements had begun. The first capture of Rome by the Gothic barbarians under Alaric, took place a little more than one hundred years before his birth. When he was yet a child, the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy had come to an end, and the body of Theodoric had been laid in that massive tomb which still stands among the marshy suburbs of sad Ravenna. The conquest of Italy by the ferocious Lombards, which to this day connects their name ‘with one of the fairest portions of that country, took place a few years later than Columba’s settlement in lona.

Such were the times to which that settlement takes us back—times of overwhelming and crushing calamity, in all the ancient centres of arts, of letters, and of law. And yet, no sound of these calamities is heard in the calm narrative of Columba’s life, as recorded by Adamnan. The petty quarrels of some Irish tribes, and the obscure battles which they fought, seem more important in the eyes of this biographer as fixing the date of the transactions he records, than the most famous contemporary events affecting the most famous countries of the world. It is as if he had never heard of them—as if the sound of them had never reached his ears. But equally unbroken is the silence he maintains on memorable events which were passing much nearer home. It was only a hundred years before Columba's birth that the Roman legions had been finally withdrawn from Britain. During a great part of that time—probably, during the whole of it—that country which was not yet known by the name of England, was still in the main a Roman colony. Some, certainly—probably many—of the towns and villas whose foundations and whose tesselated pavements are now uncovered only by the plough, or which lie buried under existing cities, were still, in Columba’s childhood, the luxurious habitations of a Roman people. But the same great movements which had already overwhelmed the heart of the empire, were now breaking with equal violence on its most distant shores. The old inhabitants of the soil, who had been subdued by the power of Rome, and in some degree also by her civilization and her laws, were now harassed by the rude barbarians, who had with difficulty been kept at bay even by Trajan, and Severus, and Theodosius. Then the same expedient which everywhere marked the decline of Empire, the employment of barbarians to resist barbarians, is said, in Britain also, to have been the immediate cause of the calamities which followed. Whether the story be true or not, that a British chief invited the Saxon stranger from across the German Sea, certain it is that somewhere about seventy years before Columba’s birth, there began the invasion and second conquest of Britain by Angles, and Jutes, and Saxons. During the whole of his long life that conquest was being carried on, and it was only finally completed as nearly as possible about the period of his death. The Saxons had been then firmly established from the German Ocean to the Severn, and from the English Channel to the Frith of Forth. And this was a conflict more ruthless, and a destruction more complete, than took place in any other Province of the Roman Empire. The Celtic inhabitants and the Roman colonists seem alike to have been destroyed. Their laws, their manners, their Christianity, their language, to a great extent even the very names of places, were swept away before a Pagan race. We know only the general results; we know very little of the details. It, is an obscure time—a time of which there is no authentic contemporary record. When we think of it, we think of Caerleon, and of Camelot, and of Usk. Out of its broken memories, its traditions of heroic effort, and its sense of sad discomfiture, there arose, in later times, that noble cycle of romance touching the deeds of King Arthur and his Knights, which delighted our ancestors in the Middle Ages, and which again in our own time, and in a purer form, has been revived by Tennyson in immortal verse:-

"For when the Roman left us, and their law
Relax’d its hold upon us, and the ways
Were fill’d with rapine, here and there a deed
Of prowess done redress’d a random wrong.
But I was first of all the kings who drew
The knighthood-errant of this realm and all
The realms together under me, their Head,
In that fair order of my Table Round,
A glorious company, the flower of men,
To serve as model for the mighty world,
And be the fair beginning of a time."

And the sad work done by internal feuds in bringing in the Heathen and the Stranger is well embodied in the words addressed by the king to Guinevere:-

"Well is it that no child is born of thee.
The children born of thee are sword and fire,
Red ruin, and the breaking up of laws,
The craft of kindred, and the godless hosts
Of heathen swarming o’er the Northern Sea."

So much for the place in secular history, to which we are taken back by the memories and associations of lona. Let us now, standing on the same spot, lay down similar bearings in the history of the Church. And here the impression of antiquity is less striking. The days of the Saxon conquests and of the Picts and Scots are days which, in all secular matters, belonged to a world altogether different from our own; but the relation in which they stand to the later history of the Church is by no means equally remote. There have been, indeed, many subsequent developments of doctrine and of practice. In the main, however, the theology and government of the Western Church had come, or was then just coming, to be very nearly what, until the Reformation, it subsequently remained. The first great battles of orthodoxy had been fought and won. Athanasius—and Ambrose—and Jerome—and Augustine, had lived and died. They had given form and consistency to that system of discipline and belief which was finally accepted, both by the Latin and Teutonic nations. The Priesthood had firmly established its power, on the gratitude and in the superstitions of mankind. In proportion as the civil power declined, the spiritual power had risen on its decay. The organization through which this power was exerted had risen also by slow and insensible development. Like all strong things, it was not invented. It simply grew. An Order and an Office had been established in the Church, and was accepted as of divine origin, for which, in the narratives of the New Testament, there is not even a distinctive name. In and out of the Christian ministry the Episcopate had emerged, and out of the Episcopate the Papacy was emerging too. Both these powers arose by a natural, if not by a necessary, process of development. All over the East the chief Pastors in the great cities, which were the centres of the old civilization, had assumed positions always of influence, and sometimes of command. Among those cities, neither lapse of time nor accumulated misfortunes had destroyed the pre-eminence of the greatest Name of all; and in support of the Bishops of Rome, the ascendancy due to personal character had on some memorable occasions come in aid of the ascendancy due to traditional position. Under such circumstances, equality among provincial Bishops was not more likely to endure than equality among local clergy. The same motives of convenience in respect to government, and in respect to the centralization of authority which operated in each particular community, would operate not less powerfully to establish some one Head in the organization of the universal Church. And then the claim of Right and of Hereditary Succession which arose in the one case was sure to arise also in the other. The growth of opinion, out of which these two kinds of Primacy arose, has been perhaps, as natural in the larger as in the smaller sphere. Theories are never wanting to account for facts; and those facts, which are in themselves only phenomena of Thought and developments of Belief, never fail to gather round them congenial interpretations of the Past. Traces of some special prominence in Peter, among the other Apostles, had been discerned or imagined in certain incidents connected with the early Church. Tradition had designated Rome as the scene of his last ministry, and of his martyrdom. The supposed spiritual Primacy of Peter, and the undoubted secular Primacy of Rome, had conspired to re-act upon each other in the minds of men. And so, at the beginning of the fifth century,—that is, about 120 years before Columba’s birth,—the lineal spiritual descent from St Peter of the Bishops of Rome had become widely accredited in the Christian world.’ The tremendous claims, indeed, which this tenet was made to bear were as yet appearing only in the germ; but during that century, immediately preceding Columba’s time, the two Pontificates of Innocent I. (A.D. 402—417) and of Leo the Great (440—461) had laid deep the foundations of the Papal power. The last years of Columba’s own life were contemporary with the Pontificate of the third great man by whom that power was consolidated, and from whose time forwards we are in the presence of the Medimval Papacy. Gregory the Great was elected Pope in 590; that is, when Columba was seventy years of age, and after his ministry among the Picts and Scots had been carried on from lona, for seven-and-twenty years. Before he died in 597, Columba must have heard much of that famous mission of the Roman Monk who came to convert the heathen People which had destroyed Christianity in so large a part of Britain, and from whose country such lovely fair-haired slaves had been brought to the market-place of Rome.

And here we come upon another point of immense interest at which lona touches the general history of the Church. Columba represents one of the earlier forms of the monastic life, which seems to have materially differed from that which it assumed in the great Orders of mediaeval times. And yet the first of those great Orders was founded in his day. As Columba was a contemporary of Justinian, and of Gregory the Great, so also he was a contemporary of the famed St. Benedict. Twenty-six years before Columba’s birth, this remarkable man, then a youth of fourteen, flying from the corruption of Rome, had taken refuge in the caves of Subiaco. There he had moulded into a lasting form the Rule out of which arose the first great Orders of the West. Thirty-five years later, when Columba was still a child, Benedict had removed from holes in a precipice, to the summit of a mountain,—fit emblem this migration, of the larger prospects which had opened to his gaze, and of the wide dominion which his Rule was destined to subdue. On the sunny ridge of Monte Casino, which rises above the valley of the Liris, and commands a splendid panorama among the hills of Samnium and over the valleys of Campania, he had founded in 494 that retreat which for more than 1,300 years has been one of the most famous Monasteries of the world. But rapid as was the spread of the great monastic Order which poured forth its legions from this centre, more than a century elapsed before they reached the distant shores of Britain. For aught we know, Columba, though he survived him more than fifty years, never heard of the Rule of Benedict. What then was the monastic system in which Columba himself lived, and which he brought with him to Iona? This is a question respecting which there has been much controversy, but which mainly the patient research of Irish antiquarians has solved with tolerable clearness. The interest which attaches to this question is considerable, but its importance may be very easily exaggerated or misunderstood. No special value can be set on the customs of religious life in the sixth century as necessarily affording any indication whatever either of the doctrine or of the practices of Primitive Christianity. Five hundred years is a time long enough for almost any amount of drift. We know what abuses had arisen even in the lifetime and under the eyes of those who had seen the Lord. We know more than this—we know those tendencies of our nature which make it impossible that corruptions should not arise. We know that one of the chiefest of the Apostles warned the clergy of Ephesus, and through them the whole Church, that they enjoyed no miraculous protection against the growth of error. In the same breath in which he told them they had all been made Overseers of the church by the Holy Ghost, he told them also that out of their own number men would arise speaking perverse things. Accordingly the very earliest Christian writings which have come down to us after those of the Apostles, bear upon their face the unmistakeable marks of deviation and decline. It cannot be too constantly remembered, or too emphatically repeated, that there are no "Apostolic Fathers" except the Apostles. But later writers, in the several centuries to which they belong, are of immense interest in enabling us to trace the developments of belief and of practice which arise out of all those influences, external and internal, by which our conceptions of truth and of duty are so much determined. And so the life of St. Columba is of special value in enabling us to judge of the intervals that elapsed between certain waves of opinion which at successive periods were propelled from the ancient centres of Christendom, and which, each in turn, finally overspread the whole.

The belief in the virtues of a monastic life was one of these. The idea of it was indeed older than Christianity. In the far East, many centuries before the Christian era, Buddhism had devoted its thousands to dreamy contemplation. It had found a home also among the sects of Judaism, and the description given by Pliny of the Essenes who retired to the deserts of the Dead Sea, seems almost as if it had been drawn from the monks of a later age. In the earliest records of the Church, which are the records of the New Testament, we hear nothing of it. The community of property practised among the few first disciples, and the command addressed to the young man of great possessions to sell all and to follow Christ, have indeed been quoted as the beginning of, and the authority for, the life of monks. And certainly if it were true that Christ’s life in any way resembled that life, then indeed in the command to follow Him we might see the authority to become an Anchoret or a Cenobite. But there does seem to be an essential difference between the life of Him who went about doing good, and of whom His enemies complained that He "ate and drank with publicans and sinners," and the life of men who stood on the top of pillars or hid themselves in the dens of beasts. Nevertheless it is easy to understand how even so grotesque a parallelism as this has arisen and was sure to arise. Self-sacrifice was the spirit of all Christian service. It was only in the natural course of things that men should forget the essential distinction between self-sacrifice for a good and wise purpose, and self-sacrifice for its own sake, or for purposes neither wise nor good. And the moment this distinction was forgotten, and religious enthusiasm took a wrong direction, there were powerful causes operating to cut deep and wide this new channel for the devotion of the Church. Many were disgusted by the frightful pollution of the Roman world. Many more were terrified by its overwhelming calamities. Perhaps, all things considered, no period in the history of the human race has been so widely miserable as the fourth and fifth centuries of the Christian era—when the Empire was breaking up, and when amidst an universal dissolution of manners, and famines, and the ruthless invasions of barbarous hosts, men looked for the end of the world and the terrors of the Judgment. No wonder if even wise and good men should have concluded, in such a world, that to leave it was the best thing to do. And so it had come to pass that whole populations had poured themselves into the Desert, and at one time in the course of the fourth century it was said that there were more men and women in the monasteries of the Thebaid than remained in all the cities of Egypt.

A great name in the history of the Church is connected with the spread of this passion in the West. When Athanasius came to Rome, he planted its fervour there; and when exiled to the far banks of the Moselle, he imparted it into the rising Christianity of Gaul. We must not confound, however, under one common name, the very great varieties of life which prevailed under different forms of the monastic system. It seems always to have been a life more active—less merely contemplative—in the West than in the East. The differences of natural character and genius are almost enough to account for this. It is difficult to conceive of any Roman, or of any Goth, or of any Celt, leading the life of Simeon Stylites. The early Monks of the West abjured, no doubt, domestic life, and they generally chose for their head-quarters some retired spot among the mountains or in the forest, or some rock surrounded by the waves. "The bleak and barren isles," says Gibbon, "that rise out of the Tuscan sea from Serino to Lipari, were chosen by the Anchorets for the place of their voluntary exile." In some cases it may be true that they lived as Anchorets. But in many more they issued forth from their huts or cells to engage in the great work of their time—the work of spreading Christianity in the world. We know almost nothing in detail of the conversion of the Northern nations. But it is certain that in this conversion the various religious communities of Cenobites were active agents. Like all other systems which involve any violation of natural laws, the monastic life was from the very first full of the element of corruption, and the gross abuses which everywhere arose became very soon intolerable. Montalembert complains in melancholy tones, and with touching candour, of that relaxation of morals "which the Religious Orders, by a mysterious and terrible judgment of God have never been able to resist." To those who believe that the laws of nature are God’s laws, and cannot with impunity be disobeyed, however high may be the motives with which that disobedience is begun, this result will present no mystery at all. But where the impulses of religious zeal were kept pure by contact with the duties of an active public life, and by the noble work of missionary labour, the tendencies to corruption may long have been kept in check. And so it was, that at a time when monastic life in Italy had already become thoroughly corrupt, and when the Rule of Benedict was being established as a great measure of reform, the early religious communities of the far West were still obedient to the rules of a virtuous discipline and of useful labour. This is the stage at which, and the aspect in which, the monastic life appears in the early history of lona. Ireland had never been subdued by the Roman arms, and its early Church thus came to occupy a somewhat isolated position in the world. It did not move under the same influences of development as those which determined the ecclesiastical system in other countries. In the time and in the country of Columba, the Celtic monasteries were not only the great missionary colleges of the Church, but they seem to have embraced and absorbed almost all that existed then of an ecclesiastical organization. Something of a Clan connection under the rule of hereditary families is discernible in the different foundations, and the innate propensity of the Irish Celts to tribal feuds seems to have made these Bodies, in a very literal sense indeed, active members of the Church militant. And yet their religious zeal after its own type and fashion appears to have been of a genuine kind. The study of the Scriptures was universal, and the transcription of them was a passion. Manuscripts still remain which are believed on probable evidence to belong to this time, and tradition ascribes the exile of Columba to fierce contentions for a favourite copy. Nothing altogether like those old Monasteries existed elsewhere then, or has existed anywhere since that time. There were among the brethren members capable of discharging whatever varieties of function had as yet become distinctively assigned to the different branches of the Christian ministry. How far the more definite rules which now divide those functions, and which elsewhere had been long firmly established, had as yet reached the remote communities of "Scotia," there are, to say the least, serious doubts—doubts which have been very embarrassing to those who depend, in the highest matters, upon the perfect regularity of early times. Such priests as were called Bishops had no local spheres of jurisdiction. There were crowds of them; and although Columba seems to have treated with great respect such wanderers from among them as came to lona, they were everywhere entirely subordinate to the Monastic leaders, and they do not themselves appear to have been set apart in the manner which over the rest of Christendom had come to be regarded as necessary to the right constitution of the office. Long after the death of Columba, the Community he founded in Iona seems to have "ordained and sent forth bishops" under circumstances which look very much as if their mission was conferred by the collective authority of the brethren. If any Bishop was present at the consecration, which is a matter of inference only, he appears to have been regarded as the mere organ of the supreme authority of the Abbot and of the Body over which the Abbot presided. All these things have been terrible scandals to later ecclesiastical Historians, and have much exercised the ingenuity of Presbyterian and Episcopal controversialists. It is vain, however, to look, in the peculiarities of the Scoto-Irish Church, for the model either of Primitive practice, or of any modern system. As regards the theology of Columba’s time, although it was not what we now understand as Roman, neither assuredly was it what we understand as Protestant. Montalembert boasts, and I think with truth, that in Columba’s Life we have proof of the practice of auricular confession, of the invocation of saints, of confidence in their protection, of belief in transubstantiation, of the practices of fasting and of penance, of prayers for the dead, of the sign of the cross in familiar—and it must be added—in most superstitious use. On the other hand there is no symptom of the worship or "cultus" of the Virgin, and not even an allusion to such an idea as the universal Bishopric of Rome, or to any special authority as seated there.

There is, however, one other aspect of Columba’s religious life which is thoroughly mediaval, and that is, the atmosphere of miracle in which the whole is presented to us. This is a subject which is full of real mystery. Adamnan wrote his famous Life within a hundred years after the great Abbot’s death. He had spoken in his youth with men who had seen Columba. It is after an interval of time so short as this that a Biography is written, almost the sole object of which is to record the miracles, the prophecies, and the inspired sayings of the Saint. Some of the stories told are not only childish and utterly incredible, but of a character which makes it very difficult to understand how they could ever be seriously believed even in a very ignorant and a very superstitious age. To shut the book and never to open it again might well be our first impulse, when we are told, for example, of a Staff (Pastoral?) accidentally left upon the shore of lona, being transported across the sea by the prayers of Columba, to meet its disconsolate owner when he landed somewhere on his way to Ireland. What are we to make of stories such as this? Did Adamnan himself believe them? Or had the pestilent doctrine been already established that frauds can be pious, and that falsehoods can be safely told in the interests of the Faith? It is the fashion now to deal with this difficult subject only by evasion. Montalembert himself repeats all his narratives without letting us clearly understand whether he accepts all, or only some,—or whether he narrates them simply as part of the belief of the times,—as such and as nothing more. Perhaps devout Roman Catholics do not choose to put any question to themselves upon the subject. Believers of picturesque narratives care for the picturesqueness and for nothing else. Philosophical historians have recourse to such generalities as this: "History to be true must condescend to speak the language of legend. The belief of the times is part of the record of the times." This is all very well, but it is no explanation of the phenomena with which we have to deal; nor can it satisfy any mind which desires to understand them. To believe nothing of the truth of a narrative, and to believe everything of the truthfulness of the narrator, is rather a difficult mental operation. Yet this is very much what is generally offered to us now-a-days by way of compromise. I do not think it possible to explain all the narratives of Adamnan, and other narratives of the same kind, without ascribing much to the effect of deliberate invention. We know indeed what slight additions and alterations made in the telling of a story will transform its whole character after it has passed for a very short time from mouth to mouth, and we know, too, how this tendency to growth may be nourished to an almost unlimited degree in an atmosphere of credulity where nothing is considered as in itself improbable. It is to be observed, too, that Adamnan cannot have been an eye-witness of any of the wonders he records. But the minute and circumstantial details given by him in the story of the Staff, and in many others equally childish, can hardly be referred to mere traditionary legend. There is indeed another class of stories which are of a different character, and must be regarded from a very different point of view. I refer to those in which the wonder lies not so much in the facts alleged, as in the interpretations which are put upon them. These altogether depend on the predispositions of the mind, and the predisposition then was to see in all events nothing but their subserviency to the interests of the Christian Church. The escapes effected by Columba from perils by sea and land through the efficacy of his prayers belong to this class. Adamnan’s Life is full of them. Putting aside the exaggerations of detail which transform the Providential into the Miraculous, this is to be remembered—that not only may such interpretations be sincere, but what is more, they may be true. Not even the fullest belief in what men vaguely call "The Supernatural" compels us to accept every manifestation of it which a puerile fancy or a superstitious purpose may invent. We are not shut up to the alternative of denying the possibility of Divine Power becoming unusually visible among men, or else of believing that it is exerted without reason, without measure, and without proportion of Means to Ends. The agencies which work in and through the characters of great men at great epochs of human history, and in the great achievements of their lives, are agencies which may either be called natural or supernatural according to our conception and definition of the term. They are spiritual agencies, and sometimes work in almost a visible manner, through unusual combinations of ordinary laws. Who can measure the power of minds endowed with extraordinary gifts? And who can say how extraordinary these gifts may not sometimes be? Over and over again in the history of the world, they have achieved apparent impossibilities, and have seemed as if yoking to their service the whole natural course and current of events. Many of the stories of Adamnan turn upon the possession by Columba of the gift of prophecy. There is nothing impossible in this. One prediction of Columba recorded by Adamnan, to which, in the next Chapter, I shall have occasion to refer, has been in course of fulfilment during 1,300 years, and is being fulfilled now by every pilgrim who lands upon lona. We must remember as a fact that Columba was an agent, and a principal agent, in one of the greatest events the world has ever seen, namely the conversion of the Northern Nations. It is not surprising that in such times the providential ordering of events should make a deep impression on the minds of succeeding generations, and that almost every transaction connected with such men should be read in the light which shines from behind the veil. We are almost entirely ignorant of the natural means by which that conversion of the Northern Nations was effected. Such historians as survived the centuries during which it was going on, are as silent as Adamnan on all the details which we should most desire to know. And yet in order to appreciate how marvellous this event was—how extraordinary the agencies must have been by which it was accomplished—we have only to remember that nothing of the same kind has happened for more than a thousand years. The world is still in large proportion heathen. Christianity is indeed still spreading, but mainly by the spread and migration of those races whose conversion was completed then. Converts are made here and there in our own time. But nowhere now—nowhere during a long course of centuries—have we seen whole nations accepting the Christian faith, and casting their idols to the moles and to the bats. What were the predisposing causes which led to this great movement among the Gothic and Celtic tribes? What was the condition of their own beliefs? What were to them the attractive elements in the new religion? What were the arguments addressed to them by Columba? Could he quote to them as Paul did at Athens to the Greeks some things which "even their own poets had said"? It is really afflicting that Adamnan gives us no ray of light on these questions, so interesting, and so profoundly dark. One, at least, of the explanations so often given of the influences under which Christianity was extended, cannot apply to the Picts of Caledonia. Christianity was not presented to them in alliance with the impressive aspects of Roman civilization. The tramp of Roman legions had never been heard in the Highland glens, nor had their clans ever seen with awe the majesty and the power of Roman government. In the days of Columba, whatever tidings may have reached the Picts of Argyll or of Inverness, must have been tidings of Christian disaster and defeat. All the more must we be ready to believe that the man who, at such a time planted Christianity successfully among them, must have been a man of powerful character and of splendid gifts. There is no arguing against that great monument to Columba, which consists in the place he has secured in the memory of mankind.

The imperishable interest of Adamnan’s book lies in the vivid though incidental touches of life and manners which he gives us in the telling of his tales—of life and manners as they were in that obscure but most fruitful time, when the light of ancient history had died away, and before the light of modern history had arisen. As regards Scotland, we get behind the age of History, and not only behind it, but behind it by many centuries. The history of Scotland, properly so called, begins with Malcolm Canmore; and before he was born, Columba had been gathered to his fathers for more than 400 years. Those who are very rigorous in the definition of History, and who demand for it as essential the existence of contemporary records, will hold that a much wider gap remains to be filled between the days of Columba and the true beginning of Scottish history. Fordun and the other chroniclers, who are considered the fathers of that history, lived no less than 700 years later than the great apostle of the Picts. In the days of Adamnan, Scotland was not Scotland, but "Albyn." "Scotia" was then the familiar name for that island which we now call Ireland. In like manner, England was not yet England, and the very foundation of its national life had not yet been laid.

It is in close contact with this dreamland of our national annals, this legendary and almost mythic age, that we find in Columba’s Life, not only the firm foothold of history, but the vivid portraiture of an individual man. In regard to many contemporary events of the deepest interest, we have to grope our way to nothing better than probable conclusions, through the obscure data of philological research. Not one historical character of the time, in connection with any one of the races contending for the mastery in Britain, is in any similar degree known to us. On one spot, and one spot only, of British soil, there shines in this dark time a light, more vivid even than the light of common history—the light of personal anecdote and of domestic narrative. When we land upon lona, we can feel that we are treading in the very footsteps of a man whom we have known in voice, in gesture, in habits, and in many peculiarities of character; and yet, of a man who walked on the same ground before the Heptarchy, when Roman cities still stood in Britain, and when the ancient Christianized Celts of Britain were maintaining a doubtful contest with Teutonic heathenism.

In these memories the interest of lona lies. In the next chapter we shall land upon its shores, and see what is to be seen upon them.


Return to Iona Index Page