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Iona
By The Duke of Argyll
Chapter 3


FOR 200 years from the date of the great Abbot’s death, it never fell to the lot of the brethren who frequented the Little Hill of Columba’s Benediction to see approaching any other sails than those which came to pay the homage of the living, or the last tribute of the dead. But at the close of that period began the visitation—terrible indeed to all the coasts of Britain—which was due to the last overflow of the Northern nations. Then indeed the friendly Sea, which hitherto had brought nothing to lona but security and peace, became the bearer of unnumbered woes. That beautiful Sound of green and gleaming water was covered with ships,—not this time laden with worshippers or with mourners, but with the grim and heathen pirates who swarmed from Scandinavian ports. In the Irish annals there is preserved a short but distinct chronicle of events connected with the monastery of Hy, carried on from year to year. For the date of A.D. 794, there is this ominous entry: "Vastatio omnium insularum a gentilibus" (Devastation of all the islands by the heathen). From this time forward, during a period of no less than 300 years, lona was frequently ravaged—its churches and monasteries burned, its brethren murdered by the savage Northmen. The bones of Columba were carried to safer places— to Kells in Ireland, and to Dunkeld in Scotland. It must have been towards the close of that period that the church was rebuilt by Margaret, the devout and devoted queen of Malcolm Canmore. And now, once more, the memory of St Columba was to re-assert its ancient power even over the heathen spoilers. lona was the only place spared by Magnus, King of Norway, in his great predatory expedition of AD. 1098. And if St. Oran’s Chapel be indeed the building erected by Queen Margaret, it is not without interest to think that in that low, round archway, which still remains, we may see the door from which the fierce King Magnus is said to have recoiled with awe when he had attempted to enter the sacred building.

But already we have been carried down the course of centuries far—too far—from the time in which all the real interest of lona lies. Or if it be indeed part of that interest to look on the ruins of St Oran’s Chapel, and to think that it may possibly be the very building erected by the wife of Malcolm Canmore, at least let us not forget that the long, long period of 500 years lay between that date, which now seems so old to us, and the date of Columba’s ministry. The grey tower of the cathedral, standing "four square to all the winds that blow," ancient and venerable as it looks, is of still more modern date. The oldest portion of it may belong to the close of the twelfth century—that is to say, more than 600 years nearer to us than Columba’s day. All these buildings before us are the monuments, not of the fire, the freshness, and the comparative simplicity of the old Celtic Church, but of the dull and often the corrupt monotony of mediaeval Romanism. After all, the real period of lona’s glory was not a long one. It is almost confined to the life of one man, and to the few generations which preserved the impress of his powerful character.

Ross of Mull

Let, us then for a moment go back to his time, let us look on the Island, as it was before one stone of the churches now ruined had as yet been laid upon another, and let us fill in the background of the picture before us as it is and as it was. Across the narrow strait lie the low, rounded, but rocky hills of red granite which here constitute the Ross of Mull. These, broken up into innumerable rocks and islets, stretch from one, entrance of the Sound in the N.E., to the other entrance in the S.W. Looking down the .vista of the Sound in this last direction is the comparatively open sea,—with the blue mountains of Jura appearing in the far distance to the left over a depression in the hills of the Ross. Towards the other, or north-eastern entrance of the Sound, the horizon is entirely bounded by the coast of Mull, and of the smaller Islands of Ulva and Inch-Kenneth. But these coasts are receding and fore-shortened shores, reaching far up Loch-na-Kael, an arm of the sea which nearly divides the Island of Mull into two parts. Another similar arm of the sea called Loch Scriden branches off to the eastward; and although its line of coast is concealed from the Monastery of lona by the low granites of the Ross, yet the mountains along its sides and at its farther end give additional variety to the sky lines as seen from Columba’s cell. These two arms of the sea clasp round the base of Ben More, whose summit appears rising above a great precipitous headland called Bourg. The upper portion of this headland is a great mass of nearly horizontal terraces of trap rock, diminishing pyramidally to the top; half-way down; these terraces break into lofty precipices which run round the headland on every side, and are seen extending along the shores of Loch-na-Kael with little interruption for many miles, but with much variety of height. At the foot of this range of precipices there is a steep green slope (at the angle of rest) into the sea. After rains, a rivulet breaks over the brow of this precipice at the point where it fronts lona; and when strong winds are blowing from the westward, the water of this stream is blown off in a cloud of vapour. Grand shadows are thrown, in fine weather, along the range of cliffs, varying with the advancing hour, and with every passing cloud. This great headland, with all its varied and noble outlines, is the most conspicuous object in the view from all the old ecclesiastical sites upon Iona; and during the many years of Columba’s ministry, they must have been the most familiar of all outlines to his eye. Far off, along the perspective of the receding shore, and close under the point round which the range of cliff passes out of sight, lies the little Island of Inch-Kenneth—where, in 1775, Dr. Johnson was so hospitably entertained. To the left lie the opposite shores of Loch-na-Kael - all hills of trap, disposed in line; heathy, and receding towards the head of that arm of the sea. Above them, low down upon the sky, rises a portion of the far-off Hills of Morven, lying on the other side of the Sound of Mull.

The slope of arable land upon lona itself, which lies between its rocky pasture-hills and the shore, rises towards the N.E., and from the Torr-Abb shuts out farther view in that direction. Let us therefore now come down from this point of observation, and follow the path towards the northeastern end of Iona, along which Columba must have often walked. It brings us presently alongside of an elevated ridge of ground, which seems like an artificial terrace, and on ascending it this suspicion of its origin will be confirmed. Beyond it, lies a hollow and morass — the only one on the Island—which marks the site of an old reservoir of water for the turning of a mill wheel. Passing along this old mound of dry and pleasant turf, the view to the northward opens considerably. The northern half of the Island of Mull still bounds the horizon with its long low hills of terraced trap covered with dark heathy pasture. But nearer, some six miles off, there is an Island of curious form, flat topped, with precipitous sides, sloping upwards towards the west, and then ending in a cliff singularly sharp in outline. If the sun be low and shining strongly, casting its glorious light on the precipices of Bourg, and the rocky shores of Gribune, it will be seen that this curious Island is marked with a strange band of columnar shadows, with two dark spots on the face towards lona. This is Staffa, and one of these dark spots is its now celebrated cave. How strange that this great work of nature should have lain for so many ages so close to one of the most frequented and most celebrated Islands on the shores of Britain, and that not a whisper of its wonder and its sublimity should have been heard among men!

Iona with the Cathedral

Pursuing our walk towards the northern end of the Island, we regain the road leading to the pastures which seem to have been specially devoted to the dairy cows, and along which Columba’s brethren brought home to the Monastery their daily pails of milk. As we ascend the slopes which fall away from the foot of Dun-i—the highest hill on the island —we come upon a region of "Link land"—that is to say, of shelly sand, covered with close, soft, and springy grass. This extends in flats, and in swelling undulations, to the rocky shore, or to the point where stormy winds have broken in upon the sward, and scattered the fine sand in wreaths almost as white as snow. From this pastureland a wide view opens before us to the northward. The hills of Mull are seen terminating in a long promontory and a rocky headland. The intervening wide expanse of sea is dotted with Islands all of the same curious form and shape—precipitous in the side and perfectly flat in outline, except one Island, out of the middle of which rises a low conical hill, with a perfectly symmetrical outline on either side. This is now known under the name of the "Dutchman’s Cap," and is, and must always have been, an invaluable landmark for boats navigating in stormy weather through such a dangerous archipelago of rocks. Far beyond these islands, and far also beyond the headlands of Mull, rises in a clear day a long ridge of sharp and peaky mountains, sinking in noble outlines into the ocean on the west. These are the Islands of Egg and Rum. And beyond these, again, to the right, low down upon the horizon, may be seen, traced against the distant sky in the faintest but purest blue, a sharp serrated range of mountains. These are the Cuchulin Hills, in Skye. To the extreme left—that is, to the west—the horizon is occupied, across some twenty miles of sea, with a low hummocky outline, ending in detached spots of hill, which only appear at intervals above the waves. These indicate the Islands of Tyree and Coll. To the south-west is the open Ocean, with all its vastness, its freshness, and its power.

Headland of Bourg and Ben More

From this part of the Island also the view to the eastward is finer than from the old monastic sites, because lona here overlaps the end of the Ross of Mull, and the eye ranges along its northern coast, thus commanding the mouth of Loch Scriden, as well as the receding shores of Loch-na Kael. On a calm fine evening in autumn, when the atmosphere has that singular clearness which is then often to be seen in the Hebrides, I know no view in any part of Scotland more beautiful or varied than the view from the north end of lona. The distance on the map from the Cuchulin Hills, in Skye, to the Paps of Jura, is 96 miles. Both are clearly visible, the one to the extreme north, the other to the extreme south. This is indeed a wide horizon, with such a wealth of Cloud and Sea and Mountain as belongs to very few spots in any country.

Landscapes

Returning to the Torr-Abb and the Reilig Odhrain, there is another walk which is of much interest as connected with the detailed account left us by Adamnan of one of the last days of Columba’s life.

This account is so characteristic in its combination of incidents, some of which are perfectly natural and others of which are highly imaginative, that it may be well to give a short abstract of it here.

One day in the thirtieth year after Columba’s landing on lona, a sudden flush of colour and a joyful expression were seen by his attendants to overspread the Abbot’s face. In a few moments the indications of joy were turned into looks of sadness. Two brethren who attended at the door of his cell inquired the cause. At first he refused to tell them. He loved them too well to wish to make them sad. But at last he told them how he had long prayed that at the close of this thirtieth year he might be relieved from his labours. And this was the cause of his sudden joy—that he saw angels sent to lead out his spirit from the flesh. But, again, suddenly he had seen those heavenly messengers arrested on the opposite shore; and there they were still standing on the rocks, unable to reach the Holy Isle, because his Lord, who had been willing to grant that for which he fervently prayed, had yielded to the more prevailing intercessions of many Churches. And so, those angels were about to return to the throne above. It was this that had changed his joy. But now he knew that yet four years longer he must remain; and then suddenly, and without previous suffering, he would join his Lord.

And so on that fourth year after this vision, which was A.D. 597, Easter day fell on the 14th April. On a certain day in the following month, the old Abbot was carried in a waggon to see his brethren, who were working in the fields on the plain called the Machar, at the western side of the Island. The road leading to this plain winds for some distance among rocky knolls, and then opens on the comparatively level ground, which, being composed of light soil, and much exposed to the sun, seems to have been then considered the best for tillage. It was now probably the seed-time of that early husbandry. On reaching the monks who were engaged in labour, he told them that with desire he had desired, during the late Paschal commemoration, to join Christ his Lord; but, that the joy of their festival might not be converted into mourning, he had been willing that the day of his departure should yet a little longer be deferred. He then addressed to his saddened brethren some words of consolation, and, still sitting in the vehicle, he turned his face eastward to the holy sites, and pronounced a benediction on the Island and on all its inhabitants. He was then carried back to the monastery.

It was not many days after this that on Sunday, during the celebration of the mass, the Abbot’s face was again seen to be suffused with sudden colour. The old vision had reappeared. An angel of the Lord, he explained to those about him, was evident to him— sent to seek for something which was beloved of God, but which still remained on earth. What that something was he did not say.

On the last day of that week, the Saturday, Columba went, with his special attendant, Diarmaid, to bless the Barn or storehouse of the Monastery. He found it so well supplied, that he told them he rejoiced to see that, although he was about to leave them, they would not suffer from lack of food. Then turning to Diarmaid, he said, "This Saturday (the old Sabbath) will be a Sabbath indeed to me; for it is to be the last of my laborious life, on which I shall rest from all its troubles. During this coming night, before the Sunday I shall, according to the expression of the Scriptures, be gathered to my fathers. Even now my Lord Jesus Christ deigns to call me; to whom, this very night, and at His call, I shall go. So it has been revealed to me by the Lord."

Having so said, Columba moved from the Barn, and walked back towards the Monastery. In the middle of the way he sat down to rest, at a spot which, in Adamnan’s time, was marked by a cross, and which is very likely indicated by M’Lean’s Cross at the present day. At that point the old traditional path takes a turn, and begins a slight ascent. Whilst the Abbot was sitting here, the old white horse which was wont to carry the milk-pails to the Monastery, is recorded to have come up to his old master, and, putting its head into his lap, really seemed to weep. It was after this rest by the wayside that Columba ascended the Torr-Abb, and uttered that prophecy on the future fame of lona which has been already quoted. After this he returned to his cell, and was occupied for some time in his favourite work of transcribing the Holy Scriptures. He was engaged on the 34th Psalm, and had reached the 9th verse, and the words, "There is no want to them that fear Him." These brought him to the foot of the page. "Here," he said, "I must stop. Let Baithune write out the rest." He then repaired to the church, and attended the vesper services. Returning to his cell, he lay for some time on his bed with its stone pillow, which in Adamnan’s time was preserved beside his tomb. Thence he dictated to his one attendant his last orders to his brethren. It was in substance the old message which men like Columba give when the storms of life are over, and when charity and peace are seen to be the great needs of earth.

After this, Columba lay for a while in silence, until, called by the matin-bell before the dawn on Sunday morning—as it has been calculated, the 9th of June,—he rose, and running before all others, entered the church alone. The building, as the Brethren approached, seemed to be filled with an angelic light, which, however, had disappeared ere his attendant entered. "Where art thou, father!’ said Diarmaid—for the Monks had not yet come with lights, and he had to grope his way in darkness. There was no reply. Columba was at last found lying before the altar. Then followed that last scene of all, which so many generations of men have been called to see—the lifted head, the voiceless movements, the sinking powers, —all the visible approach of death. A crowd of weeping Monks, holding up their lanterns, soon stood around the dying Abbot. Once more his eyes were opened, and visions of glory seemed to pass before his face. His limbs were now powerless; but his right arm was raised by Diarmaid. With his hand, although speechless, Columba was still able to give the sign of Blessing. When this was given, he ceased to breathe.

Can anything be recalled of the aspect of that man who then lay dead, now twelve hundred and seventy-three years ago? Adamnan has preserved many particulars which assure us that Columba had all those physical characteristics which have a powerful influence among rude nations. He was of great stature. He had a splendid voice. It could be heard at extraordinary distances, rolling forth the Psalms of David, every, syllable distinctly uttered. We are told by his biographer that his singing, with a very few of his brethren, of the 45th Psalm, made a profound impression on a Pictish king, whose priests had attempted to arrest his worship. He had a grey eye, which could be soft, but which could also be something else. He had brilliant gifts of speech. With ceaseless energy he worked at all hours in prayer, or in reading, or in writing, or in some other holy labour. He seemed to have almost superhuman strength. In vigils and in fasting he was equally indefatigable. And with all these exercises and labours his countenance shone with a holy joy—as if in his heart of hearts he was gladdened by the abiding spirit of his Lord.

Such is the noble picture left us by Adamnan of Columba’s character and of his appearance. But the details of his life prove that his character had mellowed and ripened towards its close. Beyond all doubt his natural disposition was fierce and passionate; and when he came across deeds of violence or injustice, his indignation was uttered in terrible denunciations. But he was also affectionate, grateful, compassionate—easily moved to tears. He is repeatedly described by Adamnan, as of angelic countenance. In all probability, it was a face, like the skies of the Hebrides, of various and intense expression.

Perhaps some of those who visit lona may desire to know the place it occupies in that more ancient History which was a hidden manuscript in Columba’s days. His voice must often, indeed, have sounded from before the altar the words of the 95th Psalm: "The Sea is His, and He made it: and His hands prepared the dry Land." But it probably never entered into his mind to conceive that man could ever attain to any knowledge of the methods of creation, or of the steps by which, through unnumbered ages, the world we live in has been moulded into the forms we see. Yet this knowledge, in some measure at least, has been attained.

Iona is entirely composed of strata which I believe to belong to the oldest sedimentary rock yet known as existing in the world. That rock is the "Laurentian Gneiss "— so called from the great area it occupies in the Valley of the St. Lawrence. It was in this formation that, some years ago, was discovered in Canada a fossil called the Eozoon Canadense—a name indicating the belief of Palaeontologists that in this fossil we have a Form belonging to the Dawn of Life upon our planet. The whole of the Outer Hebrides are composed of this gneiss, and it is the basement upon which are piled the mountain ranges of. the northwest coast of Scotland. In lona the formation consists of a great series of strata, which, from a position originally horizontal, have been tilted into a "dip" which is nearly vertical. The "strike" of the beds—that is to say, the direction of their upturned edges— is the direction of the longer axis of the Island, from north-east to south-west. The strata are of every variety of character—of slate, of quartz, of marble with serpentine and of a mixture of felspar, quartz, and hornblende, which passes frequently into a composition closely resembling granite. Many of the beds are traversed and permeated by veins and streaks of a green siliceous mineral which has been called Epidote. Strangers visiting lona, who have time to do so, should take a boat from the landing-place to the Port-na-Churaich—the creek where Columba landed. In passing along this part of the shore with its successive bays and creeks, a fine view is obtained of the contorted stratification; and the colouring of the rock near the Port itself, seen through the clear ocean water, is singularly beautiful. It is, perhaps, vain to speculate, and yet a geologist cannot fail to do so, as to the nature of those "metamorphic" agencies which have converted matter, once consisting of soft marine deposits, into rocks so intensely hard, and so highly mineralised. The beach of the Port-na-Churaich, which consists of fragments of these rocks rolled and polished by the surf, is almost like a beach of precious stones.

The mountains of Mull, seen from lona, are almost entirely composed of volcanic rocks; yet not a vestige remains of the volcanic vents out of which those great masses of melted matter have been poured. In all probability the volcanic action has been prolonged at intervals through vast periods of time. Some of the trap mountains of Mull rest on beds of the Old Red sandstone; others of them are piled on strata of the Oolite and Lias; others, again, cover the débris of Chalk, and belong to a period more recent than the middle Tertiaries. In a line between lona and the headland of Bourg there is a low basaltic promontory, called Ardtun, which has revealed to us the fact that once there existed on this area some great country covered with the magnificent vegetation of the warm climates of the Miocene Age. Nothing of that country or of its vegetation now remains except a few autumnal eaves sealed up under sheets of lava. The whole of it has "foundered amidst fanatic storms;" and even of the new surfaces which arose out of the volcanic outbursts only a few fragments remain, broken up into capes and headlands and caverned islets in the sea.

From that period there is a great gap in the geological record, which no man can fill. But at last, far, far down the stream of Time, one other distinct and legible page of manuscript has been left! It tells no longer of Fire, but of Ice. To the north of the Cathedral, not far off, there lies half embedded in the soil of lona a gigantic boulder of the granite which belongs to the opposite side of the Sound. It contains more than 200 tons of stone. There is but one agency in nature which can have transferred that boulder from the opposite coast and deposited it where it now lies. Two other blocks of nearly equal mass lie on the other shore, as if they had been arrested on their way, and as if the icy raft on which they took their passage had failed to carry them across the ferry. During the Glacial Epoch great masses of ice must have descended from the mountains of Mull, and pressing over the low promontory of the Ross, sent floating icebergs to lona, and to the open sea.

Those who walk to the north end of lona, or those who pass it by sea, will observe a tract of blowing sand almost as white as snow. The origin and the effects of this sand are curious, and are among the many illustrations which nature affords of the power of small operations carried on unceasingly through long periods of time. It occupies comparatively a small space upon Iona; but on some of the other Hebridean Islands it covers many hundred acres. It is entirely composed of the pulverised shells of two or three species of small land-snails, particularly Helix virgata, and Helix cafterata, and Bulimus acutus These species live and die in such countless myriads on the short clover pastures near the sea, that their fragile shells, yearly accumulating, gradually raise the surface of the soil, until it attains a depth of several, sometimes of many, feet. So long as no break of surface occurs, the grasses and clovers which flourish on it make it useful pastureland— although there seems to be hardly any mixture of earthy matter. But when the wind once effects a breach in the turf, the light powdery material below is driven like snowdrifts before the gale—and this process (unless it be stopped by artificial means, such as planting bent-grass, and turfing over the broken surfaces) goes on until the whole is blown away, and the bare rock or gravel which may lie below alone remains. Then the cycle of operations begins anew—a few hardy grasses skin over the stony surface— the snails again begin to multiply and die— until again a calcareous soil is formed. But in the meantime the drifted material has, perhaps, overwhelmed whole farms of better soil, and converted them into a wavy waste of loose and barren sand. This calamity has happened in Tyree; and one ancient church, with its burying-ground, may be seen deserted in the middle of an absolute waste.

From these few words of description, it will be seen that Iona itself; and the view from it, present to the eye or to the mind at once some of the surest results and some of the most difficult problems of geological science. There are proofs of the succession of Life through ages which are vast and indefinite, but which are not illimitable. There are, or there seem to be, "traces of a beginning." But, on the other hand, there is the question raised whether this apparent dawn is a real dawn, or whether the absence of higher organisms be not due to subsequent obliteration. There is the certainty of a definite order of events in the redistribution of Sea and Land, and of whole cycles of change in the climates and in the productions of the globe. But how those changes were brought about, and whether the agencies producing them were always slow and gradual, or frequently sudden and violent— all this is hidden in the thickest darkness. There is visible demonstration that even the most enduring forms of nature round us are of very recent date, and that it is only in comparison with the spanlike shortness of human life that we can speak of the "everlasting Hills." But how those Hills were raised, and their shapes determined, and the valleys formed, and the broken remains of older lands scattered among the waves—these are questions on which we can only speculate, and speculate perhaps in vain.

The Magnitudes of Space and Time are too often felt as oppressive to the human spirit. Yet in the inspired utterances of the Old Testament they are regarded, not indeed without emotion, but without dismay. The Prophets of Israel seem to have felt all that we can feel of the vastness of Nature. It moved them to exclaim, "What is man?" but it did not shake the faith with which they added, "That Thou art mindful of him." And this triumphant faith is in harmony with reason and with science. The Mind which is able to conceive those Magnitudes of Space and Time, and which indeed is unable to conceive either any limit of Space or any end of Time, is itself the greatest Magnitude of all. We see and know that its appearance in the world has been the crown and consummation of creative ages. Every fact which concerns its history and its destinies is of a different and a higher order of interest than any other fact which concerns only the preparation of its abode. If the mere bigness, or the mere age of things, were the measure of interest attaching to them, then the arrival of the granite boulder on its floe of ice was a far more important event than the arrival of Columba in his boat of hides. The boulder still lies where it lay for thousands of years before his time. Columba’s body has been resolved into indistinguishable dust. But what he did and said has acquired a permanent place in the history of that Being for whom the Sea has been made and the dry Land "prepared." The years cannot be counted which elapsed between the deposit of the Laurentian Gneiss and the close of the Glacial epoch. Certain it is that, compared with them, all the years of Man’s history are few indeed. Yet half the years of a single human life have conferred upon Iona its imperishable fame; and once more standing on the Abbot’s Mound, we may repeat with him the words of that prophecy which has been, and is being still, fulfilled:

HUIC LOCO, QUAMLIBET ANGUSTO ET VILI, NON TANTUM SCOTORUM REGES, CUM POPULIS, SED ETIAM BARBARARUM ET EXTERARUM GENTIUM REGNATORES, CUM PLEBIBUS SIBI SUBJECTIS, GRANDEM ET NON MEDIOCREM CONFERENT HONOREM: A SANCTIS QUOQUE ETIAM ALIARUM ECCLESIARUM NON MEDIOCRIS VENERATIO CONFERETUR.

THE END


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