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Good Words 1860
St. Columba


Hy, Y, Iona, Icolumkill, Isle of Colum of the Cell, to the outward eye one of the least noticeable of the Hebrides, has to the inward eye a beauty and a sanctity which belong to no other Scottish ground. From our childhood the very name has been invested with an old ideal reverence, which, unless scared away by vulgarising steamboat visits and tourist crowds, lives on still when we are grown men. We think of it as a beacon burning all alone, but bright and blessed, in the deep midnight of Celtic heathenism; or rather as a solitary peak, already struck golden by the coming day while deep darkness lay yet unbroken on all the mainland and islands of Albyn. And the impression is not decreased, but deepened by the contrast we feel when, thinking of its old sanctity, we gaze on its now forlorn abandonment. Elsewhere, the spot on which some first missionary settled has grown, in time, into cathedral town, commercial mart, even into metropolitan city. But Iona— though the fight first kindled there is not yet disowned, yea, rather has been growing and spreading till now—Iona has become as utter a desolation as if it had been some heathen oracle long gone dumb, or the shrine of some out-worn religion.

To those to whom it has long been a cherished imagination, one cannot but feel apprehensive lest all that can be advanced of fact and illustration should only mar its ideal consecration. But to others, who may have gone there without thought, and returned without interest—laughing, perhaps, at all things they heard there as fictions of Highland story-tellers, at best disregarding them as intangible myths—something I hope may be adduced to convince them that Iona had a real history, compared with which its oldest existing ruin is but modern, and that Columba stands out in tolerably clear outline, by several centuries the earliest human figure we can descry against the dim dawn of Scottish history.

For of him we possess, what we have not of any other Scot for five centuries afterwards, two lives, which may be called contemporary, written by two monks of his brotherhood, who had every means of knowing the truth. One of these is a short Latin life by Cumin, supposed to have been written about sixty years after the saint's death; the other, composed about eighty-five years from his death, is the longer and well-known life by Adamnan, which has been lately edited by Mr Beeves, an Irish antiquary, with a rare fulness of erudition and accuracy of Hebridean topography. Perhaps there was no man in Europe of Columba's time of whom we have so authentic a record—certainly no native of Scotland till after the year 1000.

Yet, strange to say, in both these lives Columba is seen invested with such an atmosphere of legend and miracle, that often, only with strained eye, in partial, broken glimpses, we can descry his human features. One moment we get a blink of his countenance as if by chance; the next it is lost in the mass of miracles, visions, and prophecies with which they have surrounded him. For it must be owned that the real, natural facts of his life peep out of these biographies as if accidentally. In the words of the most recent commentator on Cumin and Adamnan, ''they manifest the simplicity and credulity of a rude age, but it is impossible to charge them with any intention to deceive. From them we learn the mode of life adopted in Iona. But it is not only what they have written —that was not an age of writing—it is from what they have done that we learn the effects of the preaching of St Columba and his disciples."

If Scotland, in the fifth century, gave to Ireland her Apostle St Patrick, Ireland, in the sixth, repaid the debt with interest when she sent us Columba. With interest, I say. For, even according to the view which makes St Patrick a Scotchman, Scotland gave him nothing but a birthplace—Kilpatrick (then Benhaven) on the Clyde. His conversion occurred in Ireland, his culture he received in Gaul. But Ireland sent us Columba, a fully equipped Christian missionary, and he imparted to Scotland the zeal, the truth, the discipline, the learning which he had first imbibed in the monasteries of his native country.

His birthplace, called Garten, lies among the wildest of the Donegal mountains, an elevated plat of ground on the hillside, looking up and down a long valley, with chain of small hill lochs. The sanctity which the place won from Columba's birth lives on there to-day. Hard by, an old burying-ground, a roofless chapel, two stone crosses rudely carved, much disfigured, beneath which the people still come to pray; a holy well, in which they still wash for supposed latent virtues; chief of all, a large flagstone, still shewn as the spot on which Columba's mother bore her child. The stone is still believed to have the power of curing homesickness, whither, therefore, emigrants, on the eve of their exile, much resort.

Colm, Colum, Colum-cille, that is, Colum of the Church, (not the churches, as the latest and best Celtic scholars tell us,) came, on both sides, from a race of kings—such kings or patriarchal chiefs as then existed in Ireland. His father, Fedilmith McFergus, was one of the northern Hy Neill, or reigning family of the Irish-Scots, and closely allied to the House of Lom, which, at the beginning of the sixth century, had passed into Argyll. These Scots were the last race who had come into Ireland—a conquering race, which lorded it over the two older races of the Hiberni and the Cruithne. Colum therefore belonged to the reigning family of Ireland. His mother, Eithnd, (Æthnea,) was of Leinster extraction, descended, say the antiquaries, from the first King of Leinster, afterwards King of Ireland,—a man much renowned in the second century, but long since forgotten.

They tell that, one night, Eithné had a strange prophetic dream shortly before Colum was born. As she lay asleep, she saw an angel come to her, bearing a beautiful robe, broidered all over with all shapes and hues of flowers. She laid her hand upon it, but soon the angel claimed it back, and, bearing it aloft, spread it out and let it float on the air. Whereat she grieving, cried to the angel, "Why dost thou take from me so soon this delightsome robe?" But the angel replied, "This robe is too highly prized for you longer to detain it." Then, as she followed it with her eyes, she beheld it expand itself wider and still wider till it had covered all the plains, and the woods, and the mountains as far as she could see; and a voice fell from heaven, saying, "Woman, be no more sad. For the child which thou shaft bear shall be numbered among the holy prophets, and has been foreordained of God to be the guide of innumerable souls to the heavenly country." Great, therefore, were the hopes that waited on this child. And when he did appear, he came into the world, favoured not less by his outward circumstances than by his inward endowment.

This high lineage did much for Columba. It could have done nothing for him had he not been otherwise endowed with rare gifts; but it furnished to his inborn genius and early piety a ready-made scope and range of influence which, unaided, they might never have achieved. It is a fact which none can be blind to, that, even in our own day, where there is energy of character, birth and fortune give a man many years' start in life before less favoured compeers, and enable him to bring out whatever there is in him at a much earlier age, and in a wider sphere. How much more powerfully must these have told in those early ages when blood was so much more accounted of, and among a race so beholden to ancient lineage as the Celts! Happy in his natural endowments, fine genius and strong piety shewing itself from a child; happy in his parentage, not only kingly, but a valiant, energetic race of kings; happy, too, in the time of his birth, the most prosperous and energetic epoch Ireland has ever known!

We are apt to think of Ireland as having always been a byword among the nations for backwardness and misery. It was not so in those early ages. From the fifth to the ninth centuries Ireland was among the foremost and most civilised of European nations—known as the island of saints, the missionary school of Europe, the storehouse of the best learning then existing. "It needed but a native Alfred, or even a Malcolm Canmore, to have given to her separate tribes the same unity which St Patrick gave to her church organisation. But, alas for her! her Alfred was never born." But Patrick and his followers gave her the best help she has ever received from men. They made for themselves, by their own hand-labour, civilised dwellings amid the thickest forests and dreariest morasses, and covered the island with monasteries, in which, when all else was savage with clan feuds and bloodshed, the Scriptures were studied, ancient books collected and read, and missionaries trained for their own country and the rest of Europe.

Hear the great German Church historian, who was under no temptation to exaggerate Ireland's early renown:—

"The Irish monasteries were distinguished for strict Christian discipline, for industry, zeal for the Scriptures, and general knowledge, as much as they could collect of it. The Irish monks fetched knowledge from Britain and France, preserved this knowledge and digested it in their retirements, and were destined to bring back the seeds of science, along with Christianity, to countries whence they had once received these seeds, but where they were now choked by spreading barbarism." The deeds and sufferings of Columbanus, Gallus, and a multitude of other Irish missionaries, who, in the seventh century, went preaching and founding mission schools in Gaul. Burgundy, Switzerland, and far into the heart of Germany, witness to Ireland's overflowing zeal. Strange—is it not?—to think now of that her early and excellent renown preceding her long, unhappy centuries, like the early blink of morning sunshine ushering in a dark, stormy day!

On such a time of monastic activity and missionary zeal fell the childhood of Columba. In such an atmosphere, whatever there was of more than usual purity, repugnance to vice, and ardent, imaginative temperament, was drawn, as by irresistible attraction, to the calm of the ascetic convent. Columba does not seem so much to have made deliberate choice of this course of life as to have adopted it intuitively from his very cradle. The thoughtful child we see with his mind preoccupied from the very first. There, among the Donegal mountains, in the hamlet of Doire-Eithne, he passed his boyhood, tended by a priest-tutor—a simple man, who gazed on his young pupil with wonder, even awe, as he saw him asleep with face illuminated as with a ball of fire, which he took for the outpouring of heavenly grace. Boyhood past, he left his mountains, and went to the famous monasteries of the south, just as our youth now go to the university. First to the monastery of Mo-villa, in County Down, then to the school of one Gemman, then on to the monastery of Clonard, in which last he had for companions students who were afterwards fathers of the Irish Church, Com-gall, Ciaran, Cainnech, and others. In these monasteries he had access to the best learning of the time in the Scriptures and all other subjects. His genius was visible to his teachers, but still more his strong piety. Good Bishop Finnian, who ordained him deacon, looking on him reverently, said, he saw an angel walking by his side; meaning, perhaps, no more than that he felt sure he was being trained and guided by God for some high purpose.

Returned to his own north at the age of twenty-five, we find him at once setting vigorously to work, obtaining from his kinsman the King of Erin a grant of land and founding on it a monastery— Daire Calgach, afterwards Derry—on a pleasant eminence, covered with oaks, the first nucleus, out of which has grown, in due time, what has long been the town of Londonderry. Leaving this monastery under charge of a chief monk, he passes southward, and in the centre of Ireland founds Durrow—another large monastery, "equal," says Bede, "to the lona one." Two large monasteries, besides churches here and there, were the result of his early activity between his thirtieth and fortieth year. A man of rare force, marvellous energy, if we think what founding monasteries in those days meant. Not to pay so much money down, and, while you are enjoying your ease elsewhere, get the work done by proxy of contractors, overseers, and the rest; but to strip to it yourself, hew down the oaks, and make others hew them; lift them, and get others to help in bearing them from the woods; to build wattle huts for dwelling in, and a wattle church to worship in; clear and cultivate the neighbouring wood or moor for sustenance; then to lay down a stern rule of life, and make rude and untaught men obey it; to train these same rude men to be teachers and missionaries to their still ruder brethren—this is something of what he had to do who undertook to found one of those Irish monasteries. Work enough, one would think, for a life, to set one such well a-going. Columba built and organised two before he was forty, besides divers other small churches or cells. He might well be called Colum-cille, Colum of the Church, he who delighted to live and labour for the Church.

But at the age of forty-two a great crisis came to him—one of those turning-points which change abruptly a man's whole course, and shape for him a new destiny. He resolved to leave his own land and kindred, and sail away to preach Christ to the heathen tribes beyond the sea. What was the motive that impelled him to this new purpose? Adamnan says that it was the pure missionary zeal prompting him to leave all for Christ; that, like his countryman Columban, he felt burning within him that fire which impelled him to "go forth from his country and his kindred, and his father's house, into a land which God would shew him." It may-have been so, as Adamnan, and most of his biographers since have regarded it; or it may be, that the ardour of Christian zeal so blended with the natural love of adventure as to form one great overmastering passion.

There is, however, another account of the whole matter; less pleasing, perhaps, but so strongly asserted from of old, that I am in truth bound to give it. It makes Columba's departure from Ireland not so much a voluntary act as a penance to which he was forced. The story runs thus:— Diarmid, King of Connaught, sought the life of Curnan, a kinsman and disciple of Columba's. Cur-nan fled to Columba for protection, but the king heeded not the saint's sanctuary, seized Curnan, and summarily made an end of him. Whereon, so wroth was Columba, that he roused his whole clan, the Northern Hy Niell, and set them against Diarmid and his Connaught men, whom they overthrew, with a great slaughter of three thousand men, in the battle of Cooldrevny. The saint was praying for his kinsmen all the day the battle lasted; and they believed it was the strength of his prayers that turned the scale of victory. Straightway a Synod of the Church, in the interest of King Diarmid, met and excommunicated our impetuous saint; and his friends Brenden, Abbot of Birr, and Finian, Bishop of Clonfert, advised him to go into voluntary exile. Others say that the penance was entirely self-imposed; and that in remorse for the slaughter he had caused, he resolved to reclaim from among the heathens as many souls as had perished in the ill-omened battle.

But whatever the cause may have been, it was in the year 563, and in the forty-second year of his life, that Columba, with his twelve companions, pushed off from the north Irish shore, and set their frail prows to the wide Atlantic. Twelve men only went with him, attracted by his character, and cheered by his strong enthusiasm. I figure him to myself, as he went forth, that island-soldier (insulanus miles) of Christ; tall of stature, of vigorous, athletic frame; bearing, through all toils, and fasts, and vigils, the beauty of countenance, ruddy and hilarious, that made all who saw him glad, and, as Adamnan has it, with "angelic aspect" which tempered their joy with reverence. Under him, and trusting to his guidance, they put off, those twelve men—their names are all preserved— in their small curraghs or coricles, frail crafts of wicker-work covered with hides—the like of which are still to be seen in the Severn and on the Donegal coast—a slender equipment for the open Atlantic, on the swing of whose long-heaving wave no modern fishing-boat could live an hour. Right north they rowed till they came to the small Isle of Hy, lying like a tiny boat moored to the bluff western cliffs of Mull. There they found, says old Highland tradition, a Druid settlement, and bearded the old faith in its stronghold ; but stricter antiquaries, on what authority I know not, assert that the only tenants they found there were the sea-gull and the heron. Soon Columba sought and obtained a grant of the island from the king. What king is not quite clear. It may be that Conal, Scottish King of Argyll, Columba's kinsman, (whom he would visit either on his way to Iona or soon afterwards,) promised not to disturb him, and that Brude, King of the Northern Picts, to whom the island belonged by right, when converted, confirmed him in possession. "And now," as Bede says of his disciples, ''they neither sought nor loved anything of this world, but delighted in distributing immediately among the poor whatever was given them by the kings and rich men of the earth."

But while his end was high and unworldly, Columba was wise in his choice of means as the most prudent of this world's children. It was no part of his plan to preach the gospel among the barbarous people and leave it there to take root or die out as might happen. He knew well that in all likelihood this would be lost labour; that no isolated efforts, however great, would avail to stem the flood of barbarism and make a pure faith triumphant over old superstition unless these efforts were grounded and concentrated by firm ecclesiastical foundations. His first step, therefore, was to secure a grant of the island. His next to erect fit dwellings to cover himself and his brotherhood from rain and storm; and his third to lay down for them a strict rule of life, and train them into conformity with it. The simple conventual establishment, as it was when completed, consisted of a number of small wattle-built huts, surrounding a green court; a hut or hospitium, for each monk to study in by day, to sleep by night. The abbot's hut, on an eminence a little apart, in which he read by day or wrote—his servant Diormit attending him, sometimes reading to him. Near at hand rose the little church or oratory—this, too, of wattles —with its three times of prayer by day, three by night. A simple church it must have been, of wattles or rough timber; its altar remote from the door, with the paten and the cup; and at one side of the church the sacristy, in which hung the small bell to summon the brotherhood to prayer. Then the refectory, or dining-hall, in which all dined together; the kitchen, with its large fire-place, round which, in cold weather, the monks flocked from their huts to warm themselves during study hours. The library, with its inkhorns, pens, waxen tablets, manuscripts; and books, hung in leathern bags to pegs on the walls; and, hard by, the cemetery, where, their earthly work done, they were all to rest —a cemetery which is the same as the more modern Rulig Oran. Round all these ran a circular wall, meant rather to restrain than protect the inmates.

Outside this wall lay the byre, with pasture-ground, barn to store winnowed grain in, kiln to dry the corn. The land east side the island was used for pasture, the west under tillage, and thither we read of the monks in harvest going forth in the morning and returning at night—their backs laden with sheaves. Yet they had one horse at least—Columba's old white horse—and one waggon. All this establishment, in-door and out, was planned by Columba; none else there dreamt of planning. The whole was constructed of timber, brought from the mainland. They tell that once, when Columba had sent his monks to bring a boat-load of stakes for the house walls, the monks returned and told the abbot that the poor man from whose ground they had cut the stakes had grumbled sorely, and thought himself much aggrieved. One would not have thought that march fences were even then in use, nor that brushwood, in that time and country, could be so valuable. But Columba loves fair dealing, and will not rob poor men even for the Church. "Let us give him no scandal," says he. ''Return, and bear to him six bushels of barley, and tell him to sow it in his ground." The saint added his blessing. The poor man sowed, and in a surprisingly short space it had grown to an abundant crop,—probably the first grain that ever found its way into these parts, which are rather scant of barley, even now-a-days.

The first two years were probably spent in erecting the monastery, and arranging other conventual matters. It was then that Columba, taking some monks with him, set out on his great journey to the mainland to convert the Northern Picts. This branch of the Picts inhabited all the north-east of Scotland, from Athole to Cape Wrath, as the other branch, the Southern Picts, stretched from Athole to the Forth. Both were probably of the Cymric branch of Celts, Columba and his friends being Gael. Columba made at once straight for the hill fort of Brude, the Pictish king, on Loch Ness. It is a peculiarity of these missions that strongly contrasts with those of the apostolic age, that everywhere they first address themselves to the kings. St Paul says, that in his time not many wise men, not many mighty were called. With him it was the base things of the world; the poor men first, the rulers afterwards. But since the day when Constantine and the Roman world were won over, all that has been changed. And so Augustine seeks King Ethelbert; Kentigern deals much with the King of Strath-Clyde; Columba makes straight for Brude in his hill-fort by Loch Ness. It were injustice to our saint, however, to represent him as in any measure truckling to the great. Everywhere we find him treating the poorest and humblest with as much, courtesy as the greatest king. Landing either at the head of Loch Sunart or on the mainland of Lorn, he and his monks would climb Drum Albyn—the ridge of Albyn—that high central ridge which crosses Scotland from south-west to north-east, from Loch Etive to Deeside in Aberdeenshire. They were the first Christian feet that had touched these mountains, or penetrated the wild country beyond them; a rugged, difficult way, over mountains then tangled with woods, and infested with wild beasts, and men scarcely less wild.

Often enough it was at peril of their lives. One night they sought shelter in some huts hard by, where a river enters a loch. They had moored or; the other side of the stream the portable currachs, brought with them to ferry them over what lochs or rivers came in their way. At midnight, Columba rose and bade them bring over the boats to their own side of the stream. Scarcely had they done so, when they saw all the huts on the other side a-blaze, set on fire by some armed persecutors of Columba, probably the Druids, who everywhere resisted him. The hill-fort, in which Columba found King Brude, stood on Craig Phadrick, a commanding eminence, two miles from Inverness, looking northward to Ben Wyvis and the Ross-shire hills, eastward over Culloden Moor. Visible to this day, though moss-overgrown, are the outlines of the Pictish king's castle, in parts vitrified by the action of fire. At first the saint finds no favour with Brude. "They come, these men," he thinks, ''from our enemies the Scots, with whom we have no dealings but sanguinary ones." And the Druids, who are in the fort with him, foster this impression. "They shall not enter here," says Brude; "close the gates against them." Columba draws near; signs the gates with the cross; strikes them with his hand, and they at once fly open. Awe-stricken, the king rises, and, with his chief men, comes forth and meets Columba with words of peace. The king's heart is henceforth as open to Columba as are his gates. From that day forward Brude treats the saint with reverence, listens devoutly to his words; and it was, in all likelihood, not long till he was, in a certain sense, converted and baptized. But there were harder hearts there than Brude's. Chief of these, Brochan, a Druid, who many ways withstood Columba.

While the Christian monks are in a retired spot, engaged in evening prayer, Brochan and other Druids come upon them and try to put a stop to their devotion. Columba immediately chants aloud the 144th Psalm, and his voice, which could be heard a mile away, sounds in the evening air like thunder, and terrifies the Druids and king. Again Columba demands from Brochan restoration of a young Scottish maiden, who had been made a slave by the Picts. It is to the lasting honour of Columba and the Church to which he belonged, that they everywhere set their face stoutly against the slave-trade in captives, which was then carried on among all the tribes; and in time they were able to crush it. Brochan stoutly refuses to give up his captive. Thereon Columba declares to him that unless he gives her up death will ensue, and leaves the fort. Ere long messengers come to Columba, reporting that Brochan lies sick and ready to die. Columba sends back two of his monks, bearing a stone which he has blessed, to heal Brochan if he consents to give up the maiden; to leave him to die if he refuse. The Druid at once consents; the stone is dipped in water, whereof he drinks, and is restored. The stone was laid up among the treasures of Brude, but when sought for on his death-day could nowhere be found.

It were easy to multiply these stories. Those already given are enough for samples.

Not to the king only he preached during his first journey to Pictland. We read of him preaching, by an interpreter, to a poor man among the Picts, and converting him and his entire household. A great impediment must have been his inability to speak the Pictish tongue. He needed an interpreter, just as a Highlander, at the present day, might require one when speaking to the Welsh. But these and many more difficulties gave way before Columba's energy. Once and again he revisited Pictland, and spent now several months, and now only a few days among his converts. His method seems to have been, wherever he preached, there to establish a small cell or church, and in some places a monastery and brotherhood, to complete what he had begun—thus covering the whole North Highlands with a network of mission stations or monasteries—so many miniature Ionas. This was the machinery by which he worked; a machinery answering as effectually for his time and purpose as the parochial system does for ours.

The result of all these labours in the North Highlands is summed up in the phrase, "the conversion of the Northern Picts." What this really meant—how much, or rather how little, of spiritual change or moral renovation it at first implied— is hard to determine. But not harder in this case than in all those so-called conversions in the early ages, in which we read of a king and his people, a general and his battalions being baptized in a mass. Their savage but simple natures, when confronted with Columba's clear, cultivated mind, and patient, Christian spirit, felt no doubt that they were in the presence of a higher being than themselves. The man was greater, better, wiser—that was the chief point; and then the truth he brought seemed, as far as they at all apprehended it, better than their old faith—appealed to the needs of all hearts, and seemed to satisfy them as decaying Druidism had never done. So, after the first opposition was over, they turned to him with reverence, and listened to his words like children. Not but that there may have been individual cases in which conversion meant something more than recognition of the missionary's personal nobleness—meant, in fact, the conviction of the convert that this was Divine truth which he had heard. But such instances were, I should think, the exception. In the case of Brude, probably, and the great mass of his people, conversion meant no more than this:— Columba, we must own, is a wiser, better man than any we have yet met with, therefore we will take his word for all the rest of it. And so, in due time, by this machinery, teaching and celebrating Christian rites, the moral impression made by Columba would be perpetuated, perhap3 deepened and enlarged, into a habitual outward belief in Christianity, which, under the teaching of a higher than Columba, might, in some cases, become an inward one also. That there were instances, more or less numerous, of real inward conversion among these Picts, one cannot doubt; else a merely external Christianity, having no root in any hearts, could not long have lived on. But, at the same time, it would seem probable that, on the great bulk of the people, his influence was only of that outward personal kind I have described. Who can say how much good even this may have done—the effect on all who witnessed it, of a man who manifested the kingdom of God in that dark time "by deeds of mercy and righteousness, and the rebuke of sin?"

{To be concluded in next Number.)


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