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Iona: A History of the Island
Chapter II. Scotland before Columba


In pre-Christian days, the religion of the Celtic race, of whose ancient territory Ireland and Scotland formed part, was Druidism. The origins of this religion are lost in antiquity, and indeed we have little authentic knowledge at all concerning it; for it was esoteric, hidden, and its unwritten doctrine and ritual disappeared with the last of the ancient priesthood. St. Patrick, St. Columba, and other Celtic saints have little or nothing to say of the faith which it was their mission to supersede.

The pre-Christian Celts, like other ancient races, sought “the unknown God” in their own manner. They worshipped the rising sun, kept the feast of Beltane, on May Day, with sun-worship and fire-ceremonies, celebrated All-Hallow-E’en, and reverenced the mistletoe. There is no evidence that the Pictish Druids offered human sacrifices and taught transmigration of souls, as did the Druids of Gaul.

The old religion appears to have had three orders, for which men were trained in the Colleges of Initiates. These included the Druid proper, whose temple was a spreading oak and whose altar a stone; the Bard, whose office was to preserve and hand on the national tradition; and the Seer, who foretold the future by the position of the stars and the flight of birds. There was probably much that was beautiful in the old religion, but in its later period it appears to have become degraded into a religion of witchcraft. “It was a vague dread of innumerable spirits; the world of nature was quivering with life; in every spring and well there was a spirit; in every loch there lived some dreaded being. When the echoes of thunder rolled through the mountain corries, or when the wild storm beat the forests of oak, voices from the great Mystery were speaking.” The Druids of Columba’s time were an official class of diviners and sorcerers who professed to have powers over this spirit world, and to be able to direct the wind and weather and avert the enemity of evil spirits by means of charms and spells.

(There have been some curious survivals of pagan worship. In Iona, for example, down to the end of the eighteenth century, a solemn ceremony took place on the midnight preceding Maunday Thursday, when the “great porridge” was cast into the western bay as an offering to the sea, that it might wash up enough seaweed for the second spring ploughing.)

Yet, in spite of the darkness that prevailed at the time of Columba’s coming, the task of the Christian missionaries in Druidical countries was far less arduous than in those lands where personal or representative gods were worshipped; for the nature-worship of the Druids was not so incompatible with Christianity as the definite polytheistic systems of antiquity. The contest between the Druids and the emissaries of Christianity was keen, but it was singularly free from fanaticism and violence, and we have no record of martyrdoms such as characterize the later history of the Christian Church.

Columba found in the land of his adoption “a people with a love of the arts and a passion for music, a people steeped in that mysticism, that dominating sense of the unseen without which religion is mere ignorant superstition, with that conviction of the close environment of the spiritual world that still characterizes their descendents to a greater or less degree. It needed but the trump of Christianity and the colleges became monasteries, the wells and sacred haunts were dedicated to the saints, the revered oak tree associated with Our Lady.”—(Wilkie.)

Although Iona became the “lamp of Christ whose flame lighted pagan Europe”, other lights, though mostly dim and obscure, had previously glimmered on these islands. How Christianity was first brought to our shores is not clearly known, but it appears to have come direct from the East. In these far-off days the Celtic Church, like the Roman Church, was regarded as one of the many secondary sources of Christianity, of which Jerusalem was recognized as the fountainhead. Rome was pagan for three centuries after Christ, and in that period these early forerunners of Columba and Augustine had already penetrated to our islands. We know little or nothing about them, save that their work was practically undone by the invading hordes of the pagan Jutes, Angles, and Saxons in the fifth and sixth centuries.

Palladius is said to have been the earliest missionary to Scotland. He was closely followed by St. Ninian (born circa 350) who laboured among the southern Picts in Galloway. After Ninian came St. Patrick (born, as most scholars now agree, at Dunbriton or Dumbarton), who brought Christianity to Ireland, and established there a great school of piety and learning which was destined to produce Columba. Other saints were meanwhile at work in Scotland, but their influence was local and temporary. Even Ninian’s converts became demoralized, and the country as a whole remained wrapt in pagan gloom.

Of one of these early missionaries, St. Mochta, it is related that he laboured long and fruitlessly in North Britain, and returned at last to Ireland. Here his labours were crowned with success, which, however, did not obliterate the memory of his earlier defeat. It was observed that the saint, discarding the custom of his time to pray toward the east, prayed always towards the north, and he was asked the reason. He replied that at the end of a hundred years out of the north would come a dove.

The coming of Columba was predicted also by St. Patrick and St. Bride.

When Columba was born, though the barbarian tribes had descended on Rome, the Empire still stood. Justinian was emperor; Benedict had established his order at Monte Cassino; Gregory was a law student at Rome; Mahomet was not yet born. Europe was in a state of violent upheaval, and the great nations of to-day had not yet emerged. The Saxon tribes were invading and paganizing the land that is now England, and driving the British tribes westward to the mountains. Ireland, standing apart, escaped the general devastation and became the asylum of learning.

What is now Scotland was divided into several small principalities: North and south of the Grampians were the Northern and Southern Picts; in the south-west were the Britons of Strathclyde and the Picts of Galloway; in the south-east were a group of English settlers (Angles), probably the only non-Celtic race in Scotland, whose king fortified the rock of Edwin’s Burg or Edinburgh; and, lastly, there was a colony of Scots, or Gaelic Celts, who had crossed from Ireland in the fifth century and spread over what is now Argyll (land of the Gael) and the adjacent isles. These Scots, to which race Columba belonged, were Christian, and were destined to give to the land of their adoption its name, its royal house, and its religion.

At this period the Celtic name of Scotland was Alban, and the Latin name Scotia was applied only to Ireland, called also Hibernia.


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