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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 1, Chapter 23 - Kindling of the Lamp of Iona


One day, about half a century after Fergus Mor and his two brothers had crossed the channel to find for themselves and their companions new homes amid the blue lakes and the heath-clad hills of Argyllshire, a solitary coracle might be seen approaching the Scottish shore. As the tiny craft rose and sank on the swell of the Atlantic, nor token nor badge of any sort was discernible from which one might infer the rank of those on board, or guess the errand on which they were bound. No pennon floats at the mast-head of the little ship, no blazoned shield is hung out at its bows: humbler wherry never crossed the sea. It draws near: it is, rowed into a little shingly bay that opens amid the rocks of Iona, and now its occupants drop the oar and make ready to disembark. As they step on the shore, one after one, we can count them. They are thirteen in all; a little company, verily! And then their garb, how plain! Their air, how void of assumption; and yet there is a loving look and a conscious dignity in their faces which bespeak them more than they seem, and make it manifest that they have crossed the sea on an errand of peace and blessing. There is, moreover, about one of the number that which reveals the master, and in the deportment of the others is that which befits the character of scholars and disciples; but disciples that follow not from authority, but from reverence and affection.

The ripple of the calm sea on the pebbly beach, so musical and soft, as the feet of these venerable men touch the shore of the little island, sounds in the Sabbath-stillness like a hymn of greeting. We see the newly-arrived strangers cross the narrow strip of meadow that lines the bay, and we hear their voices in sweet converse as they proceed to explore the island. One of their number, leaving the group, climbs with slow steps the little hills and seeks the highest point. Having gained the summit, he halts and looks around him. Islet, and narrow firth, and long line of rocky coast, with the mountain-tops of Mull, and the western ocean stretching away to unknown regions, lie spread out beneath the warm beams of a Whitsuntide sun. The tranquil, loving gaze which the venerable man bestows on the scene falls like a benediction on land and sea. His survey finished, he comes back to his companions. The strangers have had their first sight of their future home. Here, they well know, there await them long years of privation and toil, for they have come to work for the emancipation of Pictland. But here, they also know, there await them glorious triumphs. And the thought of these triumphs kindles the light of a deep joy in their eyes: not the fierce light that burns in the eye of conqueror, for not with the sword are their victories to be won the faces of these men glow with the serene light that shines in a higher sphere. "Break out into singing, ye dark mountains," we hear them say, "for fairer morning than ever yet guilded your summits is about to break upon you. And ye woods, clap your hands; for no longer shall Druid make your recesses horrible with his sacrifices, or crimson your oaks with the blood of his victims. We come to cleanse your glades from deep pollution and make your solitudes vocal with songs. Harken ye islands of the western sea: listen ye shores, ye heath-clad plains, ye blue hills of the ancient Caledonia: Fallen is Druid: Broken is his yoke: your redemption is come."

The passage of this osier-built craft, with its venerable freight, across the Irish Channel, is one of the great voyages of history. From the moment its keel touched our strand we date the commencement of a new era to Scotland, and also to lands far away, beyond the limits of that little country on which we see these voyagers planting their first footsteps.

The arrival of Columba and his fellow-labourers—the second founders of the Scottish nation—is deserving of more space than we have here given it. Our aim at this stage is hastily to note that event as one in a chain of causes which powerfully contributed to place the relations of the Scots and Picts on a right footing: first, by inspiring both nations with a common sentiment; second, by imparting to both the latent capacity of fighting the battles of freedom and religion; and thirdly, by leading on the country to its first great landing place, namely, the union of the two peoples under one crown, and the consolidation of a land partitioned among independent clans, weakened by rivalries, and torn by tribal feuds, into one powerful state. At its proper place, which will soon occur, we shall dwell more at length, and with fuller enumeration of incident, on the arrival of Columba on the Island of Iona, and the vast consequences that grew out of that event. Meanwhile we wish to pass rapidly on to the era of the union of the two crowns, without lingering over the intervening transactions, or wasting our time with the phantom kings that occupied the Scottish and Pictish thrones—if we may dignify these paltry seats by such lofty terms—or the battles in which they so freely shed the blood of their subjects: occurrences of a class which, though each, doubtless, contributed its modicum of influence to make Scotland what it is, and what it has since done, or may yet do, nevertheless merit only the most general narration, and were we to attempt a minute and lengthy recital regarding kings of uncouth name, and battles where the slaughter was as great as it was useless, and which, moreover, are encompassed by such a mythical haze, the reader, if he does not turn away, would forget the story as soon as he had finished its perusal. "The annals of the Dalriads," says Mr. Robertson, "are totally devoid of interest before the reign of Conal, fourth in succession from Fergus Mor, who, by the shelter he afforded to the exiled Abbot of Durrow, furthered the conversion of the northern Picts to Christianity."1

Two years did Columba expend in erecting buildings and framing rules for the regulation of the brotherhood over which he presided, and now he was ready to begin the great evangelistic campaign for which he had crossed the Channel. He made a commencement in his own neighbourhood. The Pictland of that day, from the Grampians northwards, was sunk in the gross and cruel superstition of Druidism. Thither, therefore, did the great missionary of Iona direct his steps (A.D. 565). He obtained an interview with the Pictish king, Bruidi, son of Malcolm, at his Dun or castle, on the banks of the Ness, near where the river issues from its parent loch. The barbarian monarch took the missionary into his cabinet, and shut the door behind him. The conversation that passed—the objections that Bruidi may have urged, and the reasonings and explanations with which Columba was able to remove his difficulties, we do not know. The issue only is known to use. When the door of the royal closet opened, and the king and the missionary walked forth, Bruidi declared himself a convert to Christianity. The Pictish king became a Christian sovereign.2

In those days the conversion of a king was the conversion of his people, for no subject ever dreamed that he had a right to be of a faith different from that of his prince. King Bruidi, in his closet, had renounced Druidism and embraced Christianity. With him the whole nation of the northern Picts had passed from the altars of Baal to the Christian rite. They were no longer a pagan people. So did the age account it. But Columba did not bow to the maxims of his age. He knew that no rescript from cabinet of monarch could rend the veil of darkness on the intellects and hearts of a people. Light from the book of Heaven only could do; and the chief value of Bruidi’s conversion, doubtless, in Columba’s eyes, lay in that it opened the gates of his kingdom to the entrance of the light-bearers. Columba made haste to send thither the missionaries of Iona. Opening the Book of Life, they taught the Picts there from the story of the Cross. The sacrifice of the Druid was forsaken: his stone circle fell into ruin, and in its room rose the Christian sanctuary. Schools were planted, and the youth educated. The darkness of an ancient barbarism gave way before the twin civilising powers of Christianity and letters.

Before this time, as we shall afterwards see, the southern Picts had embraced the Gospel. The northern portion of the nation, however, had still continued pagan; the chain of the Grampians being the boundary between that part of the kingdom on which the light had arisen, and that where the darkness still brooded. But now the whole country to the shores of the Pentland Firth, as the results of Columba’s efforts, had become professedly Christian. Another watch of the long night was past.

With the conversion of the Picts came important political and social changes—consolidation at home and peace beyond the frontier. Pagan Pictland had been blotted out. It was as if the chain of the Grampians had been levelled. In the suppression of a pestiferous superstition a source of irritation and division had been extinguished, and the whole nation now met around one altar. But this was not all. The most friendly relations were established between the Picts and the Scots. From the day that the missionaries of Iona had been seen crossing Drumalban no warlike host had mustered on the banks of the Spey, or on the moors of Ross-shire; and no cry to arms had sounded along the shores of Loch Awe, or awoke the echoes of the mountains of Dalriada. The hates and passions which set nations at variance had been trodden out, and the sword rested in its sheath for many a long year thereafter. "During the entire period of a century and a half which elapsed since the northern Picts were converted to Christianity by the preaching of Saint Columba," says Mr. Skene, "there is hardly to be found the record of a single battle between them and the Scots of Dalriada."3

We must avert our eyes for a moment from Scotland and fix them on a country which has not yet come to be known by the name of England, but it soon to be so. Here we are met by a very different spectacle from that which we have just been contemplating. In North Britain a lamp of singular brightness is seen to shine out in the darkness, and the hostile tribes are beheld walking in its light and dwelling together in peace. While this is taking place in the north, in the south an ancient people are suddenly plunged into all the horrors of barbarian war. There seems, at first sight, but small relation between the peaceful labours of the Columban brotherhood at the one end of our island, and the furious tempests which are seen to devastate it at its other extremity. But no event in history stands alone, and sometimes events most dissimilar in their outward form are closely connected in their inward relations. The kindling of the lamp of Iona, as regards both the hour when, and the spot where, it was lit, has a close reference to the terrible revolution which at this same epoch was being accomplished in southern Britain. We must bestow a momentary glance of that revolution.

The light of Christianity, as we have seen, broke on England not later than the middle of the second century. We trace continued existence through the third and fourth centuries by the presence of British pastors in the Councils of the age. But the Christianity which the disciples of the apostles had planted in South Britain, and which had withstood the terrible tempest of the Dioclesian persecution, was fated to disappear before the yet fiercer storms that were about to burst upon it from the north. Or should it survive, in any feeble measure, it would be only in those remote corners of the land, such as Wales and the kingdom of Strathclyde, where a feeble remnant of the ancient Britons, saved from the sword, were to find hiding from the face of their cruel invaders. We shall not repeat the often told story of the Anglo-Saxon conquest. The Jutes, the Saxons and the Angles were invited over by the Britons, now abandoned by the Romans, to repel the Picts and Scots, whose inroads had become incessant. They came and did their work; but the Britons had soon more reason to be afraid of their new allies than of their old enemies. Their deliverers had cleared the land not for the Britons but for themselves. Entering by the Isle of Thanet, they held open the door, and troop after troop of fierce warriors from the same prolific sea-board rushed across to swell the Anglo-Saxon bands already in the country. Starting with the conquest of East Kent (A.D. 449), the advanced westward and northward into the very heart of the land, fighting battle after battle, following up sanguinary battle with still more sanguinary massacre, and those whom it was their pleasure not to kill they reduced into slavery. It was a war not of conquest but of extermination. Of all the provinces of the world-wide empire of Rome, now overrun by Goth and Vandal and Hum, and enduring the miseries of fire and sword, not one was so terrible scourged, or so entirely revoluntionised, as the province of Britain. Here the ancient inhabitants were exterminated, and the new races took sole possession of the country. The two remote districts we have already named excepted, England was now occupied by the Anglo-Saxon race from the German Sea to the mountains of Wales on the west, and from the shores of the English Channel to the Forth on the north. So fell the Roman province of Britain; and with it would have fallen the ancient Caledonia, and Scotland, whether name or people, would have found no place among the nations, but for the stubborn resistance of its inhabitants to Agricola and Severus.

But along with the expulsion of the Britons from a country which they had occupied for five, and it may be ten centuries, before our era, there came an entire change of religion. Their conquerors were pagans. The gods whom the Anglo-Saxons worshipped were Wooden and Thor. Their hatred of the Christian faith was greater even than that of the Germanic tribes that overturned the empire, for the latter permitted themselves to be conquered by those whom they had vanquished with their swords when the consented to led to the baptismal font and conducted within the pale of the Christian church. But not so the Anglo-Saxons. Contemning the gods of the Britons, they mercilessly slaughtered the clergy, razed the churches, and on their site erected temples to Thor. England was again a pagan land.

It is the bearing of this unexpected and mysterious occurrence on Scotland that it chiefly concerns us to note. What is it we behold? It is the early Christian day of England overtaken by sudden eclipse, and a wall of heathenism drawn between Scotland and continental Europe. For a brief space, Scotland is a second time isolated from the rest of the world. For what purpose? Evidently that the pure evangelism of Iona may be shielded from the now corrupt Christianity of the Western Church. Ere this time the tide of declension in that church had begun to flow. But not it was vastly accelerated by the admission of the northern nations within the Christian pale. These nations were received without undergoing any instruction in the faith, and without evidencing any renewal of nature or any reformation of manners. The church, within whose open gates we behold them passing with all their superstitions, incorporated their rites into her worship, and even erected a Christian Valhalla for the reception of their deities.4 Instead of lifting them up, she stepped down to them. How changed the church of the seventh century from the church of the second! Her pastors had grown into princes; a brotherhood had been converted into a hierarchy, the members of which stood in graduated ranks round a centre which was more like the throne of a monarch than the chair of a minister of the Gospel. The spirit of the first Roman had entered into the second. "Conquest" was her cry, even as it had been that of her predecessor. She sought to reduce all nations to her obedience. And in that age it was not difficult to make such conquests as she coveted; and had the road been open into Caledonia, had no such partition wall as this new-sprung paganism in south Britain barred her way, she might have advanced her standards farther into the north than the first Roman had been able to do. The feeble Christianity of south Britain would have been an easy conquest to her art, her missionaries, her pompous rites. Instead of obstructing, it would have facilitated her advance on Iona, where she would have replaced the Bible with Tradition, and the doctrine of Columba with the teaching of her Pontiff. But the Anglo-Saxon conquest of England, and the darkness that ensued, delayed her advance into the ancient land of the Scots and the Picts for two centuries.

But Iona stands related—a relation of contrast and antagonism—to an event of even greater consequence than the sudden irruption of Anglo-Saxon paganism into Britain. About the same time that Conal, King of the Scottish Dalriada, was giving Iona to Columba (A.D. 563), that he might there kindle a lamp of evangelical light, the emperor Phocas was giving Rome (A.D. 606) to Bishop Boniface, that in the old city of the Caesars he might consolidate the papal power, and set up his throne as the Vicar of Christ. The contemporaneousness of these two events, though far separated in point of space—for the whole of Europe well nigh lies between—attests the ordination of Him who is the creator both of the light and of the darkness. At the same epoch we behold the day breaking at the one extremity of Europe and at the opposite we see the night beginning to descend. From Rome the shadow continues to creep northward. It threatens the world with universal night. But in the opposite quarter of the sky and the day all the while is steadily waxing, and we know that the light will conquer. The nations are rushing to and fro; the seats of ancient and powerful kings are being overturned, but here, at the extremity of the earth, shut in from the great winds that are shaking the world, there is found a little territory where the evangelical lamp may burn in the calm, and where for nearly two centuries it continued to defuse its brightness.

The men of Iona were not dreamy enthusiasts, but energetic workers; and the work they did was such as the times needed. Iona was more than an evangelical church, it was an active propaganda. It was a training school of missionaries; for Iona, like Rome, aimed at making conquests though conquests of a different sort, and it was here that soldiers were provided for carrying on the war. The plans of this mission-church were wide. Her own country had of course the first claim upon her; and no long time elapsed till churches were planted in numerous districts of Scotland, supplied with pastors from the theological school of Iona, where the text-book of study was the volume of Holy Writ. Before Columba died, he had the satisfaction of thinking that the ancient Caledonia, for even in his time it had not become to be known by the name of Scotland, might be regarded, both north and south of the Grampians, as a Christian country. The Druidic darkness had not in deed been entirely dispelled, but there were now few districts in which the light had not been kindled.

But the labours of these evangelists were not restricted to Caledonia. The mission-field of Iona was Christendom Surveying Europe from their rock in the western sea, they saw the cloud of paganism coming up from the south and projecting its dark shadow over lands once enlightened with the truth. Rome, instead of combating was, they saw, courting the rising superstition, and unless Iona should throw itself into the breach there would be none to fight this battle of a beleaguered Christianity. Columba was now in his grave: but his spirit lived. The fame of his institution was extending year by year, and hundreds of youth, athirst for knowledge, divine and human, were crowding from the Continent to sit at the feet of its doctors. When their studies were finished, and "the hands of the elders of Iona had been laid upon their head," they returned to their native land to communicate to their countrymen what they had learned in this famous school of the west. The youth of Caledonia and of Ireland, too, enrolled themselves among its pupils, and when duly qualified they swelled the mission bands which from this renowned isle travelled far and wide, spreading the evangelical doctrine. They attacked the darkness of England, carrying the olive branch to those who had offered only the sword to the Britons. Crossing the Channel they might be seen, staff in hand, and wearing long woollen garments, traversing France, the Vosges, the Alps, and the northern plains of Italy. They pursued their labours, surrounded by the manifold distractions and miseries of the time—plague, battle, fanatic mobs, barbarous tribes, and the wolves of the deserts and the woods. Turning to the north, they traversed Germany. They were not content that the dry land should be the limit of their missionary tours. Embarking in their leathern coracles, they launched out on the unknown seas of the north, and sought out the islands that lie beneath the star of the pole, that they might proclaim to their inhabitants the message of the Great Father. No age has witnessed greater zeal and intrepidity. The countries they visited were more inaccessible to them than India and China are to us, and the labour and peril attendant on their missionary tours were unspeakable greater than those which the missionary of our day, unless in very exceptional cases, has to encounter. The details of this great movement will come before us at a future stage. We note it briefly here as a step in our country’s progress. For undoubtedly the Christianity that emanated from Iona was one of the main forces that acted on the "rude and undigested" masses of the then Scotland. It cemented Scot and Pict, and of the two peoples made in due time one nation. This was the first great landing-place of our country


FOOTNOTES

1.Scotland under her early Kings, vol. i. p. 6, Edin. 1862

2. Tighernac, 563., Hist. Eccls., lib. iii. c. 4, 5, 26; Adam., Vit. Colum., lib i. c. 37.

3. Celtic Scotland, vol. i. p. 266, Edin. 1876.

4. This is confessed by the Benedictine monks in the Historie Litteraire de la France, tom. Iii., Introduc., pp. 8, 11, 13.

Gregory the Great, in the orders given to the Anglo-Saxons, permits them to offer the same sacrifice to the saints on their respective holidays they had been accustomed to offer to their gods. Epist., lib. xi., lxxvi., p. 1176, tom. Ii. App. Edit. Benedict. See also Wilkins’ Concilia Magnoe Britannioe, tom. I. p. 18. Chateaubriand (Etud. Hist.) and M. Bengnot admit the same thing.


 

 


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