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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 2, Chapter 21 - Columba; Departs from Ireland; Arrives in Iona; Iona and Rome


The considerations which induced Columba to throw himself into the work of converting the northern Picts have been variously stated by the writers who have undertaken the task of elucidating this part of the missionary's career. But all these explanations connect themselves more or less directly with the political and ecclesiastical embroilment into which he was plunged, and which we have been able only partially to explain. To Columba, in the flower of his days, it was, doubtless, a painful step to go forth and leave a land in which his ancestors had exercised sovereign sway, and which he himself had enriched with numerous munificent institutions of learning and piety. These it was his pride to build up, and he had fondly cherished the hope of seeing them rising, year after year, in efficiency and fame. But the step he was about to take would compel him to withdraw from them his fostering care. Might they not, left without a head, become demoralized, and be deserted by the youth that were now crowding to them? Besides, would not the Church in Ireland sustain an irreparable loss in the departure of one from whose great talents and high social position she had profited so much in the past, and might hope to profit still more in the future? Why should she consent to lose, much more drive out, her greatest son and most eminent ecclesiastic.

These considerations might have had a counterbalancing force, and retained him in the country of his birth; but the hermit Molaise leaves Columba no alternative but expatriation. He represents the powerful churchman, dreaded or envied by his brother ecclesiastics, and under sentence of perpetual exile, with this farther penalty annexed, that he must convert as many pagans to the faith of the Gospel as there were Christians slain in the battle with which he was unhappily concerned. This last statement reveals the touch of a legendary hand, and awakens the suspicion that the mediæval fabulists have been at work on the causes which determined Columba to set sail for the Scottish shore. His mission, we are persuaded, was not one of compulsion, but of choice. It sprang from other motives and influences besides those that had birth in the excommunication of the Synod, or the unworthy treatment which he had experienced at the hands of his brethren. The missionary spirit was strong in the hearts of the Irish churchmen of that day. They were always on the outlook for tribes to evangelise, and lands to enlighten with the Gospel. Columba could not but know that a little way off from the Irish shore was a country where the harvest was great and the labourers few. What should hinder his planting schools of piety and knowledge in that land now that he had been so unexpectedly stopped in this good work in his own? A colony of his race and nation had gone thither before him, and were at this hour laying the foundations of the Scottish kingdom and church. He will follow then thither. Where dwell the Scottish race, there shall burn the lamp of the faith.

His purpose is inexorably taken. The schools he has founded, the youth he has gathered into them, and who call him father, and the circles in which he has shone, all are now forsaken; and Columba, as a man who has sold all that he has, goes forth to begin life anew. A career such as that on which we behold him entering must ever begun in sacrifice. He selects twelve companions, which he knows, will not take their hand from the plough, nor turn back from inhospitable shores and savage tribes.

The party now embarking take with them a small stock of carpenter's tools and agricultural implements, and a sack or two of seed corn. With special care they wrap up some manuscript portions of the Bible, and stow them away, together with provisions for the voyage, in the currach that is to carry them across. The osier ribs of their little ship are covered with sheets of cowhide.

Hoisting sail, they drop down between the level grassy banks of the Foyle. The river expands into the estuary, the estuary into the ocean, and now they plough the open main. They navigate a sea swept by frequent and angry squalls, and vexed by racing currents, but their buoyant barque mounts the billow and hangs fearlessly on its crest, where a larger and heavier craft might have some difficulty in breasting the long surge, and descending from its airy, curling top. They leave behind them the shores of Erin, here turreted with black basaltic columns, there green and sloping to the ocean. They pass the island of Rachrin, which at a future day is to give asylum to the Bruce, when his own country has none to offer him. They sight the low, fertile hills of Islay, and beyond, rising dark and high, are seen the gigantic paps of the Jura. They now pursue their way northward in a sea sprinkled with islands. They are struck with the endless diversity of their shapes as they raise their naked rocky forms above the lonely sea, some running along in a ridgy, serrated sky-line, and others gathering their converging mass into a pyramidal top, a belt of green at their feet, and, if the breeze be fresh, a line of foam encircling them. On their left, seaward, are the outer Hebrides, a mighty breakwater of nature's building placed there to break the shock of the Atlantic, when tempest hurls its mountain masses against the shore of Alba. On their right is the mainland, a messy line of promontories and cliffs, its continuity broken by frequent clefts which admit the waters of the ocean, which are seen spreading out in friths and lochs amid the rocky glens and the brown moorlands of the interior. Nothing could be imagined more lonely than the scene which lies spread around them, and yet it is grand. Nor does it lack that beauty of colouring which light imparts to event the most bare and stern of scenes. As the clouds come and go, what magical picturings delight the eye! Now the shadow falls, and sea and island are dyed in the richest purple; anon the sun shines out, the waters sparkle, and the rocks gloss-like burnished gold. The scenes through which we see them moving are amongst the oldest of nature's creating. Those islands that lie scattered on their left, and that coast-line that rises precipitous and lofty on their right, with its backing of heath-clad or pine-covered hills, smiled to the sun when the mountains of the Alps and the giants of the Himalayas were still at the bottom of the ocean.

They are said to have first touched at the Isle of Oronsay. As they near it, we hear them say to one another, "May not this be the end of our journey"? We are arrived, mayhap, at the destined scene of our labours, and the spot where we shall sleep when these labours have come to an end. Let us disembark and explore the little isle. They step on shore. They climb the highest summit of Oronsay, and survey its bearings. There, on the east, is the ragged line of Kintyre, inhabited, they knew, by the same Scottish race who had preceded them across the sea, and established themselves amid these mountains, but found it hard to make good their foothold in the presence of their powerful neighbours on the north. Indeed, only three years before they had fought a great battle with the northern Picts; and the day having gone against then, they were now hard pressed, and in danger of being driven out of the country. Their possession of Alba was at that moment trembling in the balance. It was the arrival of Columba that turned the scale. When his foot touched its shore, the Scots received "sign and signature " that the land was given them for an inheritance.

Turning to the west, our voyagers beheld, lying along the horizon, low and dim, yet distinctly visible, the coast of Ireland. Our voyage, said they, is not yet ended. We must again betake us to our currach, and place a yet greater stretch of sea between us and that loved shore, lest in heart we should turn back to it. The legend assigns as the reason why they could not make Oronsay their headquarters, that the sentence of exile passed on the chief of the expedition compelled him to seek a spot where he could not even see Ireland. There is a touch of fancy in this which discredits it as the true reason. The tear that filled the "gray eye" of Columba as he gazed on a land where his ancestors had reigned, and where there were so many flourishing monuments of his own past labours, told him and his associates that it was dangerous to remain in sight of their native Erin. "We are yet too near it, " said they all. And so hastily piling a cairn of stones on the summit as the memorial of their visit, they descend the hill, re-enter their currach, and proceed on their voyage.

As the party pursued their way northward a small island was seen to rise out of the waves just opposite that point on the coast where the territory of the Scots bordered with that of the northern Picts. It lay moored like a raft on the west side of the much larger island of Mull, from which it was separated by a sound only a mile in width. No spot better adapted as a basis of a mission which had respect to both the Scots and the Picts could be found in all these western seas. They direct the course of their coracle towards its shore. A creek with deep water opens on the south-western side of the island. They run their boat into the little bay, and their voyage is at an end.[1] It was Whitsuntide, and the little island was just putting on its first green, as if to welcome the venerable strangers whose feet were about to be planted upon it. So quietly opened one of the grandest episodes in the history of Christendom! It was the year 563, and the forty-second of Columba's age.

Stepping on shore, the little party climb the highest eminence, and take a survey of their nest-abode, and note its leading features and capabilities. Their territory lies within narrow limits. The island does not exceed three and a half miles in length, and is barely mile and a half in width. Scenery it has none, in the common acceptation of the term. It is not picturesque, much less is it grand; it has no bosky dell, no shady wood, no mountain rising into the sky; it is simply pleasant, almost tame—an undulating grassy plot in the blue sea. On the east, parted from it by the narrow sound of which we have spoken, stretch the dark masses of Mull. On the West the Atlantic discloses its mighty face— a pleasant enough object when the winds sleep, and the waters laugh to the sun but not to be beheld without terror, when it clothes itself in the awful majesty of storms, and makes war upon the little isle, in thick clouds, and with thundering noise, while the giant rollers, born in the far-off waters of the ocean, grow bigger as they come nearer, and threaten to overflow and drown the land.

Yet the island has not a few good properties which adapt it to the purposes of the little party which have just arrived upon it. Its soil, which is light and sandy, permits the harvest to ripen early. The fine plain, which forms its western side, and which is only a few feet above the level of the waters, yields excellent crops of grain, and the little hollows that nestle among the rocky knolls of the interior are covered with a fine rich pasturage. Corn and milk were thus the two main products of which the island could boast, and of these luxuries the fathers had no lack. The climate was temperate. If the heats of summer never were scorching, the frosts of winter were never intense. Indeed, hardly ever did it freeze. The little isle would sometimes be gay with verdure when the mountains of the adjoining Mull were white with winter. This general mildness and equability of the seasons favoured the growth of fruits, of which the island yielded a considerable variety. It was no place of "olive-yards and vineyards," it is true, but the fruits proper to Scotland, and which are as finely adapted to our northern country as is the vine to southern lands, could ripen here, and were cultivated in the garden of the monastery. As for flowers, the foot of man can journey to no spot where the flower is not seen to blossom. The modest properties of earth and air with which the isle was blessed the fathers would not fail to turn to account.

But the main aspect in which Columba and his companions looked at the island on which they had arrived was its mission suitabilities. Were its position, its size, and its general environments, such as would adapt themselves to their special object, and afford facilities for carrying on their mission? A little reflection must have satisfied them that they had been led to the spot of all others best suited for their contemplated operations. They were to act on the territories of the Scots and the Picts, and mainly on the Picts, for the Scots were converts to Christianity when they fixed their permanent settlement in Argylshire, and had been so, as we have seen, since the days of Patrick, though, doubtless, their zeal needed quickening. Seeing, then, that their mission-field embraced both the Pictish and the Scottish dominions, it was desirable that their headquarters should be placed betwixt the two, or as near as possible in the center of the field. Now here was such a spot; for the boundary line between Pict and Scot, if prolonged, would run right through the island. Thus was the first requisite secured. But farther, it was desirable that the spot selected as the headquarters of their mission should be near and yet afar off. This island was both; it was parted from the mainland of Mull by only a narrow sound, across which sail would waft, or oar row them in less than half an hour. Yet that same sea was a rampart round them, and, in a sense, removed them to a distance. It guarded them against the intrusion of curious or hostile visitors. The key of their stronghold was in their own keeping, and they could admit only whom they pleased. As regards troublesome or plying neighbours, there was room on the island for only themselves. They were its sole inhabitants. There was thus no danger of insurrection against its government, and no liability to interruption in its duties. Whether it was labour or devotion that called them afield, they could reckon on pursuing their task without hindrance or annoyance. They could plough in peace, or they could pray in peace. No profane or mocking eye rested upon them. On the mainland, their mission-field proper, they must lay their account with contradiction and derision; but when they re-crossed the sound, and again set foot on their island, they entered a region where all things were congenial, and their chafed spirits quickly recovered their tone, and the pervading calm imparted fresh elasticity and strength to body and soul. After a season of rest they would return with reinvigorated powers to their work among the pagans of the mainland.

By what name was the little island known? Till this hour it was one of the obscurest spots on earth. Lying in the lonely sea, afar from any highway, and with nothing notable about it to draw thither the feet of the pilgrim, a thick darkness hid it from the eyes of the world. But the moment that Columba and his followers set foot upon it, it started out of the immemorial night and took its place on the historic page, and wherever the lamp that burned here shall shine, be the shore ever so remote, or the land ever so barbarous, there shall the story of this island be told, and there shall men join in the same song of thanksgiving and commemoration the names of ZION and IONA.

But Columba must be put into legal possession of the island by the competent authority. Without this his mission was liable to be broken up at any moment, and himself and his companions driven out, and compelled to seek another, and, perhaps, less convenient spot as a basis of their operations. Iona belonged to Conal, King of the Scots of Argyllshire, and a relative of Columba. Thus there could be no great difficulty in obtaining a grant of the island from the Scottish monarch; and such would seem to have been given him soon after his arrival. But the ownership of Iona was a matter not quite beyond dispute. Both kings—the Scottish and the Pictish—claimed sovereign rights over it, on the ground that it lay betwixt their dominions, and equally adjoined both, and Columba could not deem his tenure quite secure till he had a grant of the island from both kings. This he ultimately obtained. Brude, the monarch of the northern Picts, appears to have ratified the previous concession of Connal, so placing the right of Columba to Iona beyond challenge.

The first labour of the fathers was to prepare themselves habitations. None but the humblest materials were within their reach, but they aimed at neither cost nor magnificence in their style of architecture. There was abundance of stone on the island. The creek into which they had run their boat was lined with green serpentine rock; but they had not brought with them instruments for quarrying the strata, and they must be content meanwhile to build with less durable materials than stone. Twigs gathered on the island, sods dug in its meadows, branches of trees brought across in their wherry from the mainland—these must serve for the erection of such structures as will suffice meanwhile for their shelter. The summer, as we have said, was just opening, and the breath of the western seas at that season is soft, if not balmy. They add yet another structure. Their little hamlet of booths they hallow by rearing a sanctuary in the midst of it. Their church is humble, and built of like simple materials with their own dwellings. It must owe its grandeur to the purity and fervor of the worship performed in it. In this humble fashion did they make a commencement in their great enterprise.

At a critical hour in the history of the world was this enterprise commenced. When Columba and his fellow labourers arrived on Iona, human society was trembling on the brink of moral destruction. For five centuries Christianity had been struggling with the inexpressibly corrupt civilization of the Roman empire. It sought to conquer that corruption, and stay the downward tendency of the world, now verging on ruin, by presenting principles of far mightier force, sanctions of more tremendous obligation, and maxims lovelier and sublimer by far than any which had ever before been made known to men. But the success of the Gospel, though great, was not complete. It had rescued innumerable individuals, and segregating them from the mass, it had gathered them into holy societies, which walked in "newness of life." But the great world of government, of art, of literature, of common custom and everyday life, still went on in its old course. Many centuries must elapse before the poison of paganism, so deep-lodged and so wide-spread in the populations of the world, could be purged out, and the entire lump quickened with the new life.

While this healing and restorative process was going slowly forward, another disaster overtook the world, in which all that had been already gained appeared to be lost. The northern nations, descending on Christendom, overlaid the decaying civilisation of the Roman empire, and the emasculated Christianity of the Church, with their wild savagery and their grovelling superstitions. The world was rolled some centuries back. A condition of things already sufficiently gloomy had now become seemingly hopeless. This overflow of robust and rude nations had in it elements of hope, it is true, inasmuch as it replaced the utterly vitiated and effete soil of the Roman world, with a new and fresh mould in which the Gospel might a second time take root and grow. But these germs of promise could be developed only in after ages. Meanwhile a great calamity pressed upon the world. What policy did "the Church " adopt in presence of this tremendous revolution? The worst possible. It recognized the altered state of things, but it set itself to devise a modus vivendi amid the near barbarisms and paganisms with which it found itself surrounded. Instead of sustaining itself the one power not of earth, it sought alliance and partnership with the new superstitions. It came down to the low mundane sphere, and mingling with the other powers of the world, soon found itself the least potent of them all. Christianity is divine and spiritual, or it is nothing. It must sit aloft and maintain its high claim, unmoved alike by the threat or the seduction of the ruler, by the sophism or the sneer of the scientist; it must keep this high ground, or it must abdicate as the ruling power of the world. Unhappily, what now passed as Christianity forgot this maxim at this great crisis. The Church faltered, and kept her heavenly powers in abeyance at an epoch when it behoved her most of all to have asserted them, and challenged recognition of them. She opened her gates and admitted the nations of the north into her communion in much the same condition as when they lived in their native forests. In the words of Chateaubriand, she received them with the " whole baggage of their superstitions." Their deities, their rites, their festivals, their beliefs changed in little more than in the mere nomenclature, were assimilated with the Christian church, and the new converts were hardly conscious of having undergone transition, certainly not transformation. A great error had been committed. The salt had lost its savour; and what else than inevitable and utter corruption could happen to the world when its one regenerating, and purifying agency had itself become corrupt?

But that Omniscient Power, which shapes the world' course, and through thick darkness and often shipwreck of the ages keeps it ever advancing towards the light, had prepared beforehand this movement which we are now tracing. It was the exact reverse—the reverse in both its nature and its issues—of that which we see taking place at the opposite extremity of Europe. First of all, Christianity had to be brought back to the simplicity and purity of its early days. It must begin the new reform by reforming itself.

We have seen how Christianity was reinvigorated at this epoch. From a little spark came the great illumination. Sitting solitary on the mountains of Antrim, heedless of the storm that beat upon him without, because of the fiercer tempest that was raging in his soul, Patrick came to the knowledge of that Truth which, with divine force, revivifies and regenerates humanity. He preached what he had thus learned to the barbarous and pagan Scots of Ireland. That same Christianity which in the temples of southern Europe seemed to be almost dead, and, like the mythologies of Greece, about to pass for ever from the knowledge of the world, uprose in Ireland among the tribes of the savage Scots, instinct with the power of an immortal youth, and as able to reduce barbarous nations to its gracious yoke, as when it went forth, in the first age, over the lands of ancient paganism, and the gods of Rome fell before the doctrine of the Crucified.

The next step was to find for reinvigorated Christianity a new center from which it might operate. It was now that the seat of this divine principle was transferred from southern to northern Europe—from lands where the air to this very hour was thick with pagan memories and influences, to lands which, if still barbarous, were uncorrupted either by dominion or by luxury, or by an idolatrous æstheticism. We have seen a distinguished son of Ireland—a member of the family of the Scoti, compelled by political and ecclesiastical embroilments to leave the land of his birth and cross the channel with the lamp of the evangelical faith in his hand to set it amid the seas and rocks of the north. While Phocas was installing Pope Boniface at Rome, Columba was kindling his beacon-lamp at Iona. Henceforward, for many ages, Rome and Iona were to be the two points around which the history of Europe was to revolve. From the city on the Tiber we see the night descending, in ever lengthening shadow, upon the nations. From the rock of Iona we see the day shining out, and with persistent and growing ray struggling to widen the sphere of the light and drive back the darkness.


Footnote

1. The creek is called Port-na-curach, or harbour of the boat.