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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 2, Chapter 25 - Genealogy of Scottish Kings; The Stone of Destiny; His Death


The first and greatest service which Columba rendered to Scotland was to complete its unfinished evangelization by christianising all its three nations. Yet another service did he render. He it was who planted the Scottish monarchy. The first really independent king who swayed the scepter over the Scots had the crown placed upon his head by the abbot-presbyter of Iona. The arrival of Columba, we have said above, was at a critical moment in the history of the Scots of Kintyre. In 560 they had sustained a severe defeat from King Brude, and their possession of their lands had in consequence become exceedingly precarious. Their expulsion from Kintyre, which then hung in the balance, would have been the extinction of whatever Christianity there was in Alba. But with the arrival of Columba in 563 came the turning of the tide in their fortunes. The influence of Columba with the now Christian Brude was exerted in their favour, and the colony took a new and deeper root. They were ruled over at the time of Columba's arrival by a king of their own nation, and had been so from the days of Fergus I., who led them across to the Argylshire coast. But their king was a tributary of the supreme monarch of Ireland, whose seat was at Tara. Columba, whose views were far-reaching, and who took the deepest interest in the fortunes of his countrymen in Kintyre, aimed at consolidating their nationality on this side of the channel, and making the sovereign authority among them independent. An opportunity of effecting this patriotic purpose soon offered.

The King of the Scots died about four years after the arrival of Columba. His successor in the direct line lacked the talents requisite for the government of a little territory occupied by not the most docile subjects, and in danger of being swallowed up by a powerful neighbour. Columba set aside this feeble prince, and, acting according to Brehon, or Irish law, which permitted such deviations when the regular heir was a minor, or incapable, he selected Aidan, who had been trained in the institution of Iona, to fill the throne. Seating him on the " stone of fate," [1] he solemnly anointed him King of the Scottish Dalriada, exacting from both monarch and subjects a promise that they would abide in the profession of the Christian faith. Aidan's reign was exceptionally prosperous." [2] He was a descendant of the famous Hibernian monarch Niall of the Nine Hostages, A.D. 400, and his descendants continued to occupy the throne till the union of the Picts and the Scots in 843. Kenneth MacAlpin, under whose rule the two nations became one, was a prince of his house. The male line of these Celtic kings ran on till the close of the thirteenth century, ending with Alexander III. in 1285. Their reign, however, was prolonged in the female line. For now came the dynasties of Bruce and Stuart, which were sprung from a female branch of the royal stock of Kenneth MacAlpin, and through them the blood of Aidan, crowned by Columba in about 567, flowed down to our present gracious sovereign Queen Victoria.

A few years afterwards the National Parliament of Ireland met at Drumceatt, in the neighborhood of Newtonlimavady. That meeting had a decisive influence on the matter of which we now speak, the independence of the Scottish sovereignty. The assemblage which we see gathering on the great plain of Drumceatt was historic, and continued to be spoken of through many following centuries. Thither came every one of rank in Ireland—the chieftains and lords, the abbots of monasteries, the heads of the great schools, and the clergy of the land. It continued in session for the unusually long period of fourteen months. Columba, as a man of princely rank and of large experience, was asked to assist with his counsel at this Convention. He accepted the invitation, and repaired to Ireland. It was the weight of his influence that led the assembly to the decision to which it came on two important matters. The first related to the Bards of Ireland. They were a powerful order, and presuming on their high office, they had been guilty of some arrogant acts which had kindled the popular wrath against them; and at this moment a decree of expulsion hung over their heads. Columba, himself a poet, pleaded the cause of the bards so sympathetically, that his eloquence disarmed the popular odium and the obnoxious decree was revolted, and harp and song continued to resound in Erin.

The other matter which engaged the negotiations of Columba at the Drumceatt Council was a still weightier one, and this affair, too, he was able to conduct to a successful termination. It was the question of the independence of the Scottish kings. The princes of the Scottish Dalriada thought it hard that they should have to send tribute across the sea to the King of Tara. A monarch who ruled over so ample a dominion, and was master of the rich meadows of Meath, had no need to tax their bare mountains and heaths moors. Columba was able to put the matter in such a light that the King of Tara consented to forego the tribute, and to relieve his Scotch colony in Alba from the suzerainty he had exercised over it. From that day the Scotch were their own masters, and their rulers took the rank of independent kings. It was the hand of the presbyter-abbot of Iona that laid the foundation-stone of Scotch independent monarchy.

King Brude lived after his conversion twenty years, dying in 585. His throne continued to be filled by a Christian prince, who favoured, and, doubtless, also furthered the evangelization of his dominions. These northern kings do not appear to have taken offense at the erection of the Scots into an independent monarchy. Perhaps they judged that the wide realms and numerous tribes of Pictland had nothing to fear from the handful of Dalriadan Scots in Kintyre. But in truth, Columba, while he lived, was a bond of union between the two nations; and when he went to the grave, the Christianity he had planted kept the peace betwixt Scot and Pict. The sword rested, but the plough was busy at work. The mattock and the spade were in great request in a land which had lain fallow for ages; and the Caledonian speedily discovered how much more profitable it was to water the soil with his sweat than with his blood. There were hurrying feet in valley and glen, but it was not the tread of men hastening to battle, but the throng of worshippers gathering to the sanctuary, to offer their homage to One who was no longer to them the unknown God. There were voices among the mountains, but these sounds were not the echoes of the war-cry of other days, nor the wail of widow over the slain of the battlefield, nor the shriek of victim as he was being dragged by Druid to be immolated on the altar, they were the deep, solemn melody of the psalm pealed forth by a thousand voices, or mayhap, the clear and eloquent tones of a Culdee orator preaching in the fervid Celtic the Gospel which Chrysostom had poured forth in a stream of mellifluous Greek in the great church of Constantinople, or which had been thundered in Latin by Augustine to the crowds of Hippo.

But of all changes, that which had passed on the people themselves was by far the greatest. No words could adequately depict their altered circumstances and prospects. Till the day that Columba anchored his osier craft on their shore, their wretched lot had been to be born in serfdom, to pass life in exile from the duties and dignities of manhood; to starve on an infertile soil; to shiver in the winter's tempests, and pour out their blood in the quarrels of their chiefs. This sad heritage father had transmitted to son for many generations. The Caledonian had never hoped to see an end of these evils. The chief must tyrannize, and the serf must submit and suffer. So had it been in his father's days, and so would it be in those of his sons after him—darkness, slavery, misery in interminable vista. While so he thought, lo! all suddenly these evils were gone. How, he could not well explain. He had fought no battle, he had shed no blood; and yet his whole condition was changed: a new world was all round about him. What a marvelous transformation! and how unaccountable, till he came to understand that it was the silent mighty energy of Christianity that had wrought it.

The hour was now come when Columba must die. As cometh sleep to the infant, soft and sweet, so came death to the aged presbyter-abbot of Iona. The sublime calm of his latter end formed a fitting close to the quiet, simple grandeur in which his whole life had been passed. He knew that he was to be taken up, even as the traveler knows that he is approaching a serener clime when he feels a balmier air, and a brighter light all round him; but his demeanor did not alter in the least, save that it partook of a deeper solemnity. His interest in his island, and all in it, continued the same, though soon to exchange it for a fairer dwelling. Columba bids his cart be got ready that he may make his last circuit of his isle, and take his last look of endeared, familiar objects, and speak his last greetings to his companions in labour. He drops obscure hints of what is to happen, but his heart is too tender to permit him to break the intelligence in plain words, knowing the sorrow into which it would plunge the family of Hy. Crossing to the western plain, where some of the brethren were at work in the field, we hear him say to them in gentle tones, "During the paschal solemnities in the month of April now past, with desire have I desired to depart to Christ the Lord. But lest a joyous festival should be turned for you into mourning, I thought it better to put off for a little longer the time of my departure from the world." Then, turning his face towards the east, he blessed the island and its inhabitants."

It was the month of May. The sun of summer was on the seas around Iona, and the early green was brightening the shore and mountains of the mainland. The scene would vividly recall to mind his first arrival on the island at the same season of the year, thirty-four years before. What a succession since of labours and sorrows, of hopes and disappointments, of joys and triumphs! But the work has been done, the lamp has been kindled, and we hear Columba say, "I depart in peace, since my eyes have seen Caledonia a Christian land."

Another week passes. Columba is still with his brethren, but there remain to him only a few hours, and then, by the upward road, which the good and the great of all ages have trodden, he shall ascend above the stars and enter the gates of an everlasting life. The sad presentiment of his departure weighs down his brethren. It was Saturday (June 8th, 597). [3] We hear him say to his trusted attendant, Diormit, "This day in Holy Scripture is called Sabbath, which means rest. And this day is indeed a Sabbath to me, for it is the last day of my present toilsome life, and on it I rest after the fatigues of my labours." They then went together to the barn, and Columba expressed his joy at the store of corn laid up in it, as securing the brethren against want during the coming winter—a matter of some importance in a climate where the seasons were so variable, and the harvests so uncertain. Returning on foot, Columba felt fatigued, and sat down by the wayside. As he rested, the old white horse that had been used to carry milk to the monastery came up, and laying his head upon his master's breast, seemed to court his caresses as if he knew it was the last time he should ever feel the touch of his hand. Diormit was for driving the animal away. "No," said Columba," "suffer it, for why should not the dumb brute express his sorrow, for surely he knows that his master is to leave him?" Accompanied by Diormit, Columba next ascended an eminence which commanded a view of the college. Spreading forth his hands, he blessed it, foretelling, according to Adamnan, its future prosperity and glory. It was a benediction from the portals of the sky. Descending, Columba entered his hut, and straightway resumed his usual task—to him not labour but solace—of transcribing the psalter. Having come to that verse of the thirty-fourth psalm, where it is written, " They that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing," he laid down the pen and said, "Here let the page and my work end together; what follows let Baithen write. "It was now the hour of evening service. He arose and went to the church, and joined in the singing of the psalms. Returning to his dormitory, he dictated a few lines of farewell counsel to the brethren, recommending mutual and unfeigned charity. This done, he lay down to sleep. Soon came the hour of midnight. The Lord's Day had commenced: the bell sounded for prayers. Columba arose from his couch, and hastening to the chapel, he was the first to enter it. Diormit, his faithful servant, followed, but all was dark, and he could not see his master. Lights were speedily brought and Columba was discovered lying prostrate before the altar. Gathering round their presbyter-abbot, the brethren gently raised him up. As they stood awestruck and silent, he raised his hand slowly and feebly, in token of blessing. It dropped, and all was over. There rose a wail of sorrow from the assembled elders. Their head had been taken from them; and while the church resounded with their lamentations, he whom they mourned was lying as warrior lies who rests on the field of his last battle, and sleeps his deep sleep with the wreath of victor round his brow. Truly, the fight was a hard one. Columba had stood up against two Goliaths at once. He grappled with the pagan Druid on the one side, and with the almost pagan Pope on the other. He had fallen fighting gloriously, and not unsuccessfully, against both; and posterity has pronounced its verdict upon the man, and upon his battle by voting him—we speak figuratively—a tomb of the whitest marble.


Footnotes

1. In the Monasticon we find the following description of the "Fatal Stone "—lia fail, or Kaiser stuhl—" the ancient coronation-stone of Scotland," which is now placed below the seat of the coronation chair in Westminster Abbey, with one end or side visible. "We may admit the possibility of its being the same stone on which the ancient kings of Ireland seated themselves when crowned on the hill of Tara, and which Fergus (the son of Eric), the first king of Scotland, took with him when he led the Dalriads to the shores of Argyleshire. He himself was crowned upon it.... Our earliest monarchs made the like use of the stone at Dunstaffnage. It continued there as the coronation seat till the reign of Kenneth II., who removed it to Scone. Every Scottish king was crowned and consecrated thereupon till the year 1296, when Edward I. took it to England, where, ever since, in the church of Westminster Abbey, every British sovereign, seated on this "stone of destiny," has had the crown placed upon his head. A record exists of the expenses attending its removal to Westmister. Edward is said to have taken away the stone for the purpose of defeating an ancient prophecy which runs thus:—

"Unless old prophecies and words are vain,
Where'er this stone is found, the Scots shall reign."

The prophecy was regarded as verified when James VI. ascended the throne of England. See Monasticon, vol. i. pp. 28-30.

2. See Scottish Nation, vol. i. 321; Reeve's Vita. Colum., pp. 81, 82; Historians of Scotland, vol. vi.

3. Adamnan, Life of Columb., p. 95.


 

 


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