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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 3, Chapter 14 - Glimpses of the Columban Church; Fall of Iona


To trace a continuity of action and influence on the part of the Church of Columban from the days of its founder to the period of the Reformation is a labour specially inviting, but it is one the difficulty of which is at least equal to its interest. The traces which that Church has left in the written records of the land in which it flourished and which it redeemed from barbarism are faint, and sometimes they are not even discernible. It is invasion and war that come to the front, and the religion of the early Scotland falls into the background. The expert and industrious scribes which flourished in the sixth and two following centuries do not appear to have occupies themselves much with contemporary history. They did not foresee, or if they foresaw they did not take means to satisfy, the intense desire their sons of a later would feel to know what sort of country Scotland was in respect of its church ordinances and its family religion ten or twelve centuries before they opened their eyes upon it. These men were too busy transcribing copies of the word of God for the instruction of their flocks and the evangelisation of their nation—for every monastery had its scriptorium—to devote much time to what did not bear upon the great and special work of their day. And when the time came that the places of the Columban scribes were taken by another and very different class of penmen—who knew little of Columba, and did not care to remember the benefits he had conferred on Scotland—the past was permitted to drop out of the minds of men. Hence it has come to pass that from the end of the eleventh century till the opening of the sixteenth ecclesiastical Scotland, that is, in the Columban and evangelical sense, is comparatively a blank.

Still it does not admit of a moment’s doubt that the great Missionary Institute planted by Columba in the middle of the sixth century (563), and which we find spoken of for the first time in the reign of King Gregory (about 880) as the "Scottish Church" ,kept its footing in the land, in the midst of rebellious mormaers and ravaging vikings, alleviating the miseries it could not prevent, and from its hidden seat at the foundation of the Scottish nationality, sending forth from century to century a perennial stream of civilising influence, which did more to cement the nation into one, than either the union of its blood, or the union of its arms, and which to its individual men was a purifying faith in life, and a sure hope in death; whether it chanced that their last moments were passed on the bed of peace, or, as too often happened, on the field of battle. As we traverse the centuries that intervene betwixt the union of the Picts and Scots and the reign of Malcolm Canmore, and again those that divide the reign of Malcolm from that of James V., we light at intervals on the historic traces of the ancient Scottish church, and find her, whether existing in an organised form, as during the first of the two periods we have mentioned, or broken into little communities, and simply tolerated, as during the second period, still resting on her old foundations, and maintaining undeviatingly an attitude of protest against Rome. Shut up in the cloisters of St Andrews and Lochleven, or in places more remote and obscure, stript of lands and made pensionaries on the royal bounty, these solitary Columbites nevertheless refused to be folded in the church which Queen Margaret had set up, and which had its head on the Seven Hills. They, on the contrary, gloried to trace up their descent to that venerable church which had its cradle in Iona. Let us construct the historic line so far as the meagre materials at our service put it in our power to do so.

The golden age of the Columban Church in Scotland extends from the middle of the sixth to the end of the seventh century. These one hundred and fifty years were eminently the formative period of the Scottish nation. They put that ineffaceable stamp upon its character and destinies which the following centuries only helped to develop or to deepen, and which the nation still retains. The events that made that period famous were notable indeed. They were the founding of the great mission school of Iona; the establishment of the national independence of the Scots; the conversion of the northern Picts to Christianity; and the planting of branch houses of the Columbite Institute throughout the country so as to effect a permeation, more or less complete, of the whole land with civilising and Christianising influences. There is perhaps no period of equal duration in our country’s history that witnesses so immense and so beneficial a change ion its condition as this century and a half saw effected upon it. It found the Scots in comparative barbarism, it left them in the enjoyment of the light of letters and the higher blessings of religion. Moreover, it fired its sons with a zeal which sent them forth in crowds into distant lands to spread the knowledge of the Word of God and the fame of that country which was doing so much to circulate it among the nations of northern Europe. With such brightness shone the early day of the Church of Iona.

The first ebb in the fortunes of that Church took place under the presidency of Adamnan. Adamnan was essentially a superstitious man. We owe him thanks for his "Life of Columba;" we should have owed him still warmer thanks had he shown himself as anxious to maintain pure and undefiled the theology of Iona as he was to publish the fame of its founder. Adamnan paid a visit to Northumbria at a time when the Romanism of Canterbury and the Evangelism of Iona were contending with each other for the mastery in that part of Britain. Predisposed thereto, Adamnan caught the foreign infection, and returning to his island monastery, he sought to persuade his brother "elders" to remit somewhat of their singularity, and to conform to certain usages which he had seen in the south, and which had not a little caught his fancy. These customs were of no great moment in themselves, but they derived importance from the fact that they were universally regarded as symbols of vassalage to the Roman See. Adamnan not only failed to induce his brethren to surrender their independence by adopting these new and foreign customs; he awakened in them such mistrust of his sincerity, and such irritation against himself, that he deemed it prudent to withdraw from the monastery, although their abbot, and retired to Ireland. From this event dates the downfall of Iona.

With the opening of the eighth century comes marked decadence in the Columban Church. Calamity after calamity in rapid succession now came upon Iona, and an Institution which had filled Northern Europe with its disciples and its fame was in no long time morally defunct, and its buildings a blackened ruin. First the unity of its family was broken by internal dissensions and heart-burnings. This was the legacy left them by Adamnan. Three years after Adamnan’s death (704) we find for the first time two abbots presiding over Iona. One Ducadh by name, was a descendant of Conall Gulban, the tribe to which Columba belonged. The other was from a line with which the founder of the abbacy had no connection, and in which till now no abbot had arisen. We cannot explain this on any other supposition than that of a schism in Iona, occasioned by the attempt of Adamnan to introduce Roman customs into the brotherhood. There were plainly two parties, each with an abbot at its head: a Romanising party, and a party that st6ill adhered to the old traditions of their church, that is to the rule and theology of Columba. This dual government continued till Iona finally fell

The next calamitous event in the history of the Columban Church was the perversion of Nectan or Naiton, King of the Picts, in the year 710. Naiton, enlightened by letters sent him by the Abbot of Jarrow, Northumbria, saw that he and his nation had been in grievous error on the question of Easter. They had all along been celebrating the festival of our Lord’s resurrection on the wrong day. He saw, too, that this great national transgression was aggravated by the heterodox tonsure in use among his clergy. They shaved their heads as Columba and his brethren had shorn theirs, that is from ear to ear across the forehead, and not on the crown, as Roman exacted of her priests. The monarch issued immediate orders for a reformation on both points. In his dominions Easter must not be celebrated save according to the Roman reckoning, nor must cleric be seen with head shorn otherwise than after the Roman pattern. So did Naiton command. The decree had this good effect: it brought out the fidelity and the courage of the Columban pastors in the region of the Picts. The compliance required of the were not difficult: these might even with some show of reason be held to be of small significance, they involved no abandonment of any principle of creed, only a change of outward rite. The northern clergy might have sheltered themselves under the example of Adamnan, who had prevailed on some of the brethren in the parent institution of Iona to fall in with these customs. They might say we may surely do at the bidding of our king what these others have don at the bidding of their abbot. But no, the Pictish clergy took a different and much more serious view of the matter. They regarded compliance with the royal decree as an abandonment of their ancient traditions, and a surrender of the position they had occupied as protesters against a church which was becoming arrogant in proportion as she was becoming corrupt, and they resolved, rather than be guilty of conduct so unworthy and dishonourable, to brave the penalty of disobeying the royal command. That penalty was expulsion from the dominions of Naiton. The whole body of the northern clergy were driven across Drumalban by the king, and took up their abode in the territories of the Scots.1

No details are given us of this great exodus. Our historians do not seem to have discovered its importance, and they have dismissed it with a simple mention of the bare fact. It appears to us, on the contrary, to let in a flood of light on the state of the Scottish church and nation in the eighth century. It is one of the most significant, as it is undoubtedly one of the noblest epochs in the history of our early church. We witness with admiring surprise and profound thankfulness this grand sacrifice to conscience. We read in it a strength of a principle, a devotion to duty, and a readiness to do battle for the cause of truth, which attest the continued presence in the Church of Columba of a vigorous life, and a spirit of martyrdom. And farther, we can reason from the disinterestedness and devotion of the pastors to the piety and knowledge of the flocks which they fed. In the humble huts of the common people, whatever the lives led in the hall of mormaer, there must have been many beautiful examples of piety and virtue.

Though no details have been given, we can imagine the privations, the sacrifices, and the suffering which were necessarily attendant on an enforced banishment on a scale so large. The monastic fabrics—the houses, chapels, schools, which the first Columbite pastors who settle in these parts had reared with their own hands, the fields around their establishments reclaimed from the desert by their diligent cultivation, the youth who had grown up under their eye, and whom they had instructed in a knowledge of letters, the flocks whom they tenderly loved, the graveyards were those whom they had led into the way of life slept in hope of a better resurrection, from all these the persecuting edict of King Naiton forcibly parted them. The pain of leaving so many loved objects was followed by the hardships incident to forming new settlements in a distant and less hospitable part of the country. The more we reflect on what we now see taking place in Scotland, the more we are convinced that the Church of Columba was still a power in the land, and had yet some centuries of usefulness before it. A church capable of such an act of heroism deserved the love and doubtless received the reverence of the population.

The arrival of the northern Columbite exiles amid the western mountains of the Scots must have helped to strengthen the hands of those who in the territories lying to the west of Drumalban were seeking to stand on "the old paths." But their exodus must have sadly tended to the spiritual impoverishment of the northern and eastern portions of Scotland. We are not told to whom the deserted flocks turned for instruction after their pastors were driven across Drumalban. Possibly Naiton sent them clerics whose heads were shorn after the approved fashion if their qualifications were but slender. He might find such among the southern Picts, where Adamnan had founded some monasteries on a laxer basis, and where it is to be presumed his influence and spirit were more felt than in the territory of the northern Picts, which was the chief seat of the oldest Columban houses. The lands which had belonged to the exiled clergy would be seized by laymen, and their spiritual duties would be assigned to clerics who had conformed. This was what had taken place in a previous case of expulsion, but on a smaller scale. When the missionaries of Iona were expelled from Lindisferne, about eighty years before, their temporal possessions were appropriated by laymen who thrust in ignorant and immoral priests in their room, and the consequence was, as Bede informs us, an outbreak of frightful disorders in the abbey and convents of Northumbria.2 If we had had a Bede among the northern Picts to tell us what happened after the expulsion of the Columban clergy, in all probability we should have had the sad picture of Northumbria presented to us over again. We should have read of the ignorance and immorality, the careless shepherds and the famished flocks, which began henceforth to overspread Pictavia.

This we know, the civil confusions and troubles were immediately consequent upon the expatriation of the clergy by Naiton. There had been peace betwixt Pict and Scot for a century. The sword was sheathed when the conversion of the northern Picts by Columba made the two nations of one faith. But now came "war in the gates;" fierce battle began again to rage betwixt Pict and Scot, and the strife went on till the union of the two nations took place, when the sword was again returned to its scabbard, and the descendants of the Columban clergy who had been driven out by Naiton were invited to recross Drumalban, and resume their functions in what had been Pictavia, but was now Scotland,

We must turn for a few moments to another matter. The controversy respecting Easter is one of the more famous in ecclesiastical history. It was eminently one of the battle-grounds betwixt the Eastern and Western Churches in the early centuries. The controversy reached Scotland in the eighth century, having been brought hither by the Romanizers from Canterbury, who wished to impose their mode of celebration upon the Columban clergy. It was the door by which the followers of Columba would enter the great Western Church. But as the majority of the Columbites had no desire to be included in the pale, or to have any close connection with the Roman bishop, they declined compliance with a rite which was universally interpreted as a badge of Roman servitude. The controversy was therefore as hotly waged almost in Scotland as in the churches of Asia and Europe. It is necessary we should understand a little of the merits of this question.

All Christians commemorate the resurrection of our Lord when they observe the Sabbath or first day of the week as a day of sacred rest and holy worship. Many Christians account that, in the observance of the weekly Sabbath, they discharge all the obligations laid upon them in this matter in the New Testament. But since the second century the Church, in addition to this weekly celebration, has commemorated the resurrection of our Lord in a grand annual festival, after the example of the Jews, who kept their Passover once a year, in commemoration of their birth as a nation in their deliverance from Egyptians bondage. It was judged decorous that this festival should be observed by all Christian churches throughout the world on the same day. It was at this point that division and strife entered. The Eastern Church kept Easter on the same day on which the Jews had celebrated the Passover; that is, they kept it on the fourteenth day of the first moon after the vernal equinox, even though that day should be an ordinary weekday. The Western Church, on the other hand, observed Easter on a Sabbath, or first day of the week, that being the day on which our Lord rose, and never on a week-day. The first Sabbath after the fourteenth day of the vernal or paschal moon was the day of Western observance. The Eastern Church pleaded the example of the Jews, who kept the Passover only on the fourteenth of the month Nisan, but the Western Church refused the authority of that example, and denounced the oriental Christians for celebrating the resurrection on what they deemed the wrong day, as almost a heinous offenders as if they had denied the fact of the resurrection altogether. Conferences were held betwixt the Eastern and Western Churches, embassies were exchanged, excommunications were threatened, but the scandal of two different celebrations was not removed. The war went on till Constantine ascended the throne, and got a decree passed in the Council of Nice, ordaining that henceforth Easter should be observed East and West only on Sabbath, or first day of the week.3

Even yet perfect conformity was not attained. A new point emerged, which continued for some centuries to agitate all Christendom, and baffle all attempts to find a basis of adjustment. The authority of the Council of Nice could not control the laws that regulate the "times and seasons," and make the work in harmony with their decree. It required no great knowledge of the motions of the heavenly bodies to perceive that only once in a long cycle of years would the anniversary of our Lord’s resurrection fall on precisely the same day; and unless the "time" of Easter was made moveable, according to a rule, in exact correspondence with the planetary laws, Christians, whether in the East or in the West, could not have the satisfaction of thinking that oftener than once or twice in their lifetime it was in their power to celebrate Easter on the true day, and enjoy the fullness of its orthodox benefits. It might happen to them to be right once in a cycle of nineteen years, or once in a cycle of eighty-four years, but more than dared not hope for. How was the rule to be determined by which the churches were to walk? What cycle of years must elapse before the Easter full moon would fall on the same day?

The astronomical science at the service of the age was hardly sufficient to enable the men of that time to answer this question. Nevertheless,, repeated attempts were made to discover a cycle which should remove all discrepancies and unite the Church East and West in a grand celebration that should remove for ever this scandal. The Church of Rome thought she had discovered the basis of correct paschal celebration in a cycle of eight-four years. She followed this computation down to the sixth century. She found, however, after this long observance, that after all she was in error. The moons would not revolve according to her canon as they ought and would have done had her canon been infallibly accurate. But it was not infallibly accurate. The council which decreed the infallibility was as yet thirteen centuries below the horizon. The celebrations of the Eastern and Western Churches were not harmonised, nor the war betwixt them ended. Victor of Aquitane next approached the problem. He made trial of his skill in reconciling the Roman and Alexandrine methods of computation. He came nearer the mark than any of his predecessors, but even his canon of the paschal moons did not extinguish all discrepancies, nor reconcile the two churches. A solution, however, was not despaired of. In the year 567 Dionysius the Less drew up a paschal table on the basis of a nineteen years’ cycle, which had the merit of extinguishing all inaccuracies and discrepancies. It was accepted by Rome and the churches of the East, and from this time the war languished and finally expired, and now was seen the imposing spectacle of all Christians throughout the world keeping the festival of Easter on the same day, and bearing united testimony the great fact of the Resurrection of our Lord—the cornerstone of Christianity.

But there were certain benighted or obstinate men in the heretical North who still clung to their old customs, and walked contrary in this matter to the universal Church. The Scots had received their Christianity from the East, and along with it the "time" of Easter celebration. They were Quartodecimans, as the phrase was, that is, Fourteenth-day men. Their practices corresponded with the Paschal table of Anatolius, Bishop of Laodicea in Syria, who had, in the year 277, drawn up a canon on the basis of the nineteen years cycle in which the 19th March was considered as the vernal equinox.4 But this displeased that Church which now called herself the "mother and mistress of all Churches." She could not tolerate the slightest deviation from her own practice, and accordingly sent, as we have seen, her agents to the Scots, with her "scissors" in the one hand, and her "paschal tables" in the other, to impose upon them uniformity. Possible the Columban clergy would not have offered any very stout resistance to either the new "tonsure" or the new "Easter" had it not been for the sense which Roman put upon these matters. They were the symbols of submission, and therefore the "elders" of the Scots would not permit Rome to shear their heads, or to dictate to them in the matter of Easter. They had been free till now, and they would maintain their freedom. The battle betwixt Iona and Rome had come to centre here. These were the two articles of the rising or falling of the Columban Church. We have seen Colman, whom Bede acknowledges to have been "a great bishop, and an eloquent preacher," demit his office as abbot of Lindisferne, and his brother evangelists quit their mission fields in Northumbria rather than submit to these compromising customs. Rome followed them into their own country only to meet a like rebuff. When she issued her commands through King Naiton, we have seen the Pictish clergy rise up in a body and leave their country rather than own Rome as their mistress. When Adaman sought to draw the elders of Iona into these new paths, they at once repudiated his proposals, and disowned him as their abbot. When Egbert in 717 visited Iona on a like errand, hiding his dishonest purpose under a great show of sanctity, he prevailed, it is true, on the inmates of the monastery who had come to fill the places once occupied by worthier men, to conform to the Roman Easter, and, in two years after, to receive the coronal or Roman tonsure. Thus the paschal tables and the scissors of the Pope triumphed in the parent institution, but the victory here was of small account.

The sceptre had departed from Iona before these degenerate "elders" did obeisance to the Roman Bishop. Iona was no longer the guiding and governing power it had been in the sixth and seventh centuries. The real Iona—the life, the piety, the independence which the symbolic term "Iona" expressed--had passed over to the daughter institutions on the mainland, which stood upright when the parent institution fell. Iona was now a house divided against itself; it had two abbots, as Roman at time had two popes. The din of dissension was oftener heard within it than the chant of psalm. It sought to serve two masters by mingling the traditions of Columba with the customs of the Pope. It dragged out an unhonoured existence till the end of the century. Its abbots followed each other rapidly to the grave. Popish historians have toiled to discover and record their names. It is a fruitless labour in which we shall not follow them. Scotland owes these men nothing, and is willing to forget them. While the parent institution had become like a tree whose sap is dried up and whose leaf is withered, the branches that had shot out from it in its flourishing age were spreading wide and far over the kingdoms. In what land of northern Europe were the Culdee missionaries at that time not to be met with? Iona, the true Iona, was not the monastery, or the island, or the little company of "elders’ now wearing the Roman tonsure; it was the great army of preachers who were traversing France, and Germany, and the Rhine provinces, and invading even Italy, and maintaining a great and successful war against the pagan darkness from which certain of these countries had not yet emerged, as also against the papal darkness which was creeping over others. In giving this army of evangelists to Christendom, what a mighty service had Iona rendered to the world! For this end had Iona been raised up. Its work was not accomplished. Corruption had now seized upon the parent stock; and if it had become unsightly, and leafless, and had ceased to produce, who that remembered Columba, and the "elders" of Iona’s golden age, but would have said, "Let that defunct institution be removed from the sight of men." That fiat went forth to cut down the barren tree. Across the sea came the Viking to execute this sentence. He did so in cruel fashion as his manner was.

In 795 the Danes fell upon Iona and devastated it. In 802 their hordes returned, and it was burned to the ground. It was the original wooden monastery which Columba and his twelve companions had reared on their first arrival in the island that was now given t9o the flames. Four years later (806) the Danes paid Iona another visit and dealt it its final blow.5 On this occasion its whole community was put to the sword, and Abbot Cellach alone escaped to tell the people of Ireland that the famous monastery of Columba was fallen, was fallen, and now was nothing more than a heap of ashes.


FOOTNOTES

1. Chron. Picts and Scots, p. 74; A.D. 717. Expulsio familiae Ie trans dorsum Britanniae a Nectono reg. Skene’s Celtic Scotland, vol. ii. Pp. 117, 178.

2. Bede, Hist., i. 195.

3. Socrates, Hist. Eccl., i. 9; Eusebius, Vita Const., iii. 17.

4. Bellesheim’s History of the Catholic Church of Scotland, vol. i. 135 Edin., 1887.

5. Annals of Ulster, Ann. 806. "Familia Iae Occiasa est a gentibus."