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General History of the Highlands
St. Columba

St. Columba was born in the country of Donegal in Ireland, in the year 521, and was connected both on his father's and mother's side with the Irish royal family. He was carefully educated for the priesthood, and, after having finished his ecclesiastical studies, founded monastries in various parts of Ireland. The year of his departure from Ireland is, on good authority, ascertained to have been 563, and it is generally said that he fled to save his life, which was in jeopardy on account of a feud in which his relations were involved. Mr Grub believes that "the love of God and of his brethren was to him a sufficient motive for entering on the great work to which he was called. His immediate objects were the instruction of the subjects of Conal, king of the British Scots, and the conversion of their neighbours the heathen Picts of the North". In the year 563, when Columba was 42 years of age, he arrived among his kindred on the shores of Argyle, and immediately set himself to fix on a suitable site for a monastry which he meant to erect, from which were to issue forth the apostolic missionaries destined to assist him in the work of conversion, and in which also the youth set apart for the office of the holy ministry were to be educated. St. Columba espied a solitary isle lying apart from the rest of the Hebridean group, near the south-west angle of Mull, then known by the simple name I, whose etymology is doubtful, afterwards changed by Bede into Hy, latinized by the monks into Iova or Iona, and again honoured with the name of I-columb-cil, the island of St. Columba of the church. This island, Conal, who was then king of the Christian Scots of Argyle, presented to Columba, in order that he might erect theron a monastry for the residence of himself and his disciples. No better station could have been selected than this islet during such barbarous times.

In pursuance of his plan, St. Columba settled with twelve disciples in Hy. "They now", says Bede, "neither sought, nor loved, anything of this world", true traits in the missionary character. For two years did they labour with their own hands erecting huts and building a church of logs and reeds. "The monastry of Iona, like those previously founded by Columba in Ireland, was not a retreat for solitaries whose chief object was to work out their own salvation; it was a great school of Christian eduction, and was specially designed to prepare and send forth a body of clergy trained to the task of preaching the Gospel among the heathen. Having established his missionary institution, and having occupied himself for some time in the instruction of his countrymen the Scots of Argyle, the pious Columba set out on his apostolic tour among the Picts, probably in the year 565. At this time Bridei or Brude, whose reign extended from 536 to 586, the son of Mailcon, a powerful and influential prince, reigned over the Northern Picts, and appears also to have had dominion over those of the south. Judging well that if he could succeed in converting Brude, who, when Columba visited him was staying at one of his residences on the banks of the Ness, the arduous task he had undertaken of bringing over the whole nation to the worsip of the true God would be more easily accomplished, he first began with the king, and by great patience and perseverance succeeded in converting him.

The first Gaelic entry in the Book of Deer lets us see the great missionary on one of his tours, and describes the founding of an important mission-station which became the centre of instruction for all the surrounding country. The following is the translation given of the Gaelic origional: "Columcille, and Drostan son of Cosgrach, his pupil, came from Hi, as God had shown to them, unto Abbordoboir, and Bede the Pict was mormaer of Buchan before them, and it was he that gave them that town in freedom for ever from mormaer and toisech. They came after that to the other town, and it was pleasing to Columcille because it was full of God's grace, and he asked of the mormaer, to wit Bede, that he should give it to him; and he did not give it, and a son of his took an illness after [or in consequence of] refusing the clerics, and he was nearly dead [lit. he was dead but if it were a little]. After this the mormaer went to entreat the clerics that they should make prayer for the son, that health should come to him; and he gave in offering to them from Cloch in tiprat to Cloch pette meic Garnait. They made the prayer, and health came to him. After that Columcille gave to Drostan that town, and blessed it, and left as (his) word, 'Whosoever should come against it, let him not be many-yeared [or] victorious'. Drostan's tears came on parting from Columcille. Said Calumcille, 'Let Dear be its name henceforth'".

The Abbordoboir here spoken of is Aberdour on the north coast of Aberdeenshire, and Dear probably occupied the site of what is now Old Deer, about twelve miles inland from Aberdour. There is every reason for believing in the substancial truth of the narrative. The two saints, probably from the banks of the Ness, came to Aberdour and "tarried there for a time and founded a monastry on the land which had been franted them. In later times the parish church of Aberdour was dedicated to St. Drostan". One would almost be inclined to suppose, from the manner in which the missionaries were apparently received, that Chrisianity had been heard of there before; possibly Bede the Pictish mormaer had been converted at the court of King Brude, and had invited Columba to pay him a visit in Buchan and plant the gospel among the inhabitants. Possibly St. Ninian, the apostle of the southern Picts, may, during his mission among them, have penetrated as far north as Buchan. On the side of the choir of the old parish church of Turriff, a few miles west of Deer, was found painted the figure of St. Ninian, which was probably as old as the 16th century. At all events, Columba and his companion appear to have been made most welcome in Buchan, and were afforded every facility for prosecuting their sacred work. The above record doubtless gives us a fair notion of Columba's mode of procedure in prosecuting his self-imposed task of converting the inhabitants of Alba. As was the case in Buchan, he appears to have gone from district to district along with his missionary companions, see the work of conversion fairly begun, planted a monastry in a suitable place, and left one or more of his disciples as resident missionaries to pursue the work ofconversion and keep Christianity alive in the district.

Coumba soon had the happiness of seeing the blessings of Christianity diffusing themselves among a people who had hitherto sat in the darkness of paganism. Attended by his disciples he traversed the whole of the Pictish territories, spreading everywhere the light of faith by instructing the people in the truths of the Gospel. To keep up a succession of the teachers of religion, he established, as we have seen, monasteries in every district, and from them issued, for many ages, men of apostolic earnestness, who watered and tended the good seed planted by Columba, and carried it to the remotest parts of the north of Scotland and its islands, so that, in a generation or two after Columba, Christianity became the universal religion. These monastries or cells were long subject to the Abbey of Iona, and the system of church government which proceeded from that centre was in many respects peculiar, and had given rise to much controversy between presbyterians and episcopalians.

St. Columba died on the 9th of June 597, after a glorious and well-spent life, thirty-four years of which he had devoted to the instruction of the nation he had converted. His influence was very great with the neigbouring princes, and they often applied to him for advice, and submitted to him their differences, which he frequently settled by his authority. His memory was long held in reverence by the Scots and Caledonians.

Conal, the fifth king of the Scots in Argyle, the kinsman of St. Columba, and under whose auspices he entered on the work of conversion, and to whom it is said he was indebted for Hy, died in 571. His successor Aidan went over to Iona in 574, and was there ordained and inaugurated by the Abbot according to the ceremonial of the liber vitreus, the cover of which is supposed to have been encrusted with crystal.

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