A FORTNIGHT from today will see the 1500th anniversary of the birth of one of the most important people in Scottish history, St Columba of Iona.

Celebrations have already been going on across Scotland and Ireland, but the traditionally accepted date for his birth was December 7, 521, and last week and this I am telling the story of the saint as best as I can – given that he lived so long ago in the Dark Ages, a name first used in a Scottish context by the philosopher and historian Gilbert Burnet, born in Edinburgh in 1643. His use of the term provoked the humanist reaction that an Age of Enlightenment had dawned in Scotland in the 18th century.

The Dark Ages were “dark” because there were no great contemporary records and most of the accepted chronicles date from many centuries later. Unlike just about every other figure from the Dark Ages in Scotland, however, many of Columba’s deeds and quite a lot of his sayings were recorded in a biography, Life of Saint Columba, which was written in Latin by St Adomnán, ninth Abbot of the Iona monastery, in the century after Columba lived.

Today I will be quoting from the translation edited by William Reeves and published in Edinburgh by Edmonston and Douglas in 1874. It is still in print today.

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Unfortunately, Life is part-hagiography, part-chronicle and dubious in many respects such as the miracles claimed for Columba. That’s why there are a lot of possibles and probables in this article, and I will again be making some alternative suggestions about the legends and myths that surround Columba.

I left off last week with Columba embarking on the conversion to Christianity of the Picts, helped by the miracle of Loch Ness in which he banished a monster back into the loch – the first mention of Nessie anywhere, and maybe the reason why he or she stays in the dark depths of the loch. Well, would you go against the order of a saint?

That mission to the Picts was carried on by his followers based on Iona, but the monastery also sent monks to convert the other people of northern Britai – of whom the greatest and most influential was Aidan, an Irish man who was trained at Iona and went on to found Lindisfarne Priory, where he was the first bishop. Aidan was brought to Northumbria by King Oswald, who had also been educated at Iona. The Venerable Bede described how Aidan brought Iona’s Christian influence to what later became part of England.

It was a time of huge activity by Irish missionaries such as Columbanus – no relation – and his followers who founded Christian institutions across the Frankish empire, even into Italy itself. But it was Columba’s achievement in Scotland which I think helped to lay the foundations of modern Scotland.

Until Columba founded Iona’s monastery, there was no main centre of Christianity north of the Forth-Clyde line. Under Columba, who was no mean scribe himself, Iona became a centre of Christian literature and education, with monks transcribing many sacred works in illustrated manuscripts which were the marvels of their day and still are marvellous today – the legendary Book of Kells, now in Dublin’s Trinity College, may have been started on Iona and certainly shows Columban influence.

He may also have been the author of several hymns and seems most probably to have been the person who introduced plain chant into Scottish worship.

Even in the saint’s lifetime, Iona had become the most important place in what we now recognise as the Celtic Church, and its influence spread across Scotland and beyond, helping to forge the nation that would become Scotland.

We do not know how and why the Scoti of Dalriada and the Picts co-existed for centuries, but they did. It is only speculation, because the Picts left little of their language and history behind, but the fact that the two great tribes were both Christian from about 600 onwards could explain why there were no massive battles between them, at least none for which records survive.

There were Pict battles, but with other kingdoms such as the great Battle of Dun Nechtain or Nechtansmere in 685 when the Picts routed the Northumbrians and secured the future of their kingdom.

The Venerable Bede recounts: “The very next year [685AD], that same king [Egfrid], rashly leading his army to ravage the province of the Picts, much against the advice of his friends, and particularly of Cuthbert, of blessed memory, who had been lately ordained his bishop, the

enemy made show as if they fled, and the king was drawn into the straits of inaccessible mountains, and slain with the greatest part of his forces, on May 20, in the 40th year of his age, and the 15th of his reign.”

So the Christianised Picts beat the lately converted Northumbrians which would have pleased he monks on Iona – Egfrid had promised to impose Roman rites upon them.

A LATER battle perhaps better shows the influence of Columban Christianity on the Picts – Athelstaneford in 832.

Again the Northumbrians were the opponents, and we know it now as the battle which gave us the Saltire as our national flag. The Picts and Scots joined together for this battle, on the eve of which Pictish king Oengus II had a dream in which Saint Andrew told him he would win.

A white cross in the shape of an X appeared in the blue sky on the morning of the battle, and with Oengus II victorious thus the St Andrew’s Cross or Saltire became Scotland’s flag – one of the oldest, most continuously used flags of any nation on Earth. In the next decade after the battle, Scots and Picts united under King Kenneth MacAlpin. Would that have happened if the Picts had not been converted by Columba and his monks from Iona?

The National: 563 AD, Irish missionary Saint Columba (c. 521 - 597), known as the Apostle of Caledonia, sailing with his twelve disciples to the island of Iona on the west coast of Scotland563 AD, Irish missionary Saint Columba (c. 521 - 597), known as the Apostle of Caledonia, sailing with his twelve disciples to the island of Iona on the west coast of Scotland

Interestingly, that flag and the eventual adoption of St Andrew as national patron meant that Columba lost that title which he had long been accorded by many Scots. As early as 750 there were stories of relics of Columba being carried into battle by the Scots, possibly in the beautiful and fascinating object in the National Museum of Scotland, the Monymusk Reliquary which some identify as the Brechbennoch that was carried by the Scots at the Battle of Bannockburn – that is how much Scotland venerated Columba’s memory.

Part of the legacy of Columba was that after his death and burial on Iona, Iona became not just a place of pilgrimage but the burial place of kings. Columba was never canonised by the Pope, but in the Celtic Church there was a tradition of canonisation by acclamation and Columba was being hailed as a saint even before he died.

THERE was one incident which possibly disproves the legend of Columba being exiled far away so he could no longer see Ireland. Around the year 575, it was recorded that Columba took part in the council of Druim Cetta which settled the issue of Dalriada’s relationship to the king of Ireland. At that assembly, or perhaps on another occasion in Ireland, Columba spoke in favour of poets who were being persecuted by the Irish authorities. That is why he is often given the honorific Patron Saint of Poets.

His legacy to Scotland, Ireland and the world is vast. Iona remains a place of peace and pilgrimage, and there are many schools, colleges and religious institutions that bear his name.

Professor Alan Riach four years ago summed up Columba, and I have found no better description: “To scholarship, the life of Columba is documented to a certain extent, but its meaning is tantalising, suggestive, and invites literary interpretation and speculation.

“In various popular versions of Columba’s story, there is a convincing humility about the realisation of these missionary ideals, because the faith they invoke arises from human conflict, violence, remorse, penitence and a dedication to trying to make better the lives of others…”

Riach, like myself, believes Columba should be seen as a saint who bestrode the Irish Sea: “Columba, his church and the productions of Iona – including the Book of Kells (c.800s), that beautifully illuminated manuscript work now to be seen at Trinity College in Dublin – have sometimes been described as purely Irish. But Columba had to leave Ireland and be out of sight of it in order to begin his work, so once again we have to reclaim him as a figure who brings Ireland and Scotland together…

“Time and again, the story of Columba suggests a foundational myth: that of a kinship, a common quality of life, something that connects us all, across distances and differences, of language, territory, cultural forms.”

I will leave you with these two excerpts from Adomnan’s Life, telling how the Saint ended his days on Iona at the age of 75…

“While the saint, as I have said, bowed down with old age, sat there to rest a little, behold, there came up to him a white pack-horse, the same that used, as a willing servant, to carry the milk-vessels from the cow-shed to the monastery. It came up to the saint and, strange to say, laid its head on his bosom – inspired, I believe, by God to do so, as each animal is gifted with the knowledge of things according to the will of the Creator; and knowing that its master was soon about to leave it, and that it would see him no more – began to utter plaintive cries, and like a human being, to shed copious tears on the saint’s bosom, foaming and greatly wailing.

“The attendant seeing this, began to drive the weeping mourner away, but the saint forbade him, saying: ‘Let it alone, as it is so fond of me, let it pour out its bitter grief into my bosom.

“‘Lo! thou, as thou art a man, and hast a rational soul, canst know nothing of my departure hence, except what I myself have just told you, but to this brute beast devoid of reason, the Creator Himself hath evidently in some way made it known that its master is going to leave it.’ And saying this, the saint blessed the work-horse, which turned away from him in sadness…

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“The saint, as we have been told by some who were present, even before his soul departed, opened wide his eyes and looked round him from side to side, with a countenance full of wonderful joy and gladness, no doubt seeing the holy angels coming to meet him. Diormit (his attendant) then raised the holy right hand of the saint, that he might bless his assembled monks.

And the venerable father himself moved his hand at the same time, as well as he was able to do that as he could not in words, while his soul was departing, he might at least, by the motion of his hand, be seen to bless his brethren. And having given them his holy benediction in this way, he immediately breathed his last. After his soul had left the tabernacle of the body, his face still continued ruddy, and brightened in a wonderful way by his vision of the angels, and that to such a degree that he had the appearance, not so much of one dead, as of one alive and sleeping. Meanwhile the whole church resounded with loud lamentations of grief.”

The date was June 9, 597, and each year his feast day is celebrated on that date.

Might I suggest that the governments of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland dedicate St Columba’s Day to celebrating the many deep links between our three countries and to seeing how we can go forward together, preferably with Scotland once again an independent nation.