I cross the Scottish border and come to the dwelling of a poet – I visit Whithorn where St. Ninian built a White Church, follow St. Kentigern to Glasgow and sail to the island of St. Columba.
The earliest reference to Christianity in Britain is Tertullian`s unadorned statement that the Gospel had been preached here in the second century. More than a hundred years later comes the shadowy figure of Alban, the Roman soldier who was martyred at Verulam, and after that, silence for nearly a century. Then, just before the close of the Roman occupation a missionary, a native of Britain, arrived in Soithern Scotland. This was Ninian, the first apostle to these lands whose name history has remembered.
Ninian arrived at Whithorn on the southern tip of Galloway when the legions still manned the Roman Wall. He was the son of a native chief, born on the Solway Firth and taken to Rome as a hostage in 370 by the Emperor Theodosius. Whether he was baptized before he left his home is unknown, but in the imperial city, where Christianity was the dominant religion, flourishing amid the decaying temples of the dying pagan world, he is said to have been consecrated a bishop by the pope in 394, and sent back to his home to preach the Faith, staying for a time in Gaul.
Here, as in Rome, paganism was fast losing its hold on the people, and that spiritual giant of the fourth century, Martin of Tours, was at the height of his influence and power. Martin provided Ninian with masons, and at Whithorn, which in 397 was still a Roman military station of importance, they built a stone church. To the native Picts, who were accomstomed only to mud and wattle huts, it was a continuing astonishment; they called it the White Church, Candida Casa, a title preserved in the Saxon name of Whithorn, for `horn` or `hern` is Saxon for `house`.
At Whithorn, Ninian gathered together a community of monks who travelled round the coast in little wickerwork coracles, preaching in the Pictish villages. St. Aelred of Rievaulx, who wrote Ninian`s life in the twelfth century, explains that a coracle is `a vessel framed of twigs in the form of a cup, of such a size that it can contain three men sittingclose together. By stretching an oxhide over it they render it not only buoyant, but actually impenetrable to water.` These primitive craft are still in use today by the salmon wardens of Cardigan, though I think they would hesitate before venturing out to the open sea as did the disciples of Ninian and Columba.
Latterly, the saint seems to have retired to a cave at Glasserton where he gave himself to prayer; at kirkmaiden an ancient cave-chapel may be seen to which his name is attached. He died in 432 and was buried before the altar of his church.
Aelred tells how, on his arrival in Galloway, he was opposed by a Pictish king named Tuduvallus, but converted him when he healed him of a sickness. Other miracles are told of him: how he restored to life a man who had been disembowelled by a bull which he had attempted to steal; how a blind girl had her sight restored, and how, like Aldhem and Germanus, he gave a week-old baby the power of speech that it might acquit an unfortunate priest who had been claimed as its father. And there is a quaint story which recounts that one rainy day he sat beside a road to read and he and his book remained dry except when he allowed his thoughts to wander from his meditation, being `tickled by a suggestion of the devil`. His bell was preserved at Edinburgh until recent times, and tradition credits him with the foundation of a second church at Stirling.
The Picts to whom he went were of the same racial stock as the British, but they had been uninfluenced by Roman civilization. They were a pastoral people, hunting the deer, the bear, the wolf and the salmon, curing pelts for sale in Ireland, which they frequently visited, and living in crude, circular huts. They worshipped the sun, under the leadership of Druid priests, and their ancient weapons were sometimes so made that, laid on a flat surface, they would spin only in a sun-wise direction. The army which the Welshman Vortigen led against Hengist was probably composed of both Picts and Britons.
Dumbarton, claimed as the birthplace of both Patrick and Gildas the historian, was the capital of Pictish Scotland, and their territory included Strathclyde, which embraced the Lake District and which was still under Scottish rule in Norman times. They were a tribal people, ruled like the Celts, by petty kings who paid homage to the High King.
The disciples of Ninian spread to Ireland and Wales, Cadoc of Caerwent being of their number, and David is said to have been baptized by another, St. Paldy, who was an old man and nearly blind. Both Paulinus and Cuthbert visited Whithorn, and Bede records that the latter founded a rival church at Kirkcudbright, apparently because Ninian`s monastery obeyed the Celtic reckoning of Easter. In 730 the Saxon Church forced the Pictish Church to adopt the Roman reckoning, and a party of monks, refusing to obey, sought refuge in the vivinity of Loch Lomond where the mother of one of them, St. Kentigema, lived as an anchorite until her death in 734.
Bede says that Naitan, king of the Picts, in 710 sent for Ceolfrid, the abbot of Jarrow, to convert his people to the Roman tradition, promising that `he and all his people would always follow the custom of the Holy, Roman, Apostolic Church, as far as their remoteness from the Roman language and nation would allow`. Ceolfrid replied with a long and detailed letter of instruction which Naitan forced his subjects to obey, driving many of the native priests into exile on their refusal to acquiesce, a fact which Bede, in his enthusiasm for the Roman triumph, refrains from mentioning.
Whithorn is situated on the extreme southern tip of the Wigtown peninsula, opposite the Mull of Galloway. As I stood in the shadow of Carlisle Castle it seemed a very long way off, but good fortune was with me, and the first lorry I hitched was carrying stone to Dumfries. There was a broad, free road which ran to Annan, where meditative cows stood knee-deep in the clear river, and the houses were built of warm, red stone. An old tinker-woman, sucking a stub of clay pipe, drove a donkey harnessed to a miniature covered wagon, and just across the border was a white finger-post which said GRETNA GREEN: ½ MILE/.8km. the hay-stacks were beehive-shaped, and cosy, white-eashed cottages nestled in the dark trees which marched beside the road; beyond were purple hills and a great mountain whose paek was lost in cloud.
Dumfries is a sleepy town, as friendly as a glow of fire on a tempestruous day. Like Annan, all its houses are made of that warm, attractive stone, and the RiverNith is clear as crystal. Where my driver left me there was a house of old, worn stones where Robert Burns died in 1796; he is buried nearby in the churchyard.
In the west of Scotland men worship Robby Burns as though he were a god; their faces light up on the mention of him and their whole beings glow with affection for his memory. It is the strangest thing in the world, making an Englishman feel a trifle envious, wishing that Shakespeare had won as sure a place in the hearts of his own countrymen. But no other part of Britain has a god to rival Burns. Yet he was a bawdy poet, and some of his work is crudity personified. One imagines that his popularity was due to a combination of two circumstances: it was a reaction to the harsh prudery and Puritanism of John Knox, who was the very contrary of Burns in his stern disapproval of the pleasures of the flesh, his harsh denunciation of all that is feminime, and his total lack of appreciation of the beauties of the natural world. To Knox, God was a passionless and icy-hearted monarch form, the mystey of hills, the scent of heather, the body of a woman, which did not cry to the yearning in men`s hearts.
Not long before he wrote there had been, too, a handsome boy, with auburn hair, who came secretly to the Highlands to rouse the clans against the House of Hanover. The ill-starred rebellion of Bonnie Prince Charlie remains among the more pathetic tragedies of history. With that slim, romantic figure fleeing away in a French frigate, vowing to come back but never again receiving opportunity, died the heart of Scotland and something of the yearning frustration in the soul of the Scot was touched by Burns and answered. It was as though his poetry were an escape from the black memories of the might-have-beens, and men found in him expression for the bitter hunger which Prince Charlie left behind.
And fare thee weel, my only luve,
And fare thee well a-while,
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho` it were ten thousand mile.
After lunch I travelled down a valley filled with trees to Castle Douglas, where rich pasturelands roll up to the blue-violet of the hills and a river dances half angrily across pebbles faintly gold. Huge goats were tethered on the grass verge beside the road, and there was a blue lake haloed with dark conifers. We went through Kirkcudbright, where St. Cuthbert is said to have built his church and the Gatehouse of Fleet where once more we met the sea. The land was rougher here, more primitive, and the moor crouched on the borders of the fields as though waiting darkly the first opportunity to seize them back again. Beyond Newton Stewart, a blue-eyed Scotsman, collecting Italian prisoners from the farms, took me to Wigtown. At one farm we had to wait a long time and one of the prisoners stood up and cried, “Presto! Presto!” impatiently to his tardy comrade.
Wigtown reminded me of a Durham mining village. It had the same sad, grey rows of cottages, the men grouped on the street corners, the inevitable bowling-green. Waste paper fluttered round a dingy, concrete bandstand, and on a dilapidated court two girls played exceedingly bad tennis. But its trade is not mining, it is agriculture, and the peninsula boasts some of the richest soil in Scotland.
It was late evening when I caught the last bus` to Whithorn. Men and women were still working in the fields, although the light had nearly gone and a sea of mist lapped about their waists; as we passed they straightened themselves and waved, but when I tried to speak to a pale little girl who sat beside me she dropped her eyes and moved reproachfully to another seat.
At the beginning of the Fourth century there was born in Hungary a boy who was to become the outstanding figure in the European Church. Martin was the son of a Roman soldier, and the early years of his life were spent in Italy where his father was stationed. Both his parents were pagans, and at the age of ten they frustrated his desire to become a Christian, but he was baptized six or seven years later when he was conscripted for the army with the sons of other veterans.
During the three years of his conscription occurred the famous incident of the beggar. The legion was entering a captured town on a bitter winter`s day; beside the gate crouched a shivering, ragged creature asking for alms, and Martin, torn with pity for his misery, took off his heavy, red soldier`s cloak, cut it in half with his sword and tossed one part to the beggar, no doubt amid the mocking laughter of his fellows. Than night in a dream he received a vision of Christ clothed in the half-cloak: `Inasmuch as ye did it unto the least of thee. . .`
At the age of twenty, freed from military service, Martin went to Gaul, where he met St. Hilary of Poictiers, who vainly endeavoured to persuade him to accept deacon`s orders. Instead, he returned to Italy to convert his parents and succeeded in persuading his mother to become a Christian. On the way he was captured by robbers in the Alps, the leader of whom he is said to have converted, but ultimately he was practically chased out of Italy by the Arian heretics.
In 360 he founded his first monastery in Gaul, and eleven years later was consecrated Bishop of Tours, very much against his will, being enveigled out of his house by a bogus request to minister to a dying woman. His election to the bishopric met with some opposition because he was of `mean and unkempt appearance`, but when he died at the age of eighty it is said that two thousand monks followed his coffin to the grave
He was the great evangelist of Gaul. When he lived paganism still flourished, especially in the remoter districts, and he called men to a severe and ascetic life of Christian discipline, founding numerous monasteries. It is possible that he met and influenced the youth Patrick, who may have been related to him; it is certain that he inspired Ninian. The building of the Candida Casa had just been completed when the news of Martin`s death reached Whithorn, and so to him Ninian dedicated his church.
In the early centuries churches were often dedicated to their founders, and St. Martin`s Church at Canterbury may also have owed its erection to the Bishop of Tours. It is even possible that he visited Kent personally. He was the intimate acquaintance of the Bishop Emperor Maximus, and from him no doubt he enquired the state of religion in this country. Incidentally, it is recorded that on one occasion, having cause to visit the Emperor Valentinian whose wife objected to the bishop, Valentinian refused to rise to greet him, whereupon the seat of the throne burst into flames and forced him to his feet.
Whithorn consists of a single long, wide street edged with humble stone cottages, leading to rough meadowlands where a salt breeze comes northward up the straggling road from the hummocked Isle of Whithorn, and half-a-mile/.8km towards the sea there is the turning to Glasserton where Ninian had his cave. There is a rough and quite undescribable beauty about this one grey street and the meadows beyond, with their geese and cows and gulls. It is a road which beckons insistently, haunted by a quiet freedom and the hunger of the distant sea.
Half-way up the street is an archway which is built of the remnants of the old Priory Gateway, destroyed by Cromwell, and dating back before the union, for the shield above it is sculptured with twin unicorns and no lion. Beyond there is an untidy forest of Victorian grave-stones, and a roofless church entered by a much defaced Norman doorway. Even the interior has not escaped the desecration of ugly tomb-stones.
West of the church are the poor remains of other buildings, the masonry long ago carried off by the villagers so that a gargoyle or a quaintly carved stone will suddenly appear above the window or doorway of a modern cottage.
A charming Scottish lady admitted me to the little museum, apologizing for her hands which were white with flour, for I had caught her in the act of baking, and telling me sadly of the abominable treatment which St. Ninian`s cave has received from visitors, so that now it must be locked and barred.
“It were a proper disgrace,” she said. “Noo, ye canna do that an` come to any guid, can ye noo?”
Relics of the Bronze Age were found in the cave, stone axe heads, spindle whorls and hammer heads, showing that it was inhabited in prehistoric times, long before the missionary came. There are still tales in Scotland of the pixie folk who inhabit lonely caves in the mountains, emerging to graze their tiny cattle or to steal a baby for a slave. When the Gaels and Britons seized our islands in the dim ages of the past they drove the small, dark Iberian natives into the distant safety of the mountains of these primitive cave dwellers.
Afterwards the lady took me underground to the crypt of the priory, where water dripped dismally in the shadows and tiny stalactites hung suspended from the roof. The priory dates from the twelfth century; of Ninian`s church no sign remains. Some say that it did not stand at Whithorn at all, but on the Isle where a thirteenth-century chapel is supposed to occupy the site. But in the museum are two stones connected with his monastery of `Latinus aged 35 and his daughter aged 4`, and dates from Ninian`s own time, and a second pillar, found beside the road out of Whithorn, is carved with a cross within a circle and the words `The place of St. Peter the Apostle`, and belongs to the eighth century, a memorial of the monastery`s conversion to the Roman reckoning of Easter.
Later, when I went north again, the trees were gold and brown and red, the far hills slashed with the varied purples of the heather and greens of every shade, and outside Wigtown was a cottage garden ablaze with snapdragons as though a brilliant rainbow lay shattered on the grass.
“Dinna ye go far up the road,” my driver advised me when I told him that I was aiming now for Ayr. “The way to Girvan be that desolate, without a hoose or a shepherd`s shack for miles. If it`s a hitch ye`ll be taking, don` ye let him put doon halfway there. Go all the way to Bar Hill or not at all.”
But I did not follow his advise, and my first car took me only to Bargrennan along a shaded road beside the placid, winding Cree, the finest salmon river in Scotland, and through a royal evenue of scarlet rowans up to the russet majesty of moor where, after he had gone, I might have been the only human being in the world. But later another car appeared, and then a pleasant District Nurse and the driver of a Pool lorry combined to take me into Girvan.
Girvan lies contentedly in the shade of folded hills. A tiny white pier juts into the misty sea, and the quiet roads along the waterfront is splashed with flower beds, green and yellow in the sun. In the fields then earth is red as blood and across the quiet expanse of sea the shape of Ailsa Crag rises against the skyline.
I shared a small lorry with a youth to Maybole, lying on top of piled hay while he told me how once he had dived into a deep still pool and slain a sixteen-pound/7.2kg salmon with a jack-knife. From Maybole I went into Ayr by bus`. We were very crowded and the conductor said that he could not accommodate the past passenger in the queue.
“Hoch!” cried a girl, “an` is that hoo ye treat the workers noo?”
“He`s only a wee fellar,” added another.
“Weel noo, Jock,” said the conductor, “if ye satn` ver` quiet maybe I`ll noo notice ye.”
And then a man suddenly seized my arm and cried, “Look noo, mon: Robby Burns` birthplace!” Beside the roadway a small white cottage nestled shyly under trees.
Next morning a lorry took me into Irvine, and after an hour`s walk a gentleman stopped his car and asked me if I wanted a lift to Glasgow. It was still early when I hurried out of that great city, glad to be rid of its trams and docks and traffic; but had I known then, as I discovered later, that the crypt of the cathedral contains the relics of St. Kentigern most certainly I would have paused to see them.
The life of Kentigern was written by Joceline, a monk of Furness Abbey, in the eleventh century, but in it history and myth are jumbled together in hopeless confusion.
Kentigern was born in 573. He was known affectionately as Mungo, `the darling`, a nickname long preserved in a Scottish proverb, `Like Mungo`s work. It is never done`. As in the case of many Celtic saints, he was an illegitimate child, his mother being the Christian daughter of a pagan king who, discovering her condition, ordered her to be put to death. However, she miraculously escaped and her child was adopted by a monk named Severus who kept a school at Dumbarton. Here Kentigern gained favour by restoring the cook to life, for `it was not easy to find another like him (the cook) for such a service`. But the other scholars were jealous of him and tried to bring him into disfavour with their master. Once, when a pet robin kept by Severus was handled so roughly that its head was torn off, they blamed Kentigern, but he brought the bird back to life.
He was a robust, cheerful man, dressed in leather cassock and cowl and white alb, and his first monastery, a community of separate cells, was founded at Glasgow, then a village of rude huts in a deep forest. From here he travelled among the southern Picts preaching the Faith, fleeing once to Wales to the protection of St. David when a hostile chieftain banished him from Scotland. St. Asaph`s Cathedral owes its foundation to him, being named after the disciple whom he left to care for it when he returned to Scotland, having gathered together a community of a thousand monks. The Vale of Clywd in which St. Asaph`s stands may derive its name from the Clyde which Kentigern had left behind.
He was recalled to Scotland by King Rederech, who elected him bishop and paid him homage. Many miracles are attributed to him. Once, when his monastery lacked seed, he sowed sand and wheat obediently sprang up; on another occasion he yoked a wolf and a stag to his plough when the wolf had slain the other stag which customarily drew it. The true facts of his life are much obscured by such legends, but it is certain that he was working in Southern Scotland and the Lake District at the same time as Columba was living in Iona, and many churches in Cumberland are dedicated to him.
Joceline says that he died lying in a warm bath and his monks were so anxious not to be separated from him that, one by one, they lay in the water and died with him. It is probable that he was a Briton by birth. His father, Oswaine, slew the Saxon chieftain Ida of Northumberland, and Glasgow station is named after his mother, St. Ternoc.
Now I left Glasgow by way of Dumbarton, travelling to Loch Lomond. The first sight of the Loch is intensely disappointing. There is a huddle of cafe`s, an omnibus terminus, and all the paraphernalia connected with cheap excursions and bank Holiday trippers. But some hours later, when the lorry in which I travelled put me down at the Tarbet Hotel, the scene had changed completely. I had left humanity behind. For fifteen miles/24km I walked along the lonely lakeside road, meeting only two ladies and a shepherd, the trees all burnished with autumnal tints, the silent waters lying pale blue in the sunlight and the banks garlanded with ferns and blackberry bushes, the fruit so large and ripe that at the slightest touch it fell off – plomp! – into the carpeting leaves. Hump-backed isles were crowned with fairy trees, and, high above, the mightiness of Ben Lomond held its great head among the clouds. Once a shower broke out of the sky, dark clouds skidding momentarily between the brooding hills and then waters rippling as though stirred by some sinister monster lying hidden in the darkened pools. At the end of the Loch an angry waterfall cascaded furiously across the rocks, tumbling out of the far hills where it shone like a silver ribbon in the sun, and a sapphire dragon-fly darted swiftly across my path. Farther on there was another waterfall, angrier than the last, a bridal veil of foam, pouring into the river to settle in the black repose of shaded pools. Then, unexpectedly, the glen descended and broke on to the confusion of a railway shunting yard and the untidiness of Crianlarch.
After tea I caught the omnibus, and we drove into the shadows of the darkening world, flood-lit at first by the red-gold of the setting sun, ferns and conifers gilded in innumerable shades and the silent mountains painted dull bronze and liquid gold. A crescent moon, delicate as spun glass, floated across the blue-black curtain of the sky, touching the waters of Loch Awe with streaks of silver and dancing ripples of dark and palest blue. And so we came to Oban with the night.
Next morning gay sunshine promised a fair and settled day. Oban hugged the placid water of its harbour as a mother might embrace her child. Beyond the low, embattled wall lay a huddle of small steamers, yachts, tugs and motor launches, the quay piled with mail-bags and an assortment of crates and boxes, while on the hills which hem the little town winked the unglazed windows of a roofless, circular building, a travesty of a Greek theatre, called McCraig`s Folly, the senseless memorial of a gentleman now deceased. There was a multitude of gulls on the water and, oddly, two or three very superior-looking swans. Southwards, where the trees crept guiltily to the shore, the ruins of Dunollis Castle were perched upon the granite cliff, keeping watch upon the sea-road to Lismore and Loch Linnhe. All the horizon was hemmed in with purple hills, as though one stood within a vast cup, velvet-lined, and even the harbour seemed to be blocked by the slender island of Kerrera.
A tiny grey steamer took us out to Mull, when the crane at the waterside had loaded bags of mail, sides of beef sewn in hessian, cardboard boxes of bread and oddments of more personal luggage. We queued for tickets. The lady in front of me booked for Tobermory – visions of Saki`s immortal cat! – and I for Craignure. Bright sunshine sparkled on the water, tinting the hills with shadowed greens and purples, pinks and golds, and a scarlet bouy bounced gaily on our flank. Ahead the mountains of Morven were crowned with fleecy clouds, and a slender lighthouse on the tip of Lismore flashed more in welcome than on warning. Always the gulls wheeled about us, white flashes against the black smoke of passing tugs, and the toy castle of Duart beckoned us to Mull. A ferry came out to meet us, and later, when the boat had gone and I and the only other passenger had landed at Craignure, we helped to carry the cargo to the waiting omnibus, a miniature vehicle with seats only for ten passengers.
The drive to Iona Ferry takes two and half hours, jolting and lurching along a rough, unwalled road which is sometimes two mere ruts carved across the moor. More than once we must stop for the shaggy Highland cattle, with pointed, sweeping horns, to move out of our way, and when we encountered a herd of ponderous black bulls, a young stag, its coat mottled fawn and brown, rose out of the deep ferns barely ten yards/9.1m off, stood regarding us with solemn, startled eyes and then turning, bounded gracefully away.
Down the whole length of Glen more I do not think we passed any habitation, but at the head of Loch Seridain we met a tiny car which relieved us of the mail for Salen and then went crawling like a pale blue fly across the marshland into the shadow of Ben more. Now there were cottages, a ram or two with heavy, twisted horns, and washing hanging out to dry, and a rowing-boat rocked quietly on the sapphire waters of the Loch. We paused again at Pennyghael to deliver mail to the corrugated iron post-office, and later, before we reached Bunessan, there was a wonderous view of the buest sae that I have ever seen; Staffa, hiding Fingal`s Cave, lay only, it seemed, a little distance from the shore, and farther out the Dutchman`s Cap was a gigantic hat floating on the calm Atlantic. At each village the inhabitants turned out to meet us, greeting the driver in the soft music of their native Gaelic, and when at last we reached Iona Ferry a sleek black collie leaped into the bus` and bade us welcome with much wagging of its tail.
While they carried the remaining packages to the small ferry which was waiting I jumped down on the the shore beside the quay. The sand was pale silver, fine as dust, and across incredibly blue waters lay the tiny island of my quest. So often when one has looked forward to a meeting there is a consciousness of disappointment in the face of the reality, but now it was not so. Never in my rosiest dreams had I imagined a beauty so perfect as I now beheld. The sapphire of that wonderful sea, the pink rock of Iona and the silver of the sands on which I stood combined to form a picture exquisite beyond description. I wanted to cry or shout or sing; I wanted to kneel down or even dance – anything to relieve the intense emotion of this sacred moment. Here on these sands other pilgrims had stood fourteen centuries ago, guided across Mull by the granite pillars which still stand sometimes beside the road, and here they had shouted across Iona Sound to Columba`s monks to come and ferry them over. This I knew, was the climax of my pilgrimage, and it was all that I had hoped for and much more beside.
In the year 521 amid the wild hills of Donegal a boy was born to the ruling family of kings, the Hy Neills. They named him Wolf, or Crimthann, but when his parents brought him to Baptism the priest changed his name to Colum, meaning Dove, and later, when he went to the monastic school where he showed himself a devout and intelligent student, the scholars called him Columcille, Colum of the Church, because he loved the life of prayer and worship. It was almost inevitable that he should become a monk under the influence of his two teachers both named Finnian, the one a product of the monastery at Whithorn and the other a disciple of St. David. It is possible that by taking vows Columba, to use his more familiar name, renounced his claim to the throne. The northern Hy Neills were the high Knigs of Ireland, a country, a country which was soon to blossom forth as the most cultured and intellectual in the civilised world, and the family claimed overlordship of all the petty kings. But if this is so Columba was not thereby renouncing power and influence, for the monks of his day, acting as the statesman, the educationalists, and the social leaders of their time, swaying the policy of the throne and gaiding the destiny of the nation, with, perhaps, even deeper effect than any king.
As he grew to manhood, tall, grey-eyed, with curly hair and a kindly but impulsive character, Columba developed into a personality typical of his people. His was not a simple personality and without the sympathy of affection it is impossible to understand or appreciate him. In his nature opposing forces struggled and fought throughout his life, never reaching ultimate harmony, the one dominating him always at the cost of hard, interior warfare. Seen at his worst, he was a crafty and scheming statesman, incapable of the discipline of humble discipleship, but demanding freedom of self-expression and liberty to expand his vocation in his own very individual manner. Yet the harshness in him was off-set by his self-imposed discipline and by his passionate following of the Christ. Seen at his best, he was a poet, intensely emotional, almost agonizingly aware of the beauty of creation, capable of ardent friendship and terrible sacrifices. In this he reflected the spirit of the Irish Church, with its appalling penances and torturing fasts, its unwearing love of human souls in their frailty and nobility, its fierce, grim curses and tender yearning to redeem a lost creation from its sin, its lovable simplicity of faith. Columba cannot be judged by any single aspect of his character, any one fact of his life; in him titanic forces met and strained against each other; always there was struggle in his soul. He was a man capable of great evil or great good, but never was he capable of compromise or a life of mediocre piety. His was a very human saintliness, the more valuable because his holiness – imperfect, as all human holiness must be – was won at such stupendous and pain-racking cost.
In middle age he had cause to visit his old master, Finnian, who was living in the south of Ireland. He found him studying Jerome`s new translation of the Psalms, and Columba`s intellect, always hungry for books in a world where books were rare and very precious, earnestly desired to possess a copy. But he knew how highly manuscripts were prized and how grudgingly loaned to others. Not daring to ask if he might borrow the book for fear of almost certain refusal, he entered the library by night and made a copy of his own. The work was arduous and must have taken many weeks. Just as he finished it Finnian discovered him and, furious at his deception, took from him both book and copy. Columba appealed to Diarmit, King of the south Hy Neills, and Diarmit gave judgement against him: “To every cow belongs its calf; to every book its copy.” Already the king was in the saint`s disfavour, for a youth Curran had killed a man in a fit of temper at a hurling match and afterwards sought sanctuary in Columba`s church, but Diarmit had refused to respect the right of sanctuary, dragged the boy away and executed him.
Now Columba returned north in a fury of ill-temper and poured out his indignation before the King of the north Hy Neills. No doubt he had a sympathetic audience, for he himself was of royal blood. The result was that the Battle of Culdreimhne was fought in 561 and won by the supporters of Columba. Diarmit brought Druid priests to aid him, and the struggle had a religious significance. At the end three thousand lay dead upon the field and Diarmit was utterly routed. For many centuries the O`Donnells carried the disputed copy of the Psalms into battle as a talisman.
What happened afterwards is obscure. It seems certain that Columba was torn with remorse for the tragic death-roll which had been the culmination of his quarrel. It is possible that he retired into voluntary exile or he may have fled from Ireland on the discovery that his individualism must have scope and freedom. That he was judged by a synod and banished seems questionable, since later he returned to Ireland and appears to have been treated with respect. Whatever the cause, he went away, his heart torn with home-sickness which he never completely overcame. For long there was a flat rock in Donegal on which he was supposed to have been born, and Irishmen emigrating to England or America believed that by sleeping on it they would conquer sickness in their hearts when they saw the last of Ireland. Be that as it may, the dividing waters are haunted by the great spirit of a man who loved his native land with an ardent and enduring passion.
`Carry my blessing acoss the sea
Carry it to the West;
My heart is broken in my breast.
If death comes to me suddenly
It will be because of the great love that I bear to the Gael.`
Yet Columba did not journey to a foreign land of strange faces and unfamiliar ways. In 498 a party of his kinsfolk had emigrated to Pictland/Scotland and founded the colony of Dalriada around Oban, Loch Linnhe and the Isle of Mull. In 560, three years before Columba sailed with twelve companions, the Picts had defeated these Scots – as the Irish were called – and driven them almost into the sea. The Picts were pagans, worshipping the sun, keeping high festival on Hallow`en and Beltane, the feast of fertility of which our May Queen is a survival. Their religion was not of the debased variety as in Gaul, and they did not practice human sacrifice, but their wizards regarded the Christian missionaries with hostility as rival Druids. Columba in his contact with these Druids, did not deny their power nor the reality of their gods; he asserted only that his God was the stronger. “My Druid – may He be on my side – is the Son of God.”
It is said that he vowed now that he would only rest beyond the sight of Ireland lest the yearning for his homeland undermine the determination of his purpose and that Iona was the first land which he touched which fulfilled that condition. But I suspect that that is only fable. More probably he sailed directly for Iona, driving from its shore two Druids priests who had disguised themselves as Christian bishops, and undoubtledly the motives which led him there were mixed. He came as a monk to found a religious community to preach Christ, his Druid. The island he called Hy after his family`s name, and the later name of Iona is due to a copyist`s error commited long ago. And on Iona he remained for two years, building his monastery, before ever he ventured to the mainland.
The ferry, loaded with provisions, danced. Dipping and curtseyed, across the Sound, over the blue, clear waters which a passing cloud might tint suddenly with green, gulls swerving, diving, soaring and gliding about us in an ecstasy of welcome, and the flat, green island, backed by its one miniature hill, drawing closer every minute so that now we could see clearly the single street of white cottages, the squat cathedral, recently restored, the ruins of the Benedictine monastery, the snubby quay pushing itself out to meet us.
At the southern extremity of the island is a little bay where the beach is shrewn with coloured pebbles worn smooth and shiny from long tossing in the sea, among them a green, glasy stone like a precious jewel, supposed to be talisman against drowning. It is here that Columba landed
He and his companions came in wickerwork coracles, and men say that, like the invading Romans, they burnt their boats as a symbol of their determination never to return. Above the bay is an ancient, circular barrow, most probably the burial place of prehistoric man, which legend will tell you is Columba`a coracle. What a dangerous, hazardous voyage it must have been, in crafts so frail that even the smallest waves must have threatened perpetually to swamp them. Yet in these boats they travelled vast distances, to the Orkneys, Faroes and Shetlands, horrified sometimes by the slimy creatures which slithered over their oarblades – jelly-fish, most probably; endangered on occasions by sharks and whales, and for ever at the mercy of the wind and storm, so that sometimes they must bale furiously to keep afloat. It is said that once when Columba helped them bale they bade him pray for them instead. That little incident illuminates the spirit of their inspiration more than any other in their unending search for new missionary enterprise.
As you pass northward now from the Port-na-curaic, the Bay of Landing, westwards lies the Machair Bay where a monk found an exhausted crane and Columba bade him care for it until it as sufficiently strong to journey on to his beloved Ireland, and inland is a tiny rise of ground, almost indistinguishable to strange eyes, called the Fairy Hill or Hill of Vision, where myth and history join hands. The villagers will tell you how it was regarded as a pixie dwelling and at certain seasons the farmers would gallop their horses three times around it for luck, but there are other stories of how Columba used to go apart to pray there. The Machair Bay also has its pagan associations. Here was enacted the ceremony of the Great Porridge, when a chosen villager run waist-deep into the waves and threw porridge into the sea, an offering to the goddess of fertility and spring.
When Columba came the island was thickly wooded; there are no trees today. On Dun-I I stood and looked, as he once did, westwards where they planted fields, ploughed, sowed and reaped, and eastwards to the great glacial boulder, Blaithnat, which lies above the shore, around which he built the refectory, using the stone for his sideboard.
The monks lived in wattle cells, but Columba had a cell apart, on higher ground and built of planks, and there must have been a hall of more spacious design where the scribes illuminated their beautiful manuscripts. On Iona the book of Kells was designed and written, probably in the eigth century.
A little apart is the Ridge of Council, Jomaite An Achd, where business meetings were assembled such as chose Aidan to go to Northumbria in answer to Oswald`s appeal for a Christian teacher. And there is a strip of lower, rather soggy ground where the saint walked to meet the returning labourers as they came homeward in the evening from their labours in the fields, to welcome them and help them with their loads. When he was dead, the brethren returning over the Baithene, as the strip is named, were met by a scent of exceeding sweetness, and they knew that the souls of their father was still coming to meet them in the twilit shadows of the day`s ending.
The novitiate was severe, a veritable testing of the would-be member`s vocation. The brethren dressed in cassocks of undyed wool, with cowls and sandals, and were divided into three `orders` – the youngest, who were scholars at the monastic school and not under vows; the junior monks who laboured for the community`s support, and the seniors who
worked at the illumination of manuscripts. In addition to their farm they bred seals, and when one named Erc, of Colonsey, was caught stealing the animals, Columba, having reprimanded him, presented him with a sheep that he might have meat for his needs. The horses wore bells engraved with the words `Holiness to the Lord`, and when the saint made his last tour of the island, blessing the granary and surveyed the little kingdom he had founded, as he rested where McClean`s Cross stands now beside the road, an old white horse came to him there, nuzzling him affectionately, as though aware that soon his master must depart.
He died before the altar in 597, having concluded the transcription of a portion of Psalm 34: `They who seek the Lord shall want no manner of thing that is good`. A storm raged at the time, and only the brethren were present when they commended him to God. It was more fitting that it should be so. His bones they carried to Ireland, and he was buried beside St. Patrick and St. Bride. “My soul to Derry” – that was his only will.
But sweeter and fairer to me
The salt sea where the sea-gulls cry
When I come to Derry from far;
It is sweeter and dearer to me,
Sweeter to me.
The fishermen who guided me over the cathedral showed me the heart-shaped stone which is known as St. Columba`s pillow, on which his head was resting when his soul passed upward to the peace of God.
I had the greatest difficulty to obtain accommodation. The only hotel which remained open declined even to give me a meal. Kindly villagers recommended me try a farm, then a cottage, but all in vain. At last, when I was very hungry and the shadows were lengthening, I met Mrs. McCullock shaking a mat outside her little creeper-clad house in the only street, and she offered me a bed. There was a royal meal of eggs and scones and Scotch pancakes, lavishly buttered.
In the evening I walked out to the two ancient burial grounds, the Ridge of kings and the Ridge of Chiefs. Here Egfrid, Bishop Wilfred`s enemy, lies buried, despite the fact that in the year previous to his death he had led an unprovoked attack upon Ireland, apparently to prevent possible reinforcements being sent to the picts when he marched against them to his death in the following year. Macbeth also lies here and Duncan, the last royalty to be buried on Iona, and in Shakespeare`s play MacDuff refers to the island when he tells whither the body of the murdered king has been borne:
Carried to Columskill.
The scared storehouse of his predecessors.
There are neat rows of worn, flat stones, carved sometimes with elegance and beauty, bearing the images of kings, knights, queens and nuns. The monarchs of Norway, France and Scotland, beside the Saxon Egfrid, found their last rest in this soil long ago, for there was an old superstition that the rock of Iona, which is some of the most ancient land upon the surface of the globe, would alone remain above water at the end of the world.
Seven years before that awful day
When time shall be no more
A watery deluge will o`ersweep
Hibernia`s mossy shore
The green-clad Islay too shall sink
While, with the great and good,
Columba`s happy Isle shall rear
Her towers above the flood.
For four centuries the silent, mourning galleys crept up Iona Sound with muffled oars, bearing the royal dead to the little silver bay which faces Mull, where in 806 the Danes slaughtered sixty-eight monks, pillaging and wrecking the monastic buildings.
In 1204, when the papacy first seized authority over the Iona community, Reginald, Lord of the Isles, built a Benedictine monastery, expelling Columba`s brethren, and thereby he offended the men of Ulster, who sailed from Ireland and destroyed his earliest buildings. In the sixteenth century the monastery, nunnery and cathedral was allowed to fall into disrepair and the Calvinists permitted any to loot and pillage, but King Charles the Martyr desired a grant of a thousand pounds to be used for the repair of the buildings, which were then being used as stables; the outbreak of the Civil War, however, prevented the accomplishment of his wishes. In the seventeenth century there was no minister on the island, and the villagers met Sunday by Sunday for silent prayer amid the ruins, and then, at the end of the last century (19th century), the Duke of Argyll presented the remains to the Church of Scotland and the work of restoration was begun.
There are many remains of the monastic buildings, including the base of the round tower outside the cathedral door, which might easily be mistaken for a well, the stone trough in which pilgrims washed their feet, and the Chapel of Oran, built by Margaret, the saint-queen, and used in the Middle Ages as the Parish Church.
Oran was a monk under Columba, who may have given himself voluntarily to sacrificial burial, for such was deemed to secure strength to a new building. Vortigern wished to kill the boy Ambrosius as a foundation-sacrifice when he raised a castle in Wales; Columba is said to have buried a portion of a finger, Patrick a tooth, when their monasteries were first erected, and no doubt the placing of a saint`s relics in the new altar was a Christianization of an ancient pagan ritual which died hard. After Oran`s death legend says that Colomba so yearned to see him again that he ordered the grave to be opened, whereupon Oran sat up and informed the brethren that the tortures of Hell had been greatly exaggerated, which so shocked Columba that he ordered the earth to be immediately replaced. Until quite recently the unwise gossip of a villager wold be greeted with the warning `Earth on Oran`s eye!` Also, for reasons less apparent, the name of Columba would be invoked even on the continent as a charm against fire:
Sancte Columquille, remova dampna favilla
Arque columquillus, salve tab igne domus.
Today the ruins of refectory, library and cloisters stand bare and naked against the dark green of the hill, and rooks caw in a black cloud above the ruined nunnery, but around the altar of splendid marble within the cathedral men and women kneel once more to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord. And the tiny island is bathed in the peace of St. Columba.
Ten years after Columba landed in Iona a battle was fought near Carlisle `over a lark`s nest`, the opposing sides representing paganism and Christianity. On the pagan side fought a certain Aidan, a treacherous and disresputable person who had been succoured as an exile by the very tribe he now opposed. Faced with defeat, he fled northwards into Scotland and was given sanctuary by Columba who crowned him king, an act which led to a civil war in which Aidan the False proved victor, and which stirred the saint`s biographer to the uneasy explanation that he had crowned the traitor unwillingly and against his personal judgement on the command of an angel. Two years later Columba made his visit to Ireland, apparently to obtain recognition of Aidan`s kingship, to seek relief from tribute for the Dalriada settlers and to champion the Irish bards, who were threatened with banishment, and even massacre, on account of the mischief they were causing in matters of politics. Later he met Kentigern – who had been recalled from exile in Wales – at Glasgow to determine a dispute about the boundaries of the Irish colonists. Kentigern representing the Pictish king, and exchanging staffs with him as a symbol of agreement and good faith. But he refused to recognize inter-communion with the Pictish Church for, he said, “I shall not be a soul-friend to folk destined to red martyrdom.”
The biographers of Columba have insisted that he travelled as a missionary to the Nature-worshipping Picts, being the first foreigner to cross Loch Ness into the kingdom of Broichan, a hostile Druid attached to Brude`s court, by demonstrating how he might sail his boat against the wind. But two Christians named Comgall and Cairnach were already working in Pictish Scotland before his arrival; King Brude was never baptized, and, a hundred and fifty years later, when Adamnan, the abbot of Iona, was converted to the Roman Easter by King Nechtan and, as a consequence, driven out of his monastery, relations between the Churches of Pict and Scot were anything but friendly; the former was not, apparently aware of any spiritual obligation to the monks of Iona. If Columba ever travelled into the country of the Picts it seems probable that he went as a statesman rather than a missionary, scheming to establish the Gaels in power and to secure the throne of Dalriada for the descendants of his ill-chosen candidate, Aidan the False, upon whom in 603 Ethelfrid the Fierce inflicted a crushing defeat at Jedburgh. It was the coronation stone of this Aidan which was carried away by Edward I and rested in Westminster Abbey, doing duty for our own monarchs until it repatriated to Edinburgh Castle in the 1996, when it was taken from Westminster Abbey on 15th November, where it was officially handed over on the border with Scotland, whereupon it arrived at Edinburgh Castle on 30th November and then installed there to this day, where it is on public display.
The monks of Columba were certainly instrumental in preaching the Gospel on far shores, travelling even to Italy, but their missionary work, one feels, was accidental; they made no effort on their own initiative to convery the northern Saxons, although two Saxons were members of their community. Their primary object was the establishment of their own community and the spiritual oversight of their own kinsfolk. On Lismore St. Moluag, who died in 592, founded three centre of education, but these were for the Irish settlers of Dalriada. Moluag`s bell is preserved at Edinburgh and is said to have emerged miraculously from a fire of reeds when a disagreeable blacksmith of Kirkmichael refused to make one for the saint, excusing himself because he had no fire prepared.
Thus they regarded themselves as a self-contained community, the abbacy descending by kinship, not by election, whose principle works were themselves to seek God in worship and study and to minister to their own needs by the labour of their hands. Their influence, in so far as to effected the mainland was due to the example of their lives more than to their preaching, and to the fortunate circumstances that a Northumbrian king once found sanctuary amongst them in his youthful exile. Long after Oswald had died upon the field of battle the son of Oswy was a pupil at their school and members of the community were travelling to those monasteries which had been established by royal influence in Northumbrian territory and presented to their order – Melrose, Lindisfarne and Coldingham.
For the rest, the inspiration of Columba must remain strangely obscure. Legend and truth are so closely intermingled round his memory that they are difficult to distinguish. That he was moved by a deep and sincere religious conviction is evident from the stroy of Mochonnoc, Prince of Ulster, who was among those who first accompanied him to Iona and whom the saint tried to dissuade because of the responsibilities with which birth and royalty wold soon burden him, but who cried in answer, “Thou art my father, the church is my mother, and my country is where I can gather the largest harvest for Christ”
But, on the other hand, his Christianity was queerly mixed with superstition, so that he remonstrated with the young monk who upset a pail of milk because he had not blessed the pail and so expelled the demon. Of the love and abiding affection of his soul, his charity and sympathy, there is evidence enough: the monk who slept in Columba`s cowl and cassock to receive himself the assassins`s dagger when he learned of a plot to stab his master; the old chieftain of Skye whom he baptized through an interpretor; the wife whom he reunited to her husband by his prayers and kindly advice. His justice, too, has its memorial in the record of his stern anger when he heard that the murderer of King Diarmit, his enemy, had been received into the community, and his firm insistence that an escaped slave should pay to his ex-master the legal price of ransom and then spend seven years in penance before he might be permitted to enter the monastery. But there is, the horrible story of how he commanded his pet crane to pack the eye of a boy who peeped at him as he prayed, and the odd little legend of how he kept pets a cat and a wren and a fly, and the wren ate the fly, and the cat ate the wren.
It is thought that he may have been the first European poet to use rhyme, and the familiar hymn `Draw nigh and take the Body of the Lord` may have been composed in his monastery, even by himself.
But as at night I walked down the pebbly street of Iona village, beneath a sky powdered brilliantly with stars and lit by a tender crescent moon which floated above the deep violet of the shadowed mountains, I was conscious only that I trod sacred earth, made holy centuries ago by a lovable Irishman who sought here the vision of his God. A rising wind moaned through the black ruins of the nunnery, and little waves courted the silver beaches with quiet and gracious song. In the cottage I sat till close on dawn before a blaze of fire while my kindly Highland hosts told me the old tales of pixies and saints, kings and fairies. In the corner a fat golden spaniel snored contentedly, and two black cats curled sleepily on the rag rug before the leaping flames. And later, in a tiny, spotless bedroom, furnished in rich simplicity with bed and chair and candle, like Elisha`s chamber on the wall, I lay awake, listening to the hushed music of the sea and the increasing anger of the wind. More than in any other place or at other time of my life, I found contentment there.
The dawn was breaking when Mrs McCullock woke me, for I must catch the early ferry. The sea was grey-green now, all sapphire lost, and a sombre sky was split with gold. Across the Sound, where heavy waves rose and fell before a stiff and icy breeze, an orange danger signal flashed and the Bourg was a mighty pork-pie silhouetted against a darker background of awakening hills. The ferryman covered us with a tarpaulin, advising us to crouch beneath it if we would avoid a soaking, but I was too anxious to see Iona to the last. A knot of people were gathered on the wet, gleaming quay to watch us depart into the dawn, dogs barking excitedly and hands lifted in farewell. Then, suddenly I saw a familiar face shadowed in glistening sou`wester – Mr McCullock come to see me off; and when I shook his hand and said good-bye, feeling that somehow we had been friends for all our lives, he cried above the shout of wind, “Hoch! not good-bye, mon, for we say on the island that if ye come once ye`ll come twice more before ye dee.”
Just before we left I had stooped down and seized a handful of sand, dropping it into an old envelope, to keep in memory. But in the rain which met me at Stirling the envelope burst open, and when I reached Edinburgh I had only a mud-brown stain upon the lining of my pocket. That is a parable of Iona. Its beauty and its peace cannot be carried away. It is you who must return to them, and, once discovered, they will always call you back.
The boat lay deep in the water, diving now into a valley of green seas so that Iona was torn from view, then lifting her nose to rise, graceful and light as the gulls above us, and top the mountains of the waves, riding at a wall of impenetrable water, leaping and shuddering towards the sun-kissed crest, with spray like mottled silver bursting about us, protesting at our departure from Columba`s Isle.
A little girl, dressed in sou`wester and mactintosh of dark green oilskin, peeped from beneath the tarpaulin, grinned and said, “Hullo, man!” “Hullo, girl!” I said, and then a wave burst upon us, soaking our hair and blinding us, the sea-spray shining on her cheeks, and we laughed together at the grand liveliness of Nature which the other folk were missing.
All the way from Craignure to Oban I stood in the bows watching the myriad gulls which followed us. Untiringly they flew, white and grey against a gold-flecked sky, skimming the waves, rising high above the deck, flashing downwards turning and swerving in the joy of speed – poetry of motion, ecstasy of flight!