St. Columba





The excuse for these pages is that I was asked to write a simple life of St Columba for young people and for those whose hearts are ever young. Limitations of time and space prevented anything but a broad outline of Columba’s life and achievement – a life which should be better known by those who love their native land, an achievement to which that land owes its very name.

I have quoted here and there from my own book on St Columba, published in 1920 by J. M. Dent & Sons, and now out of print; I have to thank Mr Hugh Dent for permission to make these quotations, and to use his block for the seal of the Monastery. I have also to thank Professor W. J. Watson and his son for generously allowing me to quote various Gaelic runes from Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gaeldelica and for much valuable help; also Rev. Kenneth MacLeod for permission to reprint the Sea-Prayer of St Columba, and to quote a story recovered by him.

Finally, I have to thank the Publications Committee of the Church of Scotland for the honour they have done me in entrusting me with this piece of work. I only wish I could have done justice to so inspiring a subject.


St Andrews, May 1935.



Practically all the books on St Columba are out of print, but can be procured second-hand. The most important is, of course, Adamnan’s Life of Columba; Dr Reeves’ famous edition, with its background of immense learning and research, can be seen in most Libraries: that by Huysche in Routlege’s New Universal Library was a convenient pocket book edition, but is also out of print.

Those who wish to know more about Iona will find A. and E. Ritchie’s Iona Past and Present a delightful companion. It contains a detailed map of the island, an Appendix with translations of the place-names, a list of the characteristics flowering plants found on Iona and Staffa, and a list of the birds to be seen here. It can be obtained on the island or through any bookseller.





One Youth

Two In Ireland

Three Farewell to Ireland

Four Iona

Five The Monastery at Iona

Six The Rule of Columba

Seven The Conversion of the Picts

Eight Father of the Family

Nine In Ireland and Scotland

Ten Among the Western Isles

Eleven The Court of Christ

Twelve The Columban Church



Although he comes only early in the family of the saints, Columba has the true characteristics of that family – passionate love of God the Creator, and therefore of everything He has created.

And yet his life has many disconcerting features for those whose ideas of sanctity run upon conventional lines, for this “wild Irishman” was full of fiery energy and had in his youth a passionate temper. He reminds us of the heroes of mystical times, for he was cast in a heroic mould, and his self-consecration was on a grand, even on a savage scale.

Yet his kinsmen so loved and worshipped him that three thousand of them laid down their lives in battle, to save for him a little book into which he copied the Gospels.

It is partly the very contrasts in his nature which make his story so enthralling; we do not want to tone down, to try to make him fit into the mould of what we think a saint ought to be. We want all his rugged grandeur, his tempestuous love of God and man, his struggle all his life long to “harness his fiery energies to the service of the Truth.

It is characteristic of the saints that they tend gradually, little by little, to be transformed by that which they seek. And so with Columba. In spite of the tempestuous side of his nature, it is eventually the man of prayer who wins through; the long interior preparation, the background of prayer, the continual tendency towards God, shine through his life. The particular bit of work he was set to do, to bring the people of Northern Britain to Christ, could not have been done by any other saint.

Some people think it was easier in the early centuries to do pioneer work. Life was simpler; education only for the few, only indeed for those connected with the Church. But how often in our own day of universal confusion and unrest do we not long for some giant of spiritual and mental power to show us the way we should walk in, and himself to lead us along that way.

Columba was such a man. He towered above his fellows in every sense; his soul, his spirit, his heart, his stature, his voice, all were strong and valiant. Religion was no “solemn business of long faces” for him, but a very stirring mode of life. He was no ready-made saint; he had to fight against himself before he was ready to fight against the evils of his time.

And there is a glamour of romance and adventure about his whole life; the tang of the western sea and the salt spray of the islands give freshness to his story. He brought Christianity to the people of this land now known as Scot-land, because his countrymen the Scots spread over it. He made peace between them and the native Picts, and the religion he brought them has always remained a vital part of the nation. “Scotland has no history apart from the Scottish Church, (1) Columba was the first Celtic saint of the Celtic Church, a priest of royal blood, a leader who thus embodied all the ideals of his countrymen. And they loved and worshipped him. As the old Irish Life says: “He was their soul’s light; their learned one who was God’s messenger, who dispelled fear from them, who explained the Truth to them, a harp without a base chord, a perfect sage who believed Christ. . . . He was eager, he was noble, he was gentle. . . . he was the consolation of the poor. There was not one who was more continual for the remembrance of the Cross. . . .”

It is a wonderful story. How more than thirteen hundred years ago this Irish saint sailed over the seas to Britain in a frail wicker coracle; how he overcame the Druids and secured the independence of the Scots; how he brought civilisation to the lawless people, improved their agriculture and their whole mode of living; set an ideal before them and gave to them the Bread of Life.

“Full of contradictions and contrasts, ever moved by generous passions, fired to the end of his life by love of country and love of poetry. . . . In cloister and Parliament, on land and sea, always swayed by the love of God and of his neighbour. . . . Such was Columba.”(2)

And Columba was fortunate in his biographer. Adamnan was born only twenty-seven years after Columba died; he belonged to the same tribe, and he went as a young man to Columba’s monastery at Iona, where he lived with many brethren trained by St Columba. There and in that tradition he himself was trained in the religious life. When he was fifty-five Columba’s mantle fell upon him, and he became Abbot. He was a learned man, whose books were used by scholars on the Continent. He wrote his Life of Columba about one hundred years after Columba’s death. Though the style is difficult, seeing that Adamnan “thought in Gaelic and wrote in Latin,” his book, according to Pinkerton, “is the most complete piece of such biography that all Europe can boast of, not only at so early a period but throughout the Middle Ages.” It is the only record of the Church of Scotland at that time, and makes Columba known to us in a way in which no other historical character of that date is known. The description of Columba’s last days is acknowledged to be “one of the tide-marks of mediaeval prose,” one the most exquisite pieces of pure biography ever written . . . . a very gem of literature.”




Thursday of Columba benign,

Day to send sheep on prosperity,

Day to send cow on calf,

Day to put the web in the warp.


Day to put coracle on the brine,

Day to place the staff to the flag,

Day to bear, day to die,

Day to hunt the heights.


Day to put horses in harness,

Day to send herds to pasture,

Day to make prayer efficacious,

Day of my beloved, the Thursday,

Day of my beloved, the Thurday. (3)

Columba was born on a Thursday in the year 521 A.D. : for that reason Thursday was regarded as a lucky day by the Scots. He was born at Gartan, a little hamlet in a remote part of Donegal. He belonged to one of the great ruling tribes of Ireland, the O’Neill’s, and his birth had already been foretold :-

A man-child shall be born of his famly.

He will be a sage, a prophet, a poet,

A lovable lamp, pure and clear

Who will not utter falsehood.

He will be a sage, he will be holy,

He will be the King of the royal graces,

He will be lasting and will be ever-good.

He will be in the eternal kingdom for his consolation.

He was baptized Colum, a dove; but when he was a little boy he used to steal away from his comrades to seek the quiet of the Church and so the suffix cille, of the Church, was added, and he became known as Columcille, the dove of the Church. Tradition tells us he was sometimes known as Crimthann, a wolf; that name fits him too, for by gentleness alone he could never have achieved his great work for God: the strength, and at times even the roughness of his character, were necessary to the accomplishment of his work

When still a very little boy he was sent, as was the custom of those days to be the foster-son of a learned priest called Cruithnehan, who prepared boys to enter the great monastic schools of Ireland. One night when Cruithnehan was going home from the church he saw his “entire house irradiated by a bright light; for he found a globe of fire over the face of the little sleeping boy. And, seeing it, he trembled and fell on his face on the ground in great wonder, for he understood that the grace of the Holy Spirit was poured from Heaven upon his foster Child.” (4)

Here Columba learned his alphabet from letters imprinted for him on “cakes” He ate one of them on day when he was walking about as a little bay will. Half of it he happened to eat on the east side of a little stream, the other half on the west; from which a wise-man, probably a Druid, prophesied that the child’s life would be spent half to the west of the sea (in Ireland), half to the east of the sea (Iona). So from his youth Columba was familiar with Druid methods of divining the future.

When he was old enough he was sent to the monastic school on Moville, where his master was St Finnian a learned man and a great traveller, who had brought the monastic ideal to Ireland from St Ninian’s Candida Case at Whithorn in Galloway. St Ninian in his turn had brought these ideals from Rome and from his master, St Martin of Tours. So that at Moville Columba came into contact with the main source of the Christianity of that time. Ireland by the eighth century was the most learned country in Europe, the “island of saints and doctors,” and already in Columba’s time its schools were famous. Many of them were very large: 3,000 students is the traditional number in the old Irish Annals, and the education was the best possible for that time and in advance of anything on the Continent. Columba would be taught the classics, divinity, and general literature. Latin was spoken in the schools, and Columba left poems both in Latin and in Irish.

Before he left Moville he was ordained deacon. He and Finnian were devoted to each other. Both were of scholarly temperament, and the ardent nature and great gifts of the young Columba showed his master that a great future lay before him. For a short time Columba went to live with a bard: the bards of early Ireland were not only poets but learned men, and Columba would study other things besides poetry with his tutor, though poetry always occupied a big place in his life, with its quest after the Unseen, its other-worldly beauty and inspiration.

Our saint finished his training under another St Finnian, Abbot of the Monsastery of Clonard. There he took part in the services of the Church and spent much time copying the Scriptures, for it was one of the chief duties of the monastic schools to produce copies of the Scriptures in order that every Church might have its own copy. Columba also took his share in the practical work of the community. The students took it in turn to grind the corn for the next day’s bread, and Columba’s corn was so quickly ground that his fellow-students suspected his guardian angel must have helped him. There is no doubt that they were envious of him; his royal birth, his distinction as a scholar, his reputation for sanctity, and his fame as a worker of miracles set him in a sense above his fellows. He was the leader of a band of eager young priests of outstanding spirituality and character known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. Among them were Bredan the Sailor monk, who sought fro seven years for the Land of Promise; Cainnech or Kenneth who visited Columba at Iona, and to whom many churches in Scotland were dedicated; and Comgall, who next to St Patrick was the greatest figure in the monasticism of Ireland founder of the Monastery of Bangor, where he was to rule over several thousand monks. He and Cainnech were afterwards to go north with Columba to help him to convert the King of the Picts of Britain to Christianity.

Columba left Clonard an ordained priest. Just before he left Finnian had a vision disclosing his future greatness; he saw him “as a golden moon in the sky and Ireland and Scotland gleamed thereby.” Adamnan tells us how Columba from his boyhood, “though dwelling on earth proved himself fitted for heaven . . . . devoted to the school of Christ. . . . . He was angelic of aspect, great in counsel. . . . He could not pass the space of even a single hour without applying himself either to prayer or reading or writing . . . . he was unwearied in fasts and vigils, and amid all he was dear to all, ever showing a pleasant holy countenance, gladdened in his inmost heart by the joy of the Holy Spirit” (Second Preface).




Columba was now twenty-five years old. He was “filled with the Holy Spirit,” he was of immense physical strength, full of inexhaustible energy, and for fifteen years he travelled all over Ireland, teaching and preaching and founding churches and monasteries.

His first monastery was at Derry, the Place of Oaks. Every tree in the great forest of oaks which protected the monastery was dear to him, so much so that his church could not be built with its chancel towards the east because that would have necessitated cutting down some of his beloved oaks. There is a stave attributed to him :-

Though I am affrighted truly

By death and by Hell

I am more affrighted

By the sound of an axe in Derry.

The monastery lay on rising ground in a bend of the River Foyle, and Columba could see the sea from it. All his life long he felt the call of the sea. He writes of ‘launching forth on the foam-white sea; of the delight of rowing his coracle round the shores, of gazing out on the deep from the deck of his barque.’ But while at Derry he watched over the monastery as the apple of his eye; long years afterwards when he was at Iona he wrote some verses which show how Derry was ever the joy of his heart :-

Were all the tribute of Scotia mine,

From its midland to its borders,

I would give all for one little cell

In my beautiful Derry.

For its peace and its purity,

For the white angels that go

In crowds from one end of the other.

I love my beautiful Derry

For its quietness and its purity,

For Heaven’s angels that come and go,

Under every leaf of the oaks.

I love my beautiful Derry,

My Derry, my fair oak-grove,

My dear little cell and dwelling.

O God in the heavens above !

Let him who profanes it be cursed.

Beloved are Durrow and Derry

Beloved is Raphoe the pure . . .

Beloved are Sords and Kells . . .

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.

Kells was specially beloved by Columba, who prophesied that it should become his “loftiest cloister on earth” – a prophecy which was fulfilled when after his death, his monks were driven from Iona by Scandinavian pirates, and Kells became the headquarters of all the Columban monks, who called it “the new city of Columcille.” Kells is most famous for its illuminated copy of the Gospels, the Book of Kells, which used to be ascribed to Columba, but really dates from much later, certainly not before the eighth century. For much as Columba loved the art of the scribe, he was an active missionary, ceaselessly travelling about founding new churches and monasteries and deeply engaged in the welfare of his country. It was in order to posses the teaching of the Gospels that he practised the art of the scribe.

His early life in Ireland was a happy one, for though the kings and chiefs were always at war among themselves, they all respected the monks, who were allowed to travel about unmolested. It was quite usual in those strange times for the chiefs to send a portion of their plunder to the monasteries, thinking thus to atone for the robbery they had committed.

Columba was a well-known figure all over Ireland as well as in the islands round her coast. He lived for a time on Aran-of-the-Saints, off Galway Bay, and there also left a church. It was a feature of the early religious life of Ireland that the monks should find a disert in the ocean, where nothing could disturb their meditations. Many monks sailed the seas in search of such a disert, whence they never meant to return. That idea no doubt had something to do with Columba’s coming to Iona, though, as we shall see, there were other reasons.

It was because the halo of sanctity and romance woven round Columba from his birth, and indeed before it, that even as a youth miracles were attributed to him. It was one of the beliefs of the early Church that she did posses miraculous powers, and these gifts were expected in every great leader. Some of the miracles attributed to Columba are an instance of the working of the general belief that a saint could and must do such things. In order to vanquish the heathen religion, the Christians had to beat the Druids with their own weapons.

But in whatever way we may regard the miracle attributed to Columba – and they are very numerous – they show the absolute faith the people had in him. They called him the “Angel of the Lord,” and realised that he lived on a higher plane than they did. We must remember the infancy of all knowledge at that time, especially the infancy of medical knowledge. We must reflect how a strong spiritual personality could work on those weaker than himself, to the extent even of restoring life to those who appeared to be dead. But above all we must remember the power of prayer. Every cure Columba effected, every so-called miracle he worked, he hailed as a tribute to his God – a powerful argument for the conversion of the people to this new faith.




The turning point in Columba’s life came when he was forty years of age. He was then at the very height of his powers. Spiritually, mentally, and physically he was a very giant among men. From his birth a halo of poetry and romance had been woven round him; he was alive in every fibre of his being to a sense of the supernatural; his religion was his whole life. In the ancient Feilire of Angus we find a description of what he looked like at this time: “His skin was white, his face broad and fair and radiant, lit up with large grey luminous eyes; his long an well-shaped head was crowned, except where he wore his frontal tonsure, with close and curling hair. His voice was clear and resonate, yet sweet with more than the sweetness of the bards.” There is a tradition that his voice could be heard a mile away, but this is not so miraculous as it sounds, for the incident is reported of a monk on the other side of the Sound of Iona hearing Columba call to him. On a calm summer’s night one may still hear voices across the Sound.

A Celt of the Celts, Columba had all the characteristics of that race: he had a kingly courtesy, an eager excitable temperament, and, in his earlier years, a hot temper which was easily aroused. But there were other sides, too: the lover of Beauty the poet to whom poetry came as naturally as speech to ordinary mortals, the scholar, and the event of God. Yet Columba began with a difficult temperament from which to achieve sanctity, and the chief reason for his coming to Iona gives us some idea of it.

He was an eager student of the Scriptures in days when there were no printed books and when manuscripts were rare and difficult of access. He used to go about the country seeking for manuscripts to copy, the only way in those days to secure a book for oneself. To a man with a scholar’s mind and temperament, we can imagine the starvation of that bookless world, in which he could not even have his own copy of the Gospels. So that when his beloved master, Finnian of Moville, returned “over the swelling sea” from Rome, bringing with him “beautiful copies of the sacred books,” it was natural that Columba should be eager to see them. It is practically certain that there was among them a copy of the Vulgate, St Jerome’s new translation of the Gospels, which was by that time being used in Rome, but had never before reached Ireland. Now Columba was devoted to Finnian, and he naturally went to see him on his return from this great journey, anxious to hear the latest news from the headquarters of the Church. And presently he asked for permission to read the precious manuscripts Finnian had brought back with him. We can imagine the eager anxiety of the student to see the new version of the Gospels, something nearer the very words his Master had spoken than the old version with which up till then he had had to be content. But Finnian was doubtful of lending his manuscripts; it was only because he knew Columba was worthy of the privilege that he at last allowed him across to his treasure where it was kept, in the monastery chapel. But no sooner had Columba begun to study it than he knew he must have a copy for himself, so that he could study and meditate on it at leisure. He did not ask Finnian’s permission, because he knew it would be refused. And so at night he contrived to stay behind the others in church, and there he began secretly to copy the manuscript. “The five fingers of his right hand were as candles which shone like very bright lamps whose light filled the entire Church.” So says the legend; but owing to that illumination he was discovered. Finnian was angry. Columba refused to give up his transcript, and the High king of Ireland, called upon to settle the dispute, gave the celebrated judgement: To every cow its calf. To every book its transcript. Those were tribal days. Columba’s admiring clansmen thought the honour of their clan had been impugned, and the battle of Culdreimhne resulted, in which over three thousand men laid down their lives to save for Columba that little book into which he had copied the Gospels.

The legend may be exaggerated, but the main facts of the story are true. Remorse for the lives lost on his account was probably one of the reasons which led Columba to banish himself to an island from which he could no longer see Ireland. Another was to win as many souls for Christ as had been slain in battle on his behalf. How heroic a punishment it was we see from the passionate love for his native land which burned in his heart all his days and from the Irish poem he wrote on the voyage. The chief compulsion, however, was his burning desire to extend the Gospel to the Picts of the North and to support his own countrymen in Alba.

Just before he left Ireland he went to say farewell to Finnian. They had parted in sorrow before the battle about the Gospel book; but Columba felt great compunction. We see from his Irish poems that he could find no peace. He was banishing himself from his beloved Erin partly as a self-imposed penance. And so he came to Finnian as one asking forgiveness. Finnian  was now an old man; taking the air outside his monastery one April evening he saw Columba coming toward him, but he saw also “an angel of the Lord accompanying him.” “Behold!” he cried; “look now to Columba as he draweth near. He hath been deemed worthy of an angel to be his companion on his wanderings!”

This news spread quickly over Ireland, and so softened the hearts of his critics towards him that it was

in favour of God and man that he and his twelve disciples “fared forth under prosperous sail for Britain.

At that time the country north and south of the natural dividing line of the Firths of Forth and Clyde was called Alba or Britain. We are concerned here chiefly with Northern Alba and the territory to the west of it, then called Dalriada, which consisted of the mainland of Argyllshire, with the islands of Arran, Islay, Jura, Colonsay, Iona and part of Mull and Tiree. About fifty years earlier a colony of Gaels or Scots, who were already Christian, had come from Dalriada in Ireland (where St Patrick had established his church) and had settled on this western coast of Caledonia, calling it by the same name as their homeland. For fifty years they had quietly extended their boundaries and consolidated their position without coming into conflict with the Native Picts. But in 560 Brude, King of the Picts, began to show his resentment at the Christians encroaching on his territory.

He led his forces against them, killed Gabhran their king, and wrestled many of the islands from them. Brude was urged to this course by the Druids, the power behind the throne, for Christianity threatened their very existence. That was no doubt one of the reasons which led Columba to come to Scotland. He was intensely devoted to his tribe, and his anxiety for it was aroused on hearing of the death of his cousin Grabhan. He no doubt felt that if he could convert the Picts to Christianity he would rescue the Scots of Dalriada from the grave danger, and put them in more secure possession of the mainland and the islands they had colonised.

It was in the moth of May 563 that Columba and his twelve disciples sailed away from Ireland. They were all of his own tribe, and most of them had followed him for years in his wanderings over Ireland. One of them was the son of an Irish king (of whom there were many in those days, each head of a tribe being known as king). Columba spoke earnestly to him about his duty to his father and mother and to his country, but he replied, “It is thou who are my father, the Church is my mother, and my country is where I can gather the largest harvest for Christ.” Of the other eleven, Baithene succeeded Columba as Abbot of Iona, while Diarmit was his constant companion and attendant, and supported the last years of his old age.

It was a frail vessel in which Columba and his disciples crossed the open water between Ireland and Iona. Their coracle was a framework of branches covered with fresh hides, lashed to the gunwale with leather thongs. Setting sail from Derry the voyagers steered a northerly course. What Columba’s thoughts were as he saw the green hills of Erin sink below the horizon, we gather from the lines he wrote on the voyage :-

How swift is the speed of my coracle

Its stern turned to Derry;

I grieve at my errand o’er the noble sea

Travelling to Alba of the ravens.

My foot in my good little coracle

My sad heart still bleeding:

Weak is the man who cannot lead;

Totally blind are all the ignorant.

A grey eye looks back to Erin,

A grey eye full of tears;

It shall never see again

The men of Erin nor their wives.

While I stand on the deck of my barque

I stretch my vision o’er the briny sea

Westwards to Erin.

The voyagers touched at Kintyre, where, tradition says, Columba visited his cousin Conall, the new king of the Scots colony. Then they sailed on to “lonely Colonsay,” but Ireland could still be seen and Colomba is said to have vowed that he would banish himself to someplace from which he could no longer see it. And so they embarked once more, but now the quest was nearly over.




Behold Iona! A blessing on each eye that see-eth it.  St. Columba.

A peculiar beauty of holiness clings about the homes of the saints. Places from which prayer has gone up for centuries are in some strange way linked with the Eternal. It seems almost as if a Jacob’s ladder was there set up between heaven and earth. And so in Iona. Every step is holy ground. The natural beauties of the island, the white sands, the wonderful depths of clear green waters, changing over rocks and seaward to rich blues and purples, the flowery meadows, the rocky uplands – all those are irradiated by the beauty of a holy life lived there by St Columba more than one thousand years ago. And yet there is nothing dull or old-fashioned about Columba – nothing but vigour and freshness and zest. He is the saint of the young, the pioneer; his is the dauntless spirit which recognises obstacles only to surmount them, and looks on life as a glorious consecration of all things to the glory of God.

It was on the 12th of May 563, the eve of Whit-Sunday, that Columba and his followers rounded the south end of Mull in their coracle, threading their way through the dread Torren Rocks, the Merry Men of R. L. Stevenson. Emerging from these dangers, they saw before them a little, low green island with a cone-shaped hill towards the north and rocky crags before tem to the south. They made straight for the rocks, and feeling their way cautiously into a deep bay surrounded by high cliffs, grounded their coracle on a beach of pebbles, steeply terraced by the Atlantic rollers.

Columba’s first act was to climb the highest point to the north-west, Carn-Cul-ri-Eirinn. Scanning the horizon he found that Ireland was no longer in sight; he might remain here and found his Christian colony.

Tradition tells us that the monks drew their coracle up over terraces of stones to the grassy slope at the top of the bay, and there dug a deep grave in which they buried it that might not be tempted to return to Ireland.

That explains the name of the bay, Port-a-Churaich, or Port-of-the-Coracle. But there is no shelter there from the south-west wind, and so the monks pushed on past Machar, – “green with that delicious turf full of thyme and wild clovers which gather upon soils of shelly sand,” – right over to the east, where a belt of grassy land slopes gently down to the Sound. There, near the foot of Dun-I (the hill of I or Iona), they found shelter from the gales which swept across the Atlantic, a stream of water, the only considerable stream on the island, and land which promised pasturage and corn.

Up till that time the island had been known in Gaelic as Hy or Y (pronounced as E in English). After Columba settled there it soon became known throughout the Highlands as the Island-of-Columba-of-the-Church, or, in Gaelic, I-Choluim-Chille. But by whatever name it was known, Iona was always associated with the things of the spirit. “In spiritual geography,” to quote Fiona MacLeod. “Iona is the Mecca of the Gael. A small island, fashioned of a little sand, a few grasses salt with the spray of an ever restless wave, a few rocks that wade in heather and upon whose brows the sea-wind waves the yellow lichen. But since remotest days sacrosanct men have bowed here in worship. In this little island was lit a lamp whose flame lighted pagan Europe from the Saxon in his fen to the swarthy folk who came by Greek waters to trade the Orient. Here Learning and Faith had their tranquil home. From age to age lowly hearts have never ceased to bring their burden here. Iona herself has given us for remembrance a fount of youth more wonderful than that which lies under her own boulders of Dun-I. And here hope waits,. . . . To tell the story of Iona is to go back to God and to end in God.” (5)

A small island, three and a half miles long by one and a half broad, it is difficult to realise the comparative smallness of Iona, so infinite is its variety, so circuitous the expeditions to be made upon it by reason of its hills and marshes and the deep indentation of its shores. To the west beyond Tiree and Coll nothing but the ocean lies between Iona and America, over two thousand miles away. Islands surround it on the north, while on the east it is separated from Mull by a narrow but often impassable Sound of swift currents and spreading sandbanks.

From the top of Dun-I the whole of the Inner Hebrides are to be seen; the beauty of that view has to be seen to be realised, for it is impossible in words to explain the fascination of Iona- the quiet, worshipful beauty of the whole island lying out there apart from the world, set like a jewel in the waters of the Atlantic. An other-worldly beauty seems everywhere to abound; an indescribable atmosphere of holiness and peace.

So fresh and green is the Iona of to-day that it is difficult to realise it is older than any of the islands which surround it. “When our planet, from a glowing mass of combustion like the sun, shrivelled into a globe with a globe with a solid crust and the first oceans condensed in the hollows of its hot surface – then it was that the Archaean rocks, of which Iona and the Outer Hebrides consist, were formed on the sea-bottom. They contain no fossils, for so far as is known no living creature as yet existed in the desolate waste of water or on the primeval land. They are hard, rugged and twisted, and in Iona, as elsewhere, marble has been developed by the vast heat and pressure they have undergone.” Looking out on the other islands, it is difficult to realise that Iona was already there before “the granite of Mull and the basalt of Staffa and the Dutchman’s Cap and the Treshnish Islands burst in molten eruption out of the earth. These basalt islands are all that is left above water of an enormous plain of hardened lava, the rest of which has been broken up and engulfed by the devouring sea.” (6)

And yet the Iona of to-day reminds us of the traditional Land-of-the-Ever-Young so dear to the early Celts, for its grass is so green, its flowers so various and of such vivid colours, its sand so snow-white, its encircling sea so translucent that the island appears as if new-born, in all its pristine beauty. The wide expanse of sea shows in that damp climate a beauty of colour not to be seen in drier atmospheres. The pure white sand of the north end (formed of the crushed shells of small land-snails) is not only beautiful in its purity on land, but when the tide is full the green freshness of the water over the snowy sand is indescribable. Farther out from shore, over rocks and tangled seaweed, the colours change to deep blues and purples, lit up here and there over a patch of sand by pale pellucid lights.

June is the most lovely month of the whole year in Iona, for then darkness hardly falls at all. Those who fare forth to seek the beauty of sea and sky and mountain at the sunrise or in the cool of the evening know that the wonderful worshipping beauty of that holy island remains as Columba saw it. He walked the same pastures, stood on the same white strand; he too knew that in Iona he lived very close to God, the Creator of all Beauty. And instinctively the words of his Sea-Prayer come to mind, when he stood on the shore praying for the safe return on one of his monks :-

At mouth of day

The hour of birds

Stood Columba

On the great white strand:

‘O King of Storms,

Home sail the boat

From far away:

Thou King on High,

Home sail the boat!’ (7)




There is a tradition that Conall, King of Dalriada, had offered Iona to his cousin Columba, and invited him to establish his monastery there. In any case Iona was already the burial-place of the Dalriada chiefs, and when Columba landed we are justified in believing that the few inhabitants were Irish Scots of his own country, speaking the same language as he did. When Columba crossed the Sound and travelled among the Picts he had to take an interpreter with him, but in Dalraida the language was his own. Before he came, however, it was only spoken tongue; he and his monks brought over the written language, which they spread along with Christianity among the Picts, thus providing the medium for the Celtic literature of the Highlands. That is one reason why Scottish history begins with Columba, and why we know so little about it before his time.

The site chosen by Columba and his monks for their monastery was about 200 yards north of the present cathedral. The monastery consisted of Columba’s own hut, the huts of the monks, the church, the refectory, the guest-house, the cook-house – all these being enclosed by the customary rath or vallum, a rampart of earth and stones. Columba’s own hut was eventually built of planks and finished with lock and key, for the monks expended their utmost skill to make a building worthy of their abbot. From it Columba commanded a wide view over the monastery, across the Sound, and up to the terraced Bourg and the lofty heights of Ben More in the distance. No wonder peace and serenity came to him at Iona.

The monks’ huts, which were arranged round on open space where Columba used to pace up and down, were made, like the secular dwellings of that time, of daub and wattle. The refectory must have been of a fair size, for we read of Columba sitting in it and seeing one of his monks reading there “at some distance.” It was built round a flat, ice-carried boulder, which has now disappeared, but which served them as a table. We read that “luck was left on all the food that was put on the flat stone.” Columba himself set down a bag of oats upon it to bring luck to the grain before carrying it up the hill to be ground into meal. The church would be at one end of the little court formed by the huts of the monks. We read of their bringing back a boat-load of oak beams with which they built a fine church, one large enclosure with an altar on which the holy vessels were laid, and a side-chapel which served as a sacristy and in which the bell was kept. For the bell was an important part of monastic life; it was one of the chief duties of the smith attached to any monastery to make bells for the new churches. They were small and simple: merely a sheet of metal the edges of which were bent over and riveted together, a loop of iron let into the top and the whole dipped in molten bronze, which ran into and filled up the joints.

The hospitium or guest-house was nearly always occupied. All sorts of people flocked to Iona to ask Columba’s blessing and advice, from kings and rulers to fugitives from justice. Some of the monks were specially told off to attend to the guests, for hospitality was regarded as one of the chief of all the virtues.

Outside the encircling vallum there was another cluster of buildings connected with the settlement – the cow-house, two barns or granaries (one near the monastery, the other near the fields), the smithy, the mill, the stable, the carpenter’s shop, and the kiln – the foundations of which can still be plainly seen (the kiln had to be built of stone because the fire to a wattle building). The position of the mill is also certain, for it stood beside the only stream in Iona capable of turning a mill-wheel.

The twelve Irish monks who had come over with Columba were soon joined by Britons and Saxons drawn to Iona by the fame of the abbot. He referred to all the inmates of his monastery as The Family, and soon these numbered 150 souls. As an old Irish verse has it –

Wonderous the warriors who abode in Hi,

Thrice fifty in the monastic rule,

With their boats along the main sea,

Three score men a-rowing.

Each member of The Family took a vow that he willingly forsook the world and joined the Community in order to spread the Gospel. He was then tonsured, the whole front part of the head being shaved from ear to ear according to the Irish custom which had prevailed since the time of St Patrick. These Iona monks were not hermits or recluses; they were not even monks as we understand the word to-day, but active men who lived in community, supporting themselves by their own toil and whose whole aim in life was to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. Columba called them the Soldiers of Christ. Milites Christi, Columba himself being known as the Warrior of the Island. And we have to remember that those names were not merely figures of speech, for in those warlike days the monks often had to defend themselves as well as those who claimed their protection. They carried arms as a matter of course as late as the days of Adamnan.

The Family of Iona was divided into three classes: the Seniors, who worked chiefly at making copies of the Gospels and the Psalms; the Working Brethren, who were the most numerous, the physically robust, who did all the strenuous of the community, made the food, herded the sheep and cattle, worked the farm, and sailed the seas on errands of necessity and mercy, for to spread the Gospel from Iona the monks had to be intrepid sailors, as indeed they were. The third class were the Juniors or alumni. Some of them came from long distances to live the arduous life of the community as a voluntary penance. When such penitents arrived they were at once taken to Columba and required to confess their sins on their knees before the whole community. They were then given a penance “according to the judgement of the saint.” Sometimes it would be exile for a number of years to some outlaying island – Tiree was then a penitential settlement – for exile was the heaviest punishment Columba could conceive, feeling his self-banishment from Ireland so acutely. When a penitent was ultimately to be received as a full member he was conducted to the church, where Columba was waiting to receive him, and there, devoutly kneeling on his knees, he took his final vows in the name of the Most High God.

The monks wore coarse habits of rough undyed wool over a tunic of finer texture; on feast days they wore white. Columba himself by way of mortification, never wore linen next his skin. His dress was completed by a cowl or cuculla, but whether his monks wore this is not stated. In bad weather an outer cloak was allowed. The sandals were of hide laced together by leather thongs. Perhaps they were removed on sitting down to meals, or perhaps the habit of kicking off the shoes under the table had even then developed; for once when Cainnech, Columba’s great friend, was at table, Columba being in danger at sea called for his prayers, and Cainnech rushed from the table with one shoe on, saying, “It is not for us to dine when the boat of Columba is in danger!”

The food at the monastery was very simple, consisting chiefly of porridge, bread, milk, eggs, and fish. Sometimes when a seal was captured its flesh would be eaten, and sometimes a salmon was caught off mull. Once when Columba and five of his monks, “hardy fishermen,” were fishing and had caught nothing, “Try again!” said Columba, and in obedience to his command “they hauled in their nets a salmon of astounding size.” Such incidents were frequent, and though they call for no miraculous explanation, they were regarded then as proofs of Columba’s miraculous powers.

The hours of meals differed with the seasons of the year. Wednesday and Friday were the regular fast days, but the rule was relaxed between Easter and Pentecost. In Lent the fast was kept till the evening of every day except Sunday, when milk, bread, and eggs were allowed during the day. On Sundays and feast days or when guests were present, the food was better and more ample. We read of a sheep being killed as a present for some poor man, and on special days beef and mutton did figure on the refectory table. We do not hear much about the preparation of the food, but Adamnan mentions a cook, a baker, a griddle for roasting meat, a knife, a water-pot, and an energetic butler who “twirled the ladle round in the strainer.”

Seeing that the fields they cultivated lay mostly near the western outlet of Gleann-nan-Teampuill or Temple Glen, the monks probably went to and fro by the Glen, a much more direct route than that followed by the present road. The corn, after being carried home, was ground into coarse and fine flour and stored in chests. The grinding was done at first with a hand-quern, such as is still used in remote parts of the Western Highlands, and examples of which have been dug up at Iona; but later a water-mill was constructed, the wheel of which was turned by the stream which flowed down past the barn and the smithy. While porridge was the chief food, meal and flour were also baked into loaves, general mixed with water, but sometimes with milk or honey, or as a great luxury with the roe of a salmon. The loaves were baked on a flat stone supported over a fire. When the number of monks on Iona increased and there was not enough grain on the island to support them, the new settlement of Tiree, “low-lying Tiree of the Barley,” provided the mother house with food.

The cows seem to have grazed at some distance from the monastery, for we read of the monks carrying home the milk in leather bags or wooden pitchers. Sometimes it was driven home in a little cart drawn by the well-known white pony. Columba came to be regarded as the patron saint of cattle, and the shepherd driving his herd out to the pasture would be helped on his way by the Herding Blessing:-

Travelling moorland, travelling townland,

Travelling mossland long and wide,

Be the herding of God the Son about your feet,

Safe and whole may ye home return. . .


The sanctuary of Carmic and of Columba

Be protecting you going and coming,

And of the milkmaid of the soft palms,

Bride of the clustering hair golden brown. . . . . (8)

The monastery possessed a little island where the seals and sea-carves bred. The monks used seal skins for covering in winter, the oil for burning in addition “cruises,” and the flesh as an occasional addition to their table.

For fuel they cut peat from a moss near the north end, which is now worked out. They lighted their fires with flint and tinder. For artificial light in the long winter nights they may have used candles, for these were known in Britain as early as the time of St Patrick.

They slept on pallets of heather or bracken with a blanket on the top. They lay down in their habits for they rose to say the night office. The pillow was generally of wood, though Columba’s own pillow was of stone, and is still to be seen in the sanctuary of the Abbey at Iona. This stone was found near the place where he was buried; it is about twenty inches long, and has a cross incised on it. Columba’s bed is also said to have been less comfortable that that of his monks; tradition mentions a stone flag with a hide laid over it.

The monks lived strenuous lives as we have seen; they said their Offices day and night, they did the work of the farm, they copied the Scriptures, and they travelled on the business of the Community by land and sea. Columba worked as hard or indeed harder than any of them. He, too, carried home the grain from the fields on his back, the flour from the mill to the kitchens. When the day’s work was done he rendered his monks the ancient service of washing their feet, following in all things the example of Christ. He cared most tenderly for his Family. He often went out to encourage them in their work, sometimes walking, sometimes riding on the white pony, and when he came to be an old man, driving in the little cart. He knew instinctively when they were in danger by land or sea; he had them always in his mind, whether they were with him at Iona, tempted perhaps be evil spirits of jealousy or curiosity or depression, or whether they were in danger at sea while carrying out his behests. It is good to dwell on this side of his nature, for we generally have Columba presented to us as a man of fiery and tempestuous nature. That was the original Columba no doubt; but the saint knew his own weakness. He disciplined himself, he curbed and conquered his passions. Of his great generous heart there is no doubt, and Adamnan is full of stories which show him as a real Father in God, whom his monks regarded not only with reverence but with deep affection. They believed that everything was possible to him, and though the stories of his miracles sound strange to our modern critical ears, they do show the implicit trust and love his monks, and indeed everyone who knew him, had in him. So powerful and so other-worldly was his personality, so close his sympathy with his monks and his friends, that they actually felt his prayer speeding out to them when they were in trouble or danger, comforting and strengthening them. Such bonds of prayer and love are happily not unknown in our own day.

The copying of the Scriptures was one of the chief works of the Columban monks. They brought the art with them from Ireland, where letters had been known even before the time of St Patrick. The characters, though probably of Byzantine origin, were adapted by the Irish monks of their own idea of beauty. The interlacings they used, patterns with no beginning and no end, symbolise life and immortality and are common to the early art of various peoples; the early pilgrims brought this art to Ireland from Europe. In those early days the object of the writing was to make copies of the Scriptures. It was because the scribes became awed by the wonder of the message that they felt impelled to make their copy as worthy as they could of the Truth the Scriptures contained. They thought nothing but the finest work they could achieve worthy to be used for the spread of the Good News of Jesus Christ. The school of Illumination, for which the Irish afterwards became so famous, was then, of course, in its infancy. The writing was done sometimes on wax tablets (with styles), but for the Gospels parchment was used. The pens were of goose, crow, or swan quills, cut by the monks, who also prepared their own ink. Writing was then an art, and a monk would gladly spend his whole life on one beautiful copy of the Gospels. We have seen how eagerly Columba practiced this art. In his case it was the content which filled him with exaltation, and we know that with his own hand he made many copies of the Gospels and the Psalter. These copies were supposed, like everything belonging to him, to possess supernatural powers. His famous Cathach of Battle Psalter brought victory to his tribe when carried “three times sun-wise” round the field of battle. The Annals of Clonmacnoise state that he wrote three hundred books with his own hand –“They were all New Testaments, and he left a book to each of his churches.”

It is probable that there would be at Iona a separate hut where those engaged in copying the Scriptures would work and where the manuscripts were kept. On their journeys the monks carried the Gospels in leather satchels or polaires decorated by the same interlaced designs used by the scribes. Columba is said to have blessed one hundred polaires, “for it was his wont to make crosses and writing-tablets and book-satchels and other Church gear.”

The monastery at Iona had ultimately a good library, including various manuscript lives of saints such as Athanasius’ Life of St Anthony, the Lives of St Martin of Tours and St Germanus of Auxerre. The Abbot Adamnan, to whom we owe so much for his Life of Columba, was a scholar of European fame. Professor W. M. Lindsay, one of the greatest authorities on this subject, tells us that Adamnan’s Vigil Commentary “became the standard class book in the monasteries of England and Wales, and from Ireland wandering scholars took scraps of it to the Continent. From Wales it passed to Brittany, and the Irish pundits at the Court of Charlemagne and his successors quarried much of their lore from Adamnan’s Irish Commentary.” Adamnan’s Life of Columba was for many years in the Library of Reichenua monastery. It is now in the town library of Schaffhausen, whence, it is must to be hoped, it may some day be brought back to Scotland, for it is the oldest existing Scottish manuscript.




By the sixth century the monastic life of Europe had lost its first fervour, but the Irish monasteries, being of later date, were still high on the wave of their first enthusiasm. Ireland, owing to its remote position, had never been captured by the Romans. The Irish monasteries were fresh and free; they were the “great missionary colleges of the Church,” splendid and well-organised instruments for advancing Christianity. They gave amidst a heathen people a practical example of the Christian life, and they offered a shelter from the world to those who wished to devote themselves to the spiritual life or to learning.

Such was the community Columba founded. It was from Iona that he converted the north and west of Scotland, and established Christian colonies in central Scotland and the east coast of England. But he was a statesman as well as a missionary. He firmly established the little kingdom of the Scots, and he set on its throne a king whose lineal descendant occupies the throne of Great Britain to-day.

As the early Irish Church consisted of small Christian colonies set down in the midst of a pagan people inclined to be hostile, the Christian communities had to be large enough to ensure safety for themselves, and as they were often some distance apart, it was necessary for each colony to have its own monastic bishop; he alone could perform Episcopal functions, but he was nevertheless under the rule of the Abbot, who was his monastic superior. Columba was only a Presbyter, and although he lived chiefly at the Mother Church of Iona, he reigned supreme over all the churches of his order, whether founded by himself or his monks.

The Seniors recited the offices of Matins, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and Vespers daily, but the working brethren were not required to attend all the offices. The Sacrament of Holy Communion was celebrated on the Lord’s Day and on Feast days. The priest who celebrated was served by a deacon. If several priests were present, one of them would be asked to break the consecrated bread with the celebrant to show their equality, but a bishop celebrated alone.

Easter was the great festival of the Columban church, but it was kept at a different time in Ireland, and consequently at Iona, from the festival of the Roman Church, because when St Patrick went to Rome the date of Easter was wrongly calculated, and after the mistake was rectified it took a long time for news of the change to reach Ireland, and when it did the Irish Church clung to its old use. There was sometimes a month’s difference between the Easter of Ireland and that of Rome, and the monks of Iona held to their original date long after the Irish Church had fallen into line. It was not till 767 that Iona consented to keep Easter on the same day as the rest of the Christian world.

Columba would often summon the monks to corporate prayer at night. His bell would be heard calling them, and they would hasten to the church, lighted on winter nights by their lanterns. This would generally happen when Columba suddenly became aware that someone was in danger or trouble and needed the prayers of the Community. His trust in the power of prayer was absolute.

After the Juniors had been duly instructed in the faith they were baptised with great solemnity; the rites of burial, to, were “great solemnities,” for it was important to be buried among the redeemed. The monks had no personal property; everything was held in common, and the brethren were trained to great humility towards their superiors. They spoke to Columba, for instance, on bended knee. There were no extravagant ideas about his Rule. He was obeyed implicitly, not so much extreme devotion his monks had for him. Although Columba took his share of the work of the community, he spent much time in his own hut in prayer, in study, in writing, in planning the future of his community and of Church and State in Scotland. His was in the best sense a balanced life. His recreation he found in his method of travelling, for the sea called him all his long.

We gather what his monks thought of him from the testimony of one of them called Fintan, who being at a Church meeting in Ireland was asked about the learning of his Abbot:-

“Columba,” he declared, “is not to be compared with philosophers and learned men, but with patriarchs, prophets, an apostles. The Holy Ghost reigns in him; he has been chosen by God for all good of all. . . . Amid all the gifts which God’s generosity has lavished on him, the true humility of Christ is so royalty rooted in his soul that it seems to have been born with him. (9)




Columba was a true pioneer: he had great powers of organisation and administration, and his genius was for breaking up new ground. In Scotland he had no rivals. The Court at Inverness and all the region of the north-west was still heathen. Throughout the Highlands there were few Christians in spite of the earlier mission of St Ninian and the contemporary labours of St Kentigern, which indeed affected other districts. There is no evidence for Christianity north of the Grampians before Columba’s mission; he had a free hand.

It was not long before his influence came to be felt. Rumours of the holiness of the Abbot of Iona, of his miraculous powers, his great stature, his commanding voice, soon spread across the Sound of Mull and over the mainland: it was felt that a new force had come into the life of Western Scotland. The monks, when they began to travel about, excited the curiosity of the whole district in the settlement of Iona and the work its Abbot had set himself to do. There was a flavour of romance about the Columban monks – “a tale that is brought across tides acquires a glitter that is brighter than any truth at home.”

The first two years were spent in building the huts, preparing the ground for crops, organising the community generally, and learning the language of the Picts. In these years, too, Columba set himself to strengthen the Church of the Scots of Argyll who welcomed the new life given to it by his arrival; for Columba’s fame had preceded him, and they looked to him to deliver them from the persecution of King Brude. Columba had one outstanding characteristic necessary to a successful missionary at that time: he had a great love of travel.

What of the people he was to travel among? Although the natives of the Scottish Highlands were necessarily on the defensive in these days and “bonnie fechters” when need arose, they possessed a natural instinct for the supernatural. The rugged grandeur of their country, the beauty of maintain, loch, and stream spoke insistently of the great God who had created all that beauty. It was not to be wondered at that those who lived so near the heart of nature seemed able to penetrate material barriers and apprehend the underlying spiritual truth. Cut off by natural causes from frequent intercourse with his fellows, the Scottish Gael developed a distinctive nature. He was acutely aware of the supernatural; he instinctively worshipped the Unseen God; he was deeply attached to his own land and chief, for whom he would gladly give his life. He combined extreme bravery with a most tender affection: hospitality was one of his greatest virtues, ranking almost as part of his religion. Warm-hearted, generous, impetuous, he was a lover of beauty, with an instinctive tendency towards the spiritual side of life.

Long before Columba came to Scotland the inhabitants had a regular religious system. A hardy, open-air race, they were naturally nature-worshippers, their gods the various powers of nature, who evinced their pleasure or displeasure by sunshine and good harvests or by evil weather and poor crops. The people saw in every beauty of nature a deity personified: the sun, the river, the mountain – each had its own rite, its own worship.

The learned men of that time were called Druids. The Druids Columba had to contend with were magicians, medicine-men rather than priests; but they were the only learned men of the land, and they were the instructors and advisors of the chiefs. As Professor Watson says: “They sat in the seat of honour on the king’s right hand, and were consulted about every important matter; they were proficient in the science of the time, which consisted in mastery over the unseen world.” (10) They could cast spells; they could raise clouds or mists; they could foretell coming events and read the future in the clouds or the stars.

The people of Scotland believed their land to be peopled by myriads of spirits, both good and evil. The atmosphere of those days was thick with demons, to whose efforts all misfortunes, storms, illnesses, accidents, were put down. The early Church took demons quite seriously as enemies it had to fight, and Columba regarded them just as seriously as the Druids did, only he knew his God could overcome them. He tried to graft the new religion on to the observances of the old. Like every wise missionary, he did not attempt to change the beliefs of the people altogether. He did not even deny that the Druids possessed supernatural powers through their nature gods, but he claimed the same powers to a greater degree by the help of his God. He knew that he must conquer the Druids if he was to plant Christianity in Scotland that he must overthrow their power and put himself and his followers in their place as the learned men of the land, the men of God, the advisors of the people and of their king. In those days of tribes and clans, no headway could be made among the people unless their chief approval, for the people depended on their chiefs for protection, and were loyally devoted to them. Columba could not hope to win the people to Christ until he had won King Brude.

After many days’ travel the saints arrived at the king’s castle on the shores of Loch Ness. Adamnan gives us a spirited account of what happened. “Brude, elated by pride of royalty, acted haughtily and would not open his gates on the first arrival of the blessed man. When the man of God saw this, he approached the folding doors with his companions, and having formed upon them the sign of the Cross of our Lord, he knocked at and laid his hand upon the gate, which then flew open of its own accord. . . . And when the king learned what had happened he and his councillors (the Druids) were filled with alarm, and immediately setting out from the castle he advanced to meet with due respect the blessed man, whom he addressed in the most conciliating and respectful language. And ever after from that day so long as he lived, the king held this holy and reverend man in high honour as was due”

We can well understand that the dignified, friendly appearance of Columba and his companions disarmed Brude’s fear and suspicion. Then, when the mild Cainnech came forward and made the sign of the Cross over his hand, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, Brude, who had been  brought up to fear the wrath of gods made angry by disrespect, obeyed his instincts of submission to unseen powers and laid aside his sword. He had heard nothing but good of Columba and his followers, and although the Druids hated them, seeing that they struck at the foundation of druidical power, yet all the deeds of the Christians were of beneficent intent. An atmosphere of holiness emanated from these three men who had forsaken everything to follow Christ. Such men in our own day have quelled savage kings and tribes, unprotected save for the message they bore. Why not also in the days of Columba?

But though the king was well disposed towards Columba, not so his Druids. We hear of many “contests” with druidism, every expulsion of a demon from a milk-pail or any other lurking-place being regarded as a victory for the new faith.

Columba performed strange feats in providing fair winds for his followers. The Druids performed similar feats, and then Columba beat them at their own game. We cannot go into all this, but must content ourselves by quoting Adamnan’s account of the incident by which Columba overcame the Arch-Druid Broichan, Brude’s foster-father and chief adviser. The contest of power between them was of vital importance to Columba’s mission. Broichan also knew that his authority was challenged, and so both were on their mettle.

“ ‘Tell me, Columba,’ said Broichan in conversing with him, ‘when dost thou propose to sail?’

“ ‘In three days,’ Columba answered, ‘if God permits.’

“ ‘Nay!’ said Broichan, ‘thou shalt not be able, for I can make the winds unfavourable to thy voyage. . .’

“ ‘The almighty power of God,’ replied Columba, ‘ruleth all things, and in His name and under his guiding providence all our movements are directed.’

“Then the Druids began to exult, seeing that the winds were violent and contrary. . . . Our Columba, therefore, seeing that the sea was violently agitated and the wind most unfavourable, called on Christ the Lord and embarked in his small boat. Whilst the sailors hesitated, he, the more confidently, ordered them to hoist the sails against the wind. No sooner was this order executed . . . . than the vessel ran against the wind with extraordinary speed. And after a short time the wind which hitherto had been against them, veered round to help them on their voyage, to the astonishment of all. And thus throughout the day the light breeze continued favourable, and the skiff of the blessed man was carried safely to the wish-for haven”

Having by this and other contests overcome Broichan, the Arch-Druid, Columba’s fame increased. The people were deeply impressed by the power of his God who could even overcome the magic of the Arch-Druid. Columba came of a seafaring race. The sea held few secrets for him. We can well believe that he out-sailed the Druid; for as the old Irish eulogy, the Amire Choluimchille, tells us, ‘Seasons and storms he perceived, he understood when storm and calm would come, he perceived the race of the moon with the branching sun and the sea-courses, he was skilful in the coarse of the sea. . . .”

There is another story of how an amulet or pebble blessed by Columba cured Briochan of some illness, again showing Brude and his people that the God of the Christians was the Supreme power. Not long afterwards Brude made Columba his “soul-friend” or confessor instead of Briochan, and so the way to conversion of Britain was open.

It was not by sweeping away the old heathen beliefs that Columba established Christianity in Scotland; the universal belief in the supernatural which he found among the people he changed from a belief in magic to a belief in God and in Jesus Christ. The story of a well which was worshipped by the people as the dwelling-place of a god is a good example of Columba’s methods. The well was inhabited, it was said, by an evil spirit, for whosoever washed in it or drank of it went away “leprous or purblind or suffering from some infirmity.” Columba went fearlessly to that well and made the ”saving sign” of the Cross over it in the name of Christ. Having thus “sained” or cleansed it, he and his followers drank of the water he had blessed. “And from that day the demons departed from the fountain, and not only was it not allowed to injure anyone, but even many diseases among the people were cured by this same fountain after it had been blessed by the Saint” That is a typical instance of Columba’s way: he found the well credited with supernatural powers, and he left it credited with supernatural powers, but now of a beneficial nature.

He naturally met with fierce opposition from the Druids, whose position he gradually undermined, and whose livelihood was, of course, lost to them. But even they had respect for the powers of his God, and they never seem to have attempted to do him bodily harm. The greater part of his miracles were done “in order to confound the Druids and glorify God.” What he had to do was to show the people that whatever a Druid could do by his magic, a Christian could do because of his belief in Christ. The invocation of the name of Christ was sufficient to put all evil spirits to flight and to secure all good things. As Columba put it, Christ is my illuminator, my prophet, my guide, and my instructor.

“The conversion of the Picts,” writes Professor Hume-Brown, “may fairly be regarded as the governing fact in early Scottish history . . . . it determined those subsequent turns of affairs which gradually led up to a consolidated Scotland and a united Scottish people. . . . There is no reason to suppose that any great breach was made with the past. . . . the new faith did its work by insinuating itself into the old order, by elevating the national consciousness and be setting before it an ideal of wellbeing that was unconceivable under the old nature religion. But the acceptance of the new faith brought an immediate boon to the Pictish kingdom. . . . Through a common religion it was brought into direct relations with Ireland, by whose higher civilisation it was influenced for at least a century and a half. Shortly after their conversion also the Picts seem to have concluded a stable peace with the Dalriadic Scots, themselves nominally a Christian people. . . .” (11)

We can trace the hand of Columba shaping this peace. Like a true statesman, he knew that no understanding could be arrived at between a pagan and a Christian people. And so after establishing his community at Iona he had gone forth to make friends with the king of the Picts, and thus lay the foundations of peace. He built up his edifice step by step. He put true ideas of morality before the people; he raised their whole conception of religion, and the keystone to his temple of peace was the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

His own faith was a very simple one. His life, he felt, was in the hands of God; no evil could harm him so long as God was on his side. God had decided his fate; no human power could alter the course marked out for him. At the end of one of his Irish poems we come upon his confession of Faith:-

My Druid is Christ the Son of God,

Christ the Son of Mary, the Great Abbot,

The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.




Life be in my speech.

Sense in what I say,

The bloom of cherries on my lips,

Till I come back again.


The love Christ Jesus gave

Be filling every heart for me,

The love Christ Jesus gave

Filling me for every one.


Traversing corries, traversing forests,

Traversing valleys long and wild.

The fair white Mary still uphold me,

The Shepherd Jesu be my shield,

The fair white Mary still uphold me,

The Shepherd Jesu be my shield. (12)

We read of Columba that he lived at Iona for thirty years, “an Island Warrior.” But a great part of those thirty years was spent in travelling in remote parts of Scotland, trying to wean the people from their pagan beliefs. Columba and his monks went in and out among the Picts with some such prayer as the rune quoted above in their hearts. And they founded, wherever they went, little Christian colonies. Columba never tried to force Christianity. He converted the people first to peace and mutual self-respect. He showed them that Christianity was the only way of life worth living, and in everything, down to the smallest details of life, he showed them a better way than they had known before. He was an ideal ambassador of Christ, because love for Christ and for his neighbour filled his great heart to overflowing.

From his arduous journeys over the mainland, his adventurous voyages among the islands of the west, Columba was always glad to get back to Iona, to gather in the peace of that holy island fresh strength for his next effort.

Adamnan tell us the story of Columba as Father of the family of Iona in a most delightful way; how he lived among his monks who worshipped him, sharing in all their work, guiding and directing the spiritual life of the community. Apart from the regular offices and apart from his own private prayer, he often called them to pray with him, for he knew that by prayer things could be done. It seems certain from all that we know about him that he never undertook any work without first praying about it.

The monastery at Iona was regarded by the whole country as an example of the industry and perseverance which are – or should be – characteristic of the Christian life. Not only was the farm highly cultivated, but the monks carried on various handicrafts, and set up a new standard of life and even of art. We read of bakers and cooks, workers in wood for whom logs were towed across the sea from Mull of smiths and leather-workers, wheel-wrights, shipwrights, fishermen, and hunters. Columba’s mission was thoroughly modern in that it taught the people the blessings of civilisation; along with religion it taught that peaceful co-operation in well-doing which belongs to religion.

For the Columban monks religion was life; it indwelt everything they did. They followed the great dictum of St Benedict, who had died in Italy twenty years before Columba came to Iona, Laborare est orare, to work is to pray; the one cannot be separated from the other. Life is prayer and worship, or ought to be. As St Teresa was afterwards to put it, “To give our Lord perfect service Martha and Mary must combine.”

And Columba himself was the centre and leader of this balanced life. He knew the true secret of leadership, for he himself lived a harder life than any of his followers. He not only observed the full discipline of the Order, he stiffened it up for himself. He ate little, fasted often, lay by night on a stone flag with a stone for pillow. To a commanding presence and a voice “heard a mile off” he added gifts of insight and discernment which gave rise to many stories of his supernatural powers. It was believed that he held intercourse with the angels, that he could cure diseases at a distance of a hundred miles, that he could furnish his friends with any wind they required for their voyages, that he could turn water into wine, that he could tell what was happening to his monks afar off, especially when they were in trouble or danger, when, as we have seen, he would summon his brethren to the church to pray for them.

As an all the early religious communities, hospitality occupied a very high place in the Columban Rule. Visitors arrived at Iona from far and near. Rich and poor, priests and students were alike attracted by the fame of the Saint and eager to live for a time under his teaching and guidance. These pilgrims were guided to Iona across Mull by great standing stones, the line of which has been traced along the Pilgrim’s Way to Fionphort, whence they ferried over to Iona. “The island became a focus for all the spiritual visions of the Gael. . . . On Columba irradiated a glow of mystic sanctity. . . . Chiefs and princes bowed before his unseen power.” (13)

We see from Adamnan how hospitality came even before the fasts of the Church in Iona as in the East: “We intended to fast to-morrow being Wednesday,” Columba said one day, “and yet by the arrival of a certain troublesome guest, the usual fast will be broken.” And on the morning of Wednesday a stranger was heard signalling across the Sound: “he was a very religious man, and his arrival broke the fast of the day.” A significant story; for although Columba spoke petulantly of having to break the fast, it never occurred to him to break the law of hospitality. He believed in the Gaelic rune, Often, often, often goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise.

The monastery was the headquarters of medical help for a large district round about Iona. People came there from long distances to be cured of their illnesses. Ireland was, of course, in the forefront of all the knowledge of that time, including such medical knowledge as then existed, but beyond all that Columba was by nature a “healer.” We read that “by invoking the name of Christ this man of admirable life healed disorders. . . . Either by his merely stretching out his holy hand, or by the sprinkling of the sick by water blessed by him, or by their touching the hem of his cloak, or by their receiving his blessing on anything, as, for instance, bread or salt . . . those who believed recovered perfect health.”

There are many stories of how Columba prayed for those who were sick and how his prayers were granted. We must never forget the chief fact about Columba, that he was above all a man of prayer. Many of his cures he wrought by mean of what he called the Savings Sign – that is, the Sign of the Cross. He used it in all the circumstances of life. Before the cows were milked the Saving Sign was made over the milk-pail lest any evil spirit might be lurking in it, and it was when one of the younger brethren forgot to do this that he got into trouble. Columba was writing in his hut when the monk came up to him carrying on his back a pitcher full of new milk. He asked Columba to bless the milk. “The Saint raised his hand and formed the Saving Sign in the air . . . the milk was at once greatly agitated, the bar which fastened the lid of the pail was shot away to a great distance, and the greater part of the milk was spilled on the ground. The monk laid down his vessel and knelt in prayer. ‘Rise up, Columba,’ said the Saint; ‘thou hast acted negligently in thy work to-day, inasmuch as thou didst not banish the demon that lurked in the empty vessel by forming on it the sign of the cross of our Lord before the milk was poured into it; and now as thou see-est, being unable to bear the power of that sign, he has quickly fled in terror, troubled the whole vessel in every corner, and spilled the milk. . . . “

The tools were crossed by the Saving Sign before any work was undertaken, that the work might prosper; the pen was crossed that the writing might be to the glory of God; the seed was crossed that the crop might escape the influence of the evil one. The Saving Sign was also used at sea; “the sailors were directed to raise the sail yards in the form of a cross and spread the sails upon them – thus putting to sea. . . . they were enabled to reach their island that same day.”

The story so lightly told by the modern guide, that Columba refused to allow cows on the island “because where there were cows there were women and where there were women there was sin,” and that he banished women from the island – that story has no foundation in history. The monastery had its own cows, and we have no reason to suppose that Columba interfered with life of the islanders. In Ireland in his day women of his class were on an equality with men: they received an excellent education, learning their Psalms in Latin. It is true that female slaves were not well treated, but it was Columba himself who succeeded in getting then exempted in Ireland from bearing arms in battle. There are many stories of his dealing with women: how they believed in him, reverenced him, trusted him; how he prayed for them to Christ, “who was by his birth Himself a partaker of humanity,” and of how they prayed to him from afar.

It is pleasing to discover that Columba held no grim doctrine of sin and punishment; he could be stern, he would not allow open sinners to tread the soil of Iona, but he did hold out hope of forgiveness if the sinner repented and did penance “with tears and lamentations.” He held that penance and repentance and an earnest striving after good could wipe away all strain of sin. “Wit thou well that in the world is none that shall sooner reach heaven than the sinner that repenteth.”

Columba often felt the need of “seeking a place remote from men and fitting for prayer.” The hermit’s cell of Iona, now merely a circle of stones in a lovely little glen leading down to the Bay of Chalbba, is thought to have been a place he particularly loved, and there is something especially holy and peaceful about that glen, as if the voice of prayer had left its fragrance behind it. But the whole island speaks to us of its saint and of his communion there with God.

Columba provides many examples of what have been delightfully called “the mutual charities between saints and beasts.” (14) Like so many of the saints, animals loved and trusted him, and he understood them and cared for them, the little brothers and sisters created by his God. The well-known story of the crane has been described as “one of the gentlest things recorded of the heroic and tempestuous abbot who founded Iona.” (14) This crane, driven about by various winds from Hibernia, came from Gartan in Donegal, Columba’s own early home. Adamnan describes the story condescendingly as “an example of the holy man’s foreknowledge and prophecy concerning a matter which, although of minor importance, is not, I think, one on which there should be silence.” Columba was living at Iona when one day he called one of the brethren to him, “’ On the third day from this now dawning,’ he said, ‘thou must keep a look-out in the western part of the isle . . . for from the northern region of Ireland a certain guest, a crane, driven by the winds through long circling aerial flights, will arrive, fatigued and weary, after the ninth hour. Her strength almost exhausted, she will fall and lie before thee on the beach; take care of her and lift her up tenderly and carry her to the hut near by, and there hospitably tend and care for her and feed her for three days and three nights. At the end of the three days, refreshed and unwilling to sojourn any longer with us, she will return with fully regained strength to that sweet region of Ireland whence she came. I thus earnestly commend her to thee for that she came from the place of our own fatherland.’

“The brother obeys, and on the third day after the ninth hour as commanded, he awaits the coming of the expected guest” (probably looking out to sea from the wide expanse of Machar), “and when the crane comes, he lifts her from the shore where she falls; carries her, weak as she is, to the hut, feeds her in her hunger.” And in the evening, when the brother went back to the monastery, Columba not having been told by any but knowing in himself that the crane had arrived, said, “ ‘ God bless thee, my son, because thou hast well attended out stranger guest; she will not tarry long in exile, but after three days will return to her country.’ And as the Saint had predicted, so the event proved. For having been harboured for three days, raising herself high in flight from the ground in presence of her ministering host, and considering for a little while her course in the air, she returned across the ocean to Ireland in a straight line of flight on a calm day.”




When Conall, King of Scottish Dalraida, died, nine years after Columba came to Iona, the statesman in Columba saw an opportunity of establishing Dalriada as a separate and independent kingdom. Just about that time he happened to be staying on Elachnave, Na hiEileacha Noamha, the holy rocks, and in a dream an angel appeared to him and bade him crown Aidan king instead of his brother Eogan, who was the direct heir. After dreaming that dream for three nights, Columba sailed back to Iona, where in due time Aidan was consecrated King of Dalriada. Such a dream in those days was regarded as a special message from God; the people did not dare to disobey it nor the saint to whom it had been given. It is interesting to remember that from Aidan, consecrated by St Columba at Iona, the line of succession runs through the early Celtic kings to James VI. Of Scotland, in whose reigns England and Scotland were united. So that not only the Church but also the State in Scotland owes its foundation to Columba. He realised that Dalriada couldnever be a satisfactory kingdom till it was independent (it had hitherto paid a yearly tribute to Ireland), and so he took Aidan over to the Synod of Drumceatt, a National Assemby at which all the kings and rulers of Ireland were present. Columba felt that he must introduce the new King of Dalriada in an imposing fashion if he was to make a proper impression, and so on landing he gathered a fitting retinue about him:-

Forty priests was their number,

Twenty Bishop’s, noble, worthy,

For singing Psalms a practice without blame

Fifty deacons, thirty students.

Adamnan’s account of his arrival shows how Columba was welcomed, not as an exile, but as “an angel of the Lord.” “As soon as the rumour spread that Columba was near . . . all flocked from their little grange farms near the monastery. . . . Then advancing they went out as one man to meet Columba as if he were an angel of the Lord. . . . Humbly bowing down . . . they kissed him most reverently and singing Hymns of praise as they went, they conducted him with all honour to the Church. Over the saint as he walked a canopy of wood was supported by four men lest the Holy Abbot Columba should be troubled by the crowd of brethren pressing upon him”

After the Synod Columba visited his Irish monasteries, being received wherever he went with the greatest reverence. He was famous in Ireland as a soldier as well as a saint, which is not so strange when were remember that fighting was one of the great occupations of that time, and that not only in Ireland. In those days of the tribal system a monastery was under the protection of the chief on whose ground it was situated, but in return for that protection the monks were expected to fight the battles of their temporal chiefs. As the friend of many of the kings of Ireland, Columba was implicated in many feuds, though there is no record of his ever having borne arms himself; but he was passionately devoted to his own tribe, their feuds were his too. And Columba was no recluse; he took his full share of all the trouble that was going. His advice was asked on all manner of problems, by this time, of course, as an ultimate court of appeal. Columba was a very great figure in Ireland. He was of the race of kings, he was a prince of the Church, but above all that he was regarded wherever he went as “an angel of the Lord.”

On his return to Iona he resumed his travels over Scotland. He is said to have founded one hundred churches “which the wave frequents,” but there were many inland foundations as well. When he wished to found a monastery he had first to make friends with the chieftain and ask from him a grant of land. He seems in many cases to have stayed at his new foundations till the monastery was established, but one of his great gifts was the power of securing the right men to be his deputies. Each abbot in charge of a monastery was implicitly trusted. Columba understood the power of human nature to rise to the strain imposed upon it and to develop best under trust and responsibility. And yet in spite of all that, behind all his abbots, it was Columba himself who made the great impression on Scotland. He had a genius for dealing with people, he drew out the best that was in them, he took a real interest in all their affairs. The details of the farmer’s life, for instance, the difficulties of irrigation, the grafting of fruit trees, the increase of herds – all these things interested him profoundly. The saints, misinterpreted though they have been, were intensely practical. Columba studied the world in which he lived; he tried to understand the laws of nature, to teach the people to use the intellect God had given him. And so when we read the so-called “miracles stories” of how Columba caused springs of water to gush forth, how he moderated the flow of rivers so that salmon could get up them, how he made barren fruit trees fruitful, we have to remember how eager the people were to put everything down to miraculous causes, and how many of the things Columba did seemed miraculous to them. In O’Donnell’s Life of the saint we read, for instance, of a certain river: “And Columba saw there could be none such abundance except the fish be free to go and come across the waterfall from the river to the great sea. . . . And he bound the stones of the rocks of the northern side to abase them so that the fish might pass.” There was in the best sense much of the sportsman about Columba.

We have come a long way now from the tempestuous passionate Irishman of the early years. We see now a man of God, of rich, warm generous nature, filled with a boundless love for souls. All this, added to that strange but definite sense of awe which other men feel in the presence of a saint, made everyone with whom he came in contact fall under his spell. He did not trouble about doctrines or dogmas. His was a very simple creed, belief in God and in Jesus Christ; in their love for man their power to help him not only in the great things of life but in the little everyday things too. Small wonder that the people worshipped him who could heal their feuds, cure their diseases, increase the yield of their land, and by everything he did, by his own life, proved to them the existence of a God far more powerful than the nature gods they had known – a God, moreover, who loved them. It is, of course, true that he could not have done all that he did if he had not sometimes acted despotically; the people respected him all the more that he gave his orders with the assurance of one who expected to be obeyed. It is evident from Adamnan that when his righteous wrath was aroused, he could be a terrible figure. Wrong or injustice or the oppression of the poor aroused his anger to such a degree that he even invoked the aid of Christ to punish the offender –“the miserable wretch who hath despised Christ in His servants.” Montalembert writes of Columba that “his charity might sometimes seem to have degenerated into feebleness, so great was the pleasure he took in all the details of benevolence and Christian brotherhood. But let there appear in injustice to repair . . . an outrage against humanity to avenge, and Columba immediately awoke and displayed all the energy of his youth. The former man reappeared in a moment; his passionate temperament recovered the mastery, his distinctive character, vehement in expression and resolute in action, burst forth at every turn. . . (16)

So much for his righteous anger. And yet we do not know the whole Columba if we forget his humility before God. There is a tradition that he asked only to be allowed to be a doorkeeper in Paradise; to keep only the smallest door, so long as he could look into God’s house and see His glory and hear his voice.




Sain us and shield and sanctify us,

Be thou, King of the elements, seated at our helm,

And lead us in peace to the end of our journey.


With winds mild, kindly, benign, pleasant,

Without swirl, without whirl, without eddy,

That would do no harmful deed to us.


We ask all things of Thee, O God,

According to Thine own will and word. (17)


There can be no doubt that Columba’s sailing the western seas in an open boat played a great part in training him for his particular work: his striving with the elements in stormy weather, his long periods of calm on quiet voyages, when for hours and even days he was alone and able to contemplate the majesty of God in His mighty works of sea and sky.

He must often have sailed over to Staffa, that great cathedral not made with hands, which stands among a waste of tumultuous seas, everlasting in its silent worship. Few things in nature give the same sense of the majesty of God as Staffa’s great natural pillars, the mighty dome of that great cave, the thundering reverberation of the waves as they sweep mightily along its aisles into its farthest recesses. There is a tremendous sense of awe and worship about Staffa, and as we stand in the great nave looking westwards across the waters to use Abbey of Iona in the distance, we know instinctively that Columba often worshipped God in that place. The sea was the very salt of his life. He saw in its wideness and power the overwhelming wonder of Creation, the infinite power and love of God. He loved to set sail in his boat, to feel the lift of the waves under his keel. The sea was in his blood; he felt the call of it; he regarded it possibly in the old pagan was as a power to be worshipped but also to be feared. But he knew that his God could quell its fiercest moods, and so in setting sail himself or in sending out his monks, he consecrated the voyage to the mercy of God. While his monks were at sea he constantly remembered them in his prayers, and as the time for their return drew near he would go up to the top of Duni to watch for the speck of their sail on the horizon. For centuries after Columba’s death the seafarers of that coast called on “the kind Choluim Chille” to protect them, often in the words of the Ocean Blessing:-

O Thou who pervaded the heights,

Imprint on us Thy gracious blessing,

Carry us over the surface of the sea,

Carry us safely to a haven of peace,

Bless our boatmen and our boat,

Bless our anchors and our oars,

Each stay and halyard and traveller,

Our mainsails to our tall masts

Keep, O King of the elements, in their place

That we may return home in peace;

I myself will sit down at the helm,

It is God’s own Son who will give me guidance,

As He gave to Columba the mild

What time he set stay to sails. (18)

When Columba and his monks sailed together, he took his turn at the oars when they were becalmed, but what he loved most was to be at the helm. To sail close-hauled into a stiff breeze, to harness the elements, as in his contact with the Druids, to carry him “against the wind,” to feel his boat pull and quiver t the helm, was part of the romance of his life as Aspostle of the Western Isles.

Tradition connects him and his monks with all the islands round Iona. Monasteries were founded on all the larger islands of that coast. When Columba was troubled or when he felt he must get right away to be alone, he used to sail out to Elachnave, “the holy rocks,” an island which still has remains of very early beehive cells, possibly of an even date than Columba. It has also a big mound said to be the tomb of Eithne, his mother, and the well is called Choluimchille’s well. Columba loved the solitude of that island with its opportunity of communion with God. He always came back refreshed from Elachnave.

There is a delightful story of a visit Columba paid to his monks on the island of Eigg – a story recovered by the Rev. Kenneth MacLeod, who has generously given permission to quote it. Columba found that two of the monks there had been preaching in a spirit of rivalry, one of them insisting that he was a better preacher than the other. Columba commanded both of them to stretch out their right hands towards heaven. When that was done he said sternly: “To your knees, O men! One of you is slightly taller than the other, but neither of you can come within reach of yon white cloud floating above us. Pray for one another and for the folk, and both of you will reach higher than the clouds!” The monks fell on their knees, and their prayers, “which used to stick in the thatch, mounted now like sparks of fire into the heavens.” The story is a good example of Columba’s way of dealing with his monks.

He dealt successfully, too, with the ancestors of the creatures now known as the Loch Ness monster. On one of his journeys Columba wanted to cross the River Ness, but, as is so often the case, the ferry-boat lay on the other side. Just then he saw some men burying the body of a friend who had been bitten by some great creature in the Loch. The people believed it to be one of the water-kelpies they dreaded. Nevertheless Columba commanded one of his monks to swim over to the other side and bring the boat across. The monks at once dived in and began swimming across. The monks at once dived in and began swimming across. “But the monster, far from being satiated, was only roused for more prey, and was lying at the bottom of the stream. When it felt the water disturbed by the man swimming, it rushed up and, giving an awful roar, darted after him with its mouth wide open. Then the blessed man, observing this, raised his holy hand, while all the rest were stupefied with terror, and invoking the name of God he formed the Saving Sign in the air, saying, ‘Thou shalt go no farther nor touch the man! Go back with all speed!’ At the voice of the saint the beast was terrified and rushed down the river. Even the barbarous heathen who were present,” writes Adamnan, “were forced by the greatness of this miracle to magnify the God of the Christians” This is what Adamnan always says after telling us about Columba’s so-called miracles. And it is an important point, because it was as much by his “miracles” as by his preaching that he converted the people. Heathen superstition still dominated his mind. He could not get away from the beliefs held for centuries by his ancestors – such, for instances, as the beliefs that storms and tempests were manifestations of the evil one. Columba probably believed that, but he knew that his God could deliver man from every evil if only he would ask for deliverance by prayer, and, he would probably have added, “by fasting.”

The early saints, and Columba among them, lived very near to God. Every good was ascribed to Him; no situation in which they found themselves was regarded as hopeless when they could ask God to deliver them from it. Believing thus absolutely in the power of prayer, they prayed in no half-hearted fashion. And in every circumstance Columba would make the Saving Sign, to exorcise the Evil Spirit and invoke instead the Holy Spirit of God.




We have seen how Columba did his work, how he first got to know his people, won their affection by taking the deepest interest in them and all their affairs, and thus gradually, imperceptibly, won them to Christ. The missionary of our own day, with all his modern teaching, known no better way.

After Columba has thus worked in Scotland for thirty years, and was seventy years old, he realised that the end was at hand. He had borne the burden and heat of the day: constant exposure to all weathers, arduous journeys through a country which could turn then only be traversed on foot, perilous voyages, the founding and care of churches and monasteries, the building up and development of his own community, the nurture and establishment of the kingdom of the Scots, the hardships and anxieties which fall to the lot of the pioneer in all ages – all these had worn out even his immense physical strength.

It was about four years before he died that one day he asked his monks to let him go alone over to Machar. One of them disobeyed; but thanks to that disobedience, we have the following descripton of what happened. Columba had climbed the little knoll now known as the Angel’s Hill. He thought he was alone save for the good angels who always surrounded him. But the prying monk, looking on amazed, “saw how holy angels, citizens of the heavenly country, clad in white robes and flying with wonderful speed, began to stand around the blessed man as he prayed; and after a short converse with the blessed man, that heavenly host, as if feeling itself detected, flew speedily back to the highest heavens. The blessed man himself also, after his meeting with the angels, returned to the monastery, and calling the brethren together, asked with no little chiding which of them had been guilty of violating his command. . . . The brother fell on his knees before the saint and humbly craved forgiveness. The saint taking him aside, commanded him never during the life of the blessed men to disclose to any person the least part of the secret of the angel’s visit”

The story of Columba’s last days is the story of a gradual drawing near to “the court of Christ.” The tempest of life was past, and he waited, weary but well content, for his call. And in telling the story of these last days Adamnan has excelled himself, so that no excuse need be made for quoting largely from his final chapter. But first let one of the old Gaelic runes set the key:-

Thou angel of God who hast charge of me

From the dear Father of mercifulness,

The shepherding kind of the fold of the saints mighty

To make round about me this night,


Drive from me every temptation and danger,

Surround me on the sea of unrighteousness,

And in the narrows, crooks, and straits

Keep thou my coracle, keep it always.


Be thou a bright flame before me,

Be thou a guidance star above me,

Be thou a smooth path below me,

Today, tonight, and for ever.


I am tired and I am a stranger,

Lead thou me to the land of angels,

For me it is time to go home

To the court of Christ, to the peace of heaven. (19)


Such were the thoughts which filled Columba’s mind. There are legends of how at night the monks saw a bright little streaming out if the window of the church and how on going to see what it was they found Columba in prayer, “and with him a golden light that came down from the highest heavens and filled that part of the church.” Columba came then to see “many secrets hidden from men . . . and certain very obscure and difficult parts of Scripture were made quite plain and clearer than the light to the eye of his pure heart.”

A beautiful story about Columba’s constant love and care for his monks belongs to these last years. Often called Father of the Family  of Iona, this story shows how well he deserves that name.

We have seen how his monks were always in his thoughts, how his prayers followed them on their voyages and travels, how instinctively he seemed to know what each one of his family was doing and suffering, how his love went out to him in such a way they were actually conscious of it.

The brethren were reaping corn on a beautiful summer’s night at Iona. They had been hard at work all day long, and now in the cool of evening they had begun to go home, when at a certain place half-way between the fields and the monastery each one of them became aware of a glow of welcome and comfort and fill him with joy. For several nights this had gone on. Each brother felt this same enfolding love, which banished his weariness and filled his whole being with joy. But none of them had spoken of it to the other till Baithene, the fostering and disciple who was to succeed Columba as abbot, asked the others if they had not noticed something strange about this place. And one of the elder brothers replied-

“Yes! Every day at this hour and place, I breathe a delicious odour as if all the flowers of the world were collected here. I feel also something like the flame of the heart which does not burn me but warms me gently; I experience in my heart a joy so unusual, so incomparable, that I am no longer sensible of either trouble or fatigue. The sheaves which I carry no longer weigh upon my back though they are heavy; from this place to the monastery the weight seems to be lifted from my shoulders. What then is this wonder?”

And Baithene answered him, “I will tell you what it is. It is our master Columba; always full of anxious care for us he is disturbed because we are so late, he is grieved to think of our fatigue, and so, not being able himself to come and meet us, he sends his spirit out to refresh us, to rejoice and console us.”

It was in May 597 that Columba, now to feeble that he had to drive about in a cart drawn by his faithful white pony, felt that his last days were numbered. Driving over to visit the monks working near Machar, he said to them: “With desire did I desire to depart to Christ the Lord during the Easter solemnities now past, but lest a joyous festival should be turned for you into mourning, I thought it better to put off a little longer the time of my departure from the world.” The monks crowded round him, tears flowing down their cheeks; but Columba reminded them how full of blessing his life had been, how weary he was now, and how he longed to be at rest. It was then that, turning round in the little cart to face the east, he blessed the island and its inhabitants. “From this very moment,” he said, “poisonous reptiles shall in no wise be able to hurt man or beast on this island so long as the inhabitants observe the commandments of Christ.” The story is symbolic, and yet it is a fact that adders are not found on Iona, though they are occasionally seen in Mull.

A few days after this, when Columba was saying Mass on the Lord’s Day, the monks noticed how his eyes, when he raised them to heaven, shone with glory. He told them afterwards he had seen a vision of an angel hovering over the altar, and how its “lovely and tranquil aspect had infused joy and exaltation into his heart.” For the angel had come to tell him that in six days he was to be granted the desire of his heart and depart to the Lord on the Lord’s Day.

On the Saturday of that week Columba and Diarmit, his attendant, set out to say farewell to the monastery. When they came to the barn Columba got out of the cart and went into the hut, where he blessed with the Saving Sign two heaps of corn lying winnowed on the floor. He said to Diarmit how thankful he was, seeing he had to leave them, that they had plenty corn to carry them on till the next year’s harvest. Diarmit could not bear Columba’s constant references to his death, and in order to comfort him Columba promised, if he would keep it secret, to tell him about his going. Diarmit flung himself at his master’s feet, giving the promise. “This day in the Holy Scriptures is called the Sabbath.” Said Columba, “which means rest. And this is indeed a Sabbath to me, for this is the last day of my present laborious life. . . . This day at midnight, which commenceth the solemn Lord’s Day, I shall go the way of my fathers. For already my Lord Jesus Christ deigneth to invite me, and to Him in the middle of this night, I shall depart, at his invitation.”

Diarmit was greatly distressed at these words, and Columba doing his best to comfort him, they began to return to the Abbot’s hut. But he was so weak he could not go far without a rest. Presently he sat down on the grass, and as he sat there his old white pony came up and pushed its nose into his hand, whinnying and “uttering plaintive cries.” Diarmit would have driven it away, but Columba said. “Nay! Let it alone, it is fond of me, let it pout out its bitter grief into my bosom. Lo! thou, as thou art a man and hast a reasoning soul, canst know nothing of my departure hence except what I myself have told thee. But to this beast, devoid of reasoning powers, the Creator Himself hath evidently in some way made it known that its master is about to leave.” And the saint fondled the pony’s head and neck, and blessed it, and presently the poor beast wandered sadly away.

Then Diarmit and his master slowly climbed the little hill above the monastery. Columba stood looking down on the cluster of huts and beyond them out over the Sound to the sea and the distant mountains. “It was then that there came to him the calm of those who have fought the good fight and have steered their craft into a quiet haven.” Raising his hands in blessing, he pronounced the famous prophecy so wonderfully to be fulfilled in later years: “Unto this place, small and mead though it be, great homage shall yet be paid, not only by the kings and peoples of the Scots, but by rulers of foreign and barbarous nations and their subjects. In great veneration, too, shall it be held by men of other churches.”

“Then he went down to his hut and tried to continue the copy of the Psalms on which he was engaged. He had just finished the tenth verse of Psalm XXXIV.: But they that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing. That brought him to the foot of a page. “Here I must stop,” he said to Diarmit; “the rest must Baithene write.” He meant more than the copying of the Psalms: he meant that Braithene must carry on his work and finish all that he had left undone. Presently the bell sounded for the “nocturnal vigils” of the Lord’s Day. Columba went to church as usual, then, returning to his hut, he lay down on his stone flag, his rounded stone for pillow. Diarmit was again alone with him, and to him Columba gave his final message to his monks-

“ ‘These, O my sons, are the last words I will address to you – that ye be at peace and have unfeigned charity among yourselves. If you thus follow the example of the Holy Fathers, God, the Comforter of the Good, will be your helper. And I, abiding with Him, will intercede for you. He will not only give you sufficient to supply the wants of this present life, but will also bestow on you the good and eternal rewards which are laid up for those who keep His commandments.”

“After which, as the happy last hour approached the saint was silent. Then, when the bell began to toll at midnight, rising in haste he goes to the Church, and running faster than the others he enters it alone, and on bended knees falls down in prayer at the altar. At the same moment Diarmit, his attendant, who followed more slowly, sees from a distance the whole Church filled within with angelic light round about the silent Saint. And as he drew near to the door, the same light which he had seen suddenly withdrew, and this light a few others of the Brethren who stood far off, also saw. Diarmit therefore, entering the Church, calls out anxiously: ‘Father, where art thou?’ And as the lights of the Brethren had not yet been brought in, groping his way in the dark he finds the Saint lying before the altar, and raising him up a little and sitting down by him, he lays the holy head on his bosom. And meanwhile the community of monks, running up with lights, began to weep at the sight of their dying Father. And as we have learned from some who were there present, the Saint, his soul not yet departing, with open eyes upturned, looked round about on either side with wonderful cheerfulness and joy of countenance on seeing the holy Angels coming to meet him. Diarmit then lifts up the holy right hand of the Saint that he may bless the choir of monks. But the venerable Father himself at the same time moved his hand as much as he was able, so that what was impossible to him to do with his voice at his soul’s departure, he might still do by the movement of his hand – namely, give his blessing to the Brethren. (No doubt the Saving Sign) And after thus signifying his holy benediction, immediately breathed forth his spirit. And it having left the tabernacle of his body, the face remained so ruddy and wonderfully gladdened by the vision of the Angels that it seemed not to be that of the dead, but of one living and sleeping . . . and there the venerable man sent forth his spirit to heaven in the delight an joyance of heaven’s household.”

The monks feared that a “promiscuous throng” would rush to Iona to take part in the last rites. But as Columba had predicted, “there arose a great tempest of wind without rain, which effectively prevented anyone in a boat from crossing over the Sound.” So that the monks of his own house had, as he had foretold, the consolation of laying him to rest in privacy. The wind was raging over the Church, the great candles were blown about in the salt draught as the monks chanted the Psalms of the dead. “In the midst the dead saint, clad in the robes of his office, calm and peaceful, his passionate life in the service of God left behind him for ever.” (20)

A few days later in Ireland, Fintan, a young priest, resolved to go to Iona to put himself under the guidance of Columba. But as he was setting sail two Columban monks landed from Iona.

“Our patron is indeed well,” they replied; “few a few days past he departed to Christ.”




After Columba’s death the founding of Christian colonies from Iona was still carried on by his successors. His prophecy about the kings and rulers of Scotland and other nations paying homage to Iona in after years was literally fulfilled, for it became the burying place of kings. In 860 Kenneth MacAlpine was buried there, and for over two hundreds years after that all the Scottish kings were laid there (including Duncan and MacBeth). Many Irish, French, and Norwegain kings were also buried at Iona, for “all were ambitious of lying in this holy spot.”

It was in the very year of Columba’s death that Augustine came to Canterbury from Rome; the Iona monks had already sown the seed of Christianity in the north and east of England. And in 617 young Oswald of Northumbria went to Iona to be trained with the Juniors, the monastery being still the only university of these days. Later, when Oswald became King of Northumbria, he asked for an Iona monk to minister to him and his people. Aidan was sent to him after the previous monk sent came back to Iona saying the Northumbrians could not changed Aidan said he would go there which he was allowed to do to Christianise the Northumbrians so Aidan was sent to him, and we read in Bede how “when Aidan preached the Gospel it was most delightful to see the king himself interpreting the word of God to his commanders. . . . Churches were built. . . . the people flocked joyfully together to hear the word: money and lands were given of the King’s bounty to build monasteries.”

It was Aidan’s longing for the peace of the island monastery of Iona which led him to found a similar monastery on the island of Lindisfarne. Many Iona monks came there to finish their training who afterwards spread over England, building monasteries and schools, in which English children were taught by Celtic monks. Within thirty years of Aidan’s coming to England the Iona mission spread all over central and much of eastern England. The missionaries were beloved for their great humility, their intense zeal, their fidelity to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They were so natural, so free from officialdom, so much at the service of the people, so utterly “Christ’s men,” that everybody loved them. The end of the Columban influence in England came with the ministries of the brothers Chad and Cedd; after them the Church of England became merged in the Church of Rome.

The Columban Church had by that time influenced not only our own islands but the whole of western Christianity. “From the nest of Columba,” wrote O’Donnell in a play upon words, “those sacred doves took their flight to all quarters.” Celtic monks led the missionary movement in Europe.

It was under Adamnan that Iona itself accepted the jurisdiction of Rome. The plundering of the monastery by Scandinavian pirates in 794, 801, and 806 was virtually the end of the Columban Church there. The incessant raids of the pirates made life at Iona impossible. Many monks were put to death on the white sands when they went down to welcome the Scandinavian visitors. And so Columba’s remaining sons opened his grave; his remains were put in a gold and silver shrine and taken over to Ireland. The headquarters of the Columban church was transferred to Kells, as Columba had predicted, and Iona ceased to be the official religious centre of Scotland.

But Iona is still, and ever will remain, a sanctuary where every step is holy ground.



1 – McEwen, History of the Church of Scotland, p, 115.

2 – Montalembert, Monks of the West., p. 135.

3 – Carmicichael, Carmina Gaedelica, I., 163.

4 – Adamnan, III., ii References to Adamnan will in future be noted by number of Book and Chapter in the text

5 – Fiona MacLeod, Iona.

6 – Trenholme, The Story of Iona, p. 8.

7 – Quoted by kind permission of Rev. Kenneth MacLeod.

8 – Carmichael, op, cit., I., 281.

9 – Acta Sanctorum, June 9.

10 – Watson, “Celtic Church in its relations with Paganism,” Celtic Review, November 1915.

11 – Hume Brown, History of Scotland, p. 16.

12 – Hume Brown, History of Scotland, p. 17.

13 – Carmichael, op, cit., I. 321.

14 – Shane Leslie, Isle of Columcille, p. 88.

15 – Helen Waddell, Saints and Beasts, xi,

16 – Montalembert, Saints of the West., p. 115 seq.

17 – Carmichael, op. cit., I, 329.

18 – Carmichael, op. cit., I. 49.