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Iona: A History of the Island
Chapter IV. Iona

In 563, Columba, accompanied by twelve followers, sailed from Derry in a frail coracle of wicker and hides. After visiting his kinsmen in the Scottish Dalriada, he continued his journey northwards. According to tradition, he landed first on Oronsay, but, on discovering that his fatherland was still in sight, he re-embarked, and set his prow for Iona. On the hill a little westward of Port na Curaich, the Bay of the Coracle, where Columba landed, is a small cairn, called Carn Cul ri Eirinn, the Cairn of-the-back-to-Erin. Here, it is said, Columba scanned the southern horizon, and, satisfied that his beloved land was out of sight, buried the coracle on the beach, and entered into possession.

Iona was, in most respects, admirably suited for Columba’s purpose. Its position on the line which divided the Christian Scots of Argyll from the pagan Piets made it a convenient strategic centre for mission work. It had also natural advantages, as the late Duke of Argyll points out in his little book, Iona. “On the eastern side was the channel which he had missed, giving much-needed shelter from prevailing winds. Above all, it was a fertile island, giving promise of ample sustenance for man and beast. It is true Iona is a rocky island, the bones protruding at frequent intervals through the skin of turf. Even there, however, Columba must have seen that the pasture was close and good, and not far from the spot on which he first swept the southern sky he must have found that the heathy and rocky hills subsided into a lower tract, green with that delicious turf which, full of thyme and wild clover, gathers upon soils of shelly sand. This tract is called in Gaelic the ‘Machair’ or Sandy Plain. A little farther on he must soon have found that the eastern or sheltered side presented a slope of fertile soil exactly suiting the essential conditions of ancient husbandry —a tract of land which was as admirably adapted for the growth of corn as the remainder of it was suited to the support of flocks and herds.”

According to the Irish annals, the island was granted to Columba by Conall, the sixth king of the Scottish Dalriada; according to the venerable Bede, it was granted by Brude, King of the Northern Piets. “The probability is”, says Huyshe, “that Columba found Iona unoccupied and unclaimed, that Conall promised not to disturb his occupation of it, and that, when the Picts were converted to Christianity by Columba, King Brude sanctioned his right and title to the little island.”

Loyal workers from Ireland speedily followed the pioneers, and soon the island was as busy as a hive.

Of the buildings erected by Columba not a trace remains save one or two individual stones, such as the Saint’s Pillow, which will be mentioned later. The ruins of to-day date only from the Middle Ages, and even the traces of a still earlier monastery are of much later date than Columba. The original buildings were constructed on the Irish model, and were probably a mere collection of huts composed of timber and wattle, surrounded by a vallum of earth. We can picture it fairly clearly from Adamnan’s references: the oaken church with the sacristy adjoining it; the refectory with its fire-place and its stone vessel of water where the feet of tired pilgrims were washed, the kitchen near by; the guest chamber; the mill, the barn, the stable; the individual huts of the monks arranged round the enclosures; and, a little apart, the hut of the Abbot.

“The glory of these buildings was within,” says Riley. “It is by no means impossible ”, he goes on, “that the severe simplicity, as well as the uniformity of plan and size, which usually characterize our early churches, was less the result of the poverty or ignorance of their founders than of choice, originating in the spirit of their faith, or veneration for some model given them by their first teachers; for that the earliest Christian churches on the continent before the time of Constantine were like these, small and unadorned, there is no reason to doubt.”

The rule of the monastery in Iona, as in Ireland, enforced strict observance of religious duty, and ascetic practice. Obedience, Celibacy, Poverty, Caution and Reason in Speech, and Humility, these were its main features; and specially characteristic of Iona, Hospitality and Kindness to Animals. The monks called their Abbot Father; to him they were children, to one another brethren, and from the earliest times the community is spoken of as the Family of Hy.

The first two years of Columba’s residence in Iona were spent in learning the language, tilling the soil, training followers, and generally in organizing the community. The days were filled with prayer, study, and manual labour, and in this last Columba, with his great spiritual and intellectual gifts, was always ready to share. “In dairy, granary, or in the fields, each worshipped God in his appointed task, and made his toil a sacramental thing.”— (Troup.)

But these men were not recluses, and monastic routine did not satisfy them. The Columban Church was a missionary church, and its founder was preparing his followers for the great enterprise of converting an entirely pagan land to Christianity. His plan was to begin by attacking Pictish paganism in its stronghold, at the court of Brude at Inverness, and when the time was ripe he set forth with two carefully chosen comrades, St. Kenneth and St. Comgall, both Irish Piets, who knew the language of Brude’s court.

The route lay due north-east, through the Great Glen of Alban, with its continuous line of long, narrow lochs, now linked by the Caledonian Canal. So wild a region, with its dark, brooding mountains and primeval forests, could be traversed only on foot, and the whole adventure must have involved the “perils of water, perils of robbers, perils by the heathen, perils in the wilderness”, known to the Apostles of old. They reached their destination without hurt, but Brude, encouraged by Broichan, the chief Druid, refused them admittance. At the sign of the Cross, however—so the legend has it—the bolted gates flew open, and the awestruck king capitulated. Be that as it may, it is certain that Brude was won by the message of Columba, and embraced the Christian religion. Thus did the powerful King of Picts, the race which had withstood the legions of Rome herself, succumb to three soldiers of Christ.

To have converted the Pictish king was nominally to have converted the Pictish people, but Columba’s aim was to establish a living faith throughout the land. Bands of trained workers came on from Iona, and there ensued years of untiring labour during which Brude remained a staunch friend. By precept and example the Picts were gradually won over; churches were built; and in every valley Columba placed some “sentry for Christ ”.

The political effects of Columba’s mission are not to be ignored. His royal descent and his kinship with the noblest families of Ireland and the Scottish Dalriada would alone have made him a power politically; but, apart from this, the first ten years of his labours in Scotland established him as a statesman no less than as a religious leader of uncommon gifts. In winning the Picts to Christianity he had secured peace between the tribes, and prepared the way for political union. His reputation for wisdom and saintliness was now such that he was frequently called upon to settle disputes between the clans; the King of Strathclyde sent to consult him regarding his future; and when the King of the Scottish Dalriada died, it was Columba who appointed his successor, Aidan, who went to Iona for consecration at the saint’s hands. (This is the earliest record of a royal coronation in Great Britain.) In 575, at the famous Convention of Drumceatt in Ireland, Columba accomplished three objects of note: first, the “staying” of the Bards, whose sentence of expulsion because of their annoying exactions of hospitality, he had replaced by the imposition of restrictive rules, thus preserving a great Irish institution; secondly, the exemption of women from military service; and, thirdly, the political independence of the Scottish Dalriada, thus settling a long-standing quarrel between the Irish king and the King of Argyll.

Columba has been accredited with martial propensities, and according to tradition was concerned in more than one battle fought on Irish soil. Dr. Reeves, commenting on this, says that we must bear in mind the complexion of the times and the peculiar condition of society, of which civil faction seemed almost part and parcel.

When the Northern and Southern Picts were united, Columba sent his missionaries southwards as far as the Forth and the Clyde. South of this another saint was at work: Kentigern —better known as Mungo, the Beloved One —far-famed for the austere simplicity of his life. The saint had been trained at the school of St. Serf in Fife, and had made his centre at Cathures, now Glasgow. In one of his missionary journeys Columba was able to satisfy a long-felt desire to visit his unknown brother. “When Mungo heard that the Apostle of the North was near at hand, he marshalled his little company; the children led the way, followed by the novices, then the older monks, and then the holy man himself. ... As the two processions drew near, one company chanted the portion of a psalm, and from the others in the distance came the response.”— (Troup.) After enjoying Mungo’s frugal hospitality for many days, Columba departed, the saints having exchanged pastoral staves in token of their mutual love of Christ.

The places visited and churches founded in Columba’s lifetime all over the mainland and the isles are too numerous to count. Daughter monasteries arose, but Iona remained the “citadel and retreat” of the Celtic missionaries.

The monks must have been skilled and daring navigators. Adamnan mentions several types of boats belonging to the island fleet: the coracle of wicker and hide, the bark, the skiff, the cobble, the freight-ship, and the long boat hollowed out of a single oak or pine tree. The, most famous of the sailor-monks was

Cormac, who penetrated to Orkney and Shetland, and, it is thought probable, to the Faroes and Iceland. Columba himself, like all Celts, loved the sea, and long after his death was invoked by sailors in storm. “He who is wise with the wisdom of a hundred storms”, says Kenneth Macleod, “will have two tillers to his rudder: the Art of the Druids for the luck of Wind, and the Faith of Iona for the stilling of the Waves.”

It is not known how long before his death Columba ceased travelling. From work he never ceased, and in later years he probably gave much of his time to the copying of manuscripts, an art in which he was highly skilled. Two splendid manuscripts are commonly attributed to him — the Cathach, a Psalter (in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy), and the Book of Durrow, the Gospels (in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin). He was not only a scribe but a poet, and probably a member of the Order of Bards which he defended at Drumceatt. Of the large poetical output attributed to him, three fine Latin hymns and several poems in his native Gaelic are preserved.    .

Stories of Columba’s visionary powers abound in Adamnan’s pages. In our modern civilization, what is called “second sight” is generally regarded as mere superstition; yet even amongst the classes we call educated, and especially in our “Celtic fringes”, there are not a few who believe it to be “a quickened inward vision”, a veritable sixth sense, as real as the physical senses, or more so. “The faculty itself is so apt to the spiritual law,” says Fiona Macleod, “that one wonders why it is so set apart in doubt.” To one who marvelled at his power, Columba made reply: “Heaven has granted to some to see on occasion in their mind, clearly and surely, the whole of earth and sea and sky.”

Adamnan records of Columba that "he could not pass the space even of a single hour without applying himself either to prayer, or reading, or writing, or else to some manual labour”. He tells us how children loved him —one climbed to his knee in a poor man’s house—and how the saint loved animals— he sent a monk to tend a storm-tossed crane alighted from Ireland, till after three days it was ready to fly forth. When Columba was more or less tied by frailty to the island—save for his retreats to Hinba (Elachnave), an islet where a monastery for recluses and penitents existed, and where Eithne, the saint’s mother, is said to be interred — many came from far distances to seek help and counsel. Pilgrims of all degrees were constantly ferried across the strait from Mull by the monks of Iona.

To the end Columba was lord and servant of all.

In the month of May, in the seventy-seventh year of his life, Columba, too feeble to walk the distance between the monastery and the field where the monks were at work, was carried over to the Machar in a cart, and here he told the sorrowing brethren that his end was at hand. On a Saturday in early June, he set forth with his faithful servant Diormit, and took leave of the old familiar places. In the granary he blessed the store of grain, and as he returned to the monastery he rested half-way, at a spot where a cross was afterwards placed. Here, Adamnan tells us, the old white horse that used to carry the milk-pails between the byre and the monastery came up and put its head in the Abbot’s lap, whinnying, and shedding copious tears; and when Diormit tried to drive him away, Columba stayed his attendant’s hand, and “blessed his sorrowing servant the horse".

He then ascended the little hill overlooking the monastery, and blessed the island, uttering the prophetic words quoted on the first page of this book. Returning to his cell, he sat transcribing the Psalter, but when he got as far as verse 10 of Psalm xxxiv: “They that seek the Lord shall not want any good thing”, he stopped, saying: “Let Baithen finish it".

Resting on his bed after vespers that evening, he gave Diormit a message to the brethren: “This, dear children, is my last message to you—that you preserve with each other sincere charity and peace.”

When the midnight bell tolled for nocturns, he rose with a last effort, and made his way to the church. Diormit, full of dread, followed his master, calling: “Where art thou, Father?” Groping his way in the darkness, he found the saint lying before the altar, and laid the holy head on his lap. The monks came running with lights, and at the sight of their dying master fell a-weeping. His face lit with joy, the saint made a feeble movement of benediction, “and immediately breathed forth his spirit ”.

After three days of vigil, his remains were interred in a simple grave, in the manner of the time.

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