Today is the feast of Saint Columba (Irish: Colm Cille, ‘church dove’;7 December 521 – 9 June 597), an Irish abbot and missionary credited with spreading Christianity in present-day Scotland. He founded the abbey on Iona, which became a dominant religious and political institution in the region for centuries. He is the Patron Saint of Derry. He was highly regarded by both the Gaels of Dál Riata and the Picts, and is remembered today as one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. His ministry in Scotland coincided with the complex ethnic battles out of which emerged modern Scots – a story for another time.
Columba reportedly studied under some of Ireland’s most prominent church figures and founded several monasteries in the country. Around 563 he and his twelve companions crossed to Dunaverty near Southend, Argyll in Kintyre before settling in Iona in Scotland, then part of the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata, where they founded a new abbey as a base for spreading Christianity among the northern Pictish kingdoms who were pagan. He remained active in Irish politics, though he spent most of the remainder of his life in Scotland. Three surviving early medieval Latin hymns are attributed to him.
The main source of information about Saint Columba’s life is the Vita Columbae (“Life of Columba”), a hagiography written in the style of “saints’ lives” narratives that had become widespread throughout medieval Europe. These accounts were written in Latin and served as formal ecclesiastical collections of the deeds and miracles attributed to the saints, both during his or her life or after death. The canonization of a saint, especially one who had lived on the fringes of the medieval Christian world like Saint Columba, required a well-written hagiography to be submitted to Rome, but popular belief and local cults of sainthood often led to the veneration of these men and women without official approval from the Catholic Church.
Writing a century after the death of Saint Columba, the author Adomnán (also known as Eunan), served as the ninth Abbot of Iona until his death in 704. It is generally believed that Adomnán drew extensively from an existing body of accounts regarding the life of Saint Columba, including a Latin collection entitled “De uirtutibus sancti Columbae”, composed c. 640. This earlier work is attributed to Cummene Find, who became the abbot of Iona and served as the leader of the monastic island community from 656 until his death in 668 A.D. or 669.
While the Vita Columbae often conflicts with contemporaneous accounts of various battles, figures, and dates, it remains the most important surviving work from early medieval Scotland, and provides a wealth of knowledge regarding the Picts and other ethnic and political groups from this time period. The Vita also offers a valuable insight into the monastic practices of Iona and the daily life of the early medieval Gaelic monks.
Columba was born to Fedlimid and Eithne of the Cenel Conaill in Gartan, near Lough Gartan, in modern County Donegal, in Ireland. On his father’s side, he was great-great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish high king of the 5th century. He was baptised in Temple-Douglas, in the County Donegal parish of Conwal (mid-way between Gartan and Letterkenny), by his teacher and foster-uncle Saint Crunathan.
When sufficiently advanced in reading and writing he entered the monastic school of Movilla, at Newtownards, under St. Finnian who had studied at St. Ninian’s “Magnum Monasterium” on the shores of Galloway. He was about twenty, and a deacon when, having completed his training at Movilla, he travelled southwards into Leinster, where he became a pupil of an aged bard named Gemman. On leaving him, Columba entered the monastery of Clonard, governed at that time by Finnian, noted for sanctity and learning. Here he absorbed the traditions of the Welsh Church from Finnian whohad been trained in the schools of St. David.
In early Christian Ireland the druidic tradition collapsed due to the spread of the new Christian faith. The study of Latin and Christian theology in monasteries flourished. Columba became a pupil at the monastic school at Clonard Abbey, situated on the River Boyne in modern County Meath. During the sixth century, some of the most significant names in the history of Irish Christianity studied at the Clonard monastery. It is said that the average number of scholars under instruction at Clonard was 3,000. Columba was one of twelve students of St. Finnian who became known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. He became a monk and eventually was ordained a priest.
Another preceptor of Columba was St. Mobhi, whose monastery at Glasnevin was frequented by such famous men as St. Canice, St. Comgall, and St. Ciaran. A plague which devastated Ireland in 544 caused the dispersion of Mobhi’s disciples, and Columba returned to Ulster. He was a striking figure of great stature and powerful build, with a loud, melodious voice which could be heard from one hilltop to another. The following years were marked by Columba’s foundation of several important monasteries, Derry, Co. Derry; Durrow, Co. Offaly; and Kells, Co. Meath. While at Derry it is said that he planned a pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem, but did not proceed farther than Tours.
Tradition asserts that, some time around 560, he became involved in a quarrel with Saint Finnian of Movilla Abbey over a psalter. Columba copied the manuscript at the scriptorium under Saint Finnian, intending to keep the copy. Saint Finnian disputed his right to keep the copy. The dispute eventually led to the pitched Battle of Cúl Dreimhne in Cairbre Drom Cliabh (now in Co. Sligo) in 561, during which many men were killed. A second grievance that led him to induce the clan Neill to rise and engage in battle against King Diarmait at Cooldrevny in 561 was the king’s violation of the right of sanctuary belonging to Columba’s person as a monk on the occasion of the murder of Prince Curnan, the saint’s kinsman. Prince Curnan of Connaught, who had fatally injured a rival in a hurling match (rough game !!) and had taken refuge with Columba, was dragged from his protector’s arms and killed by Diarmaid’s men, in defiance of the rights of sanctuary.
A synod of clerics and scholars threatened to excommunicate him for these deaths, but St. Brendan of Birr spoke on his behalf with the result that he was allowed to go into exile instead. Columba’s own conscience was uneasy, and on the advice of an aged hermit, Molaise, he resolved to expiate his offence by going into exile and win for Christ as many souls as had perished in the terrible battle of Cuil Dremne. He left Ireland, to return only once, many years later. Columba’s copy of the psalter has been traditionally associated with the Cathach of St. Columba.
In 563, he traveled to Scotland with twelve companions (said to include Odran of Iona) in a wicker currach covered with leather. According to legend he first landed on the Kintyre Peninsula, near Southend. However, being still in sight of his native land, he moved farther north up the west coast of Scotland. The island of Iona was made over to him by his kinsman Conall mac Comgaill King of Dál Riata, who perhaps had invited him to come to Scotland in the first place. However, there is a sense in which he was not leaving his native people, as the Irish Gaels had been colonizing the west coast of Scotland for the previous two centuries. Aside from the services he provided guiding the only center of literacy in the region, his reputation as a holy man led to his role as a diplomat among the tribes.
There are also many stories of miracles which he performed during his work to convert the Picts, the most famous being his encounter in 565 with an unidentified animal that some have equated with the Loch Ness Monster. It is said that he banished a ferocious “water beast” to the depths of the River Ness after it had killed a Pict and then tried to attack Columba’s disciple. He visited the pagan King Bridei, King of Fortriu, at his base in Inverness, winning the Bridei’s respect, although not his conversion. He subsequently played a major role in the politics of the country. He was also very energetic in his work as a missionary, and, in addition to founding several churches in the Hebrides, he worked to turn his monastery at Iona into a school for missionaries. He was a renowned man of letters, having written several hymns and being credited with having transcribed 300 books. One of the few, if not the only, times he left Scotland was towards the end of his life, when he returned to Ireland to found the monastery at Durrow.
Columba died on Iona and was buried in 597 by his monks in the abbey he created. In 794 the Vikings descended on Iona. Columba’s relics were finally removed in 849 and divided between Scotland and Ireland. The parts of the relics which went to Ireland are reputed to be buried in Downpatrick, County Down, with St. Patrick and St. Brigid, or at Saul Church neighboring Downpatrick.
Very little is known about the Picts of the time of Columba, who are often described as the indigenous people of Scotland who were eventually overrun by Irish Celts. It is thought that they were also Celtic but were wiped out by the Irish. It is more likely that they were defeated in battle and eventually assimilated into the kingdom of Alba (Scotland).
A great deal of what is “known” about the Picts comes from much later romantic legends, although there is also a good body of archeological data. One such set of legends involves the Pech. The Pech were a type of gnome-like people. They were short but extremely strong. They are mostly remembered for brewing the legendary heather ale and battling the Celts. In one tale, an old blind Pech is on his deathbed. He asks his sons if he can feel their arm muscles, to feel how strong they’ve grown. His sons play a prank on him, giving him a metal cup instead of one son’s arm. He snaps the metal cup with his fingers, shattering it, to the amazement of the sons. Even sick on his deathbed, he is stronger than his young healthy sons.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a poem about the brewing of heather ale by the Picts/Pech. You can find it here:
The first stanza:
From the bonny bells of heather
They brewed a drink long-syne,
Was sweeter far than honey,
Was stronger far than wine.
They brewed it and they drank it,
And lay in a blessed swound
For days and days together
In their dwellings underground.
Several modern breweries make a heather ale, as do home brewers. The general idea is to brew a strong ale using heather flowers instead of hops. If you are not skilled at brewing I’d suggest settling for a bottle from a regular brewery. I’ve had a go at brewing ales and beers from kits, but I can’t say that I was terribly successful. It’s not something you undertake lightly. It pays to be a dedicated enthusiast. My homemade ginger beer is pretty good, though. Here’s one of the commercial brands. Never tried it.