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§ 18. St. Columba and the Monastery of Iona.


John Jamieson (D. D.): An Historical Account of the Ancient Culdees of Iona, and of their Settlements in Scotland, England, and Ireland. Edinb., 1811 (p. 417).

Montalembert: La Moines d’ Occident, Vol. III., pp. 99–332 (Paris, 1868).

The Duke of Argyll: Iona. Second ed., London, 1871 (149 p

*Adamnan: Life of St. Columba, Founder of Hy, ed. by William Reeves (Canon of Armagh), Edinburgh, 1874. (Originally printed for the Irish Archaeolog. Society and for the Bannatyne Club, Dublin, 1856).

Skene: Celtic Scotland, II. 52 sqq. (Edinb., 1877). Comp. the Lit. in § 7.


Saint Columba or Columbcille, (died June 9, 597) is the real apostle of Scotland. He is better known to us than Ninian and Kentigern. The account of Adamnan (624–704), the ninth abbot of Hy, was written a century after Columba’s death from authentic records and oral traditions, although it is a panegyric rather than a history. Later biographers have romanized him like St. Patrick. He was descended from one of the reigning families of Ireland and British Dalriada, and was born at, Gartan in the county of Donegal about a.d. 521. He received in baptism the symbolical name Colum, or in Latin Columba (Dove, as the symbol of the Holy Ghost), to which was afterwards added cille (or kill, i.e. “of the church,” or “the dove of the cells,” on account of his frequent attendance at public worship, or, more probably, for his being the founder of many churches.8080    In the Irish calendar there are twenty saints of the name Columba, or Columbanus, Columbus, Columb. The most distinguished next to Columbcille is Columbanus, the Continental missionary, who has often been confounded with Columba. In the Continental hagiology, the name is used for female saints. See Reeves, p. 248. He entered the monastic seminary of Clonard, founded by St. Finnian, and afterwards another monastery near Dublin, and was ordained a priest. He planted the church at Derry in 545, the monastery of Darrow in 553, and other churches. He seems to have fondly clung all his life to his native Ireland, and to the convent of Derry. In one of his elegies, which were probably retouched by the patriotism of some later Irish bard, he sings:


“Were all the tributes of Scotia [i.e. Ireland] mine,

From its midland to its borders,

I would give all for one little cell

In my beautiful Derry.

For its peace and for its purity,

For the white angels that go

In crowds from one end to the other,

I love my beautiful Derry.

For its quietness and 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 I

Let him who profanes it be cursed.

Beloved are Durrow and Derry,

Beloved is Raphoe the pure,

Beloved the fertile Drumhome,

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.”8181    Montalembert, III. 112. This poem strikes the key-note of father Prout’s more musical “Bells of Shandon which sound so grand on the river Lee.”


In 563, the forty-second year of his age, Columba prompted by a passion for travelling and a zeal for the spread of Christianity,8282    “Pro Christo peregrinare volens,” says Adamnan (p. 108), who knows nothing of his excommunication and exile from Ireland in consequence of a great battle. And yet it is difficult to account for this tradition. In one of the Irish Keltic poems ascribed to Columba, he laments to have been driven from Erin by his own fault and in consequence of the blood shed in his battles. Montalembert, III. 145. sailed with twelve fellow-apostles to the West of Scotland, possibly on invitation of the provincial king, to whom he was related by blood. He was presented with the island of Hy, commonly called Iona,8383    This is not an adaptation to Columba’s Hebrew name (Neander), but a corruption of Ii-shona, i.e. the Holy Island (from Ii, the Keltic name for island, and hona or shona, sacred). So Dr. Lindsay Alexander and Cunningham. But Reeves (l.c. Introd., p. cxxx.) regards Ioua as the genuine form, which is the feminine adjective of Iou (to be pronounced like the English Yeo). The island has borne no fewer than thirty names. near the Western coast of Scotland about fifty miles West from Oban. It is an inhospitable island, three miles and a half long and a mile and a half broad, partly cultivated, partly covered with hill pasture, retired dells, morass and rocks, now in possession of the Duke of Argyll, numbering about three hundred Protestant inhabitants, an Established Presbyterian Church, and a Free Church. The neighboring island of Staffa, though smaller and uninhabited, is more interesting to the ordinary tourist, and its Fingal’s Cave is one of the most wonderful specimens of the architectural skill of nature; it looks like a Gothic cathedral, 66 feet high, 42 feet broad, and 227 feet long, consisting of majestic basalt columns, an arched roof, and an open portal towards the ocean, which dashes in and out in a constant succession of waves, sounding solemn anthems in this unique temple of nature. Columba and his fellow-monks must have passed it on their missionary wanderings; but they were too much taken up with heaven to look upon the wonders of the earth, and the cave remained comparatively unknown to the world till 1772. Those islands wore the same aspect in the sixth century as now, with the exception of the woods, which have disappeared. Walter Scott (in the “Lord of the Isles”) has thrown the charm of his poetry over the Hebridean archipelago, from which proceeded the Christianization of Scotland.8484    “No two objects of interest,” says the Duke of Argyll (Iona, p. 1) “could be more absolutely dissimilar in kind than the two neighboring islands, Staffa and Iona:—Iona dear to Christendom for more than a thousand years;—Staffa known to the scientific and the curious only since the close of the last century. Nothing but an accident of geography could unite their names. The number of those who can thoroughly understand and enjoy them both is probably very small.”

By the labors of Columba and his successors, Iona has become one of the most venerable and interesting spots in the history of Christian missions. It was a light-house in the darkness of heathenism. We can form no adequate conception of the self-denying zeal of those heroic missionaries of the extreme North, who, in a forbidding climate and exposed to robbers and wild beasts, devoted their lives to the conversion of savages. Columba and his friends left no monuments of stone and wood; nothing is shown but the spot on the South of the island where he landed, and the empty stone coffin where his body was laid together with that of his servant; his bones were removed afterwards to Dunkeld. The old convent was destroyed and the monks were killed by the wild Danes and Norsemen in the tenth century. The remaining ruins of Iona—a cathedral, a chapel, a nunnery, a graveyard with the tombstones of a number of Scottish and Norwegian and Irish kings, and three remarkable carved crosses, which were left of three hundred and sixty that (according to a vague tradition) were thrown into the sea by the iconoclastic zeal of the Reformation—are all of the Roman Catholic period which succeeded the original Keltic Christianity, and which lived on its fame. During the middle ages Iona was a sort of Jerusalem of the North, where pilgrims loved to worship, and kings and noblemen desired to be buried. When the celebrated Dr. Johnson, in his Tour to the Hebrides, approached Iona, he felt his piety grow warmer. No friend of missions can visit that lonely spot, shrouded in almost perpetual fog, without catching new inspiration and hope for the ultimate triumph of the gospel over all obstacles.8585    “Hither came holy men from Erin to take counsel with the Saint on the troubles of clans and monasteries which were still dear to him. Hither came also bad men red-handed from blood and sacrilege to make confession and do penance at Columba’s feet. Hither, too, came chieftains to be blessed, and even kings to be ordained—for it is curious that on this lonely spot, so far distant from the ancient centres of Christendom, took place the first recorded case of a temporal sovereign seeking from a minister of the Church what appears to have been very like formal consecration. Adamnan, as usual, connects his narrative of this event, which took place in 547, with miraculous circumstances, and with Divine direction to Columba, in his selection of Aidan, one of the early kings of the Irish Dalriadic colony in Scotland.
   “ The fame of Columba’s supernatural powers attracted many and strange visitors to the shores on which we are now looking. Nor can we fail to remember, with the Reilig Odhrain at our feet, how often the beautiful galleys of that olden time came up the sound laden with the dead,—’their dark freight a vanished life.’ A grassy mound not far from the present landing place is known as the spot on which bodies were laid when they were first carried to the shore. We know from the account of Columba’s own burial that the custom is to wake the body with the singing of psalms during three days and nights before laying it to its final rest. It was then home in solemn procession to the grave. How many of such processions must have wound along the path that leads to the Reilig Odhrain! How many fleets of galley must have ridden at anchor on that bay below us, with all those expressive signs of mourning which belong to ships, when kings and chiefs who had died in distant lands were carried hither to be buried in this holy Isle! From Ireland, from Scotland, and from distant Norway there came, during many centuries, many royal funerals to its shores. And at this day by far the most interesting remains upon the Island are the curious and beautiful tombstones and crosses which lie in the Reilig Odhrain. They belong indeed, even the most ancient of them, to, in age removed by many hundred years from Columba’s time. But they represent the lasting reverence which his name has inspired during so many generations and the desire of a long succession of chiefs and warriors through the Middle Ages and down almost to our own time, to be buried in the soil he trod.” The Duke of Argyll, l.c., pp. 95-98.

The arrival of Columba at Iona was the beginning of the Keltic church in Scotland. The island was at that time on the confines of the Pictic and Scotic jurisdiction, and formed a convenient base for missionary labors among the Scots, who were already Christian in name, but needed confirmation, and among the Picts, who were still pagan, and had their name from painting their bodies and fighting naked. Columba directed his zeal first to the Picts; he visited King Brude in his fortress, and won his esteem and co-operation in planting Christianity among his people. “He converted them by example as well as by word” (Bede). He founded a large number of churches and monasteries in Ireland and Scotland directly or through his disciples.8686    See a list of churches in Reeves, p. xlix. lxxi., and Forbes, Kalendar, etc. p. 306, 307; comp. also Skene, II. 127 sqq. He was involved in the wars so frequent in those days, when even women were required to aid in battle, and he availed himself of military force for the overthrow of paganism. He used excommunication very freely, and once pursued a plunderer with maledictions into the sea until the water reached to his knees. But these rough usages did not interfere with the veneration for his name. He was only a fair type of his countrymen. “He had,” says Montalembert, “the vagabond inclination, the ardent, agitated, even quarrelsome character of the race.” He had the “perfervidum ingenium Scotorum.” He was manly, tall and handsome, incessantly active, and had a sonorous and far-reaching voice, rolling forth the Psalms of David, every syllable distinctly uttered. He could discern the signs of the weather. Adamnan ascribes to him an angelic countenance, a prophetic fore-knowledge and miracles as great as those performed by Christ, such as changing water into wine for the celebration of the eucharist, when no wine could be obtained, changing bitter fruit into sweet, drawing water from a rock, calming the storm at sea, and curing many diseases. His biography instead of giving solid facts, teems with fabulous legends, which are told with childlike credulity. O’Donnell’s biography goes still further. Even the pastoral staff of Columba, left accidentally upon the shore of Iona, was transported across the sea by his prayers to meet its disconsolate owner when he landed somewhere in Ireland.8787    Montalembert’s delineation of Columba’s character assumes, apparently, the truth of these biographies, and is more eloquent than true. See Skene, II. 145.

Columba died beside the altar in the church while engaged in his midnight devotions. Several poems are ascribed to him—one in praise of the natural beauties of his chosen island, and a monastic rule similar to that of St. Benedict; but the “regula ac praecepta” of Columba, of which Wilfrid spoke at the synod of Whitby, probably mean discipline or observance rather than a written rule.8888    On the regula Columbani, see Ebrard, 147 sqq.

The church establishment of Columba at Iona belongs to the second or monastic period of the Irish church, of which it formed an integral part. It consisted of one hundred and fifty persons under the monastic rule. At the head of it stood a presbyter-abbot, who ruled over the whole province, and even the bishops, although the episcopal function of ordination was recognized.8989    Bede, H. E., III. 4; V. 9. The monks were a family of brethren living in common. They were divided into three classes: the seniors, who attended to the religious services, instruction, and the transcribing of the Scriptures; the middle-aged, who were the working brethren, devoted to agriculture, the tending of the cattle, and domestic labor; and the youth, who were alumni under instruction. The dress consisted of a white tunica or under garment, and a camilla or outer garment and hood made of wool. Their food was bread, milk, eggs, fish, and on Sundays and festivals mutton or beef. The doctrinal views and ecclesiastical customs as to the observance of Easter and the tonsure were the same as among the Britons and the Irish in distinction from the Roman system introduced by Augustin among the Saxons.9090    For a very full account of the economy and constitution of Iona, see Reeves, Introduction to Life of Saint Columba, pp. c.-cxxxii.

The monastery of Iona, says Bede, held for a long time the pre-eminence over the monasteries and churches of the Picts and Northern Scots. Columba’s successors, he adds, were distinguished for their continency, their love of God, and strict attention to their rules of discipline, although they followed “uncertain cycles in their computation of the great festival (Easter), because they were so far away from the rest of the world, and had none to supply them with the synodical decrees on the paschal observance; wherefore they only practised such works of piety and chastity as they could learn from the prophetical, evangelical, and apostolical writings. This manner of keeping Easter continued among them for a hundred and fifty years, till the year of our Lord’s incarnation 715.”9191    H. E. III. 4.

Adamnan (d. 704), the ninth successor of Columba, in consequence of a visit to the Saxons, conformed his observance of Easter to the Roman Church; but his brethren refused to follow him in this change. After his death, the community of Iona became divided on the Easter question, until the Columban monks, who adhered to the old custom, were by royal command expelled (715). With this expulsion terminates the primacy of Iona in the kingdom of the Picts.

The monastic church was broken up or subordinated to the hierarchy of the secular clergy.



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