A dozen young men plan to embark at Derry in Northern Ireland in May, 1963. Partly Scots and partly Irish, they will represent several denominations. They will row and sail their craft so as to reach Iona at Pentecost, which this year falls on June 2, for it was on the eve of Pentecost in 563 that St. Columba, sailing from Derry with 12 companions, beached his coracle on the island of Iona, off Scotland’s western coast.

The modern craft will not be a replica of the Celtic one, because the art of building so large a coracle is lost. Instead, as its gift for these centenary celebrations, the Irish Presbyterian Church has offered a splendid boat, whose central mast and crossbar resemble the familiar symbol of the World Council of Churches. After the successful ending of her voyage, she will be in regular service with the Iona community.

To the island itself every branch of the Christian church has been invited. Anglicans will be represented by the Bishop of Durham, in whose diocese lies Lindisfarne, that daughter colony of the Iona monks. The Greek Orthodox will send a representative, recalling the ancient links between Celtic and Eastern Christianity. Members of both established and free churches, from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, are expected—for although in these official celebrations the Church of Scotland will naturally play the host, Iona Abbey is one church in Christendom where every denomination has a legal right to worship. The sermon, on Whitsunday morning, is to be preached by the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (Professor James S. Stewart). In order that the service may be ecumenical, with as wide a communion as is possible, Bishop Lesslie Newbigin of the Church of South India will celebrate the sacrament. Himself a Church of Scotland missionary, Dr. Newbigin comes to the divided West from a younger but reunited Church in the Far East.

After this great act of remembrance, to be relayed across Britain by teams of television cameras, there will be days devoted to the quiet of retreat: to prayer and discussion of the missionary challenge in the present age. And that in turn will lead on to the celebration, a week later, of St. Columba’s Day, for it was on June 9, 597, that Columba died. Special services will be held in most Scottish congregations, and a fleet of steamers will bring more than a thousand people to Iona. They will walk there on an ancient roadway, only in recent months uncovered—a broad road of granite boulders running from the sea to the old monastic buildings, traditionally named “the Street of the Dead.” It was by this road that kings and common folk were brought to burial, in the holy ground beside St. Oran’s Chapel where today a German pilot, his plane shot down in the last war, lies beside what are said to be the tombs of forty-eight Scottish, eight Norwegian, and four Irish kings. This year the living will seek to face the future in the spirit of Columba, as they gather in their hundreds for a vast open-air service of commitment and dedication. The Church’s mission, especially among young people, will be vividly presented by this remembrance of the past.

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The Spirit of Columba

Such is the main outline of the plans envisaged. Roman Catholics also will be visiting Iona on pilgrimage. Episcopalians from the Church of Ireland have built a coracle, not quite of the traditional pattern but large enough for the traditional crew. What of the man whose memory has inspired and in part united so many churches from so many lands? Can we, across the intervening centuries, construct some picture of Columba as he was?

Adamnan, his eighth successor as Abbot of Iona, drew the portrait as he saw it a century after the saint had died. Written on the spot, amid the familiar beauty of sea and sand and hill, with personal memories lingering in the community, his work has great historical interest, but it is not a biography as we understand the term today. He called it The Virtues of St. Columba, attempting no more than a jumbled collection of edifying anecdotes. His account of prophecies, miracles, and visions presents the hero as a sort of Christianized Druid, in whose life the magical side predominated. “Forceful” would be too weak a word to describe the character sketched in Adamnan’s pages; Columba was tempestuous with the elemental violence of nature as he calmed the storm, silenced King Brude with the thunder of his melodious voice, or tamed a monster by the shore of Loch Ness. But there was a gentler side to the character of this imperious and wonder-working pioneer; he was united to his monks by deep affection, and when death was near even the old white horse came to lay its head sadly on his breast. And Columba was ardently a man of faith. That fact is clearly written in a few Latin verses which are his sole surviving work. Gradual though his spirit’s growth may have been, divine grace triumphed; in him, as was said of a later Scottish cleric, the old man and the new were both exceptionally strong.

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Of royal blood on either side of his parentage, Columba was born in 521. He soon showed such intellectual promise that he was trained for the scholarly monastic life. At Moville, Clonard, and other Irish schools he obtained what was perhaps the best education that Europe could then provide, basically in the Latin Bible, but also with some smattering at least of the classics. Nonetheless, he remained warmly attached to the ancient literature of his native land, regarding the better elements in Druidism as a genuine praeparatio evangelica. The Christian Gospel was to him the fulfillment rather than the enemy of natural religion. Hence came his love of nature, above all his love for the ancient oak groves at Derry; this, the first of many monasteries which he founded in Ireland, was remembered by him to the end of his days with tender longing. And when, at the synod of Drumceatt, more rigorous ecclesiastics wished to suppress the writings of the Irish bards, Columba gave them a spirited and successful defense.

But it was his love of books that brought about his banishment from Ireland. Finnian, his teacher at Moville, had a particularly valuable text of the Latin Scriptures, which Columba copied out by stealth. The enraged owner demanded restoration, and Diarmit, high king of Ireland, gave a celebrated judgment on the law of copyright: “To every cow her calf, and to every book belongs its copy.” Other actions of the king, including a violation of the right of sanctuary, were resented by Columba’s kinsmen, who took the field and at the battle of Cooldrummon, near Sligo, slaughtered 3,000 of their foes. For this bloodshed Columba was held responsible; there was even talk of excommunicating him, and the prick of conscience may have begun the transformation of his character. At least he felt called, like Abraham, to go out from home and kindred on a penitential pilgrimage which would at the same time be a missionary venture. He sailed forth until, at Iona, he found that the hills of Ireland had vanished out of sight.

It was not the first evangelization of Scotland, or even of the Scottish Highlands. Iona was already a Christian center when Columba came. Mungo and others were working at about the same time in the central districts. And more than a century before, Ninian and his followers had begun to penetrate North and East from Galloway. But Columba, by his frequent journeys, his sense of strategy, and his gift for leadership, organized a church which spread from Iona across Scotland and down into the north of England. Though himself only a presbyter, he had bishops under his rule as abbot, and to the Celtic period of Scottish Christianity the name “Columban” is not unfittingly applied.

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Sound statesmanship led him to seek the patronage of the pagan King Brude at Inverness. Similar motives directed his part in the election of Aidan as ruler of Dalriada, that petty kingdom in modern Argyll which was to become the nucleus of the Scottish nation. Aidan was the first king in Scotland to be crowned with a religious ceremony; according to perhaps dubious tradition, the same Stone of Destiny which still figures in British coronations was used for his enthronement. Whether or not such details may be true, Columba was at least in some sense a founder of the Scottish kingdom no less than of the Scottish church.

“Instead of monks’ voices shall be lowing of cattle; but ere the world come to an end, Iona shall be as it was.” So runs the old Gaelic saying. For more than 600 years, despite pillage and massacre by Scandinavian raiders, Celtic monks continued to garrison Iona; they were then succeeded by Cistercians until, at the Reformation, the old buildings were abandoned to decay. But early in the present century the abbey church was restored by public subscription, and the rest of the medieval monastery has now been rebuilt by the Iona community under the leadership of Dr. George MacLeod. Some earlier Celtic sites have come to light, including the very cell which Columba may have used. And the island, still haunted by his memory, is again a place of prayerfulness and peace.


Lecturer in Church History and Doctrine

Leeds University

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