St Columba

Life of Columba



Columba was born in 521 in Donegal, Ireland, and named Crimthann, meaning ‘fox’. He was of royal blood. Two cousins became high kings of the Uí Néill. Columba might have become king himself had he not been sent into the Church. There he received a new name – Columba, Latin for ‘dove’. Later he became known as Colum-Chille ‘Dove of the Church’.

Detail of the Columba window in Q Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh Castle.

   Detail of the Columba window in Q Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh Castle

A statue of St Columba at Iona Abbey     In 563, aged 42, Columba left Ireland for Argyll. He arrived on Iona with 12 companions and established a monastery. Iona wasn’t the first monastery he founded, neither was it his last. But it soon became his favourite. Columba didn’t come as a missionary. The people in Argyll were his people, Gaels and already Christian. Columba travelled among them as a priest among his flock. We read of him journeying through ‘the rough and rocky district of Ardnamurchan’, and of him sailing across to Coll, Islay and Skye. He baptised, married, buried and admonished his flock. No one was too mighty, or too meek, for Columba, friend of kings and commoners alike.

A statue of St Columba at Iona Abbey.

Occasionally, Columba left Argyll. He returned to Ireland periodically. He also undertook tiring missionary journeys into Pictland to the east. But Iona was his home. And there he died, on Sunday 9 June 597. He’d spent that day visiting his beloved island community. Returning to the monastery, he entered his writing-hut on Tòrr an Aba to work on Psalm 34. He couldn’t finish it, and retired to his sleeping-hut. When the bell tolled for the midnight office he hastened to the church, sank to his knees in prayer – and breathed his last. He was aged 75.

‘His relics and holy remains are on earth with honour and reverence … and his soul is in heaven.’

(from Adomnán’s Life of Columba, c. 690)

    An artist’s impression of Columba’s funeral on Iona
An artist’s impression of Columba’s funeral on Iona


WHO CONVERTED SCOTLAND?

St Columba is sometimes revered as the man who brought Christianity to Scotland. This is misleading. Whilst there’s no doubt most of Scotland was converted from Iona, there were saints spreading the Christian gospel before Columba.

The Roman troops manning Hadrian’s Wall in the 4th century included Christians. But such imperial Christianity didn’t appeal much to the local pagans (the word simply means ‘countryfolk’). However, after the Romans left around 400, Christianity took root among the native Britons of Cumbria and Galloway. The oldest Christian memorials in Scotland, dating from the later 400s, come from Galloway. One at Kirkmadrine, in the Rhinns, refers to at least two bishops.

St Martin’s Cross, Iona

St Martin’s Cross, Iona

Whithorn Priory

Whithorn Priory
A third bishop in the area around this date was Nynia. We know him better as St Ninian. He established his see at Whithorn. Bede called his cathedral Candida Casa, ‘the white house’. Excavations at Whithorn have shown that the Christian cemetery there dates from the earliest Christian times. They also show there was a pagan cemetery on the site already. Clearly, the converted had no wish to abandon the burial-places of their ancestors.
This embryonic Christian church was also a vital, missionary church. Bede tells of Ninian going north to convert the southern Picts. Another missionary was St Patrick, son of a former Roman official and Christian deacon. Around 460, he was sent from Cumbria to Ireland to help convert the Gaels. Among the converted was Fedilmid, Columba’s father.

Columba’s Iona wasn’t the only Irish monastery engaged in missionary work in northern Scotland. His fellow Gaels, among them St Moluag of Lismore and St Maelrubha of Applecross, are commemorated across Scotland. Then there are the largely unsung heroes, who settled in one place – among them St Machar at Aberdeen, and St Cyrus, in Angus.

St Ninian window in Q Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh Castle

St Ninian window in Q Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh Castle
But it is Columba who is credited with introducing Christianity to the Picts. And to one of his successors on Iona, St Aedán, is attributed perhaps the greatest mission of all – the conversion of the Angles of Northumbria, and thereby much of England.