Chapter XXIV.


ON a day, at the end of two years from his arrival on Iona, Columba goes to the beach, where his craft of wicker and cowhide lies moored, waiting the use of any member of the community of Hy whose occasions may call him away from the island. He is accompanied by two friends and former fellow-students, Comgal and Cainnech, [1] and followed by a little escort of faithful attendants. Taking his seat in his currach, he and his party are rowed across the sound to the mainland. On what errand does Columba journey? If the presbyter-abbot absents himself from his post, we may be sure it is on business of grave moment, appertaining vitally to the success of his mission. It is even so. Let us go with him and see how he speeds.

The two years he has already passed on the island have been busily occupied in the multifarious preliminary arrangements incident to his enterprise. These arrangements are now all complete, and Columba is this day to begin in earnest the great spiritual campaign he has crossed the sea to wage. He has come to challenge the Druid's longer possession of' Alba, and now we are to see him throw down the gage of battle and strike the first blow. There is already a feeble Christianity among the Scots who inhabit the Kintyre hills, which are seen, looking across the sound, stretching southward along the coast. But beyond the cloudy bilge of the Drumalban Mountains, where dwell the northern Picts, there reigns to this hour unbroken night. Columba must carry the evangelical torch into the midst of that darkness. But he will not endanger the success of his enterprise by any hasty or precipitate step. He will begin by conciliating the powerful king, who reigns over the numerous and warlike tribes whose Christianization he has come to seek; and having obtained the consent of the monarch, he will with more confidence essay his task, which must be a difficult one, in even the most favourable circumstances. We now see him setting forth on a visit to King Brude, whom we have already met, and whose exploits on the battlefield—some of them won at the cost of the Scots—make him one of the few of our early monarchs who are historic.

Columba's companions have been wisely chosen. It is the northern family of the Picts whom he seeks to translate from the darkness of Druidism into the light of Christianity, and he selects as his associates in the work two men, both of whom are of the race of the Irish Picts, and, therefore, able to express themselves in the Pictish tongue with more intelligibility and fluency than Columba could well be supposed capable of doing.[2]

The modern missionary tries to find his way to the great centers of population. The missionary of a former age sought how he might approach the most powerful chieftain. It was only another way of influencing the largest number, seeing through the monarch lay the door of access to the nation. The journey of Columba from Iona to the Castle of Brude was scarcely less toilsome and perilous than an expedition in our day into the interior of Africa. The distance was only about 150 miles. But the difficulty of the journey was not in the length of the road, but in the character of the country to be passed over. It was wild and savage. There were no roads to guide the steps or facilitate the progress of the traveler. There were arms of the sea and inland lochs to be crossed, occasioning long and frequent delays, for the traveler could not reckon that the ferryman with his coracle would be waiting his arrival. There were rugged hills to be clambered over, where the furze and the thorn masked the chasm, and a heedless step might precipitate the wayfarer to destruction. There were dark woods and jungle thickets to be threaded, where the wolf and the wild boar lay in ambush. There were trackless moors, where the bewildering mist gathers suddenly at times and blots out the path of the hapless traveler; and there were morasses and bogs, where the treacherous surface tempts the too venturesome foot only to betray it. To all these dangers was added that of barbarous and cruel tribes, who might challenge the traveler's right to pass through their territory, and rob or kill him. That these perils were inseparable from his projected journey Columba well knew. He might decline it; but how, then, could he inaugurate his mission with the hope of success? At whatever risk, he must visit King Brude in his northern fortress. We see him and his two companions, with their escort, crossing the mountains of Mull, and navigating the frith that separates it from the mainland. The currach that bore them across put them ashore a little to the south of the spot where the town of Oban now stands. The hints dropped by Adamnan enable us to follow faintly the dubious track of the travelers. They steer on Urchudain, the Glen Urquhart of the present day, whose opening betwixt noble hills greets the tourist on the left as he ascends the Caledonian Canal. We see them tracing with painful steps the wild and broken districts of Lorn, of Appin, of Duror, of Lochaber, and Glengarry, with their frequent intervening ferries. And now they skirt along the northern shore of Loch Hess, on whose pictured face sleep the images of its grand enclosing mountains. A little beyond, following the river which issues from the loch, the party arrive at the castle of the Pictish monarch.

King Brude was probably aware of the coming of Columba, and had taken counsel beforehand with his Druids, who were the advisers of the Pictish monarchs in all matters of State policy. In accordance with their advice, the king kept the gates of his fortress closed, and refused audience to the missionary. This only made the triumph of Columba over the pride of the king and the enchantments of his Magi the more conspicuous. Assembling under the walls of the castle, the party joined in singing the forty-sixth psalm. Columba was gifted with a voice of wondrous melody and strength, which on this occasion, doubtless, was put forth to its utmost pitch. The stanzas of the psalm, pealed forth by so many voices, and re-echoed from the hills of the narrow pass, would gather force and volume at each repetition, and reverberate, we can well believe, with "a noise like thunder " in the halls of the palace. The king and his counselors were terrified. But Adamnan is not content that the matter should end without a miracle. The hymn concluded, Columba advanced to the closed gates, formed upon them the sign of the cross, and striking them with his hand, the bolts and bars that held them fast were rent asunder, and the gates flew open.[3] The king and his counselors now hastened to meet Columba, and accorded him a conciliatory and gracious reception. There followed a private interview betwixt Brude and the missionary. The interview was probably repeated, and at last ended in a profession of adherence to the Christian faith on the part of the Pictish monarch. We have already, in the first volume of this history, given a detail of these transactions, and do not need to repeat them here.[4]

Columba had accomplished the object of his journey. The conversion of the king was, in a sense, the conversion of the nation. It opened the door through which Columba could pour in his missionaries upon the clans of North Pictland, and bring to an end the gloomy reign of the Druid. Well pleased, therefore, he turns his face towards Iona, where he would give himself to the task of training armies of preachers to carry on the war he had come to wage in Alba, and which he was resolved should not cease till the last Druidic altar on its soil had been overturned. We expect his biographer to show us phalanx after phalanx of spiritual warriors going forth into the field, and taking up the positions assigned them by the great captain who directs the movement from his headquarters on Iona. In a word, we wish to follow the light as it travels from district to district, till at last the whole country is illuminated, and it can be said that now the night of the Druid is past. Adamnan, surely, will recite, with minute and loving care, the labours of his great predecessor; the methods by which he carried on his evangelization; the missionaries he sent north and south, and all over the land; their early struggles, their disappointments, their ultimate triumphs; and the exultation with which, after a certain term of labour, they returned to Iona and gave in their report of another province wrested from the darkness, and another clan enrolled in the Christian Church. No theme would have been more thrilling, and none would have been read with so engrossing an interest by all succeeding generations of Scotsmen.

We open Adamnan, alas! only to experience a painful disappointment. Page after page is occupied with prophecies, miracles, and prodigies; and record of the Columban evangelisation we find none. We must turn to other sources—the incidental allusions of Bede, the Culdee missions in England and on the Continent, which reflect light on the country which was their base, and the ruins of the monastic buildings scattered over the face of Scotland, which tell where Culdee establishments once existed, if we would gather some knowledge of the methods by which Columba worked in that great movement which first changed the whole of Scotland into a Christian country. The " Life of Columba," by Adamnan, was discovered at Shaffhausen in 1845. It was found buried at the bottom of a chest. It had formerly lain in a monastery in the Lake of Constance. The writing belongs to the beginning of the eighth century. The Colophon attributes the writing to Sorbene, Abbot of Hy, who died 713, just nine years after Adamnan. There is no doubt that this copy was written at Hy from the Life by Adamnan. It is one of the products of the first school of religion and literature established in Scotland. The Irish clerics wrote with marvelous dispatch, and all but infallible accuracy, and with a grace and beauty all their own. They transcribed both Latin and Greek, and they introduced a style of penmanship on the Continent which is peculiar, and which was imitated till the times of the Renaissance. The calligraphy is so marked by its elegance and form that the Scottish MSS. are easily recognisable.

Columba had the mind of a statesman. His conceptions were large, and his administrative talents of the first order. He had given proof of this in the organization and government of his numerous Irish monasteries, and he arrived in Scotland with a ripe experience. We have seen how he pioneered his way to the nation through the king. In like manner he pioneers his way to the clan through the chieftain. He saw at a glance the importance of working on the lines made ready to his hand in the tribal organization of the country. He went to the chieftains as he had gone to the king, and disabusing their minds of Druidic influence, he obtained their consent to the evangelization of their followers.We see the missionaries from Iona arrive. They select a convenient spot in the territories of the clan, a sheltered valley, or the banks of a river abounding in fish. They begin operations by driving a few stakes into the ground. They fetch twigs and turf, and speedily there rises a little cluster of huts. They add a few necessary erections for storing their winter supplies. They lay out a small garden for summer fruits; the net will enable them to supplement their cuisine with the produce of the stream. They draw a pallisade round their establishment. All arranged within, they next bestow their attention on the ground outside, which they bring under cultivation If it is wood, they clear it away with the axe. If it is moor, they set to work with mattock and plough, and soon are seen meadow and cornfield where before all was waste and barrenness.

All the while the higher world of the mission was not neglected. Full of zeal—and no age since has witnessed that noble passion in greater intensity—they devoted so many hours a day to the instruction of the natives. Simple and elementary these lessons had need to be, for the mind of the Pict was dark. He had worn the bandage of the Druid for ages. But the missionary had a story to tell him which had power to touch even his heart. The bandage fell from his eyes. The light entered: faint at first, doubtless, but clear enough to make even the Caledonian feel that he had been in darkness, and only now was beginning to see the light. He retires to meditate apart on the strange things he has heard. He returns to the missionary to have them told him over again. They seem more wonderful than ever. He communicates them to his neighbours. They, too wish to hear these tidings from the mouth of the strangers from Iona. There is soon a little company of enquirers. Their numbers increase from day to day, and now there is formed a congregation of converts. A church and school are set up. Christian worship is inaugurated; and how amazed is the Pict to find himself addressing the great Father in heaven, and singing the psalms written of old by kings and prophets. Compared with these holy services, how revolting seem to him now the rites in which he was wont to take part at the stone circle. He goes no more to the altar of the Druid. The thought of it brings up only images of blood and terror. He has learned a sweeter service than that of the groves.

The Columban establishments—now beginning to dot Scotland—were all framed on the model of Iona. The missionary staff of the provincial house was the same in number as that of the parent institution. The Culdees went forth to form a new settlement in bodies of twelve, with one who presided over the rest. The discipline in the branch institutions was the same as at headquarters. The main business of the brethren was the instruction of the natives. Their evangelistic labours they varied with agricultural work, for as yet there was no rule or custom in Scotland excluding men in sacred professions from taking part in secular occupations. At certain seasons they retired to solitary places to meditate. One of their number was sent at regular intervals to headquarters to report how matters went in the provincial monastery, and what progress the evangelisation was making in its neighborhood. The deputy was received with commendation, or reproof, as the case might be, and after a short residence in Iona was sent back to resume his labours in his provincial field.

These institutions were set down on a strategic principle. They were so planted as not to overlap, and yet so as to enlace the whole country in their working when fully developed. Each clan, eventually, had its monastery with lands attached, the gift of the chieftain. The honour of the clan was at stake, touching the safety and good treatment of the fathers, and the chieftain came to see that the patronage and protection he vouchsafed the establishment were more than repaid in the greater loyalty of his subjects, and the better cultivation of his lands. Year by year there issued from Iona bands of young disciples, thoroughly trained, and full of enthusiasm to carry the evangelical standard into districts where Culdee had not yet been seen. Every year the number of institutions multiplied. Nothing could repress the ardour or daunt the courage of these warriors of the Cross which Iona sent forth. Nor savage tribe nor stormy frith could make them turn back. They reared their huts and built their oratories in the storm swept isles of the Hebrides. They crossed the racing tides of the Pentland, and carried the "great tidings " to the dwellers in the bleak Orkneys, and the inhabitants of the lonelier Shetland. They penetrated the fastness of Ross-shire and Athol, and awoke the echoes of their glens with the plaintive music of their psalms, and the thunders of their Celtic orations. In the savage straths of the Grampians and the wooded and watered valleys of Perthshire they established their settlements, clothing themselves with the wool of their sheep, supplying their table from the stream, the wild berry of the woods, the roe which they snared, and the corn which their labour and skill taught to grow in these inhospitable wilds, accounting their hardships repaid an hundredfold in that they were privileged to give the "bread of life" to men who were perishing with hunger while no man gave to them. Along the east coast of Scotland, from Dunnet Head to St. Abb's; in the great plain of Strathmore; in Fife; in the islands and shores of the Forth; on the banks of the Clyde where St. Mungo placed his cell, and laid the first stone of the great western metropolis, and onward, over lands which great poets have since made classic, to the time honored promontory where Ninian at an earlier day had kindled his lamp, did these Culdees journey, rearing, at every short distance, their sanctuaries and schools. Of these ancient sites not a few have been effaced, but a goodly number still remain indelibly marked, of which we can with certainty say that there, in early days, Culdee took up his abode and thence spread around him the light of Christianity. There are not fewer than thirty-two such places in the former territory of the Scots, and twenty-one in the region occupied by the Picts.[5]

Wherever the Culdee came, brightness fell on the landscape. The brown moor blossomed beneath his footsteps, and the silent wilderness burst into singing. The Christianity which the missionaries from Iona preached to the Caledonians worked all round. It was Christianity set in the golden framework of civilization. The doctrine branched out into a life; it summoned art and industry from their deep sleep; it set the plough in motion. An ancient barbarism had frozen it in the furrow, and the soil lay untilled. The lazy glebe, which for ages had known neither seed-time nor harvest, ran over with corn; the arid pastures, so long unfamiliar with the browsing kine, flowed with milk; the moss-covered bough shook off its rust, and clothed itself with young buds; and roaming herds and flocks began to mottle the naked, lonely mountains as the fleecy clouds speckle the face of the morning skies. But the change wrought on the Caledonian himself was far greater than any that had passed on the face of his country. The idea of an everlasting and omnipotent Being had been flashed upon him through his darkness. What an astonishing revelation! It was a new existence to him. This new and amazing idea took the sting out of his serfdom. He saw that he was not the property of his chief, as he had been taught to regard himself; he was the subject of a higher lord. he was now able to taste somewhat of the dignity of manhood, and to feel the grandeur of liberty; for in soul he was already a freeman. More than half his former misery and degradation passed away from the Caledonian with this change in his position and relationships. It does not follow that the system of clansship was broken up. Christianity knit closer the bonds betwixt chieftain and clansman, at the same time that it sweetened and hallowed then.

All these Christian institutions which we see rising from north to south of Scotland were ruled from Iona. There was set the chair of their presbyter-abbot. From that chair issued the laws which all were to obey, and to the same quarter all eyes were turned to know the sphere each was to fill, and the work each was to do. The obedience was loving, because the rule was gracious, and the work was cheerful, because the heart of the doer delighted in it. A very vigilant oversight did Columba exercise over all the workers. Like a skilful general, his eye ranged over the whole field, and he knew how the battle with the Druid was going at all points. If any detachment of his army was falling back before the enemy, he hastened to send forward recruits to restore the fortunes of the day. If any were overburdened with work, he sent fresh labourer to their help. If any soldier of his army needed repose after a prolonged period of service, he said to him, "Put off your armour, and come and rest awhile in this quiet isle." He made tours of visitation, to see with his own eyes how all went. He put right what he found amiss; he supplied what he saw was lacking; he encouraged the timid; he strengthened the faint-hearted. If any were cast down, he lifted them up; if any were indolent and doing the work of the mission deceitfully, he reproved them. And to those who in faith and heroism were scaling the strongholds of an ancient heathenism, dethroning, the stone idols of the Druid, and urging bravely onward the tide of evangelical victory, he had words of benediction to pronounce, which those to whom they were spoken esteemed honour higher and more lasting than the stars and coronets with which princes crown the victors in those battles of the warrior, which are "with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood." It was thus, under a leader sagacious, far-seeing and indomitable, served by devoted and enthusiastic soldiers, that this great battle of our country against its ancient enslaver was won. There is no battle like this in our annals till me come to the days of Knox.

The war was long, and, doubtless, the burden of carrying it on pressed heavily at times on Columba; but he bore it with patient atlantean strength all his days, sustained by the sublime hope that before going to his grave, he should see his grand conception realized, and Scotland become a Christian land. Columba united the Picts and Scots under his spiritual scepter long previous to their becoming one nation under the sway of Kenneth Mac Alpin. To Columba's age, and in his own country at least, there seemed nothing abnormal in this vast ecclesiastical sovereignty being exercised by a simple presbyter; for Columba was nothing more. But in the following centuries it appeared to the writers of the Latin school anomalous, if not monstrous, that a presbyter should exercise jurisdiction over the bishops of a whole nation. We have quoted above the words of Bede in reference to his successor. "under his jurisdiction," says he," the whole province, including even the bishops, by an unwonted order, were subjected, after the example of the first teacher, Columba, who was not a bishop,, but a presbyter and a monk." [6] It truly was an unwonted order, for a presbyter to bear rule over bishops. But where in the Scotland of that day are the bishops? We cannot discover any, at least any whom Bede would have acknowledged to be bishops. We see the Scottish youth, after being travel in Iona, ordained to the ministry by the laying on of the hands of the elders; we follow them to their field of labour; we see them itinerating as evangelists, or becoming settled teachers of congregations; we see Scotland better supplied year after year with this class of bishops, and the oversight of all exercised from Iona. But as regards a bishop with a diocese, and the sole power of conferring ordination —the two things that constitute a modern bishop—the Scotland of that day possessed not one solitary specimen. The very imagination of such a thing appears to us eminently absurd. All our writers, ancient and modern, concur that St. Andrews is the [7] most ancient bishopric north of the Clyde and the Forth, and its foundation is ascribed to Grig, who began to reign in 883. It had been a famous seat of the Culdees who were endowed with lands by Hungius, transferredl to the canons-regular in the end of the twelfth century.[8] The author of "Caledonia " admits that Cellach, Bishop of St. Andrews, was the first bishop of any determinate See in Scotland; and speaking of Tuathal, styled Archbishop of Fortern, or Abernethy, he says, " It is a florid expression." [9] Cognac, under Alexander I. was the first Bishop of Dunkeld. There were no regular dioceses in Scotland before the beginning of the twelfth century.

It has been said that "a bishop always resided at Iona," the reason of his stay being that he might perform ordination when the act was necessary. "We have not been able," says Dr .Jamieson, "to discover a single vestige of such a character."[10] We may be permitted to add that we have been equally unsuccessful in our search. In what ancient document is it written that such a functionary resided at Iona? and where shall we find the names of those on whom he conferred ordination? Certainly there was no bishop at Iona when Aidan (634) was sent to the Northumbrians, else why was he ordained by the laying on of the hands of the Presbyters, the Abbot Segenius presiding? If a bishop there were at Iona, we have to ask, Whence came he, and from whom received he his Orders? If it be answered, from Rome, we reply that neither the Irish Church nor the Scottish Church of that age had any intercourse with Rome. If it be farther urged that some apostolically ordained bishop may perchance have found his way to Iona, and been retained there for the purpose of bestowing ordination on entrants into the sacred office, then we ask, Why were not the orders of the Scottish clergy recognized as regular and valid by their brethren of England? A council of the Anglo-Saxon church was held at Cealtythe in A.D. 816, the fifth decree of which runs thus: "It is interdicted to all persons of the Scottish nation to usurp the ministry in any diocese, nor may such be lawfully allowed to touch aught belonging to the sacred order, nor may aught be accepted from them, either in baptism or in the celebration of masses, [11] nor may they give the eucharist to the people, because it is uncertain to us, by whom or whether by any one they are ordained. If, as the canons prescribe, no bishop or presbyter may intrude into another's produce, how much more ought those to be excluded from sacred offices who have among them no metropolitan order, nor honour it in others." [12] This is a distinct repudiation by the council of the orders of the Columban clergy, and it completely explodes the idea of a resident bishop at Iona, whose business it was to send forth apostolically ordained men.

Not the least important of the services of the Culdees was the transcription of the Scriptures and other books. This was one main branch of their labours, and in this way they furthered mightily the interests of religion and letters. They had attained to amazing proficiency in the art of calligraphy. Swiftly did their pens travel down the page, and in not one of many hundred lines would there be found slip or error. Columba, despite the many cares that pressed upon him, was a voluminous transcriber. Not fewer than three hundred volumes, Odonell tells us, did he transcribe with his own hand.[13] This close and daily contact of the Culdees with the sacred volume must have powerfully helped to enrich their understandings and store their memories with its truths, and give to their sermons that moral power and spiritual grandeur which come only from the Bible, and the absence of which can be compensated by no rhetoric, however brilliant, The Belles Lettres are a poor substitute for the Evangel; and when the preacher becomes the tragedian, the stage, and not the pulpit, is the place to air his histrionics and shout his vocables. Iona sent forth no tragedians. Its children were evangelists, not artists. Fresh from the study of the Scriptures, around them breathed the odour of their fragrance and sweetness. And, what a wonderful thing it must have seemed to the Caledonian, newly come out of Druidic darkness, to be introduced all at once to such a galaxy of splendours as the histories, the songs, the doctrines of the Bible. How amazing to hear its sublimes mysteries floated out upon the air of his mountains, in his own mother tongue: a tongue scarcely if at all less ancient and venerable than the language in which these truths were first written, and offering a vehicle capable of giving them transmission in unabated force and undiminished beauty. We can imagine the assemblages that would gather from hill and valley, from hamlet and loch to listen to some Chalmers or Spurgeon of the seventh century, and the mingled astonishment and rapture with which they would hang upon their lips, from which there would flow in a stream of impassioned Celtic speech, the "glad tidings of great joy." Now they knew that the "day-spring from on high" had visited them.


1. Reeve's. Vit. Colum., p. 152.[Back]

2. THE CELTIC LANGUAGE.—The principal conclusions established by Zeuss in his Grammatica Celtica (Leipsic, 1853) are: - (1st), The Irish and Welsh languages are one in their origin. Their divergences began only a few centuries before the Roman period, and were very small when Caesar landed in Britain. Both nations, Irish and British, were identical with the CeltŠ of the Continent. (2nd.) The Celtic tongue is in the fu11 and complete sense one of the great Indo-European branches of human speech, and, consequently, there must be an end of all attempts to assimilate either Hebrew, Egyptian, Phoenician, or Basque, or any other language which is not Indo-European, with any dialect of the Celtic. Zeuss performed a feat unsurpassed. He had never set foot on Irish soil, and yet, simply by the study of Irish and Welsh writings, dispersed in the monasteries and libraries of the Continent, he constructed the Irish language as it had existed in the eighth and ninth centuries.[Back]

3. Vit. Columb., c. xxxvi.[Back]

4. See History of the Scottish Nation, vol. i. chap. xxiii. pp. 306, 307.[Back]

5. Reeve's Life of Adamnan., Introduction, pp. Ix.-lxxi. Historians of Scotland, vol. vi.[Back]

6. Bede, Lib. iii. c. 4., qui non episcopus, sed presbyter exstitit et monachus.[Back]

7. Pinkerton, ii. 263.[Back]

8. Monasticon, i., 70, 71; Culdees, Jamieson, p. 151.[Back]

9. Caledonia, i., 429, Jamieson p. 151.[Back]

10. Jamieson's Culdees, p. 140.[Back]

11. The sacrifice of the mass had not yet been invented. The term missa is here used evidently in its original sense as denoting the service of the sanctuary, seeing it is distinguished from the eucharist mentioned after it. See Bingham's Antiquities, vol. v. bk. xtii. chap. i. London, 1715.[Back]

12. Spelman, Concil., i. 329 [Back]

13. The best Celtic MSS. of the Gospels are as early as the close of the seventh century. The art with which these MSS. are decorated is the same which is seen upon our sculptured stones. The best decorations in stone and metal come later, being about the end of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The inference is that the art was perfected by the Scribes before it was adopted by the sculptors. We possess a wealth of decorated art material which no other nation possesses, or ever can possess, consisting of sculptured and decorated monuments lying about in corners, fields, ditches, and graveyards; for some of the elements of this art are common to a much wider area than Celtic Britain, or even Europe. We find interlaced work on Babylonian cylinders and Mycenium ornaments, and sculpture, but not in the Celtic style. As developed into a system and taken in its totality it is restricted to Scotland and Ireland. It never gave a distinctive character to any art save Celtic art. The cradle of the art is believed to be Ireland. There the decoration of MS. reached its highest pitch, but the sculpture work on stone remained poor. The essential and peculiar element of Celtic art is not its interlacing nor its fret work, but the divergent spiral line which gives it a form of beauty known to no other nation.—See Anderson's Scotland in Early Christian Times, ii. 114, 115.

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