Saint Columba


Saint Columba is often credited with introducing Christianity to the Picts. He came to Scotland from Ireland in 563 and was granted the beautiful island of Iona by the Gaels of Dal Riata. Columba founded his monastery on the island and soon built a reputation as a learned man and a skilled diplomat.

The Monymusk Reliquary

Columba visited King Bridei of the Picts and according to legend made the locked gates of his Inverness castle open by making the sign of the cross before them, the king was supposedly so impressed he was immediately converted to Christianity, though this seems very unlikely. Columba's life was written about by Adomnan around one hundred years later and so it is difficult to know how true his account is. Adomnan recorded Columba´s visit to the Picts but it was the later chronicler Bede who suggested he had converted the king.

Columba founded several churches, wrote hymns and books and played a large part in the politics of the day. Columba was also a warrior saint, in the dark ages it was common for saints to disagree and even march to battle against each other. In fact it is thought that Columba left Ireland for Scotland in the first place as penance for his disagreement with Saint Finnian which had led to a bloody battle and many deaths.

He died on Iona in 597 but his influence continued to grow. The Monymusk Reliquary dates from about 750 and contains one of Columba's bones. This reliquary was an important national symbol and is thought to be the Brecbennoch which was carried into battle by the Scots at Bannockburn in 1314. The reliquary can now be seen at the National Museum of Scotland.

While Columba's influence continued long after his death the monastery on Iona was not so lucky. According to legend when the Vikings arrived in 794 the monks went down to the shore to greet them and were slaughtered on the stony beach which stained the rocks red, they are red and white today. Iona remained a revered place and many of the early kings of Scotland were buried there.

There are some great daft stories about Columba and his powers perhaps the most famous is the monster he encountered in the River Ness. Columba and his pals wanted to cross the river but as they reached it they found the body of a man floating in the water with blood pouring from his thighs. A local boy told them he had been bitten by the monster and sure enough when one of Columba's companions made to swim across the river the monster surfaced and went for him. Columba held up his hand and commanded the monster to go away which it promptly did and they all crossed the river in safety.

Another great story involving Columba concerns his feud with Saint Moluag to found a monastery on the island of Lismore. The two men agreed that the first to touch the island would get to build a monastery there and a saintly race began. According to the story Columba was well in the lead when the resourceful Moluag chopped off his own finger and threw it onto the island thereby winning the race.

While the legends and stories are probably untrue there is no doubt that Columba was an important figure in spreading Christianity throughout Scotland and he contributed to the unification of the country. It was Adomnan's book which elevated him into a popular national symbol.