St Columba exercises influence 1,400 years after his death. There can hardly be a primary child, at least in the west of Scotland, who has not participated in this year's commemoration of the saint. His life has attained the ultimate imprimatur, accordance with the criteria of the 5-14 guidelines. But the anniversary has achieved a cultural and possibly political significance as well.
The historic links between Ireland and Scotland were re-emphasised last year during the visit by the then President, Mary Robinson, to the western seaboard on which Columba settled and which for centuries had closer communication with Ireland than with the seat of the Scottish kingdom across mountains and moors to the east. The semi-independence of Argyll and the Isles, which endured as late as the civil wars of the 17th century, became an affront to royal authority but it also represented geopolitical reality. There was a linguistic and cultural community in the west, and within that a struggle for supremacy involving all of non-Anglicised Ireland, the Isle of Man and Scotland.
Attempts to develop a modern common purpose are not primarily political. Indeed, the entrenched Unionists of Northern Ireland would baulk at assertions of a Celtic heritage. But within the European Union there is support for minority cultures as a counterweight to centralising uniformity. So when the spirit of Columba is invoked it is not without hope of European cash.
Two related projects were launched last week. The Education Minister announced the Columba Initiative to foster the Gaelic language and develop links between the two parts of Ireland and Scotland. With project officers in each country, the initiative will complement, for example, existing co-operation among historians. More tangible will be St Columba's Campus, also to be known as Arainn Chaluim Chille. Prosaically, this is an FE extension. It is being built on Skye (appropriately on a wild headland) to allow Sabhal Mor Ostaig to take more students.
The Gaelic college has been a great success, especially since it won the financial support of the last government. Brian Wilson, as minister for Gaelic, is committed to the growth of the college and to its participation in the University of the Highlands and Islands Project. With distance learning technology, links can easily be developed with Ireland. St Columba no longer needs a coracle.