When Christ came to Iona

27th June 1997 at 01:00
St Columba died 1,400 years ago,but the debate over his role in bringing Christianity to Scotland rages as fiercely as ever. Raymond Ross looks at this year's celebrations

The 1400th anniversary of the death of St Columba of Iona has given rise to myriad celebrations: a multitude of religious observances; pilgrimages across Scotland as well as from Ireland and Rome; a visit from Ireland's president, Mary Robinson; an academic conference; an education pack from the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum and various publications which renew the debate on the nature of the Celtic Church, and the status, character and importance of the Celtic prince from Donegal who set sail for Scotland in 563.

"In terms of both quality and volume, this celebration has outgrown all expectations,'' says Dr Donald Smith, co-ordinator of the churches' celebrations and editor of Celtic Journeys, the SCCC education pack that has sold 1,000 copies since it was published in April and is now being reprinted.

"I think the tremendous success of all the celebrations is down to the relationship between religion and culture and a desire to have a form of Christianity that speaks out of and to Scotland,'' he says.

"Unlike Ninian or Andrew, Columba is local to every part of Scotland, the influence of the Iona monks spreading as far as Lindisfarne, Fife, Orkney, Shetland, Angus and Ayrshire. There's also a coherent psychology about the man who fought other dominant aristocratic personalities and fought to subdue his own powerful force of will to something he saw as greater than himself. "

This battle of wills is marked in all accounts of Columba's life, beginning with Adomnan's seventh century Life of Saint Columba. According to one tradition Columba was known as Crimthann (the fox) as well as - or before becoming - Columcille (the dove of the church).

Born around 521, Columba was the great-grandson of the legendary Niall of the Nine Hostages, after whom the O'Neill High Kings of Ireland were named. If he had not embraced monastic life, Columba himself could well have become High King of Ireland.

The reasons for the middle-aged monk's journey to Scotland have long been shrouded in mystery and controversy. Rather than being a simple mission to evangelise Dalriada (present-day Argyll) and bring a new light to Scotland in the Dark Ages, Columba's journey may have been linked to his illicit copying of a psalter belonging to St Finnian. The result was a bloody battle between the northern (Columba's own) and southern O'Neills who both claimed the High Kingship. "According to popular tradition,'' wrote Douglas Hyde in A Literary History of Ireland (1899), Columba had been responsible for the death of 3,000 men and set sail for Dalriada "to convert as many souls as had fallen in the battle of Cooldrevna''.

In a newly published study, Columba: Pilgrim and Penitent (Wild Goose Publications), Ian Bradley paints Columba not so much as a missionary but as a very political animal, "both the fox and the dove, forging relationships with kings and establishing a network of churches and monasteries'' as well as spending much time in prayer and study. He disputes the traditional notion of the saint as evangeliser of the Picts (though he did meet with the Pictish King Brude), seeing him more as "kingmaker and church planter'' and a man as proud, imperious and battle-scarred as he was scholarly and ascetic.

Bradley also chides those who would view the Celtic Church (or "Columban Christianity'', as he prefers) through New Age spectacles, pointing out that Columba's "rule'' was far more ascetic than anything St Benedict had laid down for monks to follow and that it was, indeed, closer to the desert fathers' strict observances than anything else of its time.

But Columba was also a poet and reputedly a powerful singer, and he is attributed with the oldest known Scottish poem, "Altus Prosater''. A new translation by Glasgow poet Edwin Morgan will be declaimed by Morgan at the opening of the new Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh on August 1.

Many poems of exile are also attributed to Columba. Hyde describes him as "the first example in the saddened page of Irish history of the exiled Gael grieving for his native land'', symbolising "the very type and embodiment of Irish fate and Irish character''.

But the cult of Columba is as Scottish as it is Irish and he was as close to being Scotland's national saint, in the Middle Ages, as the apostle Andrew. The Brecbennach of Columba (the portable shrine which housed his relics) was not only carried into battle by kings of Dalriada and later kings of Scots but, as Michael Lynch points out in Scotland: A New History (Century) by the army of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314.

Columba's poetry, as well as his character and story, is also celebrated in a new play by Iain Crichton Smith. With a stunning soundtrack put together by John Purser, an expert on the music of the period, Columcille received its premi re in St Columba's Catholic Cathedral in Oban in early June. Now touring the Highlands and Islands before embarking on an Irish tour and playing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, Iain Crichton Smith's play not only puts into sharp focus the saint's aristocratic and warrior-like background, but also recalls the Celt's visions. We see Columba wrestling with his conscience and his love of power, and we are witness to his second sight which envisions the sacking of Iona and other monasteries by raiding Vikings.

This is a Columba often at war with himself, reminiscent of Yeats's dictum that while rhetoric is born of argument with others, true poetry is born of a struggle with self.

A powerful and lyrical production by the Stray Theatre Company, Columcille makes the saint human and approachable and is laced with a fine ironic humour. If it teaches us something about Scottish history (which it patently does), it does so with a clarity and a passion that is both moving and memorable. Directed by Alastair McCrone of Mull Theatre, it boasts a strong Irish-Scottish cast who recapture the life and times of Columba as well as revealing something of his psychology and motivation, warts and all.

That Columba has a relevance today will be claimed by the many religious bodies and churches taking part in the celebrations. But it is interesting that an academic conference entitled "Celebrating Columba'', at Strathclyde University on September 20-21, will hold a special session on the relevance of the Irish Republic to the current and future state of Scotland.

Organised by the Irish-Scottish Academic Initiative, the interdisciplinary conference will also present a reading by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney along with other Irish and Scottish writers, including Iain Crichton Smith.

The SCCC education pack contains the booklet Celtic Travellers, telling of the stories and sites associated with all the early saints of Scotland. Written by Donald Smith and published by the Stationery Office, this can be bought separately from the SCCC pack and is of use to anyone interested in visiting such sites as well as for class projects.

The pack itself contains historical material, activities and worksheets, material on Celtic music and art and stories of the Celtic saints specially adapted for telling rather than simply reading. Published by the SCCC and produced by Action of Churches Together in Scotland, it is a highly informative, beautifully produced pack that would be particularly valuable for primary schools.

* For details of all the Columba celebrations organised by the Scottish churches, contact the Church of Scotland, tel: 0131 226 3405 * Columcille will play at the Famous Grouse House, Edinburgh at the Festival Fringe, August 8-17. To book, tel: 0131 226 5138 * For details of the "Celebrating Columba" conference, contact the Irish-Scottish Academic Initiative, tel: 0141 548 4531 * Columba by Bernard MacLaverty is published by the Scottish Children's Press, Pounds 2.99

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