Around 690AD, Adomnan, Abbot of Iona, wrote The Life of Columba to commemorate the centenary of the Saint’s death. To this man we owe a great debt of gratitude ~ it is from his work that we can obtain much insight into life in sixth century Northern Britain and the political sphere surrounding the historic Artur MacAeden.
Columba was born in 521AD at Garten in County Donegal, Ireland. His mother’s name was Eithne (a popular name in Irish mythology) and his father was Fedhlimdh of the Ui Neill, great grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages ~ legendary High King of Ireland from the 4th century. Columba himself stood in line for the High Kingship of Ireland. There is a degree of mystery surrounding the Saint’s birth and his given name was Cremthann meaning the wolf (or fox). He later took the name of Columcille (The Dove of the Church) when he entered into religious life.
Tutored by a priest named Cruithnechan, the youth went on to monastic training under Saint Finnian at Molville after which he travelled south into Leinster and received bardic training from the aged Gemman. The Bardic Colleges were the foundation of the old religion and were still very active in preserving the Gaelic way of life at the time. After life with Gemman, Columba entered the monastery of Clonard where he gained his priesthood.
It was Columba’s love of books that was to change his life. One night he was caught secretly copying a Psalter belonging to his tutor Saint Finnian who was sorely affronted. The case was brought before the King and the first precedence for copyright law was laid down when Diarmait returned his verdict stating “The copy is to the book as the calf is to the cow”. It is this judgement that reputedly caused the fiery forty year old to fly to arms, although his reactions may also have been due to the murder of his kinsman Prince Curnan who was in his care. Whatever the reason, in 561AD the Saint was blamed for instigating a major feud in his clan which resulted in the Battle of Cul-dreime. It is recorded that Columba prayed before the clash and that 3,000 of his foe were slaughtered whilst his kinsmen sustained few casualties. It is also reported that the Saint was visibly battle scarred, although we do not know how.
Columba’s actions led to his excommunication and exile. A year or two later he set sail for Alba, some say, to save as many pagan souls as he had caused to be slain. In the company of several companions Columba headed to the court of his kinsman King Conall of Dalriada (Argyll). The Dalriada of Northern Ireland and Argyll were closely related. In the same year as the Battle of Cul-dreime, the Picts had inflicted a defeat on the Argyll warriors and were apparently taxing them heavily. Columba’s first mission in Scotland appears to have been as political emissary for Conall when he journeyed north to Inverness where he defeated King Bruide’s druid in a contest of wizardly skills and won the King’s attention.
It was probably after this sojourn (around 563AD) that the church on Iona was founded with the permission of Conall and Bruide (Historians dispute whether Iona was in Dalriadic or Pictish hands prior to Columba’s arrival). Columba’s church blossomed and churches were founded on the surrounding islands pushing as far north as Skye. A Columban monastery is mentioned on the sacred Clan Arthur Isle of Inishail in Loch Awe and Kilneuair (The Chapel of Yews) on south Loch Awe retained its importance within the Lordship of Glassary until superceded by Kilmartin in 1563. The great Saint is even said to have travelled east into Loch Tay. Yet the abbey at Iona remained supreme and today still attracts over 250,000 pilgrims each year.
In 565AD, Saint Constantine, under holy orders from Columba, sailed over from Ireland and founded Govan on the Clyde in the heart of the Kingdom of the Britons. Constantine was later martyred in Kintyre for his efforts. It is also said that Columba met Saint Kentigern, founder of Glasgow, Bishop of Strathclyde and nephew of Arthur. This came about through the mutual friendship of Riderch, King of Cadzow in Strathclyde.
573AD and the Battle of Arthuret brought final victory to the Christians in Northern Britain. The following year, as the result of a prophetic dream he had on the Isle of Iona, Columba chose Aeden MacGabhran over his brother for the throne of Dalriada. This was a remarkable event ~ the first time in North British history that the Church had intervened in the monarchy. This role had been traditionally held by the Druids and now Columba’s prowess came to the fore as he effectively adopted the position. Selecting kings was certainly a function of the Pictish Druids of the period. The genealogical role of the Druids was latterly taken over by the Lord Lyon’s court.
Although Columba was allegedly exiled never to set foot on Irish soil again, he returned more than once to his native island. One account relates that when he was challenged on his presence, Columba pointed to the double sole on his sandals with the thin layer of soil trapped between, declaring that he was still walking on Scottish soil. If true, this incident truly defines Columba’s audacious character.
Around 576AD Columba attended a meeting of Kings at the Summit of Druimcett in Ireland. There are two reasons given as to why Columba was present; to negotiate autonomy for the Dalraiadic Kingdom in Argyll, or to represent the Bardic Order and argue for the maintenance of the Bardic Schools and the preservation of the old ways of life and religion. Whichever it was, once again we find Columba breaking his exile and adopting the position of chief mover and shaker in North British political life.
Columba maintained a practice of blessing pagan wells and many throughout the West of Scotland still bear his name to this day. The Saint also forbade the felling of oak at a time when the Christians were cutting down the Druidic oak groves. Interestingly, one of Columba’s Irish foundations was at Derry, meaning Oak from the Gaelic Doire. Burnt oak was also used as main dye for the ink which the monks used to scribe their manuscripts.
Legend says Columba wrote three hundred books. Illuminated manuscripts like the famous Book of Kells required two hundred calf skins (a expensive item in a cattle based economy) and dyes imported from as far as Afghanistan. Adomnan says that hardly a day went by that there was not a merchant ship at anchor in the bay off Iona ~ They lived like Princes.
In true bardic manner Columba played a harp, had a wonderful voice and wrote poetry. He operated in the land were Artur MacAeden’s father was king, he influenced the land, the people and the spirit of where Clan Arthur was born and grew. In 597AD Columba died at peace on his beloved Iona. Adomnan gives us a moving recount of the Saint’s last blessing of his old white cart horse, or could it have been a warrior’s farewell to his stallion?
Adomnan also wrote the Law of The Innocents, laying the foundation for the modern day Geneva Convention, which forbade women, children and clergy from becoming involved in conflict. Which proves that during Columba’s lifetime women, children and clergy were involved in conflict.
An extract from one of Saint Columba’s readings states:
"My Druid is Christ, the son of God . . . . "
Without doubt Scotland’s best loved Saint was a warrior and a priest of the two religions of the time. He was a bard and a prophet, a kingmaker and a wizard, but was he Merlin? He certainly fulfils the Arthurian wizard’s characteristics in a life contemporary with the historic Artur MacAeden.
One last thought ~ Columba took his name from the Latin Columbia Livia (The Dove) however the Latin for the Merlin is Falco Columbarius.