563-597: Saint Columba, the Loch Ness Monster and the Picts – the written word and Celtic Christianity spread to the Highlands

Icon of St. Columba, by the hand of a Sister of the Community of the Holy SpiritAn icon of St Columba, from Full Homely Divinity.

Once upon a time, when Saint Columba was traveling through the country of the Picts to meet the Pictish King in Inverness, he had to cross the River Ness. When he reached the shore there was a group of people, Picts and Brethren both, burying an unfortunate man who had been bitten and mauled to death by a water-monster. Columba ordered one of his people to swim across the river and retrieve the man’s boat, that was adrift, so that he might cross.

On hearing this, Lugneus Mocumin stripped down to his tunic and plunged in to the water. The monster saw him swimming, and having tasted blood, broke the surface of the water and made for him. Everyone who was watching was horrified, and hid their eyes in terror.

Everyone except Columba, who raised his holy hand and inscribed the Cross in the empty air. Calling upon the name of God, he commanded the savage beast, saying: “Go no further! Do not touch the man! Go back at once!”

Lugneus brought the boat back, unharmed and everyone was astonished. And the heathen savages who were present were overcome by the greatness of the miracle which they themselves had seen, and magnified the God of the Christians.

– adapted from the Serene Dragon and Green Canticle websites.


Loch Ness through fire by Citril. Loch Ness through Fire, by Citril.

Celtic Christians valued the natural environment for its own sake. They valued times of quiet in solitary and often wild places, where they could read Scripture, meditate and pray.

Because they lived close to the natural environment, it is not surprising that Celtic Christians discovered the immanence of God. Their poetry often echoes those Psalms which speak of God in nature (Ps. 19, 89, 98 ) suggesting a similar spiritual process at work.

The following extract of a poem in the Celtic psaltery is attributed to St. Columba in Iona:

“Delightful it is to stand on the peak of a rock, in the bosom of the isle, gazing on the face of the sea.

I hear the heaving waves chanting a tune to God in heaven; I see their glittering surf.

I see the golden beaches, their sands sparkling; I hear the joyous shrieks of the swooping gulls.

I hear the waves breaking, crashing on the rocks, like thunder in heaven. I see the mighty whales…

Contrition fills my heart as I hear the sea; it chants my sins, sins too numerous to confess.

Let me bless almighty God, whose power extends over the sea and land, whose angels watch over all.

Let me study sacred books to calm my soul; I pray for peace, kneeling at heaven’s gates.

Let me do my daily work, gathering seaweed, catching fish, giving food to the poor.”

– a psalm of St Columba from Green Canticle.


A depiction of Saint Columba from about 565AD, urging Picts on Iona to become Christians A depiction of Saint Columba in about 565AD, urging Picts on Iona to become Christian, from The Independent.

Many legends have gathered about Columba, but there is also some historical data concerning his many works in the writings of Bede and Adamnan.  According to one story, Saint Patrick of Ireland foretold Columba’s birth in a prophecy:

He will be a saint and will be devout,
He will be an abbot, the king of royal graces,
He will be lasting and forever good;
The eternal kingdom be mine by his protection.

Columba was a man of tremendous energy with a vigorous personality. Born Colum MacFhelin MacFergus,1 in Ireland in 521 A.D., the great-great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish king, on his father’s side;2 while Columba’s mother was also descended from a king of Leinster and was related to the royalty of Scottish Dalriada.3 Columba, who had the potential to become a king in Ireland, instead, chose to give his full service to the mission of the King of heaven.4 Early in life Columba showed scholarly and clerical ability. He entered the monastic life, and almost immediately set forth on missionary travels. Even before ordination in 551, he had founded monasteries at Derry and Durrow, and is said to have founded as many as 300 churches and monasteries during his lifetime.5

Columba had a love for literature, and tradition asserts that, sometime around 560, he became involved in a dispute with his mentor, Abbot Finnian, over a manuscript Columba copied at the scriptorium—intending to keep the copy. Abbot Finnian disputed Columba’s right to keep the copy. The dispute eventually led to the Battle of Cul Dreimnhe in 561, during which many men were killed—perhaps 3000.6 As penance for these deaths, Columba suggested that he work as a missionary in Scotland to help convert as many people as had been killed in the battle.

He exiled himself from Ireland, and in 563, Columba and a dozen companions set out for northern Britain, where the 5th century Picts had lost territory to the previous Irish kings, and were still generally ignorant of Christianity. The religion of the Picts—Druidism fok law —were the beliefs which prevailed in the rest of Britain and Celtic Gaul.7 Historian Adamnan records that Columba’s efforts at conversion were strenuously opposed by the diabolical arts and incantations of the Druid priests. Fountains were particular objects of veneration, as well as heavenly bodies and oak trees, a superstitious awe which many fountains and wells are regarded with today—likely a remnant of the ancient Pictish religion. Druidism acknowledges a Supreme Being, whose name was synonymous with the Eastern Baal, and was visibly represented by the sun and sun-worship. Many of the antiquities scattered across north Scotland, such as stone circles, monoliths, sculptured stones, etc., are believed to be connected with the Druid religion.8

Columba was kindly received by Conal, king of British Scots, and allowed to preach, convert, and baptize. He was also given possession of the isle of Iona, where, according to legend, his tiny boat had washed ashore. (The island was known by the simple name “I” changed by Bede into “Hy” and Latinized by the monks into “Iova” or “Iona.”)9 Here Columba founded the celebrated monastery which became a school for missionaries and the center for the conversion of the Picts, as well as the only center of literacy and education in the region, at that time. Says the historian Bede, “The monastry of Iona, like those previously founded by Columba in Ireland, was not a retreat for solitaries whose chief object was to work out their own salvation; it was a great school of Christian education, and was specially designed to prepare and send forth a body of clergy trained to the task of preaching the Gospel among the heathen.”10 From Iona Scotland, his disciples went out to found other monasteries to the west in Ireland, and to the east the famous Lindisfarne monastery in Northumbria, among others.

As a close advisor to the Gaelic king Conal11 of Dalriada, Columba served as a diplomat to neighboring kingdoms in Ireland and Pictland. (Dalriada was a Gaelic kingdom that extended on both sides of the North Channel: in the northwest of Ireland, and western Scotland. One of the little known facts about Scotland is that the county of Argyll received extensive immigration from the Irish of northern Ireland, known as “Scoti” and had become an Irish, i.e. “Scottish” area. Despite heavy onslaughts from the Picts, the Dalriada of the Scottish mainland continued to expand. From 574 to 606, Dalriada was ruled by one of its most dynamic and successful kings, Aedan mac Gabran. In the mid-800’s, King Kenneth I. MacAlpin brought the Picts permanently under Dalriadic rule. Thereafter, the whole country was known as “Scotland;” thus was the end of the Picts of the ancient British Isles.)12

Attended by his disciples, Columba made long journeys through the Highlands of Scotland, as far as Aberdeen, spreading the light of faith in God and instructing the people in the truths of the Gospel. For thirty years, he evangelized, studied, wrote, and governed his monastery at Iona. He supervised his monks in their work in the fields and workrooms, in their daily worship and Sunday Eucharist, and their study and teaching.

There are many stories of miracles performed through Columba during his work with the Picts. Columba perceived that by converting King Brude, one of the known leaders of the ancient Picts, it would lead to the success of bringing over the whole nation to the worship of the true God. So he visited the pagan king Bridei (or Brude), king of Fortriu, at his base in Inverness,13 where it is said that the king had the gates locked against Columba. But that when he arrived at the king’s castle, Columba made the sign of the cross and the gates opened of their own accord. King Brude was so impressed that he opened his home—and soul—to Columba, becoming a devoted follower of Jesus Christ.14

Among the many accomplishments of Columba, he was also an impressive sailor.15 Columba was known for his joyous love of life.16 As well as a man of action, Columba was also a poet, whose Latin and Gaelic poems reveal a man very sensitive to the beauty of his surroundings.17 He is also credited with transcribing 300 books personally.18 At the height of the Iona monastery, it produced The Book of Kells, a masterwork of Irish Celtic symbols, art and literature. The community Columba founded at Iona became the center for an early renaissance where books, art, music and culture were preserved at the on-set of the Christian destruction in Dark Ages from Rome.19 To keep a succession of the teachers of Christianity, Columba established a monastery in every district of the Pictish territories,20 and from these monasteries, for many ages, came men of authenticity who watered and tended the good seed planted by Columba.

Columba had great influence among the neighboring princes, and they often asked for his advice. They submitted to him their quarrels, which were frequently settled by Columba.21

Columba died peacefully in 597, while working on a copy of the Psalter. He had put down his pen, rested a few hours, and at Matins was found dead before the Altar, a smile on his face. He is quoted by his biographer Adamnan as having said, “This day is called in the sacred Scriptures a day of rest, and truly to me it will be such, for it is the last of my life and I shall enter into rest after the fatigues of my labors.”22

For many years after his passing, Columba’s influence was felt in the Celtic lands and abroad. Columba’s mission at Iona led to the conversion of Scotland and of the north of England.23 Columba’s life contributed to Ireland becoming one of the monastic hubs of Europe, with the culture of Ireland dominated by monasteries and monastic leaders. Other Irish monks became missionaries and converted much of northern Europe to Christianity.24

1 Saint Columba. www.geocities.com/c_brundage/saints/col2.htm?200718
2 Columba: Early life in Ireland. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columba
3 Saint Columba. www.geocities.com/c_brundage/saints/col2.htm?200718
4 St. Columba or Columcille 521-597. www.cin.org/columba.html
5 Saint Columba. www.geocities.com/c_brundage/saints/col2.htm?200718
6 St. Columba. http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=419
7 General History of the Highlands – The Druids: www.electricscotland.com/history/genhist/hist17.html
8 General History of the Highlands – The Druids: www.electricscotland.com/history/genhist/hist17.html
9 General History of the Highlands – St. Columba: www.electricscotland.com/history/genhist/hist18.html
10 General History of the Highlands – St. Columba: www.electricscotland.com/history/genhist/hist18.html
11 General History of the Highlands – St. Columba: www.electricscotland.com/history/genhist/hist18.html
12 Dalriada. www.lyberty.com/encyc/articles/dalriada.html
13 Columba: Scotland. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columba
14 Saint Columba. www.geocities.com/c_brundage/saints/col2.htm?200718
15 St. Columba or Columcille 521-597. www.cin.org/columba.html
16 Saint Columba. www.geocities.com/c_brundage/saints/col2.htm?200718
17 St. Columba or Columcille 521-597. www.cin.org/columba.html
18 Columba: Scotland. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columba
19 Who is Saint Columba? www.columba.org/about/qanda.html#whois
20 General History of the Highlands – St. Columba: www.electricscotland.com/history/genhist/hist18.html
21 General History of the Highlands – St. Columba: www.electricscotland.com/history/genhist/hist18.html
22 Episcopal Book of Prayer on Lesser Feasts and Fasts.
23 St. Columba or Columcille 521-597. www.cin.org/columba.html
24 Medieval Sourcebook: Rule of St. Columba 6 th Century. www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/columba-rule.html

– from the St Columba Retreat House website.


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