On the trail of St Columba

St Columba's legacy helped shape medieval Scotland
St Columba's legacy helped shape medieval Scotland
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It’s now easy to follow the footsteps, and the folklore, of the man from Donegal credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland

THOUGH he lived some 1,500 years ago, St Columba (also known as Colum Cille – old Irish for dove of the church; Colm Cille, in Irish, and Calum Cille, in Scottish Gaelic) is a vivid historical figure. He lived from 521 to 597AD and came from a rich and powerful family with land on both the north-east coast of Ireland and in the south-west of Scotland.

St Columba's Church on the Isle of Lewis

St Columba's Church on the Isle of Lewis

When he went in 563 to settle with the Gaels of Dál Riata, in Argyll, he sought permission to build a monastery and was granted the land of Iona. His monastery’s influence continued to flourish after his death, leading to the foundation of other monasteries in Ireland and on Lindisfarne, in Northumbria.

In October, Slí Cholmcille (The St Columba Trail) was unveiled at www.colmcille.org, a website enabling tourists to follow in Columba’s footsteps. It contains trails, maps, images and information about St Columba and the places to which he and his early Christian followers journeyed. The trail takes in Gleann Cholm Cille; Tory & Tullaghobegley; Gartan; Derry; North Sperrins and the Bann; Argyll; Iona; Tarbat Ness and the Outer Hebrides.

The influence of Columban monasteries was far reaching, and helped to shape medieval Ireland and Scotland. Iona held the oldest historical records of the two countries, and is famous for its distinctive Celtic crosses.

The website is ideal for tourists with an interest in history or religion, for Gaelic speakers, lovers of the great outdoors, and for students. There are 72 stops, many located in some of the most beautiful countryside these two islands have to offer. The wealth of historical detail is immense, and has been thoroughly vetted by St Columba specialists Brian Lacey and Gilbert Markus.

The project was developed by Colmcille, a Scottish/Irish intergovernmental initiative to redevelop the links between Gaelic Scotland and Ireland. Colmcille commissioned the website from Pròiseact Nan Ealan, Scotland’s Gaelic arts agency.

Lucy Harland, the project manager for Pròiseact Nan Ealan, says: “The idea was to highlight some places that have a very strong connection with Colmcille – places that are already celebrated and other places where his presence is less well known. Historians would argue that some of the stories about Colmcille are pre-Christian legends that have been adapted and given a Christian spin.

“One is that Colmcille and two companions were standing on a cliff on the north-west coast of Donegal. They all throw their croziers, with the understanding that the one who threw his as far as Tory would get to convert the Tory islanders. Of course, Colmcille won.

“Another of the sites on the trail is a stone, in Gartan, where his mother is said to have given birth. People visit and put coins on it, to celebrate him. Local people also used to spend the night on this stone before they set off for Derry and the long boat journey to America, Canada or Australia. These are examples of much-loved folk tales that are very much alive and well in those communities, where there is still a strong Catholic faith, and strong pilgrimage traditions.”

Much of the received truth about Colmcille comes from a life written 100 years after his death by one of his successors and a distant relative, the abbot Adomnán.

The book, along with claims Columba could turn water into wine, control sea storms and reanimate the dead, contains one of the first mentions of the Loch Ness Monster.

“Once, on another occasion, when the blessed man stayed for some days in the land of the Picts, he had to cross the River Ness. When he reached its bank, he saw some of the local people burying a poor fellow. They said they had seen a water beast snatch him and maul him savagely as he was swimming not long before. Although some men had put out in a little boat to rescue him, they were too late, but, reaching out with hooks, they had hauled in his wretched corpse. The blessed man, having been told all this, astonished them by sending one of his companions to swim across the river and sail back to him in a dinghy that was on the further bank. At the command of the holy and praiseworthy man, Luigne moccu Min obeyed without hesitation. He took off his clothes except for a tunic and dived into the water. But the beast was lying low on the riverbed, its appetite not so much sated as whetted for prey. It could sense that the water above was stirred by the swimmer, and suddenly swam up to the surface, rushing open-mouthed with a great roar towards the man as he was swimming midstream. All the bystanders, the heathen and the brethren, froze in terror, but the blessed man raised his holy hand and made the sign of the cross in the air, and invoking the name of God, he commanded the fierce beast, saying: ‘Go no further. Do not touch the man. Go back at once.’

At the sound of the saint’s voice, the beast fled in terror so fast one might have thought it was pulled back with ropes. But it had got so close to Luigne swimming that there was no more than the length of a pole between man and beast. The brethren were amazed to see that the beast had gone and that their fellow-soldier Luigne returned to them untouched and safe in the dinghy. Even the heathen natives who were present at that time were so moved by the greatness of the miracle they had witnessed that they too magnified the God of the Christians.”

• For a full view of St Columba’s travels, log on to Colmcille.org