Sconemac's, The Arrival of Columba, Scotland's Second Saint

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The Coming of Columba

In this article I would like to argue the survival of elements of the Pre-Christian religion in the Age of the Saints from a native point of view. To do this I will attempt to show that the advent of Christianity did not destroy the older beliefs, in fact it embraced and preserved them intact for many centuries. In fact, many people today who are Christian still hold to practises of which the origins are obviously much older.

Christian mythology would have it that in the year 450 AD there arose one Colum Cille or St. Columba. The life of the real historical person himself has become somewhat obscured by the myths that have grown up surrounding his life. The most well known account comes from Adomnan, abbot of Iona, whose ‘Life of Columba’ was written about a century after the saint's death. What is remarkable about this book is that it is not at all written as a historical biography. It gives us few facts or dates concerning the life of the saint. In fact, it reads more like a Celtic wonder legend, of the type that the people would no doubt have been accustomed to hearing. As such, it stays true to the native tradition of myths and sagas as told by the filid.

The book is actually composed in three parts. Book one narrates the prophetic revelations of the Saint; book two deals with the 'miracles of power' attributed to him, and book three describes angelic visitations that the Saint encountered. It seems clear that the main aim of Adomnan was to emphasise the Sainthood of Columba, and show that he was specially chosen by God. While we can see some borrowing from Biblical myths of the Old Testament, it is also clear that the book draws heavily on native saga, weaving a tale of this great and powerful Celtic hero priest, as gentle as the dove but as cunning as the wolf, that would have found receptive ears and hearts.

Columba himself, we are told, started preaching the monotheistic gospel of Christianity, bringing an end forever to the heathen beliefs of our islands. However, does reality match the myth? Was Columba really preaching the Christian gospel? Certainly Colum had embraced the Christian God, but it seems likely that this new theology was woven inextricably into the web of ancient Celtic belief and custom, of ancestor and hero worship, admittedly in a very central role. Thus we have the start of what became Culdeeism or Celtic Christianity, a strange mixture of Christian and Pagan belief which was to shape the form of Catholicism until well into the Middle Ages when it came into conflict with the inquisitional changes of Rome.

The onset of Christianity did not herald the end of the older beliefs or practises in Eire or Alba. Also if we look at early Christianity as taught by Columba and his followers we would have great difficulty in seeing any marked points of demarcation between the new and the old. Remember we are now into the period known as recorded history. Ian Finlay points out in his book ‘Columba’ the following: "The active presence of Paganism in Ireland in the Age of the Saints is more easily recognised than the routes by which the new faith was introduced". Unlike Rome where Christianity was born in a bloodbath of martyrs, the new faith came to the Celts of our isles without the bloodshed of its heralds. Why?

To answer this we have to look at the background of the people who were the progenitors of this new faith and also the religious beliefs of the Celtic peoples who embraced these new ideas. Columba was no incomer with new ideas; he was Colum Cille a high born noble of the Northern branch of the Ui Nialls. The Ui Nialls claimed to trace their descent back to Niall Noigiallach (Niall of the Nine Hostages) and were undoubtedly at that time the most powerful clan in Ulster. Colum Cille himself was entitled for consideration as a candidate for the Ard Righ (the High King of Eire). In choosing to follow a religious and monastic path, it seems likely that Columba gave up this right. However it is clear that even as a priest of the new Church, he was involved in many of the most important political events of the era in both the North of Ireland and the west of Scotland.

In 574 Columba inaugurated the new king of Dalriada, Aedan mac Gabrain, the first ceremony of its kind, and prophesised that as long as Aedan's descendants gave Columba his rightful place, they would continue as kings of Dalriada. This arbitration and negotiation by priests with kings and noble families was certainly nothing new. The Druidh of the old religion were the advisors to kings, and held great political influence. In the Irish Celtic tradition both kings and Druidh priests were seen to hold their position by the grace of divine Providence, so long as they fulfilled their obligations with honour. Columba was simply following a centuries old tradition.

There are many other signs that the early Celtic church maintained ties with older traditions. In the monastic communities themselves we can see broadly the same social structures of family and clan as those to be found in sixth century Ireland and Scotland as a whole. The early Saints were the 'founding fathers' of these religious communities, each of them being independent, self sufficient units. The abbot would fulfil the role of the Celtic chieftain, guiding his people. Another important role which the monasteries 'usurped' from the old Druidh caste was that of teaching. The monasteries were not simply centres of religion, but also, in time, became great centres of scholarship and learning.

In early Celtic society land was granted to certain families by the king, in return for their loyalty and their services. This is exactly how Columba gained Iona, so that: "the monks were not an invading spiritual sect owing allegiance to far-off Rome, but were rather an element in the web of loyalties which held society together." (Finlay, p.45).

Columba in his journeys to the Continent had come into contact with this new Roman religion which had spread throughout Europe. As a trained priest with knowledge of the older traditions of his country, he surely must have seen no religious conflict in the idea of a new Sun King emerging and dying for the greater benefit of Mankind; after all, this was the continuity of pagan beliefs. However, it is well documented that Columba had no ambition of destroying the pagan beliefs of his people, but only preached the acceptance of this new God King into the greater Celtic cosmology.

Presented for you by Nancy MacCorkill, F.S.A. Scot USA
by S. McSkimming, 1992, who shared this article with me in 1993.
N.MacCorkill, F.S.A. Scot USA
Author, Poet,
Historian of the Ancient Clans of Scotland
with appreciation to S. Skimming



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