St Columba and ‘Celtic Christianity’
Donald E. Meek
Some time ago, on 9 June, which is the accepted date of the Festival of St Columba, I listened to a talk on the saint. I am always both interested in, and wary of, such talks, as they are very likely to present a ‘Columba’ who does not conform to the picture that I have of the saint, if I have a ‘picture’ of any kind. This talk was no exception to the general rule.
Several points made by the speaker remain vividly in my mind. First, I was struck by the assertion that, in 563 AD, Columba moved from Ireland to what the minister called a ‘foreign country’, that is, Scotland. Those of us who are speakers of Gaelic and/or Irish can immediately see the misconception at the heart of that claim. We know that the western seaboard of what is now Scotland is likely to have shared the same culture as Ireland, that is, Goedelic or early Gaelic culture. The density and vitality of that culture in the islands of western Scotland at that time are not clear, but Columba was by no means in foreign territory when he arrived in Iona. It is highly likely that Gaelic-speaking people had been there many, many times before him. Indeed, it could be argued that, in terms of its position, Iona was a bridgehead between similar cultures, not a dividing-line between different cultures.
If our friend had read Vita Columbae, Adomnán’s ‘Life of Columba’, composed a century after the saint’s death, it would have been evident that there was very little sense of ‘strangeness’ in Adomnán’s presentation of Iona and what was known as Dál Riata – there was, of course, a Dál Riata in Scotland, as well as in Ireland. However, it would have been equally evident that the land occupied by the Picts beyond Druim Alban was truly ‘terra incognita’ to Columba, a land of hostility where there was competition, opposition and danger, compared with the relatively warm atmosphere of Iona and its environs. It is a measure of the ‘otherness’ of Pictland that Columba encountered a dangerous monster in the River Ness – so dangerous that it killed one of his monks. In other words, when Columba went to visit the king of the Picts, as Adomnán relates, he did venture into ‘foreign territory’, but it is unlikely that Iona would have been ‘foreign’ to him.
Second, the speaker emphasised Columba’s affinity with the natural world, and how he and his monks lived in harmony with nature. That was the ‘Celtic way’. And for many people today, that is the ‘Celtic way’. But was it the ‘Columba way’? Not if you read Adomnán’s Vita Columbae, and follow his adventures in Pictland beyond Druim Alban. There hostile animals have to be slain, like the boar that falls down dead by the saint’s very word, the verbum sancti. The affinity with the natural world which was, apparently, typical of the ‘Celtic way’ was reflected in simplicity of lifestyle, and, in contrast to the so-called Roman church of the early Christian centuries, it avoided structures and organisations. Well, no; not if you read about the synods of early Ireland to which Adomnán refers in his Vita Columbae, and had a bearing on Columba’s own life. One could add too that there was plenty of ‘structure’ in the paruchia or group of monasteries established by Columba. He was boss, and he supervised their overall operations. Sometimes I think of him as the Chief Executive of a group of businesses, and thus much closer to our own management-driven form of secular life than we might dare to think. Abbots of monasteries, like Chief Executives in our own day, were powerful people.
From there it was but a short step for the speaker to emphasise, thirdly, Columba’s natural kindness, the loving and generous atmosphere of the ‘Celtic Church’ in which he and his monks operated, and so on. Well, again, on the basis of the Vita Columbae, we have to disagree, if we reflect on the power of the saint’s curses, his ability to foretell the demise of the wicked, and his potentially malevolent powers. These have to be set alongside his periods of prayer locked away in Hinba, with bright light shining from his cell, his angelic visitations, his insights into the future – his positively supernatural attributes did exist, but so also did his negatively supernatural aspects.
One point that speaker made quite correctly, if we accept Adomnán’s Vita Columbae as a correct record of Columba’s life, was his love of the Psalms and the Psalter. That is also suggested by objects like the the Cathach or ‘Battler’, a Psalter attributed to Columba’s penmanship.
I use these points from a commemorative talk on St Columba to illustrate how Columba weaves in and out of myth and reality, between Columba as we might wish him to be, and Columba as he may well have been. I say ‘as he may well have been’, because we have to be aware that even what we may term our ‘historical sources’, that is to say, Adomnán’s Vita Columbae and its constituent parts, also has its own set of ‘myths’ at its heart. Columba, it would seem, was subject to manipulation within a century after his death. Indeed, I would go as far as to say that Adomnán wanted to give his saint the very best possible ‘make-over’, and consciously drew parallels between Columba and Christ, mainly in the realm of the miraculous, where similar miracles are attributed to Columba as are recorded of Christ in the Gospels.
To make Adomnán’s Vita Columbae stand as an historical source, we have to be extremely judicious in what we are prepared to accept as history, and we have to peel off a considerable amount of later legends which were grafted on to the real life of the saint for various purposes, political, spiritual, canonical, or whatever. Some might even be prepared to say that the real essence and value of the Vita Columbae lie not in the portrayal of the saint, but in the portrayal of his context, and the details that are furnished about the life and work of the monastery of Iona, as well as the political and social structures of Scottish Dál Riata . In other words, even by the end of the seventh century, Columba has entered the realm of myth and its accompanying ‘functions’, and we are not dealing with the straightforward evaluation of an historical figure. He is a literary figure too, made to carry messages on behalf of writers from a later day. Saints were ‘up for grabs’, particularly at times of special commemoration, because of their posthumous powers and their status after death, and if we do not recognise that, we wander into the Vita Columbae at our very considerable peril.
This takes me to the second part of the title of this talk, namely ‘Celtic Christianity’. As many of you will know, back in 2000 I put my life on the line, and wrote a book entitled The Quest for Celtic Christianity. This book was my response to what I considered to be an increasingly irritating movement that wanted me, as a Gaelic speaker and Celtic scholar, to affirm its basic presuppositions about saints and monks within what the movement called ‘Celtic Christianity’. ‘Celtic Christianity’ was, and is, built on foundation pillars (very shoogly ones, of course!) which were similar to the points made in the talk to which I referred at the outset of this lecture – the missionary character of the saint (or saints), venturing into foreign territory, and converting the inhabitants to the Christian faith; the warm rapport between the saint (or saints) and the natural world; and the saint’s (single or plural!) natural kindness, generosity and love for all people. In addition, the ‘Celtic Christianity’ movement of the 1990s made great play of its understanding that so-called ‘Celtic saints’ had achieved a happy compromise between pre-existing pagan or non-Christian practices and the Christian faith itself. Allegedly, the ‘Celtic saints’ had been prepared to accept different aspects of ‘paganism’ or pre-Christian beliefs as part of a syncretistic form of Christianity which, said its advocates, we ought to recapture and emulate in our own time.
Over a decade later, and now well into the twenty-first century, what I find fascinating in retrospect is how the twentieth century seemed to be obsessed with ‘Celtic Christianity’ as the century came to a close. Saints who for many years had remained largely unknown to the great British public suddenly achieved fresh profiles, and new ‘vitae’ were published, often in the shape of compact little paperbacks, complemented by dapper volumettes of ‘Celtic prayers’, beautifully illustrated with modern interpretations of so-called ‘Celtic art’, derived from the high crosses and other insignia of the ‘Celtic Church’. The so-called ‘Celtic way’ was the way to go, or so many believed, at the end of the twentieth century. New centres of ‘Celtic’ devotion appeared, pilgrimages became very fashionable, and so too did trails which followed the footsteps of the saints. You could go for a ‘Celtic retreat’ in Lindisfarne, for example, or you could undertake a pilgrimage to Iona or to any number of places associated with saints, including, of course, our ubiquitous Columba. Given the sense of place which was generated, and the notion of secure location, it was easy to assume that everything was genuine.
It was all a very sentimental, touchy-feely time, and stood in the sharpest possible contrast to the way in which the twentieth century had begun. Things were much more macho, much less gooey, back then. The heroes then embraced by secular (rather than religious) society were not saints. Rather, they tended to be sinners, failures in their own time, who, in spite of their faults, had been elevated to the status of great soldiers and explorers and missionaries. General Charles Gordon of Khartoum is perhaps the best known of the soldiers who became household names within a Christian interpretation of their ‘heroic last stand’. On the side of the explorers, I think of Captain Robert Falcon Scott and the tragedy of his race to Antarctica which turned him into a national hero, ‘Scott of the Antarctic’, alongside Titus Oates. Again, there was a profoundly religious aura to Scott and to Oates, as presented to the public after their deaths. At the same time, the star of David Livingstone was still shining brightly. He was seen as the archetypal missionary figure, opening darkest Africa for the bright rays of the Christian gospel.
Almost all of these figures were subsequently knocked off their pedestals by researchers who went back to the documentary sources for the relevant periods, and reached very different conclusions about their roles. I well remember when Tim Jeal’s ‘revisionist’ book on David Livingstone appeared. I was a student at Cambridge then, and I was astonished when I read Jeal’s verdict on the old Scottish ‘saint’. He had been a total failure as a missionary, more or less, and he was not a very pleasant person in many respects. In fact, he had been instrumental in letting the British Empire into Africa, and had helped to fuel, rather than to eliminate, the slave trade. He had been a poor father, spent little time with his wife, Mary Moffat, and so on…The ‘debunking’ of Livingstone, the Presbyterian saint, complete with his relics, continues, as does the properly academic and historical reassessment of the man and the myth.
At the end of the twentieth century, we were in a very different post-colonial, post-Imperial world. Our old heroes had fallen off their plinths. No more soldiering, no more exploring, no more imperially-nuanced missionary activity for us. Our heroes were now ‘celebrities’, on radio and television; sportsmen and sportswomen, but especially the former, and many of them footballers; we had Princess Diana too, with much weeping at her untimely passing, and in all of this the saints of the ‘old Celtic Church’ were making a curious come-back. In the process, they were being secularised, working their way down the ladders to avoid being ‘on a pedestal’, and becoming more and more like ourselves, the wayfarers of the new millennium. They were our new role-models, the trans-denominational harbingers of a new age to come, offering an easy-going ‘Celtic alternative’ to the pressurised, managerially-driven and bottom-line-focused society of our demented age, and conveniently refashioned in our own image. And ‘our’ meant everyone, Protestants, Catholics, the back-to-nature movement, the Glastonbury-goers, the tree-huggers of Tiree, and all shades in between.
And so I did what others had done to misrepresentations of earlier heroes…I applied the axe of reason to the root of the sentimental tree of wishful thinking which purported to represent the lineage of Columba and other saints. I gave the movement quite a drubbing, and said, in my most profoundly pedagogic and Columban tones, ‘Get back to the sources, you brood of poisonous vipers, you pack of misleading, devious sinners!’ As one reviewer summarised my book, ‘Irascible Uncle Mocks Tree-huggers’!
Of course, when you do go back to the sources, what you find is that the remaking of saints, including Columba, is no new thing. Even Adomnán participated in something of the kind when he wrote his biography of Columba, and added his own ‘spin’ to the formation of the saint. Later, in 1532, Mánus Ó Dómhnaill employed collectors to gather tales and stories about Columba, which he then fashioned into another vita Columbae, this time in Irish, namely Betha Colaim Chille. What we might call ‘the quest for the historical Columba’ has to tread a careful path through even our earliest sources. The ‘Columba-makers’ have been going at it for a long, long time.
It is tempting to say that, along with the saints themselves, ‘Celtic Christianity’ has been bubbling down the centuries. That, however, would be wildly misleading. We must remember that, in the medieval and late-medieval context, Columba was still operating within a cult, or at least within a form of devotio which respected his name, and afforded him due reverence as a patriarchal figure of the Catholic church. This was the case in both Scotland and Ireland. Both Adomnán and Mánus Ó Dómhnaill, separated by almost a thousand years and operating on different sides of the North Channel, compiled their Lives of Columba out of respect for, and in honour of, the saint.
Matters changed in the Protestant areas with the arrival of the Reformation. Columba was not a figure of devotion within Protestant belief after 1560 – far from it. His name was, however, used to invest Presbyterian Calvinists with a respectable pre-Reformation pedigree through their supposed Culdee predecessors, or to lend prestige to a Protestant church building. We must also bear in mind that Columba could be used for political purposes in the Middle Ages and later.
We cannot therefore use ‘Celtic Christianity’ as a naïve label to cover everything. My own view is that ‘Celtic Christianity’, which begins with the retro-conversion of Columba into a pre-Protestant Presbyterian, and offers a way of bringing Columba and other saints within the reach of Protestants without the embarrassment of Catholic rituals, is essentially a disingenuous Protestant hi-jacking. Its overall message is: ‘We are not Calvins come lately; we have been here before, but in another guise – that of Columba and his followers!’
Bearing in mind the categories which we must distinguish, let us consider briefly some of the ways in which Columba has been commemorated across the centuries, whether ‘cultivated’ out of respect or (finally) appropriated to aid various causes. Some of these will be dealt with more fully in other papers by later speakers, and I will provide only a few examples under each heading, to set the wider scene.
Land and landscape: Columba’s name appears in place-names in Ireland (Gleann Colm Cille in Donegal), the Hebrides (I Chaluim Chille, which is, of course, Iona; Eilean Chaluim Chille in Loch Erisort, which takes its name from its church), and in the west and east of mainland Scotland, though predominantly in the west. In eastern Scotland, a good example of a Gaelic place-name containing the element Colm is Innis Choluim, or Inchcolm, in the Firth of Forth.
Lore and legend: Columba became a figure of legend very early in his posthumous career, as the stories in Adomnán’s late-7th century Vita demonstrate. By the time Mánus Ó Dómhnaill came to compile his Renaissance-style compendium in 1532, Columba was very much associated with legends attached to particular locations in Donegal, in the manner of dindshenchas or the ‘lore of famous places’, a well-known medieval category of Gaelic/Irish history. In Donegal, he was presented as a rather frightening figure, short-tempered and possessing the ability to prophesy death to those who disturbed his relics or insignia. In my native island of Tiree, he was likewise associated with the cursing of the rock in Gott Bay, Mallachdaig, when its seaweed broke, and his coracle (which had been moored to the seaweed) drifted out to sea. He appears too in Gaelic proverbs and prayers, chiefly in Carmichael’s compendia known as Carmina Gadelica. St Columba’s Day, Latha Chaluim Chille chaoimh, was regarded as a good day on which to begin a new initiative. He was also regarded as the protector of the poor and disadvantaged. In Gaelic Scotland, he is a relatively benign figure, compared with the more formidable figure in Donegal.
Politics: From the outset, Columba was closely associated with political intrigue, as it affected the kings of Dál Riata . He was also taken over by the Vikings, and in one saga he is portrayed as appearing in a dream to Alexander II, king of Scotland, in company with Viking warriors and prophesying his death at Kerrera if he did not turn back.
Poetry: Colum Cille, seen as the defender of the poets, was himself regarded as a poet in the Middle Ages, and several poems were ascribed to him.
Medieval dedications: Dedications to St Columba, in the Gaelic and Latin forms of his name, are not uncommon. In St Kilda, two chapels were dedicated to him. In my own native island of Tiree, for example, the two medieval chapels (12-13th century) at Kirkapol, one of which functioned as the local parish church until comparatively late, were dedicated to Colum Cille. Another chapel at Soroby at the other end of Tiree was similarly dedicated. Here in Lewis the saint is commemorated at what appears to be an early medieval site known as Teampall Chaluim Chille, in Eilean Chaluim Chille, Loch Erisort. There is a church with a similar name in Benbecula. The saint is also commemorated in Eaglais na h-Aoidhe or St Columba’s Church, Aignish, as it is sometimes called, built by the MacLeods in the late 14th century, and recognised as ‘the principal church in Lewis until late medieval times’. These churches continued to be associated with burial grounds.
Protestant denominational dedications: The transfer of Colum Cille to a new denomination was reflected first in Londonderry, when the new Protestant cathedral was dedicated to Saint Columb in 1633. Dedications to ‘Columba’ or ‘St Columba’ are well known in Scotland too, and span both the Protestant denominations, including the Free Church of Scotland, with St Columba’s Free Church in Edinburgh, for example. The Church of Scotland has its own St Columba dedication in Glasgow, carried by a church much frequented by the Gaelic population of Glasgow in earlier days. These Protestant dedications appear to be most prominent in the cities of Ireland and Scotland – certainly so in Scotland.
Ecumenism: In the later twentieth century, Columba and his fellows were refashioned as a means to escape from, rather than to reinforce, Protestantism in its more ‘restrictive forms’. They were seen as representing a more refreshing, free-flowing. The Church of England, in particular, embraced the so-called ‘Celtic saints’ in this way, and new groupings were also formed, free of earlier denominational labels.
Cultural initiatives: At the end of the twentieth century, in 1997, the 1400th Anniversary of his death, Columba gave his name to two new ventures in Skye, Arainn Chaluim Chille at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, and Columba 1400 at Kilmuir. Iomairt Chaluim Chille also began at this point, and helped to reconnect Ireland and Scotland in a shared sense of Gaelicness. And his role as a connector of Ireland and Scotland continues to the present. I need hardly say that we are here today partly because of the saintly trail known as Slighe Chaluim Chille.
It strikes me that, even at this late stage in his posthumous career, Columba is still developing his virtues, and remains a very good saint to have on your side! But be wary as you travel with him, and be prepared to do penance. He could well punish you for carrying a plaster saint, even a plastic one, who is constantly being reshaped to meet the needs and aspirations of the centuries, reflected not only in the churches, but also in many other interested parties who want to make the saint ‘work for them’!
Broun, Dauvit, and Clancy, Thomas Owen (eds), Spes Scotorum: Hope of the Scots: St Columba, Iona and Scotland. T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1999.
Herbert, Máire, Iona, Kells and Derry: The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1988.
Lacey, Brian, Colum Cille and the Columban Tradition. Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1997.
Lacey, Brian (ed.), Manus O’ Donnell: The Life of Colum Cille. Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1998.
Meek, Donald E., The Quest for Celtic Christianity. Handsel Press, Boat of Garten, 2000.
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Worden, Sarah (ed.), David Lingstone: Man, Myth and Legacy. National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2012.