Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Ch. 12: St. Columba

The famous St. Columba cannot perhaps be numbered among the hermits: but as the spiritual father of many hermits, as well as many monks, and as one whose influence upon the Christianity of these islands is notorious and extensive, he must needs have some notice in these pages. Those who wish to study his life and works at length will of course read Dr. Reeves's invaluable edition of Adamnan. The more general reader will find all that he need know in Mr. Hill Burton's excellent "History of Scotland," chapters vii. and viii.; and also in Mr. Maclear's "History of Christian Missions during the Middle Ages"--a book which should be in every Sunday library.

St. Columba, like St. David and St. Cadoc of Wales, and like many great Irish saints, is a prince and a statesman as well as a monk. He is mixed up in quarrels between rival tribes. He is concerned, according to antiquaries, in three great battles, one of which sprang, according to some, from Columba's own misdeeds. He copies by stealth the Psalter of St. Finnian. St. Finnian demands the copy, saying it was his as much as the original. The matter is referred to King Dermod, who pronounces, in high court at Tara, the famous decision which has become a proverb in Ireland, that "to every cow belongs her own calf." {283} St. Columba, who does not seem at this time to have possessed the dove-like temper which his name, according to his disciples, indicates, threatens to avenge upon the king his unjust decision. The son of the king's steward and the son of the King of Connaught, a hostage at Dermod's court, are playing hurley on the green before Dermod's palace. The young prince strikes the other boy, kills him, and flies for protection to Columba. He is nevertheless dragged away, and slain upon the spot. Columba leaves the palace in a rage, goes to his native mountains of Donegal, and returns at the head of an army of northern and western Irish to fight the great battle of Cooldrevny in Sligo. But after a while public opinion turns against him; and at the Synod of Teltown, in Meath, it is proclaimed that Columba, the man of blood, shall quit Ireland, and win for Christ out of heathendom as many souls as have perished in that great fight. Then Columba, with twelve comrades, sails in a coracle for the coast of Argyleshire; and on the eve of Pentecost, A.D. 563, lands upon that island which, it may be, will be famous to all times as Iona, Hy, or Icolumkill,--Hy of Columb of the Cells.

Thus had Columba, if the tale be true, undertaken a noble penance; and he performed it like a noble man. If, according to the fashion of those times, he bewailed his sins with tears, he was no morbid or selfish recluse, but a man of practical power, and of wide humanity. Like one of Homer's old heroes, St. Columba could turn his hand to every kind of work. He could turn the hand-mill, work on the farm, heal the sick, and command as a practised sailor the little fleet of coracles which lay hauled up on the strand of Iona, ready to carry him and his monks on their missionary voyages to the mainland or the isles. Tall, powerful, handsome, with a face which, as Adamnan said, made all who saw him glad, and a voice so stentorian that it could be heard at times a full mile off, and coming too of royal race, it is no wonder if he was regarded as a sort of demigod, not only by his own monks, but by the Pictish chiefs to whom he preached the Cross. We hear of him at Craig Phadrick, near Inverness; at Skye, at Tiree, and other islands; we hear of him receiving visits from his old monks of Derry and Durrow; returning to Ireland to decide between rival chiefs; and at last dying at the age of seventy-seven, kneeling before the altar in his little chapel of Iona--a death as beautiful as had been the last thirty-four years of his life; and leaving behind him disciples destined to spread the light of Christianity over the whole of Scotland and the northern parts of England.

St. Columba, at one period or other of his life, is said to have visited a missionary hermit, whose name still lingers in Scotland as St. Kentigern, or more commonly St. Mungo, the patron saint of Glasgow. The two men, it is said (but the story belongs to the twelfth century, and can hardly be depended on), exchanged their crooked staves or crosiers in token of Christian brotherhood, and that which St. Columba is said to have given to St. Kentigern was preserved in Ripon Cathedral to the beginning of the fifteenth century. But who St. Kentigern was, or what he really did, is hard to say; for all his legends, like most of these early ones, are as tangled as a dream. He dies in the year 601: and yet he is the disciple of the famous St. Servanus or St. Serf, who lived in the times of St. Palladius and St. Patrick, 180 years before. This St. Serf is a hermit of the true old type; and even if his story be, as Dr. Reeves thinks, a fabrication throughout, it is at least a very early one, and true to the ideal which had originated with St. Antony. He is brought up in a monastery at Culross: he is tempted by the devil in a cave in the parish of Dysart (the Desert), in Fifeshire, which still retains that name. The daemon, fleeing from him, enters an unfortunate man, who is forthwith plagued with a wolfish appetite. St. Serf cures him by putting his thumb into his mouth. A man is accused of stealing and eating a lamb, and denies the theft. St. Serf, however, makes the lamb bleat in the robber's stomach, and so substantiates the charge beyond all doubt. He works other wonders; among them the slaying of a great dragon in the place called "Dunyne;" sails for the Orkneys, and converts the people there; and vanishes thenceforth into the dream-land from which he sprung.

Two great disciples he has, St. Ternan and St. Kentigern; mystery and miracle hang round the boyhood of the latter. His father is unknown. His mother is condemned to be cast from the rock of "Dunpelder," but is saved and absolved by a miracle. Before the eyes of the astonished Picts, she floats gently down through the air, and arrives at the cliff foot unhurt. St. Kentigern is thenceforth believed to be virgin-born, and is reverenced as a miraculous being from his infancy. He goes to school to the mythic St. Serf, who calls him Mungo, or the Beloved; which name he bears in Glasgow until this day. His fellow-scholars envy his virtue and learning, and try to ruin him with their master. St. Serf has a pet robin, which is wont to sit and sing upon his shoulder. The boys pull off its head, and lay the blame upon Kentigern. The saint comes in wrathful, tawse in hand, and Kentigern is for the moment in serious danger; but, equal to the occasion then as afterwards, he puts the robin's head on again, sets it singing, and amply vindicates his innocence. To this day the robin figures in the arms of the good city of Glasgow, with the tree which St. Kentigern, when his enemies had put out his fire, brought in from the frozen forest and lighted with his breath, and the salmon in whose mouth a ring which had been cast into the Clyde had been found again by St. Kentigern's prophetic spirit.

The envy of his fellow-scholars, however, is too much for St. Kentigern's peace of mind. He wanders away to the spot where Glasgow city now stands, lives in a rock hollowed out into a tomb, is ordained by an Irish bishop (according to a Celtic custom, of which antiquaries have written learnedly and dubiously likewise), and has ecclesiastical authority over all the Picts from the Frith of Forth to the Roman Wall. But all these stories, as I said before, are tangled as a dream; for the twelfth century monks, in their loyal devotion to the see of Rome, are apt to introduce again and again ecclesiastical customs which belonged to their own time, and try to represent these primaeval saints as regular and well- disciplined servants of the Pope.

It may be remarked that St. Serf is said to have come into a "dysart" or desert. So did many monks of the school of St. Columba and his disciples, who wished for a severer and a more meditative life than could be found in the busy society of a convent. "There was a 'disert,'" says Dr. Reeves, "for such men to retire to, besides the monastery of Derry, and another at Iona itself, situate near the shore in the low ground, north of the Cathedral, as may be inferred from Portandisiart, the name of a little bay in this situation." A similar "disert" or collection of hermit cells was endowed at Cashel in 1101; and a "disert columkill," with two townland mills and a vegetable garden, was endowed at Kells, at a somewhat earlier period, for the use of "devout pilgrims," as those were called who left the society of men to worship God in solitude.

The Venerable Bede speaks of as many as three personages, Saxons by their names, who in the Isle of Ireland led the "Pilgrim" or anchoritic life, to obtain a country in heaven; and tells of a Drycthelm of the monastery at Melrose, who went into a secret dwelling therein to give himself more utterly to prayer, and who used to stand for hours in the cold waters of the Tweed, as St. Godric did centuries afterwards in those of the Wear. Solitaries, "recluses," are met with again and again in these old records, who more than once became Abbots of Iona itself. But there is no need to linger on over instances which are only quoted to show that some of the noblest spirits of the Celtic Church kept up wherever they could the hermit's ideal, the longing for solitude, for passive contemplation, for silence and perpetual prayer, which they had inherited from St. Antony and the Fathers of the Egyptian Desert.

The same ideal was carried by them over the Border into England. Off its extreme northern coast, for instance, nearly half-way between Berwick and Bamborough Castle, lies, as travellers northward may have seen for themselves, the "Holy Island," called in old times Lindisfarne. A monk's chapel on that island was the mother of all the churches between Tyne and Tweed, as well as of many between Tyne and Humber. The Northumbrians had been nominally converted, according to Bede, A.D. 627, under their King Edwin, by Paulinus, one of the Roman monks who had followed in the steps of St. Augustine, the apostle of Kent. Evil times had fallen on them. Penda, at the head of the idolatrous Mercians (the people of Mid- England), and Ceadwalla, at the head of the Western Britons, had ravaged the country north of Tweed with savage cruelty, slain King Edwin, at Hatfield, near Doncaster, and exterminated Christianity; while Paulinus had fled to Kent, and become Bishop of Rochester. The invaders had been driven out, seemingly by Oswald, who knew enough of Christianity to set up, ere he engaged the enemy, a cross of wood on the "Heavenfield," near Hexham. That cross stood till the time of Bede, some 150 years after; and had become, like Moses' brazen serpent, an object of veneration. For if chips cut off from it were put into water, that water cured men or cattle of their diseases.

Oswald, believing that it was through the mercy of him whom that cross symbolized he had conquered the Mercians and the Britons, would needs reconvert his people to the true faith. He had been in exile during Edwin's lifetime among the Scots, and had learned from them something of Christianity. So out of Iona a monk was sent to him, Aidan by name, to be a bishop over the Northumbrians; and he settled himself upon the isle of Lindisfarne, and began to convert it into another Iona. "A man he was," says Bede, "of singular sweetness, piety, and moderation; zealous in the cause of God, though not altogether according to knowledge, for he was wont to keep Easter after the fashion of his country;" i.e. of the Picts and Northern Scots. . . . "From that time forth many Scots came daily into Britain, and with great devotion preached the word to these provinces of the English over whom King Oswald reigned. . . . Churches were built, money and lands were given of the king's bounty to build monasteries; the English, great and small, were by their Scottish masters instructed in the rules and observance of regular discipline; for most of those who came to preach were monks." {290}

So says the Venerable Bede, the monk of Jarrow, and the father (as he has been well called) of English history. He tells us too, how Aidan, wishing, it may be supposed, for greater solitude, went away and lived on the rocky isle of Farne, some two miles out at sea, off Bamborough Castle; and how, when he saw Penda and his Mercians, in a second invasion of Northumbria, trying to burn down the walls of Bamborough--which were probably mere stockades of timber--he cried to God, from off his rock, to "behold the mischief:" whereon the wind changed suddenly, and blew the flames back on the besiegers, discomfiting them, and saving the town.

Bede tells us, too, how Aidan wandered, preaching from place to place, haunting King Oswald's court, but owning nothing of his own save his church, and a few fields about it; and how, when death came upon him, they set up a tent for him close by the wall at the west end of the church, so that it befell that he gave up the ghost leaning against a post, which stood outside to strengthen the wall.

A few years after, Penda came again and burned the village, with the church; and yet neither could that fire, nor one which happened soon after, destroy that post. Wherefore the post was put inside the church, as a holy thing, and chips of it, like those of the Cross of Heaven Field, healed many folk of their distempers.

. . . A tale at which we may look in two different humours. We may pass it by with a sneer, and a hypothesis (which will be probably true) that the post was of old heart-of-oak, which is burnt with extreme difficulty; or we may pause a moment in reverence before the noble figure of the good old man, ending a life of unselfish toil without a roof beneath which to lay his head; penniless and comfortless in this world: but sure of his reward in the world to come.

A few years after Aidan's death another hermit betook him to the rocks of Farne, who rose to far higher glory; who became, in fact, the tutelar saint of the fierce Northern men; who was to them, up to the time even of the Tudor monarchs, what Pallas Athene was to Athens, or Diana to the Ephesians. St. Cuthbert's shrine, in Durham Cathedral (where his biographer Bede also lay in honour), was their rallying point, not merely for ecclesiastical jurisdiction or for miraculous cures, but for political movements. Above his shrine rose the noble pile of Durham. The bishop, who ruled in his name, was a Count Palatine, and an almost independent prince. His sacred banner went out to battle before the Northern levies, or drove back again and again the flames which consumed the wooden houses of Durham. His relics wrought innumerable miracles; and often he himself appeared with long countenance, ripened by abstinence, his head sprinkled with grey hairs, his casule of cloth of gold, his mitre of glittering crystal, his face brighter than the sun, his eyes mild as the stars of heaven, the gems upon his hand and robes rattling against his pastoral staff beset with pearls. {292} Thus glorious the demigod of the Northern men appeared to his votaries, and steered with his pastoral staff, as with a rudder, the sinking ship in safety to Lindisfarne; received from the hands of St. Brendan, as from a saint of inferior powers, the innocent yeoman, laden with fetters, whom he had delivered out of the dungeon of Brancepeth, and, smiting asunder the massive Norman walls, led him into the forest, and bade him flee to sanctuary in Durham, and be safe; or visited the little timber vine-clad chapel of Lixtune, on the Cheshire shore, to heal the sick who watched all night before his altar, or to forgive the lad who had robbed the nest which his sacred raven had built upon the roof, and, falling with the decayed timber, had broken his bones, and maimed his sacrilegious hand.

Originally, says Bede, a monk at Melrose, and afterward abbot of the same place, he used to wander weeks together out of his monastery, seemingly into Ettrick and the Lammermuirs, and preach in such villages as "being seated high up among craggy, uncouth mountains, were frightful to others even to look at, and whose poverty and barbarity rendered them inaccessible to other teachers." "So skilful an orator was he, so fond of enforcing his subject, and such a brightness appeared in his angelic face, that no man presumed to conceal from him the most hidden secrets of their hearts, but all openly confessed what they had done."

So he laboured for many years, till his old abbot Eata, who had become bishop and abbot at Lindisfarne, sent for him thither, and made him prior of the monks for several years. But at last he longed, like so many before him, for solitude. He considered (so he said afterwards to the brethren) that the life of the disciplined and obedient monk was higher than that of the lonely and independent hermit: but yet he longed to be alone; longed, it may be, to recall at least upon some sea-girt rock thoughts which had come to him in those long wanderings on the heather moors, with no sound to distract him save the hum of the bee and the wail of the curlew; and so he went away to that same rock of Farne, where Aidan had taken refuge some ten or fifteen years before, and there, with the deep sea rolling at his feet and the gulls wailing about his head, he built himself one of those "Picts' Houses," the walls of which remain still in many parts of Scotland--a circular hut of turf and rough stone--and dug out the interior to a depth of some feet, and thatched it with sticks and grass; and made, it seems, two rooms within; one for an oratory, one for a dwelling-place: and so lived alone, and worshipped God. He grew his scanty crops of barley on the rock (men said, of course, by miracle): he had tried wheat, but, as was to be expected, it failed. He found (men said, of course, by miracle) a spring upon the rock. Now and then brethren came to visit him. And what did man need more, save a clear conscience and the presence of his Creator? Certainly not Cuthbert. When he asked the brethren to bring him a beam that he might prop up his cabin where the sea had eaten out the floor, and when they forgot the commission, the sea itself washed one up in the very cove where it was needed: when the choughs from the cliff stole his barley and the straw from the roof of his little hospice, he had only to reprove them, and they never offended again; on one occasion, indeed, they atoned for their offence by bringing him a lump of suet, wherewith he greased his shoes for many a day. We are not bound to believe this story; it is one of many which hang about the memory of St. Cuthbert, and which have sprung out of that love of the wild birds which may have grown up in the good man during his long wanderings through woods and over moors. He bequeathed (so it was believed) as a sacred legacy to the wild-fowl of the Farne islands, "St. Cuthbert's peace;" above all to the eider-ducks, which swarmed there in his days, but are now, alas! growing rarer and rarer, from the intrusion of vulgar sportsmen who never heard St. Cuthbert's name, or learnt from him to spare God's creatures when they need them not. On Farne, in Reginald's time, they bred under your very bed, got out of your way if you made a sign to them, let you take up them or their young ones, and nestled silently in your bosom, and croaked joyfully with fluttering wings when stroked. "Not to nature, but to grace; not to hereditary tendency, but only to the piety and compassion of the blessed St. Cuthbert," says Reginald, "is so great a miracle to be ascribed. For the Lord who made all things in heaven and earth has subjected them to the nod of his saints, and prostrated them under the feet of obedience." Insufficient induction (the cause of endless mistakes, and therefore of endless follies and crimes) kept Reginald unaware of the now notorious fact that the female eider, during the breeding season, is just as tame, allowing for a little exaggeration, as St. Cuthbert's own ducks are, while the male eider is just as wild and wary as any other sea-bird: a mistake altogether excusable in one who had probably never seen or heard of eider-ducks in any other spot. It may be, nevertheless, that St. Cuthbert's special affection for the eider may have been called out by another strange and well-known fact about them of which Reginald oddly enough takes no note-- namely, that they line their nests with down plucked from their own bosom; thus realizing the fable which has made the pelican for so many centuries the type of the Church. It is a question, indeed, whether the pelican, which is always represented in mediaeval paintings and sculptures with a short bill, instead of the enormous bill and pouch which is the especial mark of the "Onocrotalus" of the ancients, now miscalled pelican, be not actually the eider-duck itself, confounded with the true pelecanus, which was the mediaeval, and is still the scientific, name of the cormorant. Be that as it may, ill befell any one who dare touch one of St. Cuthbert's birds, as was proved in the case of Liveing, servant to AElric, who was a hermit in Farne after the time of St. Cuthbert. For he, tired it may be of barley and dried fish, killed and ate an eider-duck in his master's absence, scattering the bones and feathers over the cliffs. But when the hermit came back, what should he find but those same bones and feathers rolled into a lump and laid inside the door of the little chapel; the very sea, says Reginald, not having dared to swallow them up. Whereby the hapless Liveing being betrayed, was soundly flogged, and put on bread and water for many a day; the which story Liveing himself told to Reginald.

Not only the eider, but all birds in Farne, were protected by St. Cuthbert's peace. Bartholomew, who was a famous hermit there in after years, had a tame bird, says the chronicler, who ate from his hand, and hopped about the table among him and his guests, till some thought it a miracle; and some, finding, no doubt, the rocks of Farne weary enough, derived continual amusement from the bird. But when he one day went off to another island, and left his bird to keep the house, a hawk came in and ate it up. Cuthbert, who could not save the bird, at least could punish the murderer. The hawk flew round and round the island, imprisoned, so it was thought, by some mysterious power, till, terrified and worn out, it flew into the chapel, and lay, cowering and half dead, in a corner by the altar. Bartholomew came back, found his bird's feathers, and the tired hawk. But even the hawk must profit by St. Cuthbert's peace. He took it up, carried it to the harbour, and there bade it depart in St. Cuthbert's name, whereon it flew off free, and was no more seen. Such tales as these may be explained, even to their most minute details, by simply natural causes: and yet, in this age of wanton destruction of wild birds, one is tempted at moments to wish for the return of some such graceful and humane superstition which could keep down, at least in the name of mercy and humanity, the needless cruelty of man.

But to return. After St. Cuthbert, says Bede, had served God in the solitude of Farne for many years, the mound which encompassed his habitation being so high that he could see nothing from thence but heaven, to which he so ardently aspired, he was compelled by tears and entreaties--King Egfrid himself coming to the island, with bishops and religious and great men--to become himself bishop in Holy Island. There, as elsewhere, he did his duty. But after two years he went again to Farne, knowing that his end was near. For when, in his episcopal labours, he had gone across to Lugubalia--old Penrith, in Cumberland--there came across to him a holy hermit, Herebert by name, who dwelt upon an island in Derwentwater, and talked with him a long while on heavenly things; and Cuthbert bade him ask him then all the questions which he wished to have resolved, for they should see each other no more in this world. Herebert, who seems to have been one of his old friends, fell at Cuthbert's feet, and bade him remember that whenever he had done wrong he had submitted himself to him utterly, and always tried to live according to his rules; and all he wished for now was that, as they had served God together upon earth, they might depart for ever to see his bliss in heaven: the which befell; for a few months afterwards, that is, on the 20th of March, their souls quitted their mortal bodies on the same day, and they were re-united in spirit.

St. Cuthbert wished to have been buried on his rock in Farne: but the brethren had persuaded him to allow his corpse to be removed to Holy Island. He begged them, said Bede, should they be forced to leave that place, to carry his bones along with them; and so they were forced to do at last; for in the year 875; whilst the Danes were struggling with Alfred in Wessex, an army of them, with Halfdene at their head, went up into Northumbria, burning towns, destroying churches, tossing children on their pike-points, and committing all those horrors which made the Norsemen terrible and infamous for so many years. Then the monks fled from the monastery, bearing the shrine of St. Cuthbert, and all their treasures, and followed by their retainers, men, women, and children, and their sheep and oxen: and behold! the hour of their flight was that of an exceedingly high spring tide. The Danes were landing from their ships in their rear; in their front was some two miles of sea. Escape seemed hopeless; when, says the legend, the water retreated before the holy relics as they advanced; and became, as to the children of Israel of old, a wall on their right hand and on their left; and so St. Cuthbert came safe to shore, and wandered in the woods, borne upon his servants' shoulders, and dwelling in tents for seven years, and found rest at last in Durham, till at the Reformation his shrine, and that of the Venerable Bede, were robbed of their gold and jewels; and no trace of them (as far as I know) is left, save that huge slab, whereon is written the monkish rhyme:--

Hic jacet in fossa Bedae Venerabilis ossa. {299}

Charles Kingsley