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Colmcille: Life in Scotland

Reliable ‘facts’ about Colum Cille and his life are rare. Most of the information we have about him comes from Adomnán’s ‘Life of Columba’, written a century after his death by a man whose main concern was not to offer an accurate biography, but to celebrate the holiness of his subject. Colum Cille was the first abbot of Iona, and Adomnán was its ninth abbot (he died in AD 704). Whatever Adomnán says about Colum Cille should therefore be understood in this context: he describes Colum Cille’s relationship with kings and nations, with bishops, monks and laity in ways which reflect his own concerns in the late seventh century.

There are details of Colum Cille’s biography which we can be fairly confident about, however. It is probably true, as the Irish annals claim, that he arrived in what is now Argyll on the west of Scotland (then called Dál Riata) in AD 563. We can date his death with even more accuracy: Colum Cille’s dies natalis or ‘birthday’ (into heaven) would be celebrated every year by his monks. He died on 9 June in AD 597, at the age of 75 according to Adomnán.

The first thing we might like to know is where he arrived in Britain. Assuming that he had better manners (and more sense) than to turn up unannounced and take possession of Iona, we must assume that he had royal support. When the Annals of Ulster record the death in 574 AD of Conall, king of Dál Riata, they add that it was he who had given Iona to Colum Cille.

It is quite possible that Conall gave Iona to this newly arrived monk. On the other hand, the English historian Bede states that Colum got the island of Iona from the Pictish king Bridei (HE iii, 4). Bede’s account probably represents the opinion of the Picts themselves (or some of them, at least) in the early eighth century. We may prefer the account of the annals, however, which probably reflect more contemporary local traditions.

A misreading of Adomnán’s text (VC i, 28) has led to the suggestion that Colum Cille first landed in Kintyre. This arises from a misunderstanding of Adomnán’s term caput regionis ‘head-place of a district’, which has been wrongly interpreted as a Latinisation of Ceann Tíre ‘head of the land’, that is Kintyre. But ceann tíre is a physical description of a landscape, while Adomnán’s caput regionis is a political designation – ‘the chief place of a lordship’. Colum Cille’s visit to the caput regionis should not be understood as a visit to Kintyre therefore, in spite of stories told many centuries later. The most likely candidate for the caput regionis in 563, when Colum Cille arrived, and when he must have sought royal support for his monastic foundation, is the fort at Dunadd – though there are other candidates too.

The people of Scottish Dál Riata shared a language, culture and political life with the Dál Riata of Ireland, and with Ireland as a whole. It is virtually certain that they also shared the Christian faith. Colum Cille came, therefore, to a Scottish Dál Riata which had already accepted Christianity. We can assume that he came to a landscape already dotted with churches, where priests and even an occasional bishop already ministered to their people.

What Colum Cille brought to Scottish Dál Riata was not Christianity, therefore, but a monastic community of brothers who would live and work and pray together. It is in this light above all that Adomnán seeks to portray him: as the father of monks, founding, teaching and guiding a community. He also portrays him as a man of power – not the secular power of kings and warlords, which Colum Cille had abandoned in Ireland, but the power of the ascetic, the contemplative. He exercises the divine power that is given to those who have rejected wordly power.

Adomnán describes Colum Cille’s relationship with other saints as one of mutual support and respect, rather than one of rivalry. This may actually have been true, or it may simply reflect Adomnán’s concern to establish an environment of trust and cooperation between various monasteries in his own time, telling stories about cooperative saints to encourage their followers to act likewise in fraternal ways.

Legend has it that Colum Cille came to Scottish Dál Riata as an exile, turning his back on his own native land (even swearing never to set eyes on it again). The reality was rather different. Adomnán tells us that he went back to Ireland when he founded the monastery of Dair Mag (Durrow) between 585 and 597. And in spite of having left the territory of his powerful Uí Néill kindred in Ireland, Colum remained involved in politics. He returned to Ireland for a conference of kings at which were present Áed mac Ainmirech, king of the northern Uí Néill and eventually king of Tara, and Áedán mac Gabráin, king of Dál Riata.

Stories of high-profile public activity – hob-nobbing with clerics, inaugurating kings, prophesying against magicians – may partly reflect Adomnán’s concerns. Even if Colum Cille did do these things, we might nevertheless imagine that for most of his life in Britain his energies were directed towards the more strictly monastic activities that we also find in Adomnán’s Life of St Columba: reading and writing, teaching, praying, guiding his monks, preaching and receiving penitents. It may indeed be precisely this monastic discipline which, as it spread through Gaelic and Pictish parts of Britain, ensured the lasting reputation of both Colum Cille and Iona.

Gilbert Márkus, Department of Celtic and Gaelic, University of Glasgow

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