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Politics and Power in Columba’s Scotland

‘Scotland’ did not exist as such when Colum Cille arrived on the western shore of Britain. The territory now known as ‘Scotland’ was home to several different peoples and multiple kingdoms.

Colum Cille arrived in Dál Riata – the territory which corresponds more or less to modern Argyll. Dál Riata was a Gaelic-speaking kingdom, or rather a series of small kingdoms struggling with each other for over-kingship. Each of these small kingdoms probably also had its own internal rival kindreds, jockeying for power within their own territories. And there may well have been other Gaels in Britain who were not part of Dál Riata at all, but if so they have left little trace in the record.

At various times one or other of these kingdoms would have power over the others – a pattern of shifting power-relationships that was common throughout the insular world at this time. Instability was the norm: the outcome of a single battle could lead to a new political landscape emerging very rapidly.

Adomnán portrays Colum Cille as actively engaged with the kings of Dál Riata – not only obtaining land from them and blessing particular candidates for kingship, but even inaugurating Áedán mac Gabráin as king in the monastery of Iona (VC iii, 5). We must assume that Colum Cille’s family ties to powerful Gaelic lordships in Ireland gave him significant influence among the élite of in Scottish Dál Riata – two territories connected, not separated, by the narrow stretch of sea between them.

A more dramatic boundary for Scottish Dál Riata lay to the east, where the massif of the Scottish Highlands separated them from the heartland of the Picts and their kingdoms. The Picts were not Gaelic-speakers, but spoke a dialect of the Celtic language from which modern Welsh is descended. Adomnán tells us that Colum Cille travelled into Pictish territory and had dealings with various lords there, and also with Bridei mac Maelchon, a Pictish king whom Adomnán portrays as having his power centre at the north end of Loch Ness.

Relations between Bridei and Colum Cille are not depicted as particularly cordial at first, though Adomnán says that after one encounter the king began to treat the saint with honour. He also tells how Colum Cille asked Bridei to protect an Iona monk who had travelled to Orkney, clearly stating that Bridei had an underking in those northern islands from whom he held hostages to ensure his good behaviour.

While the people of Dál Riata were already Christian when Colum Cille arrived there in 563, it is harder to know to what extent the Picts were Christians. Adomnán does say that Colum Cille baptised a handful of them, but he is not shown baptising the king, or establishing a strong ecclesiastical presence in Pictland. This may be because the Picts were stubborn pagans and were not convinced by Colum Cille’s preaching. But we should also consider the likelihood that Christianity had already established itself in Pictland: the reason Colum Cille did not baptise king Bridei was because he had already been baptised by someone else. Recent carbon-dating evidence shows that there was at least one important monastery in the north of Pictland, at Portmahomack, during Columba’s own lifetime. It is not mentioned at all by Adomnán. Did the Iona monks see it as a rival foundation?

To the south and south-east of Dál Riata, on the River Clyde and beyond, another kingdom was ruled from Dumbarton Rock. This was a British polity (i.e. speaking a dialect of Old Welsh). Adomnán portrays Colum Cille as enjoying connections with the British: the saint sends a fratricide to do penance among the British (VC i, 22), while one of the first Iona monks was a Briton (VC iii, 6). Adomnán also shows Colum Cille prophesying that a British king, Rhydderch ap Tudwal will die peacefully in his own bed (VC i, 15).

The prophecy was fulfilled of course – though one might not have expected it, for Rhydderch was forced to defend himself and his people against the rising power of a fourth kingdom: Northumbria. This English kingdom would take control of much British territory during and after Colum Cille’s time. Three decades after Colum Cille’s death his successor would send one of his monks to be the first bishop of Northumbria, and to establish his see on the island of Lindisfarne, thus creating close links between Iona and the English kingdom.

Such was the complex political arena within which the early monks of Iona had to operate: four languages, and many kingdoms. It would be a mistake to suppose that people’s loyalties ran along ethnic lines, however. One Gaelic claimaint to overkingship of Dál Riata, for example, might seek the support of a British war-lord in a struggle to dominate another Gaelic claimaint. Early medieval Scotland saw migrations, intermarriage and shifting alliances which blurred the lines between peoples and kingdoms. By the end of the seventh century the king of the Picts was the son of a Pictish woman and a Gaelic chieftain from Dál Riata.

Adomnán’s descriptions of the political, ethnic and social landscape are problematic, however. Do they really describe the state of affairs in the time of Colum Cille? Or do they rather reflect the situation in Adomnán’s own time a hundred years later? We should probably assume that they do a bit of both.

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

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