"The Works of Fiona Macleod" Volume IV


How great a man was the Irish monk Crimthan (Note), called Colum, the Dove: Columcille, the Dove of the Church. One may read all that has been written of him since the sixth century, and not reach the depths of his nature. I doubt if any other than a Gael can understand him aright. More than any Celt of whom history tells, he is the epitome of the Celt. In war, Cuchullin himself was not more brave and resourceful. Finn, calling his champions to the pursuit of Grania, or Oisin boasting of the Fianna before Patrick, was not more arrogant, yet his tenderness could be as his Master's was, and he could be as gentle as a young mother with her child, and had a child's simplicity. He knew the continual restlessness of his race. He was forty-two when he settled in Iona, and had led a life of frequent and severe vicissitude, often a wanderer, sometimes with blood against him and upon his head, once in extremity of danger, an outlaw, excommunicated. But even in his haven of Iona he was not content. He journeyed northward through the Pictish realms, a more dangerous and obscure adventure then than to cross Africa to-day. He sailed to "the Ethican island" as St. Adamnan calls Tiree, and made of it a sanctuary, where prayer might rise as a continual smoke from quiet homes. No ear of the savage clans of Skye--where a woman had once reigned with so great a fame in war that even the foremost champion of Ireland went to her in his youth to learn arms and battle-wisdom--restrained him from facing the island Picts. Long before Hakon the Dane fought the great seafight off Largs on the mainland, Colum had built a church there. In the far Perthshire wilds, before Macbeth slew Duncan the king, the strong abbot of Iona had founded a monastery in that thanedom. At remote Inbhir Nis, the Inverness of to-day, he overcame the King of the Picts and his sullen Druids, by his daring, the fierce magnetism of his will, his dauntless resource. Once, in a savage region, far north-eastward, towards the Scandinavian sea, he was told that there his Cross would not long protect either wattled church or monk's cell: on that spot he built the monastery of Deir, that stood for a thousand years, and whose priceless manuscript is now one of the treasures of Northumbria.

Columba was at once a saint, a warrior, a soldier of Christ, a great abbot, a dauntless explorer, and militant Prince of the Church and a student, a man of great learning, a poet, an artist, a visionary, an architect, administrator, law-maker, judge, arbiter. As a youth this prince, for he was of royal blood, was so beautiful that he was likened to an angel. In mature manhood, there was none to equal him in stature, manly beauty, strength, and with a voice so deep and powerful that it was like a bell and could be heard on occasion a mile away, and once, indeed, at the court of King Bruidh, literally overbore and drowned a concerted chorus of sullen druids. These had tried to outvoice him and his monks, little knowing what a mighty force the sixty-fourth Psalm could be in the throat of this terrible Culdee, who to them must have seemed much more befitting his house-name, Crimthan (Wolf), than "the Dove"!

This vocal duel was a characteristic device of the Druids. I recall one notable instance long before Colum's time, though the Leab har, na H'Uidre in which it is to be found was not compiled till A.D. 1000. In the story of the love of Connla, son of Conn of the Hundred Battles, for a woman of the other world, a druid asks her whence she has come, and when she answers that it is from the lands of those who live a beautiful and deathless life, he knows that she is a woman of the Sidhe. So he chants against the fair woman till the spell of her voice is overcome, and she goes away as a mist that falls on the shore, as a Hebridean poet would say.*

*In a beautiful old Scoto-Gaelic ballad, the "Bàs Fhraoich," occurs the line, Thuit i air an tràigh na neul, "she fell on the shore as a mist," though here finely used for a swoon only.

Later, she comes again, and now invisible to all save Connla. Conn the king hears her chanting to Connla that it is no such lofty place he holds "amid short-lived mortals awaiting fearful death" that he need dread to leave it, "the more as the ever-living ones invite thee to be the ruler over Tethra (a Kingdom of joy)." So once more the king calls upon the Ard-Druid to dispel the woman by his incantations. For a moment Connla wavers, but the Fairy Woman, with a music of mockery, sings to him that Druidism is in ill-favour "over yonder," little loved and little honoured "there," for, in effect, the nations of the Shee do not need that idle dream. Connla's longing is more great to him than his kingdom or the fires of home, and he goes with his leannanshee in a boat till those on the strand see him dimly and then no, more in that sundown glow, nor ever again. Columba, a poet and scholar familiar with the old tables of his beloved Eiré, probably did not forget on occasion to turn this druidic tale against Druidism itself, repeating how, in its own time, before the little bell of the tonsured folk was heard in Ireland (so little a bell to be the tocsin of fallen gods and broken nations), "Druidism is not loved, for little has it progressed to honour on the great Righteous Strand."

For one thing of great Gaelic import, Columba has been given a singular pre-Eminence--not for his love of country, pride of race, passionate loyalty to his clan, to every blood-claim and foster-claim, and friendship claim, though in all this he was the very archetype of the clannish Gael--but because (so it is averred) he was the first of our race of whom is recorded the systematic use of the strange gift of spiritual foresight, "secondsight." It has been stated authoritatively that he is the first of whom there is record as having possessed this faculty; but that could only be averred by one ignorant of ancient Gaelic literature. Even in Adamnan's chronicle, within some seventy years after the death of Columba, there is record of others having this faculty, apart from the perhaps more purely spiritual vision of his mother Aithnê, when an angel raimented her with the beauty of her unborn son, or of his foster-father, the priest Cruithnechan, who saw the singular light of the soul about his sleeping pupil, or of the abbot Brendan who redeemed the saint from excommunication and perhaps death by his vision of him advancing with a pillar of fire before him and an angel on either side. (When, long years afterwards, Brendan died in Ireland, Colum in Iona startled his monks by calling for an immediate celebration of the Eucharist, because it had been revealed to him that St. Brendan had gone to the heavenly fatherland yesternight: "Angels came to meet his soul: I saw the whole earth illumined with their glory.")  Among others there is the story of Abbot Kenneth, who, sitting at supper, rose so suddenly as to leave without his sandals, and at the altar of his church prayed for Colum, at that moment in dire peril upon the sea: the story of Ernan, who, fishing in the river Fenda, saw the death of Colum in a symbol of flame: the story of Lugh mac Tailchan, who, at Cloinfinchoil, beheld Iona (which he had never visited), and above it a blaze of angels' wings, and Colum's soul. In the most ancient tales there is frequent allusion to what we call second-sight. The writers alluded to could not have heard of the warning of the dread Mor-Rigân (Note) to Cuchullin before the fatal strife of the Táin-Bó-Cuailgne; or Cuchullin's own pre-vision (among a score as striking) of the hostings and gatherings on the fatal plain of Muirthemne; or the Amazonian queen, Scathach's, fore-knowledge of the career and early death of the champion of the Gaels:

"(At the last) great peril awaits thee . . .
Alone against a vast herd:
Thirty years I reckon the length of thy years
(literally, the strength of thy valour);
Further than this I do not add;"

or of Deirdre's second-sight, when by the white cairn on Sliav Fuad she saw the sons of Usna headless, and Illann the Fair headless too, but Bumne the Ruthless Red with his head upon his shoulders, smiling a grim smile--when she saw over Naois, her beloved, a cloud of blood--or that, alas, too bitter-true a foreseeing, when in the Craebh Derg, the House of the Red Branch, she cried to her lover and his two brothers that death was at the door and "grievous to me is the deed O darling friends--and till the world's end Emain will not be better for a single night than it is to-night." Or, again, of that pathetic, simultaneous death-vision of Bailê the Sweet-Spoken and Aillinn, he in the north, she in the south, so that each out of a grief unbearable straightway died, as told in one of the oldest as well as loveliest of ancient Gaelic tales, the Scél Baili Binnbérlaig.

There is something strangely beautiful in most of these "second-sight" stories of Columba. The faculty itself is so apt to the spiritual law that one wonders why it is so set apart in doubt. It would, I think, be far stranger if there were no such faculty.

That I believe, it were needless to say, were it not that these words may be read by many to whom this quickened inward vision is a superstition, or a fantastic glorification of insight. I believe; not only because there is nothing too strange for the soul, whose vision surely I will not deny, while I accept what is lesser, the mind's prescience, and, what is least, the testimony of the eyes. That I have cause to believe is perhaps too personal a statement, and is of little account ; but in that interior wisdom, which is no longer the flicker of one little green leaf but the light and sound of a forest, of which the leaf is a part, I know that to be true, which I should as soon doubt as that the tide returns or that the sap rises or that dawn is a ceaseless flashing light beneath the circuit of the stars. Spiritual logic demands it.

It would ill become me to do otherwise. I would as little, however, deny that this inward vision is sometimes imperfect and untrustworthy, as I would assert that it is infallible. There is no common face of good or evil and in like fashion the aspect of this so-called mystery is variable as the lives of those in whom it dwells. With some it is a prescience, more akin to instinct than to reason, and obtains only among the lesser possibilities, as when one beholds another where in the body none is; or a scene not possible, there, in that place; or a face, a meeting of shadows, a disclosure of hazard or accident, a coming into view of happenings not yet fulfilled. With some it is simply a larger sight, more wide, more deep; not habitual, because there is none of us who is not subject to the law of the body; and sudden, because all tense vision is a passion of the moment. It is as the lightning, whose sustenance is sure for all that it has a second's life. With a few it is a more constant companion, a dweller by the morning thought, by the moon reverie, by the evening dream. It lies upon the pillow for some: to some it as though the wind disclosed pathways of the air; a swaying branch, a dazzle on the wave, the quick recognition in unfamiliar eyes, is, for others, sufficient signal. Not that these accidents of the manner need concern us much. We have the faculty, or we do not have it. Nor must we forget that it can be the portion of the ignoble as well as of those whose souls are clear. When it is in truth a spiritual vision, then we are in company of what is the essential life, that which we call divine.

It was this that Columba had, this serene perspicuity. That it was a conscious possession we know from his own words, for he gave this answer to one who marvelled: "Heaven has granted to some to see on occasion in their mind, clearly and surely, the whole of earth and sea and sky."

It is not unlikely that in the seventy years which elapsed between Colum's death and the writing of that lovely classic of the Church Adamnan's Vita St. Columbæ, some stories grew around the saint's memory which were rather the tribute of childlike reverence and love than the actual experiences of the holy man himself. What then ? A field in May is not the less a daughter of Spring, because the cowslip-wreaths found there may have been brought from little wayward garths by children who wove them lovingly as they came.

Many of these strange records are mere coincidences; others reveal so happy a surety in the simple faith of the teller that we need only smile, and with no more resentment than at a child who runs to say he has found stars in a wayside pool. Others are rather the keen insight of a ceaseless observation than the seeing of an inward sense. But, and perhaps oftener, they are not inherently incredible. I do not think our forebears did ill to give haven to these little ones of faith, rather than to despise, or to drive them away.

I have already spoken of Columba as another St. Francis, because of his tenderness for creatures. I recall now the lovely legend (for I do not think Colum himself attributed "second-sight" to an animal) which tells how the old white pony which daily brought the milk from the cow-shed to the monastery came and put its head in the lap of the aged and feeble abbot, thus mutely to bid farewell. Let Adamnan tell it: "This creature then coming up to the saint, and knowing that his master would soon depart from him, and that he would see his face no more, began to utter plaintive moans, and, as if a man, to shed tears in abundance into the saint's lap, and so to weep, frothing greatly. Which when the attendant saw, he began to drive away that weeping mourner. But the saint forbade him, saying, 'Let him alone? As he loves me so, let him alone, that into this my bosom he may pour out the tears of his most bitter lamentation. Behold, thou, a man, that hast a soul, yet in no way hast knowledge of my end save what I have myself shown thee; but to this brute animal the Master Himself hath revealed that his master is about to go away from him.' And so saying, he blessed his sorrowing servant the horse."

If there be any to whom the aged Colum comforting the grief of his old white pony is a matter of disdain or derision, I would not have his soul in exchange for the dumb sorrow of that creature. One would fare further with that sorrow, though soulless, than with the soul that could not understand that sorrow.

If one were to quote from Adamnan's three Books of the Prophecies, Miracles, and Visions of Columba, there would be another book. Amid much that is childlike, and a little that is childish, what store of spiritual beauty and living symbol in these three books--the Book of Prophetic Revelations, the Book of Miracles of Power, the Book of Angelic Visitations. But there, as elsewhere, one must bear in remmbrance that, in spiritual sight, there is symbolic vision as well as actual vision. When Colum saw his friend Columbanus (who, unknown to any on Iona, had set out in his frail coracle from the Isle of Rathlin) tossed in the surges of Corryvrechan; or when, nigh Glen Urquhart, he hurried forward to minister to an old dying Pict "who had lived well by the light of nature," and, whose house, condition, and end had been suddenly revealed to him: then we have actual vision. When Aithnê, his mother, dreamed that an angel showed her a garment of so surpassing a loveliness that it was as though woven of flowers and rainbows, and then threw it on high, till its folds expanded and covered every mountain-top from the brows of Connaught to the feet of the Danish sea, and so revealed to her what manner of son she bore within her womb; or when, in the hour of Colum's death, the aged son of Tailchan beheld the 'whole expanse of air flooded with the blaze of angels' wings, which trembled with their songs: then we have symbolic vision. And sometimes we have that which partakes of each, as when (as Adamnan tells us in his third book) Colum saw angels standing upon the rocks on the opposite side of the Sound which divides Iona from the Ross of Mull, calling to his soul to cross to them, yet, as they assembled and beckoned, mysteriously and suddenly restrained, for his hour was not come.

And in all actual vision there is gradation from what is so common, premonition, to what is not common, prescience, and to what is rare, revelation. Thus when the labourers on Iona looked up from the fields and saw the aged abbot whom they so loved, borne in a wagon to give them benediction at seedsowing, many among them knew that they would not see Colum again, and Colum knew it, and so shared that premonition. And when, many years before, he and the abbot Comgell, returning from a futile conference of the kings Aedh and Aidan, rested by a spring, concerning which Colum said that the day would come when it would be filled with human blood, "because my people, the Hy-Neill, and the Pictish folk, thy relations according to the flesh, will wage war by this fortress of Cethirn close by," Comgell learned, through Colum's foreknowledge, of what did in truth come to pass. Again, when Colum bade a brother go three days thence to the sea-shore on the west side of Iona, and lie in readiness to help "a certain guest, a crane to wit, beaten by the winds during long and circuitous and aerial flights, which will arrive after the ninth hour of the day, very weary and sore distressed," and bade him to lift it and tend it lovingly for three days and three nights till it should have strength to return to "its former sweet home," and to do this out of love and courtesy because "it comes from our fatherland"--and when all happens and is done as the saint foretold and commanded, then we have revelation, the vision that is absolute, the knowledge that is the atmosphere of the inevitable. It would take a book indeed to tell all the stories of Columba's visionary and prophetic powers. That I write at this length concerning him, indeed, is because he is himself Iona. Columba is Christian Iona, as much as Iona is Icolmkill. I have often wondered (because of a passage in Adamnan) if the island be not indeed named after him, the Dove: for as Adamnan says incidentally, the name Columba is identical with the Hebrew name Jonah, also signifying a Dove, and by the Hebrews pronounced Iona.

It is enough now to recall that this man, so often erring but so human always, in whose life we see the soul of Iona as in a glass, is become the archetype of his race, as Iona is the microcosm of the Gaelic world. That he came into this life heralded by dreams and visions, that from his youth onward to old age he knew every mystery of dream and vision, and that before and after his death his soul was revealed to others through dreams and visions, is but an added hieratic grace: yet we do well to recall often how these dreams before and these visions after were angelical, and nobly beautiful: how there was left of him, and to his little company, and to us for remembrance, that last signal vision of a blaze of angelic wings, more intolerable than the sun at noon, the tempestuous multitude trembling with the storm of song.

Columba and Oran . . . these are the two great names in Iona. Love and Faith have made one immortal; the other lives also, clothed in legend. I am afraid there is not much definite basis for the popular Iona legend of Oran. It is now the wont of guides and others to speak of the Réilig Qdhrain, Oran's burial-place, as that of Columba's friend (and victim), but it seems likelier that the Oran who lies here is he who is spoken of in the Annals of the Four Masters as having died in the year 548, that is fifteen years before Colum came to the island. This, however, might well be a mistake: what is more convincing is that Adamnan never mentions the episode, nor even the name of Oran, nor is there mention of him in that book of Colum's intimate friend and successor, Baithene, which Adamnan practically incorporated. On the other hand, the Oran legend is certainly very old. The best modern rendering we have of it is that of Mr. Whitley Stokes in his Three Middle-Irish Homilies, and readers of Dr. Skene's valuable Celtic Scotland recollect the translation there redacted. The episode occurs first in an ancient Irish life of St. Columba. The legend, which has crystallised into a popular saying, "Uir, Uir, air sùil Odhrain! mun labhair e tuille comhraidh"--"Earth, earth on Oran's eyes, lest he further blab"--avers that three days after the monk Oran or Odran was entombed alive (some say in the earth, some in a cavity), Colum opened the grave, to look once more on the face of the dead brother, when to the amazed fear of the monks and the bitter anger of the abbot himself, Oran opened his eyes and exclaimed, "There is no such great wonder in death, nor is Hell what it has been described." (Ifrinn, or Ifurin-- the word used--is the Gaelic Hell, the Land of Eternal Cold.) At this, Colum straightway cried the now famous Gaelic words, and then covered up poor Oran again lest he should blab further of that uncertain world whither he was supposed to have gone. In the version Mr. Whitley Stokes there is no mention of Odran's grave having been uncovered after his entombment. But what is strangely suggestive is that both in the oral legend and in that early monkish chronicle alluded to, Columba is represented as either suggesting or accepting immolation of a living victim as a sacrifice to consecrate the church he intended to build.

One story is that he received a divine intimation to the effect that a monk of his company must be buried alive, and that Odran offered himself. In the earliest known rendering, "Colum Cille said to his people: 'It is well for us that our roots should go underground here'; and he said to them, 'It is permitted to you that some one of you go under the earth of this island to consecrate it. 'Odran rose up readily, and thus he said: 'If thou wouldst accept me,' he said, 'I am went to ready for that.' . . . Odran then went to heaven. Colum Cille then founded the Church of Hii."

It would be a dark stain on Columba if this legend were true. But apart from the fact that Adamnan does not speak of it or of Oran, the probabilities are against its truth. On the other hand, it is, perhaps, quite as improbable that there was no basis for the legend. I imagine the likelier basis to be that a druid suffered death in this fashion under that earlier Odran of whom there is mention in the Annals of the Four Masters: possibly, that Odran himself was the martyr, and the Ard-Druid the person who had "the divine intimation." Again, before it be attributed to Columba, one would have to find if there is record of such an act having been performed among the Irish of that day. We have no record of it. It is not improbable that the whole legend is a symbolical survival, an ancient teaching of some elementary mystery through some real or apparent sacrificial rite.

Among the people of Iona to-day there is a very confused idea about St. Oran. To some he is a saint: to others an evil-doer: some think he was a martyr, some that he was punished for a lapse from virtue. Some swear by his grave, as though it were almost as sacred as the Black Stone of Iona: to others, perhaps most, his is now but an idle name.

By the Black Stone of Iona! One may hear that in Icolmkill or anywhere in the west. It used to be the most binding oath in the Highlands, and even now is held as an indisputable warrant of truth. In Iona itself, strangely enough, one would be much more likely to hear a statement affirmed "by St. Martin's Cross." On this stone--the old Druidic Stone of Destiny, sacred among the Gael before Christ was born--Columba crowned Aidan King of Argyll. Later, the stone was taken to Dunstaffnage, where the Lords of the Isles were made princes: thence to Scone, where the last of the Celtic Kings of Scotland was crowned on it. It now lies in Westminster Abbey, a part of the Coronation Chair, and since Edward 1 every British monarch has been crowned upon it. If ever the Stone of Destiny be moved again, that writing on the wall will be the signature of a falling dynasty; but perhaps, like Iona in the island saying, this can be left to the Gaelic equivalent of Nevermas, "gus am bi MacCailein na' righ," "till Argyll be a king."


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