"The Works of Fiona Macleod" Volume IV

Iona

I spoke of Port-na-Churaich, the Haven of the Coracle, a little ago. How strange a history is that of Iona since the coming of the Irish priest, Crimthan, or Crimmon as we call the name, surnamed Colum Cille, the Dove of the Church. Perhaps its unwritten history is not less strange. God was revered on Iona by priests of a forgotten faith before the Cross was raised. The sun-priest and the moon-worshipper had their revelation here. I do not think their offerings were despised. Colum, who loved the Trinity so well that on one occasion he subsisted for three days on the mystery of the mere word, did not forego the luxury of human sacrifice, though he abhorred the blood-stained altar. For, to him, an obstinate pagan slain was to the glory of God. The moon-worshipper did no worse when he led the chosen victim to the dolmen. But the moon-worshipper was a Pict without the marvel of the written word; so he remained a heathen, and the Christian named himself saint or martyr.

None knows with surety who dwelled on this mysterious island before the famous son of Feilim of Clan Domnhuit, great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, came with his fellow-monks and raised the Cross among the wondering Picts. But the furthest record tells of worship. Legend itself is more ancient here than elsewhere. Once a woman was (In Gaelic too, as with all the Celtic peoples, it is not the moon but the sun that is feminine.) She may have been an ancestral Brighde, or that mysterious Anait whose Scythian name survives elsewhere in the Gaelic west, and nothing else of all her ancient glory but that shadowy word. Perhaps, here, the Celts remembered one whom they had heard of in Asian valleys or by the waters of Nilus, and called upon Isis under a new name.

The Haven of the Coracle! It was not Colum and his white-robe company who first made the isle sacred. I have heard that when Mary Macleod (our best-loved Hebridean poet) was asked what she thought of Iona, she replied that she thought it was the one bit of Eden that had not been destroyed, and that it was none other than the central isle in the Garden untouched of Eve or Adam, where the angels waited.

Many others have dreamed by that lonely cairn of the Irish king, before Colum, and, doubtless, many since the child who sought the Divine forges.

Years afterwards I wrote, in the same place, after an absence wherein Iona had become as a dream to me, the story of St. Briget, in the Hebrides called Bride, under the lovename commonly given her, Muime Chriosd--Christ's Foster-Mother. May I quote again, here, as so apposite to what I have written, to what indirectly I am trying to convey of the spiritual history of Iona, some portion of it?

In my legendary story I tell of how one called Dłghall, of a kingly line, sailing from Ireland, came to be cast upon the ocean-shore of Iona, then called Innis-nan-Dhruidhneach, the Isle of the Druids--for this was before the cry of the Sacred Wolf was heard, as an old-time island-poet has it, playing upon Colum's house-name, Crimthan, signifying a wolf. The frail coracle in which he and others had crossed the Moyle had been driven before a tempest, and cast at sunrise like a spent fish upon the rocks of the little haven that is now called Port-na-Churaich. All had found death in the wave except himself and the little girl-child he had brought with him from Ireland, the child of so much tragic mystery.

When, warmed by the sun, they rose, they found themselves in a waste place. Dłghall was ill in his mind because of the portents, and now to his fear and amaze the child Briget knelt on the stones, and, with claspt hands, frail and pink as the sea-shells round about her, sang a song of words which were unknown to him. This was the more marvellous, as she was yet but an infant, and could say few words even of Erse, the only tongue she had heard.

At this portent, he knew that Aodh the Arch-Druid had spoken seeingly. Truly this child was not of human parentage. So he, too, kneeled; and, bowing before her, asked if she were of the race of the Tuatha de Danann, or of the older gods, and what her will was, that he might be her servant. Then it was that the kneeling child looked at him, and sang in a low sweet voice in Erse

"I am but a little child,
  Dłghall, son of Hugh, son of Art.
  But my garment shall be laid
  On the lord of the world,
  Yea, surely it shall be that He,
  The King of Elements Himself,
  Shall lean against my bosom,
  And I will give him peace,
  And peace will I give to all who ask
  Because of this mighty Prince,
  And because of his Mother that is the Daughter
        of Peace."

And while Dłghall Donn was still marvelling at this thing, the Arch-Druid of Iona approached, with his white-robed priests. A grave welcome was given to the stranger. While the youngest of the servants of God was entrusted with the child, the Arch-Druid took Daghall aside and questioned him. It was not till the third day that the old man gave his decision. Dłghall Don was to abide on Iona if he so willed; but the child was to stay. His life would be spared, nor would he be a bondager of any kind, and a little land to till would be given him, and all that he might need. But of his past he was to say no word. His name was to become as nought, and he was to be known simply as Dłvach. The child, too, was to be named Bride, for that was the way the name Briget is called in the Erse of the Isles.

To the question of Dłghall, that was thenceforth Dłvach, as to why he laid so great stress on the child, who was a girl, and the reputed offspring of shame at that, Cathal the Arch-Druid replied thus: "My kinsman Aodh of the golden hair, who sent you here, was wiser than Hugh the king, and all the Druids of Aoimag. Truly, this child is an Immortal. There is an ancient prophecy concerning her: surely of her who is now here, and no other. There shall be, it says, a spotless maid born of a virgin of the ancient divine race in Innisfail. And when for the seventh time the sacred year has come, she will hold Eternity in her lap as a white flower. Her maiden breasts shall swell with milk for the Prince of the World. She shall give suck to the King of the Elements. So I say unto you, Dłvach, go in peace. Take unto yourself a wife, and live upon the place I will allot on the east side of Iona. Treat Bride as though she were your soul, and leave her much alone, and let her learn of the sun and the wind. In the fulness of time the prophecy shall be fulfilled."

So was it, from that day of the days. Dłvach took a wife unto himself, who weaned the little Bride, who grew in beauty and grace, so that all men marvelled. Year by year for seven years the wife of Dłvach bore him a son, and these grew apace in strength, so that by the beginning of the third year of the seventh circle of Bride's life there were three stalwart youths to brother her, and three comely and strong lads, and one young boy fair to see. Nor did any one, not even Bride herself, saving Cathal the Arch-Druid, know that Dłvach the herdsman was Dłghall Donn, of a princely race in Innisfail.

In the end, too, Dłvach came to think that he had dreamed, or at the least that Cathal had not interpreted the prophecy aright. For though Bride was of exceeding beauty, and of a holiness that made the young druids bow before her as though she were a bąndia, yet the world went on as before, and the days brought no change. Often, while she was still a child, he had questioned her about the words she had said as a babe, but she had no memory of them. Once, in her ninth year, he came upon her on the hillside of Dūn-I singing these self-same words.  Her eyes dreamed far away.  He bowed his head, and, praying to the Giver of Light, hurried to Cathal.  The old man bade him speak no more to the child concerning the mysteries.

Bride lived the hours of her days upon the slopes of Dūn-I, herding the sheep, or in following the kye upon the green hillocks and grassy dunes of what then, as now, was called the Machar. The beauty of the world. was her daily food. The spirit within her was like sunlight behind a white flower. The birdeens in the green bushes sang for joy when they saw her blue eyes. The tender prayers that were in her heart were often seen flying above her head in the form of white doves of sunshine.

But when the middle of the year came that was (though Dłvach had forgotten it) the year of the prophecy, his eldest son, Conn, who was now a man, murmured against the virginity of Bride, because of her beauty and because a chieftain of the mainland was eager to wed her. "I shall wed Bride or raid Ioua," was the message he had sent.

So one day, before the Great Fire of the Summer Festival, Conn and his brothers reproached Bride.

"Idle are these pure eyes, O Bride, not to be as lamps at tby marriage-bed."

"Truly, it is not by the eyes that we live, replied the maiden gently, while to their fear and amazement she passed her hand before her face and let them see that the sockets were empty.

Trembling with awe at this portent, Dłvach intervened:

"By the sun I swear it, O Bride, that thou shalt marry whomsoever thou wilt and none other, and when thou wilt, or not at all, if such be thy will."

And when he had spoken, Bride smiled, and passed her hand before her face again, and all there were abashed because of the blue light as of morning that was in her shining eyes.

It was while the dew was yet wet on the grass that on the morrow Bride came out of her father's house, and went up the steep slope of Dūn-I. The crying of the ewes and lambs at the pastures came plaintively against the dawn. The lowing of the kye arose from the sandy hollows by the shore, or from the meadows on the lower slopes. Through the whole island went a rapid, trickling sound, most sweet to hear: the myriad voices of twittering birds, from the dotterel in the seaweed, to the larks climbing the blue slopes of heaven.

This was the festival of her birth, and she was clad in white. About her waist was a girdle of the sacred rowan, the feathery green leaves flickering dusky shadows upon her robe as she moved. The light upon her yellow hair was as when morning wakes, laughing in wind amid the tall corn. As she went she sang to herself, softly as the crooning of a dove. If any, had been there to hear he would have been abashed, for the words were not in Erse, and the eyes of the beautiful girl were as those of one in a vision.

When, at last, a brief while before sunrise, she reached the summit of the Scuir, that is so small a hill and yet seems so big in Iona, where it is the sole peak, she found three young druids there, ready to tend the sacred fire the moment the sunrays should kindle it. Each was clad in a white robe, with fillets of oak leaves; and each had a golden armlet. They made a quiet obeisance as she approached. One stepped forward, with a flush in his face because of her beauty, that was as a sea-wave for grace and a flower for purity, as sunlight for joy and moonlight for peace.

"Thou mayst draw near if thou wilt, Bride, daughter of Dłvach," he said, with something of reverence as well as of grave courtesy in his voice; "for the holy Cathal hath said that the breath of the Source of All is upon thee. It is not lawful for women to be here at this moment, but thou hast the law shining upon thy face and in thine eyes. Hast thou come to pray?"

But at that moment a cry came from one of his companions. He turned, and rejoined his fellows. Then all three sank upon their knees, and with outstretched arms hailed the rising of God.

As the sun rose, a solemn chant swelled from their lips, ascending as incense through the silent air. The glory of the new day came soundlessly. Peace was in the blue heaven, on the blue-green sea, and on the green land. There was no wind, even where the currents of the deep moved in shadowy purple. The sea itself was silent, making no more than a sighing slumber-breath round the white sands of the isle, or a dull whisper where the tide lifted the long weed that clung to the rocks.

In what strange, mysterious way, Bride did not see; but as the three druids held their hands before the sacred fire there was a faint crackling, then three thin spirits of blue smoke rose, and soon dusky red and wan yellow tongues of flame moved to and fro. The sacrifice of God was made. Out of the immeasurable heaven He had come, in His golden chariot. Now, in the wonder and mystery of His love, He was re-born upon the world, re-born a little fugitive flame upon a low hill in a remote isle. Great must be His love that He could die thus daily in a thousand places: so great His love that he could give up His own body to daily death, and suffer the holy flame that was in the embers He illumined to be lighted and revered and then scattered to the four quarters of the world.

Bride could bear no longer the mystery of this great love. It moved her to an ecstasy. What tenderness of divine love that could thus redeem the world daily: what longsuffering for all the evil and cruelty done hourly upon the weeping earth: what patience with the bitterness of the blind fates! The beauty of the worship of Be'al (Note) was upon her as a golden glory. Her heart leaped to a song that could not be sung.

Bowing her head, so that the tears fell upon her hands, she rose and moved away.

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