"The Works of Fiona Macleod" Volume IV

Iona

 

The legendary history of Iona would be as much Pagan as Christian. To-day, at many a ceilidh by the warm hearths in winter, one may hear allusions to the Scandinavian pirates, or to their more ancient and obscure kin, the Fomòr. . . . The Fomór or Fomórians were a people that lived before the Gael, and had their habitations on the isles: fierce prowlers of the sea, who loved darkness and cold and storm, and drove herds of wolves across the deeps. In other words, they were elemental forces. But the name is sometimes used for the Norse pirates who ravaged the west, from the Lews to the town of the Hurdle-ford.

In poetic narration "the men of Lochlin" occurs oftener: sometimes the Summer-sailors, as the Vikings called themselves; sometimes, perhaps oftenest, the Danes. The Vikings have left numerous personal names among the islanders, notably the general term it "summer-sailors," soinerlédi, which survives as Somerled. Many Macleods and Macdonalds are called Somerled, Torquil (also Torcall, Thorkill), and Mànus (Magnus), and in the Hebrides surnames such as Odrum betray a Norse origin. A glance at any good map will reveal how largely the capes and promontories and headlands, and small bays and havens of the west, remember the lords of the Suderböer.

The fascination of this legendary history is in its contrast of the barbaric and the spiritual. Since I was a child I have been held spellbound by this singular union. To see the Virgin-Mary in the sombre and terrible figure of the Washer of the Ford, or spiritual destiny in that of the Woman with the Net, was natural: as to believe that the same Columba could be as tender as St. Bride or gentle as St. Francis, and yet could thrust the living Oran back into his grave, or prophesy, as though himself a believer in the druidic wisdom, by the barking of a favourite hound that had a white spot on his forehead--Donnalaich chon chinain.

Of this characteristic blending of pagan and Christian thought and legend I have tried elsewhere to convey some sense--oftener, perhaps, have instinctively expressed: and here, as they are apposite to Iona, I would like to select some pages as representative of three phases--namely, of the barbaric history of Iona, of the primitive spiritual history which is so childlike in its simplicity, and of that direct grafting of Christian thought and imagery upon pagan thought and imagery which at one time, and doubtless for many generations (for it still survives), was a normal unconscious method. Some five years ago I wrote three short Columban stories, collectively called The Three Marvels of Iona, one named "The Festival of the Birds," another "The Sabbath of the Fishes and the Flies" and the third "The Moon-Child." It is the second of these that, somewhat altered to its present use by running into it part of another Columban tale, I add now.

Before dawn, on the morning of the hundredth Sabbath after Colum the White had made glory to God in Hy, that was theretofore called Iona, or the Druid Isle, and is now Iona, the saint beheld his own sleep in a vision.

Much fasting and long pondering over the missals, with their golden and azure and seagreen initials and earth-brown branching letters, had made Colum weary. He had brooded much of late upon the mystery of the living world that was not man's world.

On the eve of that hundredth Sabbath, which was to be a holy festival in Iona, he had talked long with an ancient greybeard out of a remote isle in the north, the wild Isle of the Mountains, where Scathach the queen hanged the men of Lochlin by their yellow hair.

This man's name was Ardan, and he was of the ancient people. He had come to Iona because of two things. Maolmór, the king of the northern Picts, had sent him to learn of Colum what was this god-teaching he had brought out of Eiré: and for himself he had come when old age was upon him, to see what manner of man this Colum was, who had made Iona, that was "Innis-nan-Dhruidhnean"--the Isle of the Druids--into a place of new worship.

For three hours Ardan and Colum had walked by the sea-shore. Each learned of the other. Ardan bowed his head before the wisdom. Colum knew in his heart that the Druid saw mysteries.

In the first hour they talked of God.

"Ay, sure: and now," said the saint, "O Ardan the wise, is my God thy God?"

At that Ardan turned his eyes to the west. With his right hand he pointed to the sun that was like a great golden flower. "Truly, He is thy God and my God." Colum was silent. Then he said: "Thee and thine, O Ardan, from Maolmòr the Pictish king to the least of his slaves, shall have a long weariness in Hell. That fiery globe yonder is but the Lamp of the World: and sad is the case of the man who knows not the torch from the torchbearer."

In the second hour they talked of Man. While Ardan spoke, Colum smiled in his deep, grey eyes.

"It is for laughter that," he said, when Ardan ceased.

"And why will that be, O Colum Cille?" Ardan asked. Then the smile went out of Colum's grey eyes, and he turned and looked about him.

He saw near, a crow, a horse, and a hound.

"These are thy brethren," he said scornfully.

But Ardan answered quietly, "Even so."

"The third hour they talked about the beasts of the earth and the fowls of the air.

At the last Ardan said: "The ancient wisdom hath it that these are the souls of men and women that have been, or are to be." Whereat Colum answered: "The new wisdom, that is old as eternity, declareth that God created all things in love. Therefore are we at one, O Ardan, though we sail to the Isle of Truth from the west and the east. Let there be peace between us. "Peace," said Ardan.

That eve, Ardan of the Picts sat with the monks of Iona.

Colum blessed him and said a saying. Cathal of the Songs sang a hymn of beauty. Ardan rose, and put the wine of guests to his lips, and chanted this rann:

O Colum and monks of Christ,
It is peace we are having this night:
Sure, peace is a good thing,
And I am glad with the gladness.

We worship one God,
Though ye call him Dia--
And I say not, O Dè!
But cry Bea'uil Bêl!

For it is one faith for man,
And one for the living world,
And no man is wiser than another--
And none knoweth much.

None knoweth a better thing than this:
The Sword, Love, Song, Honour, Sleep.
None knoweth a surer thing than this:
Birth, Sorrow, Pain, Weariness, Death.

Sure, peace is a good thing;
Let us be glad of peace:
We are not men of the Sword,
But of the Rune and the Wisdom.

I have learned a truth of Colum,
And he hath learned of me:
All ye on the morrow shall see
A wonder of the wonders.

Ardan would say no more after that, though all besought him. Many pondered long that night. Cathal made a song of mystery. Colum brooded through the dark; but before dawn he fell asleep upon the fern that strewed his cell. At dawn, with waking eyes, and weary, he saw his Sleep in a vision.

It stood grey and wan beside him.

"What art thou, O Spirit?" he said. "I am thy Sleep, Colum."

"And is it peace?"

"It is peace."

"What wouldst thou?"

"I have wisdom. Thy mind and thy soul were closed. I could not give what I brought. I brought wisdom."

"Give it."

"Behold!"

And Colum, sitting upon the strewed fern that was his bed, rubbed his eyes that were heavy with weariness and fasting and long prayer. He could not see his Sleep now. It was gone as smoke that is licked up by the wind. . . .

For three days thereafter Colum fasted, save for a handful of meal at dawn, a piece of rye-bread at noon and a mouthful of dulse and spring-water at sun-down. On the night of the third day, Oran and Keir came to him in his cell. Colum was on his knees lost in prayer. No sound was there, save the faint whispered muttering of his lips and on the plastered wall the weary buzzing of a fly.

"Holy One!" said Oran in a low voice, soft with pity and awe; "Holy One!"

But Colum took no notice. His lips still moved, and the tangled hairs below his nether lip shivered with his failing breath.

"Father!" said Keir, tender as a woman; "Father!"

Colum did not turn his eyes from the wall. The fly droned his drowsy hum upon the rough plaster. It crawled wearily for a space, then stopped. The slow hot drone filled the cell.

"Father," said Oran, "it is the will of the brethren that thou shouldst break thy fast. Thou art old, and God has thy glory. Give us peace."

"Father," urged Keir, seeing that Colum kneeled unnoticingly, his lips still moving, above his grey beard, with the white hair of him falling about his head like a snowdrift slipping from a boulder.

"Father, be pitiful!" We hunger and thirst for thy presence. We can fast no longer, yet we have no heart to break our fast if thou art not with us. Come, holy one, and be of our company, and eat of the good broiled fish that awaiteth us. We perish for the benediction of thine eyes."

Then it was that Colum rose, and walked slowly towards the wall.

"Little black beast," he said to the fly that droned its drowsy hum and moved not at all; "little black beast, sure it is well I am knowing what you are. You are thinking you are going to get my blessing, you that have come out of hell for the soul of me!"

At that the fly flew heavily from the wall, and slowly circled round and round the head of Colum the White.

"What think ye of that, brother Oran, brother Keir?" he asked in a low voice, hoarse because of his long fast and the weariness that was upon him.

"It is a fiend," said Oran.

"It is an angel," said Keir.

Thereupon the fly settled upon the wall again, and again droned his drowsy hot hum.

"Little black beast," said Colum, with the frown coming down into his eyes, "is it for peace you are here, or for sin? Answer, I conjure you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost!"

"An ainn an Athar, 's an Mhic, 's an Spioraid Naoimh," repeated Oran below his breath.

"An ainn an A thar, 's an Mhic, "s an Spioraid Naoimh," repeated Keir below his breath.

Then the fly that was upon the wall flew up to the roof and circled to and fro. And a beautiful song, and its song was it sang this:

Praise be to God, and a blessing too at that, and a blessing!
For Colum the White, Colum the Dove, hath worshipped;
Yea, he hath worshipped and made of a desert a garden,
And out of the dung of men's souls have made a sweet savour of burning.

A savour of burning, most sweet, a fire for the altar,
This he hath made in the desert; the hell-saved all gladden.
Sure he hath put his benison, too, on milch-cow and bullock,
On the fowls of the air, and the man-eyed seals, and the otter.

But high in His Dûn in the great blue mainland of heaven,
God the All-Father broodeth, where the harpers are harping His glory:
There where He sitteth, where a river of ale poureth ever,
His great sword broken, His spear in the dust, He broodeth.

And this is the thought that moves in his brain, as a cloud filled with thunder
Moves through the vast hollow sky filled with the dust of the stars--
"What boots it the glory of Colum, when he maketh a Sabbath to bless me,
And hath no thought of my sons in the deeps of the air and the sea?"

And with that the fly passed from their vision. In the cell was a most wondrous sweet song, like the sound of far-off pipes over water.

Oran said in a low voice of awe, "O God, our God!"

Keir whispered, white with fear, "O God, my God!"

But Colum rose, and took a scourge from where it hung on the wall. "It shall be for peace, Oran," he said, with a grim smile flitting like a bird above the nest of his grey beard; "it shall be for peace, Keir!"

And with that he laid the scourge heavily upon the bent backs of Keir and Oran, nor stayed his hand, nor let his three days' fast weaken the deep piety that was in the might of his arm, and because of the glory of God.

Then, when he was weary, peace came into his heart, and he sighed "Amen!"

"Amen!" said Oran the monk.

"Amen!" said Keir the monk.

"And this thing has been done," said Colum, because of your evil wish and the brethren, that I should break my fast, and eat of fish, till God will it. And lo, I have learned a mystery. Ye shall all witness to it on the morrow, which is the Sabbath."

That night the monks wondered much. Only Oran and Keir cursed the fishes in the deeps of the sea and the flies in the deeps of the air.

On the morrow, when the sun was yellow on the brown seaweed, and there was peace on the isle and upon the waters, Colum and the brotherhood went slowly towards the sea.

At the meadows that are close to the sea, the saint stood still. All bowed their heads.

"O winged things of the air," cried Colum, "draw near!"

With that the air was full of the hum of innumerous flies, midges, bees, wasps, moths, and all winged insects. These settled upon the monks, who moved not, but praised God in silence.

"Glory and praise to God," cried Colum, "behold the Sabbath of the children of God that inhabit the deeps of the air! Blessing and peace be upon them."

"Peace! Peace!" cried the monks, with one voice.

"In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost!" cried Colum the White, glad because of the glory to God.

"An ainn an Athar, 's an Mhic, 's an Spioraid Naoimh," cried the monks, bowing reverently, and Oran and Keir deepest of all, because they saw the fly that was of Colum's cell leading the whole host, as though it were its captain, and singing to them a marvellous sweet song.

Oran and Keir testified to this thing, and all were full of awe and wonder, and Colum praised God.

Then the saints and the brotherhood moved onward and went upon the rocks. When all stood ankle-deep in the seaweed that was swaying in the tide, Colum cried:

"O finny creatures of the deep, draw near!"

And with that the whole sea shimmered as with silver and gold. All the fishes of the sea, and the great eels, and the lobsters and the crabs, came in a swift and terrible procession. Great was the glory.

Then Colum cried, "O fishes of the deep, Who is your king?" Whereupon the herring, the mackerel, and the dogfish swam forward, and each claimed to be king. But the echo that ran from wave to wave said, The Herring is King!

Then Colum said to the mackerel, "Sing the song that is upon you."

And the mackerel sang the song of the wild rovers of the sea, and the lust of pleasure.

Then Colum said, "But for God's mercy, I would curse you, O false fish."

Then he spoke likewise to the dogfish, and the dogfish sang of slaughter and the chase, and the joy of blood.

And Colum said, "Hell shall be your portion."

Then there was peace. And the herring said :

"In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost."

Whereat all that mighty multitude, before they sank into the deep, waved their fins and their claws, each after its kind, and repeated as with one voice:

"An ain ann Athar, 's an Mhic, 's an Spioraid Naoimh!"

And the glory that was upon the Sound of Iona was as though God trailed a starry net upon the waters, with a shining star in every little hollow, and a flowing moon of gold on every wave.

Then Colum the White put out both his arms, and blessed the children of God that are in the deeps of the sea and that are in the deeps of the air.

That is how Sabbath came upon all living things upon Ioua that is called Iona, and within the air above Iona, and within the sea that is around Iona.

And the glory is Colum's.

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