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Saint Columba
Saint Columba, Apostle of the Picts
Apostle of the Picts
Born December 7, 521, County Donegal
Died June 9, 597, Iona
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church
Major shrine Iona
Feast June 9
Patronage floods, bookbinders, poets, Ireland, Scotland

My Druid is Christ, the son of God, Christ, Son of Mary, the Great Abbot, The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
St. Columba

Saint Columba ( 7 December 521 - 9 June 597) is sometimes referred to as Columba of Iona, or, in Old Irish, as Saint Colm Cille or Columcille (meaning "Dove of the church"). He was the outstanding figure among the Gaelic missionary monks who reintroduced Christianity to Scotland during the Dark Ages.

Early life in Ireland

He was born to Fedlimid and Eithne of the Uí Néill clan in Gartan, near Lough Gartan, County Donegal. On his father's side he was great-great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish king of the 5th century. He became a monk and was ordained as a priest. Tradition asserts that, sometime around 560, he became involved in a dispute with Saint Finnian over a psalter. Columba copied the manuscript at the scriptorium under Saint Finnian, intending to keep the copy. Saint Finnian disputed his right to keep the copy. The dispute eventually led to the pitched Battle of Cúl Dreimhne in 561, during which many men were killed. (Columba's copy of the psalter has been traditionally associated with the Cathach of St. Columba.) As penance for these deaths, Columba suggested that he work as a missionary in Scotland to help convert as many people as had been killed in the battle. He exiled himself from Ireland, to return only once again, several years later.


In 563 he traveled to Scotland with twelve companions, where according to his legend he first landed at the southern tip of the Kintyre peninsula, near Southend. However, being still in sight of his native land he moved further north up the west coast of Scotland. In 563 he was granted land on the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland which became the centre of his evangelising mission to the Picts. Aside from the services he provided guiding the only outpost of literacy in the region, his reputation as a holy man led to his role as a diplomat among the tribes; there are also many stories of miracles which he performed during his work to convert the Picts. He visited the pagan king Bridei, king of Fortriu, at his base in Inverness, winning the king's respect. He subsequently played a major role in the politics of the country. He was also very energetic in his evangelical work, and, in addition to founding several churches in the Hebrides, he worked to turn his monastery at Iona into a school for missionaries. He was a renowned man of letters, having written several hymns and being credited with having transcribed 300 books personally. One of the few, if not the only, time he left Scotland after his arrival was toward the end of his life, when he returned to Ireland to found the monastery at Durrow. He died on Iona and was buried in the abbey he created.

Lasting legacy

Columba is credited as being a leading figure in the revitalization of monasticism, and "[h]is achievements illustrated the importance of the Celtic church in bringing a revival of Christianity to Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire".

Vita Columbae

The main source of information about Columba's life is the Vita Columbae by Adomnán, the ninth Abbot of Iona, who died in 704. Both the Vita Columbae and Bede record Columba's visit to Bridei. Whereas Adomnán just tells us that Columba visited Bridei, Bede relates a later, perhaps Pictish tradition, whereby the saint actually converts the Pictish king. Another early source is a poem in praise of Columba, most probably also composed in the course of the 7th century. It consists of 25 stanzas of four verses of seven syllables each.

The earliest recorded example of the name Arthur in a British document occurs, as Arturius, in Adomnan's vita. There it occurs as the name of a prince among the Scots, the son of Áedán mac Gabráin, king of Dál Riata from AD 574, far from the legendary King Arthur's familiar haunts in the southwest.

The vita of Columba is also the source of the first known reference to the Loch Ness Monster. According to Adomnan, Columba came across a group of Picts who were burying a man killed by the monster, and saved a swimmer with the sign of the Cross and the imprecation "You will go no further", at which the beast fled terrified, to the amazement of the assembled Picts who glorified Columba's God. Whether or not this incident is true, Adomnan's text specifically states that the monster was swimming in the River Ness -- the river flowing through the loch -- rather than in Loch Ness itself.

Through the reputation of its venerable founder and its position as a major European centre of learning, Columba's Iona became a place of pilgrimage. A network of Celtic high crosses marking processional routes developed around his shrine at Iona.

Columba is historically revered as a warrior saint, and was often invoked for victory in battle. His relics were finally removed in 849 and divided between Alba and Ireland. Relics of Columba were carried before Scottish armies in the reliquary made at Iona in the mid-8th century, called the Brecbennoch. Legend has it that the Brecbennoch, was carried to Bannockburn by the vastly outnumbered Scots army and the intercession to the Saint helped them to victory. It is widely thought that the Monymusk Reliquary is this object.

O Columba spes Scotorum... "O Columba, hope of the Scots" begins a 13th century prayer in the Antiphoner of Inchcolm, the "Iona of the East".

St Columba's feast day is June 9 and with Saint Patrick, March 17, and Saint Brigid, February 1, is one of the three patron saints of Ireland. Prior to the battle of Athelstaneford, he was the patron saint of Scotland.

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