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Saint Columba
Saint Columba, Apostle to the Picts
Apostle of the Picts
Born (521-12-07)7 December 521
Gartan, County Donegal, Ireland
Died 9 June 597(597-06-09) (aged 75)
Iona, Scotland
Honored in
Catholic Church
Eastern Orthodoxy
Lutheran Church
Anglican Communion
Presbyterian Church
Major shrine Iona, Scotland
Feast 9 June
Attributes monk's robes, Celtic tonsure and crosier.
Patronage Derry, floods, bookbinders, poets, Ireland, Scotland.

Saint Columba (Irish: Colm Cille, 'church dove';[1][2][3] 7 December 521 – 9 June 597) was an Irish abbot and missionary credited with spreading Christianity in present-day Scotland. He founded the important abbey on Iona, which became a dominant religious and political institution in the region for centuries. He is the Patron Saint of Derry. He was highly regarded by both the Gaels of Dál Riata and the Picts, and is remembered today as a Christian saint and one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.[4]

Columba reportedly studied under some of Ireland's most prominent church figures and founded several monasteries in the country. Around 563 he and his twelve companions crossed to Dunaverty near Southend, Argyll in Kintyre before settling in Iona in Scotland, then part of the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata, where they founded a new abbey as a base for spreading Christianity among the northern Pictish kingdoms[5][6] who were pagan. He remained active in Irish politics, though he spent most of the remainder of his life in Scotland. Three surviving early medieval Latin hymns may be attributed to him.

Early life in Ireland

Columba was born to Fedlimid and Eithne of the Cenel Conaill in Gartan, near Lough Gartan, in modern County Donegal, Ulster in the north of Ireland. On his father's side, he was great-great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish high king of the 5th century. He was baptised in Temple-Douglas, in the County Donegal parish of Conwal (mid-way between Gartan and Letterkenny), by his teacher and foster-uncle Saint Crunathan.[7][8][9]

The remains of St. Columba's church, Gartan, Co. Donegal.

When sufficiently advanced in letters he entered the monastic school of Movilla, at Newtownards, under St. Finnian who had studied at St. Ninian's "Magnum Monasterium" on the shores of Galloway. He was about twenty, and a deacon when, having completed his training at Movilla, he travelled southwards into Leinster, where he became a pupil of an aged bard named Gemman. On leaving him, Columba entered the monastery of Clonard, governed at that time by Finnian, noted for sanctity and learning. Here he imbibed the traditions of the Welsh Church, for Finnian had been trained in the schools of St. David.[10]

In early Christian Ireland the druidic tradition collapsed due to the spread of the new Christian faith. The study of Latin learning and Christian theology in monasteries flourished. Columba became a pupil at the monastic school at Clonard Abbey, situated on the River Boyne in modern County Meath. During the sixth century, some of the most significant names in the history of Irish Christianity studied at the Clonard monastery. It is said that the average number of scholars under instruction at Clonard was 3,000.[4] Columba was one of twelve students of St. Finnian who became known as the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. He became a monk and eventually was ordained a priest.

Another preceptor of Columba was St. Mobhi, whose monastery at Glasnevin was frequented by such famous men as St. Canice, St. Comgall, and St. Ciaran. A pestilence which devastated Ireland in 544 caused the dispersion of Mobhi's disciples, and Columba returned to Ulster, the land of his kindred. He was a striking figure of great stature and powerful build, with a loud, melodious voice which could be heard from one hilltop to another.[11] The following years were marked by the foundation of several important monasteries, Derry, Co. Derry; Durrow, Co. Offaly; Kells, Co. Meath; and Swords.[12] While at Derry it is said that he planned a pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem, but did not proceed farther than Tours. Thence he brought a copy of those gospels that had lain on the bosom of St. Martin for the space of 100 years. This relic was deposited in Derry.[10]

Tradition asserts that, sometime around 560, he became involved in a quarrel with Saint Finnian of Movilla Abbey 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 Cairbre Drom Cliabh (now in Co. Sligo) in 561, during which many men were killed. A second grievance that led him to induce the clan Neill to rise and engage in battle against King Diarmait at Cooldrevny in 561 was the king's violation of the right of sanctuary belonging to Columba's person as a monk on the occasion of the murder of Prince Curnan, the saint's kinsman.[10] Prince Curnan of Connaught, who had fatally injured a rival in a hurling match and had taken refuge with Columba, was dragged from his protector's arms and slain by Diarmaid's men, in defiance of the rights of sanctuary.[11]

A synod of clerics and scholars threatened to excommunicate him for these deaths, but St. Brendan of Birr spoke on his behalf with the result that he was allowed to go into exile instead. Columba's own conscience was uneasy, and on the advice of an aged hermit, Molaise, he resolved to expiate his offence by going into exile and win for Christ as many souls as had perished in the terrible battle of Cuil Dremne. He left Ireland, to return only once, many years later. Columba's copy of the psalter has been traditionally associated with the Cathach of St. Columba.


In 563, he travelled to Scotland with twelve companions (said to include Odran of Iona) in a wicker coracle covered with leather. According to legend he first landed on the Kintyre Peninsula, near Southend. However, being still in sight of his native land, he moved farther north up the west coast of Scotland. The island of Iona was made over to him by his kinsman Conall mac Comgaill King of Dál Riata, who perhaps had invited him to come to Scotland in the first place.[11] However, there is a sense in which he was not leaving his native people, as the Irish Gaels had been colonising the west coast of Scotland for the previous couple of centuries.[13] Aside from the services he provided guiding the only centre of literacy in the region, his reputation as a holy man led to his role as a diplomat among the tribes.[14] There are also many stories of miracles which he performed during his work to convert the Picts, the most famous being his encounter with an unidentified animal that some have equated with the Loch Ness Monster in 565. It is said that he banished a ferocious "water beast" to the depths of the River Ness after it had killed a Pict and then tried to attack Columba's disciple (see Vita Columbae Book 2 below). He visited the pagan King Bridei, King of Fortriu, at his base in Inverness, winning the Bridei's respect, although not his conversion. He subsequently played a major role in the politics of the country. He was also very energetic in his work as a missionary, 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. One of the few, if not the only, times he left Scotland was towards the end of his life, when he returned to Ireland to found the monastery at Durrow.

Columba died on Iona and was buried in 597 by his monks in the abbey he created. In 794 the Vikings descended on Iona. Columba's relics were finally removed in 849 and divided between Scotland and Ireland.[15] The parts of the relics which went to Ireland are reputed to be buried in Downpatrick, County Down, with St. Patrick and St. Brigid or at Saul Church neighbouring Downpatrick. (Names of Iona), Inchcolm and Eilean Chaluim Chille.



Columba is credited as being a leading figure in the revitalisation of monasticism. It is known that Clan MacCallum and Clan Malcolm are descended from the original followers of Columba, It is also said that Clan Robertson are heirs of Columba. Clan MacKinnon may also have some claim to being spiritual descendants of St Columcille as after he founded his monastery on Isle Iona, the MacKinnons were the abbots of the Church for centuries. This would also account for the fact that Clan MacKinnon is amongst the ancient clans of Scotland.[16]

The cathedral of the Catholic Diocese of Argyll and the Isles is placed under the patronage of St. Columba, as are numerous Catholic schools and parishes throughout the nation. The Scottish Episcopal Church and Church of Scotland also have parishes dedicated to him. The village of Kilmacolm in Renfrewshire is also derived from Columba's name.


Columba is the patron-saint of the city of Derry, where he founded a monastic settlement in c. 540. The name of the city in Irish is Doire Colmcille and is derived from the native oak trees in the area and the city's association with Columba. The Catholic Church of Saint Columba's Long Tower stands at the spot of this original settlement. The Church of Ireland Cathedral in Derry is dedicated to St Columba. St. Colmcilles Primary School[17] and St. Colmcilles Community School[18] are two schools in Knocklyon, Dublin, named after St. Colmcille, with the former having an annual day dedicated to the saint on 9 June. Aer Lingus, Ireland's national flag carrier has named one of its Airbus A330 aircraft in commemoration of the saint (reg: EI-DUO).


As of 2011, Canadians who are of Scottish ancestry are the third largest ethnic group in the country and thus Columba's name is to be found attached to Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian parishes. This is particularly the case in eastern Canada apart from Quebec which is French-speaking.

Throughout the US there are numerous parishes within the Catholic and Episcopalian denominations dedicated to Columba. Within the Protestant tradition the Presbyterian Church (which has its roots in Scottish Presbyterianism) also has parishes named in honour of Columba. There is even an Orthodox Church monastery dedicated to the saint in the Massachusetts town of Southbridge. St. Columba is the Patron Saint of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Youngstown, OH. The Cathedral there is named for him.

Iona College, a small Catholic liberal arts college in New Rochelle, NY, is named after the island on which Columba established his first monastery in Scotland, as is Iona College in Windsor, Ontario.

There are at least four pipe bands named for him; one each from Tullamore, Ireland,[19] from Derry, Northern Ireland,[20] from Kearny, New Jersey,[21] and from Cape Cod, Massachusetts.[22]

The Munich GAA is named München Colmcilles.[23]

Vita Columbae

Saint Columba. Stained glass window in Iona Abbey

The main source of information about Saint Columba's life is the Vita Columbae (i.e. "Life of Columba"), a hagiography written in the style of "saint's lives" narratives that had become widespread throughout medieval Europe. Compiled and drafted by scribes and clergymen, these accounts were written in Latin and served as written collections of the deeds and miracles attributed to the saint, both during his or her life or after death. The canonisation of a saint, especially one who had lived on the fringes of the medieval Christian world like Saint Columba, required a well-written hagiography to be submitted to Rome, but popular belief and local cults of sainthood often led to the veneration of these men and women without official approval from the Catholic Church.

Writing a century after the death of Saint Columba, the author Adomnán (also known as Eunan), served as the ninth Abbot of Iona until his death in 704 A.D.[24]

James Earle Frasier asserts that Adomnán drew extensively from an existing body of accounts regarding the life of Saint Columba, including a Latin collection entitled "De uirtutibus sancti Columbae", composed c. 640 A.D. This earlier work is attributed to Cummene Find, who became the abbot of Iona and served as the leader of the monastic island community from 656 until his death in 668 A.D. or 669 A.D.[25]

While the Vita Columbae often conflicts with contemporaneous accounts of various battles, figures, and dates, it remains the most important surviving work from early medieval Scotland and provides a wealth of knowledge regarding the Picts and other ethnic and political groups from this time period. The Vita also offers a valuable insight into the monastic practices of Iona and the daily life of the early medieval Gaelic monks.

The surviving manuscripts include:

Generalia 1 (A), Stadtbibliothek Schaffhausen, Switzerland; vellum, probably written before 713 British Library MS Add. 35110 (B1), folios 96v-143r, probably written before 1165.

British Library MS Cottonian Tiberius D III (B2), folios 192r-217r, written end of 12th to early 13th century. Due to fire damage in 1731, there are missing illegible portions on every page, and six folios [Book I, ch. 2 (diebus) to 22 (genibus) and 36 (viro) to 49 (omnia quae)] are missing completely.

British Library MS Royal 8 D IX (B3), folios 1r-70r, written in the fifteenth or early sixteenth century. The first 8 folios, [to I, 3 (haec puro pectore)] are missing.[26]

Instead of relying on chronological order, Adomnán categorises the events recorded in the Vita Columbae into three different books: Columba’s Prophecies, Columba’s Miracles, and Columba’s Apparitions.[27]

Book one (Of his Prophetic Revelations)

In the first book, the author Adomnán lists Saint Columba's prophetic revelations, which come as a result of the saint's ability to view the present and the future simultaneously. Most of the short chapters begin with Saint Columba informing his fellow monks that a person will soon arrive on the island or an event will immanently occur.

In one notable instance, Columba appears in a dream to King Oswald of Northumbria, and announces the king's incoming victory against the King Catlon (Cadwallon of Wales) in the Battle of Heavenfield. The people of Britain promise to convert to Christianity and receive baptism after the conclusion of the war. This victory signals the re-Christianization of pagan England, and establishes King Oswald as ruler of the entirety of Britain.

Columba's other prophecies can be considered vindictive at times, as when he sends a man named Batain off to perform his penance, but then Columba turns to his friends and says Batain will instead return to Scotia and be killed by his enemies. Several of Saint Columba's prophecies reflect the scribal culture in which he was immersed, such his miraculous knowledge of the missing letter "I” from Baithene's psalter or when he prophecies that an eager man will knock over his inkhorn and spill its contents.[28]

Book two (Of his Miraculous Powers)

In the second book, Columba performs various miracles such as healing people with diseases, expelling malignant spirits, subduing wild beasts, calming storms, and even returning the dead to life.

He also performs agricultural miracles that would hold a special significance to the common people of Ireland and the British Isles, such as when he casts a demon out of a pail and restores the spilt milk to its container.

The Vita contains a story that has been interpreted as the first reference to the Loch Ness Monster. According to Adomnán, Columba came across a group of Picts burying a man who had been killed by the monster. Columba saves a swimmer from the monster with the sign of the Cross and the imprecation, "Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed." The beast flees, 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 from the loch – rather than in Loch Ness itself.[29]

Book three (The Apparitions of Angels)

In book three, Adomnán describes different apparitions of the Saint, both that Columba receives and those that are seen by others regarding him. He mentions that, "For indeed after the lapse of many years, when St. Columba was excommunicated by a certain synod for some pardonable and very trifling reasons, and indeed unjustly," (P.79- 80)

In one of the accounts, Saint Columba, in this period of excommunication, goes to a meeting held against him in Teilte. Saint Brendan, despite of all the negative reactions among the seniors toward Columba, kisses him reverently and assures that Columba is the man of God and that he sees Holy Angels accompanying Columba on his journey through the plain.[30]

In the last Chapter, Columba foresees his own death when speaking to his attendant:
This day in the Holy Scriptures is called the Sabbath, which means rest. And this day is indeed a Sabbath to me, for it is the last day of my present laborious life, and on it I rest after the fatigues of my labours; and this night at midnight, which commenceth the solemn Lord's Day, I shall, according to the sayings of Scripture, go the way of our fathers. For already my Lord Jesus Christ deigneth to invite me; and to Him, I say, in the middle of this night shall I depart, at His invitation. For so it hath been revealed to me by the Lord himself.
And when the bell strikes midnight, Columba goes to the church and kneels beside the altar. His attendant witnesses heavenly light in the direction of Columba, and Holy angels joins the saint in his passage to the Lord:
And having given them his holy benediction in this way, he immediately breathed his last. After his soul had left the tabernacle of the body, his face still continued ruddy, and brightened in a wonderful way by his vision of the angels, and that to such a degree that he had the appearance, not so much of one dead, as of one alive and sleeping.[31]

Other early sources of Columba's life

Both the Vita Columbae and the Venerable Bede (672/673-735) 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 commissioned by Columba's kinsman, the King of the Uí Néill clan. It was almost certainly written within three or four years of Columba's death and is the earliest vernacular poem in European history. It consists of 25 stanzas of four verses of seven syllables each.

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 the Battle of Bannockburn (24 June 1314) by the vastly outnumbered Scots army and the intercession of Columba helped them to victory. It is widely thought that the Monymusk Reliquary is the object in question.

In the Antiphoner of Inchcolm Abbey, the "Iona of the East" (situated on an island in the Firth of Forth), a 13th-century prayer begins O Columba spes Scotorum... "O Columba, hope of the Scots".

See also


  1. ^ Other names include Irish Gaelic Chille, Scots Gaelic Calum Cille, Manx Gaelic Colum Keeilley, and Old Norse Kolban or Kolbjørn.
  2. ^ Kenyon, Sherrilyn. . Writer's Digest Books, 2005. p 358.The Writer's Digest character naming sourcebook
  3. ^ (Norwegian)
  4. ^ a b  
  5. ^ Early Christian Ireland By T. M. Charles-Edwards p303
  6. ^ Pictish Warrior AD 297–841 By Paul Wagner p14 states the Northern Pictish nations were still pagan while the southern Pictish kingdoms were Christian
  7. ^ Denis Larionov & Alexander Zhulin. "Acts of Archbishop Colton in his metropolitan visitation in the diocese of Derry, A.D. MCCCXCVII". Retrieved 12 May 2014. 
  8. ^ Notes on the Place Names of the Parishes and Townlands of the County of Londonderry, 1925, Alfred Moore Munn, Clerk of the Crown and Peace of the City and County of Londonderry
  9. ^ Ordnance Survey Memoirs for the Parishes of Desertmartin and Kilcronaghan, Ballinascreen Historical Society. Published 1986
  10. ^ a b c "Edmonds, Columba. "St. Columba." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. 24 Jul. 2013". Retrieved 12 May 2014. 
  11. ^ a b c Saint Columba, Abbot and Confessor", Crawley, John J., ''Lives of the Saints'', John J. Crawley & co., Inc""". Retrieved 12 May 2014. 
  12. ^ Sidwell, Keith (1995), Reading Medieval Latin, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 70,  
  13. ^ Fletcher, Richard (1989), Who's Who in Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England, Shepheard-Walwyn, pp. 23–24,  
  14. ^ "Who is St. Columba?" St. Columba Retreat House. Retrieved 6 October 2008.
  15. ^ "Scotland's History – Columba". BBC. 1 January 1970. Retrieved 17 August 2012. 
  16. ^ Dowley, Tim, et al., ed. (1977), Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity, Grand Rapids, Michigan:  
  17. ^ "". Retrieved 12 May 2014. 
  18. ^ St. Colmcille's Community School (8 May 2014). "". Retrieved 12 May 2014. 
  19. ^ "St Colmcille's Pipe Band, Tullamore". Facebook. 19 August 2013. Retrieved 12 May 2014. 
  20. ^ "". Retrieved 12 May 2014. 
  21. ^ "". Retrieved 12 May 2014. 
  22. ^ "". Retrieved 12 May 2014. 
  23. ^ "". Retrieved 12 May 2014. 
  24. ^ CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: St. Adamnan (Eunan). (1 March 1907). Retrieved on 23 July 2013.
  25. ^ From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 – James E. Fraser – Google Books. Retrieved on 23 July 2013.
  26. ^ Life of St. Columba. Retrieved on 23 July 2013.
  27. ^ "Life of St. Columba". Retrieved 17 August 2012. 
  28. ^ Book one, Chapter 17
  29. ^ Book two, Chapter 28
  30. ^ Book three, Chapter 3
  31. ^ Book three, Chapter 23

Further reading

Primary sources

External links

New creation Abbot of Iona
died 597
Succeeded by
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