Isle of Dreams

I recall one whom I knew, a fisherman of the little green island: and I tell this story of Coll here, for it is to me more than the story of a dreaming islander. One night, lying upon the hillock that is called Cnoc-nan-Aingeal, because it is here that St. Colum was wont to hold converse with an angel out of heaven, he watched the moonlight move like a slow fin through the sea: and in his heart were desires as infinite as the waves of the sea, the moving homes of the dead.

Arid while he lay and dreamed, his thoughts idly adrift as a net in deep waters, he closed his eyes, muttering the Gaelic words of an
old line.

In the Isle of Dreams God shall yet fulfil Himself anew.

Hearing a footfall, he stirred. A man stood beside him. He did not know the man, who was young, and had eyes dark as hill-tarns, with hair light and soft as thistledown; and moved light as a shadow, delicately treading  the grass as the wind treads it. In his hair he had twined the fantastic leaf of the horn-poppy.

The islander did not move or speak: it was as though a spell were upon him.

“God be with you,” he said at last, uttering the common salutation.

“And with you. Coll mac Coll,” answered the stranger. Coll looked at him. Who was this man, with the sea-poppy in his hair, who, unknown, knew him by name? He had heard of one whom he did not wish to meet, the Green Harper: also of a grey man of the sea whom islesmen seldom alluded to by name: again, there was the Amadan Dhu . . . but at that name Coll made the sign of the cross, and remembering what Father Allan had told him in South Uist, muttered a holy exorcism of the Trinity.

The man smiled.

“You need have no fear, Coll mac Coll,” he said quietly.

“You that know my name so well are welcome, but if you in turn would tell me your name I should be glad.”

“I have no name that I can tell you,” answered the stranger gravely; “but I am not of those who are unfriendly. And because you can see me and speak to me, I will help you to whatsoever you may wish.”

Coll laughed.

“Neither you nor any man can do that. For now that I have neither father nor mother, nor brother nor sister, and my lass too is dead, I wish neither for sheep nor cattle, nor for new nets and a fine boat, nor a big house, nor as much money as MacCailein Mòr has in the bank at Inveraora.”

“What then do you wish for, Coll mac Coll?”

“I do not wish for what cannot be, or I would wish to see again the dear face of Morag, my lass. But I wish for all the glory and wonder and power there is in the world, and to have it all at my feet, and to know everything that the Holy Father himself knows, and have kings coming to me as the
crofters come to MacCailein Mòr’s factor.”

“You can have that, Coll mac Coll,” said the Green Harper, and he waved a withe of hazel he had in his hand.

“What is that for?” said Coll.

“It is to open a door that is in the air. And now, Coll, if that is your wish of all wishes, and you will give up all other wishes for that wish, you can have the sovereignty of the world. Ay, and more than that: you shall have the sun like a golden jewel in the hollow of your right hand, and all the stars as pearls in your left, and have the moon as a white shining opal above your brows, with all knowledge behind the sun, within the moon,
and beyond the stars.”

Coll’s face shone. He stood, waiting. Just then he heard a familiar sound in the dusk. The tears came into his eyes.

“Give me instead,” he cried, “give me a warm breast-feather from that grey dove of the woods that is winging home to her young.” He looked as one moon-dazed. None stood beside him. He was alone. Was it a dream, he wondered? But a weight was lifted from his heart. Peace fell upon him as dew upon grey pastures. Slowly he walked homeward. Once, glancing back, he saw a white figure upon the knoll, with a face noble and beautiful. Was it Colum himself come again? he mused: or that white angel with whom the Saint was wont to discourse, and who brought him intimacies of God? or was it but the wave-fire of his dreaming mind, as lonely and cold and unreal as that which the wind of the south makes upon the wandering hearths of the sea?

— Fiona MacLeod (William Sharp), The Works of “Fiona MacLeod” (Uniform Edition), Volume IV, arranged by Mrs. William Sharp, London, William Heinemann, 1912.

Crosfigell

St. Columba on the Hill of Angels, from a drawing by John Duncan, A.R.S.A.
St. Columba on the Hill of Angels, from a drawing by John Duncan, A.R.S.A.

quia vobis donatum est pro Christo, non solum ut in eum credatis, sed ut etiam pro illo patiamini

Phil. i. xxix.

Another time that Columcille was in Iona, he gathered the monks to him in the place where he was, and he spake to them and said:

“Today I am going,” saith he, “to the western part of this island on a certain errand, and let no man at all follow me.”

And the monks consented. And he went forth then to the place whither he had declared he would go. Howbeit there followed him, without his knowing, a certain monk that would fain learn the reason of his going into that solitary place. And he concealed himself in a hillock overlooking the place where Columcille was. And from thence he had sight of him. And thus it was he beheld him, in cross vigil, and his face turned upward toward Heaven, and praying God fervently, and legions of angels round about him on every side. For it was a custom of the angels to come to bring solace to Columcille when he was worn out with pious exercise in places chill and comfortless, or with standing in water to his chin, saying very long prayers in wintry weather or snowy, or from passing strong constraint that he put upon his body for lack of food and drink.

And this is the cause why God gave the monk the sight of the angels: to magnify the name of Columcille. And Columcille would not magnify it himself by letting men wit the visions that were given him. For in fear of feeling empty vanity he never made them known save he understood that to others beside himself there was need of disclosing them — as to pray for the soul of one that had died, or for those that were in peril on sea or land, or when to reveal them would increase the name or honor of some other holy man.

And when Columcille had finished his prayers, the angels left him; and he returned again to the monastery. And he gathered the brethren to him, and asked them which of them had followed him against the command he had laid upon them. And the monks that were innocent said that they knew naught thereof. When the monk that had followed him heard this, he fell on his knees before Columcille, and said that he had done a great sin, and begged forgiveness of Columcille therefor. And Columcille forgave him this when he saw his humility and contrition. And after this Columcille took that monk with him to a place apart, and required him so long as he should live not to relate to any one the angelic vision he had seen. And when Columcille died, the monk disclosed to the brethren the vision he had seen, so that the names of God and Columcille were magnified thereby. And in proof thereof, the Hillock of the Angels is to this day the name of the hillock where the monk saw the angels around Columcille.

— Betha Colaim Chille, 229.

Cnoc nan Aingeal

St. Columba on the Hill of Angels, from a drawing by John Duncan, A.R.S.A.
St. Columba on the Hill of Angels, from a drawing by John Duncan, A.R.S.A.

Another time also, while the blessed man was living in the Iouan island (Hy, now lona), he made this known to the assembled brethren with very great earnestness, saying, “To-day I wish to go alone to the western plain of this island; let none of you therefore follow me.” They obeyed, and he went alone, as he desired. But a brother, who was cunning, and of a prying disposition, proceeded by another road, and secretly placed himself on the summit of a certain little hill which overlooked the plain, because he was very anxious to learn the blessed man’s motive for going out alone. While the spy on the top of the hill was looking upon him as he stood on a mound in the plain, with arms extended upwards, and eyes raised to heaven in prayer, then, strange to tell, behold a wonderful scene presented itself, which that brother, as I think not without the leave of God, witnessed with his own eyes from his place on the neighbouring hill, that the saint’s name and the reverence due to him might afterwards, even against his wishes, be more widely diffused among the people, through the vision thus vouchsafed. For holy angels, the citizens of the heavenly country, clad in white robes and flying with wonderful speed, began to stand around the saint whilst he prayed; and after a short converse with the blessed man, that heavenly host, as if feeling itself detected, flew speedily back again to the highest heavens. The blessed man himself also, after his meeting with the angels, returned to the monastery, and calling the brethren together a second time, asked, with no little chiding and reproof, which of them was guilty of violating his command. When all were declaring they did not know at all of the matter, the brother, conscious of his inexcusable transgression, and no longer able to conceal his guilt, fell on his knees before the saint in the midst of the assembled brethren, and humbly craved forgiveness. The saint, taking him aside, commanded him under heavy threats, as he knelt, never, during the life of the blessed man, to disclose to any person even the least part of the secret regarding the angels’ visit. It was, therefore, after the saint’s departure from the body that the brother related that manifestation of the heavenly host, and solemnly attested its truth. Whence, even to this day, the place where the angels assembled is called by a name that beareth witness to the event that took place in it; this may be said to be in Latin “Colliculus Angelorum” and is in Scotic Cnoc Angel (now called Sithean Mor). Hence, therefore, we must notice, and even carefully inquire, into the fact how great and of what kind these sweet visits of angels to this blessed man were, which took place mostly during the winter nights, when he was in watching and prayer in lonely places while others slept. These were no doubt very numerous, and could in no way come to the knowledge of other men. Though some of these which happened by night or by day might perhaps be discovered by one means or another, these must have been very few compared with the angelic visions, which, of course, could be known by nobody. The same observation applies in the same way to other bright apparitions hitherto investigated by few, which shall be afterwards described.

Vita Columbæ, Lib. iii. cap. xvii.