We were now treading that illustrious Island, which was once the luminary of the Caledonian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge, and the blessings of religion. To abstract the mind from all local emotion would be impossible, if it were endeavoured, and would be foolish, if it were possible. Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses; whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of thinking beings. Far from me and from my friends, be such frigid philosophy as may conduct us indifferent and unmoved over any ground which has been dignified by wisdom, bravery, or virtue. That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona!
The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides by James Boswell; Tuesday, 19th October 1773: Inchkenneth, Icolmkill (Iona).
Some ancient stone crosses are yet standing near this ancient pile [i.e. the ruins of Iona Abbey], with inscriptions no longer intelligible. Previous to the Reformation, there existed 860 of various sizes and beautiful workmanship. Many of which, were carried away to adorn the streets of distant towns and villages; and in Cowal, there is a popular tradition, that a great number of crosses and tomb-stones were sunk in Loch Fyne opposite to Strachur, where, if we believe the fishermen of that place, they are still to be seen at low water.
Steam-boat Companion, or Stranger’s Guide to the Western Isles & Highlands of Scotland, Glasgow, James Lumsden & Son, 1839, p. 175.
THE DEATH OF COLUMBA.
Saxon stranger, thou did’st wisely,
Sunder’d for a little space
From that motley stream of people
Drifting by this holy place;
With the furnace and the funnel
Through the long sea’s glancing arm,
Let them hurry back to Oban,
Where the tourist loves to swarm.
Here, upon this hump of granite,
Sit with me a quiet while,
And I’ll tell thee how Columba
Died upon this old grey isle.
‘Twas in May, a breezy morning,
When the sky was fresh and bright,
And the broad blue ocean shimmer’d
With a thousand gems of light.
On the green and grassy Machar,
Where the fields are spredden wide,
And the crags in quaint confusion
Jut into the Western tide:
Here his troop of godly people,
In stout labour’s garb array’d,
Blithe their fruitful task were plying
With the hoe and with the spade.
“I will go and bless my people,”
Quoth the father, “ere I die,
But the strength is slow to follow
Where the wish is swift to fly;
I am old and feeble, Diarmid,
Yoke the oxen, be not slow,
I will go and bless my people,
Ere from earth my spirit go.”
On his ox-drawn wain he mounted,
Faithful Diarmid by his side;
Soon they reach’d the grassy Machar,
Soft and smooth, Iona’s pride:
“I am come to bless my people,
Faithful fraters, ere I die;
I had wish’d to die at Easter,
But I would not mar your joy,
Now the Master plainly calls me,
Gladly I obey his call;
I am ripe, I feel the sickle,
Take my blessing ere I fall.”
But they heard his words with weeping,
And their tears fell on the dew,
And their eyes were dimmed with sorrow,
For they knew his words were true.
Then he stood up on the waggon,
And his prayerful hands he hove,
And he spake and bless’d the people
With the blessing of his love:
“God be with you, faithful fraters,
With you now, and evermore;
Keep you from the touch of evil,
On your souls his Spirit pour;
God be with you, fellow-workmen,
And from loved Iona’s shore
Keep the blighting breath of demons,
Keep the viper’s venom’d store!”
Thus he spake, and turn’d the oxen
Townwards; sad they went, and slow,
And the people, fix’d in sorrow,
Stood, and saw the father go.
List me further, Saxon stranger,
Note it nicely, by the causeway
On the left hand, where thou came
With the motley tourist people,
Stands a cross of figured fame.
Even now thine eye may see it,
Near the nunnery, slim and grey;—
From the waggon there Columba
Lighted on that tearful day,
And he sat beneath the shadow
Of that cross, upon a stone,
Brooding on his speedy passage
To the land where grief is none;
When, behold, the mare, the white one
That was wont the milk to bear
From the dairy to the cloister,
Stood before him meekly there,
Stood, and softly came up to him,
And with move of gentlest grace
O’er the shoulder of Columba
Thrust her piteous-pleading face,
Look’d upon him as a friend looks
On a friend that goes away,
Sunder’d from the land that loves him
By wide seas of briny spray.
“Fie upon thee for thy manners!”
Diarmid cried with lifted rod,
“Wilt thou with untimely fondness
Vex the prayerful man of God?”
“Not so, Diarmid,” cried Columba;
“Dost thou see the speechful eyne
Of the fond and faithful creature
Sorrow’d with the swelling brine?
God hath taught the mute unreasoning
What thou fail’st to understand,
That this day I pass for ever
From Iona’s shelly strand.
Have my blessing, gentle creature,
God doth bless both man and beast;
From hard yoke, when I shall leave thee,
Be thy faithful neck released.”
Thus he spoke, and quickly rising
With what feeble strength remain’d,
Leaning on stout Diarmid’s shoulder,
A green hillock’s top he gained.
There, or here where we are sitting,
Whence his eye might measure well
Both the cloister and the chapel,
And his pure and prayerful cell.
There he stood, and high uplifting
Hands whence flowed a healing grace,
Breathed his latest voice of blessing
To protect the sacred place,—
Spake such words as prophets utter
When the veil of flesh is rent,
And the present fades from vision,
On the germing future bent:
“God thee bless, thou loved Iona,
Though thou art a little spot,
Though thy rocks are grey and treeless,
Thine shalt be a boastful lot;
Thou shalt be a sign for nations;
Nurtured on thy sacred breast,
Thou shalt send on holy mission
Men to teach both East and West;
Peers and potentates shall own thee,
Monarchs of wide-sceptre’d sway
Dying shall beseech the honour
To be tomb’d beneath thy clay;
God’s dear saints shall love to name thee,
And from many a storied land
Men of clerkly fame shall pilgrim
To Iona’s little strand.”
Thus the old man spake his blessing;
Then, where most he loved to dwell,
Through the well-known porch he enter’d
To his pure and prayerful cell;
And then took the holy psalter—
‘Twas his wont when he would pray—
Bound with three stout clasps of silver,
From the casket where it lay;
There he read with fixed devoutness,
And with craft full fair and fine,
On the smooth and polish’d vellum
Copied forth the sacred line,
Till he came to where the kingly
Singer sings in faithful mood,
How the younglings of the lion
Oft may roam in vain for food,
But who fear the Lord shall never
Live and lack their proper good.
Here he stopped, and said, “My latest
Now is written; what remains
I bequeath to faithful Beathan
To complete with pious pains.”
Then he rose, and in the chapel
Conned the pious vesper song
Inly to himself, for feeble
Now the voice that once was strong;
Hence with silent step returning
To his pure and prayerful cell,
On the round smooth stone he laid him
Which for pallet served him well.
Here some while he lay; then rising,
To a trusty brother said:
“Brother, take my parting message,
Be my last words wisely weigh’d.
‘Tis an age of brawl and battle;
Men who seek not God to please,
With wild sweep of lawless passion
Waste the land and scourge the seas.
Not like them be ye; be loving,
Peaceful, patient, truthful, bold,
But in service of your Master
Use no steel and seek no gold.”
Thus he spake; but now there sounded
Through the night the holy bell
That to Lord’s-day matins gather’d
Every monk from every cell.
Eager at the sound, Columba
In the way foresped the rest,
And before the altar kneeling,
Pray’d with hands on holy breast.
Diarmid followed; but a marvel Flow’d
upon his wondering eyne,—
All the windows shone with glorious
Light of angels in the shrine.
Diarmid enter’d; all was darkness.
“Father!” But no answer came.
“Father! art thou here, Columba ?”
Nothing answer’d to the name.
Soon the troop of monks came hurrying,
Each man with a wandering light,
For great fear had come upon them,
And a sense of strange affright.
“Diarmid! Diarmid! is the father
With thee? Art thou here alone ?”
And they turn’d their lights and found him
On the pavement lying prone.
And with gentle hands they raised him,
And he mildly look’d around,
And he raised his arm to bless them,
But it dropped upon the ground;
And his breathless body rested
On the arms that held him dear,
And his dead face look’d upon them
With a light serene and clear;
And they said that holy angels
Surely hover’d round his head,
For alive no loveliest ever
Look’d so lovely as this dead.
Stranger, thou hast heard my story,
Thank thee for thy patient ear;
We are pleased to stir the sleeping
Memory of old greatness here.
I have used no gloss, no varnish,
To make fair things fairer look;
As the record stands, I give it,
In the old monks’ Latin book.
Keep it in thy heart, and love it,
Where a good thing loves to dwell;
It may help thee in thy dying,
If thou care to use it well.
— John Stuart Blackie, Lays of the Highlands and Islands (1872).
U716.4. Pascha comotatur in Eoa ciuitate.
Annals of Ulster.
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
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.”
“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.
THE VOYAGE OF COLUMBA.
“Son of Brendan, I have willed it;
I will leave this land and go
To a land of savage mountains,
Where the Borean breezes blow;
To a land of rainy torrents,
And of barren, treeless isles,
Where the winter frowns are lavish,
And the summer scantly smiles;
I will leave this land of bloodshed,
Where fierce brawls and battles sway,
And will preach God’s peaceful Gospel
In a grey land, far away.”
Beathan spake, the son of Brendan—
“Son of Phelim, art thou wise?
Wilt thou change the smiling Erin,
For the scowling Pictish skies?
Thou, the lealest son of Erin,
Thou, a prince of royal line,
Sprung by right descent from mighty
Neill, whose hostages were nine?
Wilt thou seek the glens of Albyn,
For repose from loveless strife?
Glens, where feuds, from sire to grandson,
Fan the wasteful flame of life?
Wilt thou leave a land of learning,
Home of ancient holy lore,
To converse with uncouth people,
Fishing on a shelvy shore?
Wilt thou leave the homes of Gartan,
Where thou suck’d the milky food
From the mother-breast of Aithne,
Daughter of Lagenian blood?
Wilt thou leave the oaks of Derry,
Where each leaf is dear to thee,
Wandering, in a storm-tost wherry,
O’er the wide, unpastured sea?
Son of Phelim, Beathan loves thee,
Be thou zealous, but be wise!
There be heathens here in Erin;
Preach to them ‘neath kindly skies.”
Then the noble son of Phelim,
With the big tear in his eye,
To the blameless son of Brendan
Firmly thus made swift reply—
“Son of Brendan, I have heard thee,
Heard thee with a bleeding heart;
For I love the oaks of Derry,
And to leave them gives me smart;
But the ban of God is on me,
Not my will commands the way;
Molaise priest of Innishmurry
Hights me go, and I obey.
For their death is heavy on me
Whom I slew in vengeful mood,
At the battle of Culdremhne,
In the hotness of my blood.
For the lord that rules at Tara,
In some brawl that grew from wine,
Slew young Carnan, branch of promise,
And a kinsman of my line;
And the human blood within me
Mounted, and my hand did slay,
For the fault of one offender
Many on that tearful day;
And I soil’d the snow-white vestment
With which Etchen, holy man,
Clonfad’s mitred elder, clad me
When I join’d the priestly clan;
And my soul was rent with anguish,
And my sorrows were increased,
And I went to Innishmurry,
Seeking solace from the priest.
And the saintly Molaise told me—
‘For the blood that thou hast spilt,
God hath shown me one atonement
To make clear thy soul from guilt;
Count the hundreds of the Christians
Whom thy sword slew to thy blame,
Even so many souls of heathens
Must thy word with power reclaim;
Souls of rough and rude sea-rovers,
Used to evil, strange to good,
Picts beyond the ridge of Albyn,
In the Pagan realm of Brude.’
Thou hast heard me, son of Brendan;
I have will’d it; and this know,
Thou with me, or I without thee,
On this holy hest will go!”
Beathan heard, with meek agreement,
For he knew that Colum’s will,
Like a rock against the ocean,
Still was fix’d for good or ill.
“Son of Phelim, I have heard thee;
I and Cobhtach both will go,
Past the wintry ridge of Albyn,
O’er the great sea’s foamy flow;
Far from the green oaks of Deny,
Where the cuckoo sings in May,
From the land of falling waters
Far, and clover’s green display;
Where Columba leads we follow,
Fear with him I may not know,
Where the God thou servest calls thee,
Son of Phelim, I will go.”
“Son of Brendan, I am ready;
Is the boat all staunch and trim?
Light our osier craft and steady,
Like an ocean gull to swim?
I have cast all doubt behind me,
Seal’d with prayer my holy vow,
And the God who heard me answers
With assuring presence now.”
And the son of Brendan answer’d—
“Son of Phelim, thou shalt be
Like God’s angel-guidance to us
As we plough the misty sea.
We are ready, I and Cobhtach,
Diarmid in thy service true,
Rus and Fechno, sons of Rodain,
Scandal, son of Bresail, too;
Ernan, Luguid Mocatheimne,
Echoid, and Tochannu brave,
Grillan and the son of Branduh,
Brush with thee the briny wave.”
Thus spake he: Columba lifted
High his hand to bless the wherry,
And they oar’d with gentle oarage
From the dear-loved oaks of Derry;
Loath to leave each grassy headland,
Shiny beach and pebbly bay,
Thymy slope and woody covert,
Where the cuckoo hymn’d the May;
Loath from some familiar cabin’s
Wreathy smoke to rend their eye,
Where a godly widow harbour’d
Laughing girl or roguish boy.
On they oar’d, and soon behind them
Left thy narrow pool, Loch Foyle,
And the grey sea spread before them
Many a broad unmeasured mile.
Swiftly now on bounding billow
On they run before the gale,
For a strong south-wester blowing
Strain’d the bosom of their sail.
On they dash: the Rhinns of Islay
Soon they reach, and soon they pass;
Cliff and bay, and bluffy foreland,
Flit as in a magic glass.
What is this before them rising
Northward from the foamy spray?
Land, I wis—an island lorded
By the wise Macneill to-day,
Then a brown and barren country,
Cinctured by the ocean grey.
On they scud; and there they landed,
And they mounted on a hill,
Whence the far-viewed son of Brendan
Look’d, and saw green Erin still.
“Say’st thou so, thou son of Brendan?”
Quoth Columba; “then not here
May we rest from tossing billow
With light heart and conscience clear,
Lest our eyes should pine a-hunger
For the land we hold so dear,
And our coward keel returning
Stint the vow that brought us here.”
So they rose and trimmed their wherry,
And their course right on they hold
Northward, where the wind from Greenland
Blows on Albyn clear and cold;
When, behold, a cloud came darkling
From the west, with gusty bore,
And the horrent waves rose booming
Eastward, with ill-omen’d roar;
And the night came down upon them,
And the sea with yeasty sweep
Hiss’d around them, as the wherry
Stagger’d through the fretted deep.
Eastward, eastward, back they hurried,
For to face the flood was vain,
Every rib of their light wherry
Creaking to the tempest’s strain;
Eastward, eastward, till the morning
Glimmer’d through the pitchy storm,
And reveal’d the frowning Scarba,
And huge Jura’s cones enorm.
“Blessed God,” cried now Columba,
“Here, indeed, may danger be
From the mighty whirl and bubble
Of the cauldron of the sea;
Here it was that noble Breacan
Perish’d in the gulfing wave—
Here we, too, shall surely perish,
If not God be quick to save!”
Spake: and with his hand he lifted
High the cross above the brine;
And he cried, “Now, God, I thank Thee
Thou hast sent the wished-for sign!
For, behold, thou son of Brendan,
There upon the topmost wave,
Sent from God, a sign to save us
Float the bones of Breacan brave!
And his soul this self-same moment,
From the girth of purging fire,
Leaps redeem’d, as we are ‘scaping
From the huge sea-cauldron dire.”
Spake: and to the name of Breacan
Droop’d the fretful-crested spray;
And full soon a mild south-easter
Blew the surly storm away.
Little now remains to tell ye,
Gentles, of great Phelim’s son;
How he clave the yielding billow
Till lona’s strand he won.
Back they steer’d, still westward, westward;
Past the land where high Ben More
Nods above the isles that quaintly
Fringe its steep and terraced shore.
On they cut—still westward! westward!
On with favouring wind and tide,
Past the pillar’d crags of Carsaig
Fencing Mull’s sun-fronting side,
Pass the narrow Ross, far-stretching
Where the rough and ruddy rocks
Rudely rise in jumbled hummocks
Of primeval granite blocks;
Till they come to where lona
Rears her front of hoary crags,
Fenced by many a stack and skerry
Full of rifts, and full of jags;
And behind a small black islet
Through an inlet’s narrow space,
Sail’d into a bay white bosom’d,
In the island’s southward face.
Then with eager step they mounted
To the high rock’s beetling brow—
“Canst thou see, thou far-view’d Beathan,
Trace of lovely Erin now?”
“No! thou son of Phelim, only
Mighty Jura’s Paps I see,
These and Isla’s Rhynns, but Erin
Southward lies in mist from me.”
“Thank thee, God !” then cried Columba;
“Here our vows are paid, and here
We may rest from tossing billow,
With light heart and conscience clear.”
Downward then their way they wended
To the pure and pebbly bay,
And, with holy cross uplifted,
Thus did saintly Colum say—
“In the sand we now will bury
This trim craft that brought us here,
Lest we think on oaks of Derry,
And the land we hold so dear;
Then they dug a trench, and sank it
In the sand, to seal their vow,
With keel upwards, as who travels
In the sand may see it now.
— John Stuart Blackie, Lays of the Highlands and Islands (1872).
Seachd bliadhna roimh ’n bhràth,
Thig muir air Eirinn ré aon tràth,
’S thar Ile ghuirm ghlais,
Ach snàmhaidh I Choluim Chléirich!
Seven years before that awful day,
When time shall be no more,
A dreadful deluge shall o’ersweep
Hibernia’s mossy shore.
The green-clad Isla, too, shall sink;
While, with the great and good,
Columba’s happier isle shall rear
Her towers above the flood.
Gaelic proverb; periphrastic translation by Dr. John Smith, Minister of Campbeltown, given in his Life of St. Columba (1798).
Seven years before the Day of Doom (conflagration, destruction),
The sea shall come over Erin in one watch (time, season, period),
And over Islay, green, grassy (blue-green),
But float will Iona (Hy) of Columba the cleric.
These are the three prayers of Patrick, as they were delivered to us by the Hibernians, entreating that all should be received on the day of judgment, if we should repent even in the last days of our life.
- That he should not be shut up in hell.
- That barbarian nations should never have the rule over us.
- That no one shall conquer us, that is the Scots, before seven years previous to the day of judgment, because seven years before the judgment we shall be destroyed in the sea, this is the third.
Tírechán’s Collections Concerning St. Patrick, from the Book of Armagh (TCD MS 52), translated in Sir William Betham, Irish Antiquarian Researches, Vol. 1, Dublin: William Curry, Jun. and Co., 1827, p. 386.