An Holy Hest

THE VOYAGE OF COLUMBA.

I.

“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.”

II.

“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.

III.

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).

The Whole Illand is Church Land

Aerial view of Iona Abbey.
Aerial view of Iona Abbey.

Icollumkill, antiently called Iona, lays from Colle to the south and south-east about thirty-six myils of sea, and is distant from the south end of Mulle about one myil of sea. It is two myills in lenth, and almost from east to west, and one mile in bredth. It is very fertill; commodious for fishing and fowling. It hes two fresh water lochs, goud springs, and medicinall herbs.

Port-a-Churaich (St. Columba's Bay), Iona.
Port-a-Churaich (St. Columba’s Bay), Iona.

Here the sea casteth up in one place a number of small stones of divers collours, and transparente, very fair to looke upon; they are really peculiar to the place, for the longer they lay upon the shoar, they reapen and turn more lively in their coulors, yield to the feil, and admits of gouid polishing and engraving. Marble also, of divers colours, and with beautyful vains, is found in this Illand. It hes been counted renound pairtly for the goud discipline of Columbus, who is buried in it, and partly for the monuments of the place; for it has two monastryes, one of monks, another of nuns; a church of considerable dimensions dedicated to Columbus.

Iona Abbey.
Iona Abbey.

This hes been the Cathedrall of the Bishops of the Illes since Sodora in the Ill of Man came into the Englishes hands. In this Illand are many other small chapells; the vestiges of a citie is yet visible in it, which, as some old manuscripts testifie, was called Sodora.

Rèilig Odhrain and St. Oran’s Chapel, Iona.
Rèilig Odhrain and St. Oran’s Chapel, Iona.

Many of the Kings of Scotland, some of the Kings of Ireland and Noraway, were buryet heer. Many tombs appropriat to the families of the Illanders, as ther inscriptions, though now allmost obliterate, do testify; heer the famous Columbus himself was also interred. The coast round about Iona is very bade, full of rocks and violent tides. The whole Illand is Church land, so is also a goud pairt of Tyrie, the Ill of Gonna wholly, and the two ends of Colle. It is remarkable that there is in Iona a few people called to this day Ostiarii, from their office about the Church in Columbus’ tyme; this people never exceed the number of eight persons in perfyte age; this is found to had true, and there is a tradition that for some miscarriage in ther predecessors in Columbus’ tyme this malediction was left them. The inhabitants of all the said Illands are naturally civill and bountiful, right capable of all goud instructions. All thir Illands have been possossed by M’Leane and the cadette of his family.

— Description of Iona by Rev. John Fraser, an Episcopal clergyman in the Highlands, who was the author of a “Treatise on Second Sight,” printed at Edinburgh, 1707; from the collections of MacFarlane of MacFarlane and published in The Spottiswoode Miscellany: A Collection of Original Papers and Tracts, Illustrative Chiefly of the Civil and Ecclesiastical History of Scotland, Spottiswoode Society, 1845.

Back Turned to Ireland

Delightful would it be to me to be in Uchd Ailiun
On the pinnacle of a rock,
That I might often see
The face of the ocean;
That I might see its heaving waves
Over the wide ocean,
When they chant music to their Father
Upon the world’s course;
That I might see its level sparkling strand,
It would be no cause of sorrow;
That I might hear the song of the wonderful birds,
Source of happiness;
That I might hear the thunder of the crowding waves
Upon the rocks;
That I might hear the roar by the side of the church
Of the surrounding sea;
That I might see its noble flocks
Over the watery ocean;
That I might see the sea monsters,
The greatest of all wonders;
That I might see its ebb and flood
In their career;
That my mystical name might be, I say,
Cul ri Erin‘;
That contrition might come upon my heart
Upon looking at her;
That I might bewail my evils all,
Though it were difficult to compute them;
That I might bless the Lord
Who conserves all,
Heaven with its countless bright orders,
Land, strand and flood;
That I might search the books all,
That would be good for any soul;
At times kneeling to Beloved Heaven;
At times at psalm-singing;
At times contemplating the King of Heaven,
Holy the Chief;
At times work without compulsion;
This would be delightful.
At times plucking duilisc† from the rocks;
At times fishing;
At times giving food to the poor;
At times in a carcair‡.
The best advice in the presence of God
To me has been vouchsafed.
The King whose servant I am will not let
Anything deceive me.

Columcille fecit, attributed to St. Columba; translated by Michael O’Curry from an Irish MS. in the Burgundian Library of Brussels.

† seaweed
‡ prison, perhaps a solitary cell

Rubha na Carraig-gèire

A frame saw by G. Anderson, Ltd., Arbroath, at Rubha na Carraig-gèire.
A frame saw by G. Anderson, Ltd., Arbroath, at Rubha na Carraig-gèire.
Fielding & Platt (Gloucester, England) gas engine used at Rubha na Carraig-gèire from 1907-1914.
Fielding & Platt (Gloucester, England) gas engine used at Rubha na Carraig-gèire from 1907-1914.
View of Iona marble quarry from the south west.
View of Iona marble quarry from the south west.
Rubha na Carraig-gèire, the Iona marble quarry, from the sea.
Rubha na Carraig-gèire, the Iona marble quarry, from the sea.

In this Iland is marble enough, whereof the late Earle of Argyle caused polish a piece at London abundantly beautifull. In a particular place of the Island, neer the sea ebbing and flowing thereinto, there are found transparant stones of all colours, but most ordinarily green, much resembling agatts: they yield to the file and tool, and I have severall sealls of them.

The Spottiswoode Miscellany: A Collection of Original Papers and Tracts, Illustrative Chiefly of the Civil and Ecclesiastical History of Scotland, Spottiswoode Society, 1845.

Lacrimæ Sancti Columbæ

My collection of Iona greenstone.
My collection of polished Iona greenstone. The smaller examples are known as St. Columba’s Tears.

A small geological outcrop at the south end of the isle of Iona is the source of a rare stone known since the time of St. Colum Cille and treasured for centuries. Iona greenstone (also called Iona marble, nephrite, jade, and a host of other more-or-less mineralogically correct names) may be found on the beach at Port a Churaich or St. Columba’s Bay. The green and white stone is reputed to be a charm against shipwreck, fire, and miscarriage, and local children collected and sold specimens to the tourists flocking to the island since the eighteenth century. Smaller, sea-polished pebbles have long been referred to as St. Columba’s Tears. During the Middle Ages, a large slab of the material was carved for an altar in Iona Abbey. Iona marble was also briefly quarried nearby by the failed Argyll Quarry Company in the nineteenth century. Iona greenstone was particularly prized for use in jewellery during the Victorian and Edwardian eras.