[MR] Death of Saint Columba
Garth Groff and Sally Sanford
mallardlodge1000 at gmail.com
Fri Jun 9 04:13:32 PDT 2023
On this date in 597 Saint Columba died at his abbey on the Scottish island
of Iona (or Hy, as it was then called). Here follows my brief biography
which is part of a proposed University of Atlantia class:
Saint Columba was an Irish monk and priest who founded one of the earliest
and most successful monastic communities in what would eventually be
Scotland. He was, however, just one among several missionaries active in
the region during the 6th century.
Saint Columba was born circa 521 CE into a cadet branch of the powerful *Uí
Néill* clan. As a youth he was educated and trained for the priesthood
under Cruithnecan, and later Abbot Finnian of Morvilla. Columba was a fine
scholar, talented musician, powerful preacher, and founded several monastic
He was also extremely arrogant, and did what he wanted no matter whose toes
he stepped on. Columba never admitted he was wrong, and never apologized to
anyone. In a famous incident, he returned to his teacher Finnian’s
monastery to study a particular manuscript. Columba had permission to read
the document, but not to make a copy, which he did anyway. When Finnian
learned of the copy, he was furious and drove Columba from the monastery.
Their spat went all the way to the High King of Ireland, who ruled in
Eventually, Columba made so many enemies, he was summoned to a tribunal and
threatened with excommunication. Somehow he wriggled out the charges. One
of Columba’s few remaining friends recommended he take a long vacation from
Ireland. Columba saw the wisdom in this, and decided to minister to the
heathen Northern Picts (the “apostate” Southern Picts, who had been
Christianized in Roman times, were already being re-evangelized by other
Columba obtained permission from the king of Dál Riata to settle in Argyle
on the western coast of Scotland. Columba landed there with 12 followers,
but didn’t like the new site. Possibly without permission, he packed up his
disciples and sailed off to the tiny island of Hy in 563. Today we know Hy
as Iona, a speck of land about three miles long, a mile wide, and two miles
west from the much larger Isle of Mull.
The Iona monastery was the first, and for years the only, site of
scholarship and literacy in the region. The monastery was famous for its
scriptorium, which may have in part produced the famous 9th century *Book
of Kells*. Workshops created carved stone crosses and grave slabs, as well
as smaller goods such as the Monymusk Reliquary, thought to have held a
relic of Saint Columba himself. The monastery was also a training school
for missionary monks and priests.
Although Columba is credited with a few forays to the Northern Picts, he
later left the missionary work to his followers. The Pictish mission was
not a success, but the Northern Picts were later evangelized by other
missionaries. Columba retired to his cell on a hill opposite the church,
and spent the rest of his life writing and praying. He occasionally
returned to Ireland to check on other religious houses he had founded.
Columba died in 597. He was buried at Iona and instantly proclaimed a saint.
Vikings began “visiting” Iona beginning in 795. They returned in 802, 806
and 825, and several times massacred the monks. By 878 most of the
surviving monks left Iona. Some went to Kells Abbey in Ireland (a daughter
house to Iona), bringing with them some of Saint Columba’s relics. Other
relics went first to Dunkeld, then were translated to St. Andrews. Today
all the Saint’s bones are lost, though two possible secondary relics
survive: the Monymusk Reliquary and a curiously shaped and
uncomfortable-looking stone with a head-shaped depression known
as “Columba’s Pillow”.
The Iona monastery barely survived, with just an abbot and a handful of
monks in residence. In 1203, Ranald, Lord of the Isles, invited Benedictine
monks to take over. The Benedictines were confronted by two angry Irish
bishops, two powerful and equally angry Irish abbots, and several boatloads
of armed men, who were not going to allow *their* saint’s foundation to
fall into non-Irish hands. The Irish eventually came to a compromise and
the Benedictines were allowed to stay. The Benedictines rebuilt the abbey
into their usual cloistered style, and most of the remaining church dates
to their occupancy.
The church was “cleansed” of its Catholic trappings around 1560. For many
years it was used by a protestant Kirk of Scotland congregation until the
building fell into ruin. In the 20th century the church was completely
restored to its medieval appearance, largely by volunteers using period
materials and techniques. Today the abbey is owned by Historic Environment
Scotland and open to the public. Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian
organization, hosts services and retreats in the church.
The full text, bibliographical references and two pictures, can be found at
If you would like to see the Monymusk reliquary, go to
Just for fun, let me add that Iona has an 18-hole golf course, this being,
after all, Scotland. The course is rated among the most difficult in
Britain. At the annual Iona Open tournament, nine holes is sufficient to
claim to have finished. The winds are so fierce here that they don't use
flags to mark the holes, but rather head-high metal stakes. The course is
shared with grazing sheep, whose "souvenirs" are considered a legitimate
course hazard. When Lady Sarah and I visited Iona, we were caught in a
torrential downpour while hiking near the course. The rain was coming down
almost sidewise, but golfers on the course continued to play through. The
sheep seemed unphased.
Mungo Napier, Laird of Mallard Lodge 🦆
Keeping Merry Rose relevant and in business for over 16 years.
More information about the Atlantia