Happy St Columba’s Day – Latha Chaluim Chille sona! St Columba (also known as St Columcille of Ireland) was the founder of Iona Abbey and has connections with many other Historic Scotland properties. We asked Peter Yeoman, Principal Researcher in our Heritage Research team, to tell us about him.
St Columba, known in Ireland as St Columcille, was an important leader in the Irish church before he left Ireland for the west coast of Scotland in around AD 562. When he arrived he would have immediately felt at home, because the peoples of the north of Ireland and the west of Scotland shared common cultures and the Gaelic language. St Patrick lived a century before Columba, but was emulating Patrick in his desire to spread the Christian faith, this time to the heathen Picts of Scotland.
After Columba’s death and his elevation to sainthood, Iona continued to flourish, sending out monks to take Christianity into the lands of the Picts in eastern and northern Scotland. This continued through the 600s and 700s, until Iona reached a peak in terms of innovation and creativity as seen in the high crosses and in the production of the Book of Kells – the finest luxury gospel book of the age, completed soon after 800. One of his greatest achievements was establishing a network of churches and monasteries on both sides of the North Channel.
Travel between this part of Scotland, known as Dalriada, and the north of Ireland was constant. One of the greatest innovations associated with the monks was the introduction of literacy, and we have amazing records from the 600s recording religious life. These document Columba’s travels, including periods of time he chose to live again in Ireland away from Iona.
Monks were recruited to Iona from Ireland, Scotland and England, bringing their own cultural influences with them. These came together in the carving of the first high crosses on Iona – 4 metre high massive stone crosses. The crosses were covered with Biblical scenes and symbolic decoration. One of the first crosses, St John’s cross, fell down under the weight of its heavy head, and the monks added a stone ring for extra support – and so the famed ringed Celtic cross was born. In 2013 a stunning exhibition of the first high crosses was installed in the Abbey museum. These crosses quickly spread to Ireland, and wonderful examples can be seen at monasteries such as Glendalough, Kells and Clonmacnoise in addition to a new multilingual tour guide.
In 807 violent Viking raids forced some of the monks to move to Kells, but the monastery at Iona lived on, still a very holy place, often visited by kings of Ireland some of who chose to end their days as a simple Iona monk. Today Iona Abbey is on of Scotland’s most sacred places and visited by hundreds of tourists and pilgrims each year – even though it is only reached by passenger ferry from the Isle of Mull.