Saint Columba

From New World Encyclopedia

Saint Columba
Columba at Bridei's fort.jpg

An early twentieth century depiction of Columba's miracle at the gate of Bridei's fortress, described in Adomnán's Vita Columbae.
Apostle of the Picts
Born December 7, 521 in County Donegal, Ireland
Died June 9, 597 (Age 75) in Iona, Scotland
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Lutheran Church, Anglican Church
Major shrine Iona, Scotland
Feast June 9
Patronage floods, bookbinders, poets, Ireland, Scotland

Saint Columba (December 7, 521– June 9, 597) was a venerable Irish saint, sometimes referred to as Columba of Iona, or, in Old Irish, as Colm Cille or Columcille (meaning "Dove of the Church"). He was renowned for his physical stature, his forceful personality, his love of scholarship, and his missionary activity, though it was in this final arena that he made his most lasting contributions. Specifically, Saint Columba was responsible for numerous advances in the conversion of the British Isles, including the founding of the redoubted [monastery]] at Iona, the development of a strictly ascetic monastic order, the conversion of King Bridei (Latinized as Brude) of the Picts, and the construction of churches throughout Scotland. It is for this reason that the saint is celebrated as the Apostle of the Picts.[1]


Early life in Ireland

In 521 C.E., Colm Cille (the future Columba) was born to Fedlimid and Eithne of the Uí Néill clan in Gartan (County Donegal, Ireland). His was an advantaged and noble upbringing, as the bloodlines of both of his parents could be traced back to Irish royalty.[2] This guaranteed that the youth would be afforded the best possible education, to which end he was trained by Saint Finnian, a schoolmaster at the monastery in Moville. [3][4] After continuing his studies under a bard named Gemmen, he was ordained as both a monk and a priest. In the years that followed, he returned to his homeland and was present at the founding of numerous important monasteries, including those of Derry, Durrow, and Kells.[5] Though Columba was renowned for the extent of his erudition and exegetical skill, he also had a reputation for his arrogant, haughty disposition—a trait that would soon have disastrous consequences.

Sometime around 560 C.E., Columba became involved in a dispute that eventually led to his (voluntary or enforced) exile from Ireland. Most sources suggest that the ultimate cause of this exile was that the saint had rallied his family's troops to rise against the King Diarmait in 561 at the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne—a conflict that cost the lives of over three thousand men.[6] [7] Though the exact cause of this conflict is lost to history,[8] its impact was unequivocal. Columba was blamed (or blamed himself) for the deaths of combatants and vowed not to return to his homeland until he had converted as many souls as had been lost in that fateful battle.[9] As such, he had no choice but to depart for the wilds of Scotland, where the kingdom of the Picts was still largely pagan.


In 563, the saint, accompanied by a band of 12 disciples, traveled to Scotland and docked on the island of Iona. As this islet had been granted to them by the king of Irish Dál Riata, the companions viewed it as an auspicious locus for their evangelical mission and began the construction of an imposing monastery on its shores.[10] This ecclesiastical compound was one of the only bastions of scholarly study (in general) and the Christian faith (in specific) in the region for several hundred years.[11]

After spending several years preaching to the Gaels in the region, Columba ventured further inland to carry his mission to the kingdom of the Picts. Most notably, he and several companions traveled to the court of the pagan king Bridei, lord of Fortriu, at his base in Inverness, and succeeded in converting him to Christianity—an event that was embroidered with many miraculous episodes in the saint's Vita (as described below).[12] He subsequently played a major role in the politics of the country, brokering diplomatic alliances between the Picts and the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata. At the same time, he also remained active in the politics of the Irish church, returning to his homeland to participate in synods on various issues.[13]

Columba, on the whole, was very energetic in his evangelical work, and, in addition to founding several churches in the Hebrides, he worked to turn his monastery at Iona into a school for missionaries. He also maintained his interest in scholastic and exegetical study, having written numerous hymns and poems, and having personally transcribed over three hundred books for the monastery's library. In addition to his innovative outreach programs for the country's poor,[14] Columba was often credited with extensive missionary activity throughout the country, claims that many historians suggest are overstated: "When the descendants of the Dalriade kings became the rulers of Scotland they were naturally eager to magnify St Columba and a tendency may well have arisen to bestow upon him the laurels won by other missionaries from Iona and elsewhere."[15] In spite of this tendency, it is undeniable that the instruction and motivation provided by this charismatic monk was central to the success of the Christian mission in Scotland.

After a lifetime of service, the saint passed away in June of 597 and was buried beneath the monastery that he had founded. His death is described in particular detail by Saint Adamnan:

[As the] hour of his departure gradually approached, the saint became silent. Then as soon as the bell tolled at midnight, he rose hastily, and went to the church; and running more quickly than the rest, he entered it alone, and knelt down in prayer beside the altar. At the same moment his attendant Diormit, who more slowly followed him, saw from a distance that the whole interior of the church was filled with a heavenly light in the direction of the saint. And as he drew near to the door, the same light he had seen, and which was also seen by a few more of the brethren standing at a distance, quickly disappeared. Diormit therefore entering the church, cried out in a mournful voice, "Where art thou, father?" And feeling his way in the darkness, as the brethren had not yet brought in the lights, he found the saint lying before the altar; and raising him up a little, he sat down beside him, and laid his holy head on his bosom. Meanwhile the rest of the monks ran in hastily in a body with their lights, and beholding their dying father, burst into lamentations. And the saint, as we have been told by some who were present, even before his soul departed, opened wide his eyes and looked round him from side to side, with a countenance full of wonderful joy and gladness, no doubt seeing the holy angels coming to meet him. Diormit then raised the holy right hand of the saint, that he might bless his assembled monks. And the venerable father himself moved his hand at the same time, as well as he was able, that as he could not in words, while his soul was departing, he might at least, by the motion of his hand, be seen to bless his brethren. And having given them his holy benediction in this way, he immediately breathed his last. After his soul had left the tabernacle of the body, his face still continued ruddy, and brightened in a wonderful way by his vision of the angels, and that to such a degree that he had the appearance, not so much of one dead, as of one alive and sleeping. Meanwhile the whole church resounded with loud lamentations of grief.[16]

Legacy and Veneration

Columba is credited as being a leading figure in the revitalization of monasticism, and "[h]is achievements illustrated the importance of the Celtic church in bringing a revival of Christianity to Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire".[17] Indeed, Butler suggests that his posthumous influence "extended until it came to dominate the churches of Scotland, Ireland, and Northumbria. For three-quarters of a century and more, Celtic Christians in those lands upheld Columban traditions in certain matters of order and ritual in opposition to those of Rome itself, and the rule Columba had drawn up for his monks was followed in many of the monasteries of western Europe until it was superseded by the milder ordinances of Saint Benedict."[18] Through the reputation of its venerable founder and its position as a major European center of learning, Columba's Iona became a place of pilgrimage, with a network of Celtic high crosses marking the various processional routes leading to his shrine.

Also, Columba came to be historically revered as a warrior saint, and was often invoked for victory in battle. Given the association, the saint's relics were carried before Scottish armies in a reliquary made at Iona in the mid-8th century, called the Brecbennoch. Legend has it that the Brecbennoch, was carried to Bannockburn by the vastly outnumbered Scots army and the intercession of the Saint helped them to achieve victory. It is widely thought that the Monymusk Reliquary is this object.[19] [20]

Saint Columba's feast day is June 9 and, with Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid, he is recognized as one of the three patron saints of Ireland. Also, prior to the battle of Athelstaneford (which spawned the Scottish cult of Saint Andrew), he was the sole patron saint of Scotland. Finally, he is venerated within the Orthodox faiths as a saint and Righteous Father.[21]

Vita Columbae

The main source of information about Columba's life is the Vita Columbae by Adomnán (also known as Eunan), the ninth Abbot of Iona (d. 704). Both the Vita Columbae and Bede's Ecclesiastical History record Columba's visit to Bridei. While Bede's account explicitly credits the saint with the conversion of the Pictish king, Adomnán's provides extensive details of the saint's miraculous exploits in his presence—including explosively throwing open the king's (bolted) gate (II: XXXVI), giving true prophecies (II: XLIII), floating a stone in water (I: I), and resurrecting a dead child (I: I). Though the text only states that "so long as he lived, the king held this holy and reverend man in very great honour, as was due," his adoption of the Christian religion (following such an impressive display of mystical abilities) can likely be assumed.[22] In general, Adomnán's Vita, in addition to providing valuable biographical insights into the saint's life, is preoccupied with demonstrating his miraculous abilities—as evidenced by the text's threefold division (Book I - "Of His Prophetic Revelations," Book II - "On His Miraculous Powers," and Book III - "Of the Visions of Angels").[23]

Intriguingly, the Vita of Columba is also the source of the first known reference to a Loch Ness Monster (quoted in full below). Whether or not this incident is true, Adomnan's text specifically states that the monster was swimming in the River Ness—the river flowing from the loch—rather than in Loch Ness itself:

On another occasion also, when the blessed man was living for some days in the province of the Picts, he was obliged to cross the river Nesa (the Ness); and when he reached the bank of the river, he saw some of the inhabitants burying an unfortunate man, who, according to the account of those who were burying him, was a short time before seized, as he was swimming, and bitten most severely by a monster that lived in the water; his wretched body was, though too late, taken out with a hook, by those who came to his assistance in a boat. The blessed man, on hearing this, was so far from being dismayed, that he directed one of his companions to swim over and row across the coble that was moored at the farther bank. And Lugne Mocumin hearing the command of the excellent man, obeyed without the least delay, taking off all his clothes, except his tunic, and leaping into the water. But the monster, which, so far from being satiated, was only roused for more prey, was lying at the bottom of the stream, and when it felt the water disturbed above by the man swimming, suddenly rushed out, and, giving an awful roar, darted after him, with its mouth wide open, as the man swam in the middle of the stream. Then the blessed man observing this, raised his holy hand, while all the rest, brethren as well as strangers, were stupefied with terror, and, invoking the name of God, formed the saving sign of the cross in the air, and commanded the ferocious monster, saying, "Thou shalt go no further, nor touch the man; go back with all speed." Then at the voice of the saint, the monster was terrified, and fled more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes, though it had just got so near to Lugne, as he swam, that there was not more than the length of a spear-staff between the man and the beast. Then the brethren seeing that the monster had gone back, and that their comrade Lugne returned to them in the boat safe and sound, were struck with admiration, and gave glory to God in the blessed man. And even the barbarous heathens, who were present, were forced by the greatness of this miracle, which they themselves had seen, to magnify the God of the Christians.[24]


  1. It should be noted that some individuals, such as the administration of Firth's Celtic Scotland and the Age of the Saints, argue against the importance of Saint Columba in the conversion of the Pictish people. Likewise, David Hugh Farmer. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 110 acknowledges that "his missionary work in Scotland has been much exaggerated." Regardless, it is undeniable that Columba's affiliation with the Scottish church has been his claim to lasting fame within the Calendar of Saints, regardless of how it may have been overstated.
  2. Specifically, he was a patrilineal descendant of Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish king of the fifth century, and a matrilineal descendant of the kings of Leinster. (Alban Butler. Lives of the Saints, Edited, revised, and supplemented by Herbert Thurston and Donald Attwater. (Palm Publishers, 1956), 506
  3. ibid., 507
  4. Farmer, 110.
  5. Columba Edmonds "St. Columba" in The Catholic EncyclopediaEdmonds (1908).Retrieved February 22, 2008.
  6. See, for example, Farmer, 110
  7. Butler, 507; Edmonds (1908); Seyfried's introduction to Adamnan's Life of St. Columba.
  8. Edmonds describes the two primary explanations for this conflict: "Later writers state that [Columba's] departure was due to the fact that he had induced the clan Neill to rise and engage in battle against King Diarmait at Cooldrevny in 561. The reasons alleged for this action of Columba are: (1) The king's violation of the right of sanctuary belonging to Columba's person as a monk on the occasion of the murder of Prince Curnan, the saint's kinsman; (2) Diarmait's adverse judgment concerning the copy Columba had secretly made of St. Finnian's psalter." The second possibility pertains to a persistent suggestion that the saint had surreptitiously copied a psalter owned by Finnian (his erstwhile instructor), which devalued the original. When his trickery was discovered, they brought the case to arbitration, where both sides asserted their right to the copied text: Columba due to his expenditure of effort, and Finnian due to his ownership of the initial tome.
  9. Butler, 507.
  10. It should be noted that the residents of this area were not entirely made up of pagan Picts, as the Irish Gaels had been colonizing the west coast of Scotland for the previous several centuries (Richard Fletcher. Who's Who in Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England. (Shepheard-Walwyn, 1989), 23-24).
  11. Butler, 508-509. See also Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (Book III: Chapter IV): "Before [Columba] passed over into Britain, he had built a noble monastery in Ireland, which, from the great number of oaks, is in the Scottish tongue called Dearmach- The Field of Oaks. From both which monasteries, many others had their beginning through his disciples, both in Britain and Ireland; but the monastery in the island where his body lies, is the principal of them all" (emphasis added).
  12. Butler, 508; Farmer, 110.
  13. Butler, 508.
  14. In an intriguing poetic account, Saint Columba describes his monks collecting dulse (Palmaria palmata) for the poor. See: M. Indergaard and J. Minsaas (1991), "Animal and human nutrition" in M.D. Guiry and G. Blunden (eds.), Seaweed Resources in Europe: Uses and Potential. (John Wiley and Sons, 1991)
  15. Butler, 508. Farmer, 110.
  16. Adamnan's Vita Columbae, Medieval Sourcebook. Book III: Chapter XXIV.
  17. See "Columba" in Tim Dowley et al. (eds.) Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977).
  18. Butler, 509.
  19. Jenny Wormald (ed.), Scotland: A History. (Oxford, 2005, Plate 2, opp.), 42.
  20. Marian Youngblood, "The Monymusk Reliquary, or Breacbannoch of Columba", retrieved September 17, 2007; Edmonds (1908).
  21. Orthodox wikipage for Saint Columba, [1] accessed 25 December 2006
  22. Adamnan's Vita Columbae, Medieval Sourcebook. Book II: Chapter XXXVI.
  23. Ibid. Medieval Sourcebook.
  24. Ibid., Medieval Sourcebook. Book II: Chapter XXVIII.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Adomnan of Iona. Life of St Columba, Translated and Edited by Richard Sharpe. London: Penguin, 1995. ISBN 0140444629. Also accessible online at: Fordham University's Medieval Sourcebook.
  • Baring-Gould, S. (Sabine). The Lives of the Saints. With introduction and additional Lives of English martyrs, Cornish, Scottish, and Welsh saints, and a full index to the entire work. Edinburgh: J. Grant, 1914.
  • The Venerable Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Translated by L.C. Jane. London: J.M. Dent; New York E.P. Dutton, 1910. Accessed online at: Fordham University's Medieval Sourcebook.
  • Butler, Alban. Lives of the Saints, Edited, revised, and supplemented by Herbert Thurston and Donald Attwater. Palm Publishers, 1956.
  • Cambridge Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. ISBN 0521395186
  • Dowley, Tim, et al. (eds.) Eerdman's Handbook to the History of Christianity. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977. ISBN 0802834507.
  • Edmonds, Columba. "Saint Columba" in The Catholic Encyclopedia. 1909.
  • Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. ISBN 0192800582
  • Fletcher, Richard. Who's Who in Roman Britain and Anglo-Saxon England. Shepheard-Walwyn, 1989. ISBN 0856830895
  • Guiry, M.D. and G. Blunden (eds.) Seaweed Resources in Europe: Uses and Potential. John Wiley and Sons, 1991. ISBN 0471929476
  • Lewis, James. Paths of Exile: Narratives of St. Columba and the Praxis of Iona. Cloverdale Books, 2007. ISBN 9781929569243
  • Wormald, Jenny (ed.), Scotland: A History. Oxford, 2005. ISBN 0198206151.

External links

All links retrieved December 22, 2022.


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