St Colum Cille, in Latin, Columba, is without doubt the saint of the Hebrides about whom most was written in the middle ages, and who dominates our understanding of the evolution of Christianity in western Scotland. Columba was the subject of hymns, poems and stories from his own time on, and possesses the earliest Life of a saint associated with Scotland that we possess, Adomnán’s Life of St Columba, written around 700 (VC; Sharpe 1995; Clancy and Márkus 1995; Márkus 2017). Its author, Adomnán, was himself abbot of Iona and head of the federation of monasteries owing allegiance to Columba as patron, which makes him a particularly interesting but also challenging witness to his subject (Herbert 1996). Time and again we find ourselves needing to ask whose Iona we are seeing in the Life, Columba’s or Adomnán’s. Beyond that Life we have a wealth of traditions, later poems, anecdotes, and version of his Life through which Columba as a character in literature and folklore emerges. One of those Lives, composed in Gaelic originally in the 12th century, existed in a manuscript which probably belonged to the MacMhuirichs of Stadhlaigearraidh on South Uist (Grosjean 1927-28; Black 2011 on NLS Adv. MS. 72.1.40, Black Catalogue). And, of course, Iona itself is a rich site of archaeological and art historical knowledge about early Christianity in Scotland and the Hebrides in particular (Argyll 4; MacArthur 1995).
Unlike many of the other saints explored here, there are many places where Columba and his background can be explored (Sharpe 1995; Herbert 1996; Clancy & Márkus 1995; Márkus 2019a). Some brief background: Columba, probably born with the given name Crimthann, was from Donegal in the north of Ireland. He was a member of one of the most powerful royal families in the northern half of Ireland, being cousin to a number of kings of the Uí Néill who ruled during his lifetime. He left Ireland for Britain, probably in 561, and established his monastery in Iona in 563. Iona was not the only foundation he established--there were other houses in the Hebrides (e.g., on Tiree, and a still unidentified island called Hinba), and in Ireland (at Durrow, certainly, and possibly some other sites). It is clear that Columba was also involved in spreading Christianity into eastern Scotland, with missions to the Picts. Some of these were conducted himself, but there is also much in his Life suggesting his monks were engaged in travelling far and wide--to Orkney, for instance; or voyaging to find ‘deserts in the ocean’. After Columba’s death, his successors continued to build Iona as the apex of a strong federation of monasteries and churches in Ireland and northern Britain; and to augment the reputation of Columba as a saint (Márkus 2019b).
What then of Columba and the Outer Hebrides, and in particular Uist? There are many commemorations of Columba throughout the western seaboard, but it can be difficult to be certain what the antiquity of these names is. It has been suggested by Gilbert Márkus, for instance, in as yet unpublished work, that place-names which honour him under the name ‘Colum Cille’ may reflect the devotion of Scandinavians to Columba, as much as they do early devotion of Gaelic speakers. This is partly based on the distribution map of dedications to Colum Cille, which extends into the north of England.
This is an attractive idea, and could then make Columba’s commemoration be tied in to the period of Scandinavian dominance in the Hebrides. But Columba’s presence in Uist may be even later than this. In both South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist, where we see Columba commemorated, it is in connection with lands and churches which had been given in the later middle ages to Iona (both the priory and, in the case of Baile nan Cailleach, to the Nunnery). At the very least, these dedications reflect Iona stamping its ownership on recently acquired churches and lands (MacDonald 2010, ch.5). Of course, it is entirely possible that later grants of lands and churches to Iona were simply confirmations of much earlier underlying relationships, that is, that Iona may already have had interests in Uist, and these commemorations are traces of that (MacDonald 2010, ch.5). However, in a number of cases there are hints at other saints whom Columba may have superseded.
In short, it would be hard to argue that Iona had no involvement in the Outer Hebrides in the early middle ages, and this would be one logical explanation for what we see in the landscape of devotion in Uist. Through such a route, we could explain not only the commemoration of Columba in South Uist, Benbecula, and North Uist at key sites. We could also argue for an Iona conduit for the honouring of other saints found in the churches of Uist: Barr (if he is the same as the Finnbarr / Uinniau who was Columba’s teacher); Coinneach (who first comes to prominence in the Life of Columba, and who is commemorated in a church on Iona); Donnan (whose cult was clearly promoted by Iona); Odhran (who is closely linked to Iona in his cult); and even the Virgin Mary. At the same time, this may be too reductive a solution. The commemoration of Odhran is very uncertain. Both Coinneach and Donnan may be present owing to their own activities in the Hebrides, or those of their successors in the monasteries they founded. Those interested in the early Christianity of the Hebrides are constantly confronted by this tension--whether to view it through the vibrant, detailed lens of the monastery of Iona; or whether to admit to a more complex, murky world we can’t uncover with any certainty.
As mentioned above, one of the later Lives of Colum Cille, composed in Gaelic originally in the 12th century, existed in a manuscript which probably belonged to the MacMhuirichs of Stadhlaigearraidh on South Uist (Grosjean 1927-28; Black 2011 on NLS Adv. MS. 72.1.40, Black Catalogue). Paul Grosjean suggested that the copy of this Life, now in the National Library of Scotland (Adv. MS 72.1.40, pp.13-28), showed the sort of wear that might be associated with its having been frequently read out loud, perhaps even from the local church. It is worth mentioning that Martin Martin (1703, 264) mentions that a ‘life of Columbus, written in the Irish character, is in the custody of John MacNeil, in the Isle of Barry; another copy of it is kept by MacDonald of Benbecula’. Whatever the origins of Columba’s commemorations in Uist, it was certainly important in the later middle ages and beyond.
Columba was celebrated in poetry in Gaelic from very early after his death. We have two poems on him composed by a poet called Beccán mac Luigdech, who is very likely to be the same as the Beccán of Rum who died in 677 (AU 677.6; Clancy and Márkus 1995, 133). Given how close to Uist Rum is, it seemed appropriate to include a short excerpt from one of these poems in celebration of Columba here (‘Fo réir Choluimb’, vv 12-14). The full poem, and its companion piece by Beccán, can be found in Clancy and Márkus 1995, 129-63; or in Clancy 1998, 108-13.
Do-ell Érinn, ind-ell cor,
cechaing noïb nemed mbled,
brisis tola, tindis for,
fairrge al druim dánae fer.
Fích fri colainn cathat íuil,
Légais la sin suíthe n-óg,
Úagais, brígais benna síuil,
Sruith tar fairrgi, flaith a lóg.
Lessach, línmar, slain co céill,
Curchaib tar sál sephtus cló,
Columb Cille, caindel Néill,
Ní fríth i corp cummae dó.
He left Ireland, entered a pact,
He crossed in ships the whales’ shrine.
He shattered lusts—it shone on him—
A bold man over the sea’s ridge.
He fought wise battles with the flesh,
Indeed, he read pure learning.
He stitched, he hoisted sail tops,
A sage across seas, his prize a kingdom.
Prosperous, numerous, safely,
A storm blew them in boats over brine.
Colum Cille, Níall’s candle:
Not found in a body his like.