Scotland: Peeps at History - G. E. Mitton


Lying off the west coast of Scotland, not very far from the extreme end of the great island of Mull, is a small isle three miles and a half long by about one and a half broad, and this little island, not particularly attractive or differing much from any of the other hundreds of islands in the Atlantic, is yearly visited with reverence by crowds of people, who come out in a steamer from Oban and land here. To discover why, we must go back about twelve and a half centuries, to a time before there was any kind of settled government in any part of Scotland. The island was then as green as it is now, and on it, enclosed within a trench or ditch, were some curious primitive buildings; some of them were huts built of upright posts with wattles twined between. Two walls were usually thus made, a little distance apart, and between them was stuffed clay or mud, which, when hardened, formed a good protection against the cold winds. Only one of the huts was of any better appearance than the others, and that had wooden beams in it and was higher than the rest. There was also a roughly built little church, made of logs, and outside the ditch there were a few very rough sheds for cows, and a kiln.

Within and about the enclosure walked grave-faced monks, clad in long stuff gowns, and wearing ropes as girdles; their feet were bare or covered by sandals, and their hair grew long. One, a tall, raw-boned, strongly built man, was addressed with special reverence, and even those who were grinding the corn in stone vessels stopped their work in respect as he went by, for he was Columba, their saintly abbot. No women were to be seen anywhere on the island, but if you had wandered down to the shore you would have discovered a fleet of boats, large and small, some merely formed of skins nailed over wooden ribs, others planked, but all of a very flimsy type; and, taking one of these boats and crossing a short distance to another very tiny island, you would have found a community of nuns, dressed, in spite of the wild wet climate, in long gowns of white—on festival occasions at all events. Columba, like many another monk, distrusted women. He had at first even forbidden cows on his island, saying, "Where there is a cow there is a woman, and where there is a woman there is mischief "; but afterwards cows were permitted, though while he lived the nuns were banished. How came this strange, stern man here?

He was of Irish birth, and as a child was christened "Columb," meaning "a dove"; but he does not seem to have been of a very dove-like disposition, for, as a young man, having borrowed a beautiful manuscript of the Psalms and copied it for his own use, he refused to give it up when the owner of the demanded it. The matter was submitted to one of the Irish chiefs, and he judged Columba wrong, saying: "To every cow belongs her calf, and to every book its copy."

Columba was so angry that he incited his kinsmen to avenge the insult, and a great battle was fought, in which many were killed. Columba was charged with being the cause of so much slaughter, and was told that to free his soul from blood-guiltiness he must convert as many souls to Christianity is he had caused to be killed. This was why he had set forth from Ireland, which was more or less Christian, in order to convert the wild Scots who had left Ireland, once called Scotia, before the spread of Christianity.

Once settled on Iona, many flocked to Columba, and his fame spread far. However, he had not come to live a peaceful, but a strenuous, life; and he soon began to wander far and wide over Caledonia as a missionary. Through wild, unknown passes, in extremities of cold and hunger and peril, always on foot, he went, trusting to God to send him food. Thus for years and years he traversed what is now Scotland, until he died, worn out by privation and fatigue at the age of seventy-five, and was buried on his island. Thus was Christianity brought to Scotland. He was succeeded by many devoted and noble men, one of whom, Adamnan, is accounted only second to himself. But none of the buildings on Iona at this day date from that time. There is a fine cathedral, there are stone carvings, a little ruined chapel, a nunnery, and some very ancient tombs, but all of these, ancient as they seem, are hundreds of years later than Columba. The nuns came to the island when he died, and established there a celebrated nunnery; and the tomb of the Prioress, Anna, a very holy woman, who died 1543, is still shown. Iona was the burial-place of the very early Scottish kings, and also of many chiefs, and there is something peculiarly solemn in these associations. No one can visit the little green island without feeling its solemnity.