St Columba – whose name means “dove” in Latin - was born in Gartan, County Donegal, Ireland around 521 AD. Over the centuries, despite his Irish roots, Columba’s name has become synonymous with Scotland, in particular Iona - where lies his lasting legacy. We have few details of Columba’s early life, though it is possible that he was born in to nobility. He was educated from an early age through the church, studying at Molville, Leinster and Clonard and eventually becoming ordained as a priest. Columba set up many monasteries in Ireland, the most famous being Darrow, Derry and possibly Kells (although the traditional theory seems to be that Kells was set up in the ninth century by monks from Iona).
It came to be that Columba, with twelve companions, set sail from Ireland for the island of Iona to build a monastery from whence they could travel forth into Scotland to convert the Picts. It is said that on a journey to Inverness to convert King Brude to Christendom St Columba encountered and challenged the Loch Ness Monster. As more people in Scotland came to the Christian faith Columba’s Ionan monastery gained recognition in Ireland and Europe. Columba returned rarely to the country of his birth, but when he did so was accorded respect. In 580 he attended the assembly of Druim-Cetta and took an active part in negotiations about the allegiance owed by the Irish in Scotland to their Irish king and the importance of the bardic order.
There are various interpretations of Columba’s decision to go to Scotland. Some believe that his move came through circumstance rather than choice after Columba argued ownership of a copy he had made of a psalter (book of psalms). Some say his zeal was that of a missionary, taking Christianity to new lands - he is widely credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland. Yet it is possible there may have been many unsung missionaries who came both before him, laying the seeds for full scale Christian conversion. The key historical source for details of Columba’s life is a biography written by Adomnan - another saint who became Abbot of Iona in 679. Adomnan’s record has been questioned due to the fact that it was written at least a century after Columba’s death – though it must be remembered that this was a time when the oral tradition was strong. Adomnan’s “Life” of Columba is also subject to what could be called flights of fancy, including descriptions of miracles and visions.
St Columba’s achievements have earned him a place in the annals of history and the church. We will never know the extent of truth versus fiction recorded about his life. What we do know is that he played a pivotal role in Scotland’s story.
Life of St. Columba (Penguin Classics)Early Church History Books)
Life of Saint Columba Apostle of Scotland