After a hiatus of a couple of weeks Saint of the Week is back with St Columba, whose death in 597 is commemorated on the 9th June. He was born in Ireland in 521, and his Irish name, Colm Cille, translates roughly as ‘church dove’. While he is well-known for establishing a monastery on the island of Iona, which is where he died and is buried, prior to this he was active in his native Ireland, setting up the foundations in Derry, Durrow, Kells and Swords in Dublin.
He got into a bit of a spat over the rights of ownership of a copy of a psalter with St Finnian of Movilla Abbey in 560 which resulted in the deaths of around 3000 men at the battle of Cúl Dreimhne – thus making it the earliest, and possibly the costliest in terms of lives, copyright dispute that we know of. It must have been some book! Despite his side’s overwhelming victory, Columba was exiled from Ireland whereupon he sailed with twelve companions for the west coast of Scotland in a hide-covered boat. He was given the island of Iona by his relative Conall mac Comgaill, a local king, and proceeded to set up the monastery there where, among other things, it acted as a centre of literacy and as a source of schooling for the community based on the island.
His biographer Adomnán says of him that ‘He had the face of an angel; he was of excellent nature, polished in speech, holy in deed, great in council’, and among the many miracles that are attributed to him, the most memorable involves the earliest known reference to one of our greatest enduring myths: that of the Loch Ness Monster. According to Adomnán’s hagiography, a Pictish man swimming across the River Ness was attacked and killed by a water beast. Columba subsequently sent one of his own followers across the river to the astonishment of the Picts who had just seen one of their own tribesman killed. The monster rose out of the water to attack again, at which point Columba demanded that it go no further and leave the man alone. The monster immediately stopped as if ‘pulled up by ropes’ and the man survived. This was one of the main events that helped Columba in his quest to convert the Picts to Christianity. So spare a thought this week for the man who defied Nessie!