Book of Saints and Heroes - Andrew Lang

St. Columba

It is always very hard to understand the lives led by people in our own country hundreds and hundreds of years ago, when they had none of the things that are so common with us that we do not even think about them. We can picture quite easily the manners in which the Greeks, the Romans, or even the Assyrians, passed their time, for the customs of the dwellers in cities are really much the same in all ages; but as for knowing the ways of the wild men who had their homes where Belfast or Glasgow or Aberdeen now stand—why that is a very different matter! If you had been travelling slowly and painfully through the British Isles fourteen hundred years ago, in the sixth century after Christ, you would hardly have recognised it to be the same country which you know so well. The sea is the only thing that is quite unchanged. On the East Coast of England even that has advanced nearer and nearer, till the base of the cliffs has been eaten away, and rocks have fallen and whole towns have been swallowed up by the waves. The mountains too, may not have worn exactly the same shapes that we look at. Snow and ice have torn great holes in their sides, and the rocks, slipping down, have changed the courses of the rivers. Instead of turf and heather, forests then often grew up to the top; and the swampy lands, at that time bright in the summer with forget-me-nots and yellow water-lilies, are now golden with corn and pretty dancing oats.

Thus it was into a world strange to us that Columba was born in the year 520. His parents were kinsmen of some of the proudest Irish kings, and his mother's name Ethne, or Enna, as it is called, is still to be found among Irish children. They had their home in a wild part of Donegal, on the north-west Coast of Ireland, where you can lie on the great cliffs all day, and look far out across the Atlantic, while clouds of sea-birds flutter and screech around you. Sea-trout and other fish were to be had for the asking, and wild duck and game abounded in the marshes and forests further inland.

We are not told how Columba passed his boyhood, but we may be sure that besides fishing, and shooting with his bow and arrow, he was taught the Christian faith, and heard tales from his mother of the manner in which the saints of old had died rather than sacrifice on the altars of the pagans. By and bye Ethne noticed that the boy spent less and less time in the sports which once had filled his thoughts, and more and more alone brooding. Now and then he would ask her a question, but for the most part he was silent. She guessed what was working in his mind, but said nothing, and waited till he should speak.

At length the moment came. He wanted to be a priest. Would his father and mother tell him what to do?

A few months later Columba set out and walked over the mountains, and across what we now call Ulster, till he reached Strangford Lough, on the eastern coast of Ireland. On the shores of the bay, which is almost a lake, dwelt Bishop Finnian, whose fame for holiness had spread even into Donegal. On hearing the youth's errand, the Bishop gave him a warm welcome, and promised to teach him all he knew. So for several years Columba remained in this quiet place, where, when the Bishop thought him fit, he was ordained deacon.

After that, St. Finnian thought that Columba had stayed with him long enough, and that it would be better for him to learn from other teachers. So with great sorrow he bade the young man farewell, and commanded him to take counsel of his friend Gemman, and to follow his advice. This Columba promised to do, and the advice Gemman gave him was to go into a monastery, where, after a while, he was made priest.

The monasteries of those days were not the big stone buildings they became many centuries later, but in general were nothing better than a collection of huts, with an oratory for the monks to pray in. Columba wandered from one to the other, till at length he began to weary of new faces and strange speech, and to long for his native country; and one day he said good-bye to his friends, and in 545, when he was twenty-five years old, he turned his face northwards and once more entered Ulster, then known as Scotia. This is very confusing, as in reading of those days we must never forget that the 'Scots' are really the men of Ulster.

Now Irishmen have always got the character of being fond of fighting, and there are no better soldiers in the whole British Army. But when they carry their love of a fight into their daily life they are apt to get into trouble. At that time everybody fought in Ireland. Even the women were expected to take their part in a battle, just as the Amazons did in the Greek stories. Bishops and priests, holy as many of them were accounted, were foremost in all the quarrels, and for hundreds of years formed with their followers a large portion of the armies all over Europe. It is no surprise, therefore, to learn that after awhile Columba, who had been travelling about founding churches and monasteries, was accused of stirring up strife between some of the Irish kings, which ended in bloodshed. For this he was excommunicated, that is, forbidden to say mass or perform any of the church services, and as life was very painful to him under these circumstances, he resolved to cross the water and take up his abode in the new lands to the north, where he might be free. One morning he set sail in a small boat, and, with a fair south wind behind him, landed at the island of Hy or Iona, where he spent the thirty-four years that remained to him, though he visited Ireland more than once and loved it more than any place on earth.

The island of Iona, for ever bound up with the name of St. Columba, lay on the border between the Christian Scots, who had previously come over from Ireland and had settled in the country, and the pagan Picts, whose territory was on the north and east. It was necessary to obtain the consent of both nations before Columba made his home on the island, so he lost no time in visiting the Pictish king, who bade him welcome. They had many talks together, and in the end Columba succeeded in converting the pagan chief, and also gained permission to found the famous monastery on Hy.

But he did not always stay on the island. On fine days he would get into one of the curious little wicker-boats covered with skins, called coracles, and sail to the opposite shore, where he preached to the people and made friends with them. Far and wide he wandered, and many were the churches he built, and the adventures that befell him. One day as he and a small company of monks were walking through a glen, he noticed some wild-looking men crouching behind the rocks, apparently lying in wait for him. Find Uigan, who was with him, saw them also, for the sun above caught the glint of their spears, and he snatched the cowl or loose hood which covered St. Columba's head, and put it on his own, hoping thereby to deceive the strange men into thinking that he himself was Columba, and take his life instead of his master's. But quick as he was, their eyes were quicker still. Find Uigan was pushed aside, and the spear thrust past him. Columba fell with the shock of the blow, and the murderer went away satisfied that he had killed his enemy, and never knowing that the weapon had not so much as torn a hole in Columba's garments, which were as hard to pierce as if they were made of polished steel.

Greatly was Columba loved throughout the land, yet he was feared a little too, for he could speak sternly if needs be, and expected men to obey him. And tales were told by one and another of the marvellous deeds he had done, and to the faith of his followers nothing seemed too marvellous for St. Columba. He loved birds and beasts too, and was grateful to any creature who showed him kindness, which he never failed to repay in some way or other. Once he reached Lochaber, the home of the fairies, very wet and tired, for he had sailed early that morning from Iona; and after beating about the long narrow sea which divides the island of Mull from Morvern, had nearly been wrecked on one of the rocks on the eastern shores of Loch Linnhe. Scarcely able to crawl he entered the hut of rough wood, with its covering of woven twigs, which belonged to Nesan the crooked. Now Nesan was a very poor man, but his door was open to all, and he bade the saint welcome, and set before him milk and coarse bread.

'How many cows have you?' asked Columba when he had finished his supper.

'Five, counting the black one,' said Nesan.

'I will bless them and they shall become a hundred and five, neither more nor less,' said the saint. And so they did, but if a calf happened to be born into the herd, a cow died to make up for it. And thus it was always with the herd of Nesan.

Columba had returned to Iona, and was sitting alone in his cell, when one of the brethren passed by on his way to catch some fish.

'Listen to me,' said Columba, 'and see that you hearken unto my words. On the morning of the third day from this, you must go down to the shore on the west side of the island and sit on a rock and wait there. By and bye you will behold, blown by the winds and very weary, a crane which is a stranger to the country of the Picts, and has come from the north of Hibernia, where I myself dwelt in my infancy. Far out of its course the winds have taken it, and after the ninth hour of the day it can struggle no longer, and will sink on the sand at your feet. Treat that crane tenderly, and warm it in your bosom, and carry it to some neighbouring house, where they will be good to it, and tend it carefully for three days and nights.

'When the crane is refreshed, and its strength has come back to it, it will flutter its wings and long to return to the pleasant land which it has left. See therefore that you do not then hinder it, but set wide the door so that it may fly south.' So spoke Columba, wishing perhaps in his heart that he might fly back with the crane, for seldom indeed had he trod the soil of Donegal during the years since Hy had been his home.

'As you say, so will I do,' answered the monk, and he waited on the western shore till the crane was borne to him by the wind, as Columba had foretold.

'My crops are ruined by the rain and the stones which the great storms have swept down from the mountains into their midst,' said a poor man one day, throwing himself on his knees before Columba. 'My wife can make no bread, and the children will starve unless you will help me.'

Columba looked at him, and knew that he spoke truly, and pity filled the heart of the saint.

'Take this, it is all I have,' he said, holding out some coins; 'but hurry swiftly to that wood yonder, and cut a branch from a tree, and bring it back to me.' The peasant hid the money in his wallet and hastened to cut the branch, which was straight and supple as a wand, and held it out to Columba, who sharpened one end with a knife.

'Have a care of this stake, my friend, for as long as you keep it, never will you be without food. It will harm neither men nor cattle, but a fish or a wild beast that touches it will die. And now farewell,' and without waiting to hear the peasant's words of gratitude, Columba entered the hut.

The poor man forgot his miseries, in the joy of knowing that they were ended, and he went at once to the depths of the forest near his home, where the wild beasts came in numbers to drink from a pool. Here he drove in the stake with a firm hand, and then returning to his wooden hut told his wife of the wonderful thing that had happened. All that night he lay awake, counting the hours as they went by, and when the grey light stole in through the hole in the roof, he arose and ran like the wind to the forest. There, sure enough, lay a dead stag, pierced through the heart by the stake, and gladly did he tie together some branches of trees, and placing on them the body of the stag, brought it home to his wife.

'This will give us meat for many a day,' he shouted as she hurried out of the hut. 'And the skin will make me a warm coat, which I need sorely.'

For some time things prospered greatly with the peasant. Each day a deer was found lying dead in the forest, and when the man's wife did not want it to cook for themselves, she gave it to the neighbours in exchange for other things. But at length the woman grew so used to having plenty to eat, that she quite forgot the words the saint had spoken to her husband, and one day she said:

'Throw away that stake, we can do quite well without it, and if one of the king's men or his cattle were to get hurt by it, of a certainty we ourselves should be taken as slaves or put to death.'

'Not so,' replied her husband; 'remember that the holy Columba bade me keep the stake in the ground if we wanted food. Do you wish to starve, as we did before?'

'That is but talk,' answered the wife; 'but now we have grown rich by selling the deer for meal and wool, the stake is no more good to us,' and though the man was not persuaded that she was in the right, at last he grew weary of listening to her; and, taking up the stake, brought it up to the hut, and leaned it against the wall, while he considered what to do with it. Then there was peace for awhile, till one of the children tripped over the root of a tree, and staggered up against the stake, which, in falling, ran him through the body so that he died.

Terrible was the grief of the woman when she saw her dead son lying on the ground with the stake beside him, but she would not confess that the saint had spoken truly, and that the fault was hers. Her husband indeed knew, but by long talking his wife had made him also half afraid of the wrath of the king if his beasts were slain, and he put more faith in her than he did in the holy Columba. Therefore, when sobbing, she bade him never let her see any more the stake which had cost her such sorrow, he hid it in a clump of bushes so thick that he thought no beast could get through them.

As before, he rose early next morning and went to the place, no longer hoping, but fearing that he might find a dead deer awaiting him. And so it was. Then, stealthily looking round to make sure that no one was watching, he snatched the stake from the ground, and pushed his way through the bushes to the bank of the river. Here he stooped down and laid it carefully under the water, in a line with the bank, wedging the end between two stones, so that it might be held fast.

With a lightened heart he returned to the hut, and bade his wife be easy, for he had got rid of the stake for ever, and there was nothing more to be feared from the king.

'You are sure that you have fixed it firmly?' she asked, 'for the salmon are caught here for the king's table, and if one was to be killed by anyone else, heavy would be the punishment.'

'Have no fear,' answered the man, 'you can come with me and make certain,' and after dinner they went together to the river bank.

'Did I not say so?' cried she, pointing to a huge salmon transfixed by the stake against which it had swum blindly.

'Well, nought will make it alive again, so you had better carry it home, and I myself will bear the stake and put it on the roof, where it can harm no one.' And so he did, and that same evening a crow flew against it, and fell dead down the chimney hole into the hut.

'It may be one of the king's falcons next,' muttered the woman turning pale. 'Let us make an end of it,' and she seized a hatchet, and chopping the stick in pieces, threw them on the fire.

'What are we going to have for dinner to-day?' asked one of the children, when the big salmon had been cooked and eaten; and the father and mother looked at each other, for suddenly they understood how great had been their foolishness, and how, by burning the magic stake they had of their own free will, turned themselves again into beggars. Even the saint could do no more for them. They had thrown away the gift he had bestowed, and for the future they must find their own food, or go without it.

Columba had left Lochaber and crossed the mountains, preaching as he went, till he reached the place where the town of Inverness now stands. There the river Ness is broad and swiftly flowing, but Columba and his brethren must needs cross it, as they had business to do on the other side. No boats were to be seen within reach, but on the opposite bank lay one called a coble, and Columba was about to order one of the monks to swim across and fetch it over, when he beheld the body of a man floating on the water, with blood flowing from his thighs.

'Cast a rope over him and bring him to land. Perhaps he is not dead,' cried the saint, but a boy who was passing shook his head.

'He was swimming in the river when the monster who dwells in the bottom rose up and bit him, and none who is bitten by that monster escapes.' And the boy's words were true, for when the man was brought to shore, there was no breath left in him.

'Cross we must,' repeated Columba. 'Who will bring that coble across? Lugne, you are a strong swimmer, will you go?'

'Willingly,' answered Lugne, throwing off his cloak, but his plunge disturbed the water, and the monster wakened out of his sleep, came up to the surface, and, roaring till the monks shook with terror, dashed after Lugne.

'He is lost too, our comrade,' whispered one to another, as with a rush the huge beast swam to within a spear's length of Lugne, but Columba stepped out from among them and held up his hand.

'Go back with all speed whence you came,' he said, 'for this man is safe from you;' and with another roar, louder than the first, the monster dived beneath the water and was seen no more.

After his business was ended, Columba returned to Iona, and there in a vision he beheld his friend Cormac who had sailed away to discover a desert in the ocean in great danger, together with the men on board his ship. For the space of fourteen days a south wind had blown, which had driven him northwards, far away to the land of silence, amidst mountains of glittering ice. A few days more, and his boat would be stuck fast, and even now loathsome insects as large as frogs appeared—none could tell whence—and pressed in armies over the prow and sides and stern of the little ship till Cormac dreaded lest the leathern covering should be pierced through, and crowded on the handles of the oars, stinging the hands of those that grasped them. All this Columba saw, and he called to his monks, and told them of his vision, and they knelt together and prayed that the wind might blow from the north, and send Cormac back to them. And at that hour the wind changed, and the horrible creatures disappeared in the cracks of the ice, and in due time Cormac was among them again.

Thus passed the years, till Columba counted thirty winters since he had left his home for Iona. He had done much work; had preached all over the land, had founded churches and had sent forth missionaries like himself, and now he was tired and longed to go to his rest. But though he was more than seventy he was strong and well, and this he took as a sign that the day of his death was not yet at hand, and that other tasks awaited him.

He was sitting one morning with some of the brethren in his little hut planning out what each one was to do. In the midst of telling them how to reach a distant church on the mainland, he paused, and a bright light shone on his face. In an instant it faded as suddenly as it came, and a deep sadness took its place.

'What is it?' asked his friends. 'Why do you look first so glad and then so sorrowful?'

Columba did not reply for a moment. Then he said:

'If I tell you the reason, you must all hold your peace, for the world may not know it yet. Thirty years and more have I spent in Iona, and now I long that death may come and fetch me. Here, in the presence of you all, I have had my answer: "Your prayers, O Columba! have been heard." This it was that filled my heart with joy; but my joy was speedily turned into grief, for the voice, for which I alone had ears, continued: "Be patient, and in four years a messenger will come for you." So in patience I must abide, but the time seems long.'

'Your sorrow is our joy,' replied the brethren, then at a sign from Columba they went out.

These last years were spent much like the others, and only those monks who had been that day in the hut knew that Columba, even when full of thoughts and plans for others, was secretly counting the minutes till they were ended. At length they saw by the brightening of his face that his time on earth was nearly over, and as far as he would let them, they never left him, and treasured up his few words.

'Get me the cart,' he said early one morning, 'for I must visit the settlement on the other side, and let two of you go with me.'

Silently the journey was made, and when they reached the halting-place, the saint went from one brother to the other, giving counsel as to the work they had to do and bidding them take heed to his words, as it was the last time he should be among them. He looked so little like a dying man that hardly would they believe him, but when he had finished giving counsel to each one, he mounted the cart, and, standing up, blessed them and the island and all that was in it, and promised that for ever after their dreaded enemy, the snakes, with the three-forked tongues, should have no power to hurt them.

The day before he died, he went out into the fields, and entered the barns where the corn was stored.

'It will last you throughout the year,' he said to his followers, and gave the corn also his blessing. Then he left the barn and turned homewards, but feeling suddenly tired he sat down to rest, where a cross was fixed into a mill-stone. While he sat there, a horse, used by the monks to carry the milk pails from the cow-shed to the monastery, passed by, and, seeing Columba, drew near to him, and laid his head on the saint's breast and wailed loudly, tears running from his eyes.

'What ails the creature,' cried the man who was following, and he would have driven him away, had not Columba stopped him, for the tears were in his eyes also.

St. Cuthbert


'Let the horse alone, that he may pour his grief into my bosom, if he will. For he loves me and is wiser than many men, and knows that I am about to leave him.'

So, his waiting time over, and caring to the end for those who loved him, whether man or beast, the death which Columba had prayed for came to him.