St. Columba (Colum Cille – dove of the church
) arrived by boat from Ireland in 563, and landed in Kintyre, Scotland. Legend has it that he
moved onwards, up to the isle of Iona as his homeland was still in sight. Kintyre would have been part of
in the 6th century and Columba’s mission was to bring Christianity to
And so he settled on Iona and built a monastery there. Columba remained in Scotland for the rest of his life, returning latterly to Ireland only to
found the monastery at Durrow. He was buried on Iona, in his abbey, and his relics were divided between Scotland and Ireland.
( The Monymusk Reliquary, thought to
be the brechbennoch carried by Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn. The relics of Colum Cille are now lost – a hand, and other bones – probably
destroyed during the Reformation).
In his lifetime St Columba is credited with transcribing over 300 books and authoring several hymns. His biographer, Adomnan, wrote his hagiography a
century after Colum Cille’s death and provides much information about his daily life and his miracles.
Writing a century after the death of Saint Columba, the author Adomnán (also known as Eunan), served as the ninth Abbot of Iona until his death in
James Earle Frasier asserts that Adomnán drew extensively from an existing body of accounts regarding the life of Saint Columba, including a Latin
collection entitled "De uirtutibus sancti Columbae", composed c. 640 A.D. This earlier work is attributed to Cummene Find, who became the abbot of
Iona and served as the leader of the monastic island community from 656 until his death in 668 A.D. or 669 A.D.
While the Vita Columbae often conflicts with contemporaneous accounts of various battles, figures, and dates, it remains the most important surviving
work from early medieval Scotland and provides a wealth of knowledge regarding the Picts and other ethnic and political groups from this time period.
The Vita also offers a valuable insight into the monastic practices of Iona and the daily life of the early medieval Gaelic monks.
Adomnan tells us that books were certainly written in the abbey, but Scottish history has many riddles and myths. Where are these books now?
It is said that Colum Cille inherited a vast library, the most spectacular in Europe. Prior to his arrival, Iona was known as Innis nam Druidneach
–the island of the Druids. In a bid to avoid persecution by the ever-encroaching Romans, the Druids fled to Iona and there they stored their
treasured books in the greatest library Europe had seen.
Other stories tell that King Fergus gave his collection of plundered Greek and Persian religious tomes to the Druids for safe keeping. There is a
persistent theme here; books given to allies and hidden for safe keeping.
“There was a Scottish King named Fergus II, that he accompanied Alaric the Goth, and that he sent to the monastery of Iona a box of books –
being part of the booty obtained by him at the sacking of Rome.
This story is inconsistent with chronology, for Rome was plundered by Alaric in the year 410, more than a hundred years before Columba, who is said to
have been born in 521. There was a report that the lost books of Livy were preserved in this library. Aeneas Sylvius (afterwards pope Pius II)
intended, when in Scotland, to visit Iona to search for them, but was prevented by the death of King James I. ...
Of the existence of a collection of books at Iona, however, there can be no doubt. Otherwise Aeneas Sylvius would never have resolved on a journey
thither. Boethius too had undeniable proof of it ....*
When the Vikings came in 795 AD century, it was assumed that they were the destroyers of the books and countless relics.
Of course, there are many that dispute the stories as being mere myth and legend only. No books have been found, and so there is no evidence for such
a tall tale. Except...we have an example of a Columban book to day.
One of the most famous of these books from Iona is the Book of Kells, an example of the skill and craftsmanship available at the time. But if the Book
of Kells survived – where are the others? Were they hidden in Ireland too, or buried on Iona itself?
And so there can be no doubt that books were written in the abbey. But where are they now?
(1465-1536) wrote his ‘History of the Scottish
People’ using a book he claimed he found in Iona Abbey. His claims have been discredited, as is the way with a large part of Celtic history.
Archaeology students from St. Andrews University conducted a dig on the Treshnish Islands, near Iona, in the 1950’s but returned to the mainland
empty handed. If this library of Iona could ever be found, it could furnish us with the most wonderful history of the early Celtic church, of the
Culdees and of the Druids too.
It is worth bearing in mind that much of traditional Welsh history has survived today, simply by being kept hidden and handed down through families
when Welsh culture was actively being suppressed. Is it possible that this tradition, which saved the Book of Kells, has also protected a priceless
treasure trove of yet undiscovered Celtic literature?
For further reading:
*The Biblical Repository
edit on 22-12-2015 by beansidhe because: punc