Columba is the towering figure from this period. He was born in 521 in Ireland which at that time was very Christian, and was a centre for Christian learning. Many great Christians were raised up through the monastic school at Clonard Abbey, where Columba was educated. Tradition says that around 560 Columba was involved in a serious argument and that he was the cause of a great battle that resulted in the death of many men. Columba was allowed to go into exile, so he chose to make amends for the death of the men by going to evangelise Scotland. The main information on his life is from ‘Vita Columbae’ which was the first book of Scottish literature, written a hundred years after his death.
Columba arrived in Scotland in 563 and was granted land in Iona, where he settled with his twelve companions. He was a ‘Scot’ and he settled amongst his people. He set up a monastery and the only place of learning in the area, on Iona. North East of Iona were the pagan Picts, to the south there was more than a sprinkling of Christianity, so Columba decided to target one of the main Kings of the Picts, Brude of Inverness. He and his companions travelled about 150 miles to confront King Brude. This was a very dangerous journey as the tribes were all pretty violent in those days. However, the Lord was with him and Brude became a Christian. He was the King’s advisor for over twenty years, and when the King died in 584, his crown passed to a prince of the southern Picts, who was based at Abernethy, near Perth. This area had been touched by Ninian’s ministry, but by this time nearly all signs of his ministry had disappeared. Because of his reputation Columba had influence in this court as well and having recently consecrated Aidan as king of the Scots in the west, Columba and his missionaries had access to the whole of Scotland north of the Forth and the Clyde. Their influence extended to the northern and western islands, many churches were planted. Columba’s reputation as a holy man led to him being used as a diplomat amongst the tribes, which helped with evangelising, although this did not stop much local opposition and not a few martyrdoms amongst the intrepid missionaries from Iona. His diplomatic activity helped bring peace between the tribes; a peace that lasted 100 years.
Columba is reputed to have moved powerfully in the prophetic and miracles, signs and wonders, which would help explain his remarkable success among the superstitious pagans. He was a very learned man, transcribing many books and passing on his knowledge to the missionaries he trained. At the age of 76 his work was done. On 8th June 597 he retired for the night to his bed. The midnight bell called him to prayers, and before the rest of the brethren he entered the dark church and lay down upon the stone floor in front of the altar. There in the darkness he was found by his companions, and in their arms he died, after he had raised his hands in blessing over those whom he was leaving behind.
Columba, more than anyone else, was responsible for spreading the Gospel around Scotland. The Gospel he preached was one of love, life and power, no wonder people turned to Christ. It was not a weak social Gospel such as we hear so often these days, but one which changed people’s lives. There are a few preaching this Gospel now, but we need to see more of the Gospel that Columba and his brave followers preached.
The followers of Columba set up centres based on the Iona model. Like Columba a leader and twelve others would go to an area. They went far and wide into the lands of the Scots and the Picts, including the Hebrides, the Orkneys and the Shetland Isles. Their allegiance was to Iona, to the abbot. Despite historical assumptions, there is no record of any ‘bishop’ being in Scotland at this time, and no sign of the hierarchical church that was all over Romanised Europe, although this was coming. One of their activities was the transcription of the Scriptures. Undoubtedly this activity reminded the intrepid missionaries of the scriptural truths they were copying, so helping them speak out the truth to the local people. They also travelled down to England where they had evangelistic success all the way down to the Thames. The most notable missionaries to England were Aidan, Finian and Colman. Iona also sent missionaries to Europe where they did some wonderful work, but sadly Rome was more powerful than Iona and soon the situation was to change.
As of May 2009 Iona is a place far from what it was in the days of Columba. Gone is the radical faith, gone are the signs and wonders, gone is the warrior spirit. Centuries ago it was invaded several times by the Vikings and many monks were murdered; today it has been invaded by New Age doctrine, which is every bit as devastating as was the invasion of the Vikings.
There seems to be little understanding of the Spiritual nature of Christianity and the people there seem to be more interested in pleasing other faiths than standing for Jesus.