IN the mountain fastnesses of Caledonia beyond the Grampian Hills, lived a wild and hardy race of men known to their British neighbours as the Picts or "Painted People." The name had originally been bestowed on them by the Romans in allusion to their habit of going into battle with their bodies tattooed all over with strange devices. They were a brave and warlike tribe, who had resisted the landing of Agricola and his legions, and after several pitched battles had driven the Roman eagles triumphantly before them to the sea. In later days they became the terror of the Britons of Strathclyde and Northumbria, descending upon them in wild hordes and raiding their country without mercy. These men were the original ancestors of the Highlanders of Scotland, in whom the courage and the fighting spirit, typical of the race, have survived through all the vicissitudes of their country, and who to this day are acknowledged to be the bravest and hardiest of the soldiers of the Empire.
It was to this people, like himself of Celtic origin, that Columba was to carry the priceless gift of the faith, entering with a handful of unarmed men into the heart of the country which the Roman legions had feared to penetrate. Brude or Bmidh, the Pictish King, was entrenched in his fortress on a rocky hill near the site of Inverness. The little band of missionaries wound their way up the hill, chanting as they went a psalm of confidence in God. At their head was Columba, bearing aloft the cross. The tidings of their approach was brought to the Pictish King, who ordered that the gates of the fortress should be barred against them and admittance refused.
Broichem, the high-priest of the Druids, the foster-father and chief adviser of King Brude, was probably responsible for the order, for, the Christians once admitted, he feared that his influence would be no longer supreme. Columba, however, was not in the least daunted by this inhospitable reception. He made the sign of the Cross before the barred gates and struck them strongly with his clenched fist. Bolts and bars shot back at his touch, and silently the great gates rolled open to give the Saint and his companions passage. The King, who had seen the marvel together with all his Court, was struck with fear, and went to meet Columba with fair and peaceful words. From henceforth he treated him with reverence and courtesy, confirming to him the gift of Iona, which might be considered to lie as much in his territory as in that of the Dalriadan king, and remaining throughout his lifetime a true friend and protector.
It was not until some time later that he became a Christian, but the Druids could foresee the results of his friendly intercourse with the missionaries, and resolved not to lose their influence without a struggle. Their bitter enmity was to follow Columba for years, and to be the chief hindrance to his work amongst the Picts.
The religion of the Druids of Caledonia differed in some degree from that of the Druids of Britain. The people were taught to worship the sun, the rivers and the forests. Certain of the streams and wells which were, said the Druid priests, under the influence of a beneficent spirit, were wholesome and good to drink, while to taste of others which they declared to be under the rule of evil spirits, would be followed by instant death.
The first thing to be done was to convince the people of the falsity of their belief and to make them cease the idolatrous practices connected with it. Columba drank in their presence of the water that was supposed to be deadly, to prove to them that no evil effects would follow. The Druids pursued him wherever he went, interrupting him continually in his preaching, holding him up to the derision of the people, and misrepresenting what he said. Columba bore all their insults with patience; but when it came to trying to drown the missionaries' voices in the singing of the psalms of the Church with shouts and mocking cries, his zeal for God's glory overcame for once his meekness, and he intoned the holy chant in such a voice of thunder that his adversaries were silenced, and the King and his people trembled with fear.
One day when the Saint was preaching the Gospel in the island of Skye, he had one of those flashes of supernatural insight of which we have spoken several times before. He told his companions that there would come to them that very day an old Pictish chief who was at the point of death, and who had tried to lead a good life according to the natural law of God and the light of his own conscience.
It happened as he had foretold. Towards evening a boat was seen approaching the coast of Skye, manned by Pictish warriors supporting in their arms an old man whose trappings proclaimed him to be of noble birth. Drawing their boat to the shore, they landed and formed a rude litter with their shields, on which they carried the old chieftain up the hill and laid him down at Columba's feet. The Saint spoke to the dying man of the faith of Christ and baptized him, and shortly afterwards he gave up his soul to God.
On another occasion when they were crossing the mountains, Columba saw a vision of angels, and exhorted his companions to hasten on their way. "For," said he, "there is a man of good and honest life waiting beyond the hills to receive baptism before he dies." They quickened their pace, and when they reached Glen Urquhart, found, as Columba had predicted, an old man awaiting their arrival. The holy abbot baptized him and bade him depart in peace, and the angels whom he had seen on the mountains carried his soul to heaven.
The chief Druid Broichem had a young Irish slave-girl, taken captive in time of war, for whose freedom Columba had several times petitioned. The Druid, who was not likely to look favourably on any request of the great Christian missionary, even refused to accept the ransom offered for the girl, though she was pining her heart out for her family and her home.
Columbcille warned him that if he persistently refused to show mercy to his captive, the punishment of God would overtake him, and he would die before Columba himself left the country, but Broichem was not to be moved. Not long afterwards Columba set out on his return journey to Iona, but he had hardly reached Loch Ness when he was overtaken by two messengers from the high-priest beseeching him to take pity on their master, who had been suddenly taken ill and was in danger of death.
The Druids seem to have had a certain power over the elements, perhaps through the evil spirits whom they worshipped. They had heard of and seen the miracles worked by Columba, and resolved to show how superior their powers of magic were to his.
On the day fixed for the departure of the missionaries, Broichem threatened that he would cause a thick fog and a contrary wind to arise, so that it would be impossible for them to embark.
The people were gathered in crowds to bid farewell to Columba, when to their great consternation the Druid's threat was fulfilled. The fog was dense and the unfavourable wind blew stormily. This time at least they had triumphed, or so they thought, and they did not attempt to conceal their joy.
But Columba, nothing daunted, bade the mariners spread their sails, and the awe-stricken crowd on the shore beheld the boat flying swiftly westwards to Iona in the teeth of the contrary wind, as if it had been altogether in their favour.
The departure was not to be for long. Again and again Columba revisited the mainland to strengthen and confirm the faith of his converts; and in course of time churches and monasteries sprang up amongst the forests and the mountains of Caledonia, little strongholds of Christianity the beneficent influence of which was soon to penetrate throughout the length and breadth of the land.
Columba had many faithful helpers in his missionary labours. Malruve, a kinsman and countryman of his own, soon followed him to Iona to share in his work among the Picts. He became abbot of Appercrossan, now Applecross, on the north-west coast of Caledonia, and suffered the "red martyrdom" some years after the death of Columbcille, at the hands of Norwegian pirates. St. Canice, the companion of Columba and Ciaran at Clonard and Glasnevin, also followed his old friend across the sea. He founded a monastery and a church on the shore of Loch Lagan, and another in Fifeshire. St. Kenneth, as the Scotch called him, was noted for his eloquence and learning, and wrote a commentary on the four Gospels which was much valued in his day.
Drostan, one of the most beloved of the first companions of Columba, was chosen to govern a monastery founded on the east coast in the present district of Buchan. When he realized that the breadth of Scotland would henceforward separate him from the brethren whom he loved, and the father of his soul, he wept so bitterly that Columba declared that the new foundation should be called the "place of tears," and Déar (Deer) it remains to this day, to prove to us that the religious life has not the effect, as some people suppose, of hardening the hearts and freezing the affections of those who embrace it, but asks only that love go hand in hand with sacrifice in order that it may be conformed to the love of Christ.
FRANCISCUS CANONICUS WYNDHAM
+ EDM. CAN. SURMONT
WESTMONASTERII, die 7 Octobris, 1913.
FRANCISCUS CANONICUS WYNDHAM
+ EDM. CAN. SURMONT
WESTMONASTERII, die 7 Octobris, 1913.