9 June : St Columba - Patron Saint of Poets

As I dig for wild orchids

in the autumn fields,

it is the deep bedded root

that I desire

not the flower.

Izumi Shikibu (974-1034)

St Columba was pretty busy for a sixth century saint. As well as rescuing someone from the awful clutches of the Loch Ness monster he must be one of the few Saints to have caused and led a battle against another Saint. The Battle of Cúl Dreimhne took place in 561 and caused great loss of life amongst his followers and those of St Finian. The dispute was over a psalter that Columba had copied and which Finian claimed as his property – a sixth century copyright dispute in fact. Although Columba was obviously good at military strategy (he won the battle), he must have lacked political clout because he was exiled from Ireland to Scotland, something the Irish monastic authorities obviously regarded as a fate worse than death.

In fact Columba took the opportunity to found a monastery at Iona and his legacy there lives on nearly 1500 years later. The missionary school attached to the Iona monastery led to the evangelisation of the Picts and Iona became a place of renowned scholarship. Iona was the monastery where that most famous of illuminated manuscripts, The Book of Kells, was begun and it is also the original location of Celtic crosses with their characteristic halo around the interstices of the arms.

Columba sounds very jolly for a Saint. His biographer Adamnan says ‘He had the face of an angel; was of excellent nature, polished in speech, holy in deed, great in council, loving to everyone, happy-faced and rejoicing in his innermost heart with the joy of the Holy Spirit’.

I can see the connection between Columba and bookbinders, of which he is also a patron, and the connection with poets probably came about because of his prodigious hymn writing. I also think the Scottish Tourist Board should also adopt him, given the legend about the Loch Ness Monster arises directly from Adamnan’s report of his intervention.

Poetry has been my friend and consolation since my Dad read me Tennyson instead of nursery rhymes and it fascinates me where the human instinct to play with words comes from. People must have been doing it as long as there has been language. For years I had a dear elderly friend called Eleanor with whom I shared a love of verse. Then one extraordinary day she met my father and they recognized each other. Eleanor's mother was my great-grandmother’s sister which made her my first cousin twice removed. She didn’t know my maiden name and I knew nothing about her family – but a mutual love of words had drawn us together….

So here’s an ambrosial desert for the patron of poets.

Athol Brose

2oz medium oatmeal

1 pint double cream

3oz good runny honey

2fl oz whisky

Toast the oatmeal in the oven at 200c turning it regularly every 2-3 minutes until it is golden brown. Whisk the cream and the honey together until it stands up in soft peaks. Stir in the whisky, then the oatmeal but reserving a tablespoonful, spoon into pretty glasses and sprinkle with the reserved oatmeal. Chill.

‘In lona of my heart, Iona of my love,

instead of monks' voices shall be the lowing of cattle.

But ere the world come to an end,

lona shall be as it was.’

Saint Columba (521-597)


A Trifle Rushed said...

What a lovely story, how delightful to find that someone your fond of is a distant cousin.
As someone of Scots descent I love St Columba, we used to holiday on the West Coast, and a cave he was supposed to have stayed in.

Heather Macdonald said...

Wonderful story. The story of Iona that I know is that when the world comes to an end and the great floods come, Iona will float like a little currach on the sea! This is why all the kings are buried there. There is a fellow on the isle of Skye who makes a beautiful medal of St Columba and medals of this saint are nearly impossible to get