Celts to the Creche: St. Columba of Iona


Stained Glass in Iona Abbey of St. Columba

Stained Glass in Iona Abbey of St. Columba (Columcille) of Iona. photo by Harvey Warren

Celts to the Crèche

Day 4

November 18

St. Columba of Iona

7 December 521 – 9 June 597

On the 4th day our journey with the Celts to the Crèche, we meet the much-loved and admired St. Columba, (Colum Cille meaning “dove of the church”) who was an Irish monk, abbot, scholar, and missionary who spread the gospel of Jesus Christ in Scotland, England, and throughout western Europe from the monastery he established on the little island of Iona off the western coast of Scotland. Iona is known as a “thin place” where the veil between heaven and earth seems almost gossamer. Many of the famous Celtic monks and missionaries were educated and trained on Iona like St. Aidan of Lindisfarne. Because of Columba’s love of books and writing, his influence throughout the years likely led to the magnificent Book of Kells that was likely handwritten and illuminated on Iona about 800AD. The famous Book of Durrow that may have been the model for the Book of Kells takes its’ name from Durrow Monastery in County Offaly,  one of the monasteries that Columba established. 

Man of Matthew from the Book of Durrow. photo from Wikipedia

It is even recorded that Columba had an encounter with the Loch Ness Monster in which Nessie was quite stunned!

St. Columba of iona

Icon of St. Columba by unknown writer

His life was recorded by Adomnan, a later abbot of Iona who wrote the Life of St. Columba a century after Columba died. Much of Adomnan’s work was based upon an earlier biography recorded by the seventh abbot of Iona, Cummene “the White.” Columba evangelized the local Druids by declaring to them, “Christ is my Druid.”

The Venerable Bede also wrote about Columba in Book 3, Chapter 4 of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People  as one who came to evangelize the Picts after he established numerous monasteries in Ireland including a large monastery in Ireland called Dearmach, meaning The Field of Oaks.

Columba is the patron saint of Derry, of Irish bookbinders, poets, publishers, editors, authors, diplomats, statesmen, Ireland, Scotland and Ulster County, and he is the protector against floods and evil.

You may desire to continue reading more about Columba or go on to the Meditation towards the end of this page.

Early Life: Columba grew up in Ireland in Garten in County Donegal in Ulster. His father was Fedhlimdh and this family was descendants of one of the most powerful royal dynasties of Ireland, the Ui Neill clan of northern Ireland that descended from the famous Niall of the Nine Hostages. His mother, Eithne, was descended from a king of Leinster. Columba studied under the famous Irish monastic teachers, Finnian of Moville and Finnian of Clonard. He was ordained as a deacon at Moville Abbey and was ordained as a priest when he was about thirty years old. Adamnan described Columba in this way:  “He was angelic in appearance, graceful in speech, holy in work.” His voice was strong, sweet, and sonorous, capable at times of being heard at a great distance. 

While in Ireland, Columba established several churches and probably at least twenty monasteries including Derry on the banks of Lough Foyle and Durrow in County Offaly. Some believe that he also established the Abbey of Kells in County Meath on a former Irish hill fort. There are heritage trails of St. Columba’s journeys and monasteries that he established.

St. Columba Heritage Trail map in Ireland of places that Columba established before going to Iona.

St. Columba Heritage Trail map in Derry, Ireland of places that Columba established before going to Iona.

Ancient church where Columba was born in Garten, Ireland. A monastery likely was in this place also

Ancient church built in the area where Columba was born in Garten, Ireland. A monastery likely was in this place also.

The Cathach is the oldest extant Irish manuscript of the Psalter. It may also be the earliest example of the form of Irish writing known as insular majuscule script. The surviving portion of the manuscript contains a Vulgate version of Psalms XXX (10) to CV (13) with an interpretative rubric or heading before each psalm. It is written in Latin. It is traditionally ascribed to St Columba as the copy, which was made at night in haste by a miraculous light, of a Psalter lent to Columba by St Finnian. A dispute arose about the ownership of the copy and King Diarmait Mac Cerbhaill gave the judgment ‘To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy’. https://www.ria.ie/cathach-psalter-st-columba

How Columba Came to Iona: Legend says that after copying a book of Psalms from his former teacher, St. Finnian of Moville Abbey, without permission, that Finnian demanded the copy, but Columba refused to hand it over. Their dispute was taken to the High King Diarmuid, who ruled “to each cow its calf and to every book its copy”  convicting Columba of plagiarism and giving legal copyright to Finnian. Columba persuaded his kinsmen to go to battle over this ruling and King Diarmuid was defeated. Columba was blamed for the hundreds of men that were killed at this battle. For penance, it was decided by a synod that Columba must convert an equal number of pagans.  So Columba and twelve companions chose to embrace peregrinatio, exile as his penance. This is considered by some to be the the first recorded instance of the use of “copyright.”

Columba travels with his 12 companions from Ireland to Iona

Columba travels with his 12 companions in their wicker coracle from Ireland to Iona. from RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust

Columba had already established several monasteries in Ireland, but in 563, he sailed with 12 companions to Iona in Scotland, in a little wicker coracle with no oars trusting the Spirit to take him to wherever the Lord wanted him to serve. That little boat landed on the Isle of Iona on the day of Pentecost, where Columba began creating one of the greatest centers of faith and evangelism in Christian history. It is said that he chose Iona, near the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland because when he stood on the highest hill on Iona, he could not see Ireland from that place.

Columba copying a manuscript in Iona's scriptorium

Columba copying a manuscript in Iona’s scriptorium.from RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust

Columba’s Life Work: Columba was a scholar, poet, evangelist, and visionary. It is thought that Columba was an important leader in evangelizing the Picts in Scotland. There are eve three surviving early medieval poems which may be attributed to him. He spent much of the last years of his life copying manuscripts by hand in the scriptorium at Iona. It has been said that he personally copied 300 manuscripts. This influence passed on down through the years on Iona, as some Anglo-Saxon manuscript scholars believe that the magnificent Book of Kells was handwritten and gorgeously illuminated about 800AD at the scriptorium at Iona. The front page to this Advent devotional, Celts to the Crèche is of the Madonna and Child is from the Book of Kells .

In July of 2017, it was announced that archaeologists had completed radiocarbon testing on wood fragments that had been retrieved by archaeologists in 1957 from what was thought was Columba’s cell on Tòrr an Aba (Mound of the Abbot). The radiocarbon tests came back with the era of Columba, 540-650 AD. This is a very exciting discovery for those who love Iona and Columba.

Wood discovered at Columba’s cell in 1957, radiocarbon tested in 2017 and proven to be of the same era as St. Columba. photo from BBC.com

Columba’s Place of Resurrection: Columba lived on Iona for 36 years and died on June 9, 598 while copying Psalm 44. A favorite story relates that the aged Columba was out walking one afternoon and he grew weary. As he sat down  by the roadside to rest, his white horse who carried milk for the monastery came to him and laid his head upon the saint’s breast and tears flowed from the horse’s eyes as he gave  farewell to the master he knew was dying.

Columba and his white horse that predicted his master's death

“St. Columba Bidding Farewell to His White Horse” that predicted his master’s death. Painting by John Duncan (1866-1945)

Columba was buried on Iona and later his relics were divided and some came to rest in the same coffin with St. Patrick and St. Bridget at Downpatrick in Ireland. A pillow stone  used in graves was discovered in a field near Iona Abbey in the 19th century by a crofter. It has a Celtic cross engraved on it.  Was it St. Columba’s pillow stone, we don’t know. It is in the Museum at Iona Abbey.

Iona’s Influence: Columba’s establishment of the abbey on Iona off the western coast of Scotland in the Inner Hebrides became the “Cradle of Western European Christianity.” This scholarly, yet deeply spiritual abbey sent out hundreds of monk evangelists who shared the gospel and set up monasteries all over England and western Europe.

The Fallen Christ by Ronald Rae at entrance to the Iona Community. Sept. 2009

The Fallen Christ by Ronald Rae at entrance to the Iona Community. Photo by Brenda Warren, Sept. 2009

Today, pilgrims come from all over the world to this “Thin Place,” where the veil between earth and heaven seems gossamer, very thin. The Iona Community, an ecumenical inclusive community based on peace and justice founded by Rev. George McLeod in the late 1930’s continues to draw people of all ages and from all over the world to stay, work, and worship on Iona.


Harvest Sunday, Sept. 2014 in Iona Abbey. Residents gathered fruits and vegetables along with flowers from their gardens to bring for this special day to honor God as Creator.

Harvest Sunday, Sept. 2014 in Iona Abbey. Residents gathered fruits and vegetables along with flowers from their gardens to bring for this special day to honor God as Creator. Photo by Harvey Warren

bishops house. iona

Bishop’s House. Iona. Stayed here for almost two weeks, Sept. 2009 while taking a course on Adamnan’s Life of St. Columba. My room faced the water where I often watched dolphins cavorting. 

I was blessed to stay on Iona at the Bishop’s House for almost two weeks in September 2009 to take a course on St. Columba. This was offered through the University of Wales, Lampeter taught by Celtic scholar, Dr. Jonathan Wooding and Iona expert Mairi MacArthur, who grew up on Iona across from the Abbey.

It was a dream come true to be on this sacred island and to worship in the ancient abbey, to walk on the same places the great saints have trod, to sit on the isolated beaches and listen to the waves crash, to peruse the incredible museum, and to contemplate at the foot of the huge Celtic crosses throughout Iona. It was quite a pilgrimage to get here by myself the first time and what a joy it was to share this with my husband on the second trip to Iona in October of 2014…plane, tube, train, bus, and ferry, but it was worth it beyond my dreams or imaginations. 

Yes, Iona is a magical, mystical place, where the veil between the heaven and earth is indeed gossamer.

Iona Abbey, Sept. 2014 with St. Martin's Cross

Iona Abbey, Sept. 2014 with St. Martin’s Cross. Photo by Harvey Warren

A replica of St. John's High Cross in front of Columba's Chapel likely built upon the place where Columba was buried. Connected to Iona Abbey. Took this photo Sept. 2009. Original St. John's Cross is in the museum behind the Abbey

A replica of St. John’s High Cross in front of Columba’s Chapel likely built upon the place where Columba was buried.  Original St. John’s Cross is in the museum behind the Abbey. Photo byHarvey Warren, September. 2014.

Iona Abbey. East Side. A cloudy day view, Sept. 2009

Iona Abbey. East Side (facing sea). A cloudy day view, Sept 2009. Photo by Brenda Warren


Feast Day June 9

St. Columba’s life is a wonderful example that even when we mess up big time in life, that the Spirit of our living God can remold us and remake us. We can find our place of resurrection, not only on the other side of the veil, but also in the here and now. Let us join St. Columba on the pilgrimage with the Celts to the Crèche, where the possibility of fresh new starts awaits.

Prayer: As Columba evangelized the Celtic people by describing Jesus Christ as his Druid, I too am able to say, “Christ my Druid, I open my heart to you”. As I continue to pilgrimage towards the manger in Bethlehem, may You be born again anew in my life. Shine your healing light upon those broken, messed up places in my life. Re-mold and remake me. Thank you God for second chances and may the dove of peace fill my life. Amen. 

And now,
may kindly Columba guide you
to be an island in the sea,
a hill on a shore,
a star in the night,
a staff for the weak.”
Amen and amen.
-Gaelic oral tradition


Hymn: Change my heart, O God, make it ever true. You are the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me, this is what I pray.

© Brenda G. Warren and http://www.saintsbridge.org, 2018-2029. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Brenda G. Warren and http://www.saintsbridge.org (Celts to the Creche) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Some Resources:

Adamnan of Iona. Life of Saint Columba, Founder of Hy. Written by Adamnan, Ninth Abbot of that Monastery, ed. William Reeves. (Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas, 1874)

Adomnan of Iona. Life of St. Columba, trans. by Richard Sharpe. London: Penguin Books, 1995.

BBC. Scotland’s History: Iona. 

British Pilgrimage Trust. St. Columba’s Way.

Bede, The Venerable. Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book III, chapter 4.

Blair, John. The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005.

British Heritage. Exploring the Magical Isle of Iona. June 9, 2021.

Brown, Michelle P. How Christianity Came to Britain and Ireland.  Oxford, UK: Lion Hudson, 2006.

“Columba”  and “Iona” by Richard Sharpe in Lapidge, Blair, Keynes, and Scragg.  The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Oxford:Blackwell, 1999.

Corpus of Electronic Texts. Life of St. Columba. (Author unknown)

Dales, Douglas. Light to the Isles: Mission and Theology in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Britain. Cambridge, James Clarke & Co., 1997.

Dillon, Miles and Nora Chadwick. The Celtic Realms. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2006.

Earle, Mary C. and Sylvia Maddox. Holy Companions: Spiritual Practices from the Celtic Saints. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2004.

Herbert, Maire. ‘Columba (c.521–597)’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Historic UK. St. Columba and the Isle of Iona.

“How We Found St. Columba’s Famous Writing Hut, Stashed in a Cornish Garage.     The Conversation. July 10, 2017.

Jones, Andrew. Every Pilgrim’s Guide to Celtic Britain and Ireland. Ligouri, Missouri: Ligouri Publications, 2002.

Jones, Kathleen. Who are the Celtic Saints? Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2002.

Kearney, Martha. BBC. The Book of Kells: Medieval Europe’s Greatest Treasure?. April 25, 2106.

Keys, David. “Archaeological Test Lends Credibility to Find of St. Columba’s Cell on Iona. Church Times, July 14, 2017.

Lehane, Brendan. Early Celtic Christianity. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2005.

MacArthur, E. Mairi. Columba’s Island: Iona from Past to Present. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007 with revisions.

Macdonald, Ken.  “Scientists Uncover St. Columba’s Cell on Iona. BBC News, July 11, 2017.

Millar, Peter W. Iona: A Pilgrim’s Guide. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2007.

Ó’Ríordáin, John J. Early Irish Saints. Dublin: The Columba Press, 2004.

Pennick, Nigel. The Celtic Saints. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 1997.

Rees, Elizabeth. An Essential Guide to Celtic Sites and Their Saints. London: Burns & Oates, 2003.

___________. Celtic Saints in Their Landscape. Stroud, UK: Amberley Publishing, 2011.

 ___________.Celtic Saints: Passionate Wanderers. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Ritchie, Anna and Ian Fisher. Iona Abbey and Nunnery, rev. ed. Historic Scotland, 2004.

Richter, Michael. Medieval Ireland: The Enduring Tradition, rev. ed. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2005.

Rule of St. Columba.

Saint Columba’s Way. British Pilgrimage Trust. A 261 mile pilgrimage from Iona to St. Andrews.

Sawyers, June Skinner. Praying with Celtic Saints, Prophets, Martyrs, and Poets. Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2001.

Sellner, Edward C. Wisdom of the Celtic Saints, rev. and expanded. St. Paul, MN: Bog Walk Press, 2006.

Undiscovered Scotland. Saint Columba

University of Wales, Lampeter. The Monastic Island of Iona: A Study in Place, Time and Thought. by Rev. Rodney Aist with Dr. Jonathan Wooding. 2009.

Wallace, Martin. Celtic Saints. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1995.

Warren, Brenda G. St. Columba of Iona. June 8, 2017. Godspacelight.com

Wessex Archaeology. Baliscate Chapel, Isle of Mull. Report. January 2010. (from Time Team excavation, May 2009).

Wooden Hut Associated with St. Columba Dates to His Lifetime, Archaeologists Discover.   Telegraph News, July 11, 2017.

Woods, Richard J. The Spirituality of the Celtic Saints. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000.


About Brenda

Rev. Warren is an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) retired Pastor, that still does some preaching. I am married to a wonderful guy with two grown awesome sons; an equally awesome daughter-in-love; adorable grandchildren; and a very large, much-adored Maine Coon cat. I love reading, writing, travel, mountains, and beachcombing. As a former public and theological Library Director, I love doing research that has helped me in composing this Advent devotional, “Celts to the Creche” at www.saintsbridge.org. My research has been enriched by libraries, way too many books and journals purchased, and numerous pilgrimages to the places where these saints lived and worked and had their being. I cannot even begin to express what a great gift it has been to meet like-minded friends along the path who have generously and kindly shared their scholarship, knowledge, and enthusiasm for the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon saints. I often wonder if the saints have in some way been instrumental in introducing me to their friends on both sides of the thin veil.
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