The Loch Ness Monster gets all of the media attention and tourist love but December 7, 2021, is the 1500th anniversary of the man without whom there might not be a Nessie – St Colmcille, better known known as St Columba. Most histories of the Loch Ness Monster attribute then Bishop Columba of Ireland with facing down an alleged “water beast” in the River Ness after it had killed a local man and threatened one of Columba’s followers, thus convincing the Picts to convert to Catholicism. That would be enough fame for most people, but a new documentary wants us to know there was more to Columba — the “Dove of Peace” who was actually a fierce warrior before becoming a fixture in both Irish and Scottish history.
“The brute lay asleep in the river bed, waiting in his lair. He ascended to the surface and with a loud roar from his open heart, he lunged at the man. The Holy Man raised his hand and made a sign of the cross. At the sound of the saint’s voice, the brute retreated so quickly, it seems as if were pulled by a rope.”
The best-known account of Columba’s encounter with the River Ness monster in Iona, Scotland, around 565 CE comes from the Vita Columbae (Life of Columba) written by Adomnán, abbot of Iona, a century later. Many of the book’s tales don’t match up with history and some theorize it was written to give Columba the kind of fame St. Patrick had before him. It’s those tales that the BBC documentary “Calum Cille: An Naomh Dàna/Columba: The Bold Saint” address.
“Iona of course was his primary foundation, the one he’s most rightly famous for. However he also founded other major ecclesiastical institutions – Kells and Durrow. These primary foundations of Colmcille produced some of our most precious and famous historical artefacts – the Book of Kells, the Book of Durrow, early collections of the Irish Annals. These are incredibly important texts in their own right, but also physical objects.”
Dr. Niamh Wycherley of Maynooth University says there are much more reliable historical and religious accounts of the impact Columba had on Ireland and Scotland. While some record his contributions to the spread of early Christianity in Ireland and his poetic writings, others look at his involvement in what may have been the first fight over copyright. Columba had copied a manuscript containing the Book of Psalms and intended to keep it, but the owner wanted both and the fight became the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne – Columba took up arms in the battle which killed over 3,000. Being a monk who was supposed to promote peace, Columba was sent to Scotland to convert as many people as had been killed.
That journey to Scotland led him to establish and influence the many monasteries and churches honoring his birth as well as the alleged encounter with the monster that made him famous … or vice versa. Nessie experts point out that the sighting was in the River Ness, not Loch Ness, and the description of it being a “water beast” has a Celtic flavor that makes them think this was more a symbolic tale of St. Columba driving the ‘pagan’ religion (the beast) like St. Patrick chased the symbolic snake ‘pagans’ out of Ireland.
Columba seems to have been involved in more conflicts – with the book owner, the church leaders, the religious leaders of Scotland, the ‘monster’ – than one would expect of a saint, yet his 1500th birth anniversary is being celebrated by churches in two countries and a BBC special. It may not be an annual parade with green beer drinking … but it’s a nice tribute for St. Columba, finder of the Loch Ness Monster.