St Columba, Scotland's First Minister

Though Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, the influence of St Columba on Scottish Christianity remains profound. Ian Bradley examines the Celtic evangelist’s legacy 1,450 years after his arrival on the Hebridean island of Iona.

A postcard of Iona Abbey, late 19th century. Library of CongressColumba has consistently been Scotland’s most popular saint. Immortalised in folklore through Gaelic prayers and poems, he effectively became the emerging nation’s patron saint before being trumped by Andrew at the end of the 13th century. His post-Reformation appeal has extended across all Christian denominations, with even the Free Church of Scotland, the ‘Wee Frees’, embracing him for his austere, muscular Christianity.

Although there are no contemporary accounts of his life and work, eulogies written shortly after his death enable us to establish his biographical details with rather more certainty than is the case with many other Celtic saints. We know that he was born in Donegal in 521 and died on Iona in 597, having travelled there in 563 on a journey which was to have significant consequences for the development of Christianity in North Britain. Its 1,450th anniversary is being celebrated with events on Iona and across Scotland this summer.

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