09 December 2021, The Tablet

Columba’s unfinished mission

by Crawford Gribben

Columba’s unfinished mission

St Columba’s crossing from Ireland to Scotland depicted in stained glass at St Margaret’s Chapel, Edinburgh Castle
Photo: alamy, William C. Judge


The career of one of Christianity’s greatest missionaries had an unpromising start and was always surrounded by resistance. Across Ireland and Scotland, events are taking place to mark the 1,500th anniversary of the birth of St Columba in December 521

The prospects for the spread of Christianity were not especially encouraging when Columba and 12 followers sailed for Scotland in 563. Since its arrival in Ireland, in 431, the new religion had expanded from its base on the east coast, with the establishment of churches and other institutions providing pastoral care for the faithful and theological training for their leaders. But large parts of the population, especially in the western and northern parts of the island, were still committed to traditional beliefs.

Columba’s parents, who did not have their son baptised, might have been among the large number who had not yet been ­baptised themselves. On the neighbouring island, meanwhile, Christianity seemed to be in decline. In southern and eastern Britain, ­successive waves of Anglo-Saxon immigration had destabilised the fragile Christian culture, and Germanic paganism had almost entirely overwhelmed the Church. North­eastern Britain – home to the Picts – had not been evangelised at all.

Yet, like so many other Irish monks, Columba set out on a missionary expedition that was fuelled by hope. While his brethren founded communities throughout Ireland, Columba and his followers established their monastic base on Iona, a small but ideally located island in the southern Hebrides.

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