By Revd Canon David Paton-Williams & Jenny Paton-Williams
Columba and the Slave Girl
On a hill near present-day Inverness, stood a fortress – the home of Brude, the Pictish King. Brude’s foster-father, a wizard called Broichan, had an Irish slave-girl, who had been captured in a raid.
Once, when visiting the king, Columba saw the young woman and asked Broichan to have pity on her – to see her not as a slave but as a fellow human being and release her. But Broichan’s heart was set hard as stone.
“If you do not release her,” Columba warned, “you will not outlive my time in Pictland.”
Then Columba went down to the river to return home. Soon after Broichan had a seizure, his hand shattering his drinking glass. He struggled to breathe and was near death. The king sent two messengers after Columba, saying that Broichan would release the slave, and begged for help.
When they found Columba he picked up a white stone from the beach and said:
“Place this stone in water and then get Broichan to drink it.”
They did as he said. To everyone’s amazement, the stone floated on the surface like an apple. Then Broichan drank and recovered.
Perhaps Columba knew a thing or two about pumice stone – and psychology!
Eithne was a young Irish noble-woman. In the winter of 521, she was pregnant with her first child – a secret she was treasuring in her heart. As a lady of leisure she would sit beside the warm hearth sewing or weaving as was her delight.
One evening Eithne fell asleep and dreamt of a beautiful woollen shawl smelling of lambs wool and sweet milk. Against her face it felt as soft and warm as thistledown.
The folds of the cloak were the green machair, flecked with the colours of clover and trefoil, speedwell and daisy. The shawl billowed so she tried to pull it closer but instead it was slipping further away! It unfurled in the wind and took off beyond her reach over the hills and even across the ocean.
Eithne jolted awake, stunned, devastated, bereft.
She knew immediately what this dream told her. It is every mother’s dilemma.
Her first-born son would be eased away from her by the kindly ministrations of the aid-woman. Then, at five years old, he would go to a place of learning alongside his god-father, such was the custom. Later, Colmcille would fulfil a great destiny as an adult, but far away from her.
Columba and the Heron
A beach is a place full of stories. A magical place where, every day, the earth, sea and sky get together for a really good blether. A journey’s end, where waves trickle – or crash – to a halt, drop off their luggage and then set off on their next adventure. A place of tearful farewells and joyful homecomings; of bonfire song-songs and night-time trysts. Oh, the stories that a beach can tell!
And the beaches of Iona are no different. They tell of rocks forged in fire and darkness, in the time before tales began. Of sands stained red by the bloodthirsty blades of Vikings. Of the waters and shipwrecks that broke many a mother’s heart. But they also tell of kinder things – of simple, open-hearted hospitality to strangers and friends.
A beach at the south end saw Columba and his twelve weary companions haul their curragh out of the surf onto their new island home. A beach to the east witnessed their little monastery rise out of the nearby rock and turf, to offer a welcome for pilgrims, peasants and even kings in all the years to come. And a beach to the west played host to one of the community’s most famous of guests ….
The young monk sat on the edge of the sandy machair. He pulled his rough, wool robe tight against the biting wind. He was supposed to be looking out to sea but it was the middle of the afternoon and he had been there for hours. The white-topped waves and dark, scudding clouds stretched to the horizon and beyond – maybe as far as Ireland. He plucked a small yellow flower from the windswept grass at his feet and thought of his old home, his mother… and a girl he’d once known.
‘And don’t spend your time day-dreaming, Finn.’ When Columba had given him his orders that morning, the bushy eyebrows had been pinched in a frown, but Finn knew where to look for the twinkle in the old man’s eyes. ‘Watch. Watch and pray.’ The commanding voice was never far from breaking into song.
Finn looked up. A long, grey shape was moving low above the waves. A bird? A heron? Was this the special guest Columba had told him to watch for? The gale was battering it, tearing at its wings. A fresh squall struck the heron head on, forcing it further from the shore. Finn leapt to his feet and hurtled across the beach to the water’s edge, willing the bird to safety. ‘O Lord, defend thy servant.’ The wind dropped the merest fraction. And then – wham – the heron clattered into him, catching him off balance, and both monk and bird tumbled into the wet sand.
‘Greetings, friend.’ Finn reached a hand out slowly. The heron struggled to get away but it hadn’t an ounce of energy left. ‘You may have come from my old home,’ Finn smiled warmly. ‘But it doesn’t matter. Wherever your home is, you’re welcome here.’ Did the bird understand? He wasn’t sure, but the special guest lay its head on Finn’s sandalled feet and closed its eyes.
Three days later, Finn was back on the beach. The heron, strong and whole, lay peacefully in his arms as he stroked it. Next to them stood the tall, thin figure of Columba; his raised hand making the sign of the cross.
‘Sister heron, you have blessed us with your presence, now fly fast and free wherever the Spirit takes you.
Ride the winds of the morning and share our love with all you meet.’
Finn, lowered the bird to the sand. It stretched its long neck and strutted into the calm waters. Looking back, it seemed to dip its head in farewell – or was it thanks – then it stretched its wings and rose silently into the air. Finn thought he’d never seen anything more grace-ful in all his life.
‘You have brought joy to the heart of God, Finn.’
Columba’s praise shone on the young monk like a rainbow. ‘To welcome our brothers and sisters – to feed the hungry, heal the wounded and give rest to the weary – is this not our calling?’
‘And then let them fly again,’ added Finn. Columba nodded thoughtfully and his smile lit up the beach.