Twenty-seven years is a long reign, and the years of King-Hugh II. were marked with striking events. One religious and one political occurrence, however, threw all others into the shade--the conversion of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (then called Alba or Albyn by the Gael, and Caledonia by the Latins), and the formal recognition, after an exciting controversy, of the independence of the Milesian colony in Scotland. These events follow each other in the order of time, and stand partly in the relation of cause and effect.
The first authentic Irish immigration into Scotland seems to have taken place about the year of our Lord 258. The pioneers crossed over from Antrim to Argyle, where the strait is less than twenty-five miles wide. Other adventurers followed at intervals, but it is a fact to be deplored, that no passages in our own, and in all other histories, have been so carelessly kept as the records of emigration. The movements of rude masses of men, the first founders of states and cities, are generally lost in obscurity, or misrepresented by patriotic zeal. Several successive settlements of the Irish in Caledonia can be faintly traced from the middle of the third till the beginning of the sixth century. About the year 503, they had succeeded in establishing a flourishing principality among the cliffs and glens of Argyle. The limits of their first territory cannot be exactly laid down; but it soon spread north into Rosshire, and east into the present county of Perth. It was a land of stormy friths and fissured headlands, of deep defiles and snowy summits. "'Tis a far cry to Lough Awe," is still a lowland proverb, and Lough Awe was in the very heart of that old Irish settlement.
The earliest emigrants to Argyle were Pagans, while the latter were Christians, and were accompanied by priests, and a bishop, Kieran, the son of the carpenter, whom, from his youthful piety and holy life, as well as from the occupation followed by his father, is sometimes fancifully compared to our Lord and Saviour himself. Parishes in Cantyre, in Islay, and in Carrick, still bear the name of St. Kieran as patron. But no systematic attempt--none at least of historic memory--was made to convert the remoter Gael and the other races then inhabiting Alba--the Picts, Britons, and Scandinavians, until the year of our era, 565, Columba or COLUMBKILL, a Bishop of the royal race of Nial, undertook that task, on a scale commensurate with its magnitude. This celebrated man has always ranked with Saint Patrick and Saint Bridget as the most glorious triad of the Irish Calendar. He was, at the time he left Ireland, in the prime of life--his 44th year. Twelve companions, the apostolic number, accompanied him on his voyage. For thirty-four years he was the legislator and captain of Christianity in those northern regions. The King of the Picts received baptism at his hands; the Kings of the Scottish colony, his kinsmen, received the crown from him on their accession. The islet of I., or Iona, as presented to him by one of these princes. Here he and his companions built with their own hands their parent-house, and from this Hebridean rock in after times was shaped the destinies, spiritual and temporal, of many tribes and kingdoms.
The growth of Iona was as the growth of the grain of mustard seed mentioned in the Gospel, even during the life of its founder. Formed by his teaching and example, there went out from it apostles to Iceland, to the Orkneys, to Northumbria, to Man, and to South Britain. A hundred monasteries in Ireland looked to that exiled saint as their patriarch. His rule of monastic life, adopted either from the far East, from the recluses of the Thebaid, or from his great contemporary, Saint Benedict, was sought for by Chiefs, Bards, and converted Druids. Clients, seeking direction from his wisdom, or protection through his power, were constantly arriving and departing from his sacred isle. His days were divided between manual labour and the study and transcribing of the Sacred Scriptures. He and his disciples, says the Venerable Bede, in whose age Iona still flourished, "neither thought of nor loved anything in this world." Some writers have represented Columbkill's Culdees, (which in English means simply "Servants of God,") as a married clergy; so far is this from the truth, that we now know, no woman was allowed to land on the island, nor even a cow to be kept there, for, said the holy Bishop, "wherever there is a cow there will be a woman, and wherever there is a woman there will be mischief."
In the reign of King Hugh, three domestic questions arose of great importance; one was the refusal of the Prince of Ossory to pay tribute to the Monarch; the other, the proposed extinction of the Bardic Order, and the third, the attempt to tax the Argyle Colony. The question between Ossory and Tara, we may pass over as of obsolete interest, but the other two deserve fuller mention:
The Bards--who were the Editors, Professors, Registrars and Record-keepers--the makers and masters of public opinion in those days, had reached in this reign a number exceeding 1,200 in Meath and Ulster alone. They claimed all the old privileges of free quarters on their travels and freeholdings at home, which were freely granted to their order when it was in its infancy. Those chieftains who refused them anything, however extravagant, they lampooned and libelled, exciting their own people and other princes against them. Such was their audacity, that some of them are said to have demanded from King Hugh the royal brooch, one of the most highly prized heirlooms of the reigning family. Twice in the early part of this reign they had been driven from the royal residence, and obliged to take refuge in the little principality of Ulidia (or Down); the third time the monarch had sworn to expel them utterly from the kingdom. In Columbkill, however, they were destined to find a most powerful mediator, both from his general sympathy with the Order, being himself no mean poet, and from the fact that the then Arch-Poet, or chief of the order, Dallan Forgaill, was one of his own pupils.
To settle this vexed question of the Bards, as well as to obtain the sanction of the estates to the taxation of Argyle, King Hugh called a General Assembly in the year 590. The place of meeting was no longer the interdicted Tara, but for the monarch's convenience a site farther north was chosen--the hill of Drom-Keth, in the present county of Deny. Here came in rival state and splendour the Princes of the four Provinces, and other principal chieftains. The dignitaries of the Church also attended, and an occasional Druid was perhaps to be seen in the train of some unconverted Prince. The pretensions of the mother-country to impose a tax upon her Colony, were sustained by the profound learning and venerable name of St. Colman, Bishop of Dromore, one of the first men of his Order.
When Columbkill "heard of the calling together of that General Assembly," and of the questions to be there decided, he resolved to attend, notwithstanding the stern vow of his earlier life, never to look on Irish soil again. Under a scruple of this kind, he is said to have remained blindfold, from Ms arrival in Ms fatherland, till his return to Iona. He was accompanied by an imposing train of attendants; by Aidan, Prince of Argyle, so deeply interested in the issue, and a suite of over one hundred persons, twenty of them Abbots or Bishops. Columbkill spoke for his companions; for already, as in Bede's time, the Abbots of Iona exercised over all the clergy north of the Humber, but still more directly north of the Tweed, a species of supremacy similar to that which the successors of St. Benedict and St. Bernard exercised, in turn, over Prelates and Princes on the European Continent.
When the Assembly was opened the holy Bishop of Dromore stated the arguments in favour of Colonial taxation with learning and effect. Hugh himself impeached the Bards for their licentious and lawless lives. Columbkill defended both interests, and, by combining both, probably strengthened the friends of each. It is certain that he carried the Assembly with him, both against the monarch and those of the resident clergy, who had selected Colman as their spokesman. The Bardic Order was spared. The doctors, or master-singers among them, were prohibited from wandering from place to place; they were assigned residence with the chiefs and princes; their losel attendants were turned over to honest pursuits, and thus a great danger was averted, and one of the most essential of the Celtic institutions being reformed and regulated, was preserved. Scotland and Ireland have good reason to be grateful to the founder of Iona, for the interposition that preserved to us the music, which is now admitted to be one of the most precious inheritances of both countries.
The proposed taxation Columbkill strenuously and successfully resisted. Up to this time, the colonists had been bound only to furnish a contingent force, by land and sea, when the King of Ireland went to war, and to make them an annual present called "chief-rent."
From the Book of Rights we learn that (at least at the time the existing transcript was made) the Scottish Princes paid out of Alba, seven shields, seven steeds, seven bondswomen, seven bondsmen, and seven hounds all of the same breed. But the "chief-rent," or "eric for kindly blood," did not suffice in the year 590 to satisfy King Hugh. The colony had grown great, and, like some modern monarchs, he proposed to make it pay for its success. Columbkill, though a native of Ireland, and a prince of its reigning house, was by choice a resident of Caledonia, and he stood true to his adopted country. The Irish King refused to continue the connection on the old conditions, and declared his intention to visit Alba himself to enforce the tribute due; Columbkill, rising in the Assembly, declared the Albanians "for ever free from the yoke," and this, adds an old historian, "turned out to be the fact." From the whole controversy we may conclude that Scotland never paid political tribute to Ireland; that their relation was that rather of allies, than of sovereign and vassal; that it resembled more the homage Carthage paid to Tyre, and Syracuse to Corinth, than any modern form of colonial dependence; that a federal connection existed by which, in time of war, the Scots of Argyle, and those of Hibernia, were mutually bound to aid, assist, and defend each other. And this natural and only connection, founded in the blood of both nations, sanctioned by their early saints, confirmed by frequent intermarriage, by a common language and literature, and by hostility to common enemies, the Saxons, Danes, and Normans, grew into a political bond of unusual strength, and was cherished with affection by both nations, long ages after the magnates assembled at Drom-Keth had disappeared in the tombs of their fathers.
The only unsettled question which remained after the Assembly at Drom-Keth related to the Prince of Ossory. Five years afterwards (A.D. 595), King Hugh fell in an attempt to collect the special tribute from all Leinster, of which we have already heard something, and shall, by and by, hear more. He was an able and energetic ruler, and we may be sure "did not let the sun rise on him in his bed at Tara," or anywhere else. In his time great internal changes were taking place in the state of society. The ecclesiastical order had become more powerful than any other in the state. The Bardic Order, thrice proscribed, were finally subjected to the laws, over which they had at one time insolently domineered. Ireland's only colony --unless we except the immature settlement in the Isle of Man, under Cormac Longbeard--was declared independent of the parent country, through the moral influence of its illustrious Apostle, whose name many of its kings and nobles were of old proud to bear--Mal-Colm, meaning "servant of Columb," or Columbkill. But the memory of the sainted statesman who decreed the separation of the two populations, so far as claims to taxation could be preferred, preserved, for ages, the better and far more profitable alliance, of an ancient friendship, unbroken by a single national quarrel during a thousand years.
A few words more on the death and character of this celebrated man, whom we are now to part with at the close of the sixth, as we parted from Patrick at the close of the fifth century. His day of departure came in 596. Death found him at the ripe age of almost fourscore, stylus in hand, toiling cheerfully over the vellum page. It was the last night of the week when the presentiment of his end came strongly upon him. "This day," he said to his disciple and successor, Dermid, "is called the day of rest, and such it will be for me, for it will finish my labours." Laying down the manuscript, he added, "let Baithen finish the rest." Just after Matins, on the Sunday morning, he peacefully passed away from the midst of his brethren.
Of his tenderness, as well as energy of character, tradition, and his biographers have recorded many instances. Among others, his habit of ascending an eminence every evening at sunset, to look over towards the coast of his native land. The spot is called by the islanders to this day, "the place of the back turned upon Ireland." The fishermen of the Hebrides long believed they could see their saint flitting over the waves after every new storm, counting the islands to see if any of them had foundered. It must have been a loveable character of which such tales could be told and cherished from generation to generation.
Both Education and Nature had well fitted Columbkill to the great task of adding another realm to the empire of Christendom. His princely birth gave him power over his own proud kindred; his golden eloquence and glowing verse--the fragments of which still move and delight the Gaelic scholar--gave him fame and weight in the Christian schools which had suddenly sprung up in every glen and island. As prince, he stood on equal terms with princes; as poet, he was affiliated to that all-powerful Bardic Order, before whose awful anger kings trembled, and warriors succumbed in superstitious dread. A spotless soul, a disciplined body, an indomitable energy, an industry that never wearied, a courage that never blanched, a sweetness and courtesy that won all hearts, a tenderness for others that contrasted strongly with his rigour towards himself--these were the secrets of the success of this eminent missionary--these were the miracles by which he accomplished the conversion of so many barbarous tribes and Pagan Princes.