The voyage of Saint Columba and other batty history lessons

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The Independent Online
Tomorrow is the feast-day of St Columba. It's the day he died, 1,400 years ago, in the monastery church he built on the island of Iona.

Pilgrims from all over the world are in Iona today. With them is Mary Robinson, President of the Republic of Ireland. She intends, while she is on the island, to visit the grave of John Smith, a politician who shared her own qualities of modesty and candour.

Columba, a man of the royal line of the O'Neills, came across the sea to Argyll in the year 565 to settle in the kingdom of Dalriada. This kingdom had been founded a few generations before by immigrants from what is now County Antrim. Like the other inhabitants of Ireland, they were then known as "Scots", and in the centuries to come they were to unite the whole land to the north and east into the state which took the name of "Scotland".

This royal saint, the "island warrior" who converted the Picts and travelled on missionary journeys throughout northern Scotland, was a refugee intellectual. Columba was concerned throughout his life with books and the writing of books, and he was exiled because his passion for books had led to the shedding of blood. He had borrowed a precious copy of the Gospels and had begun to copy it, when its owner demanded the return of both book and copy. Columba's refusal led to a clan war, and at the battle of Cul- drebene many men died for the sake of some pages of holy vellum.

His penance was to be sent northwards across the sea, as an apostle to the heathen. But he continued to write poetry and hymns and to supervise the illuminating and copying of sacred books in the Iona monastery. And in 592 he paid his debt to Irish literature by returning to Ireland and insisting, at the Council of Drum-Cete, that the old order of bards should not be disbanded.

According to legend, Columba set off into exile with 12 companions, sailing and rowing in a small boat made of ox-hides stretched on a wicker frame. Last week, a small band of admirers set out to repeat his journey. They had a boat built at Mayo Abbey, a 22ft craft made of eight cowhides sewn and lashed over poles of hazel and willow, with a mast for a sail and places for six rowers. The children at Mayo chose a name for her: Farraigeach Naofa - Holy Sea-Voyager. The crew of eight combined Irishmen, Scots and Englishmen, a mixture much like that of the missionaries who spread Columban Christianity across northern Europe so long ago.

They pushed off from Ballycastle in County Antrim last Sunday, and fought through hard currents to reach the island of Rathlin where they spent the night. The following day, in hot, clear weather, they went on to Port Ellen on the island of Islay, and from there - getting a tow to save time in the heat-wave calm - passed up the Sound of Jura to Loch Crinan. This was Columba's route, in all probability, for he went first to pay respects to the King of Dalriada in his hill-fort at Dunadd, a few miles from Crinan. From there they mean to head west to Iona, through the whirlpools of the Gulf of Corryvreckan. But at the time of writing they are storm-stayed at Crinan, by Force 8 winds from the south-west.

Anyone who knows this landscape of sea and islands will envy them. Even if they don't make it to Iona in time to hand President Robinson a letter of greeting from her own minister of culture in Dublin, they have done something which makes the sunburn and hand blisters worthwhile. But they did not build their boat and make their voyage out of piety and enthusiasm alone. We live in the late 20th century, in post-modern times where the heritage cult combines motives as diverse as a Greek salad. The journey of the Farraigeach Naofa, a tiny event in itself, is a microcosm of the new ways in which we approach the past.

There was certainly genuine respect for St Columba, and a desire to honour him. There was scientific curiosity: a chance to copy and test out some of the boat-building techniques of sixth-century Ireland. That in turn should throw light on how the Scots colonised their "Dalriada" in Argyll and what degree of contact they maintained with Ireland and Europe (expensive wheel-thrown pottery imported from France has been found on Dunadd). But there were also the motives of sponsorship, of publicity (a BBC cameraman was on board), and of fund-raising to finance other projects which are at once scholarly and commercial.

Underlying it all was a certain post-modern ideology, which suggests that the relics of the past - whether legends or artefacts - do not carry one "message" for all time but will always mean different things for different people. This isn't quite saying that "history is what you make it". Instead, this approach suggests that "history is what history makes of you". In having ideas about the past, however batty, you become subtly part of it.

The idea for the voyage came from a very 1990s project - a private museum. At Kilmartin House, near Dunadd, a group of young people raised money to convert an old manse into a "centre for archaeo- logy and landscape interpretation". Opened a few weeks ago, the museum offers for pounds 3 an audio-visual show and several rooms of exhibits. But these are not old showcases of pots and flints. Instead, these are multi- media displays showing how the landscape changed over millennia, how human beings lived, worshipped and buried their dead there, and how each age has used and even perceived the landscape in different ways. There are few "genuine" artefacts. The great public museums in Edinburgh or Glasgow took them out of the district long ago, and are disinclined to return them. Reproductions serve instead, and the slightly phony glamour of "your actual original object" is cut down to size.

The commentary on the walls is defiantly post-modern too. The building of a line of burial cairns 4,000 years ago and the draining of a marsh in Victorian times are both "visionary schemes, carefully planned". A natural gravel terrace is for some a place to inter the dead, for others a commercial gravel pit, for others again (archaeologists) a source of information about how people lived in the past. "A person who believes standing stones are war memorials sees a different landscape from the person who thinks they are part of a calendar or some source of spiritual energies ... the landscape changes as memories are forgotten and new ones take their place."

I like that sort of language. It teaches people to think. Some fear that it is an abdication: if all perceptions of the past are "valid", what is to stop a contractor buying a Bronze Age cairn to use as aggregate? But that is the opposite of what is implied. The past's remains must be preserved, precisely because they reflect the changing lights of human imagination as nothing else can. What has to go is a kind of thought-control: the dogma that a standing stone has only one possible "meaning" which can be discovered and then bolted on to it for all eternity.

Very little about Columba is certain. He came from Ireland, but was there a "Battle of the Books", and did he really sail into the unknown? The facts are few, but the fantasies are many. They start with the saint's miracles written down a century later in Adamnan's biography; they carry on through "Columba as United Irishman" (popular in Catholic Derry) down to "Columba as pan-European cultural missionary" (popular in Brussels). This Sunday on Iona, the wind blows from the sea across the white sand where the saint's boat grounded, and every vision of him is allowed its grain of truth.