St. Columba and the Loch Ness Monster

Perhaps Nessie never existed. Or perhaps St. Columba managed to rid us of the monster permanently.

This mural in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery depicts the Picts being converted to Christianity by Saint Columba.
This mural in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery depicts the Picts being converted to Christianity by Saint Columba. (photo: William Brassey Hole, c. 1899)

“The big blank spaces in the map are all being filled in,
and there’s no room for romance anywhere.” —Arthur Conan Doyle

On August 22, AD 565, 1,451 years ago, St. Columba had a story for the ages. For upon this fateful day, he made short shrift of the legendary Loch Ness Monster.

St. Columba was an Irish abbot, missionary and scholar who helped spread Christianity in Scotland. His actions ultimately made intelligible all the seemingly incongruous Catholic elements and motifs in both the Highlander and Braveheart films.

But this is only a small part of his résumé. He was also a statesman, a diplomat, an historical scholar, an author and a poet. He also founded many churches and monasteries. Both Scotsmen and Irishmen alike revere his name and are eternally grateful to him for civilizing their pagan ancestors and offering them Christ's promise of salvation and eternal reward.

Among his many non-monster-fighting accomplishments is the founding of multiple abbeys and monasteries — including the a famous one at Iona, which remained an important spiritual, academic, social and political institution for many centuries. He is highly regarded by both Scots and the Irish, regardless of their religious persuasion.


His Legend

We know about Columba's monstrous encounter because of his 7th-century biographer St. Adamnan's book, The Life of Saint Columba. Coincidentally, this is the first written account of the Loch Ness Monster.

While standing upon the bank of the River Ness which flows out of Loch Ness, in northern Scotland, Columba contemplated the best way to cross to the other side. 

As he considered the problem before him, he came across a group of heathenish Picts who were busy burying a friend who had been attacked by an enormous “water beast” while swimming in the river.

When Columba got the gist of the story from the assembled mourners, he laid his staff across the dead man's chest and, miraculously, the man stood up, hale and hearty.

Against common sense, Columba ordered Br. Lugne Mocumin, one of his fellow monks, to swim across the loch and bring back a small boat known as a coble which was moored on the opposite shore. 

Without hesitation, Lugne stripped off his tunic and immediately jumped into the water.

The monster, alerted by Lugne's splashing around, surfaced and raced towards the hapless monk, eager for a bite.

The monster roared a might roar, darting towards the swimming monk with its mouth wide open, as Lugne was in the middle of the stream.

Everyone on the shore cried out hoping to warn the monk of his impending doom. However, Columba was unmoved. Instead, the saint stepped forward boldly to the edge of the loch and, making the sign of the cross while invoking the Name of the Lord, spoke in a commanding voice.

"You will go no further!" he demanded of the monster. “Do not touch the man! Leave at once!”

Even though the monster was no more than a spear's length away from the swimming monk, at the sound of the saint's words, it stopped and immediately fled the scene terrified. As Adamnan described it, the monster moved “more quickly than if it had been pulled back with ropes.”

The monster quickly absconded to the depths of the loch behind him, allowing Br. Lugne to paddled the boat back unharmed. Everyone, including Nessie, was astonished. If the heathens at the funeral weren’t sufficiently impressed with Columba bringing their friend back to life, they were thoroughly impressed with how the monster obeyed the saint. They all gave glory to the God of the Christians. The Picts converted on the spot, being baptized in the very waters of River Ness.

But Columba's monks were probably a little surprised as well. According to St. Adamnan, the Irish monk was a veritable thaumaturge, producing hot and cold miracles as easy as turning on a faucet.

Among his lengthy miracle résumé, Columba prophesied regularly and cured the sick, disabled and lame. Once, when he didn't have wine for Mass, he miraculously changed water into wine. The monk also produce water from a rock, calmed storms at sea, conversed liberally with angels, subdued savage beasts (like boars and serpents), provided several fishermen with a bounteous catch of fish and brought peace to warring factions. He also multiplied a herd of cattle to the joy of the herd's owner and exorcised demons without batting an eye. In addition, a divine light seemed to follow him wherever he went.

On the down side, St. Adamnan's account was written over a hundred years after the alleged events so it's not easy to simply put all of one's trust in the totality of his legendarium.


His Life

Surprisingly, we actually know a great deal that is verifiable by other sources about this itinerant Irish monk. St. Columba, Abbot of Iona, was born in Garten, County Donegal, Ireland on Dec. 7, 521. 

He belonged to the royal Clan O'Donnell in in Garten, County Donegal, Ireland. His father was Fedhlimdh and his mother was Eithne. He was the great-great-grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages―an Irish king of the fourth century, on his father's side.

He was baptized Colum, which means “dove,” which was Latinized into the name we know him as: Columba. There's a bit of an odd, almost preternatural pun associated with his name. Apparently, he's also known by the name Colum-cille, which means “of the Churches” in Gaelic.

He was baptized by a priest named Cruithnechan at Tulach-Dubhglaise, which is now called Temple-Douglas. The priest later became his tutor and foster-father. When he grew older, Columba entered the monastic school of Movilla under St. Finnian, who had studied at St. Ninian's Magnum Monasterium (Latin: “Great Monastery”) on the shores of Galloway. It was there where the monk become a deacon.

He left Movilla and travelled to Leinster, where he became a pupil of Gemman the Bard. Upon completion of his studies with Gemman, Columba entered Clonard Monastery, situated on the River Boyne in modern County Meath, whose abbot was Finnian―a monk known for his great sanctity and erudition. Clonard was an important center of Christian erudition and spirituality. In fact, at its height, 3,000 scholars studied there.

It was here in the Clonard, where Bishop Etchen of Clonfad ordained Columba as a priest and where the later came to be known by subsequent historians as among the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland.” It was in this period of his life when the monk rubbed elbows with a panoply of other Irish saints including Sts. Mobhi, Canice, Comgall and Ciaran. In addition, other monasteries important to Irish Church history were founded at this time, including those at Derry, Durrow, and Kells. 

Columba embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome, but due to the vagaries and vicissitudes of his otherwise hectic life, seemed to only make it as far as Tours, France where be procured a copy of the Gospels that had lain on the bosom of St. Martin for an entire century. He returned to Scotland with the relic and deposited it in Derry (Skene, Scotland). 

According to the Venerable Bede, Columba left Ireland and passed over into Scotland in AD 563 for the sake of another pilgrimage, but there's evidence that he become involved with an internecine war in which his kinsmen were involved. In addition, he was upset that a rival had misappropriated one of his books. The argument centered on the right to copy his psalter. (i.e., Cathach of St. Columba) 

This dispute led to the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne (c. AD 555 to AD 561). 

Publishers, editors, journalists, authors and bibliophiles, please take note: This war was the first committed as a result of a copyright dispute. 

Obviously, authors were made of sterner stuff back then―after all, Columba did dispel a monster. A literary agent wouldn't even have given him pause.

In addition, in 561, King Diarmait at Cooldrevny murdered Prince Curnan of Connaught, one of Columba's relatives, thus violating the right of sanctuary the prince claimed when he sought Columba's protection. Apparently, the prince had fatally injured a rival in a hurling match and had taken refuge with Columba. Diarmait's soldiers dragged the helpless prince from his protector’s arms and slew him, thus violating the rights of sanctuary. This didn't sit well with the monk. By his prayers, he supported the men of the North who were fighting while Finnian did the same for Diarmait's men. The latter were defeated, losing 3,000 men.

The deaths that resulted from these two prolonged conflicts brought St. Columba under heavy criticism. In fact, a synod of local clerics and scholars threatened to excommunicate him for these deaths, but St. Brendan of Birr defended him. 

Columba, ashamed of what he had asked of God, confessed his sin to St. Molaise, his confessor. The latter imposed a particularly severe penance―to leave Ireland and preach the Gospel so as to gain as many souls for Christ as had been lost at Cooldrevny, and then to never again to look upon his native land. 

History shows that Columba might have subsequently returned once to attend an important synod.

Thus, when Columba was 44-years-old, he departed Ireland as “a pilgrim for Christ.” Along with 12 of his monk companions, he crossed the sea in a wicker currach covered with hides. On the Feast of Pentecost, May 12, 563, they landed at Iona―a small island in the Inner Hebrides off the Ross of Mull on the western coast of Scotland. This later grew to become a major center of Gaelic monasticism for four centuries which is still a popular pilgrimage and retreat center. In fact, the island is still known in modern Gaelic as “Iona of St. Columba” (i.e., “Icolmkill”). 

Once on the island, the monk and his companions built simple cells, a church and refectory and stayed there many years converting the Northern Picts. Together with Sts. Comgall and Canice (also known as Kenneth) he visited Brude, King of the Picts, at his castle near Inverness, Scotland but the pagan king refused them entrance fearful of the Christian's moral authority. The king's guards closed the castle gates and bolted them shut. However, mere moats, portcullis and ramparts mean nothing to a man who regularly tells sea monsters to back off.

Columba prayed and the gates flew open, as did the castle door. The bolts were useless in stopping the good monks from their evangelical mission.

The monks entered the castle unrestrained and the pagans, including the king, were in shock at the compelling power of Christ.

The king listened to Columba with reverence and was baptized. The rest of his court followed suit. This began the historical conversion of the people of Caledonia. The only opposition came from the Druids, who were afraid of losing their power base which was based solely on instilling fear in the pagans in their thrall.

For the next 32 years, Columba preached the Gospel to the people of Northern Scotland. Many more miracles followed in his wake.

It's said that Columba never went an hour without study, worship, prayer, writing or performing an act of mercy. When at home he was frequently engaged in transcribing books and treatises. He even did so on the night before he died. Throughout this life, he wrote 300 books. The originals of two of his most famous ones, The Book of Durrow and the psalter called The Cathach, are still preserved. The psalter is protected in an Irish shrine and was once carried into battle by the O'Donnells as a pledge of victory. 

Columba died when he was 77 years old, surrounded by his disciples. He died as he stopped before the altar to meditate prior to a midnight service.

His monks buried him within the monastic enclosure. After about 100 years, his relics were disinterred and placed in a church. However, as Northmen and Danes often invaded the island, the saint's relics were brought to Ireland and kept in the church of Downpatrick. 

His books and garments were held in veneration at Iona. They were exposed and carried in procession, and were credited as having worked many miracles (Adam., II, xlv). The stone pillow on which he slept is said to be still preserved in Iona.

Adamnan says of Columba: “He was angelic in appearance, graceful in speech, holy in work” (Praef., II). His voice was strong, sweet, and sonorous, capable at times of being heard at a great distance. 

He was said to have an Irish temper and often got his Irish up. But after all, you can't rid a lake of evil, ravenous monsters by gently listening to their feelings and singing “Kumbaya.”

However, according to his biographer, his anger was reserved towards those who wronged others. (II, xxiii sq.) And, for the most part, the retribution that overtook the perpetrators of said crimes was predicted than actually invoked.

But despite his faults, Columba was definitely kind and humble to both brethren and strangers. He was also generous and warm-hearted, tender and kind even to animals that were attracted to him. He often spoke about the need to show kindness even to them. 

He constantly fasted and kept long vigils into the night. Adamnan assures us Columba was beloved by all “for a holy joyousness that ever beamed from his countenance revealed the gladness with which the Holy Spirit filled his soul.”

And because of his great and noble work and his complete trust in the Holy Spirit, even non-Catholics venerate Columba today. 

He is the patron of Derry, Ireland, protection against floods, protection against evil, bookbinders, poets, publishers, editors, authors, diplomats, statesmen, Ireland, Scotland and Ulster County. St. Columba’s feast day is celebrated on June 9.


The Loch Ness Monster

The pseudoscience of modern monster-hunting is called “cryptozoology” and has as much validity as does alchemy or bloodletting. I've never given much credence to the chupacabra, Bigfoot, the Pine Barrens Jersey Devil, UFOs, Atlantis or Mormonism. But it's fun to creep yourself out by indulging in these stories from time to time.

Extensive sonar searches of Loch Ness have turned up nothing more than an old movie-prop model of the creature. Alas, Nessie is no more.

Is the story of Nessie true? That is, had an evil monster lived in a lonely Scottish lake at one time and was it dispelled by the spiritual authority of a holy man? Sure. Why not? If this story was about a holy person exorcising a powerful demon, very few Christians would deny its veracity as in the cases of St. Anthony of Egypt or St. Francis of Assisi's struggles with such infernal creatures.

There's no reason whatsoever to think that Nessie wasn't a spiritual manifestation of supreme evil and that Columba's blessing served as an exorcism banishing him from this plane of existence.

However, the uncritical might be led to believe Nessie still exists as a living creature, even currently. This is highly unlikely, as Loch Ness and its tributaries could never produce enough food for a mated pair of inordinately large creatures living multiple generations from the sixth century down to our present times, having escaped notice successfully all of these intervening years.

Let's be content in accepting this delightful story about an historically-verifiable holy man who labored tirelessly in the Lord's vineyard for the greater part of his life and for the greater glory of God. 

Perhaps St. Columba managed to rid us of Nessie permanently.

But as I mentioned earlier, sometimes it's fun to creep yourself out.


This article originally appeared at the Register on April 19, 2017