King Brude and St Columba
The Picts, a small,swarthy,marauding people, probably of Celtic origin, occupied much of north-east Scotland from the third century A.D. onwards.
Places of Pictish origin can be found around Loch Ness. This, numerous and vigorous new race absorbed the old inhabitants by force of numbers, and Inverness became the capital of Northern Pictland.
In the western outskirts of Inverness stands
a massive hill crag - Craig Phadrig. The summit of this crag was once
the site of a great hill-fort, a mighty bastion of the early Pictish
kings. Craig Phadrig was a major Pictish stronghold in the north of
Scotland from the fifth century onwards. Towards the end of the sixth
century it was the fastness of one of the most powerful kings named in
the Pictish king-lists - King Bridei mac Maelchu, often called by the
anglicised name of 'Brude'.
In his his monumental history, the Venerable Bede describes King Bridei as rex potentissimus, and he seems to have been the over-king of many local kingdoms which comprised the core of the realm of 'Pictland', or 'Pictavia'; this realm extended from around the Firth of Forth as far as Orkney (the name for the sea between Caithness and Orkney is the'Pentland' Firth, which is a Norse word meaning 'Pictland').
It was to visit King Bridei, that Columba,
an Irish prince and priest (fresh from the founding of his monastery on
Iona), made his way up the Great Glen in 565 A.D.
At first he was received with suspicion. There had been a battle between the Picts and the Dalriad Scots, with whom Columba had common blood, and the Scots had been defeated. But Columba was a Christian, with the power to work miracles. At Bridei's stronghold, an undoubted Iron Age fort, situated on top of Craig Phadraig, legend has it, Columba was rudely confronted by a locked gate, but its bolts could not resist the sign of the cross. They sprang open to allow the visitor to enter, to the king's amazement and alarm. From that moment onward Bridei treated Columba with "growing deference and honour".
Columba, no doubt, did many deeds of charity by stealth but he would also have realised the need for some more ostentatious displays of his power. He was there, after all, to convert the pagan Picts, to wean them from the influence of their own priests. A chance to show the efficacy of his faith to an alien audience (as at the king's locked gate) came one day when he was visiting Lochend, near where the River Ness begins. He met a party of Picts who had just buried a companion; they told Columba that the poor fellow had been mauled to death by a water monster. Touched by compassion but properly aware of his own value to the Church, he instructed a companion named Mocumin to swim the river and commandeer a boat moored on the opposite bank. Mocumin did so. Inevitably the Beast, having tasted blood, broke the surface and made for him, and was within snapping distance when the saint raised an admonitory hand and told it to stop. The beast swam off, with undulating humps and bellowing most frightfully, while Mocumin trembling with fear and cold, returned to his master. It was indeed a famous miracle and one which seekers after the True Monster, 1400 years later, would give their souls to see re-enacted.
On [this and] a subsequent visit to Loch Ness-side Columba was ever zealous in promoting the faith. His biographer, St.Adamnan, writing from hearsay in the next century,gives glowing reports of his activities in his Life of Saint Columba. A dominant theme is the fierce conflict between his hero and the Pictish priests, a war of attrition with the souls of the people as the booty. When, for instance, Columba and his brethren were once singing vespers outside King Bridei's royal house, the druids tried to shout him down, but the saint was instantly supplied with such a strong voice that his roared-out rendition of the forty-fifth psalm struck terror into all who were present, including the king. By then, indeed, Bridei had a healthy respect for the crusading Christian which was to ripen into affection as the years went by, and which was reciprocated.
This period of early Scottish history has long been known as the 'dark ages', not because the deeds of the time were so dark but because the documentary sources are too meagre to shed a great deal of light.
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