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19 Jan 2022

‘Colm’ – an island journey with St Columba

Written by Canna House Archivist Fiona J Mackenzie


‘Colm’ transcript

My name is Fiona Mackenzie and this is where I live, the Isle of Canna. An island full of music full of stories, full of history and especially the history and stories of St Columba.

St Columba was born 1500 years ago in County Donegal, Ireland. He came to Scotland in the year 563 and that was when the story began, his connections to the Hebrides, Canna and Sanday amongst them. The islands came to be an important monastic site, connected to St Columba and his mission to Iona in particular. Evidence can still be seen on Canna, early Christian stone crosses, and place names such as ‘A Chill’ ( The Church).

In this special year, artists came together from islands in the Gaeltacht areas of Ireland and Scotland – Canna, Lewis, Cape Clear and the Aran islands – to explore the common links we have, though language, heritage, the environment, and St Columba himself.


Song – Fraoch a Ronaigh/ Heather of Ronay, an emigrant song listing the places where the emigrants came from.

Whistle tune – ‘Leaving Ireland’

Irish song – The Dawning of the Day

Song in background – Laoidh Cholm Cille/ The Hymns of St Columba

Poem by Kathleen Raine – ‘The Island Cross’

‘Memories few and deep grained

Simple and certain mark this Celtic stone

Cross eroded by wind and rain.

All but effaced the hound, the horseman and the strange beast

Yet clear in their signature the ancient soul

Where these were native as to their hunting hill.

Against grain of granite

Hardness of crystalline rock-form mineral

Form spiritual is countergrained against nature traced

Man’s memories of Paradise and hope of heaven.

More complex than Patricks emblem green trifoliate

Patterning the tree soul’s windings interlace

Intricate without end its labyrinth.

Their features wind-worn and rain-wasted the man and woman

Stand, their rude mere selves

Exposed to the summers and winters of a thousand years.

The god on the cross is man of the same rude race,

By the same hand made from the enduring stone;

And all the winds and waves have not effaced

The vision by Adam seen, those forms of wisdom

From memory of mankind ineffaceable.’

Whistle tune – ‘Cape Clear Slow Air’

Song – Crònan na Caillich/The Old Womans Lullaby, a pibroch.

Song and pipes – An Lair Dhonn/The Brown Mare

Song and pipes – Òran na Ròin/The Seal Song

In the 1500th anniversary year of St Columba’s birth, Canna House Archivist Fiona used the Canna archive to explore the Columban connections between Canna, the Isle of Lewis and islands of the Irish Gaeltacht.

Made in the anniversary year of St Columba’s birth (the year 521), this short film entitled ‘Colm’ is a collaborative, creative experimental project profiling the heritage, linguistic and artistic links between islands of the Scottish and Irish Gaeltacht, and Naomh Choluim Chille – St Columba. Those islands are the Isle of Canna in the Inner Hebrides, the Isle of Lewis, the most northern of the Western Isles, and Cape Clear/the Aran islands in Ireland.

Canna archivist and Gaelic singer Fiona J Mackenzie originally intended this project to be a physically located (on Canna and Lewis), devised multimedia-performance project but Covid-19 instead has encouraged Fiona and her creative partners to adapt, research and develop the strategy beyond the confines of a conventional stage and audience. Underlining Fiona’s continuing strategy of demonstrating how ‘the old’ can stimulate and develop ‘the new’ by using the Canna archives as inspiration, each of the partners have been able to explore and develop their own creative processes, whilst also working with the potential for new online audiences. Music and archive from all the islands works together to explore what connects these islands, so similar in nature, heritage, landscape and culture, yet so intrinsically different.

Lewis piper James Duncan Mackenzie plays beside the Punishment Stone on Canna

John Lorne Campbell of Canna firmly believed that Canna was the ‘summer home’ of St Columba, known as ‘Hinba’ or ‘Himba’ in Columba’s diaries and indeed the island has many archaeological sites which provide evidence to back this theory up. The Celtic Cross itself is situated on a Columban monastic site.

In this film, the story of St Columba – and his journeys and the connections within the Canna archives – is used as a focal point to pull together the strands of culture, history and language. It presents to a contemporary audience the picture of a common heritage and community with individual characteristics.

John Lorne Campbell at the Cross on Canna
Notes on the Old Cross at Canna

Two well-known musicians from Lewis, James Duncan Mackenzie and Katie Mackenzie, explore ‘St Colm’s Isle’ on Lewis and its musical and linguistic links to St Columba, whilst exploring the musical links with the Irish Gaeltacht. Using contemporary and archive footage and sound archive, Fiona herself explores the Celtic cross on Canna, St Columba’s Chapel and his likely approach to the island from his boat. Also included are images by Margaret Fay Shaw of her travels to Iona in the 1920s. The Canna Cross features as a focus on the potential interpretation of the Celtic symbols carved into it, as an early form of musical notation. A new clarsach composition by Katie, based on the notation, is heard in the film. Community screenings of the film will be held in 2022.

Gaelic singer and clarsach player Katie Mackenzie

We hope that you enjoy ‘Colm’ and that it inspires discussion. We also hope it may inspire you to explore further the language and heritage of some of our beautiful Scottish and Irish islands.

We gratefully acknowledge the support of Bòrd na Gàidhlig and the Colm 1500 initiative in the production of this project.

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