Although it is true that Columba (variously spelt as St. Columba, Colmcille, Columbanus, Columcille) is the most well-known Scottish saint and arguably the most important from Dal Riata, he wasn't the first Christian missionary in Scotland. That honor goes to St. Ninian.
St. Ninian, who may have been a native of Galloway, Landed in Whithorn in Galloway about 397 A.D., after traveling widely in Europe where he was for a time a disciple of St. Martin of Tours. At Whithorn he founded his monastery, which he named Candida Casa, or roughly, "The White house", and began to train his followers. It was a strange Scotland to which he came.
When the Romans first came into contact with the natives of what is now Scotland, which they called Caledonia, and which later Scots called Alba, they named them Picts. We don't know what the Picts called themselves. Perhaps Cruithne, although that legend has more a sound of myth to it than fact. No written records have been left of what the people called Picts were like, what language they spoke, or to which race they belonged. There are various theories about all these, but little evidence to support the facts of any. This has caused endless academic debates (some of which you've read here) and it will probably continue for much longer than we will be here to read about it. But by the time the Romans left Britain around the end of the 4th century, they had made one brief settlement in southern Scotland between Antonine's Wall from the Clyde to the Forth, and Hadrian's Wall from the Tyne to the Solway, and had penetrated far into the north-east in an unsuccessful expedition from which they gained little but wounds. Hadrian's Wall itself, which was the frontier most of the Roman occupation, was undefended by 383 AD, as the Roman's began to withdraw from Britain; and for some time prior to this the Picts (which for our purposes means the people of central and north Scotland) resettled right up to that wall.
There had, contrary to general belief, been considerable intercourse between the Romans and the people north of both walls, and by the fourth century the Picts were far from savage, primitive people of popular imagination. The older stories of their crude and elementary state had (at one time) been accepted uncritically from the pens of Italian writers who had based their narratives on the tall tales of returning soldiers. There is ample archaeological evidence that the Picts had an established way of life with complex social, organization, and were skilled in agriculture, arts and crafts and in military methods, including a sophisticated navy.
Even before the Romans withdrew, the inhabitants of Scotland were becoming racially mixed. There were Romano-Britons (ask if perplexed by this one), akin to the Welsh in Strathclyde, while in the north, west of Drumalban, there had been many contacts with what we now call the Irish; and Norsemen would soon settle in the east, west and north of Scotland, making for a potent stew when you add the Angles in the south who were trying to come north.
To all this Ninian came in (although the Norse weren't there as yet) in the late 4th century. His mission, which began among the Strathclyde Britons, was directed to the Picts who were the principal of all of Scotland from Hadrian's Wall to the Pentland Firth.The Mission, and Whithorn itself, were outside of the Roman Empire, whose frontier had long lain to the south of Hadrian's Wall. From Whithorn Ninian traveled north, first to Glasgow, then to Stirling to Aberdeenshire, and finally by way of Inverness right up into Sutherland. Wherever he went, he and his followers founded churches and missionary cells, and from whithorn was born the great missionary enterprise which first Christianized Scotland.
The Venerable Bede thought that there were two Pictish kingdoms (which is supported), separated by the Mounth, and that Ninian was the apostle only to the kingdom of the southern Picts. Bede, who lived all of his life in Jarrow, is a sound authority on Northumbria but some of his accounts of Scotland was based on hearsay, and should be received with some caution, although he is still an excellent source of information. For there is no real evidence that the Mounth was a political boundary till the early fourteenth century, when Edward I found it a convenient line of demarcation in his scheme for "governing" Scotland. And although the Mounth runs from Drumochter in the west to Girdleness near the east coast, it is not a formidable geographical barrier. It opens on to a plain at the east end, the Drumochter pass is at the west end, and there are no other passes. Certainly it was not an insuperable obstacle to a man like Ninian; and when Columba preached in northern Scotland, he was probably not the first missionary to do so.
Had the work of Ninian dwindled after his death in 432 AD, he might indeed take a distant second place to the more famous Columba. The work, however, did not dwindle. During Ninian's lifetime it is said he is one who met and helped convert Patrick, who subsequently evangelized Ireland. The great Irish monastery at Bangor became the greatest ecclesiastical foundation in Europe.
For two centuries after Ninian's death, the work went on from Candida Casa, both in Ireland and in Scotland, so that when Columba landed in Iona in circa 563 the Picts, at least in the south, were not all heathens, but had been Christian for longer than some of the Irish. Ninian and his followers had even reached Inverness, where Columba had his legendary (we don't know if it is true)thaumaturical contest with King Brude.
So why is Columba so much better known? Columba founded an abbey at Iona which -- not during his lifetime but after -- spread its influence far and wide. His mission however, was directed principally to his own countrymen, the Scots from Ireland (Dalriada was there too) who had previously founded their kingdom of Dal Riata (or Dalriada) in Western Scotland, around Dunadd. They were already Christians, there was a college on Iona when Columba arrived, and the Island was already the burial place of Dalriadic kings. Columba was a dynamic figure to be sure, as much a statesman and politician as ecclesiastic. Although a shroud of bloodshed surrounds Columba (but little talked about) due to his missionary zeal and conversions.
Some of Columba's fame comes from the Roman Church and more specifically to his biographer, Adamnan, whose biographical (if it can be called thus) Life of Columba bears a similarly exaggerated relation to Columba's life as the Book of Proverbs does to the true utterances of Solomon. Adamnan's Life, however, was tremendously popular in the Middle Ages, and the fact that truth and religious miracles have often had little in common other than being both written on paper, added to his immense favoritism over Ninian, although perhaps that is undeserved or at least unjust.
The Celtic church (Culdee) was bitterly hated by the Church of Rome. Iona, however, that famous seat of Christianity founded by the best-known Celtic churchmen, was the first Scottish monastery to go over to Rome, and so when popular history came to be written by the Roman church, all the credit was given to Columba, because of his connection to Iona, Ireland and his legendary images from Adamnan's "biography" of Columba. Ninian went almost unremembered for centuries.
But lest we forget the first apostle of Scotland, St. Ninian and especially Whithorn, who by many scholars consider the real mother church of the Picts and Britons.
©Skye-Net, R. Gunn, 1997/2009