THE SINNER ...AND SAINT; from a Remote Scottish Isle He Spearheaded the March of Christianity in Europe.But St Columba Had Blood on His Hands from a Very Violent Past

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Byline: by Jim McBeth

FROM the prow of his fragile boat, Columba glimpsed the inhospitable sliver of wind-lashed rock. Tiny and desolate, the Isle of Iona was an unlikely place to seek redemption for a man fleeing his conscience - an exiled sinner with blood on his hands who would by some miracle become Scotland's greatest saint.

Now, more than 1,400 years later, the Irish-born missionary is still revered by Christians worldwide for creating the centre of learning and worship that pioneered their faith in Britain and lit a beacon to guide Europe through the Dark Ages. But generations of admirers know only the saint - the gentle priest whose name translates as 'Dove of the Church'.

Few realise he spent the latter half of an extraordinary l i f e expiating the sins of his past, sins that saw him banished for causing the deaths of thousands of his countrymen. It is a dark side which will be explored in a new feature film by director Norman Stone.

Oscar-winner Jeremy Irons will play the flawed sixth century saint in The End of Time.

Part of the movie will be shot in Scotland, with other scenes filmed in Ireland, near Gartan, County Donegal, where Columba was born in 521AD.

Glasgow-born Stone, who made award-winning productions for the BBC such as Shadowlands and Florence Nightingale, says the film will focus on every aspect of Columba's life - including his recalcitrance and hunger for power.

'I see Columba as a man of faith, integrity and strength, but at times flawed,' says the director. 'This will be warts-and-all, more a character study and political thriller than a Christian epic. He will not wear a halo.' In his early life, Columba certainly did not deserve one. When he was banished from his homeland after provoking a battle that led to the slaughter of 3,000 warriors, his sanctity was a long way o f f. Columba's fall from grace came after a bizarre 'court battle' over ownership of an illuminated manuscript. He contended that, as he had transcribed the copy, it belonged to him.

His superior, Abbot Finnian of Clonard Abbey, which owned the original psalter, disagreed. He claimed the copy was church property.

When Columba refused to relinquish it, the dispute went to arbitration before Diarmuid, High King of Ireland, in 560. To Columba's disgust, he ruled in favour of Finnian.

In another twist of historical fate, the row is regarded as the world's first dispute over 'copyright infringement'. But Columba's legacy to copyright law was not on his mind when he left Tara, the seat of the High King.

Violence was inevitable. Columba mobilised an army of his O'Neill clan and challenged the king. In 561, the armies clashed near Sligo in the Battle of Cul Dreimhne. As they fought, the warrior priest cursed his foes and, with arms outstretched to heaven, loudly implored God to smite those who had 'taken his living'.

With massive understatement, Stone adds: 'He was not a saintly saint. He struggled with hunger for power - he was cunning, brave and an independent spirit who found it difficult to fit into his Holy Orders. But he was a gifted man who would change the religious and social map of Scotland and Britain.' Historian James Lewis regards Columba as one of the most fascinating personalities of the early Middle Ages.

Mr Lewis, author of Paths of Exile: Narratives of St Columba and the Praxis of Iona, says: 'Many see him as the quintessence of the Celtic saint. From Iona, his work extended to England and the Continent. Today, interest in the spirituality of Columba is burgeoning all over the English-speaking world.' Earlier this year, a team of archaeologists from the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) arrived on Iona and launched a fresh search for the site of the original monastery founded by Columba.

NTS archaeologist Derek Alexander said: 'There is debate about the exact location.

'The last survey was carried out in the 1970s and the quality of the equipment available to us now will enable us to explore in much greater detail. …