The truth … as legend would have it
In the summer of 1957 a young doctor and his wife (heavy with child) took their family on a vacation from Greenock in Scotland across the water to an island called Jura, where nearly 1,500 years ago St Columba stopped on his journey, climbed one of the Paps of Jura, surely the one called the Sacred Mountain, from which, alas, he could see Ireland and so sailed on to found a monastery on another island called Iona in fulfilment of his vow to commence his missionary community out of sight of his beloved Ireland.
So this young doctor, his wife (heavy with child) and family went to Jura, a remote and rugged place where the deer abounded and the people were few, the peat bogs were soggy and the thistles grew. They didn’t stay in the inn but in a hunting lodge at the foot of the sacred mountain — no mean or squalid place, but a place where you might expect to meet gentry, lords and ladies, if not princes and kings.
And it was the best of summers, the South Pacific couldn’t have been better, the water was warm and the sun shone; in fact, truth be known, the place was in the grip of a drought, little water, certainly no flowing burns, no electricity … an unusual year.
Then on the 28th day of June, two weeks and more before it was due, the child in the womb began to move. No child born on the island for 50 years or more … a summer party was on. The island doctor, well he was drunk, the district nurse had a broken leg.
“Get out the Port Askaig life boat,” they said, but no: the good doctor, father to be, said, “I would rather my child born in a bed than on a boat out to sea.”
The child was born, almost strangled by his umbilical cord, thunder struck. The voice of God, the heavens opened, the rain came down. The lights went on.
It was June 29 … an auspicious day, the day of the two great apostles, St Peter and St Paul.
What to name this boy? No, not Peter or Paul. One name considered: Craig. Named for Craighouse, the village on the island. No, not suitable — reserved for children of the island illegitimate born.
So, the name Neil, for a friend and an islander but, of course, the Gaelic spelling, Niall: the name of Columba’s clan. Like Columba, not on the island for long, but destined to minister in another far off land … Niall, a name which means champion but, if anything, this child was the runt, more likely to lose a fight than win, sickly at times, no good at sport.
When this child left the island the people threw coins into his carrycot. Many years later, when he came back, they remembered him not. Born beneath the sacred mountain, named for the clan of St Columba, on the day of St Peter and St Paul, was not this child destined to be a minister, a champion of God.
That is my story as I might tell it; certainly some of my own commentary added in. But it seems, as I have spoken to my parents in recent times, some of it is not quite right. The island doctor wasn’t drunk, the bit about the illegitimate children seems apocryphal, the child was never going to be called Craig — maybe Keith (I don’t know why) — there was no voice of God, no-one ever really claimed that.
As good Presbyterians no-one would have known that June 29 was St Peter’s and St Paul’s day, the registrar of births, deaths and marriages on the island was vague about whether others had been born on the island in the previous 50 years, St Columba did stop on Jura and apparently climbed one of the Paps of Jura (one of which is called the Sacred Mountain) but why it is called the Sacred Mountain I do not know, probably nothing to do with Columba, but the place and time, the drought, the birth and the “destined” calling all are historic facts.
The references to St Columba, St Peter and St Paul, which others would not have added into the story, reflect my journey, the child born to become a minister who, like St Columba, has travelled far from the land of his birth, born at the foot of the Sacred Mountain.
Yes, I hope that in my life I am God’s champion — in the sense that I take up the cause of God.
Is the story as I have told it true? Depends on your perspective.
Is it a fairytale? No. Is it a factual account in every detail? No.
Some is remembered events not quite right; some is embellishment, a commentary on my life’s journey. Woven together the story shares a truth about who I am.
I wonder if this year we will have media presentations and debate about the veracity of the Christmas stories.
But the question really is: Does the story speak the truth?
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