- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Ireland, the emerald isle whose patron saint, St. Patrick, is honored today, helped establish Christianity a mere 25-mile boat ride from its shores in a savage land inhabited by the heathen Picts.

That land was pre-“Braveheart” Scotland, a place barely touched by Christianity compared with the far more converted Ireland, thanks to Patrick’s efforts in the fifth century.

Then in A.D. 563, a 42-year-old Irish prince named Columba made an epic sea voyage with 12 monks to the shores of Scotland’s Kyntyre peninsula. He turned north, not stopping until he reached a spot from where he no longer could see his homeland. There he founded Iona, the great monastery and future spiritual center of Scotland, from which the country was Christianized by missionary monks.

This trek 1,441 years ago was re-created last summer by a group of Scots, Americans and Irish who took two weeks to row 260 miles from Ireland, along the western Scottish coast to Iona, and back. Their aim was to bring to mind Scotland’s Christian heritage.

“How many people changed their hearts or came to the Lord because of this, I don’t know,” says Donald McCallum, 66, a retired naval architect from Silver Spring who masterminded the voyage. “We did get people to ask themselves what their faith was based on.”

Mr. McCallum is trying to gather 72 evangelistic souls to walk the length of Scotland next month to preach the Gospel to a populace that, even by European standards, is seriously unchurched. The trek, slated for April 18 to May 8, will use teams of modern missionaries to begin small home Bible studies, which could blossom into churches.

“Scotland needs a religious renewal,” Mr. McCallum says. “This is my vision for something within Scotland that would touch the people there.”

He remembers the impact a visiting preacher had on his faith as a 19-year-old in Scotland. That faith now is a robust Catholic charismatic spirituality.

He hopes to bring to mind the journeys made by the warrior-monk, now known as St. Columba, who came to Scotland as penance for his part in an intertribal feud between his Clan Neill and the Irish King Diarmait. About 3,000 men died before hostilities ended.

Columba was nearly excommunicated for the deed, but was told he could remain in the church provided he convert 3,000 souls to Christ, one for each man who died.

Columba did this and more, reputedly taking on the Loch Ness monster while on his way to convert the king of the Picts. The creature was about to gobble up one of the monks when Columba raised his hand, invoked the name of God and commanded the monster to depart.

Mr. McCallum was born about 100 miles south of Iona, in Campbeltown on the Kyntyre peninsula. It was near Southend, a landing at the tip of the peninsula where Columba’s feet first touched Scotland.

Fifty years later, he chose a 13-man team to re-enact Columba’s voyage from June 8 to 21. The voyage was done in a curragh, a boat 38 feet long and 8 feet wide and weighing 2 tons. One Scottish journalist termed it “a bean pod rowed with toothpicks.”

The boat was named the Colmcille, meaning “dove of Columba.”

Mr. McCallum and his companions strove to make the journey as close to what conditions were like in the sixth century. Cuisine was mostly smoked mackerel, bread, nuts, dried fruit and wine.

“When you’re in a curragh, you’ve no choice but to go with the tides,” says Tony Watson, a crew member from Aldie, Va. “Our timing was thrown. Places where we thought we’d land ended up being jagged rocks.”

The crew wore parkas, Gore-Tex boots, baseball caps and waterproof clothing, but switched to burlap monk’s robes while conducting revival services on various islands. Radios, cell phones and global positioning hardware present in the Colmcille also gave these 21st-century mariners an edge over Columba and his men.

The first day of the trip, planned as a 25-mile sail from Ballycastle, Ireland, across the North Channel, changed course when word came of a storm brewing. Instead of heading for Southend, the crew traveled 15 miles further up the Sound of Jura along the west coast of the Kyntyre peninsula, arriving at the Isle of Gigha after 11 hours of rowing.

As the crew slept, the storm broke the curragh from its moorings and dashed it against some rocks, ripping its canvas bottom. One of the crew members, a carpenter, took a day to stitch and glue shut the holes.

On June 11, the crew pushed off for stops at Loch Crinan and Seil and Easdale islands, the latter a granite isle that allows no cars. Next, the crew rowed through the Garvellachs, a group of small, rocky islands, and past castles, various ruins and many amused seals.

They set out for Iona on June 15 for what turned out to be a 13-hour journey, beset by strong winds and against the current. When they finally pulled in at 10:30 p.m., hundreds of well-wishers awaited them. The rowers released three white doves symbolizing the Trinity and gathered the next day at Iona’s 800-year-old Benedictine abbey.

After several days of rest, the men rowed 59 miles halfway back to Ireland, stopping at Port Ellen on the Isle of Islay. A storm forced them to wait four days there until a calm day allowed them an uneventful row back to Portrush, Ireland.

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