hidden europe 4

On the monastic trail: Oronsay

by Nicky Gardner


we visit one of the least known, yet idyllically beautiful of Scotland's Hebridean islands: Oronsay

It is not often realised that St Columba's decision in 563 AD to leave Ireland and sail over the sea to the isles off the west coast of Scotland was not entirely a voluntary one. He had been accused in his native Donegal of having borrowed a psalter from another monk who had recently returned from Rome. Columba, rather than merely use the text as an aid to his own devotions, secretly copied the whole book, so that, upon returning the original to its owner, he might still have access to the holy words. Of course sixth century copyright law was probably not a patch on today's complex legislation, but suffice to say that a monastic tussle ensued, only eventually to be resolved when both parties agreed to arbitration.

Wise judges considered the options, eventually delivering their verdict in the witty prescript "to every cow her calf, and every book its copy", a mantra that nowadays falls unerringly from the lips of Irish students.

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