The Legend of St. Oran

St. Oran Bell Tower

One of the first things many visitors to Columcille notice is that there are no carvings on any of the standing stones -- except for one. That stone rests in the wall of the bell tower and is inscribed with the name "St. Oran" - a companion of St. Columba, who built a monastery on Iona. The inscription on the bell tower recalls an ancient legend about this saint.

According to this very old island legend, Columba and his monks tried to build a chapel on Iona, but could not get the walls to stand. Frustrated, Columba turned to his friend Oran, who knew the old ways of the island. Oran suggested that he be thrown into the footers of the building to appease the ancient energies of the island. Columba did as he was told and the walls stood. But three days later, Columba had Oran dug out of the foundations. Very much alive, Oran said that he had traveled to theOther World and began to describe the many strange things he had seen. (thumbnail of dragons book of Kells) Oran ended his story with a bit of cautionary advice for his friend, Columba. Leaning over to him, Oran whispered, "The way you think it is may not be the way it is at all."

Columba, the proud son of an Irish chieftain, did not take the advice very well. He promptly had Oran re-interred. But the incident survived in legend and islanders enshrined Oran's words as folk wisdom. Fourteen centuries later pilgrims who ponder Iona's mysteries are still likely to hear, "The way you think it is may not be the way it is at all." In the Hebrides and Ireland, when someone mentions an uncomfortable subject, it is still common to silence them with the phrase "Throw mud in the mouth of St. Oran."

The inscription in the St. Oran Bell Tower recalls this old legend and challenges the easy certainties of our modern world. Each time the bell rings it echoes Oranís timeless wisdom:

"The way you think it is may not be the way it is at all."