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Kenneth Leighton (born Wakefield, 2 October 1929; died Edinburgh, 24 August 1988)


Edwin Morgan



First Performance: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 16 June 1981.



Columba is Leighton's only opera. While not himself greatly religious, he was renowned as a composer of church music, both for organ and choir. He was also a great enthusiast for the Scottish Highlands and Islands, and also visited Iona, where the particularly special atmosphere of the place acted as an inspiration. These features are reflected in the elaborate choral writing.

The success of its first run at Glasgow Theatre Royal led to two revivals within the next decade, both in the highly atmospheric setting of Glasgow Cathedral.


Plot Summary (from the original Programme Note)

Act 1 - Northern Ireland, 561 AD

Scene 1 - Finnian has returned from Rome with an important book - St Jerome's translation of the Bible. Columba secretly copies it at night, but is discovered by Finnian who angrily accuses him and says he will take the case to the court of the High King of Ireland.

Scene 2 - Diarmit, the High King, delivers his judgement to Finnian and Columba - 'To each cow its calf, to each book its copy.' Columba has infringed copyright as now defined by the king. Furious at this decision, which he regards as a slur on his family honour (he himself being of royal blood), Columba is ready for a battle of revenge.

Scene 3 - A chorus of women lament the three thousand who have been killed at the battle of Cooldrevny (Culreihmne). Columba is bitterly blamed by Finnian for being the instigator of the slaughter, and is forced to leave Ireland to expiate his guilt.

Scene 4 - Columba sings his 'Song of Farewell to Ireland' as he stands on the shore and prepares to leave for Scotland.

Act 2 - Inverness, Scotland, 564 AD

Scene 1 - A Druid ceremony takes place, intended to restore the fertility of a blighted land. Broichan, the Archdruid, drinks a cup of lamb's blood as a symbolic act for the refreshing of the earth. Columba suddenly interrupts the pagan ceremony, and argues with Broichan, who commands servants to seize him. But King Brude, interested in Columba, countermands the order, and Columba is left free to continue his task of converting the Picts.

Scene 2 -Bridget, the Irish slave-girl of Broichan, laments her exile in Scotland, and is whipped by Broichan for not working hard enough. Columba, roused by her cries, enters, confronts Broichan, and knocks him to the ground. Columba is greatly moved by Bridget's gratitude and beauty.

Scene 3 - A group of tipsy peasants carry the coffin of a man who has been killed by the Loch Ness Monster. The monster suddenly appears and roars. Columba and some of his monks are watching. Columba puts on a mask which terrifies the monster. The monster beats a hasty retreat, and the pagan peasants cross themselves and take up their funeral procession again, joined by Columba and his monks.

Scene 4 - Broichan complains to the king that Columba is subverting the kingdom. Brude arranges a singing-contest between the monks and the druids. The monks win, but Broichan leaves them with a warning that the pagan powers of 'our cruel mother, the earth' are not so easily defeated.

Act 3 - The island of Iona, Scotland, 597 AD

Scene 1 - Columba, now an old man, recalls the past and wonders what he has achieved. He has meddled in politics because he has a vision of the future of Scotland as a united country. He feels both guilt and hope, but remains troubled.

Scene 2 - Two shepherds praise him, and note how flourishing and how famous the island of Iona has become. Towards evening, Columba climbs the hill with Fechno, his young attendant, imagines he sees a great boat being rowed in the sunset waters, and has a sudden heart-arrack.

Scene 3 - Inside the church at midnight, Columba again foresees the future, gives advice to a boy who has come to see him with an exhausted migrating bird, and finally dies at the altar. The chorus laments his death and prays for Scotland.

The Cast

 Broichan's Irish slave-girl
 Archdruid of the Picts
 King of the pagan Picts, at Inverness
 or Colum-cille, the 6th century Irish saint
 High King of Ireland
 a young monk, Columba's personal attendant on Iona
 elderly Irish monk, Columba's teacher
First Peasant
 at Loch Ness
First Shepherd
 on the Island of Iona
Fourth Peasant
 at Loch Ness
 a young peasant on Iona
Second Peasant
 at Loch Ness
Second Shepherd
 on the Island of Iona
Third Peasant
 at Loch Ness
 Queen of the Picts, wife of Brude

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