St. Oran’s Chapel (right) in Releig Odhran, the Iona Abbey graveyard. Iona is a small island off the southwest coast of Scotland, and had long been a site of pagan worship before St. Columba made the first Christian appearance in 563 A.D.
The legend of St. Oran (Odhran), whose feast day is October 28, is the archetypal All-Hallows tale. It goes like this:
Oran may may have already been on the Isle of the Druids when Columba and his 12 companions arrived in 563 A.D. to found the Abbey of Iona. (There is also record of an Odrhan who had been sacrificed by druids on the island some 12 years before.)
At first, the abbey construction fares badly. Each day’s work is leveled overnight by some disturbed spirit. Columba sets up a watch to observe what happens at night, but each person set to the task is found dead the next day amid the fallen timbers.
Columba decides to do the vigil himself and sits alone at the site in the howling cold dark. In the middle of the night, a great and terrible being in the shape of a half-woman, half-fish comes to Columba from the surrounding waters. Columba asks the apparition what is repelling his efforts to build at Iona and the fish-woman says she does not know, but that it would continue to happen until one of his men offered themselves to be buried alive in a grave seven times as deep as a man’s length.
Lots are cast and Oran is chosen (other accounts say he volunteered) and he lay down in the footers and was buried. No wind rises up that night to spoil the work and the construction proceeds without incident.
After three days and nights (it would now be Oct. 31) Columba became curious to know how his follower had fared and ordered him dug up. The monks excavate the spot where Oran had been sacrificed, finally uncovering his face. Oran’s eyes pop open, and staring right at Columba he declares, “There is no wonder in death, and hell is not as it is reported. In fact, the way you think it is is not the way it is at all.” Horrified, the saint had Oran buried again at all haste, crying “Uir! Uir! air beul Odhrain” or “Earth, earth on Oran’s mouth!” (The saying “chaidh uir air suil Odhrain” or “Earth went over Oran’s eye” is still widely heard in the Highlands and Hebrides.
Despite the frightful encounter, Columba dedicated the monestary’s graveyard to Oran (Reilig Odhrain) and honored Oran’s sacrifice by saying that no man may access the angels of Iona but through Oran. The bones of many Scottish, Irish and Norwegian kings were sent to Oran’s graveyard; Duncan and Macbeth are interred in the St. Oran chapel at the center of the graveyard.
“Song for Oran” (Includes the tale of Oran’s voyage to the north)