I READ this book during a short stay on the remote Scottish island of Colonsay. It was just the right place to get in touch with some of the themes of Alistair Moffat’s delightful book. Cancelled ferries, gales, and driving rain reminded me that these islands off the west coast of Scotland were places of hardship and loneliness — places where rugged saints sought to come closer to God.
I was drawn to Moffat’s personal response to pilgrimage as he retraced the spiritual journeys of the early monks. Although not himself a believer, he knew himself as being in the presence of something “better felt than told”. Scots Gaelic also moved him deeply. The richly descriptive sound of the language — its onomatopoeic tendency — fascinated him. For example, he noted “a beautiful verb for the action of the sea over the strand, the white sand. Sluaisreadh an gainmheamh air an traigh means ‘swirling of the sand of the shore.’ To hear it spoken is to hear the sound of the ocean.”
The monks who took their curraghs to the Hebrides knew “that they sailed along the edge of the world and perhaps they also believed that they were moving along the edge of heaven”.
Moffat followed their journeys. His visit to Eleach an Naoimh, “the Rock of the Saint”, is particularly interesting. On this uninhabited island, he found two beehive cells and noted that they were probably the oldest surviving ecclesiastical buildings in Britain. He imagined Brendan and his monks coming together to worship. “In the darkness, with only the sound of their own breathing, their hands clasped in earnest reverence, these men listened for the voice of God.”
Moffat’s writing is at its most fascinating when he writes about his experience — and none more than his night in the open on the holy island of Iona.
He wished he had met George MacLeod, the “self-appointed successor to St Columba”, whose vision and energy drove the restoration of the Abbey. I reflected that I did meet him — a tall, gaunt, and rather austere figure. He it was who described Iona as a “thin place”. Moffat experienced that thinness: “the veil between worlds, between the spiritual and the temporal, between what was seen and what can be imagined, was gossamer thin for me”.
This delightful book is part history, part pilgrimage. He ends with these words, “Their monasteries have been long lost and reclaimed by the grass and the heather, their stories destroyed or forgotten, their names barely remembered, but the influence of the old saints of the west has not yet fled.”
The Rt Revd David Chillingworth is a former Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.
In Search of Angels: Travels to the edge of the world
Church Times Bookshop £18