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To the Island of Tides: A journey to Lindisfarne, by Alistair Moffat

31 January 2020

Philip Welsh welcomes an engaging memoir of a pilgrim in the footsteps of St Cuthbert

ALISTAIR MOFFAT ran the Edinburgh Fringe at 25, rose, over 20 years, to a senior position at Scottish TV, left to write freelance, and has produced a shelf of books of Scottish history.

Now heading for 70, feeling his age and a confessed unbeliever, he decides to trace the steps of a figure whose heroic sanctity has fascinated him over years of studying the Dark Ages, and whose roots were in the same Borders area as his own.

He will follow Cuthbert’s life from Melrose to Lindisfarne, hoping that this “secular pilgrimage” will help him to make peace with the “failures, problems, and betrayals” of his own past life, and face up to his own eventual death.

He could have walked the established St Cuthbert’s Way, starting at the impressive ruins of Melrose Abbey, founded long after Cuthbert’s time. Instead, armed with original sources, Moffat searches farmland for the place of Cuthbert’s boyhood vision of St Aidan, then goes to sequestered Old Melrose for traces of his long-vanished monastery.

As an investigator, Moffat shows himself a better historian than hiker. He abandons his purist attempt to ford the River Tweed when it reaches his knees, breaks several ribs falling down a river bank, and for some time has to confine himself to day trips, until he picks up St Cuthbert’s Way on the approach stages to Lindisfarne, and remains for several reflective days on the island.

A bit like the meandering Tweed, Moffat’s book swings, sometimes abruptly, between loving evocation of the Border landscape; the life of Cuthbert, with plenty of speculation, but always held within the sources; a good deal of regional history; and fond accounts of the author’s family, past and present.

And running through this mildly Shandean but largely successful digressiveness is the author’s “need to change what is in my heart and soul”.

He writes beautifully of the power of Holy Island, past and present, and not least the unexpected warmth and colour of its parish church as he observes weekday communion. One item he surprisingly does not mention, in a book about coming to terms with the past, is a framed document from 1997 on the chancel wall. It was brought from the Church of Norway, and is a formal expression of regret for the sacking of Lindisfarne by their Viking ancestors 1200 years previously, and of thanksgiving for the Christian faith that came to them from Britain.

To the Island of Tides will be enjoyed by lovers of the Borders and its history, of Lindisfarne, and of Cuthbert. More widely, it will be valued as a moving, entertaining, and occasionally indulgent memoir by a very engaging individual who is making peace with life and death through the companionship of a saint whose faith he does not share. Yes, it’s another book by someone undertaking a journey to find a personal redemption. But it’s a very good one.

The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.

To the Island of Tides: A journey to Lindisfarne
Alistair Moffat
Canongate £20
Church Times Bookshop £18

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