Book review: To The Island of Tides: A Journey to Lindisfarne, by Alistair Moffat

Alistair Moffat
Alistair Moffat
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A good travel book is a voyage of exploration for the reader, a description of place but also a journey in time. It follows, as Norman Douglas wrote, that the author should himself have a mind worth exploring. Alistair Moffat’s book satisfies all these requirements. He calls it “a secular pilgrimage,” as he follows in the footsteps of St Cuthbert from his birthplace in the Tweed Valley and the monastery at Old Melrose, where he took holy orders, to Lindisfarne and the little nearby island, Inner Farne, where he died. But it is more than that.

Approaching the end of his seventh decade, he is conscious, as at some point we must all be, of mortality. The question of how to face the prospect of death unavoidably invites a second question: what have I made of my life? His pilgrimage may be read as an attempt to answer these questions.

In terms of miles, the distance Moffat travels from his home in an old farm in the hills above Selkirk to St Cuthbert’s island is not long. But he is as rooted in the Borderlands as Sir Walter Scott and everywhere feels the pricking of historical memory. His imagination is as much at home in what are called the Dark Ages, the early centuries of Christianity in the south of Scotland and north of England, with the shifting fortunes of petty Anglian kingdoms and the coming of the Vikings, as it is in our own time. His mind is richly stocked. Every hill, every wood and stream, every building, even if now reduced to a rickle of stones, arouses his magpie curiosity. He is a historian for whom the past is never dead or without significance.

He first visited Lindisfarne as a callow boy of 15 with two friends on a camping trip (though they found “No Camping” signs on the island). Now he resolved to spend a week there, seeking to savour the spirit of the Holy Island, mostly in unusual silence – unusual because he is a talkative man who delights in conversation. He had come to this beautiful place “to learn how to leave” his family and his life, to learn how to live what remained of it, and he wondered if thinking of Cuthbert would help. “Across fourteen centuries, it seemed as though a long-dead saint was becoming my soul-friend”.

If you have no belief in God, no belief in an afterlife, the great temptation is to believe in nothing and to conclude that everything, even your own life, is meaningless. Yet if, like Moffat, you have an intense awareness of the past as something which is not dead and buried, but retains a lively reality; if you are keenly aware of your own family’s deep roots in particular places; if your parents and grandparents live in your memory which also reaches out to generations further back in time; and if you hope to continue to live in the memory of your own children and descendants, then it is the idea of meaninglessness that is itself without meaning. To stand in Durham’s great cathedral where the beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels (now, sadly, confined in the British Museum) were once chained to the high altar, and where St Cuthbert’s bones were interred, is to be conscious of the past still alive in the present.

This is a wonderfully rich and consoling book. Moffat has led a busy and successful public life – director of the Edinburgh Fringe, head of programmes at STV, creator and director of the Borders Book Festival, independent maker of television programmes, author of more than a dozen historical works – but this is a personal book, like others in his fascination with history, unlike them in its self-questioning, self-examination indeed.

It is a book written with, and about, love: love of his family, love of history, love of the natural world. It is probably as close to a full autobiography as he will ever write, for he has always been more interested in the world around him – and the world under his feet – than in himself. It is about the first and last things, provoking thought and offering consolation; and it is very good indeed. Allan Massie

To The Island of Tides: A Journey to Lindisfarne, by Alistair Moffat Canongate, 317pp, £20. Alistair Moffat is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 25 August