To the Island of Tides: A Journey to Lindisfarne

Alistair Moffat

Canongate, £20

The point of departure for this extraordinary book is stark.

“I need to change what is in my heart and soul,’ writes Alistair Moffat as he prepares to follow in the footsteps of St Cuthbert from the Borders down to Lindisfarne and beyond to the Isle of Farne.

To the Island of Tides will be classified by librarians under travel, nature, history or even memoir. It is best categorised as ‘unlikely’. This, after all, is the description ultimately afforded by Moffat in his acknowledgements.

It is all of that and much more. It is a triumph but one that has been wrestled from doubt, genuine tragedy and a very human weakness. There may be catharsis for Moffat in its telling but it also offers rewards for readers who stumble on something extraordinary in a pilgrimage by the author.

Canongate, incidentally, has enhanced its reputation as the most ambitious and innovative of the major publishers in Britain by bringing it to the shelves, wherever is it is placed. To the Island of Tides defies easy descriptions in terms of purpose however fluently it is written.

Moffat, too, has displayed the bravest of instincts. There is a heart-stopping vulnerability when one admits weakness. This reader caught in his breath in sympathy and empathy as a knapsack containing a life was emptied for ruthless inspection.

First, there should be two introductions. St Cuthbert was born into a family who settled in the Tweed Valley in the seventh century and he took up monastic orders around 651 at Old Melrose. He later travelled to Lindisfarne, became prior of the monastery and died in hermetic seclusion on Inner Farne. Second, Moffat is a former director of programmes at Scottish Television, a former director of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and a historian of considerable substance, particularly in his treatment of his native Borders. He is also a gifted writer. His Hidden Ways, a tramp around the forgotten highways of Scotland, is exemplary.

It is surpassed by his latest work in terms of both scope and execution. It grows in power towards a tumultuous, if subtly rendered conclusion.

His early steps towards Lindisfarne hold considerable promise. His grasp of the history is assured even as his relationship with the precise direction of travel can be tenuous. He admits with a weary shrug that he can take the wrong road on the trail of St Cuthbert. This can result in delays and even a cracked rib as he cascaded down a hill in the manner of a human waterfall.

But it is the other paths taken in life that come to dominate the narrative and testify to Moffat’s ability to admit to faults that go beyond a fecklessness on the hill. This book is an intriguing account of St Cuthbert and his times, a lyrical testimony to the wonder of nature and a beguiling account of the power of place in all lives. But, approaching 70 years of age, it becomes something more, something sublime in the realm of memoir.

Moffat’s first visit to Lindisfarne was as a 15-year-old, unleashed on adventure with the carelessness of those times. He returns as a grandfather who has tasted much of life but has been left with a sometimes bitter aftertaste. Moffat, who does believe in an afterlife, is “no Christian”. He does not state precisely the cause or the perpetrators of his injuries in his professional life. But the bruises remain.

He is, though, deeply affecting in detailing the most grievous personal losses, most awfully the still born death of his grand-daughter Hannah. His eulogy to the tragedy of this little girl is affecting and profound. There is sentiment in Moffat but it is never cloying. It illuminates his travels rather than making them a morass of self-pity or a cause for the gratuitous denigration of others.

“I have made many mistakes,” he writes, “hurt people I loved, failed and committed many sins of omission…” He seeks peace unaided by faith.

There are significant signposts along the road to discovery. "It was not the secret of life, I sought, but the secret of death," he writes. Lindisfarne provides it dramatically, unexpectedly and in the most mundane of ways. There is a heaven on earth and Moffat senses “a feeling of profound peace”. It comes as a result of exercises that are deeply spiritual but hold no allegiance to any particular religion. He discovers that he can learn in silence, he can survive in solitude, that he shares the pursuit of serenity with not only long-dead monks but still living pensioners and patients.

There is a powerful, natural beauty in Moffat’s writing. He can capture the eerie song of the seals, the swooping of swifts, the crashing of waves but also be present in the softest, briefest conversations that reveals his purpose is natural, his journey difficult but not without the hope of revelation.

This is framed in the language of the spirit. But one should not avoid religious language because one is irreligious. Modern religion has descended into the formalisation of practice and the strict adherence to aspects of dogma for some. But in its best form it has always been driven by an inner power far beyond the intellect.

Moffat finds his contemplation of the biggest questions falters after 10 minutes. St Cuthbert devoted most of his life to them. The latter’s indefatigability can only be measured inaccurately centuries later though contemporary writings suggest he was a mystic of extraordinary resilience.

Yet these sons of the Border – Moffat and Cuthbert – are not just conjoined by the earth that sustained them, the routes upon which they walked, the waters they crossed, but by a shared humanity that demands at least a personal investigation even if, ultimately, understanding is elusive.

This is where To the Island of Tides becomes intensely powerful. Moffat finds strength in his weakness. He finds consolation in his despair. He finds peace in the howling wind on Lindisfarne.

“Now, I realised, I had come to this beautiful place to begin to learn how to leave them [his family], to learn how to live what remains of the rest of my life and how to die when the time comes,’’ he writes.

This is a memoir filled with scenes of beauty that testify to both life and death. There is the snow-covered street in Kelso where the only illumination comes from the lights of Moffat’s car as he leaves the engine running and sprints to the side of an ailing father. There is the faithful horse gently ushered towards death with merciful drugs and the dignity of being covered to protect its body against foxes before burial. There is the sickly man pulling a contraption that allows him to breathe as he negotiates the ruins of the priory.

There is, too, Moffat sitting with a scone as sparrows flutter around him and discovering suddenly, blessedly, that he has changed.

There are many routes to the spiritual experience. Moffat chose a singular one. Physically, it led from his family’s hinterland to the home of a saint. Emotionally it encompassed sadness, despair, regret and joy. He was accompanied in spirit by those he loved and lost and those he loves and keeps close.

He may not be a religious man but his book flows with the ease and fluency of a sincere prayer. It is one that seems to have been answered.