The latest offering from national treasure Alistair Moffat is a deeply lovely account of the ‘white martyrs’, the Irish priests who, at huge risk to themselves, brought Christianity to the pagan Scots.
A beautifully written comfort blanket of a book, it is part travelogue, part rumination on life, part history lesson.
Moffat spent a summer meandering around the Hebrides and Argyll coast, breathing in the atmosphere and re-imagining the scene as these ascetic missionaries rowed their curraghs over the Irish Sea in search of solitude, hardship and converts.
We all know about Columba, but there were countless others whose quests ended quickly and in bloody failure. Moffat recreates the journey of long-forgotten proselytisers such as Brendan, Moluag and Maelrubha, and hints at the many others who made the perilous journey eastwards.
There are inevitably issues in writing about men whose lives were undocumented, and Moffat is very open about the limitations of his enquiries.
‘Sources for the lives and works of these elusive men are vanishingly scant,’ he says. ‘Sometimes only names and whispers of half-remembered stories survive.’
Moffat’s solution is to relay solid facts where he can, and otherwise to indulge in semi-mystical yet informed conjecture about these Irish saints and the lives they may have lived.
Much of this is based on Moffat’s evocative accounts of his travels to places which remain little changed by the passing of four centuries – Eileach an Naoimh in the barren Garvellachs, the ‘Great Garden’ of Lismore, and Iona.
In the hands of a less learned and intellectually nimble narrator, this approach could be clunky and overly sentimental, but Moffat wears his learning lightly and writes beautifully.
He has crafted a wonderfully readable and enjoyable book that is best savoured, not devoured.
In Search of Angels: Travels to the Edge of the World, by Alistair Moffat, published by Birlinn, £20.