Scottish Field

Islands of the Evening


Alistair Moffat is one of those sickeningl­y talented polymaths who wears his learning so lightly that it just washes over you.

In Islands of The Evening, Journeys to the Edge of the World,

he’s at it again. This time the Borderer has moved up country where he examines the impact of the Irish saints who journeyed to the Hebrides and Scotland’s Atlantic seaboard. There is, as Moffat concedes, much more to the Christian conversion of Scotland’s west coast than the story of Columba, yet Columba – who in 563 travelled from Ulster to Scotland with twelve companions, landing at the end of the Mull of Kintyre before making his way to the island of Iona – remains central to the story.

Moffat’s self-appointed task is to find out more about the Gaels who came from Ireland and sought solitude in Scotland’s remote places. In an alien culture they faced suspicion and often outright hostility, with many paying the ultimate price for their faith.

Moffat, who is not a man of religious belief, sets out to reveal their many stories, and does so with a mix of whimsy, gentle humour and a commendabl­y open mind. His quest is, like the monks who preceded him, undertaken mainly on foot and by boat as his travels take in everything from the barren Garvellach­s and the ‘great garden’ Lismore to Iona itself and the remote grandeur of Applecross.

In the wrong hands this could be a horribly worthy trudge, but with his plentiful supply of engaging anecdotes and historical asides, Moffat has a gift for putting readers at ease and bringing history alive. His powers of descriptio­n are as natural as they are vivid, and as he makes his way up and down the west coast in search of saints great and small, we are gradually but inexorably drawn into his quest. Part social history, part travelogue, part religious hymnal, this is a charming book that is as easy to read as it is enjoyable. (RB)

With engaging anecdotes and historical asides, Moffat has a gift for bringing history alive

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