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All Saints Day – But we are In Search of Angels

  01 Nov '20   |  Posted by: Birlinn

The end of October ushers in colder days as we sit at the start of winter. And this year, more than most, we are looking at difficult months ahead. In regular times, Halloween gives families and youngsters an excuse to party with friends and knock on the doors of neighbours, dressed in a wild mix of homemade and shop-bought costumes. In a year of pandemic we were encouraged not to take children out trick-a-treating or guising but communities found their own ways, different ways, to mark the evening and give children a moment of pleasure. For some it was Secret Halloween Giving – leaving hygienic bags of treats on the doorsteps of friends. For others, sugary and fruit treats were hung by sanitised hands and at a safe distance on hedges and trees. Candles were lit in carved pumpkins – and still the odd turnip lantern. Windows were decorated with ghoulish images and eerie lighting. Family groups came out to see the show, physically distant but socially very much together. Masks had a new role this year.

In all, if felt more like the Halloween of old than the celebrations of the last two decades in which American traditions have gradually taken hold – as though we were taking the best of the old and the best of the new and creating something of our own. The wains had a laugh, the adults perhaps more so in an evening which gave them back the sense of respectful community and friendship kindled in the Spring and Summer but now much needed once again as many face long days and dark nights in isolation.

The origins of Halloween are long lost to us. Many believe its origins lie in an ancient Celtic festival to mark the end of harvest season and beginning of winter. It was also believed to be the time when the human and the spiritual world overlapped. In the western Christian calendar Halloween is known as All Saints’ Eve. It is followed by All Saints’ Day on 1 November and All Souls’ Day the following day.

All Saints’ Day is the day on which Christian’s honour the saints. Fourteen centuries ago, the saints brought God’s Word to the Hebrides and Scotland’s Atlantic shore. Brave men travelled to the very edge of the world in search of isolation and extreme conditions in which to challenge their belief and come closer to God. And to see Angels.

Putting all their faith in God’s mercy and providence the papars were extraordinarily intrepid, as much explorers as seekers after solitude in the desert wastes of the ocean… their faith launched them into the unknown, into the endless horizons of the ocean, out of sight of God’

Scotland’s people’s historian, and in this instance ‘hiker historian’, Alistair Moffat retraced their steps at some risk to personal safety as he scrambled remote rock faces in search of the personality behind the names only half recalled through time, the journeys undertaken by brave souls but not always successfully (their tiny curraghs being lost to the mighty Atlantic), the early monasteries reclaimed by nature – and recorded their origins and their impact on Scotland’s story. His journey took him from the South of France to the west of Scotland, the very edge of the world, in search of evidence of their existence. He travels from the barren Garvellachs to Lismore’s Great Garden, to the island of Iona – the cradle of Christianity in Scotland – inhabited now by only 120 permanent residents but visited by more than 130,000 travellers ever year, and on to Applecross, a peninsula beyond the mountains. He explores the route of the Papars, the early Irish ‘white martyrs’ identified now only in place-names – Pabbay south of Barra, and another Pabaih off Harris, Pabail on the eastern shore of Lewis, Papa Stronsay on Orkney and Papa Westry, Papa Stour off the mainland of Shetland and making landfall as far north as the Faroe islands, Paparokur and Westmanna.

His journey is that of a historian; this is not a religious quest, and yet he finds the saints at his side – never more so than in Applecross:

I do not and never have felt the presence of God, any god, but in the late afternoon of that last day in Applecross, I sensed the presence of the dead in every part of that church. Maelrubha, Brendan, Moluag, Donnan and even Columba – all of these men who lifted up their eyes and searched for angels in the huge Highland skies. Their spirits danced with the dust in the sunlit air. For a few fleeting moments, they were with me

In Search of Angels: Travels to the Edge of the World by Alistair Moffat is available now. Reading it restores a sense of peace, and of learning – and makes this reader yearn for the steep, winding cattle road to Applecross.

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