Waking Up on Iona: Alistair Moffat goes In Search of Angels

  27 Mar '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Alistair Moffat roamed across Scotland’s western seaboard looking for traces of the saints who first brought Christianity to these shores. These men sought a closer connection to God through testing themselves against the elements and living lives of devotion and reflection in isolated communities. While Alistair’s journey in In Search of Angels takes in Brendan in the Garvellachs, Moluag on Lismore, and Maelrubha at Applecross, Columba’s Iona is at the centre of the book. Here is his account of a night spent wild camping on the island’s western beaches, where he managed to both rest his mind in reflection and achieve some bodily mortification.

From In Search of Angels: Travels to the Edge of the World by Alistair Moffat

I found I could look directly at the sinking gold disc of the sun as its brilliance faded. Searching the sky, I could not see any sign of moonrise. Instead, I sat quiet, watching the hypnotic wash of the waves, listening to them sighing, rising and falling, the ocean breathing. Time seemed to shift a little. Instead of looking at my watch, I felt myself in the midst of the world’s clock, moved not by the action of a mechanism but by the four elements. The earth beneath me was cooling, the air around me clean and fresh, the waters of the ocean beating the shore like a drum, the fire of the sun dying beyond the horizon. This was old time, eternal time, the turns of the weather, the seasons and the moods of the land.

Thinking about these things but not thinking, I found myself at last absorbing a sense of Columba’s island, the place he made holy, and somewhere that had been sacred before he came. George MacLeod reckoned Iona to be a thin place and I began to intuit what he meant. The veil between worlds, between the spiritual and temporal, between what can be seen and what can be imagined, was gossamer thin for me on that evening by the Bay at the Back of the Ocean. Of course, I knew something of the story of this place and how could that not inform what I thought? But what I felt could have been felt before Iona had any history. It is part of its fundamental essence, this thinness, this wispy sense of otherworldliness, and it is what brings pilgrims back again and again. I believed that I myself had shifted, had got on the other side of something – but I had no idea what that something was.

Iona has long been understood as a place with a unique genius loci, a place of spirits, a place where spirits brush past like a breath of wind, whispering of a past that existed before time, their form as delicate, insubstantial as morning cobwebs on your face.

On my walks and other journeys, I make notes most of the time and take hundreds, thousands, of photos with my phone, recording everything that strikes me, guarding against a chronic forgetfulness. But the pages for that evening are blank. I made no notes and took no photographs and yet, three months after I returned from Iona, I can recall perfectly what I saw and how I felt.

The silence lulled me, made all that I did slow and deliberate. It had been many years since I had slept the night outside but, without thinking about it, I began to prepare, pulling on my pullover, zipping up my body warmer, slipping my thin anorak over my head. Taking out my spare shirt, I folded it so that it would make a soft pillow to go on top of my backpack. The sand was firmer than I had imagined but when I lay down and stretched out, I found that my drowsiness fled. In the clear sky of the summer dim, I could see some of the brighter stars – I wish I knew their names – and a half moon. I could not tell if it was waxing or waning. It seemed that Heaven lay open above me.

For Columba and his monks, darkness was the time when angels fled and devils crawled out of the shadows. A pantheon of evil existed, and all had names. Some of them, like Behemoth and Mammon, have been remembered, others, like Chemosh and Samael were fallen angels brought down from the glories of Heaven by Lucifer himself. Some took the guise of animals – Azazel stalked the night as a goat, Moloch stamped the ground as a bull. Incubi and succubi hid in the dark places of the world until the light died in the west and black night descended. Darkness hid the realm of Satan, who was vividly real to all believers. The monks’ defence was the Word of God, his name repeated over and over again in prayer. Or the psalmody was chanted to create a rampart of praise, and the laus perennis could keep evil at bay.

In the half-light, when formless shapes seem to flit on the edge of vision, I found myself not fretting, straining to hear strange sounds, not wondering about a sudden movement amongst the rocks of Druim an Aoineidh, but lying on the sand at peace, for some reason thinking of the deeps of the world. Beyond the beach and the bay, the vastness of the mighty Atlantic shelved down to unimaginable darkness and silence. Not far to the south lay the little island of Oronsay where prehistoric mounds or middens made from shell debris were found. In them archaeologists discovered human bones and also those of seal flippers mixed with the discarded bounty of the ocean. Half-dreaming of wraiths or ancient souls swimming in the deeps with the seals, I fell sound asleep.

Houses have characteristic sounds in the early morning – creaks, inexplicable ticking noises, clicks as water pipes expand or whistles when the winds blow. Waking up slowly in my cleft in the machair, I heard the wash of the ocean, the breeze soughing and, for a few moments, I had no idea where I was. Perhaps I was lying in my last resting place and I had found myself in another world, having passed through a gossamer veil to the other side of something I did not understand. Perhaps I inhabited a dream of Iona. As waves of consciousness began to break over me and I began to remember the magical evening, I realised I was bitterly cold and sore. Unable to push myself up because one arm was completely numb – perhaps I had been lying on it – I rolled over on my side and managed to scramble on to all fours. The pins and needles in my arm were almost painful and so I sagged down on my side to wait for the feeling to return. My flesh had certainly been mortified.

Without intending to, it came to me that I had kept a version of a vigil, the sort of ritual that Columba’s monks practised. Like these pious men, but with none of their Christian belief, reciting no prayers, not threading the prayer rope through my cold fingers, chanting no psalms, I had passed the night alone in the darkness, when fell demons were abroad, when Satan stalked the land. And despite my impiety and unbelief, I had felt no fear. There seemed to me to be an inchoate sense of the sacred soil of the Reilig Odhrain flowing far beyond the enclosure of the ancient graveyard, spreading underground like the roots of the Tree of Death, that all of the soil of Iona was sacred and could be a salve to the soul as well as cleanse it of mortal sin.

Even though it is my fi rm belief that our deaths are final, that no afterlife awaits us and my soul could not be cleansed, full of sin though it must be, because it is not immortal, I could not explain why my night of solitude had affected me so strangely, even deeply. Was doubt nibbling at these lifelong certainties? Although I am sure there is no God, I was coming to understand there are places that are touched by an otherness, that have a unique spiritual atmosphere that seems to have no empirical explanation. I had sensed that on Lindisfarne, grasped at fleeting hints of it on Eileach an Naoimh and on Lismore. But, here, waking alone on the dawn machair on Iona, I felt that otherness powerfully.

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