To the Island of Tides – Alistair Moffat

Non-fiction.

A pilgrimage, by its nature, is a personal journey of discovery as well as a geographical and historical trek. In To the Island of Tides, Alistair Moffat follows in the footsteps of Saint Cuthbert (634 – 687); monk, bishop and hermit. From the Scottish Borders to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Moffat endures a broken rib and faces some deep familial sadness as he immerses himself in the life and times of this medieval holy man.

Written in a smooth and jaunty style, the book’s basic timeline mirrors Moffat’s route from his inland home to the sea, and Cuthbert’s intriguing life of politics and worship from birth to death. In the same way that this is not a continuous walk, rather an interrupted series of day trips with a week’s retreat towards the end, so there are many textual asides: lush scenic descriptions, divers detailed accounts of battles (Flodden et al), and involved analyses of Latin place names interspersed throughout. The writing shines when bringing the Lindisfarne Gospels and The Great Tapestry of Scotland to life.

This book is brimful of liturgical references, despite his oft mentioned atheism, and his own search for succour from painful public and private events is woven into the story in sometimes uncomfortable and exposing detail. Going to some lengths to get inside Cuthbert’s head and heart, he scrambles up shifting sand dunes and under barbed wire fences before seeming to find some peace through his first experience of solitary contemplation on Lindisfarne.

Author of some twenty books, Moffat’s The Hidden Ways (Canongate 2018) was a vehicle for sharing his excitement in uncovering lost paths, and he utilises the same dogged skills in To the Island of Tides. Quoting from eighth century primary sources, he steers a fine line between facts, storytelling, anecdote and conjecture – after all St Cuthbert lived a long time ago. This tome is well researched; part autobiography (his family and ancestors play a strong role), and part paean to the spirit of the unnoticed: “until the coming of the census in the middle of the nineteenth century, the voices of others are largely silent. The fields … seem .. to remember their people, those who tended them.”
This pilgrimage incorporates local lore and biblical references, touching self discovery and a Saint’s life. Above all it is a homage to the importance of family and of belonging.

Review originally published by The Wee Review.

Published by Canonngate Books August 2019

Moder Dy – Roseanne Watt

Moder Dy (Mother Wave) by Roseanne Watt

Poetry www.polygonbooks.co.uk

Moder Dy is from the Shetland dialect referring to the mother wave, an underswell which local fishermen steer by, supposedly always leading them home. And home is a major theme of this slim volume of poetry by Roseanne Watt, poet, musician and filmmaker. Born on the furthest shores of Scotland, this is Watt’s debut collection and the deserved winner of the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award 2018. After studying far away at the University of Stirling for her PhD where she was supervised by Kathleen Jamie, whose own evocative essays in Findings have a similar air of quiet watching, Watt’s poems are like droplets of her homeland.

This collection is a moder dy itself, an undercurrent drifting the reader northwards to unknown lands. Divided into three sections, these poems have a weightlessness about them, like an Iceland Gull landing on spindly legs in a high wind. The first section, Stoal an old story, elucidates details: patterns of lichen on rock in Lichen Leid; the “unfolding into air” of the heron and “slud-light, the space between rain showers” in Haegri.

Roseanne Watt
Roseanne Watt – poet, musician, filmmaker

In the second, Sjusamillabakka between the sea and the shore, the choice mix of English and Shetlandic pearls continues. Listen to the lovely lilt of Christine De Luca, an established Shetland poet, before reading, so as to have the accent in mind. At first it’s a mild nuisance having to look up words in the glossary at the back. That is, until you are rewarded with the richness of translation. Take Akker for example, about objects which no longer have life in them: “I thieve such pieces on slockit days when words leave me at a loss”. Slockit means ‘extinguished, as of a light’, and on returning from the back of the book to reread the verse at hand, an immediate visual image appeared of Watt sitting at her desk searching for verbal illumination on a dull day.

Simple fields and sea on Scotland's most northern shores
Unst, Shetland

Throughout, pools of white page-space balance the sparse lines, reminiscent of Watt’s native scenery of rolling turf and mirror-surfaced lagoons. In Paddock Stöls, the rightset third line has a gap at the beginning where the reader’s ears strain before “listening-in”, the fourth and fifth lines have blanks for searching before “Look” and again “there!” Blinnd-moorie (an extreme snowstorm) starts in black ink-type, but fades to the faintest grey of winter breath dissolving into a paper whiteout.

Very simple Shetlandic dwelling in remote area
Textile Museum, Bod of Gremister, Shetland

Not only are wildlife and landscape, weather and sea treated with a buoyant sensibility, but there is an emotional consciousness too. In Fledgling Watt hangs back and watches as another stoops and cups a sparrow in hand: “a windswept heart made manifest; feather light and hollow…”. There is a palpable grief in Migration Day: “opening again, like skin remembering wounds”, and real heartbreak in The Diagnosis, but there is also the third and final chapter, Kokkel the compass, which guides one along the coast of this lingering melancholy and steers a safe passage home to the heart of things.

Highly decorated bus shelter with memorabilia from around the world
The world’s most northerly bus stop! Shetland

Watt is also the poetry editor for the online literary magazine, The Island Review, and her films (seen on Tumblr) are beautiful visual poems.

Other beautiful words: lomm – the change in colour of the sea when fish swim underneath; skerries rocks

Marjolein is a Shetlandic comedian and she shares some of her favourite words from the dialect on youtube – both enjoyable and informative.

Featured landscape photos by Isobel Cockburn. Title image Uyeasound, Shetland

The Spellbinders

by Aleardo Zanghellini published by Lethe Press. 3 stars

The Spellbinders is an historical novel set between 1299 and the early 1330s which spans the life (and some) of Edward II, King of England and his loves. Penned by Eleardo Zanghellini in 2018, an Italian born professor of Law and Social Theory at Reading Law School, this is his first novel although he has previously written The Sexual Constitution of Political Authority.

It is a quick read, broken into short sections which move back and forth in time, and there is a large cast with a broad setting which includes the vales of Scotland. Curly flourishes head all 334 pages with the name of the author on every left one – The Spellbinders is perhaps hinting at the design of the Renaissance manuscript.

The monarch Edward, who came to the throne at the tender age of 22, is renowned as ‘England’s most infamous homosexual prince’ (Lethe Press). Despite his marriage to Isabella of France aged 12 years, the book’s joint hero is actually Piers Gaveston, common soldier from across the Channel, whom Edward made second most important gent in the land.

As we have come to expect from the bulk of the factual information surviving from those Medieval times, there is a great deal of political debate between Earls and other men jostling for power. However, taking equal place in the narrative are the erotic exploits of Edward, Piers and, after the latter’s violent murder, those of Lord Audley and Hugh Damory the Young Dispenser. We do learn about the naive and accepting Isabella; Margaret the very practical King’s cousin who was married to Gaveston; of Pembroke and Lancaster, but it’s the graphic sex which takes centre stage.

Apparently as true to real life as possible, Zanghellini, in the tradition of historical writers, imagines the unknown details and pens them with relish, introducing a useful hidden corridor and other devices to link the famous events and add atmosphere. He relishes physical description (“the Younger Dispenser: fiery-haired and good-looking in a base, brutish sort of way – which meant not good-looking at all, really.” ) and there is a seer with a curse as well as the ghost of a monk with self-professed “woman’s hands” who stitches Gaveston’s head back on and embalms him. He has clearly researched the flora, costume and typical pets of the day, with many a gilly flower, and phrases such as “a mohair cape about her shoulders” and, “‘a camel’, gasped Isabella. ‘What’s to love about a camel, dear husband?'”

This is oerhaps a book for reading on the train or by the poolside.