Tracing the lives of early saints in northern Britain is a process that is fraught with difficulties. As Elizabeth Rees says, in the preface to this outstanding book, "most pieces of this very large jigsaw are irretrievably lost." She goes on to note in her introduction that very little survives that is even vaguely contemporary. Just as significantly, those who did turn their attention to writing about the lives of the saints, centuries - sometimes many centuries - later did so in order to "inspire devotion, rather than convey accurate detail." To put it another way, with very few exceptions, most of what we know, or think we know, is seen through milky and highly distorted lenses placed far from their subjects.
In "Celtic Saints of Scotland, Northumbria and the Isle of Man" Elizabeth Rees takes a very different approach to her subject. She starts by pointing out that the "Scotland" in her title is something of an anachronism, as nothing of that name existed until long after most early "Scottish" saints had lived and died. Nonetheless, it's a sensible title that gives the reader a pretty good idea of the area of coverage: much of northern England, modern Scotland, and the Isle of Man. She then takes her readers on a fascinating geographical tour that, area by area, looks at places associated with early saints.
The starting point is perhaps inevitably "Columba and Iona". An idea of the approach can be seen in a later chapter entitled "Ninian, Galloway and the Scottish Borders". In a series of distinct sections, this looks at early Christianity in and around the Lothians before moving on to cover Ninian and Whithorn. Here the various sources of information about Ninian's life are discussed against the background of Northumbrian and later Anglian conquest of parts of the area. We are also shown locations associated with Ninian, such as Ninian's Cave and Ninian's Tomb. The chapter then moves on via the Ruthwell Cross to Christianity in Old Melrose, then via Cuthbert and Boisil to the Norman abbey at Melrose. Places associated with other saints in the area covered are also highlighted, and, in many cases, illustrated (St Lolan's Chapel in Broughton was a new one on us: we must seek it out next time we are in the area).
Coverage continues via "Kentigern and Strathclyde", "Serf and the Southern Picts" and "Fillan and the Northern Picts" and so on through to the concluding chapter "Aidan and Northumbria". The result is a book that is endlessly fascinating, and which we suspect we will continue to refer to for the foreseeable future. It certainly succeeds in throwing up a significant number of places that are worth visiting, whether you are in pursuit of the faint shadows of the early saints, or simply want to broaden your understanding of early pre-Scotland by exploring some of the places it touches on. This is a book that is well worth buying and reading.