Mysterious island monk explored in new book

Author John Connell follows in the footsteps of Saint Aidan on Iona. Pic by Phil Cope

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The prehistoric and medieval landmarks of western Scotland take centre stage in a new book telling the story of one of the greatest northern saints.

The Man Who Gave his Horse to a Beggar, by John Connell, follows in the footsteps of Aidan of Lindisfarne, taking the reader on an odyssey through Ireland and northern Britain.

The Scotland section features Iona, where the charismatic holy man lived as a monk before embarking on a dangerous journey to preach to the pagan English.

The lavishly-illustrated book features photographs from award-winning writer and exhibition designer Phil Cope, and is a biography of a man about whom little is known until now.

It takes the reader to the rocky outcrop of Dunadd, seat of the warrior kings of Dál Riata, and explores the ancient monuments of Kilmartin Glen, near  Lochgilphead.

Temple Wood Stone Circle and the standing stones of Nether Largie were visible in Aidan’s time too, while Dunadd would have been a thriving cosmopolitan centre.

It was in this part of what is now Argyll and Bute that Aidan is thought to have encountered his future lord, St Oswald of Northumbria, an exiled Anglo-Saxon prince living in the court of the Gaelic kings.

When he returned to reclaim his rightful kingdom at the point of a sword – a story that inspired JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – Oswald invited Aidan to establish a monastery on Lindisfarne; basing it on the Iona model.

Part-biography and part-pilgrimage, The Man Who Gave his Horse To A Beggar takes the reader back in time but also asks what lessons this neglected holy man might have for our own troubled times.

Named in honour of one of Aidan’s most revealing acts, the work explores why Aidan has so often been overlooked and aims to restore him to his rightful place as one of the greatest figures in Irish and British history.

Mr Connell, age 41, a former journalist, said: ‘Iona was among the most memorable destinations in our epic travels through Britain and Ireland.

‘We arrived in late March of 2019, before the Easter rush. The beauty and calm of the island made a lasting impression on me.

‘The monuments of Kilmartin Glen are also at the very heart of the book’s major themes, including kingship and the sacredness of landscape.

‘And it was at Dunadd that Aidan would have seen the kings of Dál Riata
inaugurated, preparing him for his future role as Oswald’s spiritual advisor.’

Portals to this other-world still survive, suggested by mountains, forgotten ruins, holy wells and standing stones, crosses and caves, said Mr Connell.

Born in Newcastle, he now lives in Cumbria, England, with his partner and their daughter.

He previously worked for titles including The Edinburgh Evening News, with bylines in The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday.

The book has been published by Culture and Democracy Press and is available to purchase online through Amazon for £25.