This is a guest post by Derek Guiton, reviewing Alaistair Macintosh's book Poacher's Pilgrimage: An Island Journey.
Alastair McIntosh, Poacher's Pilgrimage: An Island Journey ( Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2016, rpt. 2018 in paperback). ISBN 9781780274683. £9.99.
Alastair McIntosh has written a beautiful, inspirational and soul-searching book, the result of an adventurous twelve day trek across the Isles of Harris and Lewis in the Outer Hebrides where the author grew up. As soon as I opened this book, I found myself gripped by the excitement of the preparations and full of anticipation for the inner and outer discoveries that would follow. I certainly wasn't disappointed. The Outer Hebrides are famous for their neolithic standing stones, sacred sites, ruined chapels and other archaeological remains, often shrouded in mystery but offering plenty of scope for the historical and religious imagination.
These are the outworks and spiritual interiors that McIntosh visits as he takes us on a rollicking tour of a truly extraordinary landscape where scenic beauty and economic hardship go hand in hand, and where the people are still intuitively in touch, despite their ingrained Presbyterianism, with the pre-Christian 'Otherworld' and its stories of faery enchantment. It is from the liminal spaces between these worlds that McIntosh explores the myths and legends of this aeons-old Hebridean culture. Rather than dismissing its thought-patterns as mere childish superstitions, he sees them as revealing a traditional cosmology that 'questions the very structures of space and time, exploring consciousness and meaning in the deeper realms of life within the soul'. And he shows how such historically remote cultures with their different understandings and ways of being can open a path to reflection on some of the most urgent problems facing the world today.
Reading this book, I was delighted to discover parallels with my own childhood in the west of Ireland, the mixture of magic, mystery and myth that hung over the town of Sligo in those far-off days when I was a boy, the holy wells, the cromlechs, the cairn atop Mount Knocknarea believed to be the last resting place of Maeve, Queen of Connaught, the glens and waterfalls where one had to tread carefully for fear of 'the little folk' who might emerge and challenge the unwary. McIntosh's tale of the enchanted dancer with a jar of whisky on his back who is attracted by music coming from the fairy knoll, and ends up dancing himself to death, has a counterpart in the sleeper in the hillside, 'a great lad with a beery face', in The Hour Before Dawn, a poem by the Sligo poet, W.B. Yeats. And without wishing to press the comparison too far, I would challenge anyone to read (perhaps in conjunction with McIntosh's chapter 'The Rising of the Sith') Yeats' short poem, The Unappeasable Host, and deny that it refers to something deep and meaningful in the human psyche, accessible more to the religious mind than to that of the atheist or rationalist.
Yeats' poetry is saturated in the Sligo landscape - and soulscape - just as McIntosh's exuberantly poetic prose is steeped in the legends, folk tales, ancient sites and sacred locations of Lewis. It is work like McIntosh's, I believe, that will eventually rehabilitate the early Yeats, the Yeats of the 'Celtic twilight', making that 'other dimension' poignantly relevant again, a gentle but powerful antidote to the de-sacralising pressures, the materialism, the militarism, the commercial greed and environmental destructiveness of our modern way of life.
It is these harder - political - questions that the book primarily addresses. Poacher's Pilgrimage is essentially a work of resistance, espousing a non-violent activism that also speaks of healing, love and forgiveness. McIntosh meets up with an RAF pilot, home from a bombing raid in Afghanistan. The man is in an agony of mind and feels defiled by what he has seen and done. McIntosh tells him he no longer needs forgiveness, he is already forgiven. The point is, that faced with the unspeakable crimes of our rulers and those with power, we need a different spirit - 'an uprising of kindness'. What this involves can be summed up in a single phrase - 'Spiritual Activism', the title of another remarkable book by McIntosh, written in collaboration with his friend, the climate activist, Matt Carmichael.
Spiritual activism is concerned above all with community. Community here doesn't just mean the communities that configure our own age and which we think of as 'modern' and increasingly as 'broken'. It means community in its wholeness, reaching into the memories and meanings of the past, seeking fellowship with those who have gone before, 'the ancestral dead in the graveyard who are in some sense still alive, there in another dimension of existence', and straining after a future in which justice will be victorious. So as well as the archaeological sites, McIntosh visits an interesting array of native islanders. These are people whose tribal memory goes back to the battle of Culloden, the highland clearances, the industrial revolution and the two world wars, the weight of a history 'that breaks the heart'. The problems now faced by the people of the Scottish Highlands, due in part to this history of defeat and exploitation, include very high levels of heart disease, alcoholism and suicide.
As a spiritual activist and healer, McIntosh is concerned with reconnecting people and communities with the life-giving wells of their mythical, spiritual and religious antecedents, the 'holy wells' now overgrown with mosses and bracken, the importance of clearing which to reveal the pure life-giving waters beneath cannot be overstated. These are the metaphors and symbols that give us identity, refreshment and strength. Without a spiritual basis to our activism, he suggests, we are in grave danger of burn-out. I once saw inscribed on the lintel of an old Quaker Meeting House the words 'God being with us, who can be against?' Most translations of Romans 8.31 begin with the conditional 'if', but the old Quakers were confident that God was indeed with them, an ever-present support, and so they changed the wording slightly but significantly - a subtle shift from the outwardly combative to the inwardly holy. By having a religious faith and not relying entirely on our own strength as individuals or communities we may achieve a longer lasting and deeper commitment whilst avoiding burn-out. Is it any accident that the longer established foodbanks and homelessness projects tend to be those that are church sponsored?
Curiously, the one thing on this long meditative journey that McIntosh doesn't do particularly well is poach - unless dipping his rod into the wells of the Celtic past, as he deciphers the meaning of the 'tumbled stonework' scattered along the route, can be described as a kind of poaching. But the book is undoubtedly a religious pilgrimage and one where the inner cartography is as important as the outer. His frequent detours in search of some archaeological relic or craggy islander who is also a local seer and custodian of the island's traditional identity merge with a digressive stream of internal reflections as he searches for a perspective which brings together his 'political' interests, his sense of the 'imaginal' Otherworld from which the meaning structures of our contemporary world arise, and his personal sense of the real presence of God.
McIntosh is to be located within the liberal tradition of a 'progressive Christianity', open to the influences of other faiths and none. But he is far from seeking to jettison God or the meaning of the cross. This he sees as the Christ whose love and ultimate sacrifice absorbs - symbolically - the violence and oppression of the world. Neither is he seeking to promote a vague non-theistic pantheism. His repeated claim that 'we don't know what we're inside of', marks him out as a panentheist, one who sees God in all, rather than God as all. God, in his view, is not a synonym for the material universe, limited to time and space, but the mystery of the eternal Source of everything that is.
Poacher's Pilgrimage is an amusing book, in places downright funny. This is an author who can laugh at himself and is not afraid to expose his vulnerabilities. His larger than life personality shapes his prose style - rumbustious, thoughtful, inventive, poetic - and companionable. What's more, he is an excellent raconteur. This is what makes Poacher's Pilgrimage the perfect reading for a commute or holiday. It deals with serious issues but is one of those books which make it quite impossible to suppress the occasional capricious jolt of laughter. Be prepared for some strange looks from your fellow passengers!
The book ends, appropriately, with the image of the blue mountain hare, 'crouched, vigilant, amongst the rocks of Roineabhal , ancient, wild, eyes full of love' - Roineabhal, the beautiful blue mountain that McIntosh and his fellow spiritual activists saved from the depredations of the corporate giant Lafarge, 'the biggest cement and roadstone company in the world'. It speaks volumes for his approach that following their defeat, Lafarge brought him onto their Sustainability Stakeholder Panel to help them understand how they could 'shift their business model towards 'sustainable construction solutions', cutting carbon emissions per ton of cement by a third, and becoming the first major extractive corporation to recognise the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples'.
Proof, if any were needed, that spiritual activism works!