Walker’s heaven in a fence post  

by
25 November 2016

David Chillingworth savours a pilgrim’s rugged pathways

 

Poacher’s Pilgrimage: An island journey
Alastair McIntosh
Birlinn £20
(978-1-78027-361-7)
Church Times Bookshop £18

 

 

THIS is a lovely book. Alastair McIntosh tells the story of a return to the landscape of his childhood, the remote Outer Hebridean islands of Lewis and Harris. Over a 12-day pilgrimage — a tough landscape in often appalling conditions — he walks from the most southerly tip of Harris to the northerly Butt of Lewis.

It is a linear journey. But it is also an exploration of the vertical strata of the history and culture of the islands. History and ecology are interwoven with a rich exploration of faith and culture — Christian, Gaelic, Celtic, and pre-Christian. McIntosh manages to be both deeply knowledgeable and poetic in a way that enables the reader to share something of the personal reintegration that he found on his pilgrimage.

The map at the front of the book is just the starting-point for the journey. He describes pilgrimage as a “conscious invitation to unconscious experience”, and sets off into a primal world, reminding us that “civilisation is only four days deep.” I smile at McIntosh’s quotation from his friend Dr Finlay, who describes the present rigorous Calvinism of the islands as “the more strident forms of belief which arrived on the islands during subsequent centuries”.

So his pilgrimage continues. He leaves behind what Yeats described as a “society which has cast out imaginative tradition”, and begins to travel through a more mythic world. That mythic world is a place that we lose if we try to “drive too sharp a wedge between fact and fable”. The charm of this book is that it somehow manages to reveal what we think of as the objective and empirical as being a limited and flat-footed way of thinking about, and experiencing, the world.

And yet, as he walks through this landscape of the spirit and the imagination, he is also capable of pausing to focus on just one thing. The most memorable for me was “heaven in a fence post”: a description of an entire eco-system in the top of a rotting post. There are mosses, lichens, and weird transparent jelly with “all manner
of wee critters that creep and burrow”.

All this could be dismissed as whimsy and nostalgic escapism. But, if that was all to be said for it, it could not bring about the healing and reintegration that he was seeking on his pilgrimage. It is as if our secular society has battened down the hatches on anything of the poetic, or mythic, or fairies, or anything of other worlds or other ways of experiencing things. And yet McIntosh manages to be multilingual in all these worlds in a way that allows some measure of creative translation between them.

In another of his micro-descriptions, he struggles in the dark and finally crosses a fence, saying: “I’ve crossed the threshold through both land and mind.”

This is a book to savour, and a book to give. It is remarkable and unusual in its deep knowledge and its spiritual versatility.

 

The Most Revd David Chillingworth is the Bishop of St Andrews, Dunkeld & Dunblane, and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church.

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