How many mystics have you met? Have you thought them crazy? Have you bit your tongue while they told you about their visions, or did you just mentally switch off, bored but too polite to show it? Isn’t that just the way it is?
So let me introduce you to Alastair McIntosh. Blue-grey eyes, prophet’s beard, face wrinkled in a kindly way, softly spoken, slightly deaf. We’re in the front room of his neat terrace house in Govan. Solar panels on the roof but no satellite (or any kind of) TV. A once-stray cat threading its way across his shoulders as he sits back on a settee in a book-lined front room, the afternoon sun catching a halo of dust motes round his head.
He’ll be at the Edinburgh book festival today to talk about his latest book, seven years in the writing, called Poacher’s Pilgrimage, one of the most fascinating books I’ve read for a long while, if maddeningly hard to categorise. Ostensibly about a 12-day hike from the southerly tip of Harris to the northerly Butt of Lewis, it is at least as much of a spiritual, theological, historical and mystical journey too.
Above all, it’s a journey back home. McIntosh is the son of a doctor whose practice was halfway between Stornoway and Harris. Although he left the island when he was 18, the communal values he grew up with fundamentally shaped his politics. Here, not in our materialistic, overconsuming cities, was a model for sustainable living of the kind he found himself teaching when he set up Britain’s first MSc in human ecology at Edinburgh University in 1990.
And though that course controversially fell foul of the conservative university authorities, who closed it down in 1996, he has had the last laugh. Not only did he successfully move the course over to Strathclyde, but “now they’re all doing PhDs on my work on land reform, when at the time it was just an embarrassment to academia. And we had students producing really important work that opened up the emergent field of sustainable development.”
He has written about his work on land reform – specifically the Eigg buyout and the Harris superquarry campaigns in his 2001 book Soil and Soul, which has racked up a series of rave reviews among environmentalists from Swampy to George Monbiot (“a world-changing book”) and many others. In Poacher’s Pilgrimage, however, he ventures into even more contentious territory. For one thing, he is trying to show that Lewis’s spirituality goes deeper than the stern form of Calvinism we usually associate with it, and he makes a point of searching out its centuries-old beehive shielings, chapels and holy wells in use long before the Reformation.
“What I’m trying to do,” he explains, “is to pull together spiritual strands from Lewis’s people and the island itself – strands which have been largely lost or damaged, but are actually still there if you have a deep enough entry to the place.” Strip back both the cynicism and anomie of the modernity and the “spiritual apartheid” of Calvinism, he argues, and you can get a sense of the otherworld that earlier Gaels believed themselves connected to. They might have talked of fairies or second sight, but whatever it was, they felt a connection to something bigger than them. That’s something Sorley Maclean clearly felt in his poem ‘Hallaig’ (“the dead have been seen alive … and their beauty a film on my heart”) and it’s something that McIntosh has felt too. So yes, in a front room of a Govan terrace, we are talking mysticism.
Personally, I’m one of the least mystical people you could meet. I’m cynical and suspicious and doubting and agnostic about the reality of the spiritual world. Yet when McIntosh describes a similar mystical vision in a cemetery in Swainbost, near the end of his walk, my eyes don’t glaze with boredom. Instead, I find myself believing him – or at least believing that he isn’t making up the experience he describes.
“That epiphany I wrote about when I was in the graveyard and when I had the sense of the community of the dead coming alive, when I was alone and in tears and felt laughter and tragedy at the same time, and when there was a wild song on my lips (‘There is nobody here, but everybody is here’) … When I wrote about it in the early drafts, I was writing it as an academic would, not as I actually felt it. I quoted all the literature on the parameters of that kind of transpersonal experience, which are well studied and well understood. But then I thought that I would just share that experience with the reader.”
McIntosh realises full well that, out of context, the experience of epiphany must sound weird. But he has prepared the ground for the reader as best he can. Already the book has given us a sense of the contours of his mind – and it’s one of those minds that reaches out expansively and knowledgeably to a whole load of other disciplines. We also have a sense of his personality – thoughtful, ego-free, resilient and – yes, trustworthy. But even though he knows that writing about mystical experience opens him up to the possibility of ridicule, he insists that such moments are important to describe. “For one thing,” he says, “experiences like that feel more real to me than anything else. It felt even more real than talking to you right now.”
Does he deliberately search out such moments?
“Absolutely. I’m always in search of that experience of the divine.”
But is he sure that experience was divine? “I leave it open in the book, but if you’re asking me what I think, then yes, I think this is a divine interconnection, but I’m certainly not trying to push it on my readers.”
It may, he says, be something that happened in his imagination. “But what I am asking is whether imagination itself is bigger than we are generally aware of, whether imagination is part of the realm of the soul, that it may, in fact, be cosmic. That’s why I quote George Bernard Shaw in Joan of Arc. When the inquisitor tells her that God’s voice sounds only in her imagination, she replies ‘Of course. That is how the message of God comes to us’.”
His literary agent has always known about this mystical side to him. “’I’ll give you a word of advice, Alastair,’ she said. ‘Whatever you do, never write about the fairies.’” Again, risking critics’ ridicule, he ignored the advice. Why? “Because this is our own indigenous understanding of the metaphysical world, and there is so much modern Gaelic scholarship about it. And these things still are there in the people. But I try to write about it in an ambiguous way. Because what I am trying to do is to understand the imaginal qualities of the mind. And by imaginal I don’t mean imaginary, but the realm of the mind in which the imagination happens.”
The point, if I understand him right, being that it doesn’t matter what fairies actually look like, no more than it matters what aliens from flying saucers look like: each age imagines what it can’t easily understand in different ways, each culturally acceptable in their own time. But McIntosh would argue that what both of these “imagineers” have in common is what matters – a sense of connecting to something far wider than our own lives. He’s a Quaker, so he calls that God.
Then he says something I’ve never thought about before. “You could say that a writer or poet is someone who goes mad on behalf of the rest of society who do not have the time or inclination to do so. And that he then brings these insights of a widened or alternative reality back into the community in order to free up the blockages in the flow of life within it.”
If you leave out the madness bit, I think that’s what he is doing, when he opens up, both physically and metaphorically, the pre-Reformation holy wells of Lewis. When he writes, in some altogether fascinating passages, about putting the pacifist case to the top brass of the British Army, as he has done for the last 19 years, to the officers’ college at Shrivenham. When he discusses Gaelic literature on fairies and the experience of second sight or when he works as a founding director of the GalGael Trust, a remarkable community charity project in Govan. And even if you disagree with his essentially optimistic take on humanity, you won’t find a more intelligent, good-natured, thought-provoking guide to the Outer Hebrides.
l Poacher’s Pilgrimage: An Island Journey by Alastair McIntosh is published by Birlinn, price £20. McIntosh appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival today 10:30am.