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Poacher's Pilgrimage, by Alastair McIntosh (Birlinn) - Review

ABOUT 20 years ago I made a television programme with an American backpacker who had learned much of his ‘craft’ from native North American sources. I was intrigued by the notion of learning from those who had recognised something fundamental and vitally important in their relationship with the natural world, a connection we have lost in our modern world.

But what of our Scottish native sources? The natural world was central to the beliefs of the ancient Celts, who tended to build their temples or cells sited in such a way as to exploit the energies of the earth. A shrine to Manannan, the lord of the waters, might be built near a river.

Certain places held certain kinds of power, depending on factors such as the stone underlying them, the kinds of vegetation that grew and the positioning of nearby hills or waterways. Some places were for healing, some for energizing, some conducive to contemplation while others may simply have had an uncomfortable or uncanny atmosphere.

Certainly, the ancient Celts knew few cities or towns, and their landscapes were generally those of forests, woods, mountains or seashores. The natural world was vitally important to them – spiritually so, for the sky and the unspoiled land provided a relationship between man and the cosmos, a relationship that is almost unknown to us today, a relationship – not unknown to other ancient belief systems – that our modern society has allowed to wither and atrophy.

In his new book, Poacher’s Pilgrimage, author Alastair McIntosh examines a broad swathe of issues including spirituality, history, landscape and the Gaelic language, all in the context of a 12 day walk through the landscapes of his childhood, from Rodel in the south of Harris to the Butt of Lewis, an island that is littered with artefacts of the distant past – stone circles, beehive huts, holy wells and temples, a landscape that even today is suffused in a spirit of place.

Using his knowledge of ecology, history and religion, McIntosh, a practicing Quaker, explores the meaning of these places and what they meant to our ancestors and, in turn, what they may mean to us today. On a very different level he uses the solitude and the beauty of the landscapes he passes through to examine what he describes as an ‘immram or ioramm’ – a kind of pilgrim voyage towards an ecology of the imagination.

A fascinating aspect of this journey was in the recognition of nature as a divine mirror of the cycles and power of the universe and animals, lochs, trees, stones, the sun, moon, and seasons as reflections of a sovereign God, by a man who actively campaigns for peace, a man who spends considerable amounts of time lecturing to soldiers, to army officers, to military commanders the necessity for non-violence.

And he’s convincing – how can you spend time in such places without wanting to know the meaning of it all, how can we correlate the grandeur and beauty of our world with the corruption of mankind that weighs so heavily on world peace?

This is a book I’ve been waiting for years to read. I’ve learned so much from it and Alastair McIntosh has encouraged me to try and discover more, to make my own personal ‘immram.’

But more than that McIntosh relates a joyful story, full of warmth, humour and passion, of how we can learn from the past to make our future brighter and safer and rediscover those things that our Celtic ancestors found to be absolutely essential for a balanced and thriving ecology of mind, spirit and land.

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