Poacher's Pilgrimage: An Island Journey
Review by Donald S Murray
Looked at superficially, Alastair McIntosh's Poacher's Pilgrimage might seem to have a frail and fragile frame for what is a book of considerable size.
Its subtitle An Island Journey offers a more accurate summary of what the book is about. It tells of a journey that Alastair undertook in May 2009 from the southern end of Harris to the northern tip of Lewis in the stretch of islands known variously as the Outer Hebrides or the Western Isles. It is a landscape both he and I know well. We are near contemporaries, attending Stornoway's Nicolson Institute at roughly the same time. (He was a year older than me.) Like many of our classmates, we have both, too, left the islands to which we belonged.
Yet Poacher's Pilgrimage is far more than a narrow, nostalgic look at the Western Isles. Instead, it swoops and sweeps far outside the borders of any group of islands, encompassing both faith and the ethics of modern warfare. It does this by focusing on the more timeless aspects of Lewis and Harris, the stone circles, holy wells, beehive dwellings and old ‘temples’ found upon its landscape. Their locations stretch between the far south, the wonderful St Clement’s Church in Rodel, with the ancient fertility symbol, Sheila-na-Gig carved into the south-west face of its tower, to the far north in Ness, where Teampall Mholuidh or Saint Moluag’s can be found.
Not far from my own childhood home, the latter was a building where worshippers in the seventeenth century reputedly mingled a pagan faith in the sea god Shony with Christian beliefs. It was also a site which inspired pilgrimages not unlike the one undertaken by Alastair. On my family’s croft in South Dell, there is a hill that is still called Buaile Na Crois. Apparently, it was where visitors used to kneel and pray when they caught their first glance of the Temple. It also acted as a ‘demarcation line’, the border of the old Morrison clanlands. If people crossed it, they would obtain clemency and mercy for the crimes they had committed elsewhere, giving their loyalty instead to the Brieve, the traditional judge of north Lewis and chief of the tribe.
This is not irrelevant to the content of the book, for much of it centres on the question of the just war. In particular, it examines the subject of today’s headlines. I am writing this review in the immediate aftermath of the Chilcot report, released only the day before, but McIntosh’s book does much to anticipate the questions the judge asks both specifically of Tony Blair, the UK's former Prime Minister, and also the military top-brass that were involved in the Iraq conflict.
His enquiries informed by his Quaker beliefs, Alastair reports conversations and encounters he has experienced with anonymous generals and soldiers during his times at various lectures and visits undertaken in Britain and throughout Europe. They even include questions he directs at himself. In one of the more horrifying episodes recounted in the book, he tells of a conversation he had with the pilot of a Harrier who had done service in Afghanistan. The airman refers to a father, a member of the Taliban, who has just asked the pilot of a medivac helicopter to take his children, bloodied and injured by a roadside bomb he was making, to hospital. As the helicopter takes off, ‘he pulls out an RPG – a rocket-propelled grenade – and fires it at the chopper, with his own children inside’.
The Harrier pilot then hisses his own question at McIntosh.
‘What does your pacifism have to say to that?’
All of this seems an aeon away from a walk across the moor. It is to McIntosh’s credit that – most of the time – it doesn’t seem too large a leap. He manages this in a number of ways. First of all, there is his own enthusiasm, a prose style that sometimes seems to verge on breathlessness. One sees it in his reaction to the discovery of a long-lost well or – even – the presence of a children’s playpark in the village of Eoropie. (Admittedly, it is a highly unusual one.) While I was at first mildly irritated by this, I more often found it endearing and amusing. A contrast to the darker subject matter within the book, it acted as a reminder of the boy at play in his home village of Leurbost rather than the man who spends much of his time in glass conference centres talking to military commanders.
McIntosh also succeeds in making a connection by grounding all of this in a discussion of the nature of faith, and especially its persistence in places like Lewis and Harris, locations in which various Presbyterian churches have considerably more than a toe-hold. He finds this in many forms during the journey, the congregation of Callanish Free Church, the stone circles and ‘temples’ I have mentioned before, but particularly in the ancient wells that Dr Finlay Macleod, whom Alastair encounters on his odyssey, has written about in his work. He reminds us time and time again of the link between nature and religion, describing his own writing at one point as ‘too pagan for the Christians, too Christian for the pagans’. One can see how some might feel that way, for McIntosh does try to straddle the divide that has opened up between faith and nature, the manner in which so many old crofters, the ones who surrounded me when I was young, took seriously their promise to provide stewardship for the earth. There are many who might even find the emphasis on spirituality throughout the work a source of irritation.
Yet there is little doubt that it is worth examining. The legacy of conventional Christianity bears much of the responsibility for the state, both good and bad, we’re in. This is especially true in those post-Chilcot days of those whose teaching of the Bible gave rise to the notion of the ‘just war’, the doctrine that Tony Blair and George W. Bush echoed – deliberately or not – during the Gulf War. It is a legacy of St Augustine, that legendary figure whom I recall even Bob Dylan singing about in my youth. In what that singer called ‘a voice without restraint’, he declared that ‘we go to war that we may have peace’, a doctrine that looks pretty threadbare when viewed from the ruins of Basra and Bagdad, when a judge rightly accused our politicians of not acting with ‘restraint’ enough.
It is to McIntosh’s credit that he examines both this and many other issues in the context of a journey from the south to the north of Lewis and Harris. In a remarkable work, he digs deep, asking questions that are even more unfathomable than the peat that covers much of its acres, burrowing down to the hard rock that lies below.
Donald S Murray is the author of various books, including The Guga Hunters and Herring Tales. The latter will appear in paperback in August.
Photograph of Alastair McIntosh by Dominique Carton.