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Picture by Vérène Nicholas
Picture by Vérène Nicholas

A Spiritual Journey

Tuesday February 28 2017

Thomas Baldwin meets author and activist Alastair McIntosh, a Quaker rooted in Presbyterianism


In conversation, Alastair McIntosh approaches every sentence carefully, choosing his words with forensic precision.

Perhaps it’s partly because he takes the same approach to writing that it took him seven years to complete a book about a two-week Hebridean pilgrimage.

Although he now describes Poacher’s Pilgrimage as his most important book, to begin with he wasn’t even sure his two-week walk through his childhood haunts in Lewis and Harris would make it into print.

He says: “When I got back and my wife said ‘are you going to write a book out of it?’, I said ‘I don’t think I’ve got the material for that’. It was over the course of seven years of writing and rewriting that layers and layers of depth fell into place.”

Poacher’s Pilgrimage combines travelogue and autobiography with musings on theology, mythology, history and prehistory, environmentalism, non-violence and land reform, among much else, all deeply rooted in the landscape, history and spirituality of the islands.

Alastair’s connection to the Outer Hebrides goes back to the age of four when, in 1960, his father took the job of GP in North Lochs. He was raised in the Church of Scotland but these days describes himself as a ‘Quesbyterian’ – a Quaker rooted in Presbyterianism.

“A big influence on me was the Rev Colin Maclean of Martin’s Memorial Church in Stornoway. In an environment where, in those days, you were channelled down a fairly narrow doctrinaire path, he encouraged me to see that statements of belief are not all that it’s about – it’s about the spiritual path, the journey of exploration.

“Then in the mid-80s, when I was involved in the peace movement, in protests against nuclear weapons etc, I found that many of the people organising these things were Quakers. I read what they had to say, and I found a teaching that was not based on a creedal foundation such as the Westminster Confession - with its problematic binary division of the elect and, by implication, of the damned - but rather a faith which was specifically about universal salvation, that salvation was offered to all and that the journey there was not so much what you say you believe but what you follow with your heart.

“Of course that would be the case in practice with probably the great majority of Presbyterians today, and yet we still have this problem within Presbyterianism of carrying a medieval theology in which, as Calvin put it, God is ‘armed for vengeance’, and that’s a theology that to me just doesn’t sit right with John’s fundamental axiom that God is love.”

However, he says, he does still appreciate the power of the Presbyterian preaching tradition, ‘the capacity of a good sermon to just put a finger on something which explodes in the heart’.

An example of an impactful sermon is related in the book, when he went to Sunday worship at the Free Church at Callanish.

“The Rev Calum Macdonald gave a stunning sermon, tying the ecology of Job chapter 12 in with what was happening in the world at that time, and I thought to myself ‘this is really interesting, because the Free Church would define themselves as having an evangelical theology, but what I’m hearing here is certainly not a narrow focus on personal salvation’.

“It opened a realisation in me that such a type of evangelical testimony and witness is the kind that I was raised in. It left me with a deepening urge to reconnect with these people, whose theology I don’t always agree with, but whose heart I was not just with but have been very much held within throughout my life.”

Alastair’s life took him from Lewis to study in Aberdeen, and two long spells in the 1970s and 1980s serving with Voluntary Service Overseas at a Roman Catholic mission in Papua New Guinea, where he was exposed to Liberation Theology.

This mostly Catholic interpretation, which emphasises concern for poverty and social injustice, is another piece of the theological jigsaw which has informed his work since he returned to Scotland, first as a teacher at Edinburgh University, and since 1996 as a freelance writer, speaker and independent scholar.

He made his name initially in the land reform movement, as one of the founders of the Isle of Eigg Trust, which succeeded in buying the island for the community in 1997.

“My principle direction in coming at that was a liberation theology of land and people. When you’re doing something radical, people need a sense of inner legitimacy. Even if they think they don’t really believe in God, the idea that this might be something that is God-mandated was important.”

He developed this theology in print in Soil and Soul: People Versus Corporate Power (2001), which took in both the land reform movement and the successful fight against the proposed ‘Harris superquarry’.

Hell and High Water (2008) takes a similar approach to climate change: combining science and politics with psychology, spirituality and insights into the human condition. While in many ways this book is bleaker than its predecessor, he says it left him with ‘a strange inner joy… and deepening my sense of hope for humankind’.

It was also completed against the backdrop of a personal tragedy: the stillbirth of his son, Ossian. In a 2008 article in Third Way he recounts how he and his wife Vérène, then seven months pregnant, woke up on New Year’s Day 2007 to the realisation that the baby wasn’t moving. They were, they wrote, ‘astonished and heartbroken at the love we feel for this child’ and ‘found grounding in a love that transcends death’, and hope in a sense that ‘Ossian would always be spiritually with us’. At the last moment, the word ‘hope’ was added to the subtitle of the book, which is also about finding inner spiritual regeneration in the face of outwardly bleak events.

Alastair, who also has two grown-up children from an earlier marriage, and Vérène have been together since 1996, and live in Govan.

Alastair's website

This is an edited version of a feature in February's Life and Work. Subscribe here.