on Gaelic indigeneity, soil, soul, empire, healing cultural traumas, and more …
I am most pleased to been granted an interview with Dr. Alastair McIntosh, Scottish human-ecologist and author, for GaelicUSA. I’ve known Alastair since the mid-1990s, when he was lecturing at the Centre for Human Ecology at the University of Edinburgh and I was a doctoral student, arguing vigorously with him (and others there) about the significance of Gaelic in the representation of human ecology in the Highlands. I’ve had the pleasure of Alastair’s intellectual company in the many years since, and the warmth of his friendship through some of my own challenges, and enjoy the fact that our paths have both enriched each other and grown closer in content and trajectory.
Two years ago I was given the rare privilege of reading the first draft of his latest book, Poacher’s Pilgrimage, and I am now finishing it in final released form. It is a remarkable and unusual book, on the surface a sort of travelogue through the landscape of Lewis and Harris of the Outer Hebrides. This physical journey holds together multitudinous tangents of a shamanic journey through the cultural landscape, the religious traditions, and the ancestors themselves and their belief systems. Alastair’s account is not mere nostalgia or atavistic eulogy, but a radical critique of the religious-military complex and a re-imagining of the meaning and value of Gaelic cosmology during this crisis of modernity.
[Original published on 2016 October 28 by Michael Newton]
Alastair expressed his apologies for having replied to this interview in some haste, busy with author events and other commitments, but I think that his responses are no less full of insight and spirit than usual.
(1) You’ve been involved in many issues relating to not just human ecology but also to social justice and community empowerment. What do you think is an underlying theme or connecting thread in this work, for you? Is there a set of questions or values that inform all of these challenges that you return to?
It was in reading Timothy Neat’s biography of the great Scottish folklorist, Hamish Henderson, that I hit upon the term “carrying stream” for the underlying flow of Scottish culture. Now, in Tim’s book there’s a picture of me with my colleagues at the GalGael Trust in Glasgow. It’s a project that tackles poverty through rebuilding cultural connections. In that picture, I was holding Hamish’s hand the last time before his death that he sung his great anthem, the “Feedom Come all Ye,” from the top of Edinburgh’s Calton Hill. A faerie hill, note, as the tale of the Fairy Boy of Leith reminds us.
And with people like Hamish, or Margaret Benentt or Dr John MacInnes, with whom you have conducted important work, you know that you’re in touch with forces that are much bigger than just what’s mustered up by their own strength of scholarly or cultural will, their own ego selves. You know that you’re with people who are speaking “out of” the tradition. They’re in the water of that carrying stream, of which John Lorne Campbell said it’s not about horizontal connections, as with the modern way, but about vertical connections, through depths of time.
Or as the Norman Macleod of Bridge House, Isle of Harris, put it to me in a letter before he died where he spoke about being blessed, or afflicted, by the second sight: “My God, Alastair, is the high and lofty one who inhabiteth eternity; whose name is Holy – not subject to any laws of man, mathematics, time or motion, and certainly not to be catalogued within the tiny mind of … any mere mortal.”
And so, Michael, you ask me what connects my work, and I’ve become aware over the year – and in part, bolstered by your own work and influence – that it is this carrying stream that connects it together. My twice great grandfather was Murdo MacLennan, the Free Church precentor of Contin, whose old-style tunes Joseph Mainzer attempted to document (Morag Macleod of Scalpay tells me he didn’t do it very well). There are times, and I document some of them in my latest book, Poacher’s Pilgrimage as well as in the earlier Soil and Soul, when I have felt swept up by that very carrying stream.
What is it? It is the force of spiritual interconnection, and its defining characteristics are life and meaning. What is the meaning of life? The spiritual is the meaning of life. How do we experience it? Well the shamans of many traditions have good answers to that, and Jesus, who I see as standing in such a tradition amongst other things, said that the presence of the spiritual comes about “when two or three are gathered together.”
In other words, the spiritual is about the reality of interconnection. The experience that we’re not just egos on legs of meat moving horizontally across the homogenised market surface of the world, in an economic paradigm where the only way that makes sense is to compete against one another. But rather, we are “members one of another” as Saint Paul put it on one of his good days. We are both individuals, and profoundly interconnected. And that has implications for our human relationships. It has rich and wonderful implications, because this, to borrow a phrase from bel hooks, is “all about love.” And in the love the meaning is enfolded. To live a life that deepens into love is to live a life that deepens into meaning. And wonderful poetry, song, music and literature can come out of that, because it is the living fount of creativity.
And what’s more – and forgive all my “ands” and poor grammar, but I’m writing this quickly as if I was speaking to you in person – what’s more, that creativity, as I try to show in Poacher’s Pilgrimage, is one with the creative power that drives reality itself. As I quote John MacInnes as saying in his collection of essays that you so adeptly edited, “From this shadowy realm comes the creative power of mankind.” It is “shadowy” only inasmuch as it represents the human unconscious, but it is much more than just the creative power “of mankind”. It is the love that turns the sun and other stars around.
That is my belief, or rather, my experience of it in Wordsworth’s sense of “intimations of immortality”. We do only glimpse “intimations”. But the great thing about the people I know who are deeply culturally connected, is that they understand that this is a spiritual force. And it’s a force that’s of the people, na daoine, but not in a way that is narrowly ethnocentric. Being about love, it privileges the twin sacred duties of hospitality for the short term, and fostership for permanence. You see, it is that sort of beauty of community that unites my work at the deepest level. It is a mystical thing, which is also why my work is hard to grasp for those whose attunement, at least at present stages in their lives, is mainly materialistic.
(2) The land: you obviously find yourself strongly connected to the Outer Hebrides in specific and Scotland in general. It is possible to theorize the issues in human ecology as pure thought, but you are exploring the cultural dimension of Gaelic sense of place and belonging. How do you see land and culture informing one another through the history of Gaelic Scotland? Do you find this to be a source of strength to yourself and others?
I do, but the strange thing is that I wasn’t conscious of that when I was growing up on the Isle of Lewis. You see, I was an incomer. I was born in Doncaster, a coal-mining area of England, when my Scottish father (with two Gaelic-speaking grandparents) went south after the war looking for work on graduating in medicine from Edinburgh University. There he met my English mother, and we moved to Lewis when I was four. Gaelic was frowned on in those days, which I think introduced a psychological blockage to the language that I carry as a kind of scar, and loss, to this day. What woke me up culturally as a young man was two things.
The first is that just before I graduated from Aberdeen University in 1977 Alan Stivell from Brittany came to play. It was like he lit a blue touch paper that night. The first half of the concert was traditional and very beautiful – the “revival of the Celtic harp” and all that. In the second half, they changed set, and went wild in a kind of rock concert. It’s like, everybody there was just primed to go off like rockets.
It was utter ecstasy, we woke up to something we had hardly even known we were longing for, and at the end of the concert we carried him out, shoulder high, onto the streets of Aberdeen. Now, that of course was connected in with such revivals as what the likes of Runrig were doing and for all that some might try to do a “Celtic mist” put-down on them, later Irish bands like Clannad. Those musicians worked on our consciousness. The music of the recently deceased Angus Grant of Shooglenifity is another example. As shamans, they reconnected us to the spirits, in the full sense that the likes of Mircea Eliade wrote about of other indigenous cultures.
The second factor for me was that I went from Aberdeen, to Papua New Guinea for two years, where I was with Voluntary Service Overseas (like the American Peace Corps), living out in the bush for the mostpart where I was teaching and setting up small scale hydro-electricity schemes for the villages. Now, the dominant expatriate narrative was that the indigenous systems of communitarian land ownership were “an impediment to development”. Over time, I came to question that. I came to see that such systems gave heart to their communities. They created what Iain Crichton Smith in that famous essay of his called “real people in a real place.” The irony is that I learned about my own people on Lewis through the lens of tribal peoples in Papua New Guinea.
I served a second two year term in Papua New Guinea in the 1980s. By this time, I’d done an MBA at Edinburgh University, and I was financial advisor to the South Pacific Appropriate Technology Foundation (SPATF). It was an organisation that was, at that time, at the cutting edge of radical thinking about development and especially, not just the hard technology of things like village energy systems or crop processing intermediate technologies, but the “soft technologies” of people development.
Papua New Guinea was newly independent, and its constitution stated (and still states) the first of its national goals as being “Integral Human Development” – a term drawn from liberation theology in the wake of Vatican II – by which, in the words of the constitution, “We declare our first goal to be for every person to be dynamically involved in the process of freeing himself or herself from every form of domination or oppression so that each man or woman will have the opportunity to develop as a whole person in relationship with others.”
Now, when working for SPATF in Port Moresby, the capital, I had the privilege of knowing some of the people who had been part of that independence constitutional process. People like the English Quaker Sir Percy Chatterton, and the Melanesian human rights lawyer, Sir Bernard Narakobi. I brought those sorts of ideas about people and the centrality of land and land theology back to Scotland with me in 1986. Phrases like, in the opening lines of the constitution: “By authority of our inherent right as ancient, free and independent peoples” (note the plurality), “We, the people, do now establish this sovereign nation and declare ourselves, under the guiding hand of God, to be the Independent State of Papua New Guinea.”
And you see, Michael, coming back to Scotland at a time of Margaret Thatcher, and land speculation in Scotland, and a sense of hopelessness amongst the people. And taking on the post of being the Business Advisor to the Iona Community, with its take on liberation theology, and becoming aware of our history with the Clearances and their ongoing repercussions – well, all of that was feeding as a carrying stream through me when Tom Forsyth of Scoraig turned up one day, and asked me to become a founding trustee of the Isle of Eigg Trust for land reform.
The Harris superquarry threat kicked off at the same time – we’re talking 1991, by which time I was teaching human ecology in Edinburgh University, just before I met you – and you can see what an explosive mixture it all became in my mind.
Those Melanesians (people of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and nearby), they had planted a magic in my mind. They taught me what it meant to be indigenous, and the imperative of reconnecting with our indigenous roots, and of creating kinship based structures of community for human sanity and shared empowerment.
Yes, in a way, I’m idealising this. There was plenty of violence in Papua New Guinea, plenty going wrong politically, we had our lives threatened and all that – but it is precisely where people are up against it that the power and the glory of that which is beyond human limitations also shines through. That’s what I started to weave into my work on Eigg, on Harris, and with the Centre for Human Ecology at Edinburgh before they closed us down for being too radical. And the land? You see, the land is the context of all this.
As I said in my testimony at the Harris superquarry public inquiry, it is the providential context of our lives. I even drew for that on the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “God manifesteth his decrees through the works of creation and providence.” After all, as Gustavo Gutiérrez of Peru said, liberation theology is something that you do, and you do it in a context that is culturally specific, which in the case of Harris, meant Presbyterian. Ho hum!
(3) For many people, the connection with ancestral culture and land is very far off. It seems to me that one of the messages of your work is that the total replacement of Mythos by Logos leads to the de-anchoring and displacement of the soul, which leads to the kinds of addiction from which consumerism tries to feed, and that re-engaging with indigeneity provides crucial grounding, literally and figuratively, that is healing and centering. Your work with the GalGael trust in Govan is surely informed by this idea. Do you see the same issues and the same interest and potential for re-connection amongst the Scottish diaspora in North America? How does it manifest itself? What do you think Gaelic tradition offers to such seekers?
Yes, let me say how I use those words “Mythos” and “Logos”. My lead on this is the late great Hindu-Catholic and Indian-Spanish theologian, Raimon Panikkar, who we had come and speak in Govan, Glasgow, in 1990, after he’d given his Gifford Lectures (now published by Orbis as The Rhythm of Being). I use Logos in a more restricted manner than the Greek of the New Testament used it, where it is translated as “the Word”. I use it to mean the rational, logical side of our being, and Mythos, to mean the bedrock of meaning, the story and visionary side of our being.
The problem with modernity, including most so-called postmodernity, is that it remains stuck in the head. It fails to make the longest journey of all – that from the head to the heart. That was the journey that Jesus kept telling folks to go on – because it’s not about what we say we believe (Matthew 7:21), rather, it’s about what’s “within”, what’s in the heart (Luke 17:21).
The problem with being stuck in the head, is it’s the realm that the ego thinks it’s in control of. That’s what gives you egocentric religion, whether it’s the prosperity gospel, the gospel of Apartheid, or that of multiple religious schisms around Freud’s “narcissism of small differences” as applied to beliefs.
As I read it, the shamanic figure who was and is Jesus Christ was telling us to get out of that small worldview of the small self, the ego self. Open up to the deep story of spiritual truth. Hitch a ride on those parables with the parabolic God-man, and be tripped out into a deeper worldview that is constellated by meaning. All else is idolatry – the pursuit of false satisfiers of meaning.
And Michael, you asked about how these things influence my work? Well, look at my book, Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition. It’s been praised as a scientifically rigorous book, but its real function is spiritual, analysing in just those terms of idolatry the consumerism that drives climate change. Do you know, I’ve just been asked for a copy of that book by one of America’s foremost climate change scientists. I won’t say who he is, but what I do want to say is that these ways of thinking are not “woo-woo”. These ways are shafts of vision, given to us, there for us to see if we but take a look and be, and they’re ways that are of real help in facing the frustrations and dead ends of today’s world.
In my work with the GalGael Trust in Govan, Glasgow, we tackle in such ways the poverty and meaninglessness that results form intergenerational poverty, and leads to the false satisfiers of addictions, or break-downs into varying forms of socially induced madness. Outwardly we build traditional boats at GalGael, but those Hebridean longships are a metaphor. They represent, to borrow from Joseph Campbell, the 3 stages of the hero’s journey: the Departure in life, when you’re mainly what your family and community have made or not made you; the Initiation, when you hit the rapids and the rough of life, and the name of the game is not to succeed or fail, but to learn courage, to move into your heart; and that brings you to the Return, where both Campbell and Eliade say that the function of the hero, or shaman, or prophet – all different words for much the same thing spiritually – is to bring the flow of life back into your community.
Now, Gaelic culture, or “Celtic culture,” as I insist on also calling it – because I think we are dealing here with parameters that are more than just linguistic – has a very deep understanding of that process. I was raised in it by the old men I grew up amongst on Lewis. I pass it on in GalGael. I call it “the touch of blessing”. We pass on the carrying stream, in a very real way, by “touch”, literally or metaphorically. By that wink to a young man in the workshop, to show him he’s doing good, that he’s in the carrying stream. Or when like the other day in GalGael a woman who was in a state of despair just took my hand and held it awhile, but it was me who received the blessing, like Jesus received the water from the Woman at the Well.
Is this all sounding a bit too intimate, private? Well, it is, but if we never share about these things, something in the cultural consciousness is lost, and our task as those moving into the eldership role is to pass it on or else we fail our land and people.
(4) Scotland finds itself in very interesting political times at the moment, particularly given the unfolding consequences of Brexit. What do you think American descendants should be watching and observing about this process and dialogue? What is the most fruitful type of interaction and exchange that Scots and North Americans could foster at present that might be beneficial to both, especially given the fraught conflict of interpretation over the legacy of the British Empire?
It’s not just Brexit, it’s also the whole independence debate. To be a nation is to be a community of place writ large. It is to be a peoples (plural), the people who make up community, the people who look out for one another to make together not just any old life, but promised “live abundant” (John 10:10). Oh, forgive all the Biblical references. I can’t help myself, though I could equally offer them from a Muslim or a Hindu perspective if you wanted, because my influences and love of these things is interfaith.
I’m on the editorial board of the Independence website, Bella Caledonia, and the other editors comprise a range of leading cultural figures in the land just now. The other day we had a discussion amongst ourselves about where to apply energy just now. The opinion polls have not, in spite of Brexit, being showing much of a move towards independence. Well, Brexit’s consequences have not kicked in yet, but a lot of the editors were feeling frustrated.
The general conclusion seemed to be that where we need to place our energies right now is in the domain of this deep cultural work. We won’t get independence until, as a people(s), we are ready for it within ourselves. Until we’re ready, we’ll be too much voting by our hip pockets. How do we get ready? We have to examine ourselves, and ask what kind of a peoples we want to be. What are our values? What do we want of and with this land that is Scotland? How does that sit with our neighbours, and with those who have migrated to settle here, not least the orphan and the refugee?
Most political commentators don’t see these things as spiritual questions, but I see them very much as such. And the consequences of failing to understand this can be dire.
Consider Donald Trump, a man whose mother emigrated from Lewis, and lost her roots, lost herself being held in the community. Look at the ugly, ugly consequences. And look at how near enough half the American population seems to have resonance with that.
You see, if you leave your land because of Clearance, Enclosures or economic limitations, and you set up shop elsewhere in a context that requires oppressing, colonising, other native peoples, you wound your own soul. “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee”, says the Native American. But we, whose kinsfolk perpetrated atrocities like the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, we need to find ourselves there by re-membering that history, and healing from and asking to be forgiven from what it was that we did.
And that, all that, with understanding. Because I’ll tell you, Michael, there’s something in the white man worldwide by which there’s a bit of Donald Trump in all of us. Empire is an idolatrous force that sucks in many good people – including the British Empire, including that of American exceptionalism. Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychotherapist, said the problem is not that we all carry a dark side, the “shadow” he called it, but that we deny our own dark side. We then trip up over it.
My work has drawn so heavily on other indigenous peoples because they show us our shadow, they forgive, and heal. They too are vulnerable to the dynamic by which the oppressed so easily become oppressor, so we’re all in this together. This, as Paulo Freire of Brazil saw, is the great work of humanisation, by which the oppressed must liberate not just themselves, but their oppressors too.
Because it’s all about love. It’s all about our individuality being held in the crucible of the oneness of spiritual interconnection. And this is very beautiful work. This is the work that the Gaelic prayers documented by Carmichael, and the music handed down, all of that, is given to us for. That is why, when I stood in front of the stained glass window on the Isle of Gigha for the Rev Kenneth Macleod, tradition bearer of Eigg, I wept spontaneously with sorrow for what we have lost, and joy for what still resurges to us from out of the living carrying stream.
I tell that story in Poacher’s Pilgrimage. That is why I am so proud of our traditions, and want to see them deeply activated in our times not just for us, but for all.