While Soil and Soul is
my most important book, I consider Poacher's Pilgrimage to be
my most beautiful. It presents as a travelogue, but it is much more.
During a 12-day journey by foot over mountains and moors across my
home isles of Harris and Lewis, I explore an ecology of the
imagination, immersed in both the historical trauma and the beauty
that leads to where the world stands today, and the spiritual
deepening that I believe creates an opening of the way. I find it
very hard to describe what my best books are about. I prefer to show
rather than to tell. The reviews below might give the prospective
reader a feeling as to whether or not Poacher's Pilgrimage
might be nourishing for them.
old battlefields. These
sheiling ruins – these
the ragged shadows, of
long forgotten summers."
"I perch to rest, and from this misty hillock,
the whole world goes drifting by. These moors – these
Foreword to the 2023
edition with new cover & subtitle (PDF)
Literary Reviews (this
video interview (5 mins)
The Adventure Show with Cameron McNeish - 12 min video of part of the walk
on ecology of the imagination (12 mins) at The Royal Society of Edinburgh
Cultural Psychotherapy: Donald Trump Maternal
Psychohistory landing page, with the USA foreword to Poacher's
by Brian D. McLaren
God, War and the Faeries: Mentoring and Carrying Stream in Writing
Pilgrimage, Assoc. Scottish Literature paper, PDF
Resonances - comments I've had from walkers on their own
way (this page)
Walkers' Tips - for people
maybe visiting the islands for the first time (this page)
Minor corrections and tweaks
to the 1st (hardback) edition, incorporated into 2018/2023 editions (this
12. Buy UK/rest-of-world
Amazon-UK or USA edition (Cascade)
provocative and, occasionally, very funny" - Joanna Kavenna,
Times Literary Supplement
"A book that operates on many
levels ... a metaphor for all of us who seek renewal from the land that Alastair
McIntosh explores so superbly well" - Roger Smith, The Great Outdoors
"This is a book I've been waiting years to read ... a joyful story, full of
warmth, humour and passion" - Cameron McNeish,
The Scots Magazine (book of the month)
"The Poacher of the title is the boy who grew up with his
landless peers. He goes poaching as an act of solidarity. It could sound jokey,
but it isn't" - Sue Weaver, Voice for
I read, I felt that I had been led to holy ground." - Brian D. McLaren, author of The Great Spiritual Migration,
Foreword to the US edition by Cascade
"One of Scotland's greatest living authors - a book to savour, to ponder and to work with" -
Professor John Sturrock QC,
Scottish Legal News and
"What engages him is a deep search - not unlike the vision quest
of native Americans - [that] a whole culture has lost and needs to rediscover" -
"Hard to categorise: travelogue,
biography, spiritual quest. Easy to rate: very, very good" - Professor James Hunter,
(his "Best Books 2016", WHFP)
"Poacher’s Pilgrimage is
a book of beautifully compacted writing – clear, strong and constantly
surprising – a fortnight’s walk that contains a universe" - Nick Hunt,
Dark Mountain Project
"This is a quite wonderful book - a theology of justice and peace and love
re-presented through human ecology"
Rev Kathy Galloway,
The Iona Community
"The language is almost poetic, reflecting the writer’s artistic gifts and his
understanding of Celtic and pre-Celtic culture" - David Thomson, Press & Journal
(book of the week)
"A poetically imagined, politically engaged, narrative theology which illuminatingly
tackles some of the deepest problems of our world" - Professor Timothy Gorringe,
"This is a lovely book, a book to
savour, a book to give - remarkable and unusual in its deep knowledge and its
spiritual versatility" - Bishop David Chillingworth,
honesty is humbling … he never skirts a question. He is on a mission, and having
been Scotland’s first professor of human ecology, he seems at times prophetic" –
Polly Pullar, Scottish Field
"I grew fond of my guide with his
quirky self-deprecation.... This is as much a journey into an unusual mind as it
is about the Island" - Madeleine Bunting, Resurgence.
"One of the most fascinating books I’ve read for a long while, if maddeningly
hard to categorise" - David Robinson,
Scotsman interview (print edition was titled
Pilgrimage of Grace)
Pilgrimage is a book full of generosity, spry in
its thinking and detailed in its observations"
Scotland on Sunday
"Much more than a nature book" Toby Clark, John Muir Trust Journal
"Deep and purposeful
... a coherent yet diffuse cast of mind" - David Robinson,
Books from Scotland
"Entertaining and thought-provoking" - Rev
Iain D Campbell, Free Church of Scotland, Isle of Lewis, on Twitter
"At times I found it a very frustrating work. He comes so
close - and yet stays so far away - from the truth of the Bible. Nonetheless,
this is a superb book from a fine and sensitive man." Rev David Robertson, Free
this sounds more serious than a Presbyterian church service, there is great fun
to be found in Poacher’s Pilgrimage. McIntosh is an entertaining subversive"
"A journey of people, history, geography and the deeper understanding of the
connection between religion and nature" - Lynne McNeil, Life and Work
"A sense of connectivity between
the head and the heart" -
Scottish Review of Books
"I read many of the chapters by the fire in the evening, occasionally with a
glass of good whisky to hand" - Dr David Lorimer, Journal of the Scientific &
I'm receiving a number of accounts from people who have read
Poachers and made their own mini pilgrimages on parts of the route. These
~ Two people, Jason Reese by foot and Allan MacLeod by canoe,
have made pilgrimages to Eilean na Caillich on Loch Langabhat in Harris (not
to be confused with the Lewis loch by the same name). Jason's picture, which
includes the start of the causeway (now mostly submerged, can be seen about
a third of the way down this
in-depth review article
published in Beshara Magazine.
~ At a talk I gave in Oban Library in summer 2017, two women
came up at the break and told me the remarkable tale of how they had tried
to retrace my steps across the Harris Hills with a pair of Highland pack ponies.
They had not realised that the bogs near Kinlochresort really are as
treacherous as I'd described them. They had a very difficult time. The
ponies got bogged, and had
to turn back after a struggle of several days. What most bothered one of
them, there being no mobile phone signal in the area, is that her husband hadn't
even thought to alert the rescue services.
~ A group of over 40 visitors from the New York Open Centre to
St Peter's Temple in Ness, followed by a historic session in the Free Church
at Cross, where the Psalms were sung or recited in Gaelic, Icelandic,
Spanish, Slovakian, Welsh, Mandarin Chinese and their original Hebrew (by
two of the Jewish folks present). Pictures of that day and audio of the
Gaelic and Hebrew can be found
at this Twitter link.
Walking in Lewis & Harris - some quick
Walking the isles:
Poacher's came out, I've
been getting quite a few people who hope to visit Lewis and Harris asking me where to walk
on the island(s). I try to answer all reader emails, but often time permits only a
one-liner. What follows is a more full response made to an American visitor. I
have edited it to be of more general value, but it is far from comprehensive so
take it as just a starting point.
There are, of
course, the many places that I mention in Poacher's Pilgrimage to which you
could walk. But for people needing something less wild, the temple sites and
wells that I describe are all very accessible, being close to places of
continuing habitation. If you visit these, please be really careful of them. The
ruins and the stone surrounds of wells are mostly very precarious. I'd hate them
to suffer any damage by, for example, people climbing on them. Bear in mind that
some of these places are in or near to village cemeteries that remain very much
in use. If a funeral is happening, it would be best to come back another time. Another thing to keep in mind is that Sundays on the
island continue to be treated as a Sabbath, or day of rest and spiritual
contemplation, with most shops and filling stations closed. The majority of
local people will appreciate if decorum is shown on a Sunday by not larking
around, especially near to their churches and cemeteries.
The first thing for visitors to understand about walking in
Scotland, is that since confirmed by our Land Reform Act (2003), there is freedom to roam and wild
camp in most places in Scotland. We shun the proprietorial sense of private
“property”. Rather, the land is for the respectful enjoyment of all. On the
island, you can go anywhere by foot, without permission, except through
"curtilage" which is to say, people’s gardens and immediate house surrounds.
Even fenced agricultural land can be crossed provided that you don’t damage crops or scare the
animals. If having to jump a fence, try and do so at strainers (the big posts)
where you are least likely to cause damage. In wilder land, especially the
mountain areas, please be mindful of not going within line of sight of deer
stalking. Stalking is the most humane way of culling deer numbers. It takes
place for stags from 1 July to 20 Oct, and for hinds from 21 Oct to 15 Feb. If
in doubt, phone the estate in question (the Visit Scotland office should have
their numbers) and ask for their advice. Remember that you have a right to walk,
but it's about mutual respect.
The sheep and
cattle that you'll see out on the moors mostly belong to crofters, the
small-scale local farmers. Please keep any dogs on a lead if anywhere near them.
Even if your dog is well behaved, having it on a lead will reassure crofters who
may be anxiously watching through binoculars from a distance. Again, it's about
respect. Many have had bad experiences of sheep worrying, especially in
the late winter and early spring when a sheep may abort her lamb.
And then the
weather. The Hebrides are famous for their wild Atlantic
storms. Some visitors come especially for the experience. You might get a week of Caribbean sunshine, but
more likely you’ll get gales with driving rain. If walking any distance,
prepare for all eventualities. Within the course of an hour you can be needing sun cream and sunglasses,
then heavy duty
waterproofs. Always have sound footwear. The best months for weather are April
to June, especially May. The midges - swarms of tiny biting flies that come out
in flat calm weather - begin at the end of May, peak in July and August, and
finish around late September. October and even November can be pleasant months
as the "Gulf Stream" keeps the island warmer than its latitude would predict.
For a real retreat like experience, come in the winter months. Local people also
have more time to talk then.
If using ferries,
bear in mind that they're prone to disruption when there's gales. The airline
that serves the island is notorious for running late, even cancellations, so be
wary of tight connecting flights and take out insurance. There is a good bus
network, though services are mostly several hours apart. Timetables are
and they seem to be synched in with the excellent
Traveline Scotland online
transport site with its own app too. Be careful of both English and Gaelic
spelling name variations as these give null results. For car or minibus hire, I
usually use Mackinnons,
but for no other reason than past good experience such as you'd probably find
across the board. Prices start from £25 a day. For coach hire, I use our own
village's Lochs Motor Transport
(I mean, Roddy Dan always ran the school bus very well, and no way could I vouch
for such services from any other village).
For accommodation, there are very few bed and breakfast places on
the island. Visit Scotland has accredited ones on their books, others will be
found on Airbnb. Book early, especially in the June - September tourist season.
I don't know much about hotel accommodation, but I love taking groups to the
Harris Hotel in Tarbert, described in Poacher's Pilgrimage as "a wonder of the
old world, a venerable fisherman's rest that is run to new world standards."
There is a network of hostels and bunkhouses through the islands. Staying at
these with self catering can provide a great transient experience of community.
See the list here.
Remember that you will mostly not get
mobile phone signal in remote areas where you might go walking. Even in populated areas, coverage is patchy and
varies with the provider. At the time of writing, EE is the only mob (cellphone) company
that provides 4G around Stornoway. They now have the emergency services
contract (which means they have to do repairs quickly). Traditionally, Vodafone has been considered best for phone signal
coverage, but again, mainly along the arterial road routes. Coverage maps for
areas with weak signal are
optimistic, to say the least. These days when walking I take with
me a satellite operated
locator beacon that I got for sea
voyages in the canoe. If parking
at a remote location, leave a note on your windscreen saying where you're going,
when you set off and when you hope to be back. Remember that the island is very
safe, so giving such instructions is unlikely to cause your car to be broken
into such as might be the case in some other places.
Pilgrimage I have given descriptions for the main
places that I visited. The grid reference and description for St Bridgit's
Sheiling is on p. 21 and pp. 198-9. Dr Finlay MacLeod's little guide books for the chapels
(temples) and the wells were out of print, but are now available again as of
2018 as a two-in-one edition
from Acair books. For most inquiries, the first port of call should be the Visit
Scotland tourist information offices in either
Stornoway (Lewis) or
Tarbert (Harris, open seasonally). A number of walking websites come up on
the internet. Google variously Lewis, Harris, Outer Hebrides and Western Isles.
Amazon.co.uk (don't use Amazon.com if you want the widest selection) comes up a number of walking books. Because I don’t need these, the only one I have is the little pocketbook,
Walks Western Isles
(£2.95), of which a sampling below (underneath the photos on the left). There is a walking club with a phone contact
here. For local
guides, perhaps inquire at either of the two sports shops on Francis Street, or
the Lewis Sports Centre. Events
such as walks organised by local historical societies are often notified on
We Love Stornoway.
If you only have a
short time on the island, here's a few walks to consider. Four of them are
covered on on shared pages in the Walks book, so I've scanned those underneath,
hoping that the publisher won't mind a little such publicity.
three new walking books came out from the Isle of Harris resident,
Peter Edwards. I am especially pleased, because it is Peter's
photograph that graces the cover of the 2023 edition of Poacher's
Pilgrimage, and which helped to inspire my writing of the new
edition's foreword. I
found out about them while walking the Eye Peninsula (An
Rubha in Gaelic), and there was a heavily weather-beaten copy
that somebody had dropped. With route maps, photographs and
narrative, they're themed as Walks in the Western Isles,
Lewis, Harris and Uist.
Mount Roineabhal, South Harris:
At my fittest I once climbed this in under an hour, but to enjoy it you need to
give a full half day, say 2 hours up and an hour down. Ascendfrom either the
back of Leverburgh on the Finsbay road (there's a wee track leading part way up) or
from Rodel, setting off near where the single track road begins just north of St
on the east coast road. That way, you'll have a gradual ascent, with wonderful
views opening to the southern isles, over to Skye, and even out to St Kilda on a
clear day. Roineabhal was the "hill" that was saved from being turned into the
world's biggest roadstone quarry. How come I call it "Mount Roineabhal"? That
was part of our highlighting its significance, and sitting as it does in a
National Scenic Area. The story's told in another of my books, Soil and Soul,
as well as being updated in
Poacher’s Pilgrimage. For an idea of what the ascent from St Clement's is like,
see the pictures that I posted
about the day that we returned the summit rock. When you're looking south and
west from the summit, you survey a sacred landscape. Very few of those tiny
islands do not have associations with holy wells, temple (i.e. pre-Reformation chapel) sites, names suggestive of
bygone monasteries or prehistoric stones or cup marks on the rocks. I just love
it when, as in the example given on p. 35 of Poacher's, people write and tell me
that they've made "the pilgrimage" up Roineabhal.
The Clisham Horseshoe, North Harris:
This is an 8 – 12 hour mountain walk, up the island’s highest mountain (Clisham)
on the Harris border with Lewis, and then on around several other peaks. You
need a car to get there, or synch with buses but with the backdrop of a taxi
number in case you take longer than planned. I walked it three years ago, it was
fantastic but I was fair whacked. The version shown in the map below is just up
and down the Clisham which is much easier, but also very dramatic on a clear
Huisinis Ring –
walked this, but it's on the same guide book double spread as the above, and
putting it here will remind me for when next I get the chance.
Stornoway Castle Grounds:
These wooded grounds run for miles and miles through lovely winding paths, with
the mouth of the River Creed a highlight. Much of the walk from Stornoway is
suitable for disabled access.
Coastal Walk Gearrannan Blackhouse village to Bragar:
This is a beautiful stretch of coast, mixing a majestic wildness with gentle
human habitations. There's also a hostel and self-catering accommodation at
Gearrannan. Bragar is the site of one of the most adorable temple
sites, Teampall Eòin
or Cill Sgàire, the chapel of St John (the Baptist). On the map below, it's
where it says "cem." (cemetery) at the far right, down by the seashore.
and Minor Additions to the First Edition
These are corrections to the original Birlinn
hardback edition of 2016. Most were taken up in the Birlinn and Cascade
paperback editions of 2018 and all are in the New Edition of 2023. The New
Edition is otherwise unchanged apart form the cover and subtitle. On the Gaelic, Dr Finlay Macleod of Shawbost
says that the care taken with Gaelic place names is "remarkable", but he has
sent some minor corrections, mainly
missing accents or misplaced apostrophes. Subsequent editions will use
Gaelic standardised to his standards.
Pp. xi - xv, Foreword to the New Edition (2023)
added, and the remainder of the Roman enumerated preliminary pages repaginated.
P. xvii (xxiv in 2023 New Edition). I had wrongly described my brother-in-law as
having been serving "in a very junior capacity" with respect to the Advanced
Command & Staff Course back in 1996. Actually, he was promoted very fast
while very young, and had become a Lieutenant Colonel at
P. 3, change date from 9th to 8th.
P. 60, change "the doctrine of total
depravity hinges on predestination" to "... sits alongside that of ...".
P. 95, change "Jessie" to "Anne"- I had
wrongly said that it was Jessie who had offered me a lift. It was Anne. As
Jessie later said: "Oh my dear, but I do not drive a car."
P. 107, change "metal that emits beta
"metal that can emit beta radiation...".
P. 192, change "moral hazard" (an insurance term)
to "moral injury" (the military term).
P. 216, after New World, add, "Donald Trump
is a case in point."
P. 261, top of page, for clarity add red text: "They
don’t fire guns, but they’re an
integral part of the fighting unit."
P. 263, after "fire of love" add, "The cross
absorbs the violence of the world."
P. 295: Finlay pointed out that the bibliography wrongly assumed that two island
historians, both called Donald Macdonald, were the same person. Macdonald, Donald (of Gisla) (1990) should read
(of North Tolsta),
and the entry immediately below it should be separated out and listed as Macdonald, Donald (of Gisla) (2004 reprint). He was the one nicknamed
"the Dolly Doctor".
P. 314, foot of page, delete after "in
Chapter 11" and in the space freed up, add new sentence: "For my research on the
1820s Mackenzie clearances of Trump's maternal ancestors, see:
P. 377 onwards, endnotes added for the Foreword
to the New Edition, index updated and in the caption in page 5 of the colour plates
of the original hardback edition,
"John Matthew Barrie" is corrected to "James Matthew Barrie".
05 Feb 2024