I picked this up over the summer at the Greenbelt festival, where Alastair McIntosh was speaking. I should have read it earlier really, as it’s book as deep and beautiful as the lochs described in its pages. A strange but compelling blend of politics and poetry, prophecy and protest.
McIntosh begins with a rich and detailed depiction of his childhood on the Isle of Lewis, with stories of hunting and fishing, local lairds and bards, Celtic legends and histories of both triumph and atrocity. Foremost among these are the clearances, which saw the Scottish highlands cleared of farmers and crofters and given over to a landowning nobility. Countless thousands moved to the cities or took passage to America, and hundreds of years later Scotland’s feudal system remained. 80% of the land was owned by just 900 families.
A second strand running through this opening section is the creeping force of globalisation and its impact on Hebridean culture. The Islands had a ‘vernacular economy’ based on reciprocity and sufficiency, and this was gradually replaced work and money. “We were classed as poor because nothing went through the cash economy” writes McIntosh, raising the question of what we value, what wealth really is. Instead of sharing and cooperation came wages and consumption, and with them a gradual erosion of identity, community, and responsibility. ‘Progress’ came to the islands, but much was lost in the process.
In spiritual terms, feudalism and globalisation are similarly idolatrous, placing profit before people – “that’s the problem with old-style imperialism and modern corporate globalisation: both serve money before love”. Not that McIntosh suggests a return to the past – rather, we need to ask “how and why and who and what do these things serve? Do they free the spirit and feed the hungry? Do they honour the diversity of life on Earth? Or do they, somewhere or or somebody or something, mean enslavement?”
Part two of the book explores responses to these powers through two case studies. The first is the Isle of Eigg Trust, a group who contested and finally bought back their island homeland from the international playboy lord, kicking off land reform in Scotland in the process. The second is the story of how Redland Aggregates was thwarted in its attempt to create the world’s largest quarry out of the Isle of Harris’ Mount Roineabhal. The public enquiry for the superquarry was the first to include theological arguments, and included the testimony of a native American chief on the sacredness of place and the duty of care for God’s earth. Both are amazing stories and remarkable victories, full of hope and humanity, and well worth the reading.
It’s worth mentioning that not everyone is going to get on with Soil and Soul. McIntosh can reference a Celtic faerie story, a Bible verse, a newspaper article and a psychology study all on the same page. I think that’s wonderful, but I’m reminded of a comment that I got back on one of my essays at university: that it was interesting, but I “should avoid the metaphysical flights of fancy”. That lecturer would miss the point of Soil and Soul entirely, because the message of the book is inseparable from the style in which it is written. It is only in the wellspring of tradition that grounds us in a place, in the metaphor of poetry, in love for each other, for the earth and for God, that we find effective responses to the cold calculation of corporate power.