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The Love and Courage podcast features interviews with inspirational people who are making a real difference in the world today. Guests are typically people passionate about social justice, and who have demonstrated courage and conviction in their lives.
Host Ruairí McKiernan is leading Irish social innovator, campaigner, writer and public speaker. He is the founder of the pioneering SpunOut.ie youth organization, and helped set-up the Uplift and the A Lust For Life non-profits. In 2012 the President of Ireland Michael D Higgins appointed Ruairí to the Council of State, a national constitutional advisory body whose members include all current and former leaders of the country. Ruairí is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Fulbright fellowship, and he contributes regularly to the media on youth, health, community and social justice issues.
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[00:01:22] RM: My guest in this episode is Alastair McIntosh, a well-known Scottish author, Quaker, activist, and visiting professor at the University of Glasgow. Born and raised on the Isle of Lewis, off the west coast of Scotland – the birthplace of Donald Trump’s mother – Alastair is a passionate force for change in land reform, cultural renewal, climate change, and peace and justice. I was fortunate to welcome Alastair during his recent trip to Ireland. I really enjoyed hearing his stories, his unique observations, and reflections, and I hope you do, too.
[00:01:54] RM: Alastair, thanks so much for coming on my podcast today. You’ve just arrived off a flight from Scotland, and it’s a real pleasure to welcome you back to Ireland, again.
[00:02:03] AM: Thank you, Ruairi.
[00:02:05] RM: So, what’s happening in Scotland, these days? What are the big things on your plate?
[00:02:09] AM: Ah, we’re Brexited-out, and we’re Trumped-out. Some of us are hoping that our country can make its own way – because we’re fed up with a politics of meanness, a politics of nuclear weapons, which are located just 20 miles or so from where I live in Glasgow.
[00:02:33] RM: That’s Trident, isn’t it?
[00:02:35] AM: That’s Trident, you see. The British state wants to maintain its weapons of mass destruction, although a majority of people in Scotland don’t want them – depending on which survey you look at – but most of the surveys are against it. And the Scottish government is strongly against it. And yet, they force this weapon on us, saying that Britain needs to punch above its weight. To which my question is: why should any country, if it is concerned with justice, want to punch above its weight?
[00:03:13] RM: Yes, so they’re some big issues.
[00:03:14] AM: Yes, they’re big issues we’re talking about – we’ve got…the Scottish government is a devolved government, and the trouble with power that’s devolved is that it’s power that can be taken away again. Hence why, just yesterday, you had Fallon – the minister for defense – saying that Scotland’s not going to get another referendum on independence, at least until 2020. So, kind of like: it doesn’t matter what the Scottish government want to try and do, Westminster will decide – in other words, Conservative MPs will decide, although we’ve only elected one in Scotland.
[00:03:54] RM: One, wow. And the last referendum – was it 45/55?
[00:03:59] AM: It was 45/55, yes.
[00:04:01] RM: And that was against all the odds.
[00:04:03] AM: But that was on the basis of trying to scare people, saying: “If you vote for independence, you’ll be thrown out of Europe.” Well, because we didn’t vote for independence, we’re being dragged out of Europe. And I don’t know what you Irish feel about it, or at least the people in the North – because they’re going to lose free trade, they’re going to have questions of free movement, the question of whether they will still have recourse to European courts on matters like human rights. None of these questions have been adequately answered. I don’t know what they make of it.
[00:04:35] RM: Yes, no – it’s an absolute calamity, how it’s been managed, or mismanaged, or not managed at all, by the looks of it. And we’ve a particular issue, here, in terms of what becomes of the border. And none of us want to return to hard borders – we’re being promised that there won’t be a hard border, but yet there’s no mechanism for that to exist.
[00:04:53] AM: There’s no mechanism – and I mean, in a way, there’s got to be. Because if you’re going to have trade tariffs, you’ve got to have a hard border. Otherwise there’s no point in having the tariffs.
[00:05:01] RM: Yes, yes – which almost forces into the discussion the idea of some form of united Ireland, which most people can’t seem to palette. But there’s going to have to be an arrangement, from it.
[00:05:15] AM: Well, that’s all going to be very interesting territory.
[00:05:17] RM: Yes. What about the idea – I often wondered about the idea of some sort of Scottish-Irish merger.
[00:05:25] AM: [Laughter].
[00:05:27] RM: Because there was a time, back in history… You have to remember that these borders are fairly new things, anyway.
[00:05:31] AM: Well, very much so. I mean, the original border, if you like, was in St Columba’s time, way back in the sixth century. It was called Drum-Alban – the ridge of mountains that run down the spine of Scotland. And so your division, as you can see very clearly when you read [inaudible 00:15:59]’s biography of St Columba: the division was east-west, where you had the Gaeltacht in the west – the Gaelic-speaking side – and that’s where Columba and all his Celtic saints were doing their stuff. And they were always busy sending missions over to the Picts, or down to the north, down to Northumbria, and so on. They were trying to spread the word across that original east-west divide.
[00:06:16] RM: Yes – and is it true that the word Scotia, is there an Irish link in that word, Scotia?
[00:06:25] AM: Oh, that is some story. I mean, there’s two main sources of that story: one is the Scotichronicon, the Scottish Chronicle, which is a Medieval compilation of Scottish history. The other is the Irish Book of Invasions, of which the version is as follows: that Niul the Cissian – in other words, he was from Cissia, the Black Sea area – was a brilliant linguist. And when the Tower of Babel fell (because Nimrod, the world’s first warrior, who built it, because of his hubristic violence) God confused the languages of the world, and the tower fell. And, basically, Pharaoh needed a linguist, you see. So, he’d heard of Niul’s command of – according to the Book of Visions – 72 different languages of the world.
And the reason why Niul had this command was, of course, because he spoke the original language of Eden, known as Gaelic. So, he had the unscattered version of the language in him, and hence he could understand all 72 languages. He became the linguist of Pharaoh – Pharaoh, what was his name? Chitnis, or something like that. And then he married his daughter, whose name was Scota. Now, on the eve of Moses heading across the Red Sea, Moses said to Niul: “Look, you can either come with us and join us in the Promised Land in the east (in other words, you can become Jews with us) or you can take the wee boats. We’ll leave the boats there in the harbor for you – you can take them, and you can go and find your own Promised Land in the west.” So, they travelled for, I think it was something like 400 years, they voyaged.
And they had all these adventures on the way. They stopped in Iberia, hence Ibernia, Hibernia, Hibs Football Club in Scotland [laughter]. They stopped on the Iberian Peninsula for quite a while, and they landed on an island where the fountain produced wine – and everybody got pissed out of their minds. Except for Cagha, the Druid, who stayed sober so he could wake them up again, and keep them going. And then they eventually landed in Ireland, and they went to the Plain of Tara. And there, they picked up the Stone of Destiny – and according to the Scottish versions of the story, they then continued over to Scotland, bringing with them the Stone of Destiny, which of course was Jacob’s… Oh, sorry, they’d brought that with them, I beg your pardon – they’d brought that from Egypt. Bringing with them the Stone of Destiny, which was Jacob’s pillar stone, from the Book of Genesis. And so, the Stone of Destiny that’s now in Edinburgh Castle in Scotland is the proof of this great peregrination. But the magnificent thing about it, Ruairi, in terms of our multicultural world, is that what it means is that, mythologically speaking, the mother of the Scottish people was a Black woman – because the Pharaohs were pretty black. The mother of the Scottish people was a Black woman. We’ve got multiculturalism built into our origin myth.
[00:09:54] RM: Ah yes, there’s no doubt about it, there’s no doubt about it. There’s a young Irish man in prison in Egypt, at the moment – he’s been in prison for actually over three years, without trial. I think up to 20 non-trials have happened or not happened. And his parents are Egyptian, but he was born in Dublin. And a young guy tweeted me about him one night, and said: “That guy’s not really even Irish.” So I had this discussion with him about, well: what is it to be Irish? Does he have to be this pure white race? And, ultimately, this guy seems to be espousing some white, superior, Celtic, divine race. But, in fact, these Celts often came from the East, and they came from… In some cases, they potentially came from Egypt. There’s all sorts of myths. And back to these borders that we do have – the nation-state is such a modern invention. But I want to go back, slightly off to the side a little bit, off to the western side of Scotland, to the island that you’re from, Alastair. And I want you to tell me a little bit about the island, and what it was like growing up there.
[00:11:03] AM: Ah, well – there, again, we talk of Scotland being a mongrel nation. Many Scots… ‘One Scotland, many cultures,’ is an expression used by the Scottish government. And myself: my father was Scottish, with Highland and Border Scottish forebears. Two of his grandparents, Gaelic- – or Gaelic- as you’d say here – speaking. My mother was English – because my father met her when he graduated in medicine from Edinburgh University, after the Second World War. And she was a nursing sister in the Doncaster Royal Infirmary. So, that’s where I was born. And in 1960, when I was four, my father – who had been desperate to move back to Scotland – he got a medical practice in the North Lochs area of the Isle of Lewis. Which, of course, is now in the news, because it’s where Donald Trump’s from. Donald Trump’s mother’s family is…they’re 10 miles or so from where I grew up, or where I was educated and all the rest of it.
So, I grew up in that community, which… Since I’ve started coming to Ireland in the 1990s, I’ve realized: we’re basically the same people. The only thing that divides us is the religion, in that you folk are mostly Catholic, and our folk are almost entirely Protestant. And we all understand the history of that, now, in terms of it being a deliberate aspect of British imperial policy, to divide Ireland – but also divide the Gaeltacht in general, because the Gaelic language was seen as a threat to the cohesion and construction of the British state in the 17th, 18th century, that kind of an era.
So, I grew up in an era when speaking Gaelic was frowned upon – it was seen as a backward language. That’s why I don’t have it, today. I can speak just a few words, but I basically don’t have the Gaelic. Because it got deeply, deeply built into us that you don’t talk that language. That’s all changed now, of course – fortunately – since the Gaelic Revival of the 70s and 80s. It’s all changing, now. But that was how we were raised, in my time.
[00:13:35] RM: And what was the physical environment like, there, in the islands? Was it fairly rough living? Was it poor?
[00:13:45] AM: Ah, well – we just took it for granted, but when you look back at it now, we grew up on the land and on the water. I would rarely be out of a boat. If I was on the land I’d be making hay, I’d be scything or looking after animals. Fishing – so much of my youth was spent fishing. And, from probably about the age of 13, I was allowed to take a boat out onto the sea alone. We never had life-jackets, or anything. I remember, one day I was wanted to go out sea-fishing, and it was a bit windy, so my mother was worried. And my father said: “Oh, the boy will be alright, because all the old men in the village will have their telescopes on him. And if anything happens, they’ll just call out the boys to go after him.” And I literally remember…
[00:14:44] RM: And do you think that type of freedom that you were given gave you a deeper freedom, as you went on in life?
[00:14:50] AM: Oh, absolutely. That’s why I worry about the young lads, these days. They’re wrapped in cotton wool.
[00:14:57] RM: Yes, yes – there was a study done of a town, which I think was in Vermont, in the US, and it compared how far the average child was allowed to roam from their home in the 70s compared with now. And it was something like a distance of 5 miles versus 500 meters. And they’re looking at the safety reality around that. So, the basis of them not being allowed to roam is that it’s not safe. However, they’ve also measured the crime rate, and there’s no difference. So, as you say, cotton wool. And therefore, how does a young guy, or a young girl, now, go into the world, when they’ve never roamed? Or never been allowed to roam?
[00:15:46] AM: Well, we never had any doubt what it meant to be a man. Whereas I get loads of young men saying to me today, they don’t know what it means to be a man. And the women in our community, they were empowered women. I mean, the only area they were not empowered was in the church, because like with the Catholic Church, the conservative Presbyterian churches don’t allow women’s…women to hold ordained positions. But otherwise – if you suggest to a Hebridean woman that she’s disempowered, you’ll get it coming to you. At least, that’s been my observation. And it’s quite a joke on the island. Because the women – and I see it strongly in the young women, these days – they own their own power, in many ways.
So, we had those things because we had a good connection with the elders. And it was gendered – it would be the men who would be out on the boats, it would be the women who would be with the cattle, and so on. And it was gendered like that, as a generalization. But, in a way that is actually very normal in indigenous communities, especially in eras where contraception was only just coming in, I suppose you could say. Because, if you’ve got sexual hanky-panky going on, and things, gendering helps to keep things apart a bit. A bit like having male and female religious kept apart. In a context where unwanted pregnancy can be an issue, gendered roles help with that. So, although we were gendered, we had a pretty healthy relationship between the sexes, for the most part. And the old women would mentor the girls, and the old men would mentor us boys.
And yes, there were dangers in it: one of my main mentors was a man who taught me to work a boat – Finlay Montgomery – he drowned, in the end. He was actually crippled, he was only really mobile when he was in the boat. He could hardly walk – but he was like an otter when he got into his boat. But one day, it was flat calm, he was out fishing at the mouth of the sea loch, and he fell in, and when the divers got him back, they could see the tar, the Archangel Tar, under his fingernails, where his nails scraped down. They reckoned that was had happened was that he had probably been leaning over – pulling up his anchor, or pulling up the line, or something like that – when the bow wave from the passing passenger ferry, which would have been passing about two miles away… But the bow wave, the wake goes out a long, long way like that, and would have tipped him. And, because his legs didn’t work, he couldn’t get back into his boat, you see. So, these are the areas where you kind of say: “Well, there’s a point in this health and safety stuff.” But don’t let it dominate too much – otherwise you lose that edge of danger that, for young men, especially… I won’t try to speak for young women, but for young men – certainly of my era – that edge of danger in life was very important.
[00:19:20] RM: Yes, they talk about that a lot in youth work, and youth development.
[00:19:22] AM: Is that right?
[00:19:24] RM: Yes, particularly young men – because, if you think about it, the so-called anti-social behavior that you witness, or you hear about amongst young men, particularly in urban environments – it’s one of breaking windows, or graffiti, or crime, or alcohol, or fighting. But, quite often, they’re in risk-seeking behaviors. If they’re given positive channels to also have risk-seeking behaviors, through – particularly something like skateboarding, or going up mountains… They want to live on the edge.
[00:19:56] AM: There you go, there you go.
[00:19:57] RM: But it needs to be channeled by the elders, which is why youth projects, youth development work…
[00:20:02] AM: So, you see, that example I gave you – there’d be times when I’d go out fishing. And I would only be going about a mile away, or even less than that, perhaps. But still, when you get caught up in squally weather, you were basically safe enough because you were inside the sea loch, the fjord-type sea loch. So, you’d only get blown on to the distant shore. But it would have been the humiliation of knowing the whole village would have been watching you. And so you really had to make it, and you had to judge it right. And that was kind of what was going on. It was about finding your place, earning your place, showing you could be competent, showing you could be trusted, showing you had stamina – all of that kind of stuff. And also, held in a context of generosity, where people where there to look out for you. When you got back home with the fish, most people didn’t have fridges or freezers in those days, so you’d distribute the fish as you cycled home, you see, sharing it out in the community. The community was your freezer – and then somebody… You know, they’d be killing a sheep, and they’d give my father some chops, or something like that. And that was how it worked.
[00:21:15] RM: So, it strikes me as a very tribal society, in a way.
[00:21:19] AM: Same as you have in Ireland. I mean, you have a name in Ireland: [inaudible 00:21:22].
[00:21:23] RM: Yes, I think my grandmother often talks about the [inaudible 00:21:26] that built her house. All the neighbors pooled in and built their house. They didn’t actually have much money – physical currency of money – they traded in food and goods.
[00:21:38] AM: No, I mean a lot of what we were raised in was a subsistence economy. Most of our meat and fish would be locally produced. Potatoes would be locally produced. If you wanted a melon, you had to go to the Italian café in Stornoway, and you’d buy that there [laughter]. A lot of our stuff was locally…
[00:21:59] RM: Which, in a way, there’s a trend back to local sustainability – or at least an appetite from some to: how do we get back to a more simple way?
[00:22:06] AM: What’s so difficult there, Ruairi – if you take the example of a cow, it used to be that you would tether your cow. Now, if you try keeping a cow for milk, you are tethered to the cow, because that cow needs to be milked twice a day. In the past, you would share that with your neighbors, so you wouldn’t be tethered to the cow. But these days, if you’re lucky enough to have neighbors, and it’s not just a holiday let that’s next door to you – as it is in many rural villages – your neighbors probably don’t know how to milk a cow. And so, if you want to do something that in my boyhood would be second nature – having a cow, milking it, making the cream, and the crowdie, and what have you – it’s not at all easy, now. And then, you’ve got all the regulatory framework on top of it. We would do home kill – I’ve killed sheep with a knife. It’s a very quick, I would say humane, way of doing it. Or preferably, you use a bullet – but in the absence of a gun, a knife right through the jugular, and the creature loses consciousness in a few seconds, because there’s no blood going to the brain. Well, you’d be in prison if you did that today.
[00:23:28] RM: But yet, plenty of people are happy to eat the animal.
[00:23:30] AM: Indeed. Indeed.
[00:23:34] RM: It’s an interesting one. And where did your curiosity for the world come out of, say as a young man, as a teenager? Was that stimulated or encouraged by your father, mother, uncles?
[00:23:49] AM: My curiosity for the world?
[00:23:51] RM: Yes, for the outside world. Beyond the boat.
[00:23:56] AM: Oh, the outside world [laughter]. When you grow up in a small community, and you don’t have the mobility you’ve got nowadays – you know, you don’t have the bus services, or the cars. Not many people had cars in our village, when I was growing up. Now, you’ll see as many cars parked outside a single house as you will sometimes have had in a whole village when I was a boy. When you grow up like that, you do feel a bit trapped – it can be a bit claustrophobic for a young man. So, young men have always left these places to sow their wild oats – whether as mercenaries, or as sailors, or whatever. And then you would come back after ten years, or something like that, and typically, you’d marry a young lass. So, you’d often have a big age difference in island marriages – you’d have older men marrying young girls, would be the norm on the island, even into my time.
And I can remember, we used to refer to the island as being The Dump. And we’d say: “I want to get away from The Dump.” Our teachers would tell us: “You need to study in your class, because you need to get out to get on.” You see? We were groomed for that sense of leaving the place. Now, what’s so radically changed with the present generation is that they no longer feel trapped, or most of them don’t feel trapped, in the same way. Because by the time they’re teenagers, they’ve probably already seen distant parts of the world. Because cheap flights make that possible. They’ve been able to take a look at what’s going on elsewhere, and evaluate that compared with their own place. And so, when I was up on the Isle of Harris, which is… The island of Lewis and Harris is one island: Harris in the south, Lewis in the north. When I was doing some filming with the BBC, just a few months ago, we were staying in a hotel, and I said to the receptionist, who was in her 30s – I didn’t know her, she didn’t know who I was – and I said: “So, how is it for people here, today?” Because they’ve now got land reform, in that part of the land – they’re in control of their own community. And she said: “Oh, it’s wonderful,” she said. “All the young people of my age are coming back, because we’ve now got job opportunities, and housing opportunities.” So, what I’m noticing in the young people today is that that sense we had, of: “You’ve got to get out of The Dump,” has changed. And it’s a very blessed thing. And the reason it’s changed, Ruairi, is because communities are back in charge of their own place. And yet there’s an openness to the outside world – so, you’ve got a strong, cohesive center. A lot of the traditional values, of sharing, and so on, are actually still there, even though people are forever saying: “Well, it’s not the way it used to be.” Well it’s still there, relatively speaking. But you’ve also got, whether it’s through access to television, or internet, or cheap travel – you’ve got this openness to the world.
[00:26:59] RM: And when you say communities are more in control of themselves – what has changed to make that happen?
[00:27:06] AM: That communities are more..?
[00:27:08] RM: That they’re more in control of their own destiny. It sounds like there was a cultural, or a legislative, or some sort of change has happened.
[00:27:17] AM: OK, yes. Well, see, a big part of my own work has been on land reform. Because growing up in The Dump, and determined to get on – get out and get on, kind of stuff – when I graduated from Aberdeen University in 1977, I wanted to travel as far as I could. And an organization called Voluntary Service Overseas – you’ve got a similar set-up, or you had a similar set-up, in Ireland here, too – they sent me to Papua New Guinea. And it ended up, eventually, four years that I lived in Papua New Guinea. Part of the time right out in the sticks, rural, and part of the time urban. But what I learned there was from a people who are very closely bonded to their land, and who had control of their land. They had community land ownership. And I came to realize that we, too, were a people who are very closely bonded to our land – but we lacked control, because, to this day, half of the land in Scotland is owned by less than 500 people.
You’ve got very a concentrated, feudal pattern of land ownership. It’s no longer technically feudal, but it’s the same underlying pattern of control and ownership. So, basically, in the early 1990s, I got involved in the fledgling land reform campaign. I became a founding trustee – one of the four founding trustees – of the Isle of Eigg Trust, which over a six-year period helped to bring the island of Eigg into community ownership. We were one small part of a big process that did that – but we were the part that sparked it going. And, following on from that, we’ve now got land reform legislation in Scotland. We’ve now got nearly 3% of the Scottish land-mass – we’ve got about half a million acres – owned by communities. So, the people who lived in a place collectively own the land of a place, and manage it. And that leads to tremendous opportunity and empowerment. In terms of opportunity, it means that there no longer needs to be a housing shortage – because instead of paying, in Euros, 70,000, 80,000 Euro for a housing plot, which requires a person on minimum wage full time, just to service the mortgage of. Just for the housing plot, never mind the house that’s on top of it. Instead of paying that, if the community owns the land, it can just allocate land for housing – which is what’s happening.
So, you can have social, affordable housing. You can have renewable energy where the money, instead of going to a big corporation, comes into the community. You can have all kind of business activities taking place, because they’re able to get land to do it. So, there’s now a social distillery, as it’s called, on the Isle of Harris, with the water coming down from a stream – or from a pipe – that’s on the community’s land. And the really big one is that, because people have to manage it themselves, they have to learn to work as a community. They have to do things like learn to recognize and process conflict. In other words, they have to become a functioning community – or else, they fail as a community. And that just opens up huge psychological and, I would say, also spiritual empowerment within people. That’s what’s changed – that’s what’s changing. And some of us, of course, would like to see that be taken further, to running our own country. You know, we’re told we’re too small to be able to make it. And every time I come to Ireland – how many people have you got here, now? About four million, is it?
[00:31:24] RM: 4.6 in the Republic.
[00:31:26] AM: You have 4.6 in the Republic, and we’re…
[00:31:30] RM: We’re not a particularly great case study for running our own affairs, at the moment [laughter]. But we have come a long way, there’s no doubt.
[00:31:37] AM: Well, you got bitten by the Celtic Tiger, because you introduced a non-indigenous species. And you’ve learned a few lessons from that, from what I can make out. But at the end of the day, you’ve not got the oil wealth we’ve got, and so on. You’ve not got the same renewable energy resources that we’ve got. At the end of the day, you’re holding it together, and we’re told we’re too small to do so.
[00:32:02] RM: Yes, no – you only have to look to Denmark, or somewhere like that. Probably Norway is another example, particularly with North Sea Oil. I mean, I know that the fossil economy is another issue, but I think we have…
[00:32:15] AM: Well, you’re doing it without the… You’ve not got much of a fossil economy. So, you’re showing what can be done.
[00:32:23] RM: Of course.
[00:32:24] AM: And such a world of difference, and just a sense of empowerment, I find in Irish people – and a sense of cultural confidence.
[00:32:31] RM: Well, it’s a flawed argument that you have to be big and bold – because by that measure, then, India could tell Britain that it’s too small to make it on its own. So, I do think that that is a useful conversation to explore – how the small nation-state might develop and thrive in years to come. Because there is a localization need that exists – and you can see that in some of the darker politics, as well. But I think there’s a way of being local and global at the same time.
[00:33:01] AM: Well, that’s it, you see. That’s it. And for us – at least as I see it – this is why the land reform movement is so important. Because when you’ve got all these community land trusts making decisions about putting up social housing, and whether they’re going to have a hydro-scheme on a river, or something like that, and you’ve got all of that going on, it connects people in with competences and awarenesses, which makes the local global, and brings the global into the local – in a way that people are controlling.
[00:33:34] RM: And how is this playing..? So, you live in an urban environment, now. We’ve talked a lot about rural Scotland – and you’re living right in the heart of Glasgow.
[00:33:42] AM: In Govan, in Glasgow.
[00:33:44] RM: Or Glasgee, as they might say – Glasgee. In Govan, yes – so that’s quite a different experience. How did you end up living in that part of the world?
[00:33:52] AM: Well, my wife Vérène – who, incidentally, I met in County Mayo, because she was working on a farm near Ballintubber Abbey there. And I met her in that context, but she’s French. Vérène and I, we have lived in Govan for the past 12 years, or so. And I’m not naturally an urban person, as you might well imagine. But what was happening is that most of my activist work and the land reform work – also the work that I did that helped to stop the proposed superquarry (what would have been the biggest roadstone quarry in the world, on the Isle of Harris, in a national scenic area) – most of that kind of thing was a rural focus. And I started getting people living in conditions of urban poverty – specifically in Govan and Pollok, nearby – saying to me: “Well, it’s all very well coming from Lewis and doing your stuff in beautiful Scottish islands, and so on. But what about us? Because we are the descendants of the people who got pushed off the land – whether from Ireland, from highland Scotland, or wherever. We are those descendants. We are carrying the intergenerational poverty that has blighted these urban areas. So, how about giving us a hand?”
So, to cut a long story short, I basically got involved with folk in Glasgow, and we set up something called the GalGael Trust. I wasn’t the founder – I was one of the founding trustees – but it was founded by… Well, here’s your Egyptian context, again: it was founded by Gehan MacLeod, whose mother is English – with some Scottish blood in her – and whose father is an Egyptian Muslim. Her maiden name was Gehan Ibrahim. And Colin MacLeod, whose father is from the village of Gravir in South Lochs, across the sea loch from where I grew up – I used to row halfway across to Gravir when I’d go fishing in Loch Eireasort – and whose mother is from Donegal.
And they founded this. And they called it the GalGael Trust because in the Gaelic, the word ‘Gal’ means ‘stranger’ – like Galloway or Galway. It means place of strangers, where the Norse had come in. And the Gael, of course, the heartland people, the Gaeltacht – or the place of the indigenous, heartland people. But in Scotland, by the 19th century, this term ‘GalGael’ was being used, because in some of these places, the Gal had interfused with the Gael, had intermarried with the Gael. And so, you had this kind of hybrid indigeneity developing. And so, the way we were looking at it is that we’re living in a world today where very few people are purely indigenous, and most people can’t be purely… Or should I say, purely native. But they can’t be native, because they’re simply not. Look at me: in terms of bloodlines, I’m half-Scottish, half-English. Although the English side is actually half-Welsh – you see how complicated it gets. We can’t really build an ethnic identity like that – but what we can do is: we can build communities of place. We can become indigenous to place. And so, in the notion of GalGael, we see that as bringing those two things together. And then we’ve got a workshop in Govan, which is a hard-pressed, former ship-building area of Govan – well, it still builds ships, but they’re mainly war ships, these days.
[00:37:36] RM: It’s where Billy Connolly’s from, is it?
[00:37:38] AM: What’s that?
[00:37:40] RM: Where Billy Connolly’s from?
[00:37:41] AM: That’s right, yes. And we’re building traditional boats – but that’s really a front end for all kinds of work with traditional arts and crafts, and basic work skills and so on, that we carry out in our workshop. In the context of cultural regeneration, in the context of helping mainly young men and women to find out who they are as a people again, what the values of the community are again. In what can often be a violent, hard world, how to look after each other. That’s what we’re doing.
[00:38:17] RM: And do you feel like that work is starting to get recognized at a national level?
[00:38:22] AM: We’ve actually had a lot of, I have to say, we’ve had a lot of recognition. In fact, we often have to turn people away. All the time, we’ve got arts groups wanting to do performances in GalGael, and I just have to say to them: “We can’t take any more just now.” We’ve had quite a bit of TV publicity, and so on. Now, that’s very encouraging – because it says there’s a hunger out there.
[00:38:48] RM: And policy-wise, it feels to me that the Scottish government is more progressive, or more open-thinking, than what the alternative is, at the moment anyway.
[00:38:57] AM: Very much so. I mean, there isn’t really a debate in Scotland as to whether or not we should prioritize tackling poverty. Pretty much everybody – even if you scratch most of the Conservatives – you’d find that they’d be relatively soft on the issue that we need to tackle poverty. Whereas it always shocks me, when I go south of the border, when I go down to the south of England, to find… It’s not that they’re anti poverty programs – it’s just there’s a total ignorance. And there’s not the same social integration – they’re much more socially stratified. And what happens to the poor is completely out of sight of where most of the comfortably middle class are living. We don’t really have that in Scotland.
I think part of it being that… I notice, in England, that people are almost proud of the social class system. People will boast about having had Norman ancestors, although they were the conquerors. And they’ll speak with deference about the lord of the manor. Whereas we’ve created a context in Scotland where we challenge the lord of the manor. We challenge these landowners, and say: “Look – you’re on notice, because by moral right, the land you claim as yours belongs to the community. And it’s only a matter of time – unless you’re fulfilling a role that serves the community, you have got no legitimate right to be here. Because, just because you come along with a lot of money, and you’ve bought a chunk of Scotland, doesn’t mean that we recognize you as the owner.”
[00:40:45] RM: So, one of the big debates facing Europe at the moment, as a whole – or the world as a whole – is immigration and migration. And it struck me, my time in Scotland – I spent four years there at university – that it was…well, particularly Glasgow was a bit more diverse than Ireland was, at the time. And now, we are probably a bit more diverse, as well. But where are racial dynamics at? Where is that…how is all that being played out in Scotland, right now?
[00:41:17] AM: Well, there is racism in Scotland. But if you ask most ethnic minorities in Scotland: how is it here? They’ll say it’s much better than it is elsewhere. And a lot of the reason for that is: we have poets like Hamish Henderson and Robert Burns, who have drilled into us the importance of internationalism. “For a' that, an' a' that, / It's coming yet for a' that, / That Man to Man, the world around, / Shall brothers be for a' that,” said Robert Burns – possibly his most famous lines. And we make a point of celebrating those – that’s the second this this week, third time this week, I’ve used those words. We reinforce it. We reinforce the Gaelic proverb that blood counts for thirty-fold – blood linage counts for thirty-fold – but fostership, adoption, counts a hundred-fold. Another one, translated: “The bonds of milk – i.e. nurture – are stronger than the bonds of blood.”
Now, this is something very old in the Celtic tradition: the importance of the tradition of fostership. We’re talking… I’m going to be talking in the Brigid Festival in Kildare, on Saturday, as a guest of AFRI – Action From Ireland. And I’m going to be talking about Brigid as the one who turned back he streams of war. But mythologically, Brigid is even stronger in the Scottish Hebridean tradition than she is in parts of Ireland, if I dare say that. And I say mythologically speaking because in Scotland, I think we’ve never really seen her as a literal figure, like the Abbess of Kildare, running a monastery, and all of that kind of dynamic. Which some of the scholars would say had never been the case, anyway – it’s all contested territory. We’ve always seen her as a quasi-mythological figure. So, if you go to the National Galleries of Scotland, you will see a painting called Saint Bride by John Duncan, hanging on the wall there.
And it’s Saint Bride being flown by angels from the Isle of Iona, where her father had been a Druid. She’s being flown by angels to be the foster mother of Christ, on the night of the Nativity. Now, when you decode that – as for example the ethnographer Alexander Carmichael, who collected the six-volume Carmina Gadelica in the second half of the 19th century – this is in a Scottish Gaelic Irish tradition where fostership counts for even more than blood linage. Hence why we refer to Saint Bride as being the Mary of the Gaels. Because, by becoming the foster mother of Christ – and I suppose this is somewhat blasphemous in Catholic terms, but if you bear with me – you’re almost saying the local girl is more important. What that allows the local girl to do is: it localizes Mary, through Saint Bride. Do you see what I mean?
Now, that is a deep culture that we’re coming out of. Now, if we remember that culture, if we celebrate that culture, that gives us a cultural rubric in which we can welcome the stranger. And we can say: “Look, friend – if you’re willing to be part of our community, if you’re willing to understand the values of this community, bring the gifts that you bring from your culture, but also understand the core values of what we are, together, trying to build here, you will belong – if anything, as more than just an equal. Because you will be the fosterling.” Christ the fosterling of Bridget, another of her titles in the Hebrides. That trips me out. And in my writing, in my books…my recent book Poetry’s Pilgrimage, where I’m talking about a 12-day walk I made across Lewis and Harris, and I’m reflecting on God, war, and the fairies. A centrepoint was going to a remote place in the middle of the island that nobody, these days, ever goes to, called [inaudible 00:46:05 - Garrai Bregia?] – the garden, the garrai, of Brigid – and the ruins beside it, Bridget’s Sheiling. Deeply moving experience, when I was out there.
Now, why God, war, and the fairies? Because by God, I’m using that as shorthand for the inner life. For the deep nature of who we are. If you want to frame it in a New Testament context, which is important in our culture, Peter, in one of his letters, talks about: we are participants, or partakers, in the divine nature. So God. And then war: I was making this walk just after I had been doing what I am going to be doing tomorrow morning in Curragh, when I’m giving a lecture to the senior commandant staff course of the Irish defense forces on non-violence. But I had just come back, at the time of my walk, from giving a similar lecture to NATO diplomats and senior military in Geneva. And war I am using as codification for everything that breaks us off from that deep inner nature, which separates us from the divine out there, and the divine in here, and leads us into a broken world. And the fairies, what are they? What has something as ridiculous as fairies got to do with it? Well, deeply important in our culture – as indeed Irish writers like WB Yeats fully recognized. Because in Scottish Gaelic culture – and I would imagine it’s exactly the same in Irish, too – as Dr. John MacInnes of the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University puts it: “the fairies are a metaphor for the imagination.” Except we’re talking about a culture where metaphor is deeper than reality – where metaphor is what holds reality, the poetic structure of reality.
That’s what I’m writing about, there: I’m writing an ecology of the imagination. I’m writing an exploration of the imagination that can heal the brokenness of the world, and which understands that we, ourselves, are held in a cosmic imagination. And that the process of spiritual awakening is bringing those together: bringing together our own imaginations, our own creativity, with that cosmogenesis that’s going on all around us, and bringing that to bear on the brokenness that somebody like Donald Trump – whose mother was from the Isle of Lewis – is so symptomatic of. That’s what my work’s about. That’s what my books are about. Poetry’s Pilgrimage, the recent one – the previous one was called Spiritual Activism: Leadership as Service. It was looking at the nuts and bolts of how you actually do the activism. The book I’m best known for is Soil and Soul: People Versus Corporate Power, that came out in 2001. That’s looking at these issues in the context of the land reform.
[00:49:16] RM: And what’s next for you, Alastair? Do you get the knock on the door? Does the poetry of the imagination come knocking on your head some morning?
[00:49:34] AM: Ruairi, right now, the knock’s from my wife, who’s put me on a ban of writing any more books [laughter]. Because, you know, we have this expression: the shean – the fairy hills, the fairy fort, you’d call it – the domain of the shea, the fairies, the people of peace. And the Scottish bards, the Gaelic bards, they will say that when they’re creating the poetry, or [inaudible 00:50:00] pipe tunes, they’ll say: my head was away in the shean.
[00:50:04] RM: Yes, you’re away with the fairies.
[00:50:06] AM: And when I’m writing a book, I’m like that. And with Poetry’s Pilgrimage, it took seven years, Ruairi, away in the shean. So, right now, I’ll tell you: it’s odd jobs around the house, painting things and fixing things. That’s what’s next – and I dare not say more, except: the central drift of my work… I’m best known for work with social justice and ecological sustainability issues, and also the military issues. But the central drift is opening up the spiritual depths – the psychological, spiritual depths – of those things. That’s basically what I’m about. I’m able to do that, now, because I’m quite well-known in my writing. So, I can get away with…
You know, I’ll be talking to the Irish army tomorrow morning about spirituality. I’ll be ending up quoting the Pope – because we’re here in Ireland – who, on New Year’s Day, released an incredible homily. If you Google “Pope non-violence 2017,” you’ll get this, something like 10 pages, where he’s talking that the imperative for the world today is non-violence. It’s far-out stuff – it’s brilliant stuff. I will be talking about that kind of stuff, and using that to say: “If we want to build peace in the world, we have to go beyond even the kind of peacekeeping for which the Irish military has got such a good international reputation already. We have to take it further, into the role of non-violence.” And I salute them, because they invite somebody like me there to say these things, as I’m doing tomorrow, and have done on several other occasions.
[00:51:42] RM: Well, it’s been an absolute pleasure, Alastair, talking to you, and I’m still smiling – because I think my wife is due home soon, and she will agree with you on talk of one’s head being away with the fairies [laughter].
[00:51:57] AM: [Laughter] Oh, there we go, there we go.
[00:51:59] RM: And I could probably do with doing a few jobs around the house, as well [laughter].
[00:52:05] AM: There we go. They will be asserting their empowerment against us.
[00:52:08] RM: Yes, well, she’s certainly an empowered woman.
[00:52:12] AM: Well, I don’t see how any man can really be in a lasting relationship with a woman who’s not empowered – what’s the point otherwise? You cannot enjoy a woman unless she’s in her own power.
[00:52:22] RM: Exactly – well said. A pleasure, Alastair, thanks very much. Appreciate it.
[00:52:27] AM: Go well. Thank you.