One of this weekend’s themes at the Edinburgh International Book Festival is walking. Not your average traipse round the block, but epic adventures on Scottish Islands or from London to Jerusalem, no less. The authors at this event, Alastair Mcintosh and Guy Stagg, are both hikers, and even though the distance travelled that each travels is somewhat different (12 days, 60 miles / 10 months, 3400+ miles) the conversation between them, ably led by Susan Mansfield, is fascinatingly similar in tone and concern.
McIntosh’s chunky tome, Poacher’s Pilgrimage has a trick title that refers to his excuse should he have been bivouacked, “I am poaching fish from the lochs”. In actual fact, he was making his way from the south end of Harris to the north of Lewis (two islands in one), part of the Outer Hebrides where he grew up. He tells us that he went “deeper and deeper into the island and its people and [that there was] a growing love for those who raised me”.
Stagg’s, fresh from Radio 4’s Book of the Week, entitled The Crossway, was four years in the making (as opposed to McIntosh’s seven) and covers nations, literally, in an effort to “take the Via Francigena” – signposted in Canterbury to Rome but with an extension – “used to connect the whole continent together. I thought to myself, maybe if I get to Jerusalem I might find that sense of purpose, some sense of meaning there that already exists and I could tap into it”.
This is Stagg encapsulating a holy walk, which in the present day is used by atheists, agnostics, and believers alike, and becoming very popular too. On discussing the spiritual, McIntosh unconventionally reads from Stagg’s book, “The practice of sympathy every day becomes a habit inscribed in the heart”. He adds, “I have often heard old people say, ‘There’s only one thing the devil can’t counterfeit, the miann (Gaelic meaning ardent desire). In the human heart it is the ardent desire for good’. It blew away all that baggage [from being raised in the Presbyterian tradition] and brought me into the special people who understand the community of the place, of the soul. Thank you”.
Beyond walking, this fascinating event covers far broader themes like: McIntosh’s 21 years ministering to the United Nations “to remind them of the limits. The military carry their charge and there is a level where they value the counterpoint, they need to hear that voice – the non-violent (NVC) and peaceable one”; whether Trump should be allowed to visit his clan home – “If he was to come back to the Island, the Island always takes them in,” McIntosh says; and the remedy for short-term consumerism, which Stagg suggests is “to remain present in your surroundings and your self”.