Travels in the far north leave writer Malachy Tallack wondering where and what home is.

T. S. Eliot once observed that the end of all exploring is to arrive where we started, and to know the place for the first time. It is as good an explanation as any for Malachy Tallack's travels from Shetland, through other far northlands bound by 60 degrees latitude, in the hope of feeling more at home in the place where he began.

He was driven by curiosity and restlessness, but above all by a desire to return to somewhere he belonged. His relationship with Shetland had been fraught since arriving on the islands from England as a boy, and realising that he would always be considered an outsider.

Perhaps embarking on this odyssey would bring him back, as its final destination, to a genuine homeland. Paradoxically he was trying to cure a form of homesickness by leaving home. So he travelled west with the sun and the seasons to Greenland in spring, North America in summer, Russia in autumn and the Nordic countries in winter.

Malachy is a fine, sensitive writer with an eye for detail and a talent for descriptive prose. He is at his lyrical best in conjuring images of landscapes and avian wildlife: in Alaska a powerful river flowing over rapids "flexed and writhed like a muscle" and in Shetland a cloud of arctic terns "billowed like a smoke signal".

He is less adept at engaging with people he meets along the way, which undermines his professed aim of exploring their relationships with the remote, challenging lands they live in. He comes across as a loner, unsure of what he is searching for and where to find it. It is no surprise to learn that the place he loves more than any other is Fair Isle, the most remote inhabited island in Britain.

Conversations are few and far between, and long passages of historical detail have the ethos of a scholarly essay rather than of a travel adventure. We learn a great deal about pagan Nordic gods and the horrors of Siberian gulags, but we hear little from the regions' present day inhabitants.

In the opening chapter on Shetland, he records only one brief encounter with a man on the island of Mousa who appears, like the author, to be searching for the 60th parallel with the aid of a GPS. Instead of striking up a conversation on a shared enterprise, Malachy feels awkward and eventually walks away. It is an instinct apparent throughout his travels, which he readily admits.

On a Norwegian island he observes and envies friendly chat between the customers and staff of a small shop, and writes: "...I felt a deep longing to be spoken to in the way those people spoke to each other. By then it was several days since I'd had any kind of conversation with anyone, and I was lonely." His desire was not to talk, he says, but to have a sense of belonging in a community that fostered such relations.

In place of dialogue there are thoughtful meditations on cultural differences between hunting and agricultural societies, on the evolution and fate of religions, and on longings for love and home. In Greenland, he contrasts the tradition of Inuit hunters to show respect to the animals they kill for food, and our own society in which meat is divorced from the death that makes it possible and the life that it once held. "Because of this, there is a kind of thankfulness and humility that we no longer know how to feel, and a grace we have forgotten how to say."

In Sweden, he muses on the rise and fall of religions and wonders whether a rural church he enters will eventually become an obsolete ruin, like mysterious pagan mounds in woods outside and the blank brochs of Shetland.

Tallack comes across as an introspective, lost soul who has never recovered from the death of his father in a car accident when he was a teenager. There are repeated references to the loss of his father, and he finds comfort in the Inuit concept of sila, a kind of life force that returns to the world when a person dies. This occasions a dissertation on life and death, and on how grief can lead to a finer awareness of joy and beauty. It is no surprise, he says, that we experience our greatest appreciation of life in things that are fragile and fleeting, like birdsong or the touch of a lover.

Inspired by Inuit belief in sila, he writes: "Death is at once an ending and a continuation. A breath is given back to the wind, just as ice returns to the sea. It finds new shape." He thinks then of his father, as an icy wind paws at the window of his cabin in Greenland.

One of the few extended conversations he has is with a First Nation chief in Fort Smith, a settlement in the far northwest of Canada established by the Hudson's Bay Company in the 19th century. White people have lost their relationship with the land, the chief says. For his Dene Suline people the land is not a resource, it is a presence with which they have a spiritual relationship. When he takes a plant from the forest he must leave tobacco in thanks, and when he is out on a river he must thank the river for bearing him.

This is the essence of good travel writing, listening to voices that evoke images of foreign lands and cultures and cause us to question our own values and priorities. It's just a pity there is not more of it in Tallack's travels. All the more so when he excels at describing adventures, such as a fear-filled lake fishing trip in Alaska that takes him through woods stalked by brown bears eight foot tall that run as fast as a horse. The terse account of his encounter with a large animal in the forest is worthy of a Conrad novel.

The heart of the book lies in the remote Canadian settlement of Fort Smith, where he finds "that most precious of things - a community that recognizes and values itself as such." He laments that he lives in a time of social networking, which he decries as a parody of community, and says places like Fort Smith where people rely on each other for survival foster hope that the wisdom and intimacy of community life may not be entirely lost. He notes that where economic factors allow, communities are strengthened by remoteness that exposes the vulnerability of a place, and makes clear the dependence of people upon each other. Hence his fondness for Fort Smith and Fair Isle.

This is less of a travel book than a philosophical meandering, a quest in search of a sense of belonging. He concludes that the longing for home and for love are alike, the desire to be held by a person or a place, to be needed, and for such yearning to be reciprocated. But home for many people is no more than the house where they keep their belongings and sleep at night. "This is the condition of our time. It is a marriage without love, a relationship without commitment. And it is, surely, a kind of homelessness."

There is compelling honesty and much wisdom in Tallack's brave adventure, a cri de coeur for community life we are in danger of losing. In the end his quest was in vain: "Perhaps I'd expected answers, but I hadn't found any. I'd been left with only questions." Whatever he was looking for, he didn't find it on his return to Shetland. He doesn't live there any more.

60 Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home, by Malachy Tallack, is published by Polygon, priced £12.99