A number of years ago I made a television programme with the late Chris Brasher. The idea was that we’d take a multi-day walk in the Cairngorms and discuss how wild landscapes had affected his life, an extraordinary life as an athlete, Olympic gold medallist and an enthusiastic mountaineer and hillwalker.
Shortly after he arrived in Aviemore Chris asked if we minded if he disappeared for a day during the week. He had a horse running at Punchestown races near Dublin and he wanted to go and see it.
As you can imagine this posed considerable problems for our filming schedule, but director Richard Else had the idea of hiring a helicopter to take all of us, the whole crew, across to Dublin for the day. We would film Chris and I going to the races and use it as part of the film.
All went well. The helicopter picked us up at Glenmore Lodge, we flew to Punchestown and landed in the car park and old Brasher was delighted to be seen walking into the racecourse with a television crew following him.
I put a tenner on Chris’ horse – the first and only horse racing bet I’ve ever made – and then went off with Brasher to the stand for a better view of the race.
Cameras rolling the race began and they were off, only for Brasher’s horse to fall at the very first hurdle…
It was a disaster and we could have moaned and moped about it but Chris simply turned to me and with a wan smile said, “Ah well, there’s always the hills…”Those words came back to me last week. It was the morning after the referendum and I had wakened to the news that the people of Scotland had voted against independence.
To be honest I felt crushed, dismayed and betrayed. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such bitter disappointment before, but I went back to bed, in reality to try and sort my head out.
It was as I lay there, trying desperately to pull myself together, that I recalled those words of Brasher. “There’s always the hills…”
For as long as I can remember that has been my panacea for times like this. The hills have always been my salvation.
When I was in my forties a hill-running accident (I tripped and fell down a crag) left me with a broken wrist, a broken ankle and 40 stitches in my head. During my period of convalescence I was aware that I was becoming depressed. I wasn’t sleeping well, I had become short tempered and comparatively slight setbacks cast me into a slough of despond. I wasn’t a very nice person to live with.
While I was thankful to be alive it wasn’t until I was well enough to hirple out into the forest on crutches that I began to feel better mentally.
Fortunately I recognised, almost immediately, the healing nature of such wild places and those short excursions into the forest quickly became a crucial element in my recuperation.
In times of disappointment, in times of stress or when I’m angry at the world, I know I can find renewal in the stillness of a forest or on a wind-scoured mountain top – the drift of cloud against the sky, the movement of sun and shadow, the liquid call of a curlew.
You see, these things speak of eternal values, things that have always been, as ancient as the duration of days. And all of them – the flight of a bird, the sound of the wind surf in the trees, the beauty of a sunset, are completely and utterly unplanned. None of these things have been previously arranged or rehearsed by man. And that, I believe, is the crucial issue.
Large portions of our lives are governed by other people, and some of these people (usually remote politicians) make decisions that directly affect us, whether we like it or not.
Many of the daily schedules that we adhere to are not of our own making, but are imposed on us by others. In our capitalist society we are urged, and sometimes compelled, to work harder and harder, not for our own personal satisfaction but to satisfy the unquenchable thirst for profitability of those faceless folk we call shareholders.
In distant times people lived their lives in fear of invoking the wrath of the gods. Today we live in fear of upsetting shareholders. And running parallel to this is another comparatively modern phenomenon.
Over the last century and a half our steady urbanisation has divorced our physical lives from the natural world, so that many of us no longer consider ourselves a part of it.
It was Carl Gustav Jung’s belief that the crisis of our world today has two root causes; one is this divorce of our physical lives from the natural world so that we no longer feel connected to it, and the other is the over-development of our rational, analytical consciousness at the expense of the instinctive, intuitive side of ourselves that is best expressed in – for want of a better term – the creative arts and the search for some kind of faith value.
According to Jung we have become cut-off from both inner and outer nature; the spiritual side of our nature has been subdued and the resultant loss of meaning in the lives of so many people is reflected in statistics for depression and mental illness.
I don’t believe it’s mere chance that so many people from our creative communities caught the vision of Scottish independence – they could see beyond the cold reality of economics and corporate threat to something bigger, something fresh and new and different.
But I digress…
As chance would have it, following the referendum result I immediately went off on a film shoot – we’re making two television programmes for BBC Scotland to be shown during Christmas week about a long walk between the Mull of Galloway and Oban.
The weather was superb and the glorious landscapes very quickly worked their enchantment on me. We followed the Cowal Way from Portavadie through Tighnabruaich and up Glendaruel before heading over the Arrochar Alps to Loch Lomond.
Some of these landscapes were new to me, others were like old trusted friends. The pain of the referendum result still lingered, like a dull ache, but I slowly became more and more aware that the foundation of my love for Scotland has less to do with politics and much, much more to do with these landscapes, our history and culture and the rich diversity of people who live here.
These things will not change, no matter if Scotland eventually becomes independent or remains in a political union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Nationalism and patriotism are complex issues and have been given a negative connotation by unionists. I don’t really want to get into that argument here, and while I still believe that we Scots have lost a great opportunity to create a fairer and more equal society by breaking away from what I believe is a broken system of government, the truth of the matter is that my love of Scotland, especially wild Scotland, will remain beyond and above politics.
It’s to do with belonging, a sense of home and familiarity, like sitting down in an old armchair by your fireside and feeling at ease with the world.
Today I rejoice in the fact that I can escape the divisive nature of politics and ease myself into that old chair, dram in hand, and enjoy those things that are wholly Scottish and mean a lot to me – the haunting songs of Julie Fowlis or the wonderful fiddle playing of Duncan Chisholm, or I can take to the hills and connect with their timelessness, immerse myself in their beauty and majesty and wonder again at the contrasting insignificance of man.
The Harvard sociobiologist EO Wilson once wrote; “Wilderness settles peace on the soul because it needs no help. It is beyond human contrivance.” The next time you find yourself getting worked up about something, just think, there’s always the hills…