‘You know what the difference is? At the weekends, people in Finland go out to their homes in the countryside, they exercise, they enjoy the air. In Glasgow, they just go to the shops.’
– Tommi and Michelle, Glasgow.
Warning: Glasgow is a small universe. Capturing it in an economical amount of words has proven more difficult than any place I’ve visited. As my write-up’s turned out so long (and yet I’ve omitted so much), it’s been sub-headed into days which can be read separately. But I dare not separate them into chapters. Just like the city itself, one element necessarily informs another and interweaves with it. If reading this on a web browser, I advise for the sake of time not attempting to read in one sitting. Same goes to the around 600 email subscribers to this blog.
Cherish those mornings where there’s no need to rush. When the alarm clock states the time factually rather than coercively. Get up now, or in half an hour? It doesn’t particularly matter. The pillow has taken on the texture and proportions of a heavenly cloud. Let the morning become afternoon without us dashing around, shoving on our shoes whilst hurrying out the door in a commuter’s cossack dance. The world will continue in its same majestic and ludicrous whirl without us bearing witness to it. Placing a quilt over one’s head is a perfectly respectable way of dispelling life’s demands for another day.
It’s a pleasure waking up slowly in Glasgow at Tommi and Michelle’s. Tommi I met previously in a pub in Dornoch: he invited me to stay with him when I arrived in Glasgow, and kindly lived up to his word. I met Michelle and Nico, his wife and son, the previous afternoon. Michelle’s a native of Dumbarton, but a career in business management brought her to Finland, Norway and back to Glasgow. She’s suffered from MS in more recent years, but has used her experience and skills to assist the MS Society with its campaigns and organisation. Nico is a nineteen year old tennis maestro. As can be the case with young men, he bounds away with more energy and life than life itself can keep up with, which can lead to a kind of post-teen/early twenties dislocation where what one should do isn’t clear, and indecision paralyses. Over cereal and tea – after camping, such luxury – we talk for some time about Glasgow and Scotland. There’s no need to rush, and each topic is treated carefully, without shortcutting to received wisdom or printed opinion as so often blights much discussion of current affairs.
‘Och, you’ve not even had it that long!’
‘Well, I’ve been travelling around Britain!’
‘Oh have ya? Well, I suppose we’ll let you away with it then, hehe!’ – Kimberley, Glasgow, on the death of a digital camera.
Violently, I’m forced awake after a couple hours’ sleep. Some vicious freeze has crept inside my clothes. My chest and legs feel like they’re dead. Some internal thermostat has clicked down to warning level and my mind’s frenzied with the adrenaline. The tent has acquired even more rainwater than before. The wind has blown over most of the coversheet, exposing the tent to the cruelty of the elements. And it is a fucking cold night out there.
It takes immense mental effort to lift myself up and move. The consequences of not moving and falling back asleep will hurt bad in a few hours. This is the worst situation I’ve ever been in physically.
What to compare it to? The despair one feels as a teenager, puking up a night’s self-abuse into the bottom of a toilet cistern, unsure if those stomach convulsions will ever end? Or the panic of losing a bag of personal belongings, a phone, a laptop, your ID and bank cards, in a public place, and that moment of realisation that you may not possibly find it again. Mentally, physically, you’re getting there.
‘It’s like a circus up there’ – man in tourist office, Fort William.
There’s far worse places to wake up hungover and aching than the foot of Ben Nevis. Intuition guided me to a good spot behind a large fug of ferns on a Glen Nevis back road. Rain is gently falling, horizontally as well as vertically it would seem, and a thick mist hangs over the head and dampens the ears. It’s no day for scaling peaks, but in the distance I hear groups of men in the distance visitor car-park psych themselves up with Maori-style chanting. I picture David Brent leading them on, clapping and leering.
I head into Fort Bill in anticipation of a special event. The Queen’s Baton relay will be passing through here, aye, on its long and meandering way to Glasgow, but it’s not that. My younger brother’s decided to come up here on a bit of a whim and see me for four days. He’s about to turn twenty six, and feels the need to leave the capital, even just for a few days.
‘Aye, there’s people in the country. But I’ve never been there’. – George, Lerwick.
I’ve gone off the map…
There’s been a gradual imperceptible transition from what felt like normality – retail parks, major supermarkets, traffic lights, dual carriageways, petrol stations, Greggs’ the bakers, mass unemployment and a depressing concentration of abysmal overpriced housing – into a smoother stream of forests, fields of heather, and great gliding spaces of well … nothing I’ve ever been prepared for.
The name of this beautiful wildflower scattered across these fields where red deer cross, untroubled by cars? The origins of these great rising bens, touching the skies like the vertebrae of fallen giants? Or the geological explanation for these eye-boggling gorges and glens that tear through the terrain like a hyperactive seismograph?
To a person familiar only with the largest of cities, all this is disturbing me, seizing me up, shaking my imagination, a violent ventriloquism. At times it’s too bleak to be pleasant, but the mind is twisted and transformed by it. Beauty becomes a kind of normality.
‘The technical word for this is fucked’ – Steve, Orkney.
There’s little evidence for the passage of time in Orkney. It’s a place to come and disappear. Anyone thinking of faking their own deaths for whatever purpose, take note. There’s no need to travel to Panama like John Darwin of Seaton Carew, or disappear in some Mexican river like Arthur Cravan.
Even Elvis Presley could conceivably have arrived here without raising an eyebrow. I can picture The King dawdling across St. Margaret’s Hope harbour and into a taxi run by a farmer whose crops are out of season. It being a solitary occupation, the farmer, let’s call him Gerard, doesn’t even look up to inspect his rear passenger. Later, responding to an ad in a local rag, Elvis sports an oversized waterproof coat and trapper hat, and traded a few gold records for a third-hand fishing boat with some local. He lived out the remainder of his days just off the coast of North Ronaldsay, failing to ever work out how to fish trout.