I had postponed the inevitable for as long as possible – seeking refuge in a pub in Ullapool to escape the high winds that were pounding Ardmaire Point, site of a popular Caravan and Camping Park, that stuck its beak out into Loch Carnaird towards Isle Martin, and the Summer Isles beyond. Although it was tempting to stay for a dram, I was on the bike, and fatigued from a long, epic ride 170 mile ride along the North Coast 500 from John o’ Groats. I had nursed my single pint of Black Sheep as long as possible, but the light was going and so I zipped up and headed into the damp dusk.
Back on site I accepted my lot – to spend the night in my 2-man tent in the middle of a gale. It was like being inside a paper bag continually being flicked by a bored school-boy. As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, as Shakespeare put it. They kill us for their sport. Here though I felt (yet again) at the mercy of the Cailleach, the Mountain Mother. This wasn’t the first time I’ve had to survive a night in a small tent in a storm. When walking the Coast-to-Coast last year I experienced ‘tempest camping’ on the exposed Blakey Ridge in my tiny ‘coffin’ tent. Knowing I had weathered that storm gave me some ballast. I recalled my strategy: you have to surrender to it. There is no point fighting a storm – it is stronger than you. It is in charge. You just have to yield yourself to its elemental might. Laughing at the craziness of trying to camp in such conditions, I cracked open a bottle of Dark Island (a delicious Orkney ale), and entertained myself with singing, digging into my repertoire of walking songs, which I’ve accumulated over my annual long-distance walks. I found this to be a fine way to keep my spirits up. On long slogs it keeps you going, and in this instance, it felt like a way of not only surrendering to the storm, but celebrating it. Getting a little merry and singing my heart out into the dark felt slightly bosky – but exhilarating. I picked songs that seemed appropriate: David Dodds ‘Magpie Song’; Chantelle Smith’s version of ‘Mist-Covered Mountains of Home’; Dougie MacLean’s ‘Caledonia’; John Martyn’s version of ‘Spencer the Rover’; Dave Goulder’s ‘The January Man’; Swarbrick and Thompson’s ‘Crazy Man Michael’. I bellowed them out above the howling wind and they probably sounded awful to my neighbours (sorry!), but it felt great to do. I didn’t have any comments or complaints in the morning, so I suspect the din of the gale mercifully drowned out my drunken warblings.
Apart from recommending this as an unorthodox bardic survival technique (!), and because it feels life-affirming and fun, I would like to extend the metaphor of this – singing into the storm – to life in general, especially during these dark times. We are face with a ‘perfect storm’ of multiple threats (in the United Kingdom: the triple wave of Covid-19; Brexit; and Climate Chaos), and although we must not deny them, indeed we must do everything we can to prevent them, prepare for them or ameliorate them, I think to give up our creativity is to snuff our the flame of if not civilisation, then our humanity. For we are more than just survival machines. The songs, stories, and poems of our ancestors flow through us, and we can create new art, new life, every day – celebrating the miracle of our sheer existence and the beauty of the manifest world. The darkness encroaches and the storms of the world gather strength. Let us keep our frail flames alive, and sing, sing into the howling night. While even one of us refuses to fall silent – with our creative outpourings in the face of the overwhelming forces – the stultifying forces of philistine Neoliberalism will not have won.