Thoughts on The Darkest Day

Hi. If you’d rather listen to this post than read it, then here is an audio recording. The full text of the essay is below:

This post is different to what we usually share here. It’s less about the land, and more about why I need to tell its story so badly. Also, I usually keep my language clean in my writing, but this all came from a pretty emotional place, and so I can’t promise something didn’t slip through.


I’ve been trying to get my head in gear to write a new post for weeks now. This is the 5th draft I’ve started in ten minutes, but this is the one that’s going to stick. When I sat down and started writing I thought I’d go with the prevalent mood that I see online today – the mood of fury and disaster. I even drafted something apologising for my tendency to always seek a positive note, to give myself permission to wallow in the collective misery.

We all know why we want to feel that way. When I saw the news today there were pictures of abandoned streets, lorries queuing at Dover, upset families. There’s a new strain of Covid on the block; the BBC are going out of their way to deal with anti-vax lunacy theories; Donald Trump is going mad during his last days in office and dreaming of martial law. To go further, Christmas is more or less cancelled, lockdown is back, and it’s the darkest day of the year with most of the winter still ahead.

It feels like we’re living in some kind of dystopic disaster film at times, but there’s no hero. And if anyone still had any lingering ideas of things being over by Christmas, or of 2021 being a guaranteed win after the fail of 2020, then reality is surely starting to sink in. I was all ready, in light of this, to start moaning. But instead I’m saying to hell with that. To hell with the darkest day.

To be clear, I’m not saying that as in, let’s just give up. I’m saying The Hell With It, We Are Going To Win. We’re going to get through this.

I remember a story I saw on Ray Mears’ Extreme Survival once about the psychology of surviving disaster (there’s a link at the end). A ship went down and the crew evacuated into two life-rafts which were tethered together by a rope. In some respects, it was an ideal setup to do an experiment on survival. To all intents and purposes each raft was its own separate world, but because they were joined they were always subject to exactly the same conditions. They had the same stores aboard, the same number of crew, were subject to the same weather and sea conditions. One had the ship’s captain on board, and the other carried the first mate.

After drifting for days on end the rafts were spotted and the crew were picked up by a passing vessel. The survivors of the captain’s raft (the captain sadly died the day before) needed to be lifted aboard and given immediate medical attention. They were weak, dehydrated and some were very ill. By contrast, the crew of the first mate’s raft climbed up the ladders themselves, smiling and thanking their rescuers, asking for a smoke and a shower.

What happened? The first mate happened. He provided the leadership that the crew of the raft needed to motivate themselves and work together. He understood that the problem of survival had only just begun now that they were on the raft. By contrast, the captain did nothing much. He let himself believe that once aboard the rafts there was nothing more they could do but await rescue.

The first mate insisted that the crew have a rota to keep watch, and everyone must take their turn. He rationed out the food and made sure everyone ate their share at the right time. They talked to each other, they cleaned themselves and the raft regularly. They got on with the routine of looking after themselves and each other. Meanwhile, the crew of the other raft were simply lying around, worrying inside their own heads, and wondering if anyone would ever come to their aid. They lapsed into silence and inactivity, stopped doing anything at all, and despite the fact that they had plenty of food and water to hand, they stopped feeding themselves and hydrating properly. By the time help did reach them, they were almost past helping.

You can probably tell where I’m going with this shallow metaphor, and you’re right. I know which raft I want to be in. So I’m going to try and put aside my tendency to wallow.

The post I’ve been trying to write for the last few weeks was about the Cairngorms. I had my first winter day in years up there recently – the first time in ages that I felt bold enough and keen enough to put myself out there in the cold hills. But I didn’t write it, because after the walk I felt crap. That’s the thing about chronic fatigue – you can do stuff sometimes, but there’s often a price to pay. And, for all those weeks when I felt crap, I just didn’t want to write about the hills. I wanted so desperately to be exploring those high places – my heart was in it – but instead I was feeling like a block of exhausted lead all day, and then lying awake all night worrying about the future and feeling like a broadly general failure of a man.

Besides, writing about hillwalking and photography and being outside just seems so frivolous right? At a time when the western world is working through its greatest challenge since the war, when people are losing loved ones as well as jobs, when they are losing their access to the places they love? Isn’t it a slap in the face to them to sit down and read my words waxing lyrical about the wild places?

Well, maybe, but sitting here right now I realise that I have to keep doing it anyway. I have to. Because that’s the thing that is going to get me off the raft under my own power. It’s a hard time for us all, but throwing our dreams on the fire won’t make the light of civilisation burn any brighter. It will just leave us all without dreams.

You know, the more I think about it, the more apt the analogy of connected life rafts seems for our current situation. We’re all taking refuge in our own homes (those of us who are lucky enough to have them – let’s spare a thought), and staying in touch through the internet. But the difference here is that no ship is going to come over the horizon. We’re going to have to survive until we reach shore. The quicker we understand that the sooner we can make the decision to help ourselves.

So, what am I going to do now? I’m going to organise myself. I’m going to go and empty the dishwasher and clean the kitchen, and get back to work editing the book I’ve been working on for the last few months. I’m going to keep reaching out and talking to people about Scotland, and sharing our stories about the land we love, because we need to talk. Making connections with each other is more important than ever, now.

This journey is going to suck. It already sucks. So many of us are suffering loss and grief. The ship has gone down, but we are on the raft now, and we (by which I mean ‘I’) need to make the decision to see it through.

Ten years ago, almost exactly, I got engaged to my then girlfriend. Just a few days later she had a massive accident that left her with a traumatic brain injury. She spent a month unconscious, and months more in hospital recovering. In the end, she was one of the lucky ones who survived brain damage with no lasting negative impact, but it could easily have gone the other way.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I guess I just want you to understand that I really do know what it’s like to fear for your loved ones, to feel grief and to see the future go up in smoke. And, in the midst of all that, the platitudes of others made me furious. Other people telling me to think positive… how dare they? Didn’t they know I was beside her bed every damn day? That was the girl I wanted to marry, lying up there.

So, I get it if you feel pissed off by this post so far. If you’ve lost someone, if you don’t know what the future looks like anymore, then this nonsense about rafts and getting our stuff together is the last thing you need. I get it – ‘Don’t fret about your money or your grief… just imagine you’re on a raft! Think positive!’ I’d punch that guy.

But before you do, know this. At first I hated it. I hated the platitudes, and more than anything I hated the fact that Life Went On. It wasn’t fair that life simply continued for everyone else and they didn’t even know how badly I hurt. It wasn’t fair that other people got to go before me in the line, and that they thought of their pathetic concerns as actual problems. It wasn’t fair that the whole damn world hadn’t stopped, because the most important person in the universe was injured, and we didn’t know if she’d be ok. I hated the sheer bland normality of things like traffic lights and roundabouts, shop queues and smiling doorstep charity workers asking for a moment of your time to discuss awareness of…whatever. I wanted it all to disappear.

Eventually, though, I started to mind it less. I hate to say that it became the ‘new normal’ to be engaged to someone in intensive care, but it did. And it started to be ok that life went on. Then, gradually, it became something essential. I put everything on hold when the accident happened, but after a while I had to start thinking about work again, about my career, and about the wedding (yes, it still went ahead – happy ending!) I began to see the resilience of life in the normality around me, and in seeing how strong it was I found new strength in myself. I came to need Life Goes On, and it became a comfort of sorts to know the earth was still ploughing on around the sun, unperturbed. It became ok for other people to have other things on their mind, other cares and worries and dreams. They became my lifeline back to being a person with a future ahead of him.

Nothing is normal now though, right? Life is not going on as normal when there is a nation-wide lockdown. So where do we look for that normality? Where on earth do we turn when the lives we’ve grafted for simply evaporate?

Like I said, a few weeks ago I had my first winter hill day in years. I walked from the ski centre into Coire an-t Sneachda and back, and I felt exhausted for weeks.

There was a time when this walk was trivial to me. I used to work split shifts at a shop in Aviemore during winter. Work 8am to noon, 4 hours off, then work until 8pm. It was crap, but I was fit enough to make the most of it by squeezing an entire hill day into my lunch break. God I was strong in those days.

But my fitness and a large part of my confidence vanished just over two years ago. I didn’t know then how long my chronic illness would last. I still don’t. All I knew was that I was knackered always, that sleep and rest made no difference, and that walking a few hundred metres was the absolute most I could manage. I ventured out to my favourite part of the forest on one occasion to see if I could, and as I walked tentatively, weakly, I genuinely wondered in my heart what it would be like if I could never come back there. I know people who have ME, who have fatigue worse than I do, who are in that position. People whose passion for adventure was no less than mine, who are now confined to beds and wheelchairs.

These friends are extreme examples of a process many of us are now going through. We’ve been traumatically cut off from the lives we had, the lives we thought we would have, and we’re confined. We don’t know when things will change or indeed what we and the world will be like in the great mysterious ‘after.’

On Cairngorm I was standing beside the icy lochan in the coire when I looked up at the crags with their snowy gullies and icy buttresses, watching a team of climbers. ‘That used to me.’ I thought to myself. ‘I used to do that.’ But even as I knew that I couldn’t do it anymore, I was prepared to accept the change. In years gone by, I thought a career in mountaineering lay in store. But things changed. A whole host of reasons, and by no means all negative. The accident, marriage, unemployment, freelancing, new work, mental health, house ownership physical health, changing priorities… the list goes on. Mountaineer was a label that didn’t fit me any more. But I was still on the mountain, and that was because there were labels that did still fit – the ones that had been there all along. Photographer. Writer. Storyteller. That is, inescapably, what I am. Probably what I was always meant to be. And knowing that is where I find strength today. I find it in knowing myself. I find it in knowing that despite all that is going on, despite all the weight bearing you down, you are still you.

Do you know what I’ve noticed about my ME suffering friends? They know what they want. They know exactly what matters to them in life, and what they want to move towards. They suffer every day, but they also discover in themselves a deep well of hope that keeps them going day by buggering day. It’s not rational, and it’s often belligerent, but it’s oh-my-god powerful. For them, the blinkers are off. Life is not kind, and it can go wrong as well as right. They don’t want riches, they don’t want adulation. They want a little bit of strength to go after the things they love.

After a few weeks of fatigue I began to realise that it wasn’t going to go away soon. I just knew – I could feel it. It also made things crystal clear for me, that I wanted to put my limited energy toward the things I loved. I want to be outside. I want to see amazing things, take amazing photos and tell amazing stories about the simple goings-on of nature. When I lost my job in July thanks to Covid – a job I loved and held for 5 years – that feeling only got stronger. It’s when the framework of life changes suddenly that you realise who you really are and what you really want. Like when Kirsty had her accident, and I knew more than ever that she was the person I wanted to spend my life with.

Can I actually make that passion into some sort of job? With chronic fatigue? In a time of Covid? Are you kidding? Where do I even begin? Where do we all begin to reforge our dreams and build new frameworks for our lives?

I’m trying to look at it another way. We’re in raft. It’s leaking, the paddle is broken, and it’s a long way from shore. But we have got everything we need to solve those problems. We only need to decide to solve them. Just break them down and deal with them one at a time. The only way to guarantee failure is to give up.

So, I’m going to keep writing stories about my time in nature and sharing them here. I’m going to do that, because in a world of pandemics, idiotic leadership, economic meltdown and god-only-knows what else, my stories are not going to make it any worse. They might even make it a tiny bit better. They might make a few minutes on the raft go by a little more easily for someone who wants a lifeline of normality to reach for. As you can probably tell by now, there’s a good chance that person is myself.

Here’s a link to the Ray Mears episode:

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