And There They Were

Last month I managed to steal a weekend away to the Highlands. The weather was balmy for March, with summer feeling as though it had arrived early. Not a cloud in the sky, taps aff, etcetera. The trip seemed blessed by the sun itself, a well-timed getaway destined to be plenty of fun. The journey from Glasgow felt like a daring, not-entirely-deserved escape to the country – I hadn’t finished my uni assignment and long shifts at the library had chipped away at me, sapping my will to carry on.

A day at the library typically looks something like this: often I pick up a takeaway coffee on the way in, always I sit on the same seat on the fourth floor, usually I complete the day’s Wordle puzzle, and without fail I check in to the day’s news before settling in to work. The news gets me down a lot, but I’m hooked like a fish. “You’re staying informed,” I keep telling myself. This justification is of little comfort though once I’ve had my fill. Bloated with grief, I finally clock in to work on this or that essay 2 to 3 whole hours after I first sat down.

It’s always the same. Political turmoil here, interminable crisis there. I can’t turn away, and it makes me want to cry. Every once in a while I do. There’s an emerging title for the current zeitgeist: the Perma-Crisis. It seems that the world has just hobbled from car crash to catastrophe since 2007. Especially now, what with war unfolding on Europe’s doorstep, the climate emergency, and a pandemic that we’ve just collectively decided never happened (if only to save us reliving the trauma). I haven’t written about politics for quite some time, because frankly: how can anyone even have a take on all this? I feel as though I don’t – can’t – have an angle. I feel opinionless, ground down by this disaster treadmill that I can’t seem to step off from.

So my trip to the Highlands felt like a pause, not just on the uni work I’d been badly procrastinating on, but from the oppressive sense that everything is hopelessly fucked. My phone signal couldn’t reach me, and I’ve never felt more smug about my decision to leave EE for 02; my time in the Highlands was not to be interrupted by Kevin Bacon’s incessant campaign to keep me surfing down the data highway. My daily doomscroll was no longer possible, and I felt freed from my punishing morning routine of checking in to the day’s affairs and checking out with a bad case of despair.

From the clean air to drinking straight from mountain streams, the Scottish outdoors never ceases to be refreshing. It was still too early in the year for any midges either which, as their favourite all-you-can-eat buffet, made the getaway just that bit sweeter for me. Midges are such an irritation up North, and are one reason among many that make the region so inhospitable to humans. It’s often joked that God gave us shite weather, our neighbours the English, and the bastard midge to counter-balance Scotland’s otherwise perfect features. The weekend was at the very least an antidote to two of our national flaws.

Leaving the central belt behind, there are no major sources of light to speak of as you venture beyond Loch Lomond. The electric hum of Glasgow was reduced to a glowing dome in the distance, making a silhouette of the surrounding huddle of hills. As we settled into a campfire after a hard day’s work of bagging Munros, the campsite owner came along with two promised bags of logs to add to our stockpile. He stopped for a minute, gazed up, and said that the stars that night were the best he’d seen in his five years at Strathfillan.

It was true – the stars were astonishing. They had revealed themselves the night before on a hazy walk home from the Tyndrum Inn, but now with the fire to warm our hands we could really sit with our chins pointed upwards. And there they were: a terrific canopy above our heads. Even with my short-sighted eyes I could spy satellites as they charted their orbits across the night sky. We could see clear as day the planets lined up in a row, and if you stared at any patch for long enough and allowed your eyes to adjust the most distant pins of light would begin to poke out through the blackness. Shooting stars were a dime a dozen, and we ran out of wishes to place upon them.

I started thinking about how, until relatively recently, most humans through history would have seen what we were seeing anytime there was a clear night. I wondered if they ever got bored of it, whether the sheer spectacle of the sky that night would have been as domestic to them as some of the modern miracles we take for granted in our lives today. The stars felt so timeless and placeless that night; we were gazing at the very same stars that cultures across the centuries and around the globe have painted into constellations, projected their stories onto, and used as compass points to navigate vast deserts and oceans. And there they were.

And there they always are. We just can’t see them. The same progress that has with one hand given us our material comforts at night has stolen away from us with the other an awareness of the extraordinary view overhead. We have blinded ourselves with the dazzling glow of our own brilliant inventions, and we have stopped looking upwards. You can’t help but feel humbled in the presence of the stars in all their glory, yet lifting the veil of light pollution requires leaving the distractions behind and getting far, far away as you can.

I wonder what this astronomical blindness has done to our perspective as people, where nights like the one I experienced are now such a rarity. That intimacy that people once had with the night sky long ago has since been severed, and taking its place are screens that bring the whole world to our pockets. Are we truly living in a Perma-Crisis, or have we just lifted the lid on the suffering that has always surrounded us? Seeing the stars that night allowed me to step off the disaster treadmill for a precious moment, to see the bigger picture writ large.

The devastating imagery coming out of Ukraine, my gripping fear about the senseless damage we’re doing to the planet, my anger at the people in charge who only look out for their own – none of that was diminished, could ever be diminished, by staring skyward. But it did make me realise that, for all the points of light shimmering down at us, there was a lot of darkness too. The air was cold, and looking up made it seem all the colder. The insignificance of whatever it is we’re doing to ourselves washed over me, leaving me to soak in all my many questions. In the car home to Glasgow I moped as our destination (and the uni deadlines that awaited my return) drew closer. I left the Highlands with one less pair of sunglasses, an unseasonable tan, and a powerful sense of scale.

Words by Charlie Forbes

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