IT’S all about control. We want to take it back, to have it, hold it and keep anyone else from having any at all. The far-right mantra is so familiar now it’s hard to see a way round it.

There’s one way: fast, quick, dangerous. Think about the value of those places where you simply have no control, and how essential they are to being alive.

Birth, for example. Or death.

These are the two essential points by which you measure and co-ordinate your life. And after the latter, others, if they care, will perhaps be able to give it some kind of definition, like the dates on your tombstone, if you have one.

READ MORE: Will Europe dominated by far-right really welcome Scotland?

There are certain parameters to the occasions of birth and death. Certain things can be done to help, to make the circumstances less painful. But it’s always going to be out of your control.

Creation and destruction in their most extreme manifestations are places where, in some essential respects, people are beyond control.

At such times, we each of us surrender to what our bodies do, and others do to us, and if we’re fortunate, with us, for us.

Shakespeare understood this when he had Theseus say in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that: “The lunatic, the lover and the poet / Are of imagination all compact.”

Insanity is, by definition, beyond logical reason, beyond control

When you’re in love, if it is love, something about the state you’re in really is out of logic’s reach. You have to take the risk. And creation in poetry, something poets know about, and all artists experience, is born out of chaos. Nothing worthwhile came from following the recipes strictly.

There is no painting by numbers. The great philosopher Nietzsche once summed it up: “You must have chaos within yourself to give birth to a dancing star.”

And he knew what he was talking about. I was trying to say something about this in a recent poem.

Here it is, topped and tailed by the Shakespeare quotation, made up between those first and last lines of three sentences, each evoking the three worlds of the three figures in their three conditions:

The lunatic, the lover and the poet

What madness reigns and what fanatic zeal

Or uttermost despondency, what icy depths, what cold

Of unremitting distance and command? What care,

Attention, intuitive knowledge, sympathetic grasp,

Imagination’s ecstasy, material touch and taste,

The physic of that physicality, what bodies are and what

This body is.

The work of the accord that writing brings

When source and delivery, sustenance and strength

Are kept in balance here, this godly and ungodly world,

These three in one, these multitudes of meanings:

Are of imagination all compact

Geology and cartography, as examined in the book I’ve been talking about recently, open up these ideas with specific reference to Scotland and Gaeldom. The book is Window to the West: Culture and Environment in the Scottish Gàidhealtachd by Meg Bateman and John Purser and it’s freely available here.

We go back to the origins of the pioneering Scottish Enlightenment enquiries into geology in Purser’s chapter on that subject: “James Hutton (1726–1797) is regarded by many as the father of modern geology and the first to put forward an igneous origin for many of the earth’s rocks. He was followed by John Playfair (1748–1819) who clarified Hutton’s theories and added much on fluvial and glacial erosion.

“Both men were highly influential in the subsequent work of the Swiss geologist, Louis-Albert Necker de Saussure (1786–1861), who travelled extensively in Scotland, learnt Gaelic and retired to the Isle of Skye.

“John MacCulloch (1773-1835), of Galloway stock, continued the work of Maskelyne and Playfair and paid particular attention to the Western Islands of Scotland, writing in the form of letters to Sir Walter Scott.”

The National: a sketch of Dunollie Castle north of Oban by the composer Felix Mendelssohna sketch of Dunollie Castle north of Oban by the composer Felix Mendelssohn (Image: Archive)

There's a curious significance here that the geological sciences developed in the 18th and 19th centuries take things forward in conjunction with literary, artistic and creative imaginations.

Even as scientific specialisations are being developed, the common human practice of sensory appraisal is maintained. And this proceeds in terms of the physical experience of the geography and an initiation into the language.

The most insightful geologists work to understand the language of the places they want to learn more about, and they and visit or reside in the geography of their enquiries.

Seeing – not only literally what you see around you but also in the metaphoric meaning of deep seeing, profounder understanding (as opposed to superficial seeing, the distractions of neon and glitz) kept the sciences and the arts in close connection, in dialogue or conversation with each other.

Specialisation might lead to expertise, but it can also be the enemy

It can foster exclusivism and elitism of the worst kind. Specialist vocabulary keeps amateurs out. Good, in one sense: if you want to be a contributor, you need to learn what the language is, how it works.

But in another sense, bad, for it means there’s no approach. And there always must be an approach. Everything sealed off atrophies and dies. You need borders, you really do.

But you also need to be able to cross them. And the more passports you have, the better. In the 18th and 19th centuries, specialisms are developing.

Purser tells us: “TF Jamieson in the 1860s was a leading authority on glaciation and was the discoverer of the Postglacial Climatic Optimum. James D Forbes’s (1809-68) seminal glacial studies were in part inspired by a visit to the Isle of Skye, his paper The Topography and Geology of the Cuchullin Hills (given to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1845) even being published in a tourist brochure of the 1860s.”

The National: Geological map of Skye by John MacCullochGeological map of Skye by John MacCulloch (Image: Archive)

But as well as these, Purser goes on: “The visual drama of the geology not only made discoveries possible, it prompted an aesthetic response – a response sometimes directly related to the culture of the inhabitants.

“The most famous is the explanation of the Giant’s Causeway, known as Clochán na bhFomhóraigh. The legend was prompted by the similarity of the basalt pillars of Antrim in Ireland and Staffa in Scotland, part of the same volcanic flow, hidden by the North Channel but revealed on either side. The causeway was said to have been built by Fionn mac Cumhaill when challenged to fight a Scottish giant, who later tore up the causeway, doubting his chances.

“Another story is recounted by Alexander Carmichael of two giants breaking off a huge stone from the parent rock – the stone is called Clach Mhòr Leum nan Caorach – to make a bridge over a gully so their horses could cross over and, in the night, being defeated in their aim by a subtle enemy in a magic mist. The narrator’s grandson objected to the fantasy but was made to look foolish when told the giants’ names were Frost and Ice and the enemy was Thaw.”

That story brilliantly illustrates an elision of comprehension between science and the fabular. Both are rooted in actuality. The story reveals how what might seem the fantastic is an accurate metaphor that applies to reality, scientifically understood.

But with the dynamic of the storytelling, the imagination is enhanced and excited

Understanding becomes human and goes beyond numbers, beyond the numerically accountable.

Purser goes on: “From a house in Skye, it is possible to select a round-topped, a flat-topped or a jagged mountain for a day’s climb without having to use a car. The coast can similarly be selected for mud, gravel, sand, ‘coral’ and rocky beaches; for limestone caves, fossiliferous rocks, shales, granites, marble or glaciated gabbro; and the considerable tidal range can be exploited to enjoy the whole range of different species at different levels.

“The massive lava sheets in Strathaird and North Skye are described as leacach, and the spectacular basalt columnar formation at Trotternish is popularly known as ‘the kilt rock’. These, and the basalt columns round Uamh an Òir at Bornesketaig in Kilmuir parallel the columns at Fingal’s Cave and the Giant’s Causeway.”

John Purser and I once visited a limestone cave not far from where he and his wife Bar live on Skye. Here’s the poem I wrote after that, “Spar Cave, Isle of Skye”:

The pull beneath the water running over stone revokes you,

thresholds, links this living body to inorganic pasts. “

The original unit survives in the salt” breeze blowing now a world away,

within Spar Cave. I wish it could be clear, as easily as I lean down,

push my hand down, through sheets of running water, grip the quilted limestone,

see the water up to my wrist, a bangle of ice: solid, petrified flesh, frozen desire, primal alteration in the zones that lie inside us

and the cave there in the stone.

So our love keeps, travels with us?

I’ll carry it forever. I speak with your voice.

As the great American poet William Carlos Williams once said, you should never explain a poem, but it always helps.

The point here is simply that our bodies, the air we breathe, the earth we tread, that “quilted limestone” cave, the sea that surrounds us, that crashes in with waves and tides, everything – is alive, and therefore possesses not only inter-relation but also ancestry, right back through into geological time.

And that ancestry can also be heard, in our voices

The question “Where do you come from?” might seem condescending or patronising when delivered in a certain tone, across race or class or gender barriers, but it might also be the politest of courtesies, born of true curiosity and humility.

It might not mean you, personally, but you, your voice. Where did your voice learn to speak as it does? Please tell me for I respect you and I’d really like to know more. Various geographies and terrains generate different acoustics.

Purser quotes Iain Thornber recalling a strange sound in Glengalmadale in Morvern: “I became aware of the silence being broken by a sound which I initially took to be a little breeze picking up among the rocks above me.

“I paid little attention to it to begin with but then it seemed to expand across the face of the hill. Although it grew in intensity I found it impossible to say with any certainty where it was coming from largely because I could not physically feel it on my face and neck.

“At times it seemed to start in Coire a’ Chùil Mhaim to my left and then move over to Coire an Dubh-alltan and Coire nam Muc ahead of me. Much like the end of a rainbow it was everywhere but nowhere. It is difficult to describe the sound. If one can ‘feel’ or ‘see’ a noise it seemed cold, almost metallic and grey-blue in colour… Coming as it did on an otherwise fine winter’s day, it felt strange, almost ominous …

“It has been suggested by Thornber that Mendelssohn’s choice of December 16 to launch the Hebrides Overture was taken in the knowledge that on that day the sun penetrates to the very back of the cave [Fingal’s Cave on Staffa], knowledge that would have been acquired from local guides.

The National: Joseph Mallord William Turner, Staffa, Fingal’s Cave, ca. 1831–32. Oil on canvasJoseph Mallord William Turner, Staffa, Fingal’s Cave, ca. 1831–32. Oil on canvas (Image: Archive)

“Interestingly, the top of Iona is just visible from the very back of the cave. [Joseph Mallord William] Turner famously painted Staffa with the smoke of a steamship appearing as prominently as the mist, and in the 1880s James Aitken painted it on the walls of the Argyll Hotel on Iona, showing it from both exterior and interior viewpoints.

“Mendelssohn was a gifted artist himself and, confronted with the climatic realities of sketching in Scotland, he reported, ‘[I have] developed a new manner of drawing on purpose for it, and have rubbed in clouds today and painted grey mountains with my pencil’.

“It cannot be said of Turner, who followed Mendelssohn to Fingal’s Cave, that he had to develop a new technique to portray either Staffa or the Cuillin, but he certainly made full use of his wildest manner to portray the land and sea scape as he experienced them, not least in his studies of Glencoe and Loch Coruisk, and a peat bog …”

Paintings, musical compositions, poems, all are different ways of mapping reality. But reality is never static, any more than works of art retain only a single meaning.

Travel and movement are parts of the process of all of them

So we come to cartography, both as a developing science and as the product of the experience of encounters. And although there were maps and detailed accounts of the resources and the liabilities of the terrain long before the 18th century, so much more is generated and becomes embedded in our knowledge through the regimented occupation and domination of our country by military priorities.

These persist. Warfare is common practice, one way or another.

Someone once said, “Science is how Capitalism understands the world.” But there is in truth more than one understanding.

Mapping reality through different arts is maybe the best way we have of coming to terms with it, coping within its ultimate parameters, birth and death, understanding its self-determinations, becoming ourselves. It is the opposition. And it is the antidote.