AT 9.45 yesterday morning, after a leisurely breakfast of porridge and sugarless tea, Prisoner 81590, also known as Stephen Gough, better known as the Naked Rambler, was getting undressed to go to work.
In a field just off the B7026, not far from Penicuik, the 53-year-old bent to tie his hiking boots and one of his bare knees sank into the damp ground. He stood and put on his floppy green hat and his heavy rucksack. His lean body was pale after more than six years of prison, and dotted with insect bites after a day out of it. His pubic hair is dark, his chest hair white. Varicose veins made a river delta of the back of his calves. “Right,” he said, squinting at the rising sun, “if I can do 20 miles today, that’ll be good.”
How do I know? We spent the night together. On Friday evening, we found a spot in a field, sheltered by a fallen fir, with incredible views towards Salisbury Crags. Now that he was no longer walking in public, Gough got dressed, pulling on a fleece and green trousers. Anyway, the midges were bothering him. He has a two-man tent and offered to let me lodge beside him. “As long,” he joked, “as you don’t get naked.” There was no chance of that.
Released early Friday from Saughton Prison in Edinburgh, he walked naked out the gates and headed for the Pentland hills, south of the city. Since 2006, he has spent most of his time in custody in Scotland, usually being arrested very soon after release. During his court appearances he refuses to wear clothes, and refuses to wear them in prison, which has meant that he is kept in segregation from the other prisoners. When he took exercise in the yard in Saughton, he was kept hidden from the overlooking windows by a wooden frame on wheels known as the Rambler Scrambler.
His most recent conviction for breach of the peace came after he was arrested in Dunfermline, three days after leaving Perth prison. His intention is to walk naked home to Eastleigh, near Southampton, to see his family and live naked in the community. He suspects that if he can just get over the Border, English police will treat him with greater lenience.
I met him in the Midlothian village of Auchendinny. He had been in the hills all day but was now back on the roads, eating an apple like the Biblical Adam. A 6ft 3in former marine, he walks fast, a great yomping lope, never slowing even as traffic slows and peeps at the sight of him. A man in a white van shouted “Get your f***ing clothes on!” but Gough ignored him. Road workers in hard yellow hats asked him to stop so they could get have their photos taken with him. He smiled when they told him to enjoy his freedom. “Yeah,” he said, “as long as it lasts.”
The Naked Rambler isn’t rambling alone. There is a film crew making a documentary about him, and he is also accompanied by members of the public impressed by his cause. One, George Cavanagh, a 53-year-old courier from Musselburgh, has created a board game based on Gough’s travels. Another of his supporters, John Hamilton, a retired civil servant, though not a naked one (he is wearing an anorak) is using satnav on his phone to find a suitable route. Hamilton met Gough following his release from Perth prison. “I believe the Scottish system has been totally unjust to him,” Hamilton says. “It’s not illegal to be naked. His being sent to prison is an embarrassment for Scotland.”
Hamilton does feel, though, as do many people, that Gough would do himself a favour if he just put on some clothes, went home, re-established contact with his teenage children and saw his elderly mother for the first time in years. There is a growing sense that Gough’s story has gone from comic to tragic and that he is ruining his life for the sake of a point about civil liberties which he made long ago.
The truth is, though, that it’s hard to maintain a feeling of pity for Gough when you are walking along at the side of him, close enough to smell his musky sweat, and listening as he orates – there is no other word – on personal freedom. He does not come across as a pitiful figure. He says his walk is a mixture of public statement and inner journey. He says that he is the word made flesh. He considers this to be his job. “If you compromise your truth,” he insists, “you compromise yourself.”
In the early evening, we turned off the road, looking for a place to camp. Gough negotiated a barbed-wire fence. “I’ve never snagged meself on one of these yet,” he said, stepping over, “and that record still stands.”
The night was freezing. We built a fire and watched the stars. We drank some whisky. “This,” he said, “is the opposite of prison.” Not seeing his kids is hard, he said, but he feels he is setting them an example of how to live a life of integrity. He dislikes the idea that anyone would believe he was insane, and said that even if he had to spend the rest of his life in prison he wouldn’t give up what he is doing. He explained the roots of his naked rambling go back to a walk he took when living in Vancouver and burst into tears at the epiphanic realisation that human beings are essentially good; how, then, he argues, can the body be bad?
He phoned Mel, his ex-girlfriend with whom he once walked naked from Land’s End to John O’Groats. He phoned his mother, who is in her eighties and seems to be hard of hearing. “No,” he corrected her, “I’m not in Kent, I’m in a tent.” He belched and farted with gusto. He sniffed his socks. He snored.
Yesterday morning, after breakfast, as the sheep looked on, Gough hit the road again. He was making for the Borders village of Walkerburn, via Peebles. We walked along the A701 and, in Howgate, a young woman called Regan Drew, walking two poodles, blushed as he passed. “Is this actually happening?” she asked.
Gough passed the village hall, where a bake sale was being held. He waved to the middle-aged ladies peering through the windows. “My goodness, that was a vision to behold,” said Jan Stewart. Was she offended? “Oh, God, no. Not at all!”
“I’m just damned disappointed,” said Cheryl Wilkinson, “that I didn’t have my glasses on.”
I left Gough just outside Leadburn, but couldn’t resist asking, one last time, about the purpose of his journey. He had talked quite a lot about religion. Is this, then, some sort of pilgrimage? The Naked Rambler mulled this over. “But I’m not going anywhere am I?” Then he rubbed his beard and reconsidered. “Well,” he said. “I suppose I’m going to my mum’s.”