LAST week Stephen Gough was released into the outdoor air, and allowed to stride out, bare-cheeked, without immediate arrest.
For a brief moment, I found it comforting to imagine him out there again, striding through the greenery, somewhere south of Perth. Not everyone would have felt this way. Some people may have been scandalised, offended or simply baffled by the fact that this man, shose stand-off with the Scottish justice system has cost the nation around £500,000, had been allowed by the police to go on his naked way.
But as one who, nine years ago, spent two days marching through the undergrowth with the man, and sleeping rough in the freezing woods, I can't help wanting to cheer that policy shift. I felt glad to know that I don't live in a country where a man might gradually rack up a life sentence in solitary confinement simply for refusing to put his pants on.
It didn't last long, and on Friday, the Naked Rambler was arrested again over an alleged breach of the peace. Gough's battle for freedom of expression has seen him imprisoned for most of the last six years. Back in 2003, following one of h earlier incarcerations, I picked him up from Inverness prison and drove with him to the woods to be interviewed. It quickly became apparent that his nudity was not about sex. I don't recall at any point feeling threatened. There was no offensive edge to his nudity. His body was "good", he said, so he didn't want to cover it up as if it were something bad.
It didn't take long to get used to the sight of Gough's naked body, there in the woodland. Though fully dressed myself, I soon forgot that his nudity was anything remarkable, an effect nurtured by his Zen-like lack of self-consciousness and the fact that he seemed to have shed any sense of propriety along with his clothes, and happily belched and farted.
But that was in the snow- sprinkled landscape when he was on the move. Weeks later, when Gough turned up at the home I shared with my boyfriend having completed his final stretch to John O'Groats, his nakedness seemed jarring. In civilisation, you wear clothes. The more people there are around, the more you need to wear them.
It is not just a matter of the visual distractions of genitalia. A real naked person is very different from one in a magazine. They smell and exude warmth. When you brush someone's skin it is far more affecting than the chafing of sleeve against sleeve.
Even during our walk, I was fazed by this. Clothes are a barrier that prevents odours and secretions leaking out into the world around us. They allow us to cope with living in close proximity to so many people. Covering up is as much about defending our noses as our eyes.
Gough reminds us that it's difficult to draw up rules about the right amount to cover up. In Switzerland there have been calls for a burka ban at the same time as a legal campaign revolving around its own naked ramblers. Clothes are a prime field of cultural relativity: those who find Gough's nudity offensive may, simply by leaving their hair uncovered, commit an act that is equally offensive to some others.
You don't have to travel far to experience this. In Manchester recently, I attended a Sikh wedding party where the bride arrived covered and hooded and stayed that way for most of the bash. Leaving the hotel, it was shocking to be confronted by the acres of female flesh on display on the busy streets of Manchester Picadilly.
Many people are uncomfortable about the notion of a naked man being near young children. I'm not saying there aren't men who might want to exhibit their wares to kids in a predatory way – but Gough is not one of them. Rather, he wants to be more child-like in his relationship to his body.
Now 53 years old, Gough said, as he left Perth Prison, that he planned to go and see his two teenage children. When I met him all those years ago, he told me he hoped one day they would understand that he was fighting this crusade, to normalise public nudity, for them. He said he wanted them to retain the ease and lack of self-consciousness about their bodies they had seemed to have has children – a feeling I can certainly relate to having watched my own kids.
But for Gough, perhaps, it's been too long. His children may have grown up with a sense of their father as a distant weirdo rather than an inspirational hero. He knows this, and said last week: "I haven't seen my kids for ages. Kiana is 16 and Yarin is 14. They are teenagers, so I expect they are embarrassed by me."
Ultimately, though, Gough's problem is that while he has, for now, won his battle with the law, he has not won it with the world.
Hearing his story, most people have shrugged, laughed then bought another few outfits from Primark. There has been no grand cult stripping off to join him in solitary confinement. People mainly thought he was a little crazy – though it turned out he was not. Psychological tests have proved him to be sane and clear-thinking. Indeed, he has the kind of stark-raving sanity that most people find rather shocking. He is someone who persists, when everyone else would throw in the towel, in fighting a battle many think ridiculous.
For Gough and his cause, though, perhaps a rearrest is the best thing. The last thing, he must want is for this concrete adversary of the law to melt away. For without that he would be left to pit himself against the vast amorphous rest of the population, who wear clothes and are suspicious of those who don't. "Put it away," is the standard response. The truth is that, even if Gough were allowed to wander freely, he would still, effectively, remain in solitary. Wherever he goes, behind bars or not, he will remain, not simply naked, as he would like, but dressed in a patchwork suit of our own complex feelings about nudity.
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