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Issue 45 - Four seasons in one day

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 45
June 2009

 

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Four seasons in one day

John Hannavy explores more of Scotland's lochs and landscapes.

‘Rain fell with the nagging persistence of toothache. There were moments when it would torment with a pretence at ending, only to resume with renewed vigour. The sky fell.

The earth gushed water. Boulders shone like brown glass. Mists hung out of heaven to wrap the world in a grey wetness. Burns spouted. Rivers rose to the bridges. Pools overflowed. New and unexpected streams were born out of a responsive earth. The wind joined in, hurling the rain upwards in sudden mad gusts, so that in the magnificent sincerity of the storm, the very laws of gravity were defied and, in other words, it was made perfectly clear why Scotland invented whisky.’ I love reading H. V. Morton – the ‘H. V.’ stood for Henry Vollam – his humour, his ability to paint word-pictures and, above all, his sheer love of Britain. That little paragraph comes from the second of his two seminal Scottish travelogues In Scotland Again published in 1933, and probably one of the most readable accounts of a Scottish journey ever written.

Morton had risen to fame as the journalist who accompanied Howard Carter into the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1923, but his British travelogues earned him a huge following.

Whether he was on Scotland’s west coast, of deep in the English Lake District, Morton saw the dramatic changes the weather wrought on the landscape as one of the delights of travelling. A good job for, as any traveller in Britain knows only too well, the idea of ‘four seasons in one day’ is not entirely fanciful. ‘Scotland is two absolutely different countries’: wrote Morton, ‘Scotland in sunlight and Scotland in rain. One is the most beautiful country in the world and the other is the most awesome.’ He went on to suggest that: ‘It is to these grey fearful days that one can trace the moody, poetic, sensitive temperament of the Gael.’ So that’s where we get it from, is it?

In any event, not everyone shared his opinion of the root of the Gaelic temperament – in print at least there were notable dissenters. Samuel Johnson, writing in 1733 believed that until the Act of Union brought civilisation – in the form of ‘English manners’ – to the Highlands, ‘the culture of their lands was unskillful, and their domestic life uninformed, their tables were coarse as the feasts of Eskimeaux, and their houses as filthy as Hottentots.’ Such barbs, had they read them, would have sorely tried the ‘sensitive temperament of the Gael’.

It could be more positively argued, however, that it is the dramatic changes the weather visits upon the landscape which really influences and defines national character, and that rather than there just being Morton’s two Scotlands, there could well be an infinite number!

It could also be argued that the weather moulded the character of the first photographers to record Scotland’s many faces. In Victorian times, with long exposures necessary even in bright weather, the climate dictated whether or not pictures could even be taken. Not for the Victorians the simplicity of today’s intelligent digital cameras. They had to make their own plates, process them on site immediately after exposure, and counted themselves very lucky if the weather permitted six or seven pictures a day. As the Victorian Aberdonian photographer George Washington Wilson noted when working in Wester Ross in the late 1860s, the weather was a real problem: ‘After breakfast Gellie and I took a walk up a footpath which leads to the Corrie of Ben Eay.

Saw on our way down a capital view looking down a gullie towards Craig Roy. Went on to the end of the footpath about three miles and had a splendid view of Ben Eay. After going a little further over the quartz rocks, saw down the glen by the back of Ben Luigeach and Ben Alligan. We then went up a hill to the right some distance and saw a peep of Loch Maree and had a fine view of Ben Slioch, Craig Roy and the mountain beyond. Came on to rain. We got a soaking before reaching the inn at Kinlochewe.’ He tried again the following day, but the Scottish weather foiled him again.

‘The morning looked promising, we started off for the Corrie of Ben Eay the coachman carrying the basket and camera up the hill. It got dark before we reached the first corrie...

rain before we got down.’ Even a light wind would blur the trees in the view during an exposure often of several seconds – especially in dull weather. So, still days and good light were essential – not characteristics the Scottish weather can be counted on to display. Luckily for today’s photographers, the ‘instantaneous’ photography became a reality not long after Wilson had recorded his comments.

Wilson had an additional handicap to deal with – the rigorously observed Scottish Sabbath, and during that visit to Scotland’s north west, the only sunny days seemed to be Sundays when, of course, taking photographs would have been considered a grievous sin.

Perhaps before embarking, Wilson should have heeded the words of Daniel Defoe. In his poem Caledonia, written in honour of Scotland and published in 1706, he wittily summed up the relationship between the Scots and their climate: ‘First Younger Sister to the Frozen Zone, Battered by Parent Nature’s constant Frown, Adept to Hardships, and cut out for Toil; The best worst Climate and the worst best Soil.’ Throughout the centuries, others have been just as eloquent. The Scottish-born naturalist John Muir – who would become an important influence within the nature conservation movement in late 19th century America – writing of his Scottish childhood in East Lothian, paid homage to the landscape, the climate and, above all, the light. He got it absolutely right when he said: ‘Storms are never counted amongst the resources of a country, yet how far they go towards making brave people.’ Five centuries ago, the writer Sir Thomas Craig observed that, despite the unpredictability of its climate, ‘There is no land in which a man may live more pleasantly and delicately than in Scotland.’ Generations of Scots developed a deeply held love of their country’s rugged beauty, and it is, perhaps, not surprising that when driven overseas to earn their livelihood or seek their fortune, they chose to settle in similar landscapes in Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere.