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Issue 47 - A winter wonderland

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Scotland Magazine Issue 47
October 2009


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A winter wonderland

John Hannavy enjoys Scotland's lochs and landscapes in winter.

Growing up in Scotland in the 1950s, we loved winter. It was cold and crisp, there was tons of snow everywhere, and there were weeks when we could not get out of the village because the road was blocked. There was endless sledging and snowball fights – and no chance of getting to school – paradise!

Chipping the ice off the inside of the bedroom window each morning resulted in pools of water on the linoleum, and the inevitable telling off from mum. Power cuts when the weight of ice brought the lines down meant oil lamps and candles; blazing fires in every room with a fireplace, and evil-smelling paraffin stoves everywhere else.

And yet, reading Osgood Mackenzie in his 1921 book A Hundred Years in the Highlands, it seems odd to learn that he thought the winters of his childhood in the middle of the 19th century were much harsher. He lamented the warming of winters and the increasing wetness of summers, and believed winters were by then so warm that men no longer needed thicker winter clothing to work on his Poolewe estate – and he was talking over more than a century ago.

Now where did I read about global warming and climate change recently? Old Osgood was complaining about it a century before I was even born!

But ‘big freezes’, commonplace as recently as half a century ago, are now a rarity – preserved in grainy black and white documentary films of steam trains stuck in snow drifts – and really extended periods of hard frost and clear blue skies are almost no more than a distant memory. We still get occasional heavy falls of snow, and spectacular days of really heavy frost, but my memories are of a winter landscape which seemed to last for months – or is that just my distorted recollection of childhood?

But when Scotland does take on the mantle of a hard winter, it is just as magical a place as it ever was. And even when there is no snow, those clear skies as late autumn moves into winter, and late winter becomes early spring, draw photographers out in their droves, as do the monumentally heavy cloud-laden skies which preface yet another spell of bad weather.

Henry Vollam Morton is, as you will know by now, the muse who accompanies me on so many of my wanderings through Scotland, and his evocation of the arrival of a Scottish winter is, I think, pure poetry.

“Snow, they said, had fallen in the north. The Borders, in the grip of the first frost, waited for winter as men might wait an army moving south. Its spies were everywhere. The pale sun shone on hedges touched with rime, and every heel-mark in the fields was lidded with white ice. This was a new Scotland; a Scotland brilliant in winter sun and very still under snowladen skies. Never shall I forget those frosty morning walks, the headstones rising from white grass, the sharp morning air into which man and beast breathed a little mist of steam, and all day long from dawn until dusk the world alight, as with a million little stars, with the robin’s plaintive song.” Others also saw great beauty in the extremes of Scottish weather. The great Orcadian poet and writer George Mackay Brown marvelled at the dramatic changes from midsummer – when the sun barely set – to midwinter when it barely rose.

He summed up the contrast beautifully in his wonderfully evocative 1969 book An Orkney Tapestry when he wrote “Thermometer and barometer measure our seasons capriciously; the Orkney year should be seen rather as a stark drama of light and darkness. In June and July, at midnight, the north is always red; the sun is just under the horizon; dawn mingles its fires with sunset. In midwinter the sun intrudes for only a few hours into the great darkness, but the January nights are magnificent–star-hung skies, the slow heavy swirling silk of the aurora borealis, the moon in a hundred waters: a silver plate, a broken honeycomb, a cluster of fireflies.” But where some will always see beauty, other can see only a confirmation of their melancholy. Robert Burns’ Winter–A Dirge, clearly and perhaps surprisingly seems to place him firmly in the latter.

The wintry west extends his blast, And hail and rain doth blaw; Or the stormy north sends driving forth The blinding sleet and snaw: While,tumbling brown,the burn comes down, And roars frae bank to brae; And bird and beast in covert rest, And pass the heartless day.

The sweeping blast,the sky o’ercast, The joyless winter day, Let others fear,to me more dear Than all the pride of May: The tempest’s howl,it soothes my soul, My griefs it seems to join; The leafless trees my fancy please, Their fate resembles mine!

Winter, it seems, was a recurring metaphor for Burns’ periodic bouts of melancholy – and the cold, dark, dreich days of midwinter a perfect backdrop for witty musings on lost opportunities. A couple of verses from The Vision come to mind.

The sun had clos’d the winter day, The curlers quat their roarin’play, And hunger’d maukin taen her way, To kail-yards green, While faithless snaws ilk step betray Whare she has been.

All in this mottie,misty clime, I backward mus’d on wasted time, How I had spent my youthful prime, An’done nae thing, But stringing blethers up in rhyme, For fools to sing.

He probably never even dreamed that two and a half centuries after his birth, his efforts at ‘stringing blethers up in rhyme’ would be the most popular and enduring Scots verses ever written, and that throughout this anniversary year of 2009, he would be the focus of Homecoming 2009, the biggest ever programme of events celebrating Scotland’s heritage and culture, its achievements in sport and commerce, its contributions to the world and, of course, its literature.