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Issue 50 - The big freeze

Scotland Magazine Issue 50
April 2010

 

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The big freeze

I was talking on the telephone to a friend in Cape Town earlier this week and inevitably he asked me about the weather in Scotland. I told him the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and that the snows of January and February had receded, at least for the time being. “It’s 30 degrees here,” he informed me. “You can give me snow any day.” As somebody born in the humid heat of Malaysia, and who prefers warmth to chill, I was ambivalent about my response to this but he went on to talk about having been in Glasgow earlier in the year and the city being in chaos.

“You’d have thought the Scots would have been prepared for snow,” he said, very much echoing my own thoughts at the time.

But then Scotland hadn’t seen snow in that quantity for at least three decades.

Entire communities were cut off; families were trapped in their homes; schools were closed, and city centre streets were transformed into sheets of ice. Nobody knew what to do, least of all politicians.

Nevertheless, it was just as I remembered it back in the 1970s when a friend’s car was buried under a six foot snow drift in a queue of traffic for 24 hours. Mercifully, he and his girlfriend were travelling in warm clothes and intelligent enough to open a window to bore a hole upwards for air. Alas, it did nothing for their relationship which ended abruptly the moment they were rescued.

One of my earliest memories of Scotland is as a 12 year old tobogganing down Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh with great abandon. I thought it was the most exciting thing I had ever done. All of my contemporaries were learning to ski then and instead of jetting off with their parents to the high spots of Europe, as they did when they grew older, were taken north at weekends to places like Aviemore, Glenshee, Glencoe and somewhere in the eastern Cairngorms called The Lecht.

Over the winters that followed I visited Aviemore on many occasions, but have to admit that it was rather more for the apresski than the piste. Some friends owned a small chalet nearby and we would arrive to stay unannounced in impossible numbers. All considered, they took it remarkably well. Everybody mucked in and if there wasn’t a bed, we slept on the floor.

However, 30 years ago you could count on the snow lying deep and crisp and even in the Highlands, and it didn’t matter if the sky was overcast. Nobody expected it to be otherwise.

Then something happened: the seasons shifted and there were muttering about global warming. It was the hoteliers of the resorts that I felt sympathy for, but it forced them to diversify into husky dog trials, mountain biking and other sports. Aviemore even began to manufacture its own snow.

One of the greatest outdoor spectacles, and possibly of all time, was the Bonspiel held at Lake of Menteith near Stirling in 1979. If anything was to popularise the sport of curling, this was it, and for those of us who turned out as spectators, it was an unforgettable sight to behold, with literally thousands of participants having the time of their lives.

With thick ice once again covering Lake of Menteith, I telephoned the Royal Caledonian Curling Club in January to find out what they were planning for the weekend only to be told that the Bonspiel had been cancelled for health and safety reasons. Changed days. I think it says it all that once again thousands of enthusiasts turned out on the Saturday and Sunday regardless.

Now far be it for me to pontificate upon climate change, but I can’t help reflecting that the Romans used to grow grapes and make wine in the Scottish Borders, there was a mini-ice age in the reign of James IV, and in Elizabethan England the streets of London during the summer months were said to be so hot that you could fry eggs on them.

I don’t imagine that local authorities were any more prepared for such aberrations in the climate then than they are now, but it does suggest that in the great scheme of things the universe operates a powerful corrective mechanism. Personally, I welcome the return of Scotland’s seasons: stormy springs, sunny summers, mellow autumns and snowy winters, and I’m sure that the multitudes who once again descended upon Scotland’s winter ski slopes will agree.

As I write this, the days are getting longer and the trees are beginning to bud. What I’m looking forward to now is a long hot summer, but no doubt there will somebody wanting to complain about that too.