“Cauld winter was howlin o’er moorland and mountain”

I am far from moorland and mountain at the moment though I do have a partial view of snow-covered hills.  Why is it that the shape of the landscape is clearer when there’s snow on it?  I love the A9 drive north in the springtime, anticipating and then enjoying the expanses of white mountain tops from Blair Atholl onwards.  I wasn’t able to do that drive in April last year and it looks like I’ll still be at home this April too so I’ll just have to remember.

We’ve just come through a severe cold snap here, but one I could cope with, not having to go out and chop wood for a fire or break ice for drinking water as previous generations had to do.  My neighbours through the wall sent out an emergency call for electric heaters when their boiler packed in on Boxing Day and as I ransacked my glory hole under the stairs, I was torn between thinking “Oh, those poor bairns will be frozen” and “Now they’ll understand what it used to be like before the days of central heating”.  I thought of the ice we sometimes woke up to on the inside of the bedroom window and the itchy pain of chilblains, relieved paradoxically by standing barefoot in the snow.

I like winter.  I like anticipating it by getting out my gloves and scarves and thick cardigans; I look forward to pulling the blinds early against the dark and going to buy my Christmas tree.  I know that it’ll be sad when the tree has to go, but it’ll then be time to buy a bunch of daffodils and also to look for the first snowdrops appearing in the garden  –  and here they are below, just showing through the ice and the fallen leaves.   I like doing my sanctioned daily walk in the rain and the cold, knowing that I have a hot cup of coffee to look forward to when I get home.

On 27 September, David Robson had an excellent article in The Observer: “How to cope with winter: befriend it”.  He wrote about Kari Leibowitz who’d moved from the USA to Tromso in Norway, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle where during the darkest months the inhabitants get only “two or three hours of indirect sunlight”.  Ms Leibowitz is a health psychologist and she wanted to investigate how the folk living in Tromso coped with these long, long hours of darkness.  It turns out that they cope just fine: apart from some evidence of sleep disturbance, no other changes in their wellbeing were noted.  The journalist wonders if “one vital component may be a particular “mindset” that arms the citizens against the stresses of the long polar night.”

The researcher found that the more positive the residents were about the opportunities winter brought them, the more likely they were to be satisfied with life and the better their mental health.  She found Norwegian friends who couldn’t understand why anyone would not like winter and she herself found her attitude to it changing, enjoying walks in the darkness relying on her headtorch and going outside to enjoy any fresh new fall of snow.

Bill Duncan, in his very funny The Wee Book of Calvin, writes: “From my Grandfather I inherited my love of black clothes, silence, haar, November, cloud formations, …., the sudden lash of rain against a window, North, a hard chair, the quiet thrill at the first skein of geese arriving across a darkening late-September sky heralding another Winter.”  I love many of these things too!   I’ve overcome my initial sadness at hearing and seeing the geese flying south in the autumn, knowing that in the springtime they’ll be coming back again in all their raucous splendour.

A few pages later, he’s recounting a conversation between his grandparents:

” …. the two of them sitting in the unexpected gloom of a September afternoon, my Grandfather turning from the fire towards a steadily darkening sky, announcing: “that’s the turn o the year now.  That sky’s fair lowrin, only a flichter o licht left”.  Shifting her gaze from the Bible, my Grandmother, for once, would agree: “Aye.  The nichts are fair startin tae draw in already.  It’ll be quick dark the nicht, an quicker dark the morn’s nicht…. ”                                                                              

“Aye.  An thon’s a coorse air wi a fierce blirt o wind getting up ahent it.  A guid plash o rain in these clouds, tae.”  

“Winter’s never far at the back o a harvest.  Mark my words.” 

As if in assent, a sudden gust would throw a sharp lash of rain against the window.  My Grandfather, satisfied, turning to stare into the fire, reflecting on the coming Winter; my Grandmother returning to her Bible.”  

Among the many aphorisms in the book  –  some remembered from everyday use in the north-east of Scotland and some made up to suit the writer’s purpose  –  are: “In a wey, Midsummer’s Day is the start o winter ” and “For every summer morning, a winter nicht tae come”.  While I’m laughing, I’m also recognising the truths contained in these.  His final chapter is called “Are you a Calvinist?” though none of the many suggestions are theologically based.  So many of them apply to me though most certainly not: “Your favourite confectionary product is Fishermen’s Friends – Extra Strong”.

Christmas Day was spent in my sister’s garden  –  responsible citizens all.  The Daft Days (traditionally between Christmas and New Year) are over; my decorations are back up in the loft and I have daffodils in the kitchen.  However, I still have some Christmas cake to eat and I can’t say that my days have recovered their normal shape, nor have I set about the tasks I have allocated myself for January though I have given the oven its annual clean.  Midwinter has passed and I see a few minutes of extra light in the late afternoon but I’m inordinately pleased that my neighbour across the road has left up the lights in his trees.

Traditionally, it’s back to auld claes and parritch (which I’ve seen translated as “the holiday is over and it’s time to get back to work”!).  Well, I have no problem with either of these, though I’m having barley and mushroom risotto tonight.  I’ll finish with a recipe which I’d like to try when we get another cold spell.  It’s for Frosted Milk and comes from an Elizabeth Reid of Tongue who sent it to F. Marian McNeill (in 1929?) for her book The Scots Kitchen:

“When I was a very little girl we sometimes had this dish.  It was made in a three-legged pot, and Dad in his whimsical way used to say that the pot had to be set out on a frosty night for the fairies to prepare it.  In half an hour it was brought indoors and the top of a basin of sweet (fresh) milk was poured in.  By rotating a fro’-stick between the palms of the hands the milk quickly frothed up like the white of an egg.  It was served in a bowl with very fresh oatmeal, or burstin.  Honestly, I did not much care for it.  For me, the preparation was the exciting part.”

With the addition of oatmeal, it sounds very similar to cream crowdie, the forerunner to the now much-adulterated cranachan.  (Burstin was a type of flour made in Caithness and the Northern Isles from a mix of oats and bere, dry-roasted until they burst.)  I’ll need to substitute a whisk for the fro’-stick.









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