January brought the worst of the weather. In the Borders it is not unusual to have the first snow in October and the last in May, although Sandy told me about a year when the last snow was in June and the first was in July. That must have been about the time when the Thames froze over after the Great Plague of London. Nevertheless, I never experienced a snow free January. Perhaps it was a form of superstition, but very few postmen called snow by its given name, preferring to use the epithet ‘the white stuff’.
Coming from Edinburgh, I had barely seen snow until I moved to the wild world outside. My country-born wife laughed heartlessly at my exclamations of disgust the first time our house was snowed in and I had to dig a path out to the street. But Cathy, strange woman that she is, enjoys the white stuff, as she enjoys rain and sun and the mellow mists of autumn. ‘What’s life without changing seasons,’ she tells me. ‘Enjoy it!’
My home town of Edinburgh has its fair share of seasons; it is buffeted by wind from every quarter of the compass, washed by tremendous rains and occasionally warmed by the sun, but snow comes rarely and seldom lasts for long. The first onfall almost always brings traffic confusion, with buses and cars unable to negotiate the steep city streets, but within a day or two the hard working council workers have gritted the roads. Thereafter all that remains is dirty sludge and enough salt to rust the most well protected vehicles. Snow perhaps lingers in the city parks and on Arthur’s Seat, the eight hundred odd foot high hill that reminds the good neighbours of Edinburgh of the great world outside.
The Borders are different. Snow tends to fall heavier and remain a lot longer. Sitting in the cusp of the hills, Brockshaugh attracts the white stuff and as many of the rural routes contain high-level farms, the posties have to be adaptable. The yard in a January morning was a noisy place as the postmen prepared their vehicles for the snowy roads. In the early years, when the vans were rear-wheel drive, Sandy taught me that a lump of concrete or a hundredweight sack of sand placed above the back axle helped keep the weight on the wheels, which helped keep the van on the road. It was quite interesting watching postmen heaving great lumps of rock around, with their breath smoking in the chill air, joining the exhaust fumes from a dozen vans. Everyone was rushing, save for Jim, who sauntered around, searching the black sky in case he heard some passing snow bunting, or perhaps a stray Celtic god, or something else.
To cope with the snow, a generous Royal Mail supplied the rural postmen with shovels, which had a mysterious habit of disappearing over the summer, so had to be re-ordered each November. There was a persistent rumour that Kenny collected them in spring and sold them at a market stall, but personally I suspected Marty. Either way, those that remained were treated like gold dust.
‘Kenny Beattie!’ Louise would shrill on every snowy morning, ‘you’ve hidden my shovel again! One of these days I’ll give you such a slap!’
It was Frankie who taught me to brand my name into the shaft with red-hot wire, which, strangely, is exactly what nineteenth century fishermen did with their items of equipment. There is little new in the world.
‘And take a couple of sacks too.’ Sandy instructed. ‘Not these new grey plastic things; get some of the hessian ones, the old prison mailbags; best thing there is for an icy road.’ He was right, of course. If the wheels of the van did not grip on an ice-smooth road, slipping an old mailbag under the tread gave just enough traction to get moving. It was a simple trick, but one that usually worked. Rab Sheriff, being a cunning man, had secreted a supply of sacks for himself in one of the storage cupboards, but Sandy was an old soldier and knew how to forage. So we always had enough for ourselves.
I disliked the snow, and I disliked the Meldons route. The initial farms were bad, but a third of the way around the route sits the village of Meldon, from where the route takes its name. At one time it had been tiny, nothing more than a coaching inn for changing horses on the route to Edinburgh, with a handful of eighteenth century cottages scattered around. In the late eighteenth century the local landlord had built a double row of weaver’s cottages, with the ancillary church. Later a school had been built, but it was in the second half of the twentieth century that the place had really expanded. Commercial builders erected houses that were far out of proportion to the size of the village, and even further out of proportion to most local wages. As the new houses with their four luxurious bedrooms and double garages dwarfed the indigenous cottages, White Settlers moved in. The houses were undoubtedly attractive, but in order to afford the high prices, the new householders had to work all the hours sent by God. What should have been beautiful gardens never blossomed past the flat grass stage, with the occasional transplanted tree that only emphasised the bleakness. In January, Meldon was white and cold and miserable. It was a time of splashing in sodden wet clothing from address to address, posting wet envelopes through wet letter boxes, crunching through virgin snow and swearing. There was always a lot of swearing in January.
There were two new developments in Meldon. The first was the largest, a spreading confusion of houses placed on an exposed slope. The roads here were always bad with ice and with the householders leaving early to work in Edinburgh, the streets were bleak and cold and miserable. Each house seemed like a desert island in a frozen sea and I felt sorry for the hopeful folk who had left the familiarity of their city home with high hopes of a country idyll, only to come to such a place. Virtually as soon as they were occupied, many of these houses were again on the market. I was not surprised; there was nothing cheering to come home to, particularly in January.
The second development was smaller and later, a double strip of houses that followed the natural shelter of a glen that eased into the Moorfoot hills. These houses were not quite as large, but were provided with more sheltered gardens, small screens of trees and conservatories. One or two, I noticed, had cheerful stoves within the living room, and their character seemed to be reflected in that of the residents. Although white settlers have a bad press in Scotland, I found the majority to be outgoing and willing to be friendly. Perhaps that is because I was one myself. And, when all is said and done, any community that does not bring in new blood would wither and die; too much interbreeding can lead to terrible consequences. While the people of the first estate seldom remained long, those of the second blended with each other and with the village. I wondered then, and have wondered since, if we realise exactly how much we are affected by our immediate environment.
Past Meldon the route was mainly off-road, which entailed some fancy driving in the snows of January, but some spectacular views. There can be little better than driving through one of the private country estates in the Borders, with each tree white streaked, burns running brown between iced banks and the sky a ragged, mottled grey. Each time the van stops, the silence is chill with snow, and branches are etched starkly above. There is beauty too in nearing the isolated cottages of shepherd or gamekeeper, where each window is illuminated, where Christmas lights still drape around the door and where the tang of smoke drifts heady and aromatic.
It seemed to be a rule that every Border gamekeeper and shepherd was married, and their children always came to greet the postman. They chattered happily, although they were as often as not pyjama-clad and barefoot in temperatures that threatened to crack the thermometer. Their mother was invariably cheerful, always capable, and controlled her offspring without recourse to social workers or psychology. I could talk to these children about football or school or local affairs, but they knew far more than I did about wildlife and their own environment. In one case, where the cottage had no mains plumbing and only elementary heating, I often found the children helping to gather kindling, or chop logs for the fire. Compared to the insipid, pale-faced city children, they always seemed healthy and happy. To me, these quiet cottages were the essence of the country, the home people who were self contained but never introverted, people who were always welcoming although they lived in conditions most city-dwellers could hardly imagine.
Perhaps because of the close proximity to the hills, Border weather is never predictable. A day that began with driving snow could change in a heartbeat, the sun could break through, and once the commuter traffic had drained away to Edinburgh, the road would be quiet. There is something intrinsically beautiful about a snow-covered road, with the tracks of past vehicles disappearing into the distance and winter sunshine sparkling. There is something better about the road once the Council gritter has passed. I think that only a postman can properly appreciate the job that these men do. Where one minute the white road merges with the white grass of the verge, and the white indentation that marks the inevitable roadside ditch, once the yellow lorry trundles past, everything changes. First the plough sweeps aside the top snow, then a mixture of salt and grit is spread over the dirty mess that remains. Gradually the snow and ice melts so that the black tarmac surface can be seen, a sign of safety for the traveller.
The difference is amazing; driving becomes pleasant, the postie can deliver much of his mail and may even enjoy the view. It is now easier to appreciate the sun gleaming on smooth fields, or the humped shape of sheep, or the distant humped hills. The Ten-Mile-Road cuts off just north of Meldon, winding up and up onto the high moor that stretches over the county boundary to Lothian. In snow this road is impassable, but once the gritter has past it is, as the police say, passable with care. That is enough for the postie, and the views are certainly worth the effort.
Bulking huge over the Meldon end of the road is the lump of Harper Rig, a hill that is said to have druidical associations. It was Jim who told me that harps were once a sacred instrument of the druids, and this hill was where they prayed to their Gods, whoever they were. Without much knowledge of druids, I cannot argue, but I know that Harper Rig is a fine, shapely hill that in snow seems to dominate the landscape for miles. In spring and summer we often met hillwalkers here, trekking in their bright jackets and massive boots, while there is a loch that attracts fishermen in most seasons. They usually drove up in estate cars or family saloons, to spend time in what is truly idyllic countryside as they hunt the trout that makes the Border famous. But not in snow; then only farmers challenge posties for the roads, and the route lies quiet under the bright, cold winter sun.
On and onward, with the van a red intruder in a landscape cleared of colour by the snow. Past the Ten-Mile Road the plough would even clear the Black Yett, the high and winding road that connects the valley of the Ecky to the gentle plain around Walstone. Black Yett means Black Gate, the dark gate through the lowering hills, but it was a white gate in January.
The plough had left a narrow ribbon of black with, on either side, a bank of snow eight, maybe ten feet high, a tunnel of snow through which the little red van slogged solidly along. In one or two places the top of the bank had crumbled, so that head-high pieces of snow had landed on the road; hardly an obstruction, but it made for interesting driving. There was no space to turn at The Yett farm, for the plough had simply continued in a straight line across to Walstone, so I had a choice; either continue on the Black Yett, hoping for a space, or I could reverse.
I chose the latter. Five miles in reverse along a tunnel of snow, and about half way along a vehicle came speeding behind me. It had to slow, and the driver shook her head in disbelief at the antics of this obviously lunatic postman. I waved cheerfully as she sounded her horn, once, twice, as if to hurry me, and then she shouted abuse out of her window. I wished that Frankie were with me, for he had the knack of a ready wit, but I only waved again and slowed a trifle, for I refused to be hurried. That woman followed me, glowering, for nearly three miles, then as I turned into the track for Kilrubie she sped away. I watched as she clipped the snow banking and uncharitably hoped that she would end in a ditch, but unfortunately she regained control and drove away. Perhaps Foulmire got her.
The January of 1995 was particularly bad, with temperatures in Peebles falling to around minus 10 centigrade, and in the hill farms to minus 25 or 26. These Arctic temperatures created many problems for both walking and driving posties. By that year all our vehicles were diesel powered, which gave better mileage for a similar cost. Unfortunately, unlike petrol engines, diesel does not warm up as the vehicle moves; indeed the motion of the van through the air tends to lower the already low temperature. This simple wind chill effect created many difficulties. Vehicles on long journeys tended to freeze to a halt, which meant that posties became stranded in sub-zero temperatures, sometimes in extremely remote conditions. The Post Office mechanics were busy, but the manager of the time had hired a rescue van with a petrol engine, which he sent out purely to give his stranded men somewhere warm to sit.
Walking postmen had other problems, with even the most experienced having to stop at somebody’s house to find some warmth. Frankie, of course, made the most of it, playing on the sympathy of sundry householders with the excuse that the cold affected his old war-wounds.
‘The only wounds you had are inside your head.’ RR would growl. Of us all, only RR failed to feel the cold. He just plodded on, grumbling, complaining, but always getting the job done.
During these extreme conditions the genuine decency of many Gutterbluids was revealed. Despite the Peebles Stare, despite the insularity, at bottom most were kindly folk who liked to help, but were not sure how. I will never forget Mrs Glen who lived high on the hll. I believe that the houses on the hill had been built by the mill hierarchy of the nineteenth century, from which line Mrs Glen had descended. If this were the Victorian age, she would probably have founded a charity for her workers, as it was she cared for her posties. Past her youth and entering her years of maturity, she called us all her ‘post boys’ and never failed to leave a flask of hot soup or hot coffee within her porch. Perhaps such paternalism, or should that be maternalism? is no longer politically correct, but when the cold was biting through four layers of clothing and my breath froze into icicles from my chin, I certainly did not care. People such as Mrs Glen helped maintain the postie’s faith in the essential goodness of humanity. Her soup was good too; homemade lentil or chicken, with plenty rice. Sometimes it was worth braving the cold purely to sit on that friendly doorstep, surveying the white hills and the white rooftops of Brockshaugh while feeling the new warmth seep through one’s body.
What was bad in the town was obviously worse in the deep countryside. When I was delivering to a shepherd high above the Valley, the snow was too deep for my hard-pressed van to push through. It was a case of dismount and walk a mile or so up what I could find of the track, sinking into thigh deep snow at every hope and slithering madly, arms flailing, on the more thinly covered parts. By the time I reached the cottage I was cold and miserable, if just a bit elated at actually having got there. The shepherd, a hardy man in his late twenties, barely looked at me. He was working around the sheep pens in his shirtsleeves. Ruth, his wife, chatted cheerfully about the weather as she leaned against the doorway, allowing the cold in and the aromatic cooking smells to seep out.
‘It’s not too bad here,’ she said, indicating the white blanket that smothered the hills, smoothed the hollows in the valley and lay piled in head-high drifts against the north and east walls of her house. ‘But I heard it was a wee bit rough further west.’ Her nod indicated the vast spread of hills that stretched westward toward the Clyde. ‘The news said that a shepherd went missing last night, out attending his sheep.’
‘Out attending his sheep.’ There was something Biblical in those words, something timeless and very poignant. As I struggled back to the van the snow started again, great white flakes whirring down on the already white path. I tried to imagine the shepherd’s life. Out at night in the lonely hills, attending his sheep while wind howled bitingly and the snow whirled, dizzy in the black. I imagined the cold and the loneliness and the effort, and suddenly a postman’s life seemed secure and comfortable in comparison.