Hill lochans, peat bogs and wild flower machair stretch out behind me; I’m on the white shell sand at the edge of the Atlantic, gazing out at hazy St Kilda, forty miles away. Beyond that it’s Canada.
I’m just the latest to stare out from the western shore of North Uist across thousands of miles of sea to wonder about friends or family on the “other side”. Hundreds left from here in the early 1800s, bound in the main for Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Desperation drove them on perilous one way journeys because they couldn’t afford to pay high rents on their small crofts and there was no mercy from the landowners who effectively “cleared” them from their land.
Maybe that’s why this feels such a fragile, poignant place; it’s haunted by the memories and the longing of families who’ve gazed for two centuries from either side of the ocean. You hear ancient whispers in the western wind and sense a long sorrow for the loss of homeland.
The old Ontario barns could tell tall tales. They’ve fought their weather battles and bear the scars but I fear for them now, abandoned and unloved.
There’s still strength there but the snow intensifies their disrepair and vulnerability. And makes them even more beautiful.
There’s deep snow underfoot and fluffy flurries falling as I walk in late afternoon light. It’s Ontario in the midst of a freezing Canadian winter, and I’m shovelling to clear the driveway, playing on skates, skis and snowshoes, taking endless photographs and piling on layer after layer to stay warm. I grab wool, down, boots, fleeces, gloves, hat, more down and sunglasses and am rewarded with whiteness, shadows, a glowing body, aching muscles and a warm dram at night. There’s no guilt.
Guilt? For enjoying winter?
We had snow too when I was little, growing up on a Scottish dairy farm which was perched at the top of a steep slippery brae. There was only one focus every snowy morning; the long farm track had to be ploughed and sanded for the daily visit of the milk tanker. The pot-bellied lorry had to power its way up the hill and manoeuvre round the bends to reverse into position outside the dairy, unhook its long pipe and suck the bulk tank dry because a herd of cows was already gearing up to fill it all over again . And they couldn’t wait.
It seemed the jeopardy was with us every morning. Would this be the day the snow and ice would prove to be too much and we’d have to pour the hard-earned milk down the drain? We kids had the family farm work ethic; we knew it mattered.
My father and the men would spend the morning scraping and sanding the road then hook a tractor to pull the tanker up and up, climbing round the dangerous slippery drops which fell to the river far below. We’d listen for the sound, willing the engine noise to slowly draw closer and roar outside the farmhouse window. Not until it was safely back down the hill could we children make slides and throw snowballs, knowing that all was well with the world. Until the next day.
It’s a lifetime ago but carefree snow is still a novelty. This week I’m embracing it.
I travelled such a long way to visit….
… but only the chickadees came out to play on the cross country trails.