Winter a time of myth, magic and story telling and for those who live on the outer edges of Europe where the power of the old gods is still perceptable, it does no harm to respect the ancient traditions. Afterall winter is the time of the Cailleach Bhéara, the winter goddess who rules between Samhainn (1st November) and Bealltainn (1st May) and in these troubled times Ragnarök¹ may not be far away. There is, of course, a link with weather myths, for in the land of the Gaels the 1st of February is the day when the Cailleach gathers her firewood for the rest of the cold season. If there is to be an early spring, she has no need of a gathering-day and the weather could be unpleasant and stormy. So if the day is fine, the Gaels knew it would be a long winter. The 1st February is also Latha Fèill Brìde, the feast day of Brìde, the goddess of spring and fertility, later adopted by the Church as St Bride (St Brigid). In these northern latitudes February seems a little early to be celebrating spring, but 1st February is a quarter day, half way between Samhainn and Bealltainn, a good time to slip in a feast day. So with the Cailleach Bhéara at large, it seemed timely to honour Brìde and a trip to Stornoway for some tree hugging seemed appropriate.
Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, is the administrative capital of the Outer Hebrides and main centre of population, about 6,000 people live in Stornoway (about 25% of the entire populations of the archipelago). A visit to the big city is no minor undertaking: a 45 minute drive to the ferry, about an hour crossing the Sound of Harris and then a drive of about 90 minutes. In the winter, the ferry timetable is truncated (it only operates in daylight hours) and as the winter days are short there is insufficient time to get to Stornoway to do some shopping, nevermind have lunch or hug a tree, and return on the early afternoon ferry. Therefore, as an overnight stay is required, the weather forecast has to be carefully monitored to look for a suitable weather window and once the booking is made fingers are crossed and the shipping forecast is under regular surveillance.
The weather gods were obviously content as the forecast was for calm, dry weather with a northerly air flow, cold but with a chance of some sunshine. On the eve of our departure it started to snow, not the usual icy squalls, but big wet white flakes which slithered down the windows. Surely too wet too settle? The day began with a soft, pink Hebridean dawn and a clear sky; the air was icy and the puddles frozen, but not a trace of snow on the coast of the Hebridean Riviera. As we drove inland the temperature began to fall and the road became progressively slushy and then snow-covered as the wintry landscape of North Uist was revealed in the morning light. Although the islands are 57-58°N, with the presence of the Gulf Stream off the west coast the average night-time temperature in February is 2°C, so significant falls of snow are unusual and transient. As we drove onto Berneray to catch the Sound of Harris ferry, there was not a trace of snow and although the rugged hills of Harris were snow-covered, there was not a dusting elsewhere. Moving north the sky darkened, pewter grey clouds hugged the horizon spitting icy, sleaty rain cross the road and it soon became clear that there had been a heavy fall of snow across Lewis.
Stornoway is a typical west coast Scottish port, and for all the application of bright coats of paint on the buildings around the small harbour and the presence of the bright orange lifeboat, it is as grey as the Lewisian gneiss from which it is hewn. It’s charm is not immediate, and sometimes it is hard to get beyond its dour, dreich exterior; one wonders whether its lighter side disappeared with the herring girls. It is not the bright lights of the city which lures us to Stornoway, it is the woodland of Lews Castle. The 19th century “castle” was built by Sir James Matheson, the co-founder of the Jardine Matheson company, who made his fortune from the Chinese opium trade. In 1844, he purchased the Island of Lewis from the Mackenzie Trustees, built a new residence and spent £49,000 creating extensive woodlands and private gardens. This is the only large area of broad-leaf woodland in the islands, and although it now includes a golf course and is used extensively by dog walkers, runners and mountain bikers, the remaining woodland is important both culturally and scientifically. Therefore, every time we go to Stornoway there has to be time for either fungi or lichen hunting, and to hug a tree.
As the day advanced, eventually the sky cleared and the true glory of woodland garlanded with ice and snow emerged. A warning from the Cailleach or a smile from Brìde?
¹Ragnarök – the end of the world in Norse mythology, the final battle between good and evil, and probably scheduled for 29 March 2019.