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Chapter 9

WINTER AND NEW YEAR.

THE Scotch dialect is singularly rich in terms of
reproach against the winter wind. SNELL, BLAE, NIRLY,
and SCOWTHERING, are four of these significant vocables;
they are all words that carry a shiver with them; and for
my part, as I see them aligned before me on the page, I
am persuaded that a big wind comes tearing over the Firth
from Burntisland and the northern hills; I think I can
hear it howl in the chimney, and as I set my face
northwards, feel its smarting kisses on my cheek. Even
in the names of places there is often a desolate,
inhospitable sound; and I remember two from the near
neighbourhood of Edinburgh, Cauldhame and Blaw-weary,
that would promise but starving comfort to their
inhabitants. The inclemency of heaven, which has thus
endowed the language of Scotland with words, has also
largely modified the spirit of its poetry. Both poverty
and a northern climate teach men the love of the hearth
and the sentiment of the family; and the latter, in its
own right, inclines a poet to the praise of strong
waters. In Scotland, all our singers have a stave or two
for blazing fires and stout potations:- to get indoors
out of the wind and to swallow something hot to the
stomach, are benefits so easily appreciated where they
dwelt!

And this is not only so in country districts where
the shepherd must wade in the snow all day after his
flock, but in Edinburgh itself, and nowhere more
apparently stated than in the works of our Edinburgh
poet, Fergusson. He was a delicate youth, I take it, and
willingly slunk from the robustious winter to an inn
fire-side. Love was absent from his life, or only
present, if you prefer, in such a form that even the
least serious of Burns's amourettes was ennobling by
comparison; and so there is nothing to temper the
sentiment of indoor revelry which pervades the poor boy's
verses. Although it is characteristic of his native
town, and the manners of its youth to the present day,
this spirit has perhaps done something to restrict his
popularity. He recalls a supper-party pleasantry with
something akin to tenderness; and sounds the praises of
the act of drinking as if it were virtuous, or at least
witty, in itself. The kindly jar, the warm atmosphere of
tavern parlours, and the revelry of lawyers' clerks, do
not offer by themselves the materials of a rich
existence. It was not choice, so much as an external
fate, that kept Fergusson in this round of sordid
pleasures. A Scot of poetic temperament, and without
religious exaltation, drops as if by nature into the
public-house. The picture may not be pleasing; but what
else is a man to do in this dog's weather?

To none but those who have themselves suffered the
thing in the body, can the gloom and depression of our
Edinburgh winter be brought home. For some constitutions
there is something almost physically disgusting in the
bleak ugliness of easterly weather; the wind wearies, the
sickly sky depresses them; and they turn back from their
walk to avoid the aspect of the unrefulgent sun going
down among perturbed and pallid mists. The days are so
short that a man does much of his business, and certainly
all his pleasure, by the haggard glare of gas lamps. The
roads are as heavy as a fallow. People go by, so
drenched and draggle-tailed that I have often wondered
how they found the heart to undress. And meantime the
wind whistles through the town as if it were an open
meadow; and if you lie awake all night, you hear it
shrieking and raving overhead with a noise of shipwrecks
and of falling houses. In a word, life is so unsightly
that there are times when the heart turns sick in a man's
inside; and the look of a tavern, or the thought of the
warm, fire-lit study, is like the touch of land to one
who has been long struggling with the seas.

As the weather hardens towards frost, the world
begins to improve for Edinburgh people. We enjoy superb,
sub-arctic sunsets, with the profile of the city stamped
in indigo upon a sky of luminous green. The wind may
still be cold, but there is a briskness in the air that
stirs good blood. People do not all look equally sour
and downcast. They fall into two divisions: one, the
knight of the blue face and hollow paunch, whom Winter
has gotten by the vitals; the other well lined with New-
year's fare, conscious of the touch of cold on his
periphery, but stepping through it by the glow of his
internal fires. Such an one I remember, triply cased in
grease, whom no extremity of temperature could vanquish.
'Well,' would be his jovial salutation, 'here's a
sneezer!' And the look of these warm fellows is tonic,
and upholds their drooping fellow-townsmen. There is yet
another class who do not depend on corporal advantages,
but support the winter in virtue of a brave and merry
heart. One shivering evening, cold enough for frost but
with too high a wind, and a little past sundown, when the
lamps were beginning to enlarge their circles in the
growing dusk, a brace of barefoot lassies were seen
coming eastward in the teeth of the wind. If the one was
as much as nine, the other was certainly not more than
seven. They were miserably clad; and the pavement was so
cold, you would have thought no one could lay a naked
foot on it unflinching. Yet they came along waltzing, if
you please, while the elder sang a tune to give them
music. The person who saw this, and whose heart was full
of bitterness at the moment, pocketed a reproof which has
been of use to him ever since, and which he now hands on,
with his good wishes, to the reader.

At length, Edinburgh, with her satellite hills and
all the sloping country, are sheeted up in white. If it
has happened in the dark hours, nurses pluck their
children out of bed and run with them to some commanding
window, whence they may see the change that has been
worked upon earth's face. 'A' the hills are covered wi'
snaw,' they sing, 'and Winter's noo come fairly!' And
the children, marvelling at the silence and the white
landscape, find a spell appropriate to the season in the
words. The reverberation of the snow increases the pale
daylight, and brings all objects nearer the eye. The
Pentlands are smooth and glittering, with here and there
the black ribbon of a dry-stone dyke, and here and there,
if there be wind, a cloud of blowing snow upon a
shoulder. The Firth seems a leaden creek, that a man
might almost jump across, between well-powdered Lothian
and well-powdered Fife. And the effect is not, as in
other cities, a thing of half a day; the streets are soon
trodden black, but the country keeps its virgin white;
and you have only to lift your eyes and look over miles
of country snow. An indescribable cheerfulness breathes
about the city; and the well-fed heart sits lightly and
beats gaily in the - bosom. It is New-year's weather.

New-year's Day, the great national festival, is a
time of family expansions and of deep carousal.
Sometimes, by a sore stoke of fate for this Calvinistic
people, the year's anniversary fails upon a Sunday, when
the public-houses are inexorably closed, when singing and
even whistling is banished from our homes and highways,
and the oldest toper feels called upon to go to church.
Thus pulled about, as if between two loyalties, the
Scotch have to decide many nice cases of conscience, and
ride the marches narrowly between the weekly and the
annual observance. A party of convivial musicians, next
door to a friend of mine, hung suspended in this manner
on the brink of their diversions. From ten o'clock on
Sunday night, my friend heard them tuning their
instruments: and as the hour of liberty drew near, each
must have had his music open, his bow in readiness across
the fiddle, his foot already raised to mark the time, and
his nerves braced for execution; for hardly had the
twelfth stroke. sounded from the earliest steeple, before
they had launced forth into a secular bravura.

Currant-loaf is now popular eating in all house-
holds. For weeks before the great morning, confectioners
display stacks of Scotch bun - a dense, black substance,
inimical to life - and full moons of shortbread adorned
with mottoes of peel or sugar-plum, in honour of the
season and the family affections. 'Frae Auld Reekie,' 'A
guid New Year to ye a',' 'For the Auld Folk at Hame,' are
among the most favoured of these devices. Can you not
see the carrier, after half-a-day's journey on pinching
hill-roads, draw up before a cottage in Teviotdale, or
perhaps in Manor Glen among the rowans, and the old
people receiving the parcel with moist eyes and a prayer
for Jock or Jean in the city? For at this season, on the
threshold of another year of calamity and stubborn
conflict, men feel a need to draw closer the links that
unite them; they reckon the number of their friends, like
allies before a war; and the prayers grow longer in the
morning as the absent are recommended by name into God's
keeping.

On the day itself, the shops are all shut as on a
Sunday; only taverns, toyshops, and other holiday
magazines, keep open doors. Every one looks for his
handsel. The postman and the lamplighters have left, at
every house in their districts, a copy of vernacular
verses, asking and thanking in a breath; and it is
characteristic of Scotland that these verses may have
sometimes a touch of reality in detail or sentiment and a
measure of strength in the handling. All over the town,
you may see comforter'd schoolboys hasting to squander
their half-crowns. There are an infinity of visits to be
paid; all the world is in the street, except the daintier
classes; the sacramental greeting is heard upon all
sides; Auld Lang Syne is much in people's mouths; and
whisky and shortbread are staple articles of consumption.
From an early hour a stranger will be impressed by the
number of drunken men; and by afternoon drunkenness has
spread to the women. With some classes of society, it is
as much a matter of duty to drink hard on New-year's Day
as to go to church on Sunday. Some have been saving
their wages for perhaps a month to do the season honour.
Many carry a whisky-bottle in their pocket, which they
will press with embarrassing effusion on a perfect
stranger. It is inexpedient to risk one's body in a cab,
or not, at least, until after a prolonged study of the
driver. The streets, which are thronged from end to end,
become a place for delicate pilotage. Singly or arm-in-
arm, some speechless, others noisy and quarrelsome, the
votaries of the New Year go meandering in and out and
cannoning one against another; and now and again, one
falls and lies as he has fallen. Before night, so many
have gone to bed or the police office, that the streets
seem almost clearer. And as GUISARDS and FIRST-FOOTERS
are now not much seen except in country places, when once
the New Year has been rung in and proclaimed at the Tron
railings, the festivities begin to find their way indoors
and something like quiet returns upon the town. But
think, in these piled LANDS, of all the senseless
snorers, all the broken heads and empty pockets!

Of old, Edinburgh University was the scene of heroic
snowballing; and one riot obtained the epic honours of
military intervention. But the great generation, I am
afraid, is at an end; and even during my own college
days, the spirit appreciably declined. Skating and
sliding, on the other hand, are honoured more and more;
and curling, being a creature of the national genius, is
little likely to be disregarded. The patriotism that
leads a man to eat Scotch bun will scarce desert him at
the curling-pond. Edinburgh, with its long, steep
pavements, is the proper home of sliders; many a happy
urchin can slide the whole way to school; and the
profession of errand-boy is transformed into a holiday
amusement. As for skating, there is scarce any city so
handsomely provided. Duddingstone Loch lies under the
abrupt southern side of Arthur's Seat; in summer a shield
of blue, with swans sailing from the reeds; in winter, a
field of ringing ice. The village church sits above it
on a green promontory; and the village smoke rises from
among goodly trees. At the church gates, is the
historical JOUG; a place of penance for the neck of
detected sinners, and the historical LOUPING-ON STANE,
from which Dutch-built lairds and farmers climbed into
the saddle. Here Prince Charlie slept before the battle
of Prestonpans; and here Deacon Brodie, or one of his
gang, stole a plough coulter before the burglary in
Chessel's Court. On the opposite side of the loch, the
ground rises to Craigmillar Castle, a place friendly to
Stuart Mariolaters. It is worth a climb, even in summer,
to look down upon the loch from Arthur's Seat; but it is
tenfold more so on a day of skating. The surface is
thick with people moving easily and swiftly and leaning
over at a thousand graceful inclinations; the crowd opens
and closes, and keeps moving through itself like water;
and the ice rings to half a mile away, with the flying
steel. As night draws on, the single figures melt into
the dusk, until only an obscure stir, and coming and
going of black clusters, is visible upon the loch. A
little longer, and the first torch is kindled and begins
to flit rapidly across the ice in a ring of yellow
reflection, and this is followed by another and another,
until the whole field is full of skimming lights.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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