Winter is on our minds. Whose minds, you might ask? Well, almost everyone who lives in North America except perhaps for a few spots below, say, the 35th parallel. Mother Nature is giving us a modern taste of what some of our pioneer ancestors experienced. Record snowfalls, ice storms, power outages, snarled traffic, dangerous walking on treacherous, slippery sidewalks. I speak for the big cities where it’s become good to keep the flashlights and candles handy. Of course you can’t boil a potato or roast a piece of meat over a candle. Barbecues would suffice if they are not used indoors to put the inhabitants to sleep forever, but the problem is attending them in sub-zero weather with frozen fingers.
We are fortunate that we have mod cons and will not suffer long. Let’s face it: do we really suffer at all? We have snowploughs and telephones and canned goods. In Canadian cities we have good medical services at times like this. In rural areas, I betcha most homes and cars have emergency kits and stockpiles for just such events. When I lived on a farm, a “snow day” was a holiday from work and the everyday humdrum.
I’ve been re-reading the (First) Statistical Account of Scotland about Coll, written in 1793 by the assistant minister of the Tiree and Coll parish.(1) My Scottish ancestors on the Isle of Coll in the Inner Hebrides lived through miserable winters year after year as an accepted matter of course. The climate, while not necessarily receiving heavy snow, was always damp from the sea air and the collection of rain water in its low points. The island soil and weather were barely suitable for farming and the quality of life deteriorated as the population increased. Their cattle and sheep did not always survive the inevitable winter starvation. Houses of the average labourer and crofter had a double stone wall four to six feet thick, filled with the prevailing sand for insulation. Heating and cooking relied on smoky peat fires because trees do not survive and thus no firewood anywhere.
Not having a doctor on the island was a considerable disadvantage, but the 1793 writer adds “the healthy sea air generally drives away whatever is noxious.” He paints a conflicting picture in the following:
“The people are lively, industrious, and chearful [sic], and often engaged in active employments, in the open air; yet the dampness of the place, the want of proper firing, and the poor living of many, seem to be the greatest causes of frequent rheumatisms, dysentaries, and nervous fevers.”
By the 1820s the inhabitants fared scarcely better than their livestock. Crofters could not produce enough to pay their rents. Alexander Maclean, Laird of Coll, was one of the few Highland chieftains who honoured the old clan system. He depleted much of his own resources to feed the islanders during the worst times, and to subsidize passage for those who chose to leave for Australia or Canada.
Would we make it in those deplorable conditions? It’s debatable. They did. They gave us some of their genes. We have not been truly tested.
(1) Donald J Withrington and Ian R Grant, ed. “The Western Isles,” The Statistical Account of Scotland, Vol XX, (UK: EP Publishing Limited, 1983), reissue of John Sinclair, ed. The Statistical Account of Scotland (1791-1799). The Account can also be read online at http://edina.ac.uk/stat-acc-scot/.