The Big Chill

In a way, Christmas has come early this year.  After all, every year we have “White Christmas”, “Let it Snow” and other such tinsel trash inflicted on us in November and December on a regular basis. Not to mention just about any cheesy number with a sleigh bell in the sound track…

But the thing is, when we got a white Christmas last year, Scotland seemed barely able to cope. A couple of inches of snow seems to be able to bring this country to a standstill, and any more than that puts it into reverse gear.

Scotland is a North European country, on the same latitude as northern parts of Russia, Canada, Japan, Alaska and Scandinavia. We’re further north than a good chunk of Hudson Bay – have a look at the map if you don’t believe me! Edinburgh, which is in southern (not central), Scotland, is on the same latitude as Moscow more or less. True, we don’t get this every year, which is why our ski resorts have been doing badly over the last decade or two, and we are blessed with the Gulf Stream, but that still doesn’t cut it.

So why does Scotland have such a problem dealing with snow?

I suspect that the answer is in fact a kind of provincialism – provincial thinking to be precise. When it comes to cold winters, a lot of Scots are probably guilty of what we could call “British thinking” rather than the kind of preparation Canadians or Scandinavians have to go through before the snow even falls.

Small mercies that Scottish councils have increased their grit and salt supplies after last year’s fiasco, but there is still a good deal of handwringing going on. And if last year’s Christmas snowfall hadn’t happened, we’d be in an even worse state.

The southern parts of the UK get very little snow, but for some bizarre reason we seem to follow their lead. Despite the fact we are much further north, and our landscape is a good deal more rugged.

And it’s not just the weather we seem to have this problem with. A great deal of investment is going into renewable energy sources in Scotland, all of which seem to be geared towards serving south east England, rather than Scotland’s own economic and social needs… or even supplying it to other countries. Our modern infrastructure is still largely geared towards reinforcing an outdated centralist model, which in turn, many Scots seem to be all too keen to imitate.

When it comes to the snow, Scotland needs to look to countries which actually know how to deal with it. Countries whose experience is more like ours.

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  1. Vronsky says:

    Uh – and your recommendations are…?

  2. HamishScott says:

    On this occasion I disagree with you Joe. Certainly for the bulk of the population of Scotland our weather is only worse than England’s by a relatively small margin compared to the weather of the places you mentioned. The Highlands/North are perhaps an exception.

  3. Ray Bell says:

    “Uh – and your recommendations are…?” – Instead of thinking in southern UK terms (i.e. Southern England, possibly incl. Wales at a stretch), Scotland should be making the same kind of preparations that all of the aforementioned countries do.

    When it snows in London, folk make a song and dance, and start fretting as if it’s freak weather. In Scotland, instead, we should accept that it is not only likely, but probable that we’re going to have snow each winter. Sure, it’s unusual to have it this early and this much of it, but the infrastructure should be there.

    As I say, the fact that we have more grit than last year is purely down to being caught out last year. If we had a mild winter last year, we’d be even worse off.

    “Certainly for the bulk of the population of Scotland our weather is only worse than England’s by a relatively small margin compared to the weather of the places you mentioned. The Highlands/North are perhaps an exception.”

    Inland West Lothian usually gets more snow than southern England, as does Stirling, Dumfries, Dundee, Fife, north Lanarkshire and the areas to the south of Edinburgh such as Penicuik and Midlothian. All of these are pretty well populated, and not really in the north or Highlands. (Central Beltism-aside, two thirds of the country lies north of the Forth-Clyde line – Perth and Dundee are about halfway up)

    Also, many of the main long distance train routes pass through upland/exposed areas.

  4. Vronsky says:

    Can I be boring and repeat: what are your recommendations?

  5. Ray Bell says:

    “Can I be boring and repeat: what are your recommendations?”

    There are a good many things which could be improved.

    The main one is very, very basic, so much so it’s almost ridiculously obvious. That’s simply got to be more grit, more ploughs, tractors etc in place for exactly this kind of weather. That’s just a matter of provisioning. If you don’t get heavy snow one year, you stock up for the next. I suppose part of the problem here is council budgeting, which means that if something isn’t used on a very regular basis, it’s either sold, or not stocked the next year.

    The second is more long term – long distance routes should have better drainage etc to cope with thawing, areas into which large amounts of snow can be dumped without causing disruption (if these exist, I’ve never seen them), contingency plans for power outages (snapped electricity cables, frozen hydro, generators etc) Has anyone in this country even heard of winter tyres? Scotrail doesn’t seem to be able to adapt its vehicles particularly well either, although they’ve been doing better than the buses here.

    Lastly, for all the talk of the British “stiff upper lip”, I can’t see it. I see whining and panic. The media is particularly bad at stirring this up. Instead of getting on with it, and working with it, everything stops and people can’t accept what’s happening for some reason. Why? As I say, we live in a northern European country – London gets less snow, we get more. Of course it will always cause problems like flooding, but there needs to be better infrastructure in place.

  6. Vronsky says:

    Sorry, posts crossed, so the repetition of the question was unnecessary.

    “Scotland should be making the same kind of preparations that all of the aforementioned countries do.”

    So what are those preparations? Be specific, and detail. Imagine you’re First Minister – what measures do you instruct?

  7. Vronsky says:

    I know I sound awful, but I’m trying to get a discussion going. Can I help by saying that I can excuse the failure of private transport – apart from anything else, I expect there are many daddies like me who tell their kids to leave their cars in the garage if the weather is bad. Take a train, kids. Oops, no trains. So let’s focus on why the public transport system fails – that’s the one that shouldn’t fail.

    I don’t think there is an elegant, politically right-on answer to this. It needs a good project manager to go in and analyse the difficulties, sympathise or kick ass as appropriate, but fix it. I’m now going to study the acceptable HTML tags to see how I can attach a CV to this post.

  8. Ray Bell says:

    I’ve already covered some of the options above. There are quite a few of them, and I *don’t* have all the answers.

    However, my main gripe is with all the people who act as if this is something completely unexpected. It’s not that uncommon. At least in Scotland. Given that it’s not that uncommon, we should be better prepared.

    If we are talking about a three month drought in Scotland during the summer, now that *would be* unexpected. But if it happened in most parts of Australia, and they weren’t prepared for it, that would be much less excusable.

    In fact, our winters are meant to be like this. I believe the curling season used to be from November to March. True, the climate’s changed, but not enough to stop the occasional cold winter.

  9. Vronsky says:

    “we should be better prepared”

    Undeniably true. A more uncontroversial view it would be hard to find. But have you any suggestions for action? What is the point of the piece: sounds like the captain of the Titanic saying – ‘Hey folks, we’re sinking’. One always hopes for something beyond a statement of the obvious.

  10. Donald of the Aisles says:

    Ray Bell said “Has anyone in this country even heard of winter tyres? ”

    Has anyone in this country ever tried to buy winter tyres?

    Apparently they go on sale in October and are sold out quickly. So I reckon that’s maybe about 2 pairs my local fitter stocked. No more till next year

    Living as I do on the edge of the Pentland Hills in a little commuter town called Peighinn na Cuthaig (Penicuik) I get a fair dumping of snow. I could not even get my car out of my parking space for a week unless I fancied shovelling my way to the main road

    Had I got out of my street I’d then need to drive to Peebles for work. Passing one of the worst local places for drifting snow and stuck cars. A point just below Leadburn on the open moorland between the Pentlands and the Moorfoots.

    I can drive in snow. My tyres can’t. Lack of driver education/awareness?

    So for next winter perhaps one of these

    http://tinypic.com/r/vg6cl0/7

  11. Doonhamer says:

    It’s not actually a couple of inches, it’s more like three feet in places. Cold places do not always get a lot of snow because they do not get a lot of rain in warmer periods. Scotland has high precipitation and when that turns to snow we have problems. Any country would struggle with the amounts of snow we have had. Tiresome to repeat but the Scottish winter climate is very variable. We could spend a lot on winter equipment but we would have to thole the fact that some winters would see very little use of it. In Sweden, in country areas, roads are not salted. People simply fit studded tyres which only work on compacted snow/ice which is there all winter. Would not work in Scotland as you might fit them one week and then have to take them off the next and put them back on the week after.

  12. Harry says:

    “the occasional cold winter.”
    That’s the problem. It isn’t cold or it doesn’t snow or both often enough in most of Scotland to make it worth spending the amounts that countries like Canada or Sweden- and individuals living there- do to deal with the problem. In fact, such places have problems coping with snow or cold about as often as Scotland- every time it occurs unexpectedly or it’s worse than usual. It’s just that the normal weather they can cope with and the abnormal weather they can’t is different.

  13. Ray Bell says:

    “That’s the problem. It isn’t cold or it doesn’t snow or both often enough in most of Scotland to make it worth spending the amounts that countries like Canada or Sweden- and individuals living there- do to deal with the problem. ”

    We don’t have to spend that amount of money. But we do need to spend more. We also need to work out how to use our resources. Edinburgh Council is apparently fairly well stocked with salt just now, but isn’t getting it out onto the majority of streets. The Christmas market and Princes Street Gardens have been cleared, but not the main pavements in the larger suburbs.

    But I think several times a decade (at least) is often enough. We get cold winters three, four, five years in a row. That’s not a rare event.

  14. Ray Bell says:

    “What is the point of the piece: sounds like the captain of the Titanic saying – ‘Hey folks, we’re sinking’. One always hopes for something beyond a statement of the obvious.”

    Actually, it’s not a case of “we’re sinking”, it’s a case of, “it’s going to happen again, and again”. Cold winters are not a rare occurence in Scotland. They may be warmer than most other countries as far north as us, but they still involve freezing and snowing much of the time. In fact, since I wrote this piece, a lot of the country got caught out AGAIN on Monday. Why? They had fair warning and recent practice.

    “Has anyone in this country ever tried to buy winter tyres?”

    I agree it’s difficult for the public to buy them, but surely it’s easier for larger groups/organisations/councils to bulk order them?

    “We could spend a lot on winter equipment but we would have to thole the fact that some winters would see very little use of it. ”

    There’s one bonus to this though… machinery may be harder to maintain, but salt and grit can be kept indefinitely.

  15. I’m not sure why this article has my name on it as I didn’t write it!

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