Friday, December 10, 2010

How to Survive a Scottish Winter

I`ve been getting a crash course in the topic over the last couple of weeks, as winter descended very early and quite unexpectedly on the UK.  I was expecting it to be cold, sort of, and I thought there might even be a little bit of snow towards the end of my trip.  What I didn`t expect was a full-scale blizzard descending upon the nation!

 Up until a few days ago, it was still pretty smooth sailing; oh, there were a few occasions when things were closed without notice because of the weather, but mostly, I could carry on more or less as planned.  I just sat back and laughed a little (in my smug Canadian way) at this country that was in a panic about nothing.  It`s just a little snow, and it`s not even that cold!  (Dear BBC, minus 10 degrees Celsius does not constitute sufficient cause for an extreme weather warning.  Talk to me when it hits 40 below — then you can start to worry.)

Canadians tend to be a little scornful of other nationalities (except perhaps for Scandinavians of any type) with regard to their tolerance for weather.  We like to think we’re tough and hardy, and can cope with the worst that a northern winter can throw at us.  I will admit that, say,  Winnipeg in January is a little much, even for an Ontario girl who grew up with real winters (I don’t care what the Prairie people I know try to tell me about “But it’s a dry cold” — 50 below is still bloody well 50 below, and it’s just too damn cold).

People in the UK seem to think this about us, too; most every where I go, as soon as they find out I’m Canadian, they just laugh and say something like, “Well, I guess this weather is nothing for you, then, is it?”  (They never believe me when I say that Toronto rarely gets as cold as it’s been here, and on the one occasion that city got as much snow as has been dumped on Scotland lately, our mayor had to call in the army to dig out the city.  The rest of Canada is still laughing at us for that one.)

But what’s unusual about the UK from a Canadian perspective —and this is the key difference, that makes life potentially more miserable even if it`s not as severe a winter as Winnipeg might get — there`s no central heating, anywhere.  There aren`t always even radiators in every room (at least in some of the places I`ve stayed), but even when there are, you know what?  Radiators DON’T WORK.  Anyone who thinks this is sufficient winter heating in a stone building in Scotland is kidding themselves. 

[ Side note:  I think there’s a money-making opportunity here.  Anyone who decides to start exporting Canadian-style space heaters — you know, the ones with the fans that actually get the heat distributed all around the room and warm it up —could make a mint.  Hey, in a country where you sometimes have to plug in your car (I’ll explain block heaters another time, for the English and Aussie people reading this) so that it doesn’t freeze up overnight, we have heating in every form down to a science. ]

But there are ways around the difficulties, and I thought I’d share them with you all.  Scotland is, if anything, even more beautiful in the snow and ice, so you really should come see it in winter some time; don’t be put off by the chill, as I’m here to teach you how to live through it.  After going as far north as Orkney (into a blizzard) and way out west to the Isle of Lewis, I’ve survived the worst of what this country has thrown at me, weather-wise.

1.  First, bring a really good pair of longjohns.   (For the Brits and Aussies, these are full-length underwear-type things that you wear under trousers, made out of silk or wool or flannel and specifically designed to keep you warm.)  I almost didn’t; I’d packed them away with the rest of my winter stuff and only thought at the last minute that they might be useful.  I’ve been wearing them ever since I got here, more or less, and they keep me from freezing overnight.  (They also roll up really small, so you can easily fit a pair in your bag.)

2.  Drink lots of fluids.  Forget about water, that’s not going to help you (unless you drink it hot with lemon as my mother does, but I can’t abide it that way).  Think tea, coffee, hot chocolate (mmmm, hot chocolate) in large quantities as often as possible.  Note:  it is even possible to get decent coffee here occasionally now (just beware the instant stuff they serve you on trains).  Or just go straight for the whisky (note:  no “e” in the Scottish version, and don’t ever call it “Scotch”) — that stuff’ll burn all the way down but it does spread a lovely warm glow all throughout your body.

3.  Bring a sleeping bag.  I didn’t (again), and I’m regretting it (again).  A duvet in an unheated room in a 17th century stone building is not enough protection against the night   Failing the sleeping bag, steal as many duvets and blankets as possible from the other beds in your dorm room and pile them all on top of you.  This only really works if there’s no one else in the room, otherwise they’re likely to get a little annoyed and may steal all your blankets in the middle of the night, leaving you to wake up shivering and blue.

4.  Accept that, somewhere, some time, a bus or a train or a ferry (sometimes all three) will be cancelled on you.  Even if it doesn`t look like there`s enough snow to close roads or tracks, transit might still not be running.  I learned from a ScotRail conductor that the trains here have brakes that are only designed to operate down to -5C, and below that they are prone to seizing up (rendering forward motion of said train effectively impossible).  Spectacularly poor planning, if you ask me, since -5C isn`t THAT unusual in some bits of Scotland (but ScotRail, unfortunately, didn`t ask me).  

I`ve had a few mishaps: a bus delayed from Inverness to Ullapool (but still made the ferry connection to Lewis so no harm done); ferries and buses cancelled between Portree on Skye and Oban on the mainland, turning a 100-mile journey into a 15-hour odyssey; a train cancelled from Oban to Glasgow (and the bus brought it to replace it delayed for 3 hours by a late arrival in Oban, and then the driver`s legal requirement for a rest after a set number of hours behind the wheel).  I`m attempting to go from Glasgow to Belfast by bus and ferry tomorrow (I`ll let you know what comes of that).

5.  Make sure you don’t drink any of the hot liquids immediately before going to bed, and make sure you visit the toilet (yes, you`re allowed to call it that here —they look at you funny if you refer to the “washroom” or “bathroom”) before burying yourself under all of those blankets.  Otherwise it’s a very rude shock when you have to emerge from your cocoon in the middle of the night and race, goose-pimpled, down the hall to the facilities.

6.  Wear all of your clothes all at once, or as many as you can actually get on.  This works particularly well if you are out hiking for a day, when the weather is likely to veer wildly between four seasons in the space of an hour.  It’s also useful, however, on buses and trains and ferries, which are not necessarily any warmer than being outside.  You may wish to wear several layers to sleep, as well, even if you have managed to acquire 15 or 20 blankets to cover yourself with.  (Side note:  don’t worry about having to do a lot of laundry from wearing all of your clothes all the time.  It’s too damn cold to sweat and your clothes will still smell fine at the end of the day.)

7.  Related to #6, pack lots of fleeces.  MEC sells some good ones, as does the Running Room; you can even (as I did, under duress) get an excellent combination Goretex/fleece jacket from NorthFace that is very versatile and warm.  (And it’s saving me from dying of exposure here, just as it did in the northern Chile desert. So I`m not even bitter any more -- well, not much -- about how much I had to spend on it.)  It helps enormously if the fleeces all have hoods; don’t be afraid to wear three or four fleeces at a time and put all of the hoods up.  It looks very goofy but it is incredibly warm.  (Just be prepared for small children pointing and laughing.)

8.  Don’t wear Australian boots in a Scottish winter.  The two countries couldn’t have more different kinds of weather if they tried, and their respective footwear isn’t compatible with the other’s weather.  I brought a pair of Blundstones (which I love) and they were okay for getting around London and Edinburgh.  But from Inverness onwards, they’ve just been carried uselessly around in my backpack.  Go figure, boots designed for the desert of the Australian outback aren’t good in snow and cold!  (Note:  I do seem to remember seeing, last time I was in the Australian Boot Company store in Toronto, that they now have a sheepskin-lined version.  That might be okay for warmth, but you’d probably still have difficulty clambering up wet or icy Scottish rock.)

9.   Find a pub or cafe with a cozy fireplace, and plunk yourself there for the entire day.  Peat fires are especially delightful (my hostel on the Isle of Lewis had one), but any kind of fire will do.  In a pinch, knock on someone’s door and ask if you can camp out in their front room for a while; Scottish folk appear reserved when you first encounter them, but they’re actually a pretty hospitable bunch and they’d more than likely welcome you in.  (Bonus:  you’ll probably also get tea, or whisky.)  If you can arrange to fall asleep “accidentally”, you might even be left in peace and thereby avoid having to go home to sleep in your cold dorm room.

10.  Finally, find a good-looking person of your preferred gender and snuggle up next to them.  It is extra enjoyable if said person has a delightful accent, such as a Scottish one (even Glaswegian will do, although you may not be able to understand a word that said person utters).   This is particularly easy in Scotland if you happen to appreciate redheads, as there seem to be an awful lot of them about.  (I’m not at all special here.  It’s very deflating, especially after being a tall Amazon-like exotic flame-haired goddess in Peru and Bolivia.)

That should do it.  If you’re now feeling well prepared, very brave and in possession of a large enough number of fleeces, I’ll be here for another three weeks or so — c’mon over and join me!  I swear it’s worth it.


  1. Great tips.. As I brace myself for my first scottish winter, this blog is a great help... Thanks..

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  3. Dear god, this is exactly everything I was trying to tell the Brits and experienced last year! I was a Swedish exchange student in Scotland, and it feels just as if you've been writing this out of my head :)

    I think the biggest problem with British housing is the lack of insulation, even in modern ones. Heating seams to be improved in modern buildings, but it is still not an hot air pump or sufficient :)