Sunday Post column in full (written before the weekend's tragic avalanche deaths in Glencoe)
The Beast from the East and the Pest from the West. You'd hardly think we were talking about the gentle, white fluffy stuff of childhood dreams. Yet we seem to fear its arrival more than the flu. What's going on? Well the prospect of a whiteout sells papers. A London-based tabloid used the Beast headline two months ago. And even though sub-Arctic conditions didn't materialise, it was the most viewed story on the newspaper's website. Are we so scared the winter from hell could be about to return? Cmon – you know which winter I mean. In 2010 snow and icy temperatures meant pipes froze, cars slithered, schools closed, hedges died, tree boughs snapped under tonnes of snow and transport basically ground to a halt. I visited a friend on Skye and was cheerfully stuck there for a fortnight. Trains were cancelled, jack-knifed lorries brought the M8 and M80 ground to a halt for days and the army was drafted in. A Scottish Government Minister had to resign, TV pictures were beamed around the world and let's face it – our stranded, snow-locked nation looked like a right bunch of helpless charlies. It wasn't exactly our finest hour.
Locals came out to bring soup and sandwiches to folk stuck in cabs, cars and lorries on gridlocked motorways – they even took stranded Scots into their homes to use loos, wash and warm up.
Snow brought out the best and the worst in us. We were both the most generous folk towards those in a pickle and the least prepared for it. But then, with few snowy winters and global warming not cooling on the cards, no-one could blame Scots for failing to spend squillions on the kind of snow clearing kit that keeps our Nordic cousins functioning in their predictably icy winters. Snow tyres across the North Sea must be fitted by law every autumn – that means more resilience within Nordic communities. Swedish farmers have contracts to clear snow when it reaches a certain depth and to pre-agreed points on the road. Icelanders put pipes carrying boiling hot water from geothermal springs to heat homes and offices beneath car parks and pavements. Norwegians ski to school and have outdoor nurseries all year round. In the far north even old ladies use wooden sleighs to get out and about. In Oslo city folk go ski-ing before work in the morning and in Helsinki they skate on the frozen Baltic – avoiding icebreaker holes! Indeed folk in the Arctic North long for snow – the brightness lights up the dark, you can walk, sno-mobile or even drive across frozen lochs and go ice fishing. Icelanders leave Xmas lights up until February and all the Nordics make cold, dark days cosy with low lighting and candles inside and even outside in old fashioned lanterns.
Perhaps the biggest difference though is that snow and ice in the Nordic nations don't kill old people through hyperthermia – thanks to great insulation and cheap district heating. This is what we need to get right fast. Maybe then – we can learn to love the arrival of the white stuff – not fear it.