The last four days have felt like real winter. The thermometer has hardly risen above zero since I arrived here. The cold bites my cheeks as soon as I step outside and the snow crunches underfoot. Through the picture windows in front of the table where I work, I look out onto a landscape of snow-covered hills and woods, rugged white peaks in the distance.
I’ve always associated this place with winter. 24 years ago we came to live here, a mile up the glen from where I am now. We were newly married with one small child and one imminently due. It was February and the day we moved in there was a blizzard. Alone in an overladen car, I gingerly led the procession of two removal vans, followed by Sarah and our small daughter Anna, over the ten miles of exposed hill road that leads here from Pitlochry.
As I drove off the hill and down into the head of the glen, something stepped out into the road and stood there in the swirling snowflakes. It was a large stag. It calmly watched me approach and only when I was almost too close to stop, vaulted the fence on the other side of the road and vanished into the blizzard. I took it as an omen. We were intensely happy in our new home, and in the seven years we lived here I never saw another stag on that road.
There was always a romance about winter during that time. It felt like a real season, and this a place that suited it. A couple of years after moving here we had one of the heaviest snowfalls I’ve ever experienced in Scotland, followed immediately by torrential rain which unleashed tremendous floods down the Tay valley and inundated parts of Perth. A couple of years after that the thermometer hit minus 19 just after Christmas, and for several days the air glittered with ice particles.
Though this was nothing compared to the story we heard from the old boy who came to do some painting for us shortly after we had moved in. As a young apprentice in 1947, he had been working on a big house in a neighbouring glen. In late November the snow came down and he and his workmates were trapped there for six weeks. The lady of the house put them up in a cottage and taught them to play bridge. When they eventually got out, he said, they were walking over the tops of the telegraph poles.
Snow or no snow, this beautiful place is one I feel a powerful connection with. Leaving that house was in many ways one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. There were sound reasons for it but the emotional wrench was almost unbearable. We sold the house to friends, as it happens. There’s a standing invitation to visit but I’ve never been back.
Curious then, that I’m so happy to be back in the glen. What this suggests to me is that a connection with place in the broader sense – with the lie of the land and its natural features, with the spirit present in the bend of a field where it meets a wood, or a crescent of turf between a river and the foot of a hill – is not the same as connection with bricks and mortar and the emotional ties they come to represent.
It’s this connection, the more elemental one, with place, that fuels my writing this snowy week – even though my imagination has me in the swelter of Amazonia, where my story is partly set. As soon as I lift my head and leave the creative trance, I fall under another spell, the winter spell, and I think how impoverished we are by the lessening of the seasons. We need opposites, contradictions, extremes. They sharpen us and quicken us. Perhaps they even help us write better books.