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    Chapter 9

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    Chapter 9
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    WINTER AND NEW YEAR.

    THE Scotch dialect is singularly rich in terms of
    reproach against the winter wind. SNELL, BLAE, NIRLY,
    and SCOWTHERING, are four of these significant vocables;
    they are all words that carry a shiver with them; and for
    my part, as I see them aligned before me on the page, I
    am persuaded that a big wind comes tearing over the Firth
    from Burntisland and the northern hills; I think I can
    hear it howl in the chimney, and as I set my face
    northwards, feel its smarting kisses on my cheek. Even
    in the names of places there is often a desolate,
    inhospitable sound; and I remember two from the near
    neighbourhood of Edinburgh, Cauldhame and Blaw-weary,
    that would promise but starving comfort to their
    inhabitants. The inclemency of heaven, which has thus
    endowed the language of Scotland with words, has also
    largely modified the spirit of its poetry. Both poverty
    and a northern climate teach men the love of the hearth
    and the sentiment of the family; and the latter, in its
    own right, inclines a poet to the praise of strong
    waters. In Scotland, all our singers have a stave or two
    for blazing fires and stout potations:- to get indoors
    out of the wind and to swallow something hot to the
    stomach, are benefits so easily appreciated where they
    dwelt!

    And this is not only so in country districts where
    the shepherd must wade in the snow all day after his
    flock, but in Edinburgh itself, and nowhere more
    apparently stated than in the works of our Edinburgh
    poet, Fergusson. He was a delicate youth, I take it, and
    willingly slunk from the robustious winter to an inn
    fire-side. Love was absent from his life, or only
    present, if you prefer, in such a form that even the
    least serious of Burns's amourettes was ennobling by
    comparison; and so there is nothing to temper the
    sentiment of indoor revelry which pervades the poor boy's
    verses. Although it is characteristic of his native
    town, and the manners of its youth to the present day,
    this spirit has perhaps done something to restrict his
    popularity. He recalls a supper-party pleasantry with
    something akin to tenderness; and sounds the praises of
    the act of drinking as if it were virtuous, or at least
    witty, in itself. The kindly jar, the warm atmosphere of
    tavern parlours, and the revelry of lawyers' clerks, do
    not offer by themselves the materials of a rich
    existence. It was not choice, so much as an external
    fate, that kept Fergusson in this round of sordid
    pleasures. A Scot of poetic temperament, and without
    religious exaltation, drops as if by nature into the
    public-house. The picture may not be pleasing; but what
    else is a man to do in this dog's weather?

    To none but those who have themselves suffered the
    thing in the body, can the gloom and depression of our
    Edinburgh winter be brought home. For some constitutions
    there is something almost physically disgusting in the
    bleak ugliness of easterly weather; the wind wearies, the
    sickly sky depresses them; and they turn back from their
    walk to avoid the aspect of the unrefulgent sun going
    down among perturbed and pallid mists. The days are so
    short that a man does much of his business, and certainly
    all his pleasure, by the haggard glare of gas lamps. The
    roads are as heavy as a fallow. People go by, so
    drenched and draggle-tailed that I have often wondered
    how they found the heart to undress. And meantime the
    wind whistles through the town as if it were an open
    meadow; and if you lie awake all night, you hear it
    shrieking and raving overhead with a noise of shipwrecks
    and of falling houses. In a word, life is so unsightly
    that there are times when the heart turns sick in a man's
    inside; and the look of a tavern, or the thought of the
    warm, fire-lit study, is like the touch of land to one
    who has been long struggling with the seas.

    As the weather hardens towards frost, the world
    begins to improve for Edinburgh people. We enjoy superb,
    sub-arctic sunsets, with the profile of the city stamped
    in indigo upon a sky of luminous green. The wind may
    still be cold, but there is a briskness in the air that
    stirs good blood. People do not all look equally sour
    and downcast. They fall into two divisions: one, the
    knight of the blue face and hollow paunch, whom Winter
    has gotten by the vitals; the other well lined with New-
    year's fare, conscious of the touch of cold on his
    periphery, but stepping through it by the glow of his
    internal fires. Such an one I remember, triply cased in
    grease, whom no extremity of temperature could vanquish.
    'Well,' would be his jovial salutation, 'here's a
    sneezer!' And the look of these warm fellows is tonic,
    and upholds their drooping fellow-townsmen. There is yet
    another class who do not depend on corporal advantages,
    but support the winter in virtue of a brave and merry
    heart. One shivering evening, cold enough for frost but
    with too high a wind, and a little past sundown, when the
    lamps were beginning to enlarge their circles in the
    growing dusk, a brace of barefoot lassies were seen
    coming eastward in the teeth of the wind. If the one was
    as much as nine, the other was certainly not more than
    seven. They were miserably clad; and the pavement was so
    cold, you would have thought no one could lay a naked
    foot on it unflinching. Yet they came along waltzing, if
    you please, while the elder sang a tune to give them
    music. The person who saw this, and whose heart was full
    of bitterness at the moment, pocketed a reproof which has
    been of use to him ever since, and which he now hands on,
    with his good wishes, to the reader.

    At length, Edinburgh, with her satellite hills and
    all the sloping country, are sheeted up in white. If it
    has happened in the dark hours, nurses pluck their
    children out of bed and run with them to some commanding
    window, whence they may see the change that has been
    worked upon earth's face. 'A' the hills are covered wi'
    snaw,' they sing, 'and Winter's noo come fairly!' And
    the children, marvelling at the silence and the white
    landscape, find a spell appropriate to the season in the
    words. The reverberation of the snow increases the pale
    daylight, and brings all objects nearer the eye. The
    Pentlands are smooth and glittering, with here and there
    the black ribbon of a dry-stone dyke, and here and there,
    if there be wind, a cloud of blowing snow upon a
    shoulder. The Firth seems a leaden creek, that a man
    might almost jump across, between well-powdered Lothian
    and well-powdered Fife. And the effect is not, as in
    other cities, a thing of half a day; the streets are soon
    trodden black, but the country keeps its virgin white;
    and you have only to lift your eyes and look over miles
    of country snow. An indescribable cheerfulness breathes
    about the city; and the well-fed heart sits lightly and
    beats gaily in the - bosom. It is New-year's weather.

    New-year's Day, the great national festival, is a
    time of family expansions and of deep carousal.
    Sometimes, by a sore stoke of fate for this Calvinistic
    people, the year's anniversary fails upon a Sunday, when
    the public-houses are inexorably closed, when singing and
    even whistling is banished from our homes and highways,
    and the oldest toper feels called upon to go to church.
    Thus pulled about, as if between two loyalties, the
    Scotch have to decide many nice cases of conscience, and
    ride the marches narrowly between the weekly and the
    annual observance. A party of convivial musicians, next
    door to a friend of mine, hung suspended in this manner
    on the brink of their diversions. From ten o'clock on
    Sunday night, my friend heard them tuning their
    instruments: and as the hour of liberty drew near, each
    must have had his music open, his bow in readiness across
    the fiddle, his foot already raised to mark the time, and
    his nerves braced for execution; for hardly had the
    twelfth stroke. sounded from the earliest steeple, before
    they had launced forth into a secular bravura.

    Currant-loaf is now popular eating in all house-
    holds. For weeks before the great morning, confectioners
    display stacks of Scotch bun - a dense, black substance,
    inimical to life - and full moons of shortbread adorned
    with mottoes of peel or sugar-plum, in honour of the
    season and the family affections. 'Frae Auld Reekie,' 'A
    guid New Year to ye a',' 'For the Auld Folk at Hame,' are
    among the most favoured of these devices. Can you not
    see the carrier, after half-a-day's journey on pinching
    hill-roads, draw up before a cottage in Teviotdale, or
    perhaps in Manor Glen among the rowans, and the old
    people receiving the parcel with moist eyes and a prayer
    for Jock or Jean in the city? For at this season, on the
    threshold of another year of calamity and stubborn
    conflict, men feel a need to draw closer the links that
    unite them; they reckon the number of their friends, like
    allies before a war; and the prayers grow longer in the
    morning as the absent are recommended by name into God's
    keeping.

    On the day itself, the shops are all shut as on a
    Sunday; only taverns, toyshops, and other holiday
    magazines, keep open doors. Every one looks for his
    handsel. The postman and the lamplighters have left, at
    every house in their districts, a copy of vernacular
    verses, asking and thanking in a breath; and it is
    characteristic of Scotland that these verses may have
    sometimes a touch of reality in detail or sentiment and a
    measure of strength in the handling. All over the town,
    you may see comforter'd schoolboys hasting to squander
    their half-crowns. There are an infinity of visits to be
    paid; all the world is in the street, except the daintier
    classes; the sacramental greeting is heard upon all
    sides; Auld Lang Syne is much in people's mouths; and
    whisky and shortbread are staple articles of consumption.
    From an early hour a stranger will be impressed by the
    number of drunken men; and by afternoon drunkenness has
    spread to the women. With some classes of society, it is
    as much a matter of duty to drink hard on New-year's Day
    as to go to church on Sunday. Some have been saving
    their wages for perhaps a month to do the season honour.
    Many carry a whisky-bottle in their pocket, which they
    will press with embarrassing effusion on a perfect
    stranger. It is inexpedient to risk one's body in a cab,
    or not, at least, until after a prolonged study of the
    driver. The streets, which are thronged from end to end,
    become a place for delicate pilotage. Singly or arm-in-
    arm, some speechless, others noisy and quarrelsome, the
    votaries of the New Year go meandering in and out and
    cannoning one against another; and now and again, one
    falls and lies as he has fallen. Before night, so many
    have gone to bed or the police office, that the streets
    seem almost clearer. And as GUISARDS and FIRST-FOOTERS
    are now not much seen except in country places, when once
    the New Year has been rung in and proclaimed at the Tron
    railings, the festivities begin to find their way indoors
    and something like quiet returns upon the town. But
    think, in these piled LANDS, of all the senseless
    snorers, all the broken heads and empty pockets!

    Of old, Edinburgh University was the scene of heroic
    snowballing; and one riot obtained the epic honours of
    military intervention. But the great generation, I am
    afraid, is at an end; and even during my own college
    days, the spirit appreciably declined. Skating and
    sliding, on the other hand, are honoured more and more;
    and curling, being a creature of the national genius, is
    little likely to be disregarded. The patriotism that
    leads a man to eat Scotch bun will scarce desert him at
    the curling-pond. Edinburgh, with its long, steep
    pavements, is the proper home of sliders; many a happy
    urchin can slide the whole way to school; and the
    profession of errand-boy is transformed into a holiday
    amusement. As for skating, there is scarce any city so
    handsomely provided. Duddingstone Loch lies under the
    abrupt southern side of Arthur's Seat; in summer a shield
    of blue, with swans sailing from the reeds; in winter, a
    field of ringing ice. The village church sits above it
    on a green promontory; and the village smoke rises from
    among goodly trees. At the church gates, is the
    historical JOUG; a place of penance for the neck of
    detected sinners, and the historical LOUPING-ON STANE,
    from which Dutch-built lairds and farmers climbed into
    the saddle. Here Prince Charlie slept before the battle
    of Prestonpans; and here Deacon Brodie, or one of his
    gang, stole a plough coulter before the burglary in
    Chessel's Court. On the opposite side of the loch, the
    ground rises to Craigmillar Castle, a place friendly to
    Stuart Mariolaters. It is worth a climb, even in summer,
    to look down upon the loch from Arthur's Seat; but it is
    tenfold more so on a day of skating. The surface is
    thick with people moving easily and swiftly and leaning
    over at a thousand graceful inclinations; the crowd opens
    and closes, and keeps moving through itself like water;
    and the ice rings to half a mile away, with the flying
    steel. As night draws on, the single figures melt into
    the dusk, until only an obscure stir, and coming and
    going of black clusters, is visible upon the loch. A
    little longer, and the first torch is kindled and begins
    to flit rapidly across the ice in a ring of yellow
    reflection, and this is followed by another and another,
    until the whole field is full of skimming lights.
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