A Winter’s Tale

This is the last day of November, very shortly we will slip gently into December. We are truly in winter now, in Scotland.EFCE0354-D83E-43AC-AEC5-383012B4A0CD

My transition is progressing, if slowly, from tropical climes and times, to the Scotland of my roots. Reflection is helpful in this process. The other day soft, tiny flakelets of snow floated in the air. This was a teasing little  flurry, a promise of blizzards and heavy snow which will surely come soon. I realised that the last time I actually lived in a country where it snows, there was no such thing as Facebook to share the news.

The days have been shortening rapidly, and this feels like quite a trick to my senses. I cannot rationalise the fact that it is not yet 4 pm and the sun has already set below the horizon. I cannot relate the time on my watch to the colours of the sky. The sun barely rises above the rooftops all day, and my shadow is long even at midday.

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The trees are now bare, leaves on the ground slowly decaying and the birds gathering the berries on the bushes and branches.

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Temperatures have been dropping and these past nights have been well below zero. There is a daytime covering of ice on the nearby pond. A little robin has been chittering around in the branches, as I try to capture his picture on my phone. I feel too cold to attempt to take my camera out with me, my fingers too chilled to function.

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The bus drivers are wearing woolly bunnets, and on the street folks are wrapped up in cosy jackets, woollen hats and soft scarves. Still their faces are pinched in the sharp wind, as they quip about the weather and that “the nights are fair drawing in”.

While I have been adjusting to these shortening days, I have become fascinated by the variation in days up and down the lines of latitude. Long ago learned facts about polar winter and memories of St Petersburg’s white nights of midsummer encourage me to delve deeper into what this looks like. My trusted weather app has told me that the days in Tromsø (northern Norway) have been shortening speedily through autumn. I learned that the sun rose for a fleeting 2 minutes on 26 November, before it sank below the horizon, not to rise again until the middle of January, when it will peep over the horizon briefly, starting its path towards constant daylight just after the middle of May.

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It is hard to imagine two months of darkness and this makes me thankful for the few hours of daylight that we have in Scotland. My body clock has become so used to the equinox days on or near the equator that no matter how much I rationalise and understand the behaviour of  natural light, it still puzzles me daily. I am still childishly surprised that when the daylight fades, it is only mid-afternoon.

Here, in central Scotland the days will continue to shorten for the next three weeks, and we will have daylight from just before 9 am until after 3 pm. It will be a number of weeks, a couple of months before we feel the day stretching again as we edge towards the long, light days of midsummer. I cannot remember the last time I saw the tiny green shoots of spring, snowdrops, crocus and daffodils peeping up through the snow and grass. I know that they will greet me once the days begin to lengthen. I wonder if they have forgotten me too?

Scotland is a contradiction in many ways. Achingly beautiful landscapes at times hidden in a gloom of rain and damp mist, other times glowing in magical sunlight. I am constantly surprised by forgotten tiny details of many-coloured berries and the beauty of a leaf dusted with frost, as well as the iconic images of castles, lochs and highland wildlife.

I am being generously, gently and kindly welcomed back.

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Back in Time

This weekend the clocks went back, and we moved from Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time.

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This clock changing phenomenon happens twice a year in many parts of the world, but it doesn’t happen at all in many others. In fact, this is the first time in over a decade I have changed my clock whilst in the same country. No borders, no flights or travel to another time zone, but the time zone change comes to me in the middle of the night, and I wake up with a bonus hour.

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Clocks change between 1 am and 2 am

When I left Scotland in June 2000, we were in Summer Time which took us an hour closer to the places where I would subsequently live, without this clock changing twice a year. Only once in that 17 years did we have to change our clocks – and that was in Mongolia which was further north and therefore would benefit from this minor rearrangement of the daylight hours. Interestingly, though it did prompt some puzzled conversations in Ulaan Baatar amongst my South Asian friends who had come from lands where there was only an hour so difference between winter and summer months. It was only as the daylight hours started to stretch that the purpose of the clock changing became clearer. I realise that I have taken the rationale for Daylight Saving Time (DST) granted, and tried to explain to those nearer the equator that this is the practice of setting the clocks forward by an hour from standard time during the summer months, and back again in the autumn. This is in order to make better use of natural daylight and align it with the working, farming and school day.

My last year, in Rwanda, saw me living in a land of almost perfect equinox as Kigali nestles just south of the Equator. The daylight variation throughout the year was around 15 minutes and on a neat 6 am to 6 pm divide.

It is always lovely to return to Scotland in those midsummer days, when the light stretches throughout the late evening, and never quite disappears. The sky takes on a deep luminescent blue for the three hours of almost darkness. Of course, this means that in winter the opposite is the case, and the days are short, with full daylight coming through after the start of the working day and disappearing before home time. In those months, we feel that we live in darkness. My annual visits were almost always in summer, and it is a strange step back in time to see the days shorten. And we are only just stepping out of October, and much as I try and prepare myself for the short days I know that it will take some adjustment.

These short days can bring a soft winter light and a changing landscape with different colours and many more berries bushes that I remembered. These bushes and now bare trees are inhabited by birds which I can be reacquainted with as I walk along pathways, all wrapped up, listening out for their chirrups. I have already seen grebes, finches and even that symbol of the British winter – the red-breasted robin.

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This means that I need to keep my eyes and mind open and make the most of my step back in time.

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