Ghosts of Christmas Past

At last, the sun has finally decided to herald in the spring and the streets of Adelaide are carpeted in deep violet jacaranda flowers. I am suddenly, and belatedly, aware that it is already December, and Christmas is but a whisper away. A summer Christmas, this year, in the southern hemisphere, with myriad relations at our fingertips and the possibility of a swim in the sea in the evening.

In contrast, I am reminded of a Christmas many years ago, when we spent the holiday with a bunch of Aussie mates in Scotland, a very long way from home and the need for suntan cream. While I have now experienced any number of European Christmases, this would be the first I had organized myself, booking a house for half a dozen of us on the Isle of Skye. It was as far north as we could get in a week, and we had all our toes and fingers crossed for snow. Skye is part of the Inner Hebrides, the largest and most northern of them, and the second biggest island in Scotland, after Lewis. We were 600 miles north of London. How could we not get snow? Well, apparently quite easily! Thanks to the Gulf Stream, snow rarely settles on Skye and frosts are few and far between. Ah well. It was cold enough for a fire or two.

It turned out to be an incredibly long drive from Slough to Skye from Slough, although it was almost the same distance as Sydney to Melbourne. Sadly, we forgot to take into account the M6 ‘car park’ during the Christmas holidays, and the narrow, winding roads once we were off the motorway. We took two cars: the women in one, the men in the other. But we lost the boys somewhere up the M6 and – in the Time Before Mobile Phones – we had no way of knowing whether they were ahead of us, or straggling miles behind. Eventually we gave up waiting to see if they would turn up, and headed onwards. But it was almost midnight by the time we finally arrived on the island. Struggling to read the map in the dark, we almost spent the night upside down in a ditch on a narrow, one-track lane. Luckily, we escaped disaster by the skin of our teeth, and eventually found the house – and the boys – and all was well.

By night, Skye had seemed eerily bleak. By daylight, Skye was magnificent. Our house was unexpectedly isolated, several miles of winding roads from Portree, the nearest town. Our closest neighbours were a faulty telephone box and our landlord in a house just up the hill. With a good fire, central heating and a handful of decorations (including some very tasteful Tom & Jerry stockings), we set up camp and spent a relaxing day or three preparing ourselves for a cold, white Christmas.  

On Christmas morning we drove into Portree to sing a carol or two and call our families in Australia. It really was surreal to find ourselves squeezing into a tiny telephone box on the village square, well wrapped in layers of woolly clothing, listening to our parents complain of the heat and wonder why they had, yet again, succumbed to cooking a turkey in 30’C. When we got back to the house, we celebrated in style, with a vast turkey and all the trimmings, the Christmas pudding alight with blue-flamed brandy and smothered in brandy butter, cream and custard, a large pile of logs beside the fire. After the much anticipated bout of over-eating, we collapsed around the telly for all our favourite seasonal films and a tumbler of tawny port or whiskey.

Boxing Day involved a gentle walk in wellies, and an evening at the pub with our neighbours, cheating at silly board games, flinging darts and playing pool.

 Sky is a starkly beautiful island. As we rambled about, through the brief and chilly daylight hours, we saw it clothed in a variety of colours and lights in that one short week.  Sometimes, huge black clouds would blot out the sun. Occasionally a flock of downy white clouds would flit across a sky washed in denim blue. Then, for a moment, the sun would dance out from behind the hills, reflecting off icy roads and gleefully dazzling us. The countryside, like a chameleon, subtly changed its skin time and again, showing off a palette of varying shades of mulberry, copper, blue and grey splashed over bracken and heather, deep lochs and craggy hills. The sea changed by the minute, and we did get a sprinkling of snow, but we never experienced that stormy moment from ‘Speed Bonnie Boat’

Loud the wind howls, loud the waves roar
Thunderclaps rend the air
Baffled our foes, stand on the shore
Follow, they will not dare.

(I grew up with the Corries version of this Celtic classic, and you may well have heard the tune used as the theme song from Outlander, but have you heard Emma Roberts singing it? It’s eerily magical.)

We drove along the east coast above Portree, stopping for snowball fights along the way. There was barely another human being in sight. Presumably all the locals were gathered snugly around their sitting room fires, while those mad Australians danced in the snow. The mountains dominated the landscape, sharp black edges cutting through a thin layer of icing sugar snow. We spent one exhausting afternoon clambering up the side of Glen Brittle, past a waterfall where the rocks were tinged in jade and the crystal clear water swept exuberantly over the edge of a chasm into a deep pool of glacier mint green far below.

On New Year’s Eve, we headed south, and as we left the island behind us, we drove through a magical milk white landscape. Near Glenelg, a huge red stag stood on a snowy ridge, still as stone, his beautiful antlers raised to the sky, looking as if he had been painted onto the scenery. We waved, but he didin’t condescend to notice us.

We finally arrived in Oban just in time for dinner at a Chinese restaurant across the road from our hotel. Having stuffed ourselves with a banquet of all they had to offer, we headed to the nearest pub to join the céilidh. By the time the clock struck midnight, we were outside the pub, in a huge ring that straddled the road, crossing arms with the entire town and raucously bellowing out Auld Lang Syne, as the ferries in the harbour madly blew their foghorns and the church bells rang discordantly. We eventually staggered back to the hotel for Scotch broth and more martinis before collapsing into bed at some ungodly hour with no plans to rise until lunchtime.

I suspect the Christmas season will be more sedate on the Fleurieu than it was in Bonnie Scotland all those years ago. It will certainly be warmer. And while we won’t be seeing any stags on the sand dunes, maybe we’ll spot a kangaroo or two…

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