WINTER came to Scotland later than usual this year. It formally announced its arrival late one evening in mid-November, when a policeman closed snowgates on a mountain road a few miles north of Balmoral.
The road which disappeared for almost two days under a blanket of snow is known locally as ``the Lecht''. It is known more widely, and more infamously, as the A939 Cock Bridge to Tomintoul. Its closure last month, in accordance with a tradition going back generations, signalled the onset of winter more assuredly than the appearance of the first robin.
It is a ritual surrender to stormy weather that has earned the nine-mile stretch of road a place in Scottish folklore, and inspired a legion of corny jokes. The Herald diary recently noted that two members of the Strathclyde police force were known as Cock Bridge and Tomintoul, because people often encountered difficulty getting through to them.
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Local residents are accustomed to such humour, and shrug their shoulders philosophically. They insist that ill-informed reports over the years have exaggerated the difficulties of crossing the Lecht. It's not as bad as people make out, they say, and it's a lot better than it used to be.
Well, maybe. Negotiating the road on a rainy day in late November, one wonders how it is ever open when the blizzards come. The hazardous stretch begins shortly after crossing a stone bridge across the River Don, at this point little more than a broad burn, which is the main feature of Cock Bridge. There is a hotel, a manor house among some trees, and a couple of cottages and not much else.
The road seems to climb vertically through a pine forest, before emerging on to a high ridge surrounded by dark mountains. It is exposed to strong winds whipping over bleak moorland, and at this time of the year the predominant colours are black and various shades of grey. Everything is sombre, and seems to be getting darker by the minute.
A noticeboard in a lay-by informs travellers that they are following the route of an old military road from Coupar Angus to Fort George, constructed around 1752. One also learns that the granite hills on either side abound with red grouse and other game birds, such as partridge, ptarmigan and curlew. What they do not abound with is human life. Locals say: ``It's like another world up there,'' and they are right. It could be Saturn.
Still the road climbs, straight up the shoulder of a mountain to a pass where a straggle of low wooden buildings materialise as the Lecht ski station. In the deepening gloom, they look from a distance like a miners' camp in the Klondyke. For an instant the Cairngorms become the Badlands, and one expects to see a sign pointing to Boot Hill.
There are no cheery cafes, however, let alone rip-roaring saloons, because there is no snow, which means there are no skiers, which means the place is shut. Saltire and Union flags flying outside the main building are ragged and torn, from snapping in gale-force winds. The pass is at an altitude of over 2000 feet, and ghostly fingers of mist are creeping down the mountains. Within minutes they have enveloped everything in sight, reducing visibility to a few yards.
Descending the marginally less precipitous slope on the other side, one is struck by the continuing absence of human dwellings, until the road reaches the glen in which Tomintoul lies a couple of miles on. There one is greeted with the remark: ``A good day for comin' ower the Lecht, eh?'' Everything is relative in this part of the world.
The only people who actually live on the Lecht are James McIntosh, a director of the ski centre, and his wife and three children. Mr McIntosh used to be a helicopter engineer in the Fleet Air Arm, and a competitive skier, which may explain his adventurous spirit.
Conditions on the road have improved markedly since he and a former helicopter pilot established the ski centre 19 years ago. ``We knew there was going to be a roads problem,'' he admits. ``So we struck a deal with the county council that they would supply us with a snowplough and we would operate it.'' The result, to the astonishment of local residents, was that the road was kept open for much of the winter.
``The road is our lifeline,'' Mr McIntosh says. ``We need the snow, of course, but if there's no access there's no money coming in. We just have to keep it open as much as possible.''
Thus, he and his men liaise with workers of Gordon and Moray district councils, who patrol the road regularly and come to the rescue with snow-clearing equipment when necessary. There are times, however, when they are overwhelmed by blizzards and forced to retreat. Twice last winter severe storms forced the evacuation of the ski centre to the wailing of sirens in the hills.
The police, in consultation with the ski centre, now often close the snowgates at night for safety reasons and reopen them the following morning. Apart from saving lives, this allows Mr McIntosh an undisturbed sleep: ``I'm happier if the gates are closed in bad weather, it means we don't have people getting trapped and coming knocking on our door at all hours.''
This is all still a source of wonder to the locals, who are accustomed to seeing the road effectively closed from November until Easter. Above the counter of his grocer's shop in Tomintoul, Mr Ian Birnie displays black and white photographs of his delivery van dwarfed by massive banks of snow after a storm in 1963.
In that year, he recalls, he came to a house buried by snow on the braes of Glenlivet and shouted down the chimney: ``Baker.'' Back came the reply: ``Ah cannae get oot.'' It was three days before neighbours could rescue the occupant.
``The Lecht, years ago, they never used to bother wae it in the winter,'' Mr Birnie affirms. ``Ye could forget aboot it a' the gither. But the weather's a lot milder noo, we dinna get the bad storms like we used to.''
Having said that, he had to go over the pass in a four-wheel drive vehicle a couple of years ago to collect his wife, who was unable to drive up from the Cock Bridge side. ``It was a wild night,'' he remembers. ``When ye got oot the car the wind fair took yer breath away. The worst of it was, I couldnae get back up the hill masel'.''
They finally got home by taking a 60-mile detour via Dufftown. Mr Birnie concludes: ``The Lecht's no' tae be tampered with, that's my honest opinion.''
It is a familiar refrain in Tomintoul, a planned village of traditional stone cottages established by Alexander, the Fourth Duke of Gordon, in 1776. It still earns its basic living from tilling and distilling, although tourists en route from Balmoral to Inverness provide a welcome seasonal boost.
Mrs Isabella Gordon, age 90, knows about the Lecht. Her late husband, Jock, worked on it for years, in the days when snowploughs were just lorries with scoops in the front. ``There's no snow now like there used to be,'' she says. ``I've known Jock clear a bit before his breakfast, and when he went back oot again it was a' filled in.''
Mrs Gordon remembers one freak storm in particular, when her husband was called out to help get a bus down the Lecht by putting travel rugs under its wheels. This was in June. Those were the years in which winter blizzards could be relied on to dump enough snow on Tomintoul to allow children to slide off the rooftops and swing on telegraph wires.
On the other side of the pass, Mrs Zilla Tuck has similar childhood memories. As one of four daughters of the Laird of Allargue, she had the run of a 6000-acre estate on the southern incline of the Lecht above Cock Bridge. The best time was winter, when the road was closed and covered with snow: ``It took us ages to get to the top, and only three minutes to come down,'' she says. ``It was the best ski run I've ever been on.'' This was after she and her sisters had sledged down to the farm to pick up the day's milk, of course.
Mrs Tuck also has photographs attesting to the severity of weather conditions in the area. One taken 20 years ago shows her car completely buried by snow - in mid-April. But the Lecht, she agrees, is no longer the impassable winter barrier it once was. Having acceded to the lairdship, she is now more concerned about a shortage of grouse on her moors.
Down by the banks of the Don, sheep farmer Willie Gray regards the dark hills around the Lecht with grudging respect. ``It's a dangerous bugger of a place,'' he says. ``Ye can go up on a fine day and 20 minutes later ye cannae get doon again.''
Mr Gray brings his sheep down from the hills from November to May, but he still loses a few in unseasonal cold snaps every year. In his barn is a long stick that he uses to probe snowdrifts for buried sheep. ``It's in the spring when the lambs are little that ye get nailed,'' he says. ``Sometimes it's a cluggy kind o' snaw that sticks tae the wool and the lambs cannae tuck under tae sook frae their mithers. There's aye a few dinna make it tae the summer.''
Motorists approaching the Lecht, and wishing an up-to-the-minute weather forecast, might learn something from Mr Gray's flock. He says his sheep can sense the approach of a severe storm two to three days in advance: ``If I see them coming doon the hill, or acting in a peculiar manner, I can say we're going tae get something.''
But still, everybody insists, it's not as bad as it used to be. Mr McIntosh is keen to point out that, even when the Cock Bridge section is closed, his ski station is often accessible from the Tomintoul side. The villagers say that, contrary to popular belief, it is extremely rare for them to be completely cut off. And Bob Coutts, who has been working on the road for Moray district council for 25 years, says: ``The storms are nothing like as bad as they used to be. I'm quite glad, because I'm too old to be pushing cars half the day.''
The infamous road may now be open more often than not, but in Tomintoul a gloomy fatalism about winter weather persists.
``Fine day,'' a visitor remarked during a recent sunny spell.
``Aye, but it'll no' last,'' came the reply.