The first blast of winter weather earlier this week saw swathes of Scotland grind to a halt – and there's more on the way. Sandra Dick looks back at winters gone by and asks why we seem to have lost our ability to cope when the white stuff start to fall

It’s the chilblains and the Snowfire ointment to treat them that Flora Pagan remembers. And grabbing a tin tray from her granny’s house then careering down a Cowcaddens hill, the cold wind whipping her hair, her winter coat from Dallas’s department store sodden from the slush.

The snow lay deep and thick, and shopkeepers lit candles in their windows to melt away the ice. Yet the schools stayed open, dads went to work in hard, physical jobs outside in the bitter cold, and mums trudged miles to take the laundry to the steamie.

The traffic seemed to flow and Glasgow’s weans – knees and wrists red raw and hacked from jagged ice like tiny blades that formed on the wet hems of serge shorts and jackets – ate pieces made with doorsteps of bread thick with butter and laced with sugar, took their battered tin trays and slid down a hill that, before much longer, would be covered by a motorway.

The snow fell and life, for Flora’s generation at least, went on.

“I don’t remember my school closing because it was snowing,” says Flora, 89 years old in a fortnight and who has lived her entire life in a Govan tenement.

“There was my mum, dad and me in a room and kitchen,” she adds. “The coal fire was on all of the time and we were never cold.

“But it’s different now. Children don’t seem to know how to walk and everyone drives everywhere.”

Her friend, Jean Melvin, is 95, and has seen more winters without the luxury of central heating and cosy electric blankets than with them.

“But we had a roaring coal fire that my mother kept going day and night,” she says. “She put our wet clothes on the fire guard to dry, and in the morning we ate hot porridge made on the big range.

“You had to go to school whatever the weather or the school officer would be at the door at 9.30 wanting to know where you were.”

Of course, it was a different age and a different way of life – much harder and harsher than today.

Which begs the question why, in this push-button digital age of instant central heating, hi-tech weather forecasting, smart cars with their fancy traction control and anti-lock brakes, and modern communications, does a flurry of snow seem to bring us to our knees?

How come other countries, where the snow lies thicker and temperature dips much lower, just seem to "cope"?

And have we lost our ability to beat the weather and keep moving?

Tuesday saw the first real snow of 2019 and heralded days of bitter cold temperatures, kicked off with a nippy -10.8C (12.5F) at Braemar. The lowest of the winter so far, it was still not even close to Scotland’s record low of -27.2C (-17.0F).

For many Scots commuters, however, it meant sliding to work: there were at least 125 accidents recorded on Tuesday morning alone.

Roads closed, motorway traffic ground to a halt, and a row brewed when it emerged that East Lothian Council wanted workers to set aside holidays to cover days when the weather is so treacherous that they can’t get to work.

Some schools in the Highlands shut their doors, while several flights to Glasgow Airport were diverted due to heavy snow on the runway.

And that was just last week. The coming week, warn forecasters, is likely to bring further wintry weather with the prospect of more snow showers at the start of the week and freezing temperatures on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“Keep the ice scraper handy,” suggests Met Office forecaster Steven Keates. “It is winter and cold weather is never going to be far away.”

Although, not as bleak as in Flora and Jean’s day. “Winters are actually getting a little bit less cold: the average temperature in Scotland for December, January and February from 1981-2010 was 2.7C, compared to 2.3C for 1960 to 1999,” he adds.

“The technology used for today’s forecasts is phenomenal, and accuracy is pretty good, but it’s still hard to get it right all of the time.

“That’s because weather is a highly complex beast. Even the most advanced computers in the world struggle with a long-range forecast.”

Of course, some winters grab more headlines than others. In 1963, the UK shivered in a "Big Freeze" that lasted weeks, while the winter of 1978-79 was one of true discontent, with public strikes, piles of January snow and 100,000 school pupils in Strathclyde told to stay at home after damage to heating systems caused by freezing weather.

January 2010 saw the country battle some of the worst weather in decades – to be matched last year by the Beast from the East.

Hacking our way through it all these days is made trickier by a combination of factors, suggests Neil Greig of IAM Roadsmart. “People live further from where they work than they used to. And congestion is worse. Despite all the investment in rail and bus routes people are still dependent on their cars.

“The other issue is the number of lorries and vans on our roads, stocking up shops and making deliveries.

“There’s just a lot more traffic. So even on the M8 through Glasgow a bit of low sun and some rain – before you get to ice and snow – causes congestion to build up.

“Plus, a lot of people don’t know how to drive in winter,” he adds.

Winters of the past weren’t all happy days of cruising along perfectly gritted roads, he stresses.

“When I was young in Aberdeen in the Seventies, people would be stuck in snow drifts and found too late. I can’t think of anyone being buried for days on end these days.

“Everyone talks about how much better they do it in Norway and Switzerland, but we have very unpredictable climate, so it’s very difficult to know what to do.”

When it comes to actually making it in to work, psychologist Professor Sir Cary Cooper, of Manchester Business School, believes a combination of factors come into play.

“According to figures from the Health and Safety Executive, 57 per cent of working people have time off through stress-related illnesses.

“I think that people who find it difficult to get to work are often not happy in their jobs in the first place. And in some cases, any excuse – even if it’s just a quarter of an inch of snow – is enough.

“Social media today also creates a frenzy around weather. People share pictures of snow, they may be in another part of the country or high up, but it makes every think they better not go outside.”

For Royal Mail posties David Menzies – who ploughs a route covering Taynuilt to Bridge of Orchy – and Michelle McCulloch, whose Unst beat in the Shetland Islands is the UK’s most northerly and remote, harsh weather is an everyday challenge.

“You just drive with care,” shrugs David, 48, who's covered the picturesque patch for 14 years without incident. “I just take it steady and carry a shovel in the boot of the van.

“Sometimes it gets a bit hairy. The Black Mount Road near Bridge of Orchy has a certain bit where the snow gathers. If it looks bad, I phone people and ask what the weather is like with them and then decide if I can get the van through.”

Michelle, 50, travels over 50 miles a day, many spent battling through 60mph winds that threaten to blow the back doors off her van whenever she opens them.

“It’s what you get used to,” she says. “Sometimes I can’t get out because of the weather. So I do twice the work next day.

“1Sometimes I hear about other places that just seem to stop because of a little bit of snow and I’m amazed. Here, you just have to get on with it.”

Of course, keeping Scotland’s roads and railways clear is a multi-million challenge unlike anything seen in days gone by.

Cllr Steven Heddle, Cosla environment and economy spokesperson, says: “It is arguable that local authorities are better prepared now than in past decades as technology and forecasting advances help target roads which are at the greatest risk of ice and snow.

“While councils may be better prepared, over the years society has also changed – as has the economy, and indeed the climate.

“It is hard to compare eras and it is misleading to assume there was less disruption in the past. However, we cannot ignore the fact that local government budgets are under huge pressure, with roads services under particular strain to both make savings and meet public expectations.”

When it comes to the nation’s trunk roads, Transport Scotland’s current winter fleet has 210 vehicles available for spreading salt and ploughing snow – one spreader for every 16 km.

Meanwhile, on the A835, BEAR is using the latest combination spreader from Germany with modified spraying equipment which uses liquid brine treatments to tackle snow and ice, and on the M80, a Hilltip Icestriker has been leased from Finland, and can be mounted to pick-ups or light trucks.

A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “We continue to invest in and trial new technology to improve decision-making and responses by those managing winter treatments.

“Severe winter weather will, unfortunately, cause some disruption on our roads.”

As for rail commuters – already bitter over a new timetable that’s brought cancellations and delays – Network Rail Scotland and train operators Abellio ScotRail have introduced a helicopter with thermal imaging equipment to show engineers areas where cold weather could cause problems.

It has also invested in a £1m "winter train" to defrost points and others parts of the railway affected by snow or ice. It features hot air blowers and heat-lances to thaw critical infrastructure, designed to allow staff to reopen the line qu–icker.

Snowploughs are said to be on standby, and train maintenance depots have been fitted with heated polytunnels, high pressure hot water ‘jet washes’, and space heaters to reduce the time required to defrost trains, and get them back in service quicker.

All that’s needed now, then, is snow.