The light on our walk this morning was wonderful, and the rising sun highlighted Stoer Lodge, which overlooks Stoer Bay.
Although we were dressed warmly with jackets, gloves and hats this morning, it brought back memories of a very different looking Stoer Lodge. A very much colder Stoer Lodge. Time and time again we get asked how we came to live in Assynt, and this blog entry goes a little way to explaining how.
Our very first Christmas in Assynt was spent in this house. We’d rented it for 2 weeks over Christmas and New Year, and we arrived a few days before Christmas, having made the long drive from Hampshire, where we were living at the time. We used to leave Hampshire at about 2.00 in the morning, mostly to avoid the worst of the pre Christmas traffic on the M4 and M5, but also to make the most of our time in Assynt. By 9.00am we’d be past Glasgow and on the A9 heading steadily north. We’d have sandwiches and a flask of coffee in the car, and we’d just keep going, knowing as we reached Ullapool that we were only an hour away from Assynt.
We’d no sooner arrived and unpacked the car, and it began to snow. And snow. And snow. This was a time before up to the minute weather forecasts on websites warning of storms and snow, and before we really took that much notice of the weather forecasts anyway. For us it was simply the perfect Christmas weather.
This was also the time before the easy availability of digital cameras, so we have very few photographs from the visit. But here is one of Stevan alongside our trusty steed, Ruairidh Mhor (Big Rory) and Heather, our Westie at the time:
Little did we realise how much impact this visit to Assynt would have on our lives, as it was because of this holiday, and the weather, that we have come to live and make our lives in Assynt.
We’d been in the house for a little over 24 hours, during which it had snowed non stop, when we had a knock on the door. We opened it to 2 white haired, elderly ladies, both with walking poles, who had come to check we were alright. They’d seen us arrive and were concerned that we were unprepared for the weather. This was before essential renovations were made to the Lodge, and it was a bitterly cold, draughty house, and not suited to the long period of sub zero temperatures that we had.
The 2 turned out to be Ishbel MacAuley and Chrissie Forsyth. Over a cup of tea and some scones they had brought with them, it transpired that Chrissie ran the post office in Stoer and Ishbel lived in the house above the Lodge. It seemed that the snow had come on unexpectedly, and a number of folk locally were unprepared, and without provisions for Christmas and New Year as they were unable to drive into the village as all the roads were covered in snow and the snow plough had gone off the road and so wouldn’t be clearing the snow any time soon. After they left, we had a chat, and Stevan suggested he try to drive the 6 miles into Lochinver in our four wheel drive. We were a lot younger then (!) and I’m not sure we’d be quite so overzealous these days. After deciding that is what he’d do, we popped into the post office and said to Chrissie that we were planning to head into Lochinver and if anyone needed us to collect anything for them we would be happy to do so. She asked what time we were planning to leave, and so we gave a time and went back to the Lodge.
Just before we were due to leave, and having not had any requests, we had another knock on the door, and standing there were Catroina, another Stoer resident, and Chrissie. They asked if it would be possible to go in with us as they had some things to pick up. We said of course, and as we were expecting some friends to arrive to spend Christmas with us I said I’d wait at the Lodge while Stevan went off to Lochinver. From all accounts it was an *interesting* trip in on the snowy roads, but they got in safely enough. Stevan said he would leave them to their shopping and collect them in about an hours time. When he returned to the Stores, the sight that greeted him was one he’s never forgotten – Catroina and Chrissie waiting outside the Stores with the pavement covered in bags containing the essentials to celebrate Christmas and the New Year, but also essential medication for those unable to get to the surgery to collect their prescriptions. They loaded them all up, and on the way home the 2 women were talking quietly about how they could get such and such to so and so, and perhaps if this person could take that person’s shopping too, then that person would be able to walk across to collect it. And so Stevan suggested, if it was any help, he’d be happy to try and get to as many houses as possible in the car. They set off to deliver as many parcels of Christmas food as they could and I suspect Catroina and Chrissy were on the edge of their seats at times, as Stevan had full confidence in the sturdiness and stability of our old range rover, and so perhaps went places and down lanes that most would not have attempted.
And that was the start of our getting to know some of the folk of Assynt. That winter we were invited to ceilidhs in Stoer where we got to know many more folk, many of whom are no longer alive, or who have moved away from the area. Anne Dunlop, with her beautiful weaving loft in her house which was later to become Stoer Post Office after Chrissie gave it up. Ellen with her beautiful baking and always an open door to anyone passing – for years she would make sure the mobile library bus driver always had a cup of tea and a scone as he passed by. Flossie, with all her stories of years gone by, including having memories of snow storms so bad that the snow had completely covered houses and they had shouted down chimneys to make sure the occupants were okay, and after whom the little shop in Clachtoll is now named. Annella, whom many know as the country singing bus driver, and her little son, Matthew, now a strapping crofter and electrician. I think it was the same year that Sheila and Kenny John had their twins, now both grown up and away leading lives of their own. Stella and Michael, who opened their home to us for so many Christmases in years to come. And of course, Ishbel herself, who once owned the house we now live in.
That all happened 25 years ago. After that first Christmas in 1994 we have spent every single Christmas and New Year (barring the turn of the millennium when Stevan was on “millennium bug” watch at his firm) in Assynt. This year our Christmas will be a much quieter (and probably warmer) affair. Many of the voices we heard that first Assynt Christmas are now silent, but not forgotten.
However you celebrate this time of year, I wish you, and yours, a peaceful time.