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Border Snowstorms
by [?]

“St. Agnes’ Eve–ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold.”

The great round-backed, solemn Border hills, in summer time kindly sleeping giants, smiling in their sleep, take on another guise when winter smites with pitiless blast, when

“The sounds that drive wild deer and fox
To shelter in the brake and rocks,”

bellow fearsomely among the crags, and down glen and burn rushes the White Death, bewildering, blinding, choking, and at the last, perhaps, with Judas kiss folding in its icy arms some luckless shepherd whom duty has sent from his warm fireside to the rescue of his master’s sheep. You would not know for the same those hills that so little time gone past nursed you in their soft embrace. Then, in the warm, sunny days, shadows of great fleecy clouds chased each other leisurely up the braes through the bracken and the purpling heather; the burn sang to itself a merry tune as it tumbled from boulder to boulder, rippling through pools where the yellow trout lay basking; on the clear air came the call of grouse, and afar off a solitary raven croaked in the stillness of a sun-steeped glen. Now the bracken is dead, the bent sodden and chill with November’s sleet; against a background of heavy, leaden-grey sky the heather lies black as if washed in ink. Across from the wild North Sea comes a wind thin and nipping, waxing in strength, and with the gathering storm piping ever more shrilly down the glen, driving before it now a fine, powdery white dust that chokes nostril and mouth, and blinds the eyes of those whom necessity compels to be out-doors. It is “an oncome,” a “feeding storm.” Thus have begun many of the great snowstorms that from time to time have devastated the Border and taken heavy toll of man and beast.

In March 1615 snow fell to such a depth, and drifted so terribly, that not only did many men perish, but likewise “most part of all the horse, nolt, and sheep of the kingdom.” In the years 1633 and 1665 there were great storms, when vast numbers of sheep perished, and “the frost was severe enough to kill broom and whins.” But greater than these, both in devastating effect and in duration, was the memorable storm of 1674. The early part of that year was marked by extraordinarily tempestuous weather. In January came a violent gale from east and by north that strewed the coasts with wreckage. Down by Berwick and Eyemouth, by St. Abb’s, and along all that rugged shore, the cruel sea sported daily with bodies of drowned sailors, flinging them from wave to wave, tossing them headlong on to a stony beach, only with greedy far-stretched grasp to snatch them back again to its hungry maw. In every rocky fissure, where angry waves spout cliff-high and burst in clouds of spray; in every rugged inlet, where the far-flung roaring seas boil furiously, timbers and deck-hamper of vessels driven on a lee-shore churned ceaselessly, pounding themselves to matchwood.

Throughout January, and till February was far advanced, this bitter easterly gale blew fiercely. In mid-February the wind died down, leaving a sky black with piled-up cloud gravid with coming evil. Inland, hill and river lay frost-bound, white with snow, and already the pinch of winter had begun to make itself seriously felt amongst the sheep. In those days, beyond driving the flocks, when necessary, from the hill to more sheltered, low-lying country, but little provision was ever made for severe weather, and even the precaution of shifting the sheep to lower ground was frequently too long delayed. Turnips, of course, had not yet come into cultivation in Scotland, and feed-stuffs were generally unknown.