O, TO be in England now that January is there. Soft winter winds brush the flowering bulbs, and a chattering army of walkers breast the hill. To find snow and ice one has to travel to New York, on the nine o’clock news. The air is gentle, and blows in from the east coast — not that one would know it. Or that Christmas is just a month past.
I have no complaint. Spring in winter suits me fine. The white cat is not so sure, and clings to the split logs that wait by the stove. I think of the monks taking turns to bake by the fire in their warming-room, holding up their habits to scorch their bare legs.
But, at this January moment, the sun is invading the ancient rooms and challenging the central heating. As for the birds, they are singing their heads off. And I think to myself, it is all to come: the summer itself, the empire of leaves, the roses, the Stour reflecting it, the corn declaring it.
But what to say on Sunday? This is the imperative question. A friend and I were once driving home from Wales on a wet Sunday morning, when we decided to go to church en route. We ran from the car to a small Victorian building, which clung to a steep bank, in which a dozen or so people were singing Isaac Watts’s brief “This is the day the Lord has made”. Still singing, an elderly woman left her place to brush the rain off our coats.
A youthful priest gave a fine address from the chancel step. No one looked round to see who owned our added voices. Candles wavered in the draught. Such care was taken. Hurrying back to the car through, by now, a torrential rain, we drove on. “To think we might have missed it!” we said.
Exactly what we could have missed it is hard to say — although it was of great importance, or I would not still have it in my head with such clarity all these years on.
Queen Victoria once saw scores of Highlanders walking to a glen, their Bibles tied up in white handkerchiefs — their lunches, too. Might she join them? It wasn’t raining. They sang psalms, and broke bread. A compulsive writer, she was persuaded to publish that enchanting book Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands from 1848 to 1861. Her energy is exhausting, even at this distance. Terrible weather was no deterrent to her endless excursions with Albert.
“We then came to a place which is always wet, but which was particularly bad after the late rain,” although this did not deter her. On and on they went, the Queen and her husband, their drenched court, their never-to-be-repeated happiness, the little Queen and her beautiful husband, riding and tramping across Scotland, their earthly paradise.
Although I had once walked in James Bothwell’s footsteps in my youth, it was my friend Christopher who drove me across vast Perthshire, and introduced me properly to Scotland — who provided a kind of residency during the surprisingly hot summers and an almost absence of rain, hardly a day of which I can forget. And it was the poet George Mackay Brown who brought me to Orkney.
Now and then, I take down fat photograph albums, and there we all are, youngish and grinning away. I can nearly smell heather. Queen Victoria very much liked the Kirk. Approved of it. She said: “Religion makes one think of what one would not otherwise think of.” My spiritual landscape was Glenlyon, that vast valley all in shadow, yet bright and somehow celestial.