Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, August 30, 2022


 "Highland Snowstorm" by John Wilson (an excerpt from " 'Winter Rhapsody' -- Fytte IV," first published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, February 1831, as by "Christopher North"; reprinted in the anonymously-edited Weird Tales: Scottish (also published as Weird Tit-Bits: Scottish), Volume 6 in the "Nuggets for Travellers" series, 1888)

No real plot in this one, just a simply told -- yet highly descriptive --romantic tale of two young lovers caught in a fierce snowstorm.  The story's strength is in the telling in loving and often (it pains me to say) maudlin detail of the fierce and beautiful landcape of the Highland and of the innocent relationship between the two lovers.

"One family lived in Glencreran, and another in Glencoe -- seldom visiting each other on working days, seldom meeting even on Sabbaths, for theirs was not the same parish kirk -- seldom coming together on rural festivals or holidays, for in the Highlands now these are not so frequent as of yore; yet all thee weet seldoms, taken together, to loving hearts made a happy many, and thus, so each family passed a happy life in it own home, there were many invisible threads stretched out through the intermediate air, connecting the two dwellings together, -- as the gossamer keeps floating from one tree to another, each with its own secret nest.  That in Glencoe, built beneath a treeless but high-heathered rock -- lone in all storms, -- with greensward and garden all on a slope down to a rivulet, the clearet of the clear (oh! once woefully reddened!), and growing, so it seems, in the mosses of its own roof, and the huge stones that overshadow it, out of the earth.  That in Glencreran more conspicuous, on a knoll among the pastoral meadows, midway between mountain and mountain, so that the grove which shelters it, except when the sun is shining high, is darkened by their meeting shadows, -- for 'tis a low but wide-armed grove of old oak-like pines.  A little farther down, and Glencreran is very sylvan; but this dwelling is the highest up of all, the first you descend upon, near the foot of that wild hanging staircase between you and Glen-Etive.  And, except this old oak-like grove of pines, there is not a tree, and hardly a bush, on bank or brae, pasture or hay-field, those these are kept by many a rill, there mingling themselves into one stream, in a perpetual lustre that seems to be as native to the grass as its light is to the glow-worm.  Such are the two huts, for they are huts and no more -- and you may see them still, if you know how to discover the beautiful sights of nature from descriptions treasured in your heart, and if the spirit of change, now nowhere at rest on the earth, not even in its most solitary places, have not swept from the scenes of the beautified, the humble but hereditary dwellings that ought to be allowed, in the fullness of the quiet time, to relapse back into the bosom of nature, through insensible and unperceived decay."

Phew!  And that's just the first paragraph.  It's enough to keep most modern readers from going any further.

But picture if you will, the story being told verbally, in from of a warm peat fire, by an expert stroy-tell of the old school -- one with a soft Scottish accent.  That, to my mind, is how the story should be approached, with full appreciation for the oral tradition.  Once you get that set in your mind's eye, you can go on.

The young lovers are cousins -- Flora Macdonald ("a name hallowed of yore, the fairest") and Ronald Cameron ("the boldest of all the living flowers in Glencoe and Glenceran").  Born on the same day, it has been arranged that Flora spend their seventeenth birthday with Ronald and his family; Flora to walk toward Glecreran, and Ronald to meet her along the way and escort her down from the mountains.  The cousins are close, but innocent -- unaware, at least on the surface, of their great romantic love for each other.  They meet.  They dawdle.  It is an unusually mild February day.They share in awe the beautiful clear day before them and all the glories of nature that surround them -- the hum of insects, the small flowers beginning to emerge from the ground, the distant trill of birds, the tinkle of rills beneth the snow and untouched by frost, a clear blue sky, the warm, gentle sun -- everything seems special in "this mild white if winter."  Then in the distance, Ronald spots movement in the far distance -- a lone deer.  Ronald, ever-ready, and from a long line of hunters, aims his rifle, fires, and wounds the animal gravely, rather than killing him.  The deer bounds away, trailing blood.  Ronald and Flora chase after it, throwing their tartans to the ground.  The chase is long and arduous and the pair travel a number of miles in pursuit.  Finally, the deer is spotted lying in the distance, still alive.  Ronald, eager for his prize, tells Flora to remain there while he approaches the deer,  He fires the killing shot, then turns around to look for his cousin.  He cannot see her.  After a brief moment of panic he spots Flora in the far distance and yells for her to approach.  Whe Flora reaches Ronald, she is exhausted; the long pursuit over the rugged terrain has drained her.

Suddenly, as can happen in the Highlands, the weather changed.  A dark and violent snowstorm rises and both young lovers are chilled to their core.  Foolishly they had dropped their tartans -- so warm and so effective in blunting winter's freezing effects -- when they began chasing the deer.  They begin to go back to retreive them, but Flora is too exhausted to move.  Ronald must go on his own as fast as possible to bring back the life-saving warmth of the tartans.  As he is gone, Flora begins weaker and weaker, until darkness encloses her.  Ronald returns and finds Flora dead.  Or is she?

Hoping that there is still a spark of life in her, he wraps her kin her tartans and begins to carry her through the rugged mountain terrain, hoping to find shelter, or help.  Eventually he comes to a roofless enclosure where some sheep have come to seek shelter.  One corner of of the enclosure is cover in pine boughs, which have kept the snow out.  He lays down with Flora and tries to revive her.  She is alive but in her fevered delerium, she makes no sense.  Her weakened voice soon fails and she dies.  Or does she?  The bitter cold strips Roland of his strength and he soon passes out dead.  But is he?

A group of shepherds are searching the area during the storm looking for stray sheep.  The come upon the enclosure and find the two dead bodies and recognizes them as the cousins Flora and Ronald.  But are they dead?  The shepherds wrap ech body tightly and expertly -- they have much practice of this in the past, having fought in many battles -- and carry the bodies through the storm to the Glencoe hut of Flora's family.  There, in the warmth of oth the fire and of their fearful, watching parents, both revive.

As  said, there's not much plot here.  Two youngsters get caught in a storm and freeze, only to be found and rescued by shepherds.  But the tale is in the telling and -- in my mind's eye -- an old, expert story-teller in front of a warm peat fire transcends the words in a way that only oral story-tellers can do.  Some stories just need to be experienced.

The author, John Wilson (1785-1854), was born in Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland, the eldest son of a wealthy gauze manufacturer.  He came into his estate at an early age but lost most of his wealth in 1815 due to the dishonest speculation of auncle in whom he had entrusted his money.  Previous to that, Wilson had enjoyed a life of leisure and had amused himself writing poetry.  His first book, The Isle of Palms, a poetry collection, was published in 1812.  A second book of poems, The City of the Plague, came out in 1816.  As an emerging literary figure Wilson counted among his friends William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, and Thomas de Quincy.  In 1817, Wilson began contributing to Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, which had been newly founded by his friend William Blackwood.  Writng as "Christopher North," Wilson soon became the principal writer for the journal and was deemed to be one of the major reasons for its success.  Wilson published three books of fiction based on stories first published in Blackwood'sLights and Shadows of Scotland (1822), The Trials of Margaret Lindsay (1823), and The Foresters (1825).   In addition, he published many essays on popular life and on literary subjects.  In 1822, Blackwood's began a popular feature called "Noctes Ambrosianae," which eventually ran to 71 colloquies; these were entertaining "table-talks" written mainly by four authors, including Wilson and James Hogg; the majority of these pieces written between 1825 and 1835 when the series ended were by Wilson.  Wilsn's critical chops were front and center in his The Genius and Character of Burns (1844).

For those interested, one of Wilson's stories from Blackwood's -- "Extracts from Gussman's Diary" has been reprinted in three antholgies of Gothic stories:  Romantic Gothic Tales, 1790-1840, edited by G, Richard Thompson, 1979; Tales of Terror from Blackwood's Magaxine, edited by Chris Baldick and Robert Morrison, 1995; and Gothic Short Stories, edited by David Blair, 2002.

In 1820, Wilson was elected Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh (a position he held until 1851), despite winning the appointment over the man best suited for it:  Sir William Hamilton.  The position, you see, was a political one, and Wilson -- as a Tory -- had many friends (most significantly Sir Walter Scott) who pushed for his appointment with the Tory-laden burgh council.  Unike most political hacks, Wilson was a good fit for the position and served with distinction.

Wilson was the great great great uncle of Sir Ludovic Kennedy, the noted broadcaster, journalist, and author whose non-fiction book Ten Rillington Place questioned the murder conviction and execution of John Christie, eventually leading to the abolition of the death penalty in the United Kingdom.

"Highland Snowstorm" is available to read on-line.


  1. This type of story always resonates with me. With Climate Change creating all sorts of dire weather, rescues become more commonplace...but always compelling. Look what is happening in Jackson, Mississippi!

  2. You certainly put a lot of work into your reviews. Even if I never read the story I have read a great review of it and the author.

  3. This sounds like the kind of story that would benefit from an audio version with a Scottish accent. (Although I have not listened to any books or stories as audio versions personally, so what do I know?)