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Accounts in Highland Archive Centre reveal how the 'Big Freeze of 1963' affected life in the region

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An excerpt from the Northern Times in 1963.
An excerpt from the Northern Times in 1963.

Older readers may remember the winter of 1962-63 as it was one of the coldest on record in the UK, and rivers and lochs froze over.

The ‘Big Freeze of 1963’ dragged on well into February before any sign of a thaw, and the Highland Archive Centre has accounts of how it affected Highland life.

At Assynt School, the headteacher’s entries in the School Logbook for the second week of February 1963 paint their own picture: “14th Feb Owing to the very severe snowstorm three children are absent, Margaret MacRae, Farquhar MacLeod and Patricia Sankey. Children were sent home early, and no midday meals were served, firstly because the Unapool road is impassable, and because the attendant would be unable to carry a meal over the school road.”

An excerpt from the Assynt School log book.
An excerpt from the Assynt School log book.

A delight to children to be sent home for a ‘snow day’, but that it should happen in a region accustomed to bad weather indicates how harsh the winter of ’63 really was.

In the same week that Assynt children were enjoying an unscheduled half-day, the Northern Times carried an article headed, “Helicopter Drops Hay for Snowbound Sheep”. The 500 ewes belonging to a farm at Salachy, about five miles west of Oykel Bridge, were in danger of running out of fodder as there was no road and it was impossible for even a tractor to get through. According to farmer Colin Mackenzie,

“The snow is so hard that you can walk on top of it. We are doing this to keep the sheep in reasonable condition and it will ensure a three weeks’ supply”. Two shepherds were at Salachy to receive the hay, Mr Chris Bennet, the Salachy shepherd, and Mr J. Mackay of Ben More.

In the same issue of the Northern Times is an entertaining account of the Snowman Rally, a 250-mile car race held annually in the Highlands.

An excerpt from the Northern Times about the Snowman Rally in 1963.
An excerpt from the Northern Times about the Snowman Rally in 1963.

Ian Sutherland of Thurso undertook the legendary race, and calamity struck: “I was freezing cold and soaking wet. We got stuck in a snowdrift on the Glack road near Carron Station.

“We tried to reverse out, I opened the door, it caught on the frozen snow and was pulled right off. I lost my cigarettes and hat because they were in the pocket of the door. We didn’t want to waste time stopping to pick the door up. My nephews Leslie and Ronald, who were coming behind me in a Zephyr, stopped and put our door in their boot.

“We drove on and the snow which fell most of the night was coming in on top of my lap and thawing. I was soaked right through. It was about 90 miles farther on at a checkpoint near Nairn that I collapsed. I stepped out of the car and my legs were so cold they couldn’t support me. Rally officials gave me a cigarette and a few to take with me and another scarf, which I tied round my head. I had no time to stop and look for my gloves and drove half the course without them”

Despite these conditions, Mr Sutherland went on to win the race for the second time.

* The Highland Archive Centre is running Archives for Beginners classes every Wednesday morning online until December 7.

Cost is £40 (£32 concession) for each four-week session.

Email archives@highlifehighland.com for further details.

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