Scotland braves a no-drive zone: London was not impressed, but 'the white stuff' caused havoc in the Highlands last week, reports James Cusick

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The Independent Online
IT IS several years since Michael Sinclair and Allan Dawson have had to go to work in their least favourite vehicle. But last week as the A9, the main road from Perth to Inverness, began to resemble a bobsleigh run, the two-man team from Highland Region's roads department took out the VF5 Schmidt snow-blower and headed into the weather. To adapt the words of Captain Oates, they were gone some time.

If you live south of the border, the big freeze which closed cities the size of Aberdeen and Dundee might be news to you. The Scottish newspapers detailed every snowflake on their front and inside pages. 'Scotland is sinking under a white tide,' proclaimed the Daily Record. 'Dunkirk Spirit,' said the Herald in Glasgow. 'Countrywide chaos,' added the Scotsman. But the London papers deemed Scotland's weather worthy of only one inside column.

English reporting of the weather in northern Britain is a touchy subject, even in the Meteorological Office. The Independent on Sunday asked the BBC if its star weatherman, Ian McCaskill, would care to comment. The reply was that Mr McCaskill felt his comments would not go down well with his bosses at the Met Office. Therefore he declined.

In his own reports last week, Mr McCaskill was noting an intense depression south of Iceland which was dragging freezing air towards the west coast of Scotland. Hurricanes, blizzards and snow closed scores of roads, airports and schools, causing train cancellations and power failures.

A Royal Marines specialist Arctic training squad waiting in Arbroath to go to Norway for winter practice joined the RAF in rescue work. The last snow action they had seen was in northern Iraq protecting the Kurds. This time their BV202 Volvo snow-cat vehicles swapped Kurdistan for Montrose and the A9 no-drive zone.

During the week a life was lost, death was cheated, and a new life began. A postman in Inverness died as he attempted to dig his van out of the snow. In Caithness, a man escaped unhurt when a train hit his car at a level-crossing after snow had obscured the danger signals. Anastasia MacDonald gave birth to a healthy girl at a hospital in Inverness after a snowplough escorted her there. An RAF helicopter had been unable to get her through the blizzard.

As soon as snow stops anything in Scotland, questions are asked. On Tuesday, Scottish Television's nightly news programme had a reporter pick up some snow and ask why 'this white stuff' caused so many problems. It was supposed to be a joke. In the snow-blower, Mr Sinclair and Mr Dawson were not laughing.

Just off the A9, between Laggan and Dalwhinnie, they pushed 180,000 tonnes of snow through the two chutes of the VF5 in a 12-hour shift trying to clear a path through the 10ft drifts. Inside the cab, the flashing headlights shine on the stark snowscape and the vibration gives the feeling of being inside a cement-mixer. 'If the public came in here with us for one day during a bad storm, we'd never hear another word of complaint,' said Mr Dawson.

The region's two snow-blowers (the only ones in Britain - they cost around pounds 200,000 each) were out for the first time in three years. They had some success. For a few hours last Friday morning, the A9 saw its first traffic for four days.

There were claims that roads had been gritted too late, but for the thousands of cars abandoned in roadside drifts it made little difference.

'This isn't Switzerland,' Mr Sinclair said. 'In Scotland, the poor visibility makes things different. That and the driving wind.' The snow-blower spent a large part of the week 1,516ft (462m) up on the Drumochter Summit (usually the first stretch of road in Scotland to be closed by bad weather). 'There's no Drumochter in Switzerland,' said Mr Sinclair.

To the south and east, Tayside and Perth suffered their worst conditions for 20 years. Police had to deal with 2,000 stranded vehicles. Local communities rallied to help those stranded and accommodation was provided in village halls, schools and police cells. The Red Cross and the WRVS moved into emergency gear. One Co-op manager opened his store late at night and told police to take what they needed.

Joe Bickerton, his car stuck near Auchterarder and armed only with a carphone, refused to take police advice to go to a nearby village hall. The car turned into every television news producer's dream: an on-the-spot studio. On his carphone, he told the nation's viewers: 'I'm fine in here. Local halls have got to be less comfortable than I am at the moment.'

But some were less willing to make a crisis out of a drama. Drifts 14ft high blocked roads in the Black Isle, north of Inverness. Even a snowplough got stuck. But in Rosemarkie, a small village on the Black Isle coast, a Miss Fraser told a friend who telephoned to check how she was: 'You really mustn't get worried every time we get a drop of snow here. This is the Highlands, you know.'

(Photograph omitted)