Because this year is going to be a Christmas like no other, Sarah dives into her memories of snowy Christmas Days in Aberdeenshire and then her festive wedding fifteen years ago, when it was all about the horses and carriages - 21st December 2020
Christmas has always been a highpoint on which to end the year – even in 2020. In the pre-children and pre-smallholding days, I would commute annually from the south of England to the farm in Scotland and spend the holiday there with the family, whilst also catching up with old friends. Mum and Ewan enjoyed / tolerated the magnetic draw that Maryculter held for my brother, sister and I, and they said that as long as the ‘Three Bs’ were in stock (Bread, Bacon and Bog-roll) then things would run smoothly as we were rarely without ‘hangers-on’. Coming back inside after her morning’s work, Mum would often find hungry, hungover bodies crowded round the kitchen table or strewn, snoring, around the house, in need of ‘blotting paper’ food after the night before…she never minded.
Then for the next (more settled?) life phase, Richard started to come up to the farm too, but he could never quite come to terms with our way of ‘doing Christmas’ as it was rarely that relaxed (although a farmer’s son himself, his festive location of choice is the Caribbean – the antithesis of a Maryculter Christmas). Then our own children came, we built up our base and festive routine here in Hampshire, and we haven’t been up north for the last few years, but the memories of animal-oriented Christmas Days and the way we did things has nestled into a fuzzy, warm memory, as things do with time and distance.
Being on the farm in Aberdeenshire meant that Christmas Day itself didn’t differ much from any other winter’s day. The coos had to be fed their neeps, which when cropped from the fields would form mountains in the midden, and they were often frozen awkwardly to each other. When the temperatures dropped and the tractor diesel solidified, we would yoke Freddie the Shetland to a little tip cart and he would do the rounds of feeding the stock that was kept in the cattle courts or in the fields, depending on whether it was the pedigree Simmental herd or the winter calvers. Invariably impenetrable ice had to be broken on the tops of water troughs, only to stubbornly refreeze again despite the steamy vapour of the cattle’s breath.
Once the three of us were old enough, we got part time jobs at the country house hotel next door to the farm, which had once been the laird’s house to our Home Farm. The original part of the complex is a medieval building steeped in fascinating history, having, like our farm and the surrounding lands, been linked to the Knights Templar in the 12th & 13th-centuries, before becoming a priory for the Tironensian monks of Kelso. It passed through various landed and aristocratic families in the area then became the seat of the Duff-Gordons, whose most famous son was the 5th Baronet, Sir Cosmo. He was a Society contemporary and associate of the likes of Lords Lonsdale and Desborough, whose noted achievements as a sportsman, philanthropist and magistrate were overshadowed by his infamy in bribing the crew of Lifeboat One not to return to rescue more passengers from the sinking Titanic, despite the free spaces on the boat. The Maryculter estate was dispersed in the 1930s.
Once we were faced with a Hobson’s Choice of spending our Christmas day outside on the farm – smelly, cold and without renumeration – or working next door at the hotel, with the promise of earning double wages and hefty tips, staying warm, dressing up smartly, having a great laugh with our friends and enjoying the festive atmosphere amongst louche, oil-rich guests, we went for the latter option, despite the whiff of guilt airing from Mum.
What it did mean was that our family ‘Christmas lunch’ was always an evening affair, something which I still perpetuate to this day, despite Richard’s protestations. Not only were we out working at the hotel until the early evening, but even before then, Mum said she couldn’t bear cooking and eating a big meal then having to go back outside to ‘do the beasts’. Nowadays, I can’t bear wasting an afternoon, sitting around feeling uncomfortably full, grimacing through forced, extended family jollities, when I could be outside and driving ponies. Apples and trees as they say.
Once my siblings and I had gone beyond the waiting on tables, left home and became engaged in more gainful employment, we still returned to the nest for Christmas. By now, Mum had fewer cattle on the farm who needed to be fed quite so much (the pedigree cattle dispersed and the calvers reduced, replaced by a herd of red deer in place who are generally lower maintenance). Never one to rest, Mum decided that Christmas Day could be a bit more lucrative if we harnessed up the grey ponies, bedecked everything in tinsel and drove round to the hotel to give the excited children rides and distribute presents. This we did in conjunction with the head waitress who was a farmer’s wife and family friend, and in another area of her life, was big in the Arab breeding and showing world. We participated begrudgingly as I don’t remember Mum ever sharing her spoils with us afterwards, but it was good fun. My brother, who is now a dean and senior tutor at Cambridge University but at the time was working in futures in the City, would dress up as Santa, shove a pillow up his front, and ‘Ho-Ho-Ho’ his way through the proceedings.
However we spent our Christmases, be it on the farm, waiting on tables or pretending to be an elf, it was always a time of year I relished. And I had known from a young age, if or when I got married, it would be a winter wedding. Although our lives were firmly in the south of England, Richard (who in reality had little say in the matter) and I fixed on a Scottish wedding on a date in that usually dull patch between Christmas and Hogmanay.
In the run up to the wedding, we had spent even more time than usual commuting to Aberdeen from Heathrow as my sister Helen had got married (for the first time) in the May. It had been an unconventional and magnificent outdoor affair on the part of the farm which banks the River Dee. Her husband, a towering German, had arrived at the setting with his equally tall best man, both looking like Vikings in kilts, perched amidst their empty beer cans in a rowing boat, being skulled by a friend with broken ribs. Helen had ridden down through the fields from the farm buildings, perched on a side saddle in a striking purple velvet and orange Indian silk habit, created by a theatrical dressmaker, the red deer running in formation next to her like a starling murmuration. She was atop Ewan’s driving cob, Jasper, and Mum, me, the other bridesmaid and a flower girl arrived in a Landau pulled by Ewan’s driving trials pair, Russian Orlovs called Corsica and Geiser.
So the family had to contend with two weddings in the same year, but there the similarity ended. A few miles up the hill from the farm is a charming kirk where we were christened and spent many hours in church and at Sunday school (to give Mum a break). It was part of the fabric of our community in Maryculter and I knew that I wanted to get married there, with a Scottish service. Having asked coaching aficionado Haydn Webb and his partner Lisa as guests, Haydn responded that he would only travel north if I gave him a job, stating that he really wasn’t one for hanging around at weddings. So he was given the job of driving Jasper to and from the church from the farm, with the bride to be, using a Brougham that Ewan had purchased from a Reading Carriage Sale.
My by now pregnant sister was the matron of honour so she drove up the hill with our three flower girls in an open four-wheeled Ralli Car which Ewan had had bought for Mum at the Paul Morgan Malverleys collection dispersal in 1998, and a pair of the original grey Welshies, the sister and brother Sparkie and Huckle who were the two in the pack that hated each other and they bickered all the way. The little girls, our goddaughters, were very gallant as it was extremely cold for them. Mum left the farm in a Victoria which had come from a farm sale or ‘rowp’ near Huntly with the pair, driven by Mike Dingwall who at the time competed on the national driving trials circuit, and accompanied by a Danish friend Tina who is now a vet. After the service, I drove Richard and I away with Sparkie and Huckle.
The only problem was that on the morning of the wedding, the road from the farm, a steep mile long track, and the road to the church, were impassable. During our pre-wedding sessions with the Minister, he had asked Richard and I what we wished for and we responded, on top of the usual platitudes about a harmonious and successful marriage (!) that we really wanted a proper Scottish, white wedding, not least to impress our English guests. He said he’d pray for us. Be careful what you wish for.
The night before, as we drove home from the big meal we’d hosted for all our guests, me piloting a car containing my pregnant sister, pregnant best friend and various children, the snow came and blinded by its thickness, we descended to the farm sideways, my German car useless in the face of slippery Scottish snow, our hearts in our mouths. By the following morning, it was a whiteout. Only the determined, local, manicurist and hairdresser made it down the track to find us, tough local ladies who weren’t to be defeated by some ‘snaw’.
Mum’s stress levels were rising and she was volubly issuing instructions to everyone to get up, get on and clear the track. At dawn she had arisen to see the picture perfect but pragmatically challenging scene and called a neighbouring farmer, got him out of bed and told him to attach his snow plough to the front of his tractor and clear the way to the church. Various others were roped in to sand the roads by hand and shovel. ‘Sarah is getting married today,’ she chimed.
Despite a bit of fussing around me by friends and beautifiers, the main activity of the morning was in the stables. Horsey cousins from Derbyshire arrived and despite being in their winter finery, soon found themselves roped into grooming and harnessing up, and being shouted at for perhaps not doing the right thing at exactly the right moment. Mum sat down for no more than about ten minutes to allow the hairdresser, a patient lady who had cut our hair as kids, administer her deft touch. She emerged with a rounded, solid bouffant, looking even more like Margaret Thatcher than ever, which made us shudder.
Ever Mr Cool, Haydn arrived at the farm with his gleaming black top hat and coaching coat, helped smooth the mood, then took up Jasper’s reins and rose onto the front of the Brougham. Next to him climbed a friend who helps with the coaching team, Gordon, who was to be his groom. I folded myself, large frock and furry coat inside, with Ewan next to me. I asked Ewan for any marriage advice and after the rather fraught morning, he simply rolled his eyes, which was where it ended, so we didn’t need to speak much.
So it was a quiet half hour in the Brougham, amidst the smell of old leather and mothballs, as Haydn navigated the turnout uphill to the church, like a silent fairy tale, the fresh snow dulling any sound and I passed my childhood haunts, reassuringly familiar. It was slippery and the canny old cob that he was, Jasper was foot sure, but Haydn thought he felt him struggling on the final steep pull to the church as by now Jasper was well into his 20s. He asked Gordon, in his 70s, to jump off to lessen the load. Gordon gallantly jogged alongside us. Everyone was relieved to get to the church safely and all the guests, having been diligently seated by the ushers, were ushered back out again to see the horse-drawn procession arrive.
The service was wonderful and we emerged into the gloaming. Richard and I had a dreamy drive with the little pair back down to the farm, before we all got into a procession of old Land Rovers to take us to the next stage, the evening reception in a hall up Deeside. Some of our guests simply didn’t make it, the airport having been closed and for some local friends, the upcountry roads blocked. That, with the prevalence of pregnant guests, meant that we were ‘up’ on wine after the occasion.
The next day we awoke to chime of dripping water, the snow having fully melted. It came and went for our day only. The press had got hold of the story of Mum having the roads gritted and cleared and we appeared for the next few days in the nation’s tabloids. We had to pose for photographers and Mum, looking like she’d taken leave of her sanity, was pictured wielding a shovel in front of her tractor, with not a patch of snow in sight. While at the airport awaiting his homebound flight, Haydn was surprised to look up at the Press & Journal being read by the chap sitting opposite him, to see himself, Jasper and the Brougham as the frontpage news. He was nursing aching arms as Jasper had pulled hard all the way back down the hill towards home, his reluctance on the outbound leg being a sham and Haydn’s sympathy for him having quickly evaporated.
This Christmas, by contrast to our magical one fifteen years ago, will be rather different. Like the majority of the nation, we won’t be seeing our friends or family. We certainly won’t be travelling to Scotland or enjoying a snowy holiday. We will, however, be trying to make it as memorable and fun as we can for our daughters, and we will make the most of driving out the ponies on what will hopefully be quiet roads. We can’t go out and celebrate our anniversary, but we can revel in the memories of our rather special, snowy, sparkly day, where horses and carriages, and a determined mother, were very firmly centre stage.