Friday, April 06, 2007

Caithness Stories

Learning my way around Caithness includes learning the stories. Some of them are not much more than gossip or localized history, so they are hard to translate into a blog post, but here is one that I think is big enough for sharing.

It follows a theme of Us vs them. In this case, the "Us" is the wise locals, and the "Them" are the outsiders or the unwise who think they can tempt fate or outsmart Mother Nature. Many of the stories I have heard remind me of Trickster Tales--overcoming larger adversity through cleverness or mother wit. This story has those elements, too, maybe that's why I like it. I have heard this story from several people, so I'll stitch up the versions and add my own title:

How Billie Snowman Earned His Name

"The snow was just beginning to collect on the tops of the hills as we were shooting pheasants at Sandside," my husband told me. "It was Saturday," he said and only later did I realize the full implications of this. "I remember seeing the snow just starting over the tree tops. It was an unusual snow because it came out of the northeast. And it was wet. It clung to the wires until they sagged in the middle and some came completely down."

I got the middle of the story from another friend who hit on the familiar theme: "If they had taken the old road, they would have been OK," because the locals had told the road builders that the cut in the new road would be a snow trap. The old road for all its faults, would still have been passable.

The experts, however, thought they knew better. The snow just kept coming on that day and it built up in the cut just as the locals said it would. A hotel manager who had been to Thurso to check on preparations for a wedding got stuck in the snow there with his wife. A lorry (truck) was also stuck despite being several inches higher than the passenger car. The workmen in the lorry invited the couple to join them in the cab, but they thought they would be all right in their car.

Billie Davidson, a traveling salesman stocking ladies tights and knickers (underwear), was also stuck in the snow. The wet, heavy snow that stopped them from moving just kept falling and falling and falling. The cars were completely covered. Although it probably would have made no difference, the road workers were on a "work to rule" action. They would do no overtime or extra effort, so the cars were stuck in the snow all day Saturday and Sunday and Monday before they came to clear the road.

Billie Davidson had piled on another pair of women's tights as the temperature got colder and colder in the car. He had tights on his arms and his legs and even on his head. He had drunk the two flasks of tea that his wife always gave him when he set out, and he had used his trademark walking stick to poke holes in the three feet of snow on top of his car.

Billie survived. He certainly looked a sight, so everyone says, but he lived to earn his name and a story in his honor. The workmen in the cab of the lorry survived, but the hotel manager and his wife did not.

Now I had heard this story only up to the point of the rescue and Billie's survival, but I recently heard a post script. I was told that Billie's company then decided to charge him for all the tights and lingerie that he had piled on himself in order to stay alive. One person said he was fired; another said he quit in disgust; a third said that he was near retirement age and probably took that opportunity to retire from the road.

Whatever the truth of it, he earned his name.

Update Feb 26, 2008
The Feb 22nd issue of John O'Groat Journal had an article on the 30th anniversary of this event. The salesman's name was William Sutherland. The old road did remain clear, but the cut accumulated snow and there was 6 feet of snow on top of Willie Sutherland's car where he was isolated for 80 hours. Complete article should be available on line at


At 2:27 AM, Blogger Hayden said...

why companies find it acceptable to be petty, stupid and cruel is beyond understanding.

but they do.

At 8:05 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Yes, sometimes a group of people, as in a company, brings out the smallness that we would otherwise repress in ourselves. Odd, isn't it? I have often wondered about corporate culture, having seen some awful examples of how it can go wrong in my own working experience.


Post a Comment

<< Home