In the first of a new series of book focuses for SEPA View, Alistair Dawson describes how his new book So Foul and Fair a Day: a History of Scotland's Weather and Climate traces the history of climate conditions in Scotland, showing that dramatic changes have played an important part in shaping Scotland's history.

Read through any history syllabus in any school and you will find few references to the impact of climate and weather on history. Text books on Scottish history are no different. There are descriptions of death and famine but there is nowhere to be seen any consideration of whether specific periods of hardship might also have something to do with extremes of weather and climate. For those trying to understand Scotland's present weather and climate and how it might change in the future, we can learn a great deal by looking back in time, beyond living memory, and attempt to decipher past patterns of change. Over the last thousand years some remarkable changes have taken place

Radical change

A big change in Scotland's weather took place between AD 1400 - 1410, before which it was rarely stormy in winter. Thereafter, there seems to have been a radical change in atmospheric circulation across the northern hemisphere. Scotland started to endure winter storms brought in from the North Atlantic and began to experience a much greater frequency of easterly winds during winter that brought low temperatures and plentiful amounts of snow. The country started to experience what was later to be known as 'the Little Ice Age'.

For the following 500 years Scotland experienced the full rigours of this climatic deterioration. Admittedly there were occasional warm decades that interrupted the cold (for example the 1650s when harvests were the best in living memory) but the overall trend was of increasing cold and storminess. Matters were made worse by a large volcanic eruption that took place in Iceland during 1695 when large areas of the country were affected by a 'sulphurous fog'. We cannot be sure what the precise effect of this eruption was on Scotland's climate but we do know that the years between AD 1693 - 1700 were characterised by widespread famine. They later became known as the 'King William's Dear Years' . A contemporary account of this time describes how it was common for people to bring in the crops in the frosts and snow between November and February while many of the crops simply rotted in the fields. Changes also took place in Scotland's seas. With the deteriorating climate, there was a southward advance of cold polar water. This brought the sea ice further south but it also brought herring and cod. So the time of the fisheries boom and the 'silver darlings' was no coincidence since it was an indication of regional climate cooling and ocean circulation changes.

Impact on people

After the Union of the Parliaments, Scotland's climate and weather did not improve much. For the most part, the 18th century was exceptionally snowy and cold, while the latter part of the 19th century tended to be stormy and wet. The spectre of famine often stalked the country, none more so than during the late 1770s and early 1780s, for example during the winter of 1783 - 84 when acid rain from the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, Laki, caused most of the crops to wither and die. In many people's eyes, images of 19th century Scotland are invariably associated with hunger, social injustice and the 'Clearances'. What is less well known is the misery and hardship inflicted by inclement weather on those caught up in these tragedies. During these decades a stormy ocean continued to cause a tragic list of shipwrecks. For the most part, the emigrant ships left during the summer months with hopes of safe passage to the New World. Some did not arrive. For example, there is the sad story of The Chevalier that left Raasay in June 1850 with 129 people on board bound for Australia, only later to be wrecked in a storm off the west coast of Jura. The stormiest times appear to have been during the 1880s, and it is notable that this time coincided with a huge expansion of sea ice across the northern ocean. Indeed, Captain Gray of Peterhead even took it upon himself to write a short article to the Royal Geographical Society in London providing a map of sea ice cover and adding that he was concerned that this was a sign of an impending ice age.

It was not to be, however. By the start of the 20th century there had been a huge reduction in sea ice cover. Just as significant was a dramatic decline in winter storm frequency. Never again were we to witness such severe weather. For the most part, the 20th century was benign albeit punctuated by brief spells of severe weather. Carbon dioxide concentrations were on the rise but it is less well known that this acceleration in fact started during the mid-19th century. Equally rarely cited was a period of strong cooling between 1940 - 70, the cause of which clearly cannot be explained as a result of carbon dioxide changes.

Past inside the present

In the technological age of the early 21st century we are still blissfully ignorant of how the Earth's climate system works. However, we can learn a huge amount by studying the nature of past changes in climate and weather. For Scotland, most of this information has not been studied. It lies, gathering dust, on the shelves of our libraries, in diaries, in the meticulous weather logs painstakingly compiled by lighthouse keepers. If we are to have an informed discussion on how our weather and climate is changing, we need first to learn the nature of past changes and provide reasoned explanations of why such changes took place. We need also to expand the boundaries of our knowledge of our history by taking into account the deprivation and hardship caused by centuries of weather extremes.

After nearly 25 years as a lecturer in Geography in England, Professor Alastair Dawson returned to the University of Aberdeen, where he had graduated in 1974 with a BSc Honours in Geography, to the position of Assistant Director of the Aberdeen Institute for Coastal Science and Management. He is the author of several critically-acclaimed publications on climate change, including Ice Age Earth and Global Climate Change.