Thin Ice

Happed up – as my dad would have said – with bright red mittens on my hands, a white maple leaf stitched onto each palm, the aran-knit hat pulled down as far as my eyebrows, and low over my ears. Around my neck I had double-looped a scarf, the one that V. gave me, patterned with owls – a nod to the night that was slipping into day. The moon was still up, hanging low in a pale blue sky that faded to diluted orange where the sun was rising. My face tingled in the clean, freshest of air: minus 2.5 degrees. I crunched across the grass of Holyrood Park towards St Margaret’s Loch, bidding good morning to the early dog walkers, glad to be up and out with them, rising with the light. As I got close to the water I could see scrapings of irregular patterns on the surface in place of the usual ripples. The resident ducks were missing. Someone had been out already, and erected a sign at the water’s edge. ‘Caution, Thin Ice’, it read. A ball had been kicked out about 50 feet onto the ice, and it lay forlornly, daring some foolish soul to rescue it. I hope they won’t. As I walked my usual circumference of Arthur’s Seat I saw the same sign beside Dunsapie Loch, and I looked upon the same scratchings on the water’s surface. There was one swan. For a moment I wondered if it was frozen into the water. Of course not, what a silly idea. I walked on, looking down onto the frozen water of Duddingston Loch and pondering the possibility of frozen swans. From my high vantage point, I could see patterns on the surface of the water telling me that it too, although a bigger loch than the others, was freezing over. Set low in the shadow of the Seat, the sun doesn’t get to Duddingston for long at this time of the year.

Duddingston Loch: location for the iconic painting of the Rev. Robert Walker – ‘The Skating Minister’. One arm held tight to his chest, the other invisible, perhaps tucked behind his back as he propels himself, elegantly, across the ice. He’s all dressed in black, leggings and a coat with a split tail, allowing his right leg to float up behind him as he pushes forward with his left skate on the ice. Until now I have always wondered about that picture – how could it possibly be Duddingston Loch? Surely it would never freeze? Now, of course, I know that it can, and that it did when winters were colder. There was even an Edinburgh Skating Club back then, and apparently, when conditions were right, they met in Duddingston Loch.

Attributed to Henry Raeburn, the painting hangs in the National Gallery here in Edinburgh. It must be one of the most popular Christmas cards in Scotland, it’s sold in all of the gallery shops year round. The Scottish Parliament fuelled its iconic cultural status by choosing it as one of their official Christmas cards, until they dropped it in 2005 when art critics raised eyebrows by suggesting that it may not be a Raeburn after all but may actually have been painted by a French artist. Mon Dieu! The finger was pointed at one Henri-Pierre Danloux, who was in Edinburgh in the 1790’s – the date of the painting. When I tell D. about my morning walk, the freezing lochs and how it has reminded me of the painting, he tells me to make sure I examine the Minister’s extraordinarily small feet next time I look at it. “One of the reasons they think it might not be a Raeburn”, D. told me, “is that he would never have got his proportions so badly wrong.” I have looked, and indeed, those are petite feet!

Latterly, though, it seems there is some consensus that the Raeburn doubters were skating on thin ice, and that ‘The Skating Minister’ really was painted by the Scottish master and not by a French visitor. I’m inexplicably happy to read this, regardless of his slightly out of proportion feet!

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