Peter Ross: Slip sliding away

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THE decision, when it comes, is understated, unwelcome, delivered beneath the branches of an old knotted yew, and spreads like a killing frost through the crowds on the frozen surface of the Lake of Menteith, near Aberfoyle.

"Have you heard?" says Jim Paterson, 75, of the Royal Caledonian Curling Club (RCCC), with tears in his eyes and a dram in his hand. "It's off."

The Grand Match, which would have drawn 2,000 competitors and an estimated 10,000 spectators to the lake on Tuesday, has been cancelled. It was last held in 1979 but since then Scotland has not been cold enough for long enough to freeze the water to the required depth of seven inches. Until now. Yet, despite this metrological miracle, the emergency services, concerned about crowds, narrow icy roads and poor access, were not able to give the event their blessing. Without that, getting insurance was impossible.

It seems to the curlers that grim bureaucracy has thrown grit on their dreams, melting them away. "This country's gone mad," says one Royal Caledonian committee member.

"We'll be a laughing stock around the world," says another. "Scotland's the home of curling and we canna even organise an outdoors match."

Yet, somehow, it's hard to feel too sad. Not in a place like this. Not on a day like today. Minus seven but sunny, the atmosphere is more like a medieval feast than a wake. There's a certain frolicsome, hedonistic, anything-goes air. The 700-acre lake, covered in a dusting of snow, is solid underfoot, but it still feels joyfully transgressive to step down from the jetty and stroll across its surface.

Today, the whole world seems to be out enjoying Scotland at its most gorgeous and relaxed. A young couple, visiting from Montana, are wearing See-You-Jimmy hats and admiring the sweep of the Menteith Hills. A twentysomething from Australia is pulling his girlfriend along by the hand. She's pretty, in a faux-leopardskin coat, and is standing on two makeshift sledges – trays nicked from BHS. Skiting along, she eventually collapses against her boyfriend for a kiss. If God is choreographing today, he must be a real romantic.

Closer to shore, a 63-year-old retired solicitor called Malcolm Strang Steel strides the ice, pulling behind him six curling stones tied with tartan ribbon. He wears a tweed cap and the happy expression of someone who has never curled outdoors before and is eager to begin. He's here with a dozen or so friends. "This is different from all the fancy indoor rinks we're used to," he says. "Much more atmospheric." He gestures towards his party's collection of stones. "These have been rescued from everyone's garden shed. They're usually used for propping the door open."

The snow has been brushed aside to form a couple of rinks, concentric rings scored into the ice. The players are very much the green-welly and plus-four set. The women wear big fur hats and pull old-fashioned toboggans on which rest wicker baskets full of whisky, ginger wine and sloe gin. There are also mince pies and Scotch eggs. It all feels convivial, though at one point a middle-aged man with extraordinary eyebrows wanders over and exclaims, "There are rumours that you buggers have got more than 16 stones! The other rink have only got 15 and they are moaning." This is what passes, in certain circles, for the redistribution of wealth.

Andrew Durie CBE, 70-year-old chief of the lowland Durie family, wanders over in flat cap and fleece. "This is magic. Just magic," he says. "Even better is curling by car headlight with a bonfire and a bottle of whisky at each end. That's double magic. In the 60s I did that frequently."

Durie took part in the 1963 Grand Match on Lake of Menteith. Back then he was a young training officer with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, barracked at Stirling Castle. In the first round, he and some fellow soldiers used guerrilla tactics to defeat a team from Forfar. "Our secret weapon was a bottle of cherry brandy," he recalls. Though it was only 9.30am, the Argylls made sure that the Forfar men had plenty to drink, which rather affected their curling abilities. "At the end of the match they staggered off, leaving us the winners, and moaning, 'Don't touch the red stuff!'"

Many of the people here today are veterans of previous Grand Matches. The tournament was first held in 1847 and has taken place on only three occasions since the end of the Second World War. Anyone who ever attended seems to remember it as magical, sensuous. "It was absolutely fabulous," says Johnny Cuthbert, 63, who was here in 1979. "It was very cold and everything was beautiful. The whisky smell rose up from the lake, and the stones roared across the ice. Historic stuff." He looks half-sad at the memory and sets off for the lakeside hotel. "I'm now going to have a pint of beer to make myself feel better."

It is such a pity that the Grand Match won't take place. It would have been quite a spectacle – thousands of curlers dressed in tartan. All the pageantry had been arranged. Lord Elgin had agreed to lend his 17th-century cannon, which was to be fired at the beginning and end of the tournament. Jim Marshall, 73-year-old President of the RCCC, was looking forward to arriving at the lake by helicopter. A telegram had been sent to the Queen – patron of the club – and they were anticipating a pleasant reply. Now, cannon, chopper and Queen are unnecessary, or as Marshall puts it: "The game's a bogie. The ba's burst."

There are, of course, plenty of things to do on a frozen lake beyond curling, and all those things are being done. You can play ice hockey. You can teach your toddler to figure-skate. You can skim pebbles just to see how far they'll go. You can even just recline on a pair of deckchairs with a flask of coffee and the sun on your face. That's what Ena and Alec Robertson are doing. A couple in their sixties from near Dunfermline, it's refreshing to meet them as, while most of Scotland has cursed this historic cold spell, they've been revelling in it. "We've never had a day indoors over the last three weeks," says Alec. "On Christmas Day we skated around Loch an Eilean near Aviemore; on Boxing Day, Loch Insh."

"We should have been in Slovenia but Ryanair cancelled our flight," adds Ena.

Her husband grins. "We're going to write a letter to complain and congratulate them at the same time."

As the afternoon wears on, I walk over to Inchmahome, an island on which there's a ruined 13th-century priory. I've been here before by boat and it feels important, somehow, to make the journey on foot. Lots of people are doing the same. It's a pilgrimage of sorts, something solemn on a day of fun. "I'm pleased with myself getting over here," says an old lady in a pink anorak. "I was a wee bit nervous but it was something I had to do. I won't see the lake frozen again. You might."

In the choir of the church, the graves of the local Graham family are covered in snow. One died in 1897, another in 1921, another in 1946. Perhaps they were lucky enough to attend Grand Matches. I hope they had fun during their lives. It feels like a lonely spot to be dead.

Outside the church, David and Angela McLeod from Motherwell are walking their Tibetan terrier, Varin. Angela's 50, David's 51. She's eye-catching in a big furry coat and hat – "That's the half-Polish in me." This place is special to them. "Last time it was frozen like this was when we got married in 1979. We came here in the winter of that year."

As the sun sets behind the priory and glows pink on ice, I walk back across the lake. It'll be dark soon, the hills nothing more than a dark hump besieged by stars, but for now there is daylight to be savoured. The skaters and curlers are silhouettes, Lowry by way of Bruegel. In the hotel bar, there are whispers of trying to pull political strings and get the Grand Match to go ahead. There's talk, too, of just going ahead with it, unofficially, or holding tournaments on a smaller scale elsewhere. But whatever happens, whether there's a match or not, there will still be a beautiful frozen lake in a beautiful frozen country, and that in itself is just grand.

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