The Glenfiddich 'Spirit of Scotland' Awards - a dram fine show

Arctic weather and a late change of venue couldn't stop the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland awards from again becoming a glittering showcase for our nation's greatest achievers , writes Tim Cornwell

• Top Scot Mark Beaumont during his acceptance speech Photograph: Ian Rutherford

SCOTTISH author Andrew O'Hagan reached for literary descriptions of snow as he accepted the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland award for writing.

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Poet Hugh MacDiarmid would have called the conditions a "yowdendrift", he said, the Scots term for blizzard or snowfall, while James Joyce wrote of how "his soul swooned slowly as the snow fell faintly through the universe".

Leading figures in Scottish life, from First Minister Alex Salmond to author Ian Rankin, made their way to the Mansfield Traquair venue in Edinburgh on Thursday, battling through snow and ice to see award-winners, from restaurateurs to leading sportsmen, collect their prizes at the 13th Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland awards.

Peter Gordon, the chairman of William Grant & Sons, whose family built the Glenfiddich Distillery, paid tribute to staff who moved the event from the Prestonfield House Hotel at two days' notice after heavy snow brought the temporary collapse of a roof. He said the nominees' "creativity, drive, and pioneering spirit have inspired us all".

Though the weather claimed some celebrity casualties – with In The Loop actor Peter Capaldi among the no-shows – Martin Compston pulled off a last-minute scramble, switching airports and fighting through crowds to buy a ticket to Prestwick after his Edinburgh flight was cancelled. His parents whooped with joy as the 26-year-old, who took a break from filming a comedy with actor-director Richard E Grant, won the screen award.

The record-breaking long-distance cyclist Mark Beaumont was awarded the Top Scot title, and Mr Salmond, presenting the award, said he was a "worthy addition" to a list of past winners, ranging from JK Rowling to Sir Chris Hoy, and that his epic journey covering 18,000 miles around the world in 2008, was "an unbeatable display of sheer determination". The Scottish Wildlife Trust, which last month enlisted Mr Beaumont as a roving ambassador for the environmental group, called his award a "remarkable and well-deserved achievement".

Beaumont, now a bestselling writer and documentary-maker who completed a second marathon trip through North and South America, has battled through snowy mountain trails on his epic rides. But he had yet to venture out in Scotland's snow this week. "On expeditions, mountain biking, I have cycled in three or four inches of snow max, but after that you need to get spikes on your tyres," he said. "Cycling on snow is like cycling on sand. I'm amazed to see how many people are doing it."

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John McLellan, the editor of The Scotsman, which co-presents the awards with Glenfiddich, said Scotland's rugby team had captured the spirit of Scotland this year, coming back from a painful defeat by the All Blacks to beat the world champions, South Africa.

Mr McLellan also paid tribute in his speech to the spirit of young Scots fighting in Afghanistan: "We might think we are having it tough with the precarious economy and freezing weather, but what they are dealing with on a daily basis is simply off the scale."

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The Scotsman readers voted for the winners from nominees chosen by a selection panel and two rugby players, Alastair Kellock and Chris Paterson, had been among those nominated for the sports award. Paterson, dubbed the best goalkicker in rugby, and only just recovered from a serious kidney injury sustained earlier this year, won the award – having travelled into Edinburgh after a snowy training session in East Lothian.

In accepting his writing award, Mr O'Hagan, about to begin a US publicity tour for his latest book The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, dedicated his award to the men of HMS Forfar. On December 2, 1940 – exactly 70 years before Thursday's awards ceremony – the armed merchant cruiser was sunk by a German U-boat as it guarded convoys off the coast of Ireland.

The dead included his grandfather, Michael O'Hagan, aged 34, from Glasgow's Calton district. Praising his fellow nominees – authors James Robertson, Alan Warner, and Denise Mina – he said they underlined "that Scottish literature has been punching above its weight for over 400 years".

Chef Roy Brett of Edinburgh restaurant Ondine collected the food award, pipping nominees including Victor and Carina Contini and the Mackie family, the Aberdeenshire ice-cream makers. Singer-songwriter Paolo Nutini, who won the music award, had been the clear favourite. In contrast, Dr John March, of the vaccine development company Big DNA Ltd, cheerfully put his surprise win – over the likes of Cairn Energy chief Sir Bill Gammell – down to an internet campaign orchestrated by his wife. Lucy Conway and Tasha Lancaster collected the environment award on behalf of the Isle of Eigg Heritage Trust, with Ms Conway calling it a "fantastic culmination" of the island buy-out 13 years ago, and successful efforts to bring electricity and green energy generation to Eigg.

Finally, Mr Salmond jokingly congratulated the art award winner – the loquacious contemporary art champion Richard Demarco – for making the "shortest speech I've ever heard". The First Minister said it was "incredibly well deserved, not just for this year but a lifetime's achievement." Mr Demarco, 80 this year, beat Turner Prize nominee Susan Philpsz and other artists. "It's a hymn of praise to youth most of the time," he said. "I guess I'm the first 80-year-old to be in there as a contender. It's well worth the wait."