With the coming of meteorological spring on March first, I am reminded that spring-like weather will tussle with wintry weather here in Valemount and across much of North America for some time to come. My weather memory reminds me of some significant snowfalls in March and April, including one that cancelled my brother’s birthday party some years ago. Some would have called it an equinoctal storm, coming so close to the spring equinox. In the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, that storm likely would have been called Sheila’s Brush.
The easternmost Canadian province, Newfoundland and Labrador has been its official name since 2001. Prior to that time, it was called Newfoundland, although the region of Canada known as Labrador. Along the northeast coast of the continent, has been officially part of the territory since 1927. Geographically, the Island of Newfoundland, known to locals as The Rock, is the world’s sixteenth largest island, the Atlantic Basin’s third largest behind Greenland and Britain, and Canada’s fourth (the other three are found in the Arctic Ocean).
The island has a rich history of European discovery. It is now established that the Vikings of Iceland settled briefly here between 999 and 1001 AD, over a millennium ago, at L’Anse aux Meadows. While other European “discovery” of the island has been attributed to the Irish, Scots, Welsh and Portuguese, the second coming in 1497 is currently attributed to Italian navigator John Cabot who was under commission of King Henry VII of England. Thereafter, the richness of the cod fishery on the Grand Banks drew fishermen from many European nations to its waters. Newfoundland was a British Colony from 1610 until 1907 when it received dominion status within the British Empire. Following the Second World War, Newfoundlanders voted to join Canada, officially becoming part of confederation in 1949.
Sixty percent of Newfoundlanders report their ancestry as English or Irish, which has led to a unique form of the English language and culture. The heavy dependence on sea-based industries, particularly fishing, and the isolation of many of the settlements have made marine travel a part of every day life. Therefore, Newfoundlanders have a deep, rich affair with the sea and the weather that has influenced their culture. The province has six distinct climate types, though mostly it is a temperate marine climate since on the island of Newfoundland, all points lie within 100 km (62 miles) of the sea. Newfoundland sits in close proximity to the cold Labrador Current and not far from the warm Gulf Stream, which gives added flavor to the storminess around it.
In fact, the Newfoundland provincial anthem Ode to Newfoundland is filled with weather/season references. One passage from this anthem reads:
“When blinding storm gusts fret thy shore,
And wild waves lash thy strand,
Thro’ sprindrift swirl and tempest roar,
We love thee windswept land, …”
As one might expect, storms hold an important place in the province’s affair with the weather, and, therefore, it lore. One major piece of Newfoundland weather lore is the legend of Sheila’s Brush
Sheila’s Brush is the name given to the winter storm bringing heavy snow that follows St Patrick’s Day — 18 March. And it appears that the storm need not happen in March, or April or even later. Dave Phillips of Environment Canada says Sheila’s Brush indicates the “winter’s last hurrah.”
Many sources tell us that Sheila was the wife of St Patrick. Others say she was his sister or mother, a housekeeper, or even a mistress. One of my favorite explanations of Sheila’s Brush says that, long before he was canonized, Patrick, or Paddy, was an ordinary guy and married to a fiery redhead named Sheila. According to the legend, she was livid that Paddy had left her home one evening to go out with the boys for a pint. On his return, two-sheets to the wind, he was meet by an outraged Sheila who stormed after him with a broom (brush). This story fits well with the nature of such late-winter storms.
According to Phillips, Sheila’s Brush is one of the last storms of winter and that Sheila is brushing (with a broom) winter away. A more gentle interpretation is that a late season storm paints the landscape white one last time with Sheila’s Brush.
Newfoundland Weather Words
Natives of Newfoundland have developed their own dialect of English that with its unique accent differs from that of the rest of Canada. Linguists considered it a distinct dialect known as Newfoundland English. In some areas of the province, it resembles the speech patterns of the English West Country. In others, it is similar to that of southeast Ireland. In either case, it derives from the native tongues of the various immigrations from the British Isles, cooked and mixed in the pot of time to give it a distinct flavor.
I, as a writer and folklore junkie, have long been fascinated by words, and particularly love words that related to weather. For years, I have only seen the word mizzling in the journal writings of Henry David Thoreau. But for our first book club selection of 2012, we read Will Ferguson’s Beyond Belfast, in which the term, or versions of it, appeared frequently. (The book describes Ferguson’s travels around Northern Ireland.) I understand from friends that it is used in Newfoundland as well.
Newfoundlanders, who live and work on, near, or under the often-heavy hand of weather, have a number of words and phrases describing the weather that are unique to the islanders. I have no information on the genesis of these words, but report them here for your enjoyment. Many are found in Dave Phillips’ book Blame It On The Weather.
cold, fresh weather
to shiver with cold
sudden lull in the wind
a short snow shower
dwigh, dwey or dwoy
sudden and brief rain or snow shower with strong wind
blowing in sudden gusts
sudden strong gusts on an otherwise calm day
oppressively hot and humid weather
a dying down of the wind
misk (or misky)
light rain or mist; or when vapour rising from the sea after a cold night
a mix of mist and drizzle
a sudden and brief rain or snow shower
numb with cold
a howling windstorm
uncertain, characterized by sudden scuds or gusts of wind
a wind name
ice broken into particles by surf
an ice storm’s deposit
when the ice melts
ice, newly frozen
a wind name
strong, winds over 37 km/h (23 mph)
strong southeasterly gales known for blowing trains off tracks and trucks off roads along the south coast of Newfoundland west of the Burin Peninsula, in the Codroy Valley
Hurricane Igor approaches Newfoundland Image Courtesy NASA
Great weather-related phrases from Newfoundlanders that are not single words and do not fit in as predictive weather lore also abound, including these gems:
“Praise the weather, when you're ashore.”
“White horses on the bay” (refers to waves breaking and forming foam on stormy days)
“Fair weather to you and snow to your heels.”
“It’s like sticking your head in a flour sack to get away from a tornado,” (describing a heavy snowstorm with strong winds).
Newfoundland Weather Lore
Living and working on the sea, Newfoundlanders are attuned to the changes and rages of the weather. As all mariners and fishermen, they use an empirical knowledge of local signs as well as traditional weather lore, to help them keep safe on the waters.
Many Newfoundland weather sayings are the traditional weather sayings of the British Isles from which their ancestral folk heritage arises, such as the popular Red Sky sayings. But Newfoundland weather is notoriously unpredictable and changes quickly. Therefore, other weather sayings are locally based, derived from years of weather observations from the land and the sea.
Some of the local weather lore are given below.
Brilliant Northern Lights foretell a fine day and then a storm.
Hoar frost in autumn is a sign of south wind and rain.
When goats come home from the hills, expect rain soon.
When distant hills appear near, rainy weather is coming.
Sea birds keeping near the land, / Tell a storm is near at hand. / But flying seaward out of sight, / you may stay and fish all night.
Trees laden with dogberries indicate a hard winter.
The Wreckhouse Winds
Finally, Newfoundland is the exclusive home to the Wreckhouse winds of which I wrote a large essay some time back. You can find it here. The following is based on a short piece I wrote for The Weather Notebook radio show some years ago.
In brief, Wreckhouse winds arise when strong southeasterly gales blow along the south coast of Newfoundland between Cape Ray and St. Andrew’s. Channelled between the Long Range Mountains, north of Port aux Basques, the downslope winds west of the range often rise to hurricane speeds as they stream through the valleys and gulches of the Codroy Valley below Table Mountain.
Wreckhouse Region of Southwestern Newfoundland
The full severity of these winds became apparent after the Newfoundland Railway was built through the region. During a January 1900 storm, vicious winds shoved an unsuspecting passenger train completely off the tracks. Though no lives were lost, all the mail and baggage were. With this incident, the winds gained a name, Wreckhouse, and became legendary.
Unable to reroute the rail line, the rail company hired a local trapper and farmer Lockie MacDougall in the 1930s to watch for the fierce winds. If Wreckhouse winds were blowing, he informed the nearby rail office to halt trains before they reach the Codroy Valley. But on one occasion, the conductor ignored Lockies advice, and the Wreckhouse blew twenty two railcars off the tracks.
Lockie continued at his post until his death in 1965, delaying hundreds of trains because of treacherous conditions. Eventually he became a folk hero, known as the human wind gauge.
Wreckhouse Region of Southwestern Newfoundland Photographs courtesy of Geological Survey of Canada, Natural Resources Canada
The railway no longer runs, and Lockie’s role has been replace by an automated anemometer. Instead, the Trans Canada Highway runs along much of Newfoundland’s west coast, including the Wreckhouse area. Each winter, drivers often delay their trip due to the winds rather than face the consequences of being blow off the roads.
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