The search for warmth as winter takes hold

When Matchgirl and I made our vows twelve weeks ago in a whirl of tartan and ivory satin I didn’t gain just a wife and a cat – a rustic Black Isle cottage and all the problems associated with ownership was part of the deal.

There’d been other possibilities. We’d considered staying at my much more modern Maryburgh semi, and we’d even thought of selling our properties and buying something new to both of us, but Matchgirl’s Rural Retreat is so comfortable and so filled with character that the decision made itself. The antique plumbing, the lack of cupboard space, the poor drainage and the resident mouse population all add to that character.

Prominent among the cottage’s charms is a venerable oil-fired Rayburn range that provides central heating and hot water, neither in much abundance. Its days as a cooker are long gone because the reek of oil which fills its interior and occasionally pervades the kitchen would be unlikely to enhance any dish it was used to produce. The great god Google tells us that this model of Rayburn was sold from 1971. Ours, I suspect, was one of the first.

Now winter is upon us an open fire supplements the meagre warmth of the central heating radiators. Despite that, Matchgirl often spends her evening swathed in a blanket, dreaming of summer (when she’s still cold, but that’s women for you). A new Rayburn, which costs the same as a medium-sized car, has been ruled out; refurbishment of the existing range has been considered but competent engineers can’t be found in the Highlands. Matchgirl, however, has the answer – a wood-burning stove.

This idea has much to commend it: modern stove technology is advanced, we have a fireplace and hearth well suited to installation of a stove, and Mr Moneybags has half a forest chopped up, neatly stacked and left unguarded and apparently forgotten outside a tumbledown steading a short distance from The Rural Retreat.

A recent tour of Inverness’s heating and fireplace establishments garnered a stack of glossy brochures, most of them aimed at the upmarket big-earners who own a polished 4x4 and a place in the country. They feature soft-focus landscapes and page after page of pristine stoves, with inspiring names such as Brunel and Rangemaster, pictured in cavernous inglenooks and cream-carpeted drawing rooms. Alongside the stoves are incredibly tidy log receptacles. Mud, ash, twigs and leaves make no appearance. We were sold.

It’s unfortunate that soaring fuel and power costs mean that many other people are also in the market for wood-burning stoves. Business is booming for their salesman and installation engineers so there was little urgency in the response of Mr Blaze when I phoned to ask him to visit and advise us of our options. He’d look in his diary and get back to me, I was told. Three days later he phoned back to check our address. We’ll hear from him again when he has enough potential clients in the area to make a visitation worth the effort. Stove salesmen have taken the place of builders in the post-credit crunch world.

In the meantime we’re still not ruled out refurbishing the Rayburn, if we can find someone with the necessary skills, and the merry blaze of an open fire is a cheerful sight in the evening, as is Matchgirl’s colourful blanket and hot water bottle. What’s more, a new blanket will make a fine Christmas gift from a thoughtful new husband. Who says romance is dead?

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