Mackerel Skies and Mares’ Tails

Mackerel sky over Lincolnshire, England.

Mackerel sky over Lincolnshire, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is my column for the newspaper this week:

The weather seems to be a healthy topic of conversation lately in that most of us are questioning why we are only having spring-like weather instead of full-on spring. And today the weatherman said that it is more like February 1st than April 1st as it is only going up to 39 degrees Fahrenheit or what it is in Celsius—4 degrees?

I am going to be a bit of a devil’s advocate here, and say that while I am tired of donning coats and gloves, I have not needed boots or hats too much lately—and the big news is that I have been known to leave the gloves behind for short sojourns. And that is a first sign of the things to come. Over the weekend I wore spring coats and sweaters, but as the evening came on, I did shiver me timbers.

My husband, John, who loves, loves, loves Lee Valley Tools got to visit their London store on Thursday when he went to pick our youngest son, Tyler, up from college for the Easter weekend.  Tyler was not quite ready when his dad pulled into his driveway so he sent his father off happily to Lee Valley to give him more time to pack. Well, about an hour after sending his Dad off, Tyler called me, and lamented that he had sent his dad to his favourite store to kill some time, and he was not back yet. Big surprise! I have been to Lee Valley and Lowe’s and some other stores of that ilk with John, and I know what waiting is all about. What that man finds so fascinating at these stores totally eludes me, but that is fodder for another column.

While he was at Lee Valley he picked up a little pamphlet called ‘Weather: An Introduction to Clouds, Storms and Weather Patterns”. (See how I am coming back to the original topic at hand?) Now, on the surface this sounded a little too much like grade 6 geography class where we had to learn the names of the different clouds and air masses, and other things that are good to know, but boring to an eleven year old. There is a page in this multipage pamphlet that I found, while not exactly captivating, quite interesting. It listed several facts of weather lore, and what those traditional sayings mean. Some I had heard before, but many were new to me. See how many you are familiar with, and if you knew just exactly what the phrase really meant:

“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in morning, sailor take warning”. The explanation is that red sunsets are usually followed by dry nights. A red morning sky means rain is on the way. Now I knew this one as my husband likes to scuba dive, so this knowledge is pretty important if you are going to be out on the lakes.

“A sun-shiny shower, won’t last half an hour.” This apparently means that showers that happen while the sun shines are brief. Who knew?

“Mackerel sky and mares’ tails make tall ships carry low sails.” Never heard this one before, nor do I think I could decipher it—but it means that certain clouds are often followed by high winds. A mackerel sky and mares’ tails—does that mean that the clouds are shaped like fish and tails? This one is a little too opaque for me.

“Christmas on the balcony means Easter in the embers.” I like this one, but not necessarily its meaning, which is that if you have a warm Christmas, Easter will be cold.

“Squirrel’s tail fluffy, winter will be blustery.” This one is self-explanatory—even I got it. Another self-explanatory one is this: “Onion’s skin very thin, mild winter coming in. Onion skin’s thick and tough, coming winter cold and rough.” And still another that does not take a rocket scientist to understand it: “No weather is ill, if the wind be still.” Well, duh.

“A coming storm your shooting corns presage, and aches will throb, your hollow tooth will rage.” This sounds rather menacing—the explanation provided says that bad weather is brought on by a drop in atmospheric pressure; this can cause blood vessels to dilate, which aggravates sensitive nerves near irritated body parts.

And last, but not least: “When halo rings the moon or sun, rain’s approaching on the run.” Apparently halos around the sun or moon are caused by light reflecting off high altitude clouds of air crystals; this in turn is, is a precursor of rain at lower altitudes. Okay then, that is clear as mud.

There will be a test on these terms, so study up.  And don’t say I never taught you anything.

Bliss is learning now what I should have learned when I was 11. What do you think?

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  1. Some of these I was very familiar with having grown up in a sailing family, but others were totally new to me and very interesting! All I can say is that the one about aches and pains preceding a storm is 100% true. I could be a weather forecaster with my sinuses!! I have had a headache for 3 days straight, and this morning when I looked out the window my jaw dropped because it was snowing like crazy – almost whiteout conditions. So, I guess my 3 day, now working on 4 days, headache was truly trying to warn me. Good thing I can stay inside today and pretend that it’s still nice out like it was on Saturday :).

    • how miserable — I am sorry about your headaches– that darned weather! Eat chocolate–that is my cure for everything-Lou

      • Just had some chocolatey icecream :). Shhhh, don’t tell my hubby that I broke the diet today LOL!!

      • I won’t — I promise–now you have to make this week’s mystery photo easy

      • Ok, I’ll see what I can find :). Any suggestions? LOL!!

      • now that really would be cheating–though I would not be adverse to the lego blocks again (lol)

  2. Huh. My onions had thick skins this year – I guess I should have known it would be a long winter.

    It’s snowing and blowing here today. Fortunately it’s not staying – it melts as it falls. Still, I’d rather see rain at this point.

    We wouldn’t be as Canadian if we didnt talk about he weather so much..

    • that is so true–though it really does affect some of us a lot–my husband is not just a diver but a contractor so he has to constantly watch the weather

      • My husband used to have a contracting business too – you tend to pay close attention to the weather if you might end up on a roof that day. 🙂

      • so true — you do not want to be on a roof when it is either too hot or too cold or raining–or if you are me–at all

    • I think Canadians must have inherited their talent for talking about the weather from the English who talk of nothing else – no I lie, they also talk endlessly about which road or short cut you used to get here.
      Most of these sayings I grew up with in the English countryside…. including the one that if it rains on St Swithuns Day ( 15 July) it will rain for forty days.. but .I always forgot to count!

      • if I were you, I would wish with all my might that it not rain on July 15th
        it would not surprise me that we got our weather conversations from the English–many of us have more than a drop or two of English blood–I am English, Scottish, French and Irish

  3. I think Mom could tell the coming weather by her sinuses, couldn’t she? We had a mix bag of weather at the cottage….fog, rain, sleet, then glorious sunshine.

  4. Oh – so you weren’t paying attention during those lessons in school either 😉
    This winter stuff really needs to go away!

  5. I’ve always heard that when cows out in the pasture all lay down during the day it means rain.

    • add another one to my list – I have also heard it the leaves show their backsides we are in for a storm

  6. We also watch the wooly bears (caterpillars) to see the band colors as a determinant to how long the cold spells will be each winter. I’ve heard a few of these you listed before, but most were new to me.

  7. haha! I always felt so smart when helping my kids with their homework – it was as if the lightbulb was finally going off for me, thirty years later. “So, this is how you add fractions!” LOL!

    • my kids were in French immersion so it was hard to help them with their homework — that is my excuse and I am sticking to it–though I was good at editing their papers in high school when they were no longer immersed

  8. The only one I heard of before was the “Red skies at night.” I love how colloquial the expressions are. Thanks for the education. Will it be an open-book exam? I hope.

  9. Hubs knows a lot of those sayings, but he thinks our weird weather is related to chemtrails and all that stuff. As someone who studies weather a lot cos of his job, he doesn’t think it’s too outlandish that our weather is being engineered.

    • interesting concept– never thought of that–but he would certainly have a feel for it

  10. I think the weather all over the world in general has been a little wonky lately. Last week, I put away my heavy winter blanket, thinking it was finally going to get warmer. By the weekend, it was out again because the temperatures suddenly dipped and rain has been pouring down ever since. And I definitely learned something here! Explains why my knees tend to twinge (I injured it a few years ago…. otherwise, I don’t think I’m old enough for this yet 😉 ) when it gets cold.

    • injuries do act up in humid and wet weather even when you are young–what a bummer–I agree–weather over the weekend was nice and now it is cold again–when spring finally gets here we are going to welcome it with open arms

  11. Hmmm, I’m going to have to pay more attention to light refraction when attempting to photograph the moon and see if it connects to precipitation…good one! xoxoM

    • Oh, and I confess, I can actually see what lures your husband in: it’s the endless possibilities! xoxoM

    • it is wonderful to have provided a service –even if I am not sure of the service I provided (lol)

  12. The only one I knew was the red sky at night….. The rest were new to me…but as for your test….I’d flunk for sure….

    I really need the warmth and sunshine…(both)…. I’m certainly not a winter lover, but I do love where we live anyway…Diane

  13. i knew some-but i do agree, bliss is learning at our age what we could have learned at 11. it’s uplifting.


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