29 Jul 2009

Inside the limestone belly of Smoo Cave

For thousands of years, a snake-like inlet has allowed the sea to dig away at one side of a limestone cliff, while a burn has licked through from the other direction. The resulting gap resembles a frozen, malformed mouth, the kind your mother used to threaten you would end up with if you kept on pulling those ridiculous faces.

Approaching Smoo Cave at ground level, the rugged ring of masonry circles only blackness. Walking inside could mean being swallowed, taken through a veil into another, decidedly more dreadful world.
The small plants that clamour over the mounds of earth just inside the entrance seem to glow, a heavy undertone of yellow pulsing through the green like a greeting card from photosynthesis. The green on the inside walls casts a different, slightly sickly radiance, reminiscent of kind of damp underworld Gollum would call home.
Deeper inside, a waterfall collapses from a hole in the roof into a dark pool. Far from a sense of gentle reprieve, you feel a desperate urge to find a small boat and head as deep as possible into the cave. It doesn’t matter that others have been before. You are sure that there is something in there, something only you will be able to glimpse.
Taking history into account, this is the perfect place to haul up with a load of contraband whisky. The ideal spot to lure an enemy, to duck inside one of the smaller inner chambers and wait, breath held in your throat, for the footsteps that will tell you when to strike. A formidable place for a brave soul to endure a solitary standoff against the devil himself, the breaking dawn striking the final blow against evil. Imagine how such a story would relay to eager ears. After all, what gruesome tongue might loll between those stony lips?
And what would it say, if that great mouth could speak? Legend has it that a 16th century highwayman had a taste for throwing his victims down the blowhole of the cave. A good rain and a strong enough tide could have washed them away to sea. Today tourists stand near where he would have, a warning sign clarifying the dim prospects gravity.
Smoo cave welcomes thousands of visitors every year. There are practical information signboards and sturdy wooden walkways. On dry days it is even the possible to hop into a dingy and be toured past the waterfall into the darkest part of the chamber.

Despite these modern realities, the long passageway that the tide follows into the cave could be the aisle up which mermaid brides swim to meet their grooms. Each full moon, a ghostly cargo ship could appear on the horizon, barrels of liquid gold ready to be unloaded. And when the clouds sweep over and the storm takes hold, there is the highwayman, held by the wind a few feet below the cliff edge, forever falling.

26 Jul 2009

The Gathering 2009

A long post to share some of the photos from yesterday's visit to The Gathering in Holyrood Park. I can't believe I was able to just leave my flat and walk to an event like this, when so many people have flown thousands of miles to attend.

Yes, it was crowded and it was almost impossible to get anywhere near the highland games area or into the acoustic music and "Taste of Scotland" tents, but I didn't really mind. A sense of gratitude pulsed through the air and people glowed with smiles when I asked to take their photos. It was one of the best afternoons out I have had in some time and I am so glad I went.

The Gathering is part of Homecoming Scotland, which is hosting events all year to celebrate Robert Burns' 250th birthday.

25 Jul 2009

The many lives of Argyll's Lodging

The exterior of Argyll’s Lodging is a faded pink, making it look like one of Barbie’s mansions. It is hard to imagine the deep red and embossed gold that would have bloomed over the outer walls, turning the courtyard into a walk of wonder for 17th century visitors.

At that time, social standing was all about intimidation. Astound your guests with colour so they could see how rich you were. Ensure they would be suitably humbled by the time they were led from the lower hall and up the broad, grandiose wooden staircase into the room where you sat, dynamic and desperately important, surrounded by the best of everything.
A visit to Argyll’s Lodging is free with the cost of entry to Stirling Castle, and while the home was once open for ticket holders to wander through freely, now it can only be visited with a guide, so it is necessary to sign up for one of the multiple tours leaving from the castle drawbridge each day.

The home has changed hands many times, but its most famous owners were Archibald Campbell, the 9th Earl of Argyll, and his wife, Anna.

Since their time the house has been used as a hospital during the war, and later as one of the most splendid youth hostels imaginable. Historic Scotland have now taken over the property and have attempted to give some semblance of what the house would have been like during the Argyll’s tenure.

After making it through the grandeur of the courtyard, the first floor of the town house would have been the least impressive. The kitchens were downstairs, as well as a long hall that would have been used as the servant’s dining area.

Despite the simplicity of the rooms, the cool, white washed walls of the kitchens and the warm tones of the wooden tables and earthenware bowls make them dreamy spaces for any cook.

It is upstairs where things would have been truly marvellous. The High Dining Room would have been resplendent with paintings, the ornately carved fireplace gleaming with bright colours as the flames pulsed with a wealth of warmth.

Do come in...

Like the building’s exterior, the walls and the fireplace are now faded, the swirling gold leaf still glowing faintly. Above the heavy door that leads to dining room are the pale words from the war, marking it as a hospital ward.

Moving into the inner chambers, it is immediately apparent that Archibald Campbell was a great believer in purple. In the 1600’s, purple was the most expensive dye around, and was the ultimate “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” shade to drape around your bedroom and even your toilet (well, not really a toilet. More like a top-of-the-range pot).

I admit, I coveted the four poster bed so much, it still makes me squirm with envy.
There is one last thing. When I was there, our tour guide Sandy refused to linger long in the bedroom. The chair under the window made him nervous, he said. Several times, he had closed up the empty house in the evening and had been the first one to unlock it the next morning, only to find the chair on the other side of the room.
While I would love to snap my fingers and see this house in its full splendour again, it is still a wondrous place, full of quaint intrigue. If you are in Stirling, it would be a tragedy to miss it.

23 Jul 2009


Near Skeabost on the Isle of Skye, this beautiful river flows over dark stones and eventually out into the bay.

After rushing through a steep narrow section, the river opens out into a large pool, which swirls like a full belly before allowing the water to continue its journey. The bright yellow flowers of Scotch broom line the banks, framing the idyllic country scene.

It is all so calm and peaceful. But this is Scotland, where history is often something that seems to happen to people. When they are in castles and they pass through a cold draft, or when they are walking in a glen and get an eerie feeling in the shadow of an oak tree.

Sometimes all it takes is the trigger of knowledge:
Suddenly a ghostly film is pulled over the landscape and you are swept backwards nearly 500 years . Your eyes perceive the shape of things that happened, the outline of events that have never left the consciousness of this small country. It is a strange, in-between space, where the stories themselves seem to be scratching at the dirt, vying to make themselves flesh.

21 Jul 2009

Chasing the storm at Ardvreck Castle

Sometimes in Scotland, you have to run to catch the sky. Even in the summer the clouds can sweep up over the horizon and cover the landscape in minutes. For photographers, every shift can be a missed opportunity.

Oh the agony, waiting for the clutch of visitors to move away from the castle so I could get a clear shot with the bulging clouds behind it. The road that now winds behind old Calda house, a roofless ruin of what had once been a 14-room manor, looks sturdy and reassuring as the wind picks up and the darkness soars over the surface of Loch Assynt. Without the road, the possibility of escape would seem to evaporate.
There is time yet to get to the other side, to catch the violence and the beauty of the storm’s black veil, and the rainbow that grows from two mounds of green on either side of the castle. The single stony spike seems to point accusingly at the belly of the rainbow, like a warning not to trust something simply because it looks inviting.

You see, James Graham, the 1st Marqess of Montrose, knocked on the door of this castle on 25 April, 1650. Charles I was already dead, but James had continued the fight for the royalist cause and had lost his most recent battle. Her husband away, Christine Macleod, wife of Neil Macleod of Assynt, opened the doors of Ardvreck Castle to the desperate James.

I wonder if she smiled as she led him to the dungeon. I wonder what she told him to make him think he was going somewhere safe. And I wonder what went through his mind the moment he realized he had been tricked. She locked him in there and sent for troops, who flung him off to Edinburgh. Less than a month later, he was executed.

Transfixed by the sight of the rainbow against the storm, I stay until the drops begin to pelt me and the wind pushes into my ears like fork tongs trying to scramble my brains. I thrust my camera back into my bag and run for the car, so grateful for the road that will see us away to safety.

20 Jul 2009

Cookbook winner is fusion food lover


I have good news and I have bad news. The bad news first. My beloved Scotsman is at this moment stranded in his broken-down car at the side of the motorway.

Obviously this means that he is unable to be here to draw the name out of the hat. Stupid cars, making me worried and stressed.


The GOOD news is that I have drawn the name myself. The winner is Pyzahn, who I hope will be inspired by Sue Lawrence's book to create some fine Italian/Scottish fusion dishes.

Giveaways are fun. I love sending things. All comments on giveaway posts will be treated as entries, except for JP (sorry, honey) and the winner from the month before.

August's goodies will focus on the sound of Scotland. Bagpipe lovers, get ready.

12 Jul 2009

Haggis Lasagne and a Lovely Giveaway

Since moving to Scotland my favourite cookery writer has been Sue Larwence. What I love most about her books is how she doesn’t just share recipes, she shares stories. She travels Scotland writing down why the folks of St. Kildan would boil a puffin in their porridge for flavour, or how Isle of Mull Cheddar is made from Friesian-cross Brown Swiss cows, is unpasteurised and most importantly, is matured for at least 10 months.

My favourite of her books, A Cook’s Tour of Scotland: From Barra to Brora in 120 Recipes, is divided into sections that are dedicated to the many gastronomic foundations for which Scotland is known. This list includes but is not limited to: Venison, Lamb, Salmon, Lobster and Crab, Haddock and Herring, Black Pudding, Kale, Potatoes, Bacon, Seaweed, Oats, Barley, Raspberries, Honey and Cream.

And of course…Haggis.

It is true that haggis is not for everyone. However, it remains the single food tourists seem to be required to sample while they are here. I won’t go into how it’s made, because you can look that up if you are brave enough. I will say however that the trick to enjoying haggis, like with any food, is quality.

Good company always helps as well. Like the North American tradition of cooking a Thanksgiving turkey each autumn, the day on which practically every household in Scotland cooks haggis is 25 January, also known as Robert Burns Night. I lived for a year in the freezing northeast of British Columbia, but come late January, there was a community Burn’s Supper. There was even a piper. True he was the only one in a several hundred mile radius, but it was, after all, the middle of nowhere. Scottish culture is nothing if not far reaching.

Despite the tradition of serving Scotland’s national dish with “neeps and tatties” (ie: turnips and potatoes), there is no culinary law requiring you to stick with these as side dishes. One of the best meals I’ve ever had was a breast of chicken stuffed with haggis, in a whisky cream sauce. I have also seen haggis done in fantastic little crunchy filo parcels.

One of my most beloved of Lawrence’s recipes is that for Haggis Lasagne. In fact, I have only just finished making enough Haggis Lasagne for 20 people, which I will take to work with me tomorrow for my colleagues to devour.

As usual, one must start with a haggis. I used Simon Howie’s, as it’s lovely and dark and has a good peppery flavour.

Like many of Lawrence’s recipes, this one is very simple and does not call for many ingredients. The haggis is cooked according to directions (I wrapped mine in foil and boiled it for 45 minutes), then cut open and some is crumbled on the bottom of a buttered baking dish. The haggis and lasagne are layered, along with a single layer of cut tomatoes.
A final layer of haggis and lasagne, then the whole thing is drowned in a white sauce made with butter, flour and milk. Finally, it is sprinkled with parmesan and drizzled with olive oil and baked for an hour. Ta-da:
If you haven’t realized already, I should note that as with many Scottish foods, it does feel a bit like a heart attack on a plate. Best eaten occasionally, with a big salad.

Perhaps I could have chosen a different recipe from Sue’s book. The Shortbread Toffee Crumble Ice Cream Bars tend to catch people’s attention. Then there are two versions of Orkney Fudge Cheesecake. Or Porridge Scones with Cream and Brown Sugar.

All the same, one lucky person can try them all, as I have a copy of A Cook’s Tour of Scotland to give away!

This wonderful book is perfect for anyone who not only loves to cook, but also enjoys hearing the stories behind a nation’s favourite foods. There are some beautiful old black and white photos from the author’s childhood as well (including a charming shot of her holding two ice cream cones and grinning like there is no tomorrow).

If you would like to be included in this draw, just leave a comment below. Yes, I do airmail! If you don’t have a blog to link to but would still like to enter, please email me your name to scotland4thesenses@googlemail.com and include “Mmmm…haggis” in the subject line. The only person not eligible for this month’s giveaway is last month’s winner (sorry, Marcheline! Hope you are enjoying your whisky treats).

I’ll leave this open for a week, and make the deadline to get your name in Sunday 19 July. On the Monday I’ll ask my beloved Scotsman to fish out the name from the hat, after which I shall contact the winner to get address details. Easy peasy, lemon Squeezy!

Until then, happy cooking…

**This giveaway has now ended. Congratulations Pyzahn for winning the cookbook.***

11 Jul 2009

A road for motorcyclists

Driving in the northwest of Scotland toward Ullapool, we descended into this valley. I could only think of my friends who ride motorcycles, and how they would love this.

9 Jul 2009

How to be Swedish in Scotland

When the day arrives that you visit Edinburgh (and that day will arrive, lest you be haunted by these cobbled streets and gorgeous stones forever), then you should chose a bright afternoon to walk down to The Meadows.

If you take aim from George IV Bridge, that means that just before you arrive at the wide, beautiful park with its tree-lined paths, you will see a take-away coffee cart. Ignore the take-away coffee cart. Then you will see a Starbucks. Definitely ignore the Starbucks. Just a little further and there you will be, at Peter's Yard, one of the finest bakeries in the city.

Everything here is just so...good. The food, even the coffee, seems to have been crafted. Here the spirit of culinary alchemy is alive and well, and deserving of your affections.

I have not tried everything they have to offer, but I can, with lurching sensual desire, recommend the chocolate mousse.
On a fine day this is one of the best places in Edinburgh to sit outside and watch the people wander or cycle past. On a rainy day, the open, light space inside the cafe will hold you in warmth for hours. Glance up from your book to let your eyes peruse the shelf of single-source chocolate, then reach slowly for the bowl-like mug that holds your cooling mocha. Your fork punches through flaky pastry, through poached pear and into almond paste. Your mouth becomes a hammock for a commune of flavours.A lingering afternoon visit to Peter's Yard will (and I say this with the utmost confidence, built from intimate knowledge) precede several hours of faraway glances, crooked grins and languid, contented sighs. So when you visit Edinburgh, which you know you will, you should chose a bright day and take a walk down to The Meadows. Just make sure you call me first...

  © Blogger template 'Isolation' by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP