29 Jun 2010

Tam O' Shanter and The Brig O' Doon

You have to imagine it in the dead of night, the curve of the stone steady above the moving water, which unlaces the reflected shards of moonlight until they swim like the ghosts of fish. Blink once and they will be gone, blink again and a new school will have formed just a few feet away, swirling and diving, wild and joyful in the impossibility of their ever being caught.

Now hear the clop of the horse's hooves on the cobbles, the rattle of the bit in her mouth. See her hide shudder and the steam rise off her, and smell the combined waft of earth, hay, sweat and fear. Hear the manic cackle of a blood-thirsty witch, and see the bewildered look on the horse’s intoxicated rider, Tam O’ Shanter.

Heading home after a night of drink and debauchery, Tam is pursued by Nannie the witch. Tam and his trusty mare, Maggie, must reach the bridge’s peak, the point that marks the official crossing from one side of the river to the other. For it is widely know that witches and other evil spirits cannot follow their would-be victims past the middle of a running stream.

Of course they do make it, but not before poor Maggie loses some tail hairs to Nannie’s lunging grip.
There is such deep pleasure in being able to visit the very places that inspired some of Robert Burns’ greatest works. Located in the Alloway in Aryshire, where Burns was born, the famous Brig O’ Doon is such a romantic sight that it looks like something Burns drew from his mind and placed there in order to add drama to his tale.

I love Alloway so much that I am splitting my adventures there into more than one post. Thanks to Tam O Shanter, The Brig O’ Doon will never be seen as just another stone bridge. A little bit of magic happened here, and you cannot visit without walking up over the peak yourself, until you are across the water and safe from the spirits who might seek to follow you and do you harm.

If you are not content to see the bridge only by day, there is always the option of treating yourself to a stay at the stunning Brig O' Doon House Hotel, which is just up the road from the bridge. Then you really can go out by moonlight, look down at the rushing water, and play the story of Tam O’ Shanter over in your mind.
Ah, Tam! Ah, Tam! thou'll get thy fairin!
In hell, they'll roast thee like a herrin!
In vain thy Kate awaits thy comin!
Kate soon will be a woefu' woman!
Now, do thy speedy-utmost, Meg,
And win the key-stone o' the brig;
There, at them thou thy tail may toss,
A running stream they dare na cross.
But ere the keystane she could make,
The fient a tail she had to shake!
For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest,
And flew at Tam wi' furious ettle;
But little wist she Maggie's mettle!
Ae spring brought off her master hale,
But left behind her ain grey tail:
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.

Now, wha this tale o' truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother's son, take heed:
Whene'er to Drink you are inclin'd,
Or Cutty-sarks rin in your mind,
Think ye may buy the joys o'er dear;
Remember Tam o' Shanter's mare.

26 Jun 2010

Royal Highland Show 2010

“Ladies and gentlemen, here are your winners,” says the announcer, and a wave of applause sweeps through the audience that surrounds the arena. Bonzo the bull’s handler grins as he is congratulated by a member of Royal Highland and Agricultural Society.

Bonzo himself, whose team of British Limousins have taken first place in a mixed breed event, seems nonplussed. Later Bonzo will be seen napping in his pen while a huge fan endeavours to keep the champion cool.

I am sitting in my living room, still trying to decide between my favourite moments of the Royal Highland Show, which started on Thursday and finishes tomorrow. This was my first year visiting “the greatest show on earth” and despite reading about it beforehand I didn’t really know what to expect. Where I grew up every town had an autumn fair that included livestock events and baking contests, so I figured it would be like that, only bigger.

Not just bigger. It is enormous. It is so huge that despite having a map I still managed to get lost. Twice.

From fencing to fire pits, tractors to giant spare tyres, everywhere I went there were farming folks with serious expressions scrutinizing this bit of field equipment or that particular high speed drill. The smiles pasted on the salesmen’s faces revealed their hope that this would be the next big sale.
When I first arrived I headed straight towards the sheep pens, as my blogger friend Brenda had asked me to take a photo of the winning Bluefaced Leicesters. I have never seen so many different breeds of sheep in one area before, let alone so many that were beautifully groomed instead of their fleeces being flecked with mud.

For some time I was distracted by this charming fellow. Behold the incredible texture, colour and curl of his horns.
Eventually I found them, their red and blue ribbons posted above their pen. Here you are Brenda: the prize-winning Bluefaced Leicester ram. He seems shocked by his sudden rise to fame.
In the land of food, the name of the game seemed to be meat. Carved meat, meat on a roll, meat made into sausages, meat sold in packs at the food hall, demonstrations on how to best cut and cook meat.

However there was also plenty of cheese, seafood, and heaps of other goodies on offer in the main food tent, which was so busy it was a trial just to get through the place, let alone sample anything.

I did manage to buy myself a small block of Loch Arthur Creamery’s award winning Criffel cheese, which is velvety smooth and flavourful and goes perfectly with oatcakes.
But my foodie highlight of the day was far from the food hall, way on the west side of the event grounds. Traditional Arbroath smokies were being made right there, smoke pluming through the burlap that covered the fish, which were hanging on poles in stout wooden barrels.

Of course I had to have one, thus marking off one more thing on my Scottish “to do” list, as this was my very first Arbroath Smokie ever. Oh it was goood…moist and flaky and rich: the perfect outdoor event food because it is wholesome but also feels like a special treat.
No matter where I wandered, I kept being drawn back towards the arena where the cows and bulls were being shown. The size of the bulls is shocking and they are incredible to watch, their deeply muscled forms lumbering behind their handlers as they are led past the judges. Perhaps it is because I am a Taurus, but these bulls were my favourite animals of the day. And of course, no trip to a Scottish agricultural show would be complete without the iconic Hielan’ Coos.
Now it’s time for the weird photo of the day! I had the zoom lens on my camera and snapped one of the judges who happened to be carrying around toothpaste and a toothbrush in his sock. Caption ideas anyone?
I took nearly 200 photos today but I shall show you just one more. It is not the strongest photo but I think it is my favourite. The Clydsdale owners were all getting their horses ready to show, brushing their hair and adding adornments to their manes and tails, and I got this shot of a woman tending to her horse. She was tidying the hair in front of his eyes and speaking tenderly to him, while he nibbled gently on the back of her hand.
Such a simple, precious communication, which to me signifies the depth of concern the farmers take with the animals in their care.

As a participant, winning a ribbon is wonderful because it means accolades from your peers and positive advertising for your business. But a ribbon won on a single day demonstrates only a fragment of the time, effort and love that has gone into ensuring that animal’s health and wellbeing. They don’t make a ribbon big or shiny enough for that.

Want to learn more about The Royal Highland Show? Visit the Web site and become a friend for free to be added to their mailing list.

25 Jun 2010

A footstompin' CD winner

Thank you everyone who took part in my CD giveaway. I hope you got a chance to listen to some of Duncan Chisholm's music and revel in those wonderful slow airs.

This morning I closed my eyes and swirled my hand around the hat of treats. The name that I plucked out is Anne Velosa! Congratulations to Anne, who is a fan of the Footstompin' podcast, and lists The Peatbog Faeries and Folktopia among her favourite Scottish folk music artists.

I am already excited about next month's giveaway, as I have my first Scottish giveaway sponsor!

23 Jun 2010

The elaborate sanctuary of Sir Walter Scott

“It may be pertinacity, but to my eye, these grey hills, and all this wild border country, have beauties peculiar to themselves. I like the very nakedness of the land; it has something bold, and stern, and solitary about it. When I have been for some time in the rich scenery about Edinburgh, which is like ornamented garden land, I begin to wish myself back again among my own honest grey hills; and if I did not see the heather at least once a year, I think I should die!”

        -Sir Walter Scott, as recorded by Washington Irving in 1817 (A Ramble with Sir Walter Scott).

It is 1832, and a team of horses is drawing a coffin containing the body of Sir Water Scott toward Dryburgh Abbey. They reach the crest of a hill, from which there is a commanding view over the surrounding countryside. Without prompting, the horses pause.

They pause because this is where Scott had always allowed them to stop and rest while he had gazed out over the hills and his beloved River Tweed. Such a simple moment, born out of routine, but a moment that provides an intimate glimpse into the depth of Scott’s attachment to the Scottish borders.

“Clausus tutus ero” is Latin for “I am safe when I am enclosed.” This is the motto of Abbotsford, Scott’s home and labour of love from the day he bought it in 1811 to the day he died, his bed having been moved into the dining room so he could look out over the Tweed and hear the sound of the water brushing the banks.

It is safe to say that there was no man as influential in establishing the story of Scotland than Walter Scott. Scott was a proud collector of artefacts that supported a romanticised image of Scotland and the “noble savages” of the Highlands. The entrance porch of Abbotsford House was built to resemble the one in Linlithgow Palace, while the ceiling in Scott’s library copies the one from Rosslyn Chapel.

Scott’s vast collection of beautiful items includes Napoleon’s pen case and a clock that is said to have belonged to Marie Antoinette. The armoury contains both Rob Roy’s broadsword and rifle, as well as his sporran.

On one wall hangs a set of dark, heavy keys that are reputedly from Loch Leven Castle, and in another room there is a lock of Prince Charlie’s hair. Sitting in Scott’s personal study, which contains the desk where he did much of his writing, is the Robroyston chair, made from the roof timber of the building in which William Wallace was betrayed and captured.

Not all of the items Scott collected belonged to famous people. One of the most remarkable items on display at Abbotsford is a small crumbling piece of oatcake, drawn from the sporran of a Highlander who was killed at the battle of Culloden.
When the stock exchange in London crashed in December of 1825, Scott, who had been one of the wealthiest writers who had ever lived, was suddenly plunged into a quagmire of debt.

Not wishing to give up his home, Scott struck a deal to write himself out of debt. Thus began six years of relentless creative output, during which time he earned great sums to appease his creditors but which in the end also caused the decline of his health and ultimately led to his death at the age of 61.

Today the estate is run by The Abbotsford Trust. Along with keeping the grounds immaculately groomed and preserving the many historical artefacts, the trust diligently maintains the ambience of the home as Scott would have designed it. For example, the 9,000 books in the library are arranged in the order that Scott left them more than 170 years ago.
Abbotsford House is a love letter to Scotland built from stone. So much of Scott’s passion for Scotland and especially the borders, went into the decoration of the rooms and the display of his many historical treasures. As a visitor, it is impossible to stand in the dining room and look out at the same view that Scott would have seen during his final days, and not feel surrounded by his great adoration for this place.
Take your time when you visit. Take time especially to walk down to the river and just sit and watch the water, listen to the gentle hiss and burble of it over rocks and earth. When you turn you will see the tree branches framing your view of Abbotsford House, which stands steadfast and lonely, as if it has been waiting all these years for him to come home.
*All photos included of the interior of Abbotsford House have been graciously provided by the Abbotsford Trust. Click here to visit the official Web site of Abbotsford House.

21 Jun 2010

Happy happy solstice

Do you remember a few weeks ago I wrote that within a month the flowers and plants that line the paths through the walled gardens at Culzean Castle would be waist high?

It is true. This is how the gardens look at high summer. A big solstice squeeze for lovers of beautiful Scotland. Have a wonderful day.

20 Jun 2010

CD giveaway: Canaich by Duncan Chisholm

I remember the first time I heard music by fiddler Duncan Chisholm. It was a single song that featured on one of Songlines Magazine’s “Top of the World” compilations. At the time they were marking the release of his album Farrar, and the song they chose to feature was Lorient Mornings.

I thought I had never heard anything so beautiful. There is something about the way he plays, with long sweeping notes and these tiny pauses that are like catching your breath when you happen upon a remarkable scene.

There is landscape in his playing. I have always been fond of music which seems to still have earth clinging to it, like the sounds have been pulled from the ground fully formed and are then simply released through the voice or hands of the artist.

Ever since Farrar (which of course I ran out and bought straight away) I have waited for Duncan’s next album to come out, checking his Web site every few months for news.

Canaich is the second in a trilogy of albums Duncan is working through. I have listened to it so many times now that I am just as attached to it as I am to Farrar, from the gentle ache that opens with I Horo’s Na Hug Oro Eile, to the wild elation of a new father in Isaac’s Welcome to the World.

My heart lives with track number 9, a medley of three songs: Caoineadh Johnny Sheain Jeaic (lament for Johnny Mac Donncha), Lorient Mornings and Illean Aigh. There is a story being told here, of love and loss and gentle gratitude for the joyful moments.

The shift from the first song to Lorient moments happens around the five minute mark, with rain drops of piano music. No matter what I am doing, I find I have to stop and look at the stereo. Everything falls into Illean Aigh, the sound of the fiddle swaying like a boat over waves, steered by a man searching for something unnamed among the sea lochs.
The laments are offset with lively tracks that bring back a whirling “spring will come” positivity, and I challenge you to try to make it through The Head Roaster and The Last Miles without tapping your foot.

Canaich is set for general UK and Itunes release 21 June. I have checked Duncan’s Myspace page and there aren’t any samples of the new album up yet, but listening to the tracks there will give you a good sense of his style. You can also order the CD or listen to tracks on Duncan’s Web site.

When I am passionate about something the first thing I want to do is share it, which is why I am bursting with excitement to give away one copy of Canaich.

To enter, leave a comment below about your experience with Scottish folk music. When was your first introduction to it, or how does it influence you?

If you do not have a blog to link back to, you can enter by emailing me at scotland4thesenses@gmail.com and including “Canaich CD” in the subject line.

Winners of last month’s Scottish Breakfast Tea giveaway will need to sit this one out, but do visit Duncan’s Web site and give his music a listen, and be sure to join in again for July’s giveaway.

The deadline to enter will be Thursday, 24 June. I shall pluck the name from the hat of treats on Friday and run to the post office on Saturday morning!

****This giveaway has now ended. Congratulations Anne!****

18 Jun 2010

Ink and images: Robert Smail's legacy

I was not firing on all cylinders the day I visited Robert Smail’s Printing Works in Innerleithen. Perhaps this had something to do with the fact that prior to joining the tour I had skipped breakfast and spent most of the morning walking the hills.

Led by costumed tour guides playing characters from Victorian times, I wandered, slightly dazed, over the wooden floorboards, through the room where the waterwheel once churned power for the machinery, and upstairs to the caseroom, where the air hung thick with the tang of eau du ink and wrought iron. This was my favourite room. I loved the light and airy feel of the place, despite knowing that when it was still in use, it would have been cold, drafty and lit by oil lamps.

Modern living sometimes makes us forget the countless small details that go into creating a finished product. The caseroom is a shrine to detail. What initially can be perceived as clutter is actually the meticulous filing of thousands of metal cases, each carved with a tiny letter or number.

This is moveable type, in which the cases are stacked one by one to form words and sentences, with separate cases for gaps and punctuation. When they are all loaded and crammed into a form so they do not shift or fall out, the ink roller is swept over the top, making a sound like a strip of wet Velcro being peeled away.

An aloof looking eagle sits atop the ornate manual printing press, which glides smoothly on rollers to and from its destiny of transferring ideas onto what were once unassuming blank sheets of paper. Words in print. It is still magic.

Throughout the tour my attention was drawn by the numerous photographs hanging on the walls. Along with running the family's successful printing business,  Robert Smail was a keen photographer and with his trusty bellows camera, gathered hundreds of images of local scenes and people. One of the museum staff members said they still have many of Smail’s original plate glass negatives.

They are remarkable photographs, simple but capturing the intricate character of the people and landscape of Innerleithen. I took photos of two of the photos, but the reflection of the glass made it difficult and these shots do not do justice to the story Smail’s images tell.
The printing works is run by the National Trust for Scotland and is open from April to October. Even if you have no interest in Victorian era printing technology, the property is worth a visit just to see these photographs. I may have been too tired to make the most of other elements of the tour that day, but since my visit I have often thought of these photos. If ever a book of Smail’s photographs is published, I shall be among the first in line to buy a copy.
Thank you for visiting my blog today. I have a surprise banoffee curd update. Having read of my regret for not having purchased a jar of Baxters banoffee curd when I had the chance, my friend Alison (also known around Edinburgh as “Miss Spotlight”) was at Ocean Terminal recently and very kindly bought me a jar.
It is…delicious. Thicker than I thought it would be but so smooth and rich, a perfect mingling of banana and toffee. Sweet. Very sweet. So sweet that if you eat half the jar in one sitting, it will feel like your teeth are disintegrating (Not that I would know anything about this). I have this great idea to make profiteroles filled with banoffee curd and cream, and doused thoroughly in chocolate. I would call them Banoffee Diabetes Balls.

It’s a good thing my veggie box from East Coast Organics was delivered this week. I can offset today’s overindulgence with a weekend of green goodness.

15 Jun 2010

A very Scottish...curry

Many years ago, when the idea of moving to Scotland was still lurking behind an penchant for Celtic music and British telly, I was an English literature major at the University of British Columbia.

One professor, whose name I cannot recall, possessed a deep monotone voice that was fed by one of those English accents you would expect to hear in an old fashioned gentleman’s club. Only once did he speak of British food. Slowly, pausing periodically for effect, this is what he said:

“The food in Britain…as you know…is terrible. If you can avoid eating while you are there…do. Unless of course…you are having a curry.”

Now obviously I don’t agree that the food in Britain is terrible, but I do agree that the curries are spectacular. There is a world of flavour waiting to appeal to every palate, from mellow kormas to taste bud busting vindaloos.

By far the most popular curry in Scotland (and the rest of Britain) is the Chicken Tikka Masala. Last year Glasgow City Council backed an MP’s bid for Glasgow to be officially recognized by the EU as the home of the famous dish.

Just as Vancouver is recognized as one of the best places in the world to eat Chinese and Japanese food, so it is with Scotland and curry. When you come to Scotland, don’t miss a chance to try some of the best Indian food outside of India itself.

Today marks The Scottish Love Curry Awards 2010, and to celebrate I have made the famous Chicken Tikka Masala, using a recipe I gleaned from the internet.

Behold the ingredients for the marinade, which consists of lemon juice, a teaspoon of crushed garlic and ginger, a generous blob of plain yoghurt, and a teaspoon each of chilli, cumin and coriander.
Go slow. Curry responds well to letting spices mingle, so let the marinade-covered chicken (cut into bits) sit in the fridge overnight.

A chopped onion, some more ginger and garlic, as well as more cumin, coriander and chilli are fried up and some tomato puree is tossed in before the chicken. Oh the beauty of it when the mixed spices start to heat and the scent blooms from the pan. The cream is added last, and the whole thing is served with rice (and a sprinkling of fresh coriander over top, if you fancy it).
There are many recipes on the web. Some call for ghee, which adds another dimension of (calorie dense) flavour to things.

Can’t get enough Scottish curry? A few extra links for curry lovers:

Check in with the Scottish Love Curry Awards to see who came top this year.

Based in the Highlands, Caledonian Curry has created some wild and wonderful sauces. With names like “The Kilt Lifter,” “The Sporran Splitter,” and “After Burns,” you know you’re in for an adventure.

Follow the exploits of Trampy and the Tramp’s Glasgow of Curry. Worth a read: their interview with Scot Shaw about his attempt to take on Scotland’s hottest curry at Kismot in Edinburgh.

What is your favourite curry?

13 Jun 2010

Baxters in the Borders: a foodie's regret

If I am lucky enough to be travelling through the Scottish Borders and I am near the town of Selkirk, I cannot pass up the opportunity to stop in at the Baxters shop.

Baxters has been around in Scotland since 1868 and has several shops around Scotland, but I love this one (just off the A7) because it is like walking into a foodie’s daydream.

The well-lit open plan space includes a section on the left that is dedicated to cookware, although admittedly I do little more than let my eyes pan quickly past so I can focus on everything located to the right, namely the food.

Cunningly, there are samples of various dips set up near the entrance, making it difficult to move past the chipotle, bean and chilli chutney without picking up a jar.
I am a danger to myself and others in this shop. Shelves of biscuits and traditional fudge, a deli with cheeses and handmade chocolates, posh crisps and shelf after shelf of pretty jars of preserves.

When you have tired of samples you can wander into the attached café and gaze at the gargantuan desserts behind the glass. Unfortunately I cannot recommend the steak sandwich. Go for the giant scone - I wish I had.
Here is where the regret comes in. I gleefully oggled the jars of banoffee curd, imagining the creamy gooey toffee and banana goodness inside, but in the end I did not buy one. Now if I want one I will have to take the bus all the way to Ocean Terminal to buy it. I know, I know - the trauma. But it’s my blog - don’t mock my pain!
Most people know Baxters because of their soups, but they make truly delightful chutneys and jams as well. I am sure the banoffee curd is also worth swooning over. When I finally do latch onto a jar, I shall let you know.

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