“Brother, let us breakfast in Scotland …”

While looking for what Dr Johnson had said about Scottish breakfasts, I came across this quote from Henry Kingsley, brother of the more famous Charles Kingsley who wrote The Water Babies: “Brother, let us breakfast in Scotland, lunch in Australia and dine in Paris”. After failing to graduate from Oxford, Henry went to Australia where he started writing, dug for gold and joined the mounted police, before returning to the UK and moving to Edinburgh where he was briefly the editor of a paper called the Daily Review. I found Kingsley’s quote in my now well-thumbed copy of The Scots Kitchen by F Marion McNeill, just under the following Johnson quote which I’d had in mind: “In the breakfast, the Scots, whether of the Lowlands or mountains, must be confessed to excel us. The tea and coffee are accompanied not only with butter, but with honey, conserves and marmalades. If an epicure could remove by a wish in quest of sensual gratification, wherever he had supped, he would breakfast in Scotland.”

James Boswell was Johnson’s travelling companion on a Hebridean tour in 1773 (see also Oats: still supporting the people) and he wrote an account of a breakfast in Raasay House on 9 September: “After a most comfortable sleep, I had goat’s whey brought to my bedside. Then rose and partook of an excellent breakfast: as good chocolate as I ever tasted, tea, bread and butter, marmalade and jelly. There was no loaf-bread, but very good scones, or cakes of flour baked with butter. There was a plate of butter and curd mixed which they call gruitheam; cakes of what is called graddaned meal, that is meal made of grain separated from the husks, and toasted by fire, in place of being threshed and kiln-dried ……….. There were also barley-bannocks of this year’s meal, and – what I cannot help disliking to have at breakfast – cheese. It is the custom over all the Highlands to have it; and it often smells very strong, and poisons to a certain degree the elegance of an Indian breakfast.”

Boswell went stravaiging over the island during their four-night stay as I suppose he was younger and fitter than Dr Johnson and he recounts several times what he was eating and drinking, not only in the Macleod laird’s house but also in the other houses he visited. Dr Johnson’s final paragraph about their Raasay visit begins: “Raasay has little that can detain a traveller, except the Laird and his family” whereas Boswell’s contains the sentence: “I confess I felt some pain in leaving Raasay.” They took their Sabbath-breaking leave on Sunday 12 September and went off to visit Flora Macdonald by way of Portree, but alas neither wrote a word about what she gave them for breakfast.

My main sources for this post

In 1784, a geologist from France with the grand name of Barthelemy Faujas de Saint-Fond described his breakfast at the house of Maclean of Torloisk on Mull, descriptions of which I found in both The Scots Kitchen and A Scottish Feast. He had been visiting Staffa to study Fingal’s Cave and according to Wikipedia, he was “first to recognise the volcanic nature of the basaltic columns there”. (That’s The Loon’s department rather than mine though.) In 1797, he published Voyage en Angleterre, en Ecosse et aux les Iles Hebrides but whether he made more than one trip to Scotland I don’t know. Anyway, his Mull breakfast would have fair set him up for the day ahead; he describes the table “elegantly covered with the following articles: Plates of smoked beef, cheese of the country and English cheese, fresh eggs, salted herrings, butter, milk, and cream; a sort of bouille of oatmeal and water, in eating which, each spoonful is plunged into a basin of cream; milk worked up with yolks of egg, sugar, and rum; currant jelly, conserve of myrtle, a wild fruit that grows among the heath; tea, coffee, three kinds of bread (sea biscuits, oatmeal cakes, and very thin and fine barley cakes); and Jamaica rum.” This was eaten at ten in the morning, in the parlour in front of a fire of both peat and coal. He goes on to describe the substantial dinner which they started at four in the afternoon, followed by the drinking, then the tea / coffee with “small tarts” and at about ten at night having to “remain until mid-night over supper nearly of the same fare as the dinner, and in no less abundance.” He observes: “Such is the life which the richer classes lead in a country, where there is not even a road, where not a tree is to be seen, the mountains being covered only with heath, where it rains for eight months of the year, and where the sea is in a state of perpetual convulsion.”

Could this summary paragraph of his be pared down a wee bit, I wonder, for use by VisitScotland?

He didn’t just pay attention to “the richer classes” though. Annette Hope in A Caledonian Feast tells us that, according to de Saint Fond: “The peasants on Mull ate potatoes and milk, though some took oatmeal made into porridge or cakes; for drink, they had pure water and some drops of whisky on their festive days.”

In Humphrey Clinker by Tobias Smollett, published in 1771, there’s a description of a breakfast table in the Highlands: “One kit of boiled eggs; a second, full of butter; a third, full of cream; an entire cheese made of goat’s milk; a large earthen pot, full of honey; the best part of a ham; a cold venison pasty, a bushel of oatmeal, made into thin cakes and bannocks; with a small wheaten loaf in the middle, for the strangers; a stone bottle full of whisky; another of brandy, and a kilderkin of ale ………. Great justice was done to the collation by the guests.”

However in 1729, Mackintosh of Borlum was writing disparagingly of the new fashion for drinking tea in the morning: “When I come to a friend’s house of a morning, I used to be asked if I had had my morning draught yet. I am now asked if I have had my tea. And in lieu of the big quaigh with strong ale and toast, and after a dram of good wholesome Scots spirits, there is now the tea-kettle put to the fire, the tea-table and silver and china equipage brought in, and marmalade and cream.”

I took a diversion in search of this character and was glad I did cause he was some man! William Mackintosh of Borlum, 1658/1662? – 1743, was one of the leaders of the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion and was captured after the Battle of Preston; he escaped from Newgate Prison the night before his trial for high treason and a £1000 price was put on his head but he managed to get abroad. The bold ‘boy’ (now about 60 though) re-appeared in Scotland as part of a group of 6000 Scots and Spanish soldiers for the lesser-known 1719 Rising; they were defeated at the Battle of Glen Shiel and he was once again on the run. He was taken prisoner somewhere in Caithness and imprisoned in Edinburgh until he died in 1743 when he was in his 80s – a pity he didn’t manage to hold on for another couple of years and get freed, even temporarily, by the Bonnie Prince himself. Anyway, while in jail he got two bits of writing published. In 1729, it was An essay on ways and means for Inclosing, Fallowing, Planting etc and in 1742, A scheme for curbing depredation in the Highlands. Going by the date, it must have been in the former that he was decrying tea-drinking, unless it was in a letter maybe – I couldn’t see his name in F M McNeill’s bibliography. There’s a lengthy article about him, reproduced from The Celtic Magazine, at https://electricscotland.com/history/scotreg/borlum.pdf and you can listen to Mackintosh of Borlum’s Salute on YouTube, though it’s in the form of a piping tutorial by Pipe Major Donald Macleod.

Better get back to my theme. In her historical introduction, F Marian McNeill includes two breakfast descriptions by Sir Walter Scott and this one is from Waverley, set in 1745 and published in 1814: “Waverley found Miss Bradwardine presiding over the tea and coffee, the table loaded with warm bread, both of flour, oatmeal, and barley meal, in the shape of loaves, cakes, biscuits, and other varieties, together with eggs, reindeer ham, mutton and beef ditto, smoked salmon, marmalade, and all the other delicacies which induced even Johnson himself to extol the luxury of a Scotch breakfast above that of all other countries. A mess of oatmeal porridge, flanked by a silver jug, which held an equal mixture of cream and buttermilk, was placed for the Baron’s share of this repast.”

She also has an extract from Susan Ferrier’s novel Marriage – a very funny book which I must re-read – written in 1810 and first published anonymously in 1818. Dr Redgill pronounces: “The breakfast! That’s what redeems the land – and every county has its peculiar excellence. In Argyllshire you have the Loch Fyne herring, fat, luscious, and delicious, just out of the water, falling to pieces with its own richness – melting away like butter in your mouth. In Aberdeenshire, you have the Finnan haddo’ with a flavour all its own, vastly relishing – just salt enough to be piquant, without parching you up with thirst. In Perthshire there is the Tay salmon, kippered, crisp and juicy – a very magnificent morsel – a leetle heavy, but that’s easily counteracted by a teaspoonful of the Athole whisky. In other places you have the exquisite mutton of the country made into hams of a most delicate flavour; flour scones, soft and white; oatcakes, thin and crisp; marmalade and jams of every description.”

My old pal Lucy Bethia Walford, 1845 – 1915, (see Oats: still supporting the people and Give me the making of the scones of a nation *) was a Colquhoun of Luss by birth, but living somewhere near Edinburgh as a girl. She remembers two of her uncles walking to her house for breakfast: “I can see my parents’ breakfast table yet: the many varied dishes, hot and cold; the dark and light jellies – (black currant and white currant – what has become of white currant jelly? – one never sees it now); then such potato scones, barley scones and scones that were just ‘scones’ and nothing else, each kind nicely wrapped up in its snowy napkin, with the little peak that lifted and fell back, falling lower and lower as the pile diminished; the brown eggs that everyone prefers to white – and why? – the butter, the sweet, old yellow butter, framed in watercress. It does not seem strange, all things considered, that the two bachelors who appeared at half past eight o’clock on the doorstep of their brother’s house found it worth their while to bring to the long leisurely meal before them sharpened appetites and pleasantly tired limbs.”

F Marion McNeill includes this as an example of a “modern Highland breakfast” pre-WW1 but doesn’t say where it was on offer

That Highland breakfast shown above would have been for ‘those and such as those’. By contrast, Annette Hope (in A Caledonian Feast) refers to a 1905 report from the Dundee Social Union: “Its findings were that in most families with young children the usual breakfast was porridge and milk, followed by tea and bread and butter, and generally eggs for the parents. If the family was short of money, only the wage-earner had an egg. However, where both parents worked, breakfast and dinner, for parents as well as children, consisted only of bread and butter or margarine and tea.”

The late writer Derek Cooper has an entry in A Scottish Feast titled “O the West Coast Breakfast” and dated 1979 in which he praises the breakfasts that folk used to get on west coast steamers compared with what had confronted him the previous year: “On the table lay an assemblage of convenience goodies. Mini-pots of lime marmalade, domino-sized foil-pax of Kerrygold butter, terribly refined sachets of Tate & Lyle sugar. The porridge when it came was a runny poultice tasting of cardboard made by stirring water unenthusiastically into a packet mix. To my Oat Brek I added a few drops of UHT milk or was it powdered Skimmo? The tea bag was thin, the toasted Grannie’s Pride bread was limp as a loofah. I spread it with butter from my little doll’s house tub and tackled my boiled egg which tasted egregiously of fishmeal. Supposing Dr Johnson had been confronted with this rubbish; would he have swept it impetuously from the table?”

He ends with a heartfelt plea for the return of the west coast breakfast: “Come back sugar in generous if unhygienic bowls and big pats of butter on openhearted plates. Come back creamy milk in jugs, porridge made with roughground oats, fish from the seas, bread looking like bread and not like anaemic slices of surgical lint. And come back soon.”

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

As a child, my family breakfasts don’t particularly stand out so I suppose it was the usual mix of porridge, cereal, toast etc which everybody else was having. However I remember the thrill of getting Sugar Puffs from Aunt Jeanie in the summertime – a cereal which my mother strongly disapproved of! (We also got Creamola Foam later in the day there, another banned item at home.)

Before I was driving myself, a friend going home to the Black Isle would sometimes give me a lift to Inverness where I’d get the north train. She believed in getting on the road early so we’d be looking for breakfast in Dunkeld or Pitlochry at the back of nine o’clock. This turned out to be a very bad time as cafes were not open till ten and hotels wouldn’t take us as we weren’t residents so many were the disappointments we had going along the main streets. Once in Pitlochry though, an aged retainer took pity on us and gave us sandwiches of left-over toast and bacon from the hotel guests’ breakfast, along with coffee served in the filthiest coffee pot I’d ever seen, but I couldn’t have cared less! On another of these trips, we stopped at Balinluig where there was the most wonderful sign up in the cafe: “Only items on the menu may be ordered”. This meant that if, for example, “sausage, egg and tomato” and “bacon, egg and beans” were menu items, a request for sausage, bacon and egg would be refused – and quite right too! Travellers were to take what they got and not waste everybody’s time by footering about with the food choices.

Nowadays in Glagow it’s all smashed avo on sourdough, though what’s wrong with mashed avocado I don’t know. Teeth must get broken on the tough crust of the toasted sourdough and the knives provided are usually nowhere near sharp enough to cut through it. The avocados have almost certainly been flown several thousand miles, though I understand some are now grown in Spain but this includes the Canary Islands. What about mashed neeps as a local substitute? With added butter and black pepper and with its bright colour, it could make an interesting alternative start to a hipster’s day.

I still prefer something more traditionally breakfasty of a morning; when Rama and I were recently in the new version of Epicures in Hyndland Glasgow, he had one of their avocado things and I ordered yoghurt with granola and berries. It was beautifully arranged on the plate but had alas been given a severe sifting of icing sugar before it left the kitchen and so was far too sweet. Yesterday though, I found almost perfection at Storehouse of Foulis (a place raved about at least three times before) where I had a bowl of proper porridge with a smaller bowl of mixed berry compote – unsweetened – and though almost certainly from a frozen mix it was most acceptable.

I’m more and more coming round to The Loon’s way of thinking when it comes to the right time for having breakfast. When I was working it’d be at 6.30 but now I try to wait till 9.30 or even 10.00 as I was hearing that it’s good to prolong the hours of fasting. Most workers though don’t have this luxury of choice unless they’re sure of getting a break after an hour or so for something to eat. We can’t all be like Sir Walter Scott who by the time he sat down for a huge breakfast at ten o’clock had been writing for three or four hours. The most I manage is going back to bed with a cup of fruit tea and a bit of unread Sunday newspaper.

Away to the West

Late last month I saw Sutherland again, but the west this time. The weekend had me with a bed in Inverkirkaig while the others camped near Achiltibuie and on the Saturday there was to be a long, long hike (6 / 7 miles) to what I’d thought would be the foot of Suilven and then a bit of a wait for me till my companions came down from the summit. It didn’t quite turn out like that as the “walk in” as they called it had more than a few uphills along the way which had me peching and left me feeling I’d already climbed a fair bit of the hill before I settled down on a flattish rock and declared I was going no further.

Above is the view from my base camp, before the mist rolled down right over me and I had to wrap myself up in my picnic rug. The horizon you can see there is not the summit; I heard there were at least two more similar steep stretches before the bealach was reached, and then there’s the final bit on to the dome of Caisteal Liath. Unfortunately the mist never lifted and the real hill walkers got no view whatsoever after all their efforts. Writing about the mountains of Assynt, Norman McCaig called it “my masterpiece of masterpieces” but it was shrouded for us that day.

From the comfort and safety of my sofa, I shall get my fix of Suilven from watching a BBC Alba programme, the fourth one of a new series called Dana / Scotland’s Wild Side which starts on 22 September, thereafter on iPlayer. The series features a climber called Kenny Rankin, originally from Plockton who travels about in an old van, sometimes even sleeping in it before a climb. Now, I bet he doesn’t overnight in a layby! Dana in Gaelic means bold, daring, intrepid, adventurous according to my dictionary which is very apt as I believe this laddie will be seen running along the ridge of Suilven!

By the way, the midgies were fierce and out in full force. Anticipating this, I’d bought a pocket-size version of Smidge at Ralia but although I tried and tried and so did the rest of the party, we could get no product to come out of the pump spray. We all had midge nets, past caring how we looked, though the wee buggers were getting under mine when I tried to eat or drink. I emailed the company when I got home and Dr Alison Blackwell, Director of APS Biocontrol in Dundee, dealt quickly and efficiently with getting a replacement to me. So well done to her. (And while I’m on the subject, if you buy direct from their website it costs £5.50 but the same size is priced at £7.99 on Amazon.)

I stopped at Ralia both going north and coming back again, though I’m still a bit of a feartie about doing a right turn on the A9. Their inside tables are not in use yet – due to a lack of staff I believe – but they have several outside and their two workers were making and serving up high quality soups, sandwiches, snaisters, teas and coffees as fast as they possibly could.

It felt quite strange to be heading west at Tore rather than going on to the north as I usually do but the day was lovely and I enjoyed the change of scenery as I headed for Ullapool. Garve Hotel was closed and a sad-looking sight and I remembered when RMF and I had gone in there a few years ago on our way to Inverewe Gardens (see “Spring to the north has aye come slow”). Much more promising was the Aultguish Inn which I spotted on the Friday and stopped at on the Monday. I should have been alerted by the emptiness of the carpark but maybe I was too busy noting with approval the troughs of flowers, a saltire and a lion rampant flying high. Just at the front door though, there was a blackboard saying they were closed until the Tuesday at 5, with “thanks for your understanding” at the bottom; at first they got none of that from me and I roared my frustration at the sky. I did calm down though, realising this could have been another staff shortage issue. I have subcontracted a review to my wee sister who’ll be passing later this month on her way to spend a couple of nights in the hotel where My Favourite Niece is working for the season.

I stopped instead in Ullapool, where mid-afternoon the Seafood Shack was still hoaching; I’ve never been ‘in’ but at looks as if it’s thriving. I went to West Coast, also in Argyle Street, for an Earl Grey tea and a lemon and coconut slice. The inside has been remodelled and there are tables outside only, though you go in to place your order. I called in again on my way home for coffee which came out their hatch at me horizontally – luckily I saw the server’s tray hitting an obstacle and I just managed to jump out of the way in time. After he’d mopped up most of the mess he observed laconically: “I suppose I’d better make you another one” and I said I’d be most obliged. It’s quite a farantoosh place: the order before mine was for a beetroot latte.

I’d also recommend Delilah’s in Lochinver, again with outside tables only, for good coffee and craic. Cousin Mairi and I were being called “girls” on Friday afternoon but “guys” on Saturday when we came off the hill. (See I am not a guy) I don’t know whether this was because our party of five now included a male or whether we had both aged and lost our gender after a ten-hour expedition, but I wasn’t taking it sitting down, especially as there were no young ones there to get embarrassed; I called out the perpetrator who took it in good part. They were nice lads.

On Sunday, we had lunch at the Summer Isles Hotel after I’d managed to conquer their system: you can’t book online but instead you fill in a booking request form and then wait for them to get back to you. After a couple of days, I got a phone call and an email from them but by this time I was in the land of variable phone and internet signals and confirmed our table in a phone call made from a rock, just off the Suilven path. It was the oddest place I’d ever read out my card number, or rather got someone else to do it as I didn’t have my glasses. Assuming the lunch customers were typical of the place, we made up quite a different clientele and the crofting talk didn’t go down well with everybody. The food was ok though their prices are on the high side. I feel though that it’s not fair to judge places too harshly at the moment with staff shortages and supply difficulties – though whoever was making our dinners could surely have managed to get my roast potatoes ready at the same time as my fish. I turned down the offer to have them for pudding and instead I had one scoop of excellent pistachio ice cream which was not at all sweet.

I was on the lookout for NC 500 offenders (too many previous links to mention!) and on my first evening in Inverkirkaig, I passed a family with a van from Swindon Car and Van Rental parked in a passing place at 8pm; they were sitting at the side of the road eating and being eaten but I wasn’t sure if they were planning to stay there overnight so had to hold my tongue, restricting myself to saying hello. There are clear police signs on the road though telling drivers not to park in passing places. We saw what I thought was a monster camper van in Lochinver which I wouldn’t have fancied meeting on a single track road but it was outclassed by an even bigger one which I just managed to pull out in front of as it was leaving Ullapool on the Monday. It was towing a small car behind it and I have to say that it smacked my gob – is that even legal?

The Women in the Painting

This rather squeejee photo is of a postcard which I bought a few years ago in the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. The caption on the back reads: “ARAB PRINCESS, (with black maid) fl. 1628 Wife of Sir John Henderson of Fordell by Walter Frier after an unknown artist”. This had intrigued me at the time but it wasn’t till I came across it recently while doing a bit of a tidy that I began to research what lay behind the painting and the Zanzibari connection came to light.

The names of the women are lost to us now – in the West, at least – but a panel of writing on the left-hand side of the painting gives us the bare bones of the story, in one long splendid sentence and using the writing conventions of the time:

“John Henderson of Fordel Travelling in his youth thro several parts of Asia and Africa from y 1618 to y 1628 was delivered unto Slavery by a Barbari Prince in Zanguebar on the Cost of Africa where Princess of that Countrie falling in love with him Even to Renoincing her Religion and Countrie contrived the mians of both their Escape and getting a board a ship trading up y Red Sea landed cam to Alexandre where she died whose Picture Mr Henderson cauised to take with her black Maid after their oun Country habett from y original Picture at oterston by W Frier 1731”

Above the panel of writing is what I take to be the Henderson family crest and their motto – sola virtus nobilitat (virtue alone ennobles). The background is of a European ship arriving at a landscape which is neither Zanzibari nor Egyptian. What interests me is that the two women are posed side by side, though it’s the Arab woman who gazes confidently at us while the African maid looks to her right. The maid is wearing a plainer dress, though it has golden threads running through the white material. She has three strings of pearls around her neck and another three on her wrist; she has a white and gold ribbon headband and wears pearl drop earrings. Round her waist and coiled over her left arm is what I take to be a snake with its tongue extended, though it has ears on it, and I couldn’t say what this signifies, only speculate. The Arab woman is in a dress of fancier material, has better quality jewellery, wears a coronet and is holding an orb with a cross on top – is this meant to represent the reputed conversion to Christianity? If so, it’s quite a contrast with the snake! I’m no expert on 17th century fashion but they appear to be wearing European clothing. What was not obvious to me from the postcard and what you likely won’t be able to tell from the above photo is that the breasts of the African woman are fully exposed; I didn’t realise this till I saw a much better reproduction online. The artist has made a clear distinction between the two women and together with the snake, it’s one that I find with my 21st century eyes to be a disturbing racial one.

Like with most paintings I suppose, the more I look the more I see. Is the artist suggesting that the two women are holding hands? The maid’s right arm and the princess’s left arm are angled towards each other at the bottom of the painting. If their hands are not clasped, they must at least be very close together and this suggests a close bond between the women in spite of their different backgrounds.

I found out next to nothing about Walter Frier, the artist who updated the original painting except for his dates of 1685 to 1761. There’s a painting of him on artnet.com. He must have got the story for the information panel from John Henderson’s family but we’ll never know what he used from the original painting, commissioned by John Henderson, and what details of clothing and landscape, and the social standings of the two women, he decided on for himself. Nor will we know whether either or both of the subjects sat for the first artist in Alexandria – if it was painted there – or if he just used details from Henderson and his own artistic imagination.

I’ll come back to the painting later but I now want to tell you a bit about John Henderson of Fordell. He was born on 3 November 1605, according to Wikipedia but I’ve also seen the year of his birth as around 1600; the latter date seems more convincing as surely even then he wouldn’t have gone gallivanting “thro several parts of Asia and Africa” when he was only 13? Coincidentally perhaps, his father had died in 1618. He was back in Scotland by 1625 (so not “y 1628”) as he married Margaret Menteith of Stirlingshire on 7 February, though I’ve seen 1624 as their wedding year on one site. He served in the Danish army from 1625 to 1629, then in the Swedish army in 1632 but the couple somehow managed to have 10 children (18 was the number given on one ancestry site). He was a Governor of Dumbarton Castle, and a diplomat for the Stuarts – he was knighted around 1640 by Charles I; he fought in the Civil War and was taken prisoner after the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644. He returned to Denmark on his release in 1645; he died on 11 March 1650 either in Denmark or in Fife, depending on the source you read. His wife Margaret died in Edinburgh in 1653. There’s a biography of him which concentrates on his military and political careers at https://www.st-andrews.ac/uk/history/ssne/itemphp?id=53 however I’m thinking from about half way down, they’ve got him mixed up with another John Henderson, possibly his son. Our Sir John’s portrait was painted by George Jamesone in 1644 and maybe this was done after he got his knighthood.

“oterston” mentioned in the panel on the painting is likely to have been Otterston Castle in Fife, a medieval tower house built at the end of the 16th century; all that’s now left is a two-storey tower and some sections of wall. It’s a few miles south of Fordell Castle which is another 16th century tower house, now restored, to the east of Dunfermline. The Henderson family came to Fordell in the early 16th century before the working of many open cast coal seams on their land vastly increased their wealth.

The longest article I found about John Henderson and the painting was in the Journal of the Tanganyika Society of September 1955 by Sir John Grey called “Sir John Henderson and the Princess of Zanzibar” – see https://archive.org/details/Tanganyika/page/14/mode/2up The author tells us that the painting shows typical features for the subjects of 17th century portraits: “long sloping shoulders, long necks and straight lined noses”. As for John Henderson “like so many of his compatriots, from the age of about eighteen onwards, he spent a number of years abroad”.

In the article, Grey refers to a published sermon by William Milne in 1714 which was dedicated to the Henderson family which claimed that John Henderson had “travelled thro most of the Countries in Christendom”; he had “followed the Military Way and had Command in some war in Africa, where after a Defeat he was taken Prisoner by the Canibals; and when ready to be devoured by them he was ransomed by a Lady, whose Picture you have in your family”. Grey excuses these excesses by pointing out that Rev Milne did not have access to the details on the painting, but “was in all probability acting upon information supplied to him by a member of the family”. However, Grey himself changed “Barbari” to “?Barbarian” when transcribing the panel on the painting. Barbary however was a 16th to 19th century word to describe the coastal regions of North Africa while barbarian from barbarous is from Greek and originally meant non-Greek, unable to be understood.

Rev Milne went on to write of the “Picture”: “and in the Ground of it is painted a Landskip representing his Deliverance”. This is more havering as the landscape in the background is more likely to be that of Fife, but then Rev Milne had clearly not seen the painting, far less the landscapes of North or East Africa. These details didn’t prevent him from writing confidently about them though.

Grey mentions that a later book Baronage of Scotland by Sir Robert Douglas contained a paragraph almost the same as Milne’s though Sir John Henderson now “had a considerable command upon the coast of Africa” and the reference to cannibals had been removed. These were the only other two versions of the story that Grey could find in print. However he does have some helpful historical information about European ships in the area: two ships from the English East India Company had visited Zanzibar in 1591 and in 1609 but “no Scottish merchants appear to have indulged in ventures in the Indian Ocean”. I wondered then if John Henderson was on a ship of the Dutch East India Company as “At this date many Scots were taking service in Holland”. No luck with that as there’s no record of a Dutch ship in Zanzibar between 1618 and 1625 and in any case such a ship would have “met with a hostile reception from the Portuguese and, presumably also … from the Moorish King of that island”. (The Portuguese had been in East Africa since 1498.) The English company ship called Union from the 1609 visit had two crew members killed and one captured in a skirmish on the neighbouring island of Pemba. The references to John Henderson having some kind of “Command” or “considerable command” in an African war don’t seem to be borne out by any facts I’ve been able to uncover. And surely he would have been kind of young for any position of command on board a ship? He could not have been with the Royal African Company as it wasn’t set up until 1660 and then it operated on the west coast of Africa, first going after gold and then slaves.

Zanzibar has a long history as a trading post: archaeologists have found artefacts going back to the 6th century – pottery from China, India, North Africa and Iran plus jewellery, glass, coins, metal and ivory objects. Dhows sailed north, north east and came back south and south west using the monsoon winds, trading with places that are now Yemen, Iran, Oman, India and Somalia. The oldest building on the island is a ruined mosque from about 1107 CE. In the early 16th century, it came under the sway of the Portuguese when, according to Wikipedia, the sultan, whose “precise origins are uncertain”, gave in to the demands of a Portuguese ship’s captain in exchange for peace. It wasn’t until about 1594 though that the first Portuguese fort was built on Pemba and the current Old Fort on the Zanzibar town seafront was built by Omani Arabs in1698. There’s an interesting article called History of Zanzibar Isles on https://tanzaniaodyssey.com

Back to Sir John Grey, who speculates that the “Moorish king” or Sultan was then living at Dunga, a distance away from Zanzibar town and “it was a daughter of this ruler who helped John Henderson to escape from captivity”. An alternative theory is of a 17th century palace lived in by a Zanzibari queen called Fatuma on the site of what is now the Beit el Ajaib or The House of Wonders built on the Zanzibar town seafront in 1883. Wikipedia gives dates of 1650 – 1715 for Fatuma which is too late for our purposes, but it says she was the daughter of King Yusuf. Frustratingly though, I could find nothing online about him. There could of course be Arabic records about him and any missing sister or daughter.

I lived in Zanzibar town for two years in the early 1980s and was given the print shown above by a young Danish man as a farewell gift. It shows a dhow, whose design probably hasn’t changed much since the 17th century, passing the town just round the corner to the south from the Omani Old Fort, the Sultan’s Palace and the House of Wonders, the most impressive buildings on the waterfront.

With him a prisoner of some kind and her the daughter of the ruler, I’m intrigued by how John Henderson and the Arab princess could actually have met, let alone how she managed to get him, herself and her maid on board a ship similar to the one above and not all like the one in the painting. Sir John Grey, in his Tanganyika Society Journal, after a lengthy daft aside about Pocahontas and Captain John Smith, believed that the story was “not inherently improbable”. I tend to agree with him that in getting the portrait painted, John Henderson “was seeking to perpetuate the memory of somebody who had once been very dear to him and to whom he was under an unforgettable obligation”. Grey believed that the presence of the maid “seems to lend conviction to the story” and is in the portrait because she went with them to Alexandria. He saw it as a “pleasant tribute to this old romance that the portrait …. has now been allowed to hang” next to that of Sir John Henderson “among the worthies of Scotland”. He was writing this in 1955 and appears to be responding in part to an article in The Times dated 9 February 1954 about the hanging of the painting in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. I’m guessing this is when it came to the gallery from Fordell Castle.

The painting is known by several different different names but only on the back of my postcard is the Arab woman called John Henderson’s “Wife”. Is this because she could not at that time be called his lover or did they marry in Alexandria before she died? On a purely personal level, I wonder what Mrs, then Lady Margaret Henderson made of it all as she bore and raised his ten (or eighteen) bairns.

“PORTRAIT OF THE PRINCESS OF ZANZIBAR AND AN AFRICAN LADY-IN-WAITING” is what Prince Michael of Greece called it. Who he?, as would be asked in Private Eye. Well, you can look him up at http://www.princemichaelchronicles.com and if you add to that /princess-of-zanzibar, you’ll find a shortish entry about our painting, related to its second sale. He tells his readers that Captain John Henderson “had been travelling through Africa for many years” and that he “was captured by Barbarians” in 1628. He was taken to Zanzibar “where a Moorish king reigned”. After he escaped with the princess, they got to Alexandria “where he had time to have this portrait painted” before her sudden death. No sources are provided however.

In a Herald article of 16 May 1997 called “Our rich roots in black and white”, the unnamed journalist opens with a reference to the painting “which hung for generations at Fordell Castle” but was then in Edinburgh’s Portrait Gallery. He / she tells us that the “name of the artist, bold, but unsophisticated, probably English, just possibly Scots, is unknown, so is the story behind the picture …. “. I know these were pre-internet days, but really! Did they not even go into the Gallery and read the information panel?

A second Herald article of 13 June 2001 has the dodgy headline: “Scots adventurer and the Pocahontas of Zanzibar”. The painting was up for auction the following day, being sold by one of Sir John Henderson’s descendants so it must have been on loan to the National Portrait Gallery since 1954. This time, the writer has some of the ‘facts’, telling readers that Sir John Henderson had “apparently fought in various campaigns in Africa but was imprisoned in Zanzibar in the early 1620s. A local princess fell in love with him and they escaped together up the Red Sea to Egypt where she died. Sir John returned to “Britain” where he married Margaret Menteith and they had their ten children. He commissioned a portrait of the princess and the original, whose artist was unknown, was “copied or elaborated on by a portrait artist called Walter Frier” and was hung in Fordell Castle. It was a “Sotheby’s specialist” who came up with the line that the story behind the painting was identical to that of Pocahontas; maybe they’d been reading Sir John Grey’s Tanganyika Journal article or watching the Disney film which came out in 1995 and thought this might increase both interest and value. The journalist or the editor lazily bought it though.

In December 2017 the painting was again for sale, now called on Sotheby’s site: “Portrait of the Princess of Zanzibar with an African Attendant”. (There’s an alamy stock photo of it on display on 1 December 2017 prior to the sale in London.) The guide price was £70 – 80,000 but it sold on 4 December for £187,500, presumably giving the 2001 buyer a very handsome profit. No details alas of either buyer could I find or where the painting is now, some 400 years since it was inspired by these two women now sitting forever so docilely side by side after their great adventure.

Saving my breath to cool my porridge

My Favourite Niece used to keep on her phone a list of all the things that really annoyed her Auntie and I loved how she could at a few seconds’ notice find it and read it out to me, my own scrap of paper having long since been mislaid; it included items that I’d either forgotten about or which had been overtaken in the annoying stakes by something even more deaving. I wonder if she’s still got it. And I hope that, currently helping to prop up the hospitality industry in the north west Highlands, she’s compiling a list of her own.

Any regular reader – and maybe there’s one or two – will know that I have certain campaigns running, all of them unpopular and all losing: the making of real cranachan, uncorrupted with either honey or whisky; not having women called guys, or anyone at all even; stopping engine-idling; the NC500 turning into a monster – this last one is maybe gaining a bit of traction, but not thanks to me though.

Having spent just a short time thinking, I’ve come up with several more things to girn about:

Noisy gardening tools

At this time of year, it’s not just very loud lawnmowers that seem to start up as soon as I sit down outside or walk through the neighbourhood, there’s also the racket from hedge trimmers and grass strimmers, leaf blowers and power washers. The noise stops and you relax, thinking it’s all over, but then the machine starts up again as its owner goes over and over the same bit of lawn or hedge or stonework. Why are hedge clippers, edging shears, brushes and scrapers not used any more? (My wee sister demonstrated the use of her breadknife to edge her grass and I discovered that a wallpaper scraper is ideal for getting rid of moss on stone paths etc.) Does power washing do anything apart from waste water and dislodge mortar, allowing even more weeds in to set up home?

Out walking, I see more and more men – and it’s almost always men – slashing and hacking at grass and hedges and shrubs, having set themselves up as garden maintenance services. They just want to get the job done as quickly as possible and without using hand tools, they have no physical connection with nature; they don’t seem to show any love or care for the plants, the edges of the grass, the shape of the shrubs or the best time for their pruning, the border flowers getting choked by unrecognised weeds or the possible presence of nesting birds. I passed some last weekend attacking a hedge on a corner site, with a bored-looking loon using a noisy, smelly leaf blower to shift the cuttings away from the edge of the pavement. I stopped and asked why they didn’t use a brush but the only response above the racket was to ask if I needed any work done! A few weeks ago, I passed a bloke using a leaf blower in a pub carpark to try and dislodge long-established weeds; again I suggested a scraper and a brush would do the job better but that didn’t go down well at all.


My local council are spraying weedkiller like there’s no tomorrow when a bit of pulling and / or scraping would be much more effective at eradicating the weeds for the season. In other places, I’ve seen council workers with containers of the stuff on their backs as they walk along pavements and through cemeteries poisoning the ground. (I saw a letter in The Observer on 1 August about the number of dead bees on Birmingham pavements caused by the spraying of glyphosate to kill the weeds.) Maybe I should set up a squad of retired busybodies to weed and tidy our local public areas. Or maybe I should try to convince the council to change their practice. They’re planting some roundabouts with wild flowers so there must be someone with a care for the environment in post.

Dead plants and flowers for sale

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve spoken to shop workers and managers about plants and flowers on sale but dead or dying for want of water. I’ve now given up complaining. Whether it’s Morrisons, Tesco, B & Q or M & S, the stories were similar: the person who normally looks after them is on holiday; that’s the way they come in; they were watered this morning; yes, you’re right – I’ll get someone to see to it …. I’ve seen plants being given a quick spray from a hose but only the surface gets wet and then the water quickly evaporates in the heat. I’ve shown shop managers brown and withered bedding plants as well as the drooping leaves on £20-a-time small trees fancily wrapped up in hessian but it doesn’t make any difference. I don’t just refer to the wicked waste involved and to the environmental damage as plastic pots and cellophane wrappings surely head for landfill but also to the loss of their profits, but to no avail. No doubt prices are hoiked up anyway to cover such wastage.

Photo poses

Where on earth did the trend for making silly finger gestures in photos come from? What is wrong with these people? Do they ever look at themselves and think that they look a bit inane? The answer to that must be no because I see this increasingly – and I’m not even on any form of social media.

And why oh why do newspaper photographers ask their subjects to jump up in the air? Is it meant to be taken by the readers as a natural response to good news? How daft and undignified the folk look! And why on earth do they agree to do it? I see this absurd ‘pose’ more and more often, so it’s hardly one photographer’s way of making their photos stand out from their competitors.

Intrusive music in radio and tv programmes

Since I became aware of this, it’s really been ripping my knitting. Why does every second have to be filled with noise, even on a tv programme? Why are directors – or sound editors or whoever’s responsible for this outrage – so frightened of a few moments of silence that they have to fill any gap with music, however inappropriate? A recent Jamie Oliver cookery series overused the same wee snippet from Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life” to the point where I had to switch off the programme as I could bear it no more. I didn’t need my lugs assailed when Jamie wasn’t talking; I was quite ok with looking at his garden or what he had on his shelves or his worktop. Now I’ve noticed it in The Repair Shop too where there is absolutely no need for it either as there is plenty, plenty to look at and take in.

Recent weather forecasts

During July’s hotter than normal weather, the language and attitude of weather forecasters was fair sending up my blood pressure. I’ve been aware for years that the needs of farmers, gardeners and others who work on or from the land are of no account: rain is bad weather and sunshine is good weather as far as the media are concerned; “unsettled” weather or “longer spells of rain” are announced in gloomy tones and with sad faces, but it won’t be like that when they turn on their taps. However last month, on both radio and tv, presenters were getting over-excited: shouting and laughing about “record temperatures” as if this was a good thing or announcing “sizzling temperatures”, predicting “another heatwave” or referring to Scotland as being “scorched”. I wasn’t aware of any reference to these temperatures of 29 degrees C as being unnatural for here or the result of climate change. And this was happening as we watched wildfires raging in Europe and North America and even within the Arctic Circle – do these people do any joined-up thinking? Who writes their scripts? Have they got no sense of responsibility?

Stewarts of Tayside strawberries from “Perth, UK

The cardboard container for these strawberries, which measures 26 cm by 16 cm, has eight Union Jacks on it and they were grown for Morrisons supermarket in “Perth, UK”. Yes, that’s just how you’d answer if you were asked where Perth was and you’d certainly never mistake the fruits’ origin for Perth, Australia. There is a toatie wee saltire on the green label on top, measuring 12 mm by 8 mm, with “100% SCOTTISH” underneath it in print half the size of the capitals on this keyboard. Morrisons is not the only supermarket recently plastering more and more of its goods with Union Jacks, but it’s a chief offender. Stewarts of Tayside presumably package the strawberries on site so they’re obviously nailing their colours to the mast. Their website only includes an email address for Sales so maybe I will write them a good old fashioned letter to ask what their game is.

Enough of all this girning; it’s starting to get me down so I will set aside my comments on Nairn’s fruit and seed oatcakes containing brown sugar, and give you a couple of more hopeful stories to finish:

Norwegian and German women’s teams outfits

I enjoy watching athletics and can get quite exhausted from the safety of my sofa, but I was never much cope at anything apart from the javelin. When I went to secondary school, I was told by a PE teacher that I had “sprinter’s legs” – there were no further comments as she saw me come second last in every race over the next few years. I’ve watched many women athletes’ outfits get smaller and smaller until some runners were practically going round in bikinis and I often wondered if they could possibly be comfortable. It can’t be a speed thing as other women – and all men – continue to compete in singlets and shorts or body suits.

During the recent delayed Olympics, I was so pleased then to read about the Norwegian women’s beach volleyball team defying protocol and wearing shorts – same as all the men were doing – instead of bikini bottoms. They were fined for doing so, which I believe the singer Pink offered to pay. Good for her and good for them. This was followed up by the German women’s gymnastics team wearing bodysuits instead of the more traditional leotards, though some of the team had also worn them at the European Championships. Sehr gut, meine damengehen sie selbst.

Scotland The Bread

I heard about this on Radio 4’s The Food Programme last Sunday and then got on to their most excellent website at https://scotlandthebread.org Based in Anstruther and on the go since 2011, they’re a community benefit society who’re owned by their members and are “working towards a sustainable, fair supply of flour that better nourishes people and the planet”. On the Balcaskie estate, they’re growing “traditional grains chosen for their suitability for the Scottish growing conditions and climate, for biodiversity, higher levels of vitamins and minerals than conventional grains, and their exceptional flavour”. These nutrient-dense grains are milled into their organic flour which is sold retail and wholesale; they make and sell bread, also now donating to local foodbanks so that their clients can choose an alternative to standard supermarket loaves.

Last month I believe, BBC Scotland’s Out of Doors had a feature on 19th century wheats and links between St Petersburg and East Lothian but this programme goes out on a Saturday morning between 06.30 and 08.00 in the morning – not exactly prime time, is it? I don’t know the date however and I can’t see the topic listed on their website. BBC’s Countryfile visited Balcaskie in 2019 and the programme was repeated recently but again – sorry – I can’t provide a date for an iPlayer search.

We certainly wouldn’t be hearing this good news story or others like it on Radio Scotland’s weekday schedule of phone-ins, (bad) news programmes and ‘entertainment’ shows. There I go again – it didn’t last long, being a Pollyanna.

Pontificating about Gaelic

I’m not sure I should be pontificating about Gaelic given I’ve been learning it now for not even 2 years, with a previous failed shot about 40 years ago when I gave up because the verbs – apart from tha and bha – were confusing me. However I’m going to. I’ve already written about some word borrowings from Gaelic into English and on Gaelic place names ( see “Gaelic was never spoken here!” ) but I’ve been recognising more Gaelic words which have made their mark on Scottish English and also Gaelic constructions which were used in the English of my mother’s family and neighbours in East Sutherland.

If you go to https://decolonialatlas.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/scottish-gaelic-in-decline/ you’ll get a series of maps showing the change in percentages of Gaelic speakers in Scotland, using the data from census returns. In both 1891 and 1901, 50 – 74.9% of folk in East Sutherland recorded themselves as speaking Gaelic; in 1911, 1921 and 1931, this had declined to 25 – 49.9%. Obviously no data was available for 1941 but in 1951, the corresponding figure was below 25%.

My Gaelic-speaking Granny moved from Raasay to Bonar Bridge to work as a servant for a Free Presbyterian minister. In 1911, she married my grandfather who, as far as I know, had no Gaelic and she didn’t use it with her 9 children. Aunt Katy and Uncle Alister however competed in a children’s Gaelic choir at a local Mod in 1931. (Was it a teacher who anglicised the spelling of his name, I wonder?) I’ve written before about how she reverted to Gaelic in the last few months of her life, her children unable to understand what she was saying ( see A Dinner of Herbs ).

Aunt Jeanie often said what I took to be “Oh henner” in moments of stress which I later realised was “A sheanair“, a call on a grandfather for help or support. Another favourite of hers was “scruss” as an expression of annoyance, almost certainly “sgrios” meaning ruin; I’ve noted “Mo sgrios!” beside it in Angus Watson’s dictionary, with the fabulously poetic translation of “My ruin is upon me!” – who hasn’t felt that in times of self-inflicted crisis ? (Another useful phrase for a drama queen – or king, for that matter – would be O, mo creach-sa thainig! which means O, my very destruction has come!)

My mother could refer to fingers as croags, as in “Get your croags out of that” – from the Gaelic word for finger corrag, possibly, or maybe from crog – a big hand or fist or an animal’s paw. Another of hers was speek for a longer part of an uneven haircut which I’m sure is from spic, with its long vowel sound, meaning a spike, and lurk meaning a wrinkle in a sheet etc which Mairi says in a comment is from lurc. ( I’ve written about these last two in Return to Turadh and you’ll find her helpful comment there).

Bourach, smoorach and stoor are fine-sounding words in the mouth. Burach (with its long first vowel sound) is a mess or a guddle; I even heard it used as a verb by a man on Raasay who was making himself a sandwich in his kitchen – “I’m just bouraching about” he said by way of apology for the mess. Smur (long oo sound) means dross / peat ashes and smoorach is used in Highland English to describe something that’s disintegrated, fallen apart into very small pieces – “It’s just gone into smoorach”, for example. Stur (another long oo sound) has come straight into Scots as the word for dust, with just a change of spelling.

Can roo-ra, used to describe something which has been quickly thrown together and is uneven or unsteady as a result, have come from ro-radh, meaning a foreword or preamble? And what of ropach, which has a similar meaning I seem to remember, but with no connection to ropes? When a person is feeling fyown, they’re feeling a bit weak or faint; the Gaelic word however is spelled fann. I haven’t been able to solve gyards though, used as an expression of disgust when seeing something horrible.

Folk could be categorised as good crac or grim crac, according to their personalities, and when giving directions, if you wanted someone to keep going straight, you said “Cairt on” as if they were still on a horse and cart. Long and weary was a favourite expression to describe the difficult passage of time; could this be from cian, used as a noun or an adjective, which noun Angus Watson translates as “distance, remoteness in time or space” and the adjective as “long, weary” with reference to a collection of Derek Thompson’s poetry called An Rathad Cian, The Far Road?

As dead as a herring was another of my mother’s expressions, though when teaching us cho marbh ri sgadan, my Gaelic teacher was surprised I knew of it as she’d never heard it used in English.

When Mairi’s auntie saw an early school photo of The Loon, looking less than pleased to be posing, she said “He’s got a bus (boos) on him there” from bus + airbus is a grimace, a pout of anger or pique so her words were a direct translation of Tha bus air. Although I hadn’t heard the word used in English before, I knew just what she meant as his expression was unmistakeable.

More obvious words which stayed in usage as the language shift happened are fank for a sheep pen from faing and croft from croit. And burn and loch of course, along with glen from glean, strath from srath, ben from beinn, crannog from crannag.

Can neeps be from sneap and / or tatties from buntata? Wheest is clearly from ist (be quiet), but is ta from tapadh leat (thank you)? And what of craitur, used of a poor wee living thing, a creature – presumably it came from creutair used in Gaelic for both a person and an animal? Who now has tackety boots and did the adjective come from the Gaelic noun tacaid – in English, a hobnail? Press, for a cupboard is surely from preas.

The expression ‘to be in your glory’ I had a Gaelic explanation for but I’ve currently mislaid it, like so much else these days; I’m hoping I’ll find it again. It means to be in your very happy place!

It’s not just vocabulary that’s rung bells with me, but also some constructions. I used to be confused as a child when somebody came into a Bonar house and would often be acknowledged with “Oh it’s you that’s in it”; I’d be thinking “In what”? However, now I know it’s directly from ‘S e thusa a th’ann. The first words from the household might also have been “It’s yourself”, ‘S e thu fhein a th’ann, literally It’s yourself that’s in it and could be followed up with not How are you? but “How’s yourself?” – Ciamar a tha thu fhein?

Where do you stay? not Where do you live? is, I think, quite widely asked in Scotland. Is it just coincidence that the Gaelic verb a fuireach means to stay or remain, as well as to live, to dwell?

Maybe more Highland-based, a question could be “What are you at?” rather than What are you doing? Is this directly from aig, meaning at, used before a verb for what a person is currently doing? For example: Tha mi a’ leughadh (where a’ is short for aig) translates literally as I’m at the reading.

Asking someone if they were for doing something instead of if they wanted to do something also struck me when we were learning airson (for) + a verb, to mean ready or willing or wanting to do something as in A bheil thu airson falbh? “Are you for leaving?” Or a more important question: A bheil thu airson sgain? “Are you for a scone?”

Finally in these grammar paragraphs where I may well have made mistakes, I’ve been thinking about hearing Highland folk say that they are after doing something, meaning that they have done it; I’m wondering if this is from the use of air + a verb to make the perfect tenses, for example Tha mi air na soithichean a dheanamh meaning I’m after doing the dishes or in standard English I have done the dishes.

I’m ready to be corrected by Gaelic speakers on any or all of the above, but what’s not in doubt is the present precarious state of the language. There were around 87,000 folk at the last census in 2011 who said they could speak, write or understand Gaelic; since then there have been many more Gaelic medium schools established and yes, there are about 300,000 folk worldwide signed up to learn on Duolingo, including me. However, the word being used to describe the current situation is “crisis” and for once, it’s being used appropriately. It’s highly unlikely that figures from the next census will cause the colours to change on the next version of the decolonial atlas map of Scotland referred to above and a recent book entitled The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community: A Comprehensive Sociolinguistic Survey of Scottish Gaelic , shows that the social and community use of Gaelic is collapsing. It came from a collaboration between the University of the Highlands & Islands and Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye with researchers studying Gaelic language use in the Western Isles, in Staffin on Skye and in Tiree.

The book, published by Aberdeen University Press, costs £25 and can be bought from The Gaelic Books Council. However, you can depress yourself for nothing by reading online an article in The Irish Times by Eanna O Caollai from last July at https://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/uk/scottish-gaelic-at-point-of-collapse-major-study-finds-1.4296760 . We’re told the researchers found that in the areas studied, Gaelic was “rarely used by younger generations following its accelerated decline as the community vernacular since the early 1980s”. Most speakers are over 50 and are using Gaelic in “fragile and marginal social networks”. These communities are now in the final stage of a shift to English and are expected to be monolingual in English within ten years; in 1981, 80% of the resident population spoke Gaelic but in 2011, it was down to 52%. The conclusion is that Gaelic is on its way to being a “heritage language”, no longer a community language in any part of Scotland.

The journalist points out that the situation in Ireland – with few community speakers of Irish Gaelic and irrelevant public support for these communities – is similar to that in Scotland, though it’s maybe facing a slightly less severe crisis as Irish is a core curricular subject for its young people. In the not too distant future however, Gaelic will just be part of both countries’ heritage but it will not be a “living language”, as fewer and fewer people speak it in its former heartlands coupled with the “irrelevance of formal public support and provision for the Gaelic community”. In spite of all the doom and gloom of the findings, there is still a call for “relevant initiatives to avert the loss of vernacular Gaelic” and I note with some hope in my heart that Chapter 9 of the book is titled “Towards a New Model for the Revival of the Gaelic Community”.

The Scottish Government’s current Gaelic Language Plan covers the years 2018 to 2023 and there’s been one in place since 2010. In The National on 16 July, Gregor Young had an article called “Government bids to boost ‘frail’ Gaelic” in which he publicises the launch of Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville’s consultation on this plan, an appeal for views on ways for the “government and partners to promote and enable the use of the language” if “it is to have a sustainable future”. The consultation paper acknowledges that “there needs to be a concerted effort on the part of Government, the public sector, the private sector, community bodies and individual speakers” with the aim of maximising “the opportunities to use, learn and promote the language”. No time to lose, I’d say.

VisitScotland has produced a ‘toolkit’ – no hammers or sharp knives, but “advice and resources” for using Gaelic to “improve tourists’ experiences” and to “position Scotland as a unique and special holiday choice”. Many tourists I believe are looking for some kind of authentic experience when they come to Scotland, but very often they don’t even come close to finding it. I’m reminding myself now of one of the online comments about the good old NC500 – see The Hurts in the Highlands . Many Highland hospitality workers are run ragged at the moment trying to provide any kind of service, what with Covid and Brexit and shortages and some appalling behaviour from a minority of visitors, so I hope that if they have time to open this ‘toolkit’ they will find things of substance rather than vague suggestions.

The redoubtable Joy Dunlop is involved in a new SpeakGaelic initiative launching in about 7 weeks. It’s a collaboration among MG Alba, Sabhal Mor Ostaig and the BBC which intends to be a “wide-ranging, multi-faceted learning brand”; “Oh dear”, I thought on reading that phrase, “will this be suitable for a cailleach“? It aims to “empower lapsed or less confident speakers to use Gaelic with courage”. I liked that phrase and, although there’s a bit of a cowardly lion in me, I’ve signed up.

As a learner, I know it’s not just about getting more folk to learn as I usually don’t speak Gaelic from one Zoom class to the next unless I happen to meet a neighbour, originally from Barra. I know I’m unlikely now to get to the stage where I’ll be thinking in Gaelic or even be approaching fluency, and I can understand why some native speakers get cross with all the emphasis going on encouraging learners. I look back with regret at the opportunities for learning and speaking I passed up when I was young but I intend to keep on thinking about how it has shaped and is continuing to shape the language I speak.

Sorley Maclean said that Gaelic was a small thing but while it existed, it would always be loved.

A mixter-maxter

Here’s A varity, as Chirsty Hamish would have said, in her case pointing to a loaded table. I can’t seem to concentrate on one topic at the moment so you’re just getting a few updates and connections to previous posts:

1 I tried out the Lebanese recipe Hindbeh bi zeit ( see Going down to the woods ) and it was my first attempt at cooking dandelion leaves, rather than just tearing them into a mixed salad. While two sliced onions were frying gently in a wee bit of olive oil, I boiled a handful of dandelion leaves for five minutes, which is said to get rid of their bitter taste, then dooked them in cold water. When the onions – or the ingans, as Uncle John used to say – were soft and nicely browned, I added the drained leaves plus some salt, chilli flakes and lemon juice. This mixture I stirred gently off the heat until combined, as it’s meant to be eaten when lukewarm rather than hot. Next time, I’d add more dandelion leaves as from the pictures I’ve seen, they’re the main ingredient and maybe add some garlic to the onions. I would recommend the dish wholeheartedly.

2 I seem to write a fair amount about the NC 500 and how it’s affected local communities ( see for example The Hurts in the Highlands ) so I was very interested to read a Press and Journal article by Mike Merritt on 14 June: “Community of Applecross to be asked if they want to ‘withdraw’ from NC 500“. The Applecross Community Council are considering a local poll on withdrawing from NC 500 marketing over concerns about “waste management, traffic volumes, littering and pollution” . The Bealach na ba is regularly blocked for hours at a time, particularly by camper vans whose owners insist on taking the road in a show of bravado despite warnings of its unsuitability for them; this causes problems for residents and responsible visitors alike.

Those in favour of withdrawal feel that Applecross can stand alone in attracting ‘green’ tourists who appreciate a more relaxing holiday. Some longstanding visitors have been put off returning due to the volume of traffic on the Bealach and the number of folk just passing through the village but leaving plenty of mess behind them. One B & B owner is quoted in the article: “Some of my regular guests who came to stay for more than a couple of days have since decided that Applecross is no longer for them, which is sad”. Not all the local business owners agree with the idea of withdrawing from the circuit of course, but if nothing else the poll may be a warning to the NC 500 folk to tone down their racetrack marketing of the route.

The Applecross community seem to be very active in protecting their area: they’ve been successful in applying to the Scottish Land Fund for money to improve local woodland and also to develop affordable housing so local people can stay in the area.

3 This reminds me of another bee in Splendid, Bella!’s bonnet which is the housing crisis in the Highlands (see the link above and also Should we all just bide at home? ). I was very annoyed to see a headline from The Times: “Where to buy property in the Outer Hebrides“. No wonder house prices are beyond the means of local young people with this kind of promotion of second homes and of buying-to-let; landowners and property developers are doing very well out of this trend. In some places, housing agents are going door to door offering cash to acquire properties – and it’s not just happening in scenic areas of Scotland. In parts of Wales, and in Devon and Cornwall there are villages with very few fulltime residents; “greed displaces need” as George Monbiot was writing in The Guardian on 23 June in “2nd homes are a gross injustice“. Here in Scotland, the new government urgently needs to get this problem sorted out before we too have wintertime ghost villages – if we haven’t got them already.

4 Statues are continuing to cause controversy, with Sir John A Mcdonald being the latest in the frame. (See also “If I go there will be trouble And if I stay it will be double” and Some names to remember ). On 19 June, his statue was taken down in Kingston, Ontario to be put into storage before then likely being erected in Catarqui Cemetery where he’s buried; this happened after a council vote of 12 – 1. Another statue of him was removed in Victoria, British Columbia in 2018 while the one in Montreal was pulled down in 2020, after having been splattered with red paint.

He was born in Glasgow in 1815, with a father from Rovie Craig in Sutherland where the community was cleared to make way for a farm, and with grandparents from nearby Rogart. His father moved first to Fourpenny, near Dornoch and then to Glasgow. The family emigrated to Canada when John A Mcdonald was about 5. (Spelling of family name often given as Macdonald.) He became Canada’s first prime minister and served two terms: 1867 to 1873 and from 1875 to 1891. What has made him now infamous is his introduction of a system of compulsory residential schools for indigenous children which ran from 1876 to 1996 – yes, 1996!

At least 150,000 children were forcibly removed from their families and taken to one of 130 schools which might have been hundreds of miles from their family home. This was done with the intention of “stripping Indigenous children of their culture, language and everything that made them Indigenous” or as “one official wrote in 1910”, the schools were “geared towards the final solution of our Indian problem”. These two quotes are from a harrowing article in The Observer by Justin Ling on 6 June this year – “The school took away my brother at five. A year later, he was in an unmarked grave“. In early June, the unmarked graves of 215 children were uncovered at the site of a former school in Kamloops, British Columbia, which had closed in 1978. On 24 June, 751 bodies were uncovered at the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan and it is thought there are another 20 unmarked grave sites throughout Canada. Up to 6,000 children died in the unheated and insanitary schools from “suicide, neglect and disease”; survivors have spoken of physical and sexual abuse and many of the children never returned to their home communities.

The children had to speak English or French. If they were heard using their own language, their mouths were washed out with soap. (“Survivors of Canada’s “cultural genocide” still healing“, by Micah Luxen on BBC news website, 4 June 2015). Canada made a formal apology in 2008 and a Truth and Reconciliation Committee then spent many years listening to survivors and other witnesses; their report in 2015 described the practice as “cultural genocide” and it made 94 recommendations. Many Canadians however are unhappy about progress made on putting these recommendations into practice and “the government of Justin Trudeau is fighting a class action lawsuit that is seeking reparations for the broader effort to destroy Indigenous language, culture and identity”. Mr Trudeau was quoted this week after the most recent graves were uncovered, saying they were a “shameful reminder of the systemic racism, discrimination and injustice that indigenous peoples have faced.” Maybe he should stop fighting the lawsuit right now rather than lose it in a further blaze of bad publicity – not that I know all the details of course.

A biography of John A Mcdonald was deleted from the Scottish Government website in 2018 and a statement added: “We acknowledge controversy around Sir John A Macdonald’s legacy and the legitimate concerns expressed by indigenous communities”. On Rogart Heritage’s website there is a note: “The Prime Minister’s bloody past, with its dreadful consequences for the people of Canada’s First Nations, are now better understood and a cairn in his honour would not be built today” – https://rogartheritage.co.uk/places/cairn/ The cairn referred to, built on the site of his grandparents’ home at Dalmore, Rogart and with stones from what remained of their house, was dedicated in 1968 by Canada’s then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, some of whose ancestors had been cleared from the Strath of Kildonan. The Bonar & Ardgay pipe band played at the opening ceremony.

5 The Galloway Hoard ( see Bringing them all back home Part 2 ) has now gone on display in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh until 12 September. Yes, it’s going to ‘tour’ to Kirkcudbright Galleries in October but my point is why does it not stay permanently in Galloway, and if necessary ‘tour’ to Edinburgh? Why do these treasures have to be centralised in Edinburgh where there’s already plenty to see and do?

The Viking burial hoard was discovered in two distinct layers by a metal detectorist in Kirkcudbrightshire in 2014 and has been undergoing conservation, intriguing experts with its mix of Viking, Anglo-Saxon and Christian objects, together with the earliest remains of silk yet found in Scotland and a jar with Zoroastrian symbols. You can read more about the objects in a Herald Magazine article of 12 June called “Buried treasure” by Sarah Urwin Jones – though either the journalist herself or her editor twice manage to misspell the placename.

6 Influenced by Monty Don, I’m letting my grass at the back turn into a meadow of sorts ( see I would have given you flowers ). I’ve got daisies galore which I had anyway, mowing round them when they were at their finest, and there are lots more coming up between my sitooterie stones; there are buttercups which in previous years I’d tried to pull out and wild hyacinths which I always tolerated at the edge of the grass as their leaves fade away so quickly – though already having plenty, I pull out the flower stem to stop the seeds dropping. Two patches of eyebright have appeared which I recognise from Uncle Ken’s teaching and the speedwell which I transplanted from some waste ground last spring is flourishing. I’m hoping for some clover flowers as i see some of their leaves. Baby primroses which also seeded on the sitooterie have been moved to semi-shaded areas, though I’m allowing thyme to creep along between the stones.

I’ve cut a path along by the washing lines with my beloved push mower and I’m liking the tall grasses swaying in the wind but I can’t help thinking I’m storing up trouble for myself in the autumn. It’s all very well for Monty Don who has likely got a scythe and the ability to use it, plus an apprentice to help, but I’ll have to hack at the long grass with my edging shears and then take a run at what’s left with the mower. Maybe I should just enjoy the movement of the different grasses and stop fretting about what happens when the summer has gone.

7 And finally – nothing to do with the price of fish – and I never thought I’d be saying this as I’ve never much cared for him before, but good on you Cristiano Ronaldo for moving two Coca Cola bottles out of the sight of the cameras at a press conference and wiping either $2 billion or $4 billion or $5.2 billion off their share price, depending on where you read the story. In December 2020, an annual survey of discarded plastic bottles in 55 countries showed that Coca Cola were, for the third year running, the world’s worst polluters. They must also have made a monumental worldwide contribution to poor health and obesity, along with other sugary drinks manufacturers, though this is something the company rejects, blaming lack of exercise instead. Laura Reiley wrote about this in a revealing article in The Washington Post on 18 December 2019 – “Coca Cola internal documents reveal efforts to sell to teens despite obesity crisis“. Re-branding themselves as a “total beverage company”, now also selling water and juices, they’ve been sponsoring the Olympic Games since 1928 and are currently one of the sponsors of the European Football Championships, which is where they met with Ronaldo’s disapproval. A Coca Cola bottle, hurled from the capacity crowd in the Budapest stadium, bounced off the back of his neck after his second goal against France the other night, but whether it was his scoring skills or his health advice that provoked the fan’s ire I don’t know.

At Hampden meanwhile, fans are not allowed to take in bottles and all they’ve been getting to sustain them during the matches is a paper cup of cold water, much healthier but alas in Coca Cola branded cups. They’d not be much cope for hurling at Patrik Schick or Luka Modric, though we Scotland fans are inured to disappointment and can admire a good goal when we see one – depending on who we’re playing maybe.

Going down to the woods

I first saw bags of wild garlic leaves for sale at a farmers’ market, but last spring I recognised it growing on either side of a burn on one of my favourite local woodland walks. I was back there recently with a wee plastic bag, trying to take only a couple of leaves from each patch but harvest away from the path (to cut down on possibilities of dog-urine contamination) without doing any trampling of other leaves. I was concentrating so hard on this that another early morning walker was almost right beside me before I noticed her; for some reason, I immediately started explaining myself. Luckily she was interested, saying that she’d like to try foraging for herself and when I told her about my plans for pesto and gave her a rough recipe, she said that I’d “inspired” her to have a go. So I felt good, twice over!

My source of wild garlic, taken earlier on in the spring before the white flowers appeared.
For the pesto, I use the leaves but also some flowers, given a quick dicht under the cold tap, tearing them up a bit; I add either pine nuts or pumpkin seeds, some olive oil (a few drops at a time) and grated hard Italian cheese. If you want it even more garlicky, you could also put in a couple of garlic cloves. Unless you’ve only got a few leaves, don’t use a toatie wee blender like this one as it took me four goes to make enough pesto to fill a takeaway tub, instead of doing it in a oner. The leaves keep without wilting in a plastic bag in the fridge for several days but make sure you seal the bag or not only the fridge but your whole kitchen will be reeking of garlic. The pesto freezes well.

The strong smell helps to identify the leaves, but watch out for other plants growing nearby; advice is to pick leaf by leaf to make sure you’re getting only the wild garlic. This point was included in Ellie Violet Bramley’s article in The Observer on 14 March this year: “Wild garlic, nettles and berries … how foraging went mainstream“, which has an excellent photo of the flowers as well as the leaves. Ms Bramley writes about how lockdown has led to a growing interest in using the wild plants which folk have been noticing on their daily walks; many restaurants are also including foraged ingredients and there are more courses available throughout the UK. She also explains how in the past “we had a much stronger connection with wild food” which started to change after the industrial revolution when the use of edible flowers in food declined; Liz Knight (see below) is quoted as saying “it was seen as being down-at-heel country stuff, unsophisticated”.

In Flora Celtica (written by Milliken and Bridgewater), we learn that a “carbonised bulb, found in the remains of Fairy Knowe broch in Stirlingshire, suggests that this plant may have featured in Scottish cuisine for a very long time”. Nowadays, they point out that it’s the leaves we eat, either cooked or raw in salads but there are also commercially-made sauces and cheeses which use wild garlic. They include a story told by a Liverpudlian evacuated to Ayrshire in 1940: “Onions were rarer than gold … but this was no problem, as we just went up the banks of the River Afton and picked as much wild garlic as we wanted. It seemed a kindly thought to keep posting some back to our next-door neighbour still stuck among the bombs in Liverpool. She was ever so pleased, but not so the postman. There were no polythene bags in those days, so his sack reeked permanently of the stuff till we returned three years later.”

I’ve heard it called ramsons, but seemingly that’s a form of wild garlic, as is bear garlic which I hadn’t come across before. There’s a very good 5-minute film on the Wild Food site you could have a look at: https://www.wildfooduk.com/edible-wild-plants/wild-garlic-2/ If you’re wanting some this year, you’ll have to be quick as it’ll all disappear over the summer. Mind and not take too much, especially from the one spot – and don’t pull up clumps. As well as making pesto, it can go in risottos, in soups, in omelettes, into garlic butter, into sauces and there’s even someone in Oban putting it into tattie scones.

I’ve just been out into the garden, braving our May wind and rain, to get dandelion leaves to add to a salad. I was going on about this last year in Make do and mend, but now I’m eating the flowers as well as the leaves; I was a bit wary at first but eventually just put one into my gob – they’ve got an interesting texture with only a slight bitter aftertaste. I’m still tearing the leaves up quite small and mixing them with lettuce but in Grazia magazine a while ago, I found a recipe for Sauteed Dandelions by Liz Knight, included in her book Forage: Wild Plants to Gather, Cook and Eat. The leaves are boiled for 5 minutes (to take away bitter taste), then dooked in iced water, drained, squeezed and added to a pan of fried onions; this is served at room temperature with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkle of chilli flakes. She also had the word Hinbeh in her title which I found out is the name of the Lebanese dish using the same ingredients, also called Hindbeh Bi Zeit; dandelions it seems have been used for a long time in Lebanese cookery. According to https://www.healthline.com.nutrition, they’re full of vitamins A, C and K and minerals including iron, Calcium, magnesium and potassium. We’ve no shortage of them at the moment, so get outside and start picking. If you can’t bring yourself to eat them, they “can be combined with nettles for a most cleansing and helpful bath” (Feed Your Face a complete herbal guide to natural beauty and health by Dian Dincin Buchman).

I now only need to go to the back garden to get sorrel though the slugs are also very fond of it and sometimes whole leaves are stripped before I get to them. As with the dandelions, I just add them in small pieces to salads but in The Herb and Spice Book, Sarah Garland says to “cook them in butter or puree with cream or add to soups and sauces”. She adds that “this cooling, cleansing herb” can be taken “for fevers, and for bladder, liver and kidney complaints” or we can “use juice from the leaves as a poultice for skin troubles”. For good measure, “A strong infusion will remove stains from linen, wicker and silver”. I should experiment using it on some old linen tablecloths.

Here’s more of the red-veined sorrel, slightly out of focus, coming up between the stones of my sitooterie, at least three feet from the mother plant in my herb bit; the herbs are currently masked by wild hyacinths but their leaves die away so effectively in a short time that I’ve taken no steps to cull them.

I’ve now subscribed to the blog The Middle Sized Garden which you can find on YouTube and recently on 8 May, they had a feature “All about edible flowers ..” to put in salads, cakes, drinks and into ice cubes. You can see an interview with Tanya Anderson who recommends adding elderflowers, lilac and lavender to gin; she uses rose petals, primroses and lilac when making ice cubes and she puts mild-flavoured primroses, cornflowers, nasturtiums, pea and runner bean flowers in her salads. In her baking, she’s used bolted rocket flowers, tulips and wild garlic but warns these have a strong taste so we’re to choose wisely to match the flavour of our cakes. I tried some of my lemon thyme in a lemon loaf once – as I saw Nigel Slater doing it – but maybe I was too timid with my amount as I can’t say there was a strong flavour. I’ve got lemon balm seeding in different parts of the garden so maybe I’ll try that next; lemon verbena is very nice in fruit salads and drinks but I can’t seem to keep it alive over the winter here.

Ms Anderson warns us off using supermarket or other shop-bought flowers in these ways as they’ve more than likely been sprayed with chemicals to delay their opening. If it’s a flowering plant you’ve bought, take the flowers off and wait until they’ve re-grown before trying to use them but even then, be aware there could still be a chemical residue.

By way of experiment, I ate one of my primrose flowers but it tasted of nothing at all. They’re very bonny to look at though, so come into their own as a cake decoration or a bit of colour in a green salad. I’m pleased to see more and more of them coming up in the garden. They were being grown for eating in Edinburgh kitchen gardens in the 14th century, along with roses, wallflowers, crocuses (for saffron) and violets; in addition, on Lewis, the dried flowers were used to soothe sore throats and their leaves were used to heal abscesses (Flora Celtica). The big leaves on the right are comfrey which I just use to make a green fertiliser but I know it was used for healing wounds and for skincare; drinking comfrey tea is no longer recommended though and the sale of comfrey products is illegal in the USA.

I was so excited to find just a few days ago that one of my sweet cicely plants had flowered (after 3 years) and Sarah Garland tells me that they “will freely self-seed”. The leaves, the seeds and the roots of the plant can all be used. The leaves can go into salads and as they have a sweet taste, “… if cooked with sour fruit such as rhubarb or gooseberries will reduce the need for sugar. As a natural sweetener it is a useful addition to a diabetic diet.” She says the seeds have a “sweetly liquorice flavour” and recommends putting unripe ones into salads, cream or ice cream; ripe ones can go into apple pies – used like cloves. “The roots are most praised by herbalists – as a protection against the plague when candied or boiled”. Let’s hope we don’t have to bear that in mind!

Sweet cicely flowers and their ferny leaves in my supposedly all-white flowerbed. It’s been invaded by forget-me-nots which I thought I’d successfully pulled out last summer; I shall carry out another purge this year as I have plenty in the rest of the garden. The spent cherry and magnolia blossoms will soon disappear.

(Maybe one day soon I’ll learn to put text alongside the pictures but this new block editor and I are still very far from being friends.)

The Hurts in the Highlands

I’ve gone down this road at least twice before – with Should we all just bide at home? in March 2019, plus Back in the Highlands in August 2020 – but make no apologies for being on it again. Even before travel restrictions were lifted within Scotland, some concerns were being expressed by folk living in rural areas about the coming influx of tourists. Most of these worries were based on the experiences of summer 2020 and fears that this year would bring more of the same, especially on the rapidly-becoming-notorious North Coast 500 route.

Last summer, Durness Community Council wrote to the Scottish Government, highlighting the problems they were experiencing: “In the past few weeks we have been swamped by so-called ‘wild campers’. The result has been damage to our area through rubbish, fires, human waste being left in ever-increasing amounts throughout our area, in beauty spots and even in the centre of the village”. They added: “We love where we live and love welcoming visitors to our small slice of paradise. Give us the protections, tools and help to welcome them safely and protect us from those that would damage what we have so long strived to build”. In an article in The Herald on 1st August 2020, the NC500 company are reported as saying that “investment and maintenance of public infrastructure in the north Highlands – such as public toilets, public litter bins and refuse collection and human waste disposal – as well public access (sic), is the responsibility of the Highland Council and Scottish Government”. The executive chairman of NC500 Ltd defended their work as “one of the biggest tourism success stories Scotland has seen for years – an incredibly effective branding and marketing initiative that has brought an unprecedented visitor boom to some of the nation’s most remote areas of natural beauty”. In addition, he underlined the estimated £23 million brought into the local economy and the approximately 180 full-time jobs they were responsible for creating. (“NC500 community petitions Sturgeon over tourist blight“, 1 August 2020 )

What consultation was there I wonder with local communities before this marketing exercise was launched six years ago? Who was making sure that the facilities would be adequate for the increased number of tourists or that the roads could support the additional traffic? Did anybody think that the chosen logo of a racing flag might encourage the idea that it was a route to be sped around as fast as possible? I was reading recently that Anders Holch Povlsen of Wildland, Danish owner of 220,000 acres of land in the north, now owns the NC500 route – how can somebody ‘own’ all these roads? How does this work?

As well as the downsides I’ve already mentioned, there’s also been criticism about travellers staying only one night in an area, about the increase in air pollution, holdups on single track roads and about tourist business being taken away from the interior of Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross.

Residents of Applecross have taken action to defend their community against the here-today-gone-tomorrow-leave-mess-for-others brigade of tourists. In “NC500 route gears up for big tourism challenge … by fighting dirty” (The Herald, 27 March 2021), Mike Merritt writes about the digging of ditches and the rolling of rocks around the village to prevent stupid parking on the shoreline; notices have also been put up with instructions to take litter home and not to leave human waste behind. Applecross Community Council also want to promote ‘slow tourism’ and attract visitors “who care about green tourism”.

I also read somewhere recently about one response being the appointment of tourist wardens and I thought “That could be a seasonal job for me” – though realistically I’d be better as an overseer, dealing with the morning paperwork after the wardens had been out through the night, armed with Thunderer Whistles, to waken, fine and move on anyone overnighting in a passing place or beside an ancient monument such as Ardvreck Castle. The polis can’t be everywhere.

Jamie Stone, Lib Dem MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross wants a camper van congestion charge in the area and, cut my fingers off, but I agree with him. There are so many blogs now about camper van tours on this route, including one that fair put up my blood pressure as the writer boasted about taking roads advertised as unsuitable: she deliberately went south to Lochinver via Drumbeg for example and then the next day, it was over the Bealach na Ba for her. These are the types of visitors who put off not only locals, but their fellow travellers: comments online include the coorse but no doubt correct description of the route as being “full of influencer-type bellends”; another described witnessing a group “kicking off as they couldn’t get into a fully-booked Applecross Hotel to eat”; a third warned fellow-English visitors not to “expect a Scottish experience as you could go the entire route and not meet a Scottish person”.

A more positive story emerged in The Inverness Courier on 30 April this year: “New company formed to buy hotels on North Coast 500 route“, written by Caroline McMorran. A newish company called Highland Coast Hotels Ltd has already bought the Kylesku Hotel and has plans to buy another 7 on both the west and east coast sections of the route. These will be open all year round so employment will be regular; they intend to use local supply chains and get local craftspeople involved. The chief executive, Roddy Watt, says that he and his fellow directors are “responsible people” who will focus on “slow, environmentally friendly tourism integrated into local communities” and not those “whizzing around the NC 500 at the rate of knots”. Their target market is high-end, but other folk who can’t afford fancy prices for food and accommodation but who want a peaceful Highland holiday also deserve to be catered for.

The Isle of Skye is another place where tourism is a double-edged sword. For years now, there have been reports of the island being full-up at times, pictures of cars parked any old how at beauty spots and of local people being priced out of the housing market by buy-to-let absentee landlords. On 18th April, there was a long letter in the Sunday National from a woman in Portree reflecting on how “Covid gave the island time to breathe, the environment to recover and the residents some time to enjoy their home.” She’s supportive of the new small businesses that have been set up, believing that they’ll retain some of Skye’s young population, but she’s rightly critical about the state of the local housing market, having a good go at not just “greedy absentee landlords” but also the online platforms and estate agents that “promote ‘property portfolios’ encouraging buy-to-short-let”. I didn’t know before that owners of Airbnb properties, which are second homes, don’t pay council tax and I can well understand why she’s angry that the profits from these houses don’t feed into the island community.

The estimable Andy Wightman had a full-page article in the Sunday National on 2 May on this very topic: “New normal is an opportunity to make tourism kinder on fragile communities“. He quotes Iomairt an Eilein, a group of young people on Skye who wrote to candidates in the Scottish Parliament election: “Profiteering investors are ransacking our island”. They believe it’s not just their communities but also their culture which will die unless strong action is taken. Mr Wightman has suggestions to make: regulating the housing market, changing planning law, capital gains tax on second home sales, “rights of pre-emption at local market rates” and councils able to buy land for new housing at existing-use value. In the meantime, he urges holidaymakers to take an interest in who owns the property they’re intending to stay in and to try not to be part of the problem. (What a pity he failed to be re-elected as an independent MSP on the Highland Regional list, especially as several members of the landed gentry got in, plus of course the Chief Tumshie himself.)

It’s not just Scotland that has these problems. The Covid pandemic has exposed once more Barcelona’s over-reliance on tourism, as Stephen Burgen wrote in The Observer on 2 August last year: “Empty Barcelona rues its reliance on tourist trade“. In the Ciutat Vella, the old city, which had “oriented itself almost entirely to tourism, soaring rents drove out traditional businesses and local residents.” The holiday-lets businesses had brought huge profits to their owners but had left the area with not enough local people “to sustain local commerce”. Now, Mr Burgen says, Barcelona will need to think about its future and “many in city hall believe it should focus on being a cultural destination”. Take note, Edinburgh.

I’ll finish with two recommendations for articles exploring the future of world tourism. In https://worldcrunch.com/food-travel/regenerative-travel-will-the-pandemic-end-mass-tourism , Antonio Orti explains that regenerative tourism means visitors not only not damaging the places they visit, but making things better, and with local people seeing tourists “not as threatening but as beneficial”. It’s “an approach to travel that is respectful of ecosystems and the social fabric of destinations, while also being economically viable”. He refers to Belgium, New Zealand, Hawaii and Norway and also asks important questions such as whether we really just want to go back to what we did before and if local communities can take on the big companies and win.

Vijay Kolinjvadi of the University of Antwerp opens his article with a picture of crowds at Maya Bay which Thailand closed to tourists in 2018 “until its ecosystem returns to its full condition”. In https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/2/18/it-is-time-to-end-extractive-tourism , he loses no time in getting wired into those who believe they have the right to go to far away places with the freedom to do as they please at the “expense of local communities who suffer from the abuse of their land by tourism corporations and their local partners”. He questions whether local people benefit in either rural or urban areas; he outlines the environmental damage that can be done; he considers the effects of the pandemic, warning “the return to normal in the tourism sector does not only mean a return to the old exploitative and extractive practices but also poses a deadly prospect for the struggling host communities”. He advocates more leisure time for workers in the west so that we don’t feel the same urge to escape on a two-week holiday. He wants people living near “sites of cultural heritage or natural beauty” to decide how to manage them and to be able to keep the revenue from them. More controversially, he believes that in the post-pandemic world, air travel should be restricted to “essential purposes” – “The pandemic grounded flights; responding to climate change demands the same.”

The New York Times may have described regenerative tourism as “unicorn” but I feel sure that the young people of Skye fearing for the future of their home island would feel much in common with the tree planters of southern New Zealand and their Maori concept of tiaki – caring for people and place.

I would have given you flowers

The daffodils are out in my local park and they’ve fair lifted my flagging spirits on these cold mornings we’ve been having recently. I can’t help noticing though the number of broken ones and wonder whether this is because of dogs or children running unsupervised through them. The squashed heads on the paths have clearly come from deliberate acts of sabotage; I wouldn’t mind so much if the odd few were picked to take home but wanton destruction I cannot thole.

I’ve written about the power of flowers before in The flowers of the forests and the fields and the hills and in both “Seems it never rains in Southern California” and in part 4 of A varity I was bemoaning the way that some folk can spoil what so many of us love when the first flowers appear.

In December, I spotted a hopeful article on the Guardian website by the well-named Patrick Greenfield: “Wildflower meadows to line England’s new roads in boost for biodiversity” (1 December 2020). He tells us that Highways England intend to promote the growth of wildflowers along “new large-scale road projects”. Contractors will have to “create conditions for species-rich grasslands to thrive using low fertility soils” and “The verges will then be allowed to regenerate naturally or be seeded with wildflowers.” This low-maintenance approach is very different from spreading topsoil which encourages the growth of grass, nettles, dockens etc which then have to be continually hacked back.

Another Patrick writing about flowers on the Guardian website is Patrick Barkham who produced: “Flower power! The movement to bring back Britain’s beautiful meadows” (28 January 2021) in which he considers the needs of plants and insects versus the demand for more food-producing fields. In the 20th century, he tells us that “more than 97% of Britain’s wildflower meadows were destroyed” with the loss not just of their flowers but of their insects too. The charity Plantlife is spearheading a re-creation of meadowland by stripping off the top layer of grass and spreading an area with hay and a mix of local wildflower seeds. The area is cut just once a year after the flowers have set their seed and the grass cuttings are removed to discourage regrowth of grass, leaving more space for flowers. Prince Charles is a big supporter of this initiative and contributed 90 acres to mark the 60th anniversary of his mother’s coronation – as a Scottish republican, all I can say is good on him.

Barkham explains that eating meadowgrass is beneficial for livestock as “they take in natural herbal medicines, such as bird’s foot trefoil, which reduces gut parasites”. He describes initiatives (in England) such as planting on garden strips to playing fields to creating woodmeadows – these are a “mosaic of grass and woodland that was once widespread in ancient Britain and still occurs in Scandinavia and eastern Europe”.

He ends his article with tips on how to create your own wildflower area or join a local group to support a community initiative. I’m going to experiment in my back by only cutting a few strips for walking on my ‘lawn’ and then see what happens; I’ve already transplanted a few self-sown primroses from in between flagstones and the speedwell which I took last year from a bit of waste ground near my house looks as if it’s prospering. (I only took a wee bit and there was lots left.) Monty Don of Gardeners World says we should stop cutting and obsessing about lawns and he’s right though he’s taking a fair bit of flak. If I could be bothered, I’d be sending flak to the BBC for the absurd cancellation of his programme on Friday night there!

In and around Barcelona last year, the lockdown gave nature a helping hand. The city parks were shut so no gardening went on and they had more rain than usual which resulted in increased plantgrowth, more insects and more birds. Stephen Burgen was writing about this in The Observer on 31 January: “Wild at heart: Barcelona welcomes nature back into the urban jungle“. The city has a biodiversity programme and its head is quoted as saying they’d had pre-pandemic plans to bring more natural life into the area; she feels that the inhabitants will now be more welcoming of the changes they’re making. They’re “creating 783,300 sq metres of green open space, including an area around the landmark Sagrada Familia basilica, and 49,000 sq metres of “greened” streets”; nesting towers, beehives and insect hotels will be there too. Roof gardens are being made, one on an old block near the port, the roof of which has been planted “with 10,000 native perennials that are pollinator friendly and drought resistant, to provide flowers all year round, as well as feeding and nesting places for birds.”

Dearest to my heart though, is their pilot scheme called Alcorques Vivos “which plants wildflowers at the base of trees in the streets, rather than surrounding them with pavement or grating”. I thought I’d found an image which wasn’t copyrighted but although I had it in my downloads, I got an incomprehensible message about why I couldn’t add it here. So Google Alcorques Vivos images and imagine them transferred to Glasgow’s poor old Sauchiehall Street or the newly pedestrianised George Street in Edinburgh – renamed George Mackay Brown Street.

Here in not always so bonnie Scotland, Scottish National Heritage produced an 86-page report in 2013 on “The management of roadside verges for biodiversity”. Plantlife Scotland estimate that there are 556 species of wild plants on road verges in Scotland, which represents about half of all our wildflowers. There’s a petition to send to your Local Authority at https://www.plantlife.org.uk/roadvergecampaign . I’ve seen some evidence of local authority wildflower planting on a local roundabout which is covered with daffodils at the moment and last summer was smothered with poppies and cornflowers; in fact I was going to drive round it several times to identify what else was on it but resisted the temptation in the interests of others’ safety. Many roadsides have natural plantlife on them which just needs conservation. This is the second spring in a row I haven’t seen the primroses along the north bank of the A837 in the woods near Innis nan Lion but I know they are there.

There are wildflower projects that I know of in Stirling and on Islay. For more information, see https://www.onthevergestirling.com and there was an article in the Oban Times a year or so ago about the Islay initiative – https://www.obantimes.co.uk/2019/12/1/islays-roadside-verges-set-for-floral-enhancement . There’s lots more good stuff at https://scottishpollinators.wordpress.com .

Last month I spotted an item on the BBC Wales news site: “Mother’s Day: How sustainable are the flowers you buy?” by Caitlin Arlow on 14 March. She wrote about Shannon Thomas, a young florist with a business in Pontypridd who “aims to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint”. 90% of the flowers we import into the UK come from the Netherlands where they grow in heated greenhouses, before being transported here in huge refrigerated lorries; more and more are being flown in from Kenya involving eyewatering airmiles and concerns about workers being unprotected from the use of pesticides. Ms Thomas is quoted as saying: “People don’t really know that traditional flowers aren’t sustainable and they are quite oblivious to the impact they have on the environment. They see fresh flowers available all year round and they’re not really aware of the mass production involved in getting them to the stores.” She grows flowers on an allotment and tries to use seasonal UK flowers so this involves educating her customers about the way that weather impacts on availability and the customers’ need to be flexible in their ‘demands’. (The other day I saw mixed bunches of roses and tulips – what in the name of the wee man is that about? No wonder supermarkets have so many of us confused about what’s available and when.) She also wants to move away from single-use plastic and floral foam neither of which can be recycled or composted. She suggests that customers re-use items such as vases and wreath bases and she designs using willow or material that can be recycled. No wonder Shannon Thomas won a Young Innovators Award this year.

There are points of light here too. Briar Rose Design, a flower company in Glasgow, will do “wild wedding flowers” and “natural funeral flowers”; they’re happy to gather plant material from the family garden to use in their floral tribute. Mayfield Flowers, based in Stewarton, also offer to cut and arrange flowers from the deceased’s garden as appropriate. Scottish Cut Flowers in Perthshire, set up in 2017, is run by a young couple who believe that locally grown flowers have a low carbon footprint, support birds and bees and can be grown without the use of toxic chemicals. On top of all that, they are fresher so last longer and they smell like flowers should do. The business based in Errol also has two dogs on the staff with responsibility for “garden reception, mischief, comic relief, companionship and distraction”; they dabble in “obedience, vermin control, and digging holes” but unfortunately can struggle “to stay awake for their entire 8-hour shift”.

Honestly, these bairns!

I’ve been girning intermittently to my nephews for a while now about their messaging techniques which are fair deaving me.  Both The Loon and Rama send me several individual messages seconds apart, some of which contain half a sentence, so I’m on the receiving end of a barrage of beeps.  At first, I thought that something terrible must have happened, but now I know it’s one of them on the go.  My Favourite Niece on the other hand can manage to send one message consisting of several different paragraphs, as can her cousin RMF, but I don’t know if I can say this is a gender thing using a sample of only four. 

Rama has agreed several times to try to gather his thoughts together before sending and has even managed this on one occasion; The Loon realises it’s one of my foibles but clearly hopes I’ll grow out of it.  He patiently explains that’s the way its’s done: have a thought, then press send, repeat as often as necessary.  He has no time either for my complaints about his lack of capital letters and punctuation, insisting that messaging is the same as speaking and that no one speaks in grammatically correct sentences.  When I persisted with my foolish demands, he sent me links to 3 lengthy online articles from The Guardian, The Atlantic and The Ringer which I must admit I only skimmed as they were putting up my blood pressure.   

According to The Loon, a full stop is an indicator of tone in informal communication and that tone is one of anger. (This was news to me as I saw it as an indicator to the reader of the end of one complete piece of information.)  He’s very forceful in his views such as that “cups have no place in baking” and “ml have no place in (the preparation of) coffee or cocktails”; however he has now accepted the existence of my word sitooterie, having found it used more than once used on his beloved Twitter. 

Am I really going to line up with Bernard Ingham who wrote: “I was brought up to believe full stops are vital to communication” and with Deborah Ross: “The full stop is now seen as ‘angry’ and … ‘not sincere’ and marks you out as ‘old’, and the fact I can’t understand why it might do any of the above does, I suppose, mark me out as ‘old’ “.   Or take on board what Susannah Goldsbrough wrote: “It’s tempting to think of punctuation as fundamental to communication, a scaffolding without which language would fall apart.  But history tells us something different: punctuation is a convention …  Ancient Greek texts contain no gaps between words, let alone full stops.  It was a system invented (in the late medieval and early modern period, mostly) and standardised (in the Victorian period, mostly) for communication.  We owe punctuation nothing.”

While I’m enormously grateful for The Loon’s technical support with setting up and maintaining this blog, and I acknowledge that he has made a slight (though grudging) movement on the acceptance of words not found in an Oxford English Dictionary, I don’t think I’m yet able to read unpunctuated lower-case messages without my hand itching for a red pen.  Maybe I’ll go back and try reading his recommended articles with my mind slightly ajar this time.  I’m sure it wouldn’t take him or Rama long to compile a lengthy list of things about me that are really annoying.

I wish I could remember which recent columnist was writing about a teenage girl she knew who, during lockdown, had received a handwritten letter from her boyfriend and was treating this gesture as if it had come straight out of Romeo and Juliet.   She was carrying it around, marvelling that he had gone to the bother of finding a piece of paper, he’d written down his thoughts, put the letter in an envelope and carried it to the post office  – this was the ultimate in romance as far as she was concerned.  Take note, lads.                    

Rama is making great strides with his cooking skills but I’ve had to give up on trying to remove the word “vibe” from his vocabulary.  It’s now his washing up technique that does my head in:  he won’t use a basin or fill a sink but instead he keeps the hot tap running while he applies washing up liquid and then dabs at the item.  He insists this is the right way to do it as you don’t get the water dirty and you can rinse as you go along.   I watch him, horrified and fulminating against the waste of water and the overuse of the Fairy Liquid but he just ignores me!  Last time Rama and I shared a kitchen, I messaged The Loon for what I thought would be moral support but he replied that he didn’t even own a basin so he did it the same way and can you waste water anyway?   Really!  What about all that potential saipleis going to waste?  (See Make do and mend)

It was Rama who explained to me about the use of filters when I asked why so many young lassies looked so unnatural in their photos.  Why on earth are they making themselves look as if they’ve been formed out of plastic?  It’s been explained to me that it’s necessary in order to get ‘likes’ on Snapchat and last year, there was research done by Girlguiding (known as the Girl Guides in my day) which found that up to a third of young women will not put selfies  – horrible word  –  online unless they’ve used a filter.  Thankfully, the Advertising Standards Authority has recently decided that so-called influencers will no longer be allowed to use filters when they’re marketing any skincare products or cosmetics.   I don’t know how they’re going to be stopped though, as I understand that the technology is getting even more sophisticated and presumably harder to detect.  

In the January edition of Best of Scotland, free inside my Sunday newspaper, there was a 2-page article about a Glaswegian internet star who’s a “fitness and vegan influencer”.  Some of the points she was making about diet and lifestyle were perfectly sensible and there was an interesting-looking recipe for lemon and garlic spaghetti included but in each of the 4 photos of her, she had her tummy on display including one where she was pouting in a long-sleeved sweatshirt which was hoiked up at the front and tucked into her bra!  As you do, in your kitchen, on a winter’s day, in Glasgow.  In another, she’s wearing a cableknit woollen cardi but it’s falling off one shoulder, the better to display a matching bra top which I thought must be very scratchy.  Honestly, is this really women’s liberation?  Is this what we marched for in the 1970s?   

In The Observer on 21 February, I spotted “Tobacco giant bets £1bn on social media influencers to boost ‘lung-friendly’ sales“.  In this article, Rob Davies and Matthew Chapman write about how British American Tobacco are using influencers on TikTok to promote nicotine pouches to young people to compensate for declining sales of their cigarettes.  The writers provide examples from Sweden, Spain and Pakistan of how these products are being marketed  –  one video from Sweden was captioned: “Every basic bitch in Sweden between the ages of 14 and 23”  and an 18 year old boy was quoted as saying “that half the girls in his class” were using the nicotine pouch “partly thanks to paid partnerships with Instagram influencers”.

There were some of these influencers making the news at the end of last year, claiming their travels to Dubai were work-related while the rest of us were restricted to our local authority area.  Catherine Bennett was writing in The Observer on 28 February about Dubai’s popularity with ‘celebrities’ and holidaymakers and their closed eyes and minds to its “arbitrary detentions, prisoner mistreatment and indentured migrant labour”.   Can these folk also really be unaware and uncaring of the fact that two daughters of the ruler of Dubai have been kidnapped, forcibly returned and subsequently locked up after trying to escape?  Sheikha Shamsa was snatched in Cambridgeshire in 2000 and Sheikha Latifa was grabbed from a boat in the Indian Ocean in 2018.

The father of these two young women  –  Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoun –  owns 62,000 acres in Wester Ross.  He bought this land more than 20 years ago for about £2 million but has rarely if ever visited, claiming that the main property is too small to accommodate his family and their staff.  He recently applied for permission to build another lodge house – and this was granted!  Is he really a fit and proper person to be owning land in our new Scotland?  I’d like to think that if he ever does show up that the local bobbies will be straight round to ask questions about the kidnap of his daughter off an English street and the current whereabouts and welfare of both Shamsa, who would now be 39, and Latifa, now 35.

Not all young folk though are totally obsessed with their online lives.  There’s been a successful recent pilot scheme in Scotland to get young people  aged 18 – 26 walking with the Ramblers organisation.  The project is called the Out There Award, the courses are free and they include routes in towns and cities as well as over the hills and far away; funding came from the Scottish Government and from the People’s Postcode Lottery.  Obviously it’s all been affected by lockdown but will hopefully pick up again over the next few months.  See https://www.ramblers.org.uk

I hope you heard about Skye, a 10 year old Welsh girl who started a campaign against the inclusion of plastic toys as giveaways with children’s comics; Waitrose is the first supermarket to declare they’re going to stop selling these.   And that reminded me of the 9 and 7 year old sisters  –  Ella and Caitlin McEwan from Southampton  –  who in 2019 started a petition against the inclusion of plastic toys with takeaway fast food.  They had success with Burger King but not so far with McDonalds, though they claim they’re working to give away more books, board games and soft toys instead of plastic trock.

Contradictory as ever, I was pleased to hear on the wireless that singer Iona Fyfe campaigned successfully to get Scots recognised as a language on Spotify – whatever that is exactly.

Finally, though it’s nothing to do with the price of fish ( I used to love using that expression with bairns in my working life as it really confused them ), many congratulations to the University of Aberdeen who have decided to return to Nigeria a Benin bronze head, one of thousands of treasures looted by British soldiers in 1897 or as the university put it “acquired in such reprehensible circumstances”.  See also Bringing them all back home Part 2