Hark, when the night is falling, Hear, hear, the pipes are calling……..

We all have preconceptions of a place and its people before we go there, based on things we learned at school, television programmes, books we’ve read, sports we follow or even films we’ve watched.
Take Scotland. I’ve never been there but I know all about it ! How?
at every New Year’s Eve party – even south of the border- I’ve linked hands with people and belted out a rousing chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne , penned originally by Scottish poet Rabbie Burns, who died quite young but not before writing some of our best loved poems.
I’ve watched the film ‘Braveheart’ (three times!) It stars Mel Gibson. Who can forget his blue warpaint as he galloped across the Scottish countryside as William Wallace, the fearless leader of the Wars of Scottish Independence.

The real Wallace met a grisly end of course, hanged, drawn and quartered as he was, but let’s not dwell on that.

I’ve seen documentaries about the breathtaking Scottish landscape. Scotland is divided diagonally NE to SW into the Highlands and Lowlands. The Highlands lay claim to Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis – standing at 1,344 metres above sea level –  in global terms not much more than a hill – after all,  Mount Everest is 8,848 metres high , Mount Toubkal in the Atlas range measures 4,165, and even Spain easily beats it with Torre de Cerredo in the Picos de Europa at 2,650 metres  and Aneto in the Pyrennes at 3, 404 metres.

But what mountains anywhere all have in common is the exciting (not to say hare-brained!) range of winter sports that have grown up around them and Scotland has its fair share of those, and also the more sedate sport of curling – and they’re not half bad at it -remember the 2014 Winter Olympics ?  Eve Muirhead captained the Great Britain team to a bronze medal.
Highland Games – one of my earliest memories of anything Scottish is watching a TV programme (I was about 8 at the time). I was flabbergasted to see a huge bear of a man dressed in a skirt and vest, every muscle straining and every vein bulging as he hoisted the end of a tree trunk skyward and it fell with a crash – he was obviously delighted at the outcome but what was he doing?    I later learned that he was ‘tossing the caber’ – this was one of the Herculean tasks participants of the Highland Games were required to perform; at least this particular task was not just to show off the contestants’ strength – in lumber jacking they sometimes needed to toss logs across narrow chasms to cross them.
I’ve read that ……there’s lots of incredible wildlife up there – 70 % of Scotland’s population live in the Lowlands, leaving the Highlands to creatures like grouse (the capercaillie being the largest of them) red deer, which no longer have any natural predators and so numbers now require ‘managing’ by us humans (oh, no!) and all manner of sea birds such as gannet, puffin and the majestic white tailed eagle  – Mull is a good place to see those, I’m told.

And if you venture out onto the water you might see dolphins, seals, even basking sharks – and if you’re really lucky – there’s Nessie – the Loch Ness Monster.

I’ve worn a tartan kilt  and  – who hasn’t heard a rousing band of Scottish pipers at a military tattoo?   Immaculate down to the last detail, marching resolutely  in perfect time or marking time outside the gates to some castle or other, tartan kilts swaying, and sooner or later you know they’ll play the evocative  ‘Scotland the Brave’ whose stirring lyrics and haunting pipes would reduce anyone to tears, Scottish or not.

Scottish gastronomy – well, for me it’s porridge, haggis and whisky! I love porridge, can pass on the haggis, though I’m not averse to a bit of offal, but I don’t like whisky  – or know anything about it, even though it is legendary north of the border. I understand there are literally hundreds of distilleries in Scotland, although I’m not sure how many are still Scottish owned (like every other industry on these islands some distillery owners have been forced to close or sell out to foreign companies  –  I believe Bacardi has taken over some distilleries – is nothing sacred!!) I’m sure there’s more to Scottish cuisine than this (Italian fish ‘n’ chips, for example, if you see what I mean!) but nothing comes to mind.
But famous Scots, well, that’s a different story. I’ve already mentioned two – Rabbie Burns and William Wallace, but what about other popular heroes? There’s Stephen Hendry, snooker ace, Billy Connolly AKA The Big Yin, who played John Brown in the film Mrs. Brown opposite Judi Dench’s Queen Victoria.  The story goes that John Brown, who started off as a humble gillie and servant on the Balmoral estate, became a  source of great comfort to the Queen whilst she was grieving for her dear departed, Prince Albert. And a source of great DIScomfort to those around her as they deemed his friendship inappropriate. Connolly proved his worth as an actor in that film. Another literary figure was Sir Walter Scott, the historical novelist, who was a contemporary of Rabbie Burns, a few years younger. His works include ‘Ivanhoe’ – ring a bell? Set in the Middle Ages – knights, crusades and all that,  you know.
And what of the Scottish character. Anecdotally,  the Scots are said to be ‘careful with their money’. It’s also said that the Scottish accent is one of the most popular and that people more readily trust a Scot in business negotiations.  I don’t know enough Scots well enough to comment. My Spanish husband worked with lots and their accent proved impenetrable to him. On the occasions he could get someone else to interpret he said they had a great sense of humour.
My favourite Scot?  Well, at the moment I think it’s Paolo Nutini –

obviously, descended from Italian immigrants and didn’t fancy going into the family business. I’m assuming that’s his real name, of course, it could be Alistair Stewart, but that wouldn’t matter – I’d still like his songs.

For me it would be a shame if Scotland became independent, not for any clearly defined political reason – simply because I ascribe to the ‘United we stand, divided we fall’ philosophy – if the U.K. fragments into 4 small states it would be like a family of 4 separating  and not seeing each other again – all four members would be weaker and poorer in every way.
I’m looking forward to my trip to Scotland – I feel my education is sadly lacking !! Time to make amends.

That Moveable Feast 'Shrove Tuesday'

pancakeDayShrove Tuesday………. mmm………. takes me right back to the grotty old kitchen of the house we lived in when I was a kid –  dingy, cold stone floor, peeling paint, an ancient gas stove, a clothes urn in the corner – a WHAT? – well, basically, a tub you plugged in which would boil your clothes for you! – obviously long before washing machines were common. You had to extract the steaming clothes with some huge wooden tongs – a risky business! We did acquire a twin tub washing machine later  – the forerunner of today’s automatics.  No mangle, though – that positively dangerous device with two big rubber rollers and an industrial handle – you fed the clothes through between the rollers to rid them of excess water before hanging them on the line;  tumble dryers were still a twinkle in some future inventor’s eye. My grandmother had a mangle though,  and I remember one of my brothers egging the other one on to put his fingers in between the rollers – which he did, of course! silly boy!
Anyway,  back to that grotty old kitchen – mum could work miracles in there on baking day –  she would produce Welsh cakes, apple pies, bread and butter pudding (not the upmarket croissant and white chocolate version of today – this was proper bread pudding made to use up old bread – its original raisin d’être –  (raisin d’être! oh, stop it!)  She could bake anything …..fruit cake, sponge cake, all manner of buns and biscuits –  but one of my favourites was…..the humble pancake, which she only ever made on one day of the year – Shrove Tuesday – and with no fancy additions – just straightforward pancakes with sugar and lemon juice – huge platefuls of them, which  our family of 5 didn’t take long to demolish.
After the age of 8 or 9  my little brother and I spent many a hilarious Shrove Tuesday trying to make and toss  our own pancakes, which invariably ended up on the ceiling, or the floor, or sliding down the side of the tablecloth. Mum took two basic precautions before we started  – (1) putting one of those plastic- coated cloths on the table and (2) not leaving the room, in case we started a fire, but other than that she just stood over by the sink and cringed – until she could bear it no longer and would wail   ‘Oh, Doug……..!’   and dad would appear and restore order.
Of course, we tend to forget the original purpose of Shrove Tuesday – a way of using up all the rich food like fat and sugar in the pantry before Lent, a period of abstinence, which in the Christian faith serves to remind us of the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, renouncing temptation. Even if you aren’t particularly religious I don’t think it’s a bad thing now and again to make a few sacrifices and exercise a bit of self discipline – albeit on a more prosaic level  – something along the lines of giving up wine or chocolate éclairs. It’s a good time, too, for a bit of reflection, evaluation, or maybe even a whole new beginning; I’ve noticed how being ever so slightly hungry sharpens the mind – gives you all sorts of ideas!
Of course, if you want to exercise the body as well, and  you think you can wield a frying pan, toss a pancake and run at the same time, enter a Pancake Race – there’s bound to be a Charity Pancake Day Race near you – or get into training and do it next year if you’ve missed the boat – easily done this year because Easter is early.
Why does it move about you might ask – well, you can blame the moon  – Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after March 21st, so in theory it could fall anywhere between March 22nd and April 25th. I’ll leave the explanations to the experts – different religions work from different calendars, lunar and solar, and then there’s which side of the International Date Line you’re on …….  mmmm……. I’m just thinking – I remember one New Year’s Eve hearing about someone who set himself the challenge of celebrating  New Year in Sydney and then rushing across to ….was it Hawaii?  to celebrate it again and then haring off somewhere else to celebrate it AGAIN! – maybe I could do the same on Shrove Tuesday! More pancakes in more places!
Anyway, one thing that doesn’t change is that Shrove Tuesday is 47 days before Easter, which is, of course, the original moveable feast, unless you’re Ernest Hemingway, in which case it’s Paris.
Pass the lemon juice.