Festive delicacies and treats few and far between for forebears
A HAPPY New Year to all readers of this column and to the many friends and correspondents who took the time and trouble to write to me from all over the world with additional information, stories and old photographs and to say how much they had enjoyed what I had written during the last 12 months.
As a result, a book based on Morvern Lines since the column began more than three years ago, has been generously approved by the owners of The Oban Times and is now in the pipeline. Watch this space.
As a historian, I am often asked what delicacies and treats our forebears had at this time of the year - not that Christmas was celebrated to the same extent it is today. Indeed, even I can still remember a mail delivery on Christmas Day.
The answer is not many, other than a warm welcome and fine old-fashioned hospitality which, unfortunately, appears to have almost completely disappeared from more rural and remote districts.
Obviously whisky, brandy, port and other homemade beverages, on which no duty had been paid, were easily obtained and what a comfort they must have provided as soul and pain relievers in the armpit of the years, particularly before the days of blue lights and breathalysers.
Some Edinburgh friends who bought a holiday house on Ardnamurchan peninsula a few years ago, learnt the hard way.
They gave a drinks party to a wide circle of friends and neighbours assuming, rather naively, that guests would be familiar with Morningside ‘rules’ - arrive at 6pm and be off two hours later to the next party in much the same way as a herd of heifers might munch their way round a field.
Nine hours later the guests were still enjoying themselves, having devoured several cases of fine wine, a dozen bottles of whisky and emptying the contents of the fridge, store room and even a deep freeze.
Now that was one good party, and who could blame the revellers.
If you live more than 50 miles away you can hardly expect to travel all that distance without giving your host the opportunity to enjoy your company and show off their hospitality - it would be rude!
Needless to say, the soiree didn’t become an annual fixture in their calendar.
Very little food and drink was imported as people were much more self-sufficient than they are today.
They made do with what was available. Sheep, lambs, the odd pig, a kid and perhaps even a heifer, were slaughtered and the various components transformed into dainties.
Where men worked among deer various well-known perquisites came their way. One was the deer’s stomach called the poca-buidhe - Gaelic, the yellow bag - which was washed and boiled and became tripe.
There are four chambers in a deer’s stomach; the rumen, reticulum, omasum and the abomasum. The reticulum was the favourite and was called in Gaelic ‘Currac and righ’ or, in some places, ‘Currachd an righ’ - the king’s hood.
Neil Shaw of Jura, a composer of fine songs and leading figure in the contemporary Gaelic speaking community who laid the foundations of the Gaelic movement of today, recorded in 1917, ‘many stalkers and deer forest ghillies today can’t be bothered to take the deer’s stomach home, but leave it for the ravens and the crows.
‘It shouldn’t be like this. Our fathers made many a good dinner from the king’s hood, long cabbage and good potatoes. Many a thing from the deer hunt could come to the house of the poor man if the ghillies were as economical as they used to be, but Lowland cuisine has reached the edge of the deer forest, even to the most remote bothan in the corrie’.
On the subject of deer I must, in closing, commiserate with fellow Oban Times columnist Robert Robertson, author of the Glasgow Letter and award-winning singer with world-famous band Skipinnish who, according to a fine piece of filming shown on BBC Alba on New Year’s Day, was less successful with the Invergarry stags in his native Lochaber last year than he ought to have been.
We were left none the wiser as to the reason; could it have been that John Cameron, the Kingie Estate head stalker, was too fit for him and tired him out before he reached the firing point, did he confuse his guitar with his trigger finger or was he overcome by the beauty of the hills leaving the muckle hart of Glengarry to kick its heels in the air and canter off into the heather to live another day?
Whatever happened, his fellow bandsmen had to be content not with the king’s hood for their supper back at the lodge that evening but an old broiler. I feel a new song on its way!
Deer often provided the few luxuries at the New Year.