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You Asked, I Answered

Here it is!  My 50th (!!) article for aNewsCafe’, inspired by your questions, comments, and ideas.  There was a wide range of requests, fortunately some overlapping, so I shall do my best.  I answered one or two questions in the comment section of my previous post already, and will weave the rest into what will hopefully be a column that is both entertaining and informative.

My husband and I went to my favorite little restaurant a couple of weeks ago, which got me thinking about a few of your questions.  Fiona, the talent behind The River Bothy, first came to my attention after I’d seen her items – soups, sandwich fillings and desserts – for sale in stores in the area.  When I heard she was opening up her own cafe’ not far from here I was excited to try it, and I was not disappointed.  Her food is fresh and delicious, with a decent selection of things you don’t always find in the Highlands (best salsa I have had in more than a decade!), plus good old Scottish standards, done to perfection.  Our lunch the other week was an example of that: Scotch eggs, which Sem declared to be the best he’s ever had.  If you don’t know what a Scotch egg is, it’s sausage meat wrapped around a soft(ish) boiled egg, all of it rolled in a thin layer of breadcrumbs and, I believe, deep fried.  It had that crispy crunch which you can’t get just from baking.  The side dishes were tasty too, and we thoroughly enjoyed our meal.

I thought of some of you for two reasons: one, because of the food, but also because the proprietress is someone I would consider a local artisan, in a food sense.  She epitomizes the Highland businessperson, to me, by which I mean she applies herself to something she’s good at, and builds from there.  Her menu has expanded and she also now has gift items for sale, created by local artists and craftspeople.  I believe she does some outside catering as well.  There are so many people like her, up here in the far north!

There were those of you who asked about crafts, textiles, and the people who create them.  I’m lucky enough to know a few of them, as a returning customer and friend.  There’s Ali, who is the creative force behind Alsorts Arts & Crafts, for example.  I first met her when she ran a pet food delivery service, of all things.  Unfortunately that business fell through but she did not let it deter her.  Before long she was back; first, running a pet food charity and then, starting up Alsorts Arts & Crafts.  Though she had some health setbacks, she now appears to be doing quite well in all respects – a real success story.  Originally she sold hand-knitted and crocheted items (I had to have the fingerless ‘dragon’ gloves pictured below, and I also have a winged pig which lives in our car), and then she started glass engraving, which is when things really took off.  She does everything from wine glasses to framed portraits of all sizes; we commissioned ‘Bella’ for a dear friend, which Ali was able to create from only a partial photo.  She sets up a booth at many of the craft fairs around the Highlands, as well as selling her stock in various shops.  She can do slate-engraving as well, and her husband makes charming wooden planters in the form of trains and trucks.  They have a menagerie of rescued animals from dogs to parrots to hedgehogs, and it has been good to see her flourish.

Determined, undaunted, and resourceful is how I would describe many small business owners in the Highlands.  This week we stopped off at the local community center because another one of the people I admire, Cara of Puffin Croft Farm, has a table of goods for sale there every Tuesday.  She makes ‘jumbleberry jam’ among other things (muffins, shortbread, sausage rolls, and so on), and when we walked in she smiled and then said ruefully, “I knew I should have brought some of the jam with me!”  Along with a small shop at Puffin Croft Farm she runs a produce delivery service, has just opened a B&B, and, as the main attraction, has a small petting farm with chickens, goats, pigs, sheep, donkeys, rabbits and geese.  “One of my sheep had a lamb last night at 10:30,” she said, “and I was up with her and the lamb until 1:30 this morning.  Buttercup is a first-time mother who kept looking around behind her as if to say, ‘What is THAT thing?’  I had to hold her in place so the lamb could drink, and I stayed with them to try to help them bond a little.”  In the early morning hours she would have had to muck out stalls and feed all the rest of the animals before heading over to our community center.  It’s little wonder she forgot the jam!  But I’m happy to say she’ll be bringing some in next Tuesday for me.  (Note: Buttercup has bonded with the adorable Clover, and seems content and happy to be a mother now.)

I support local businesses whenever I can.  Our own wee fountain pen business keeps us ‘ticking over’ as they say, and I know how important it is to have returning customers.  So when I need a gift my thoughts turn immediately to those who are trying to make (or supplement) their living by selling beautiful, hand-crafted things.  There’s a group of women across the Moray Firth in Lossiemouth who I came into contact with through a dialysis-friend of ours.  I’ve bought a couple of things from them; one, a made-to-order blanket for Sem, and also a handmade baby gift, as yet to be given (so I shall say no more).  The ladies of “Knits By Lossie Lassies” (found under that name on Facebook) are friendly and helpful, and I like knowing I’ve supported people who are doing something they love.

Then we have Wendy and Robyn, the mother-daughter team at Burra Bears, in Shetland (https://www.burrabears.co.uk/).  I haven’t met them but when I stumbled across their Facebook page I was hooked.  They make teddy bears out of sweaters that people send or bring to them, turning them into huggable remembrances of beloved relatives.  Other Burra Bears can be found in shops around the Highlands and Islands, too.  Those are made from, according to their website, “our own Fair Isle fabrics in pure Shetland wool which are produced at the local textile college.”  They sell a bear on their Facebook page each Friday, and when I saw ‘Stanley O’ da Sheepgreen’ (pictured below) I knew that I wanted him – and I was darn lucky to get him, too, because the Friday bears often sell almost immediately!

Of course I cannot fail to mention – especially since a few of you asked about him – Paul Jones of Phoenix Glass and Felting Phoenix.  I have already written about how I came to know him, so I won’t repeat myself.  I will say that since that article was published I have purchased my own family of wee Highland ‘Coos’ and a Gingerbread House lamp.  I also received a little dragon as a Christmas gift, to add to my collection.  Paul is currently looking into whether or not it’s feasible to make a Lewis Chessman (specifically, a Berserker) out of glass for me, but that might be a step too far in terms of glass-craft.  We shall see; if anyone can do it, Paul can.  As ever, he is a delight to deal with, and my next request for him will be something for this year’s Carr Fire Auction.

Keen-eyed viewers will spot a piece of Matthew Grigsby Art in this photo!

While Sem and I were out on this sunny, windy morning, we passed by a window with an inner ledge big enough to accommodate a small white and brown terrier who was standing there squinting in the sunshine, basking in the warmth of the sun through the glass, a heavy curtain behind him.  How I wish I’d gotten a picture!  I don’t know how much that doggie in the window was, but it reminded me of another question, this time about dogs in Scotland.

The dog of choice up here in the Highlands, for work or as a pet, seems to be the border collie.  But I have noticed in recent years that there are all kinds of dogs happily wagging their way around towns and villages, from Lurchers to King Charles Spaniels to scruffy mutts of indeterminate origin.  One thing’s for sure, though, and that is that the Scots (and it seems the British in general) love their dogs.  We saw so many dogs enjoying this sunny morning with their owners, but they get walked in all weathers, here – it takes more than a little rain to deter a Scottish dog owner!  People take their dogs everywhere, and it’s not uncommon to see them sitting obediently with their owners on the train, or waiting patiently outside a shop.  Sem and I would love to have a dog, but we really can’t, not with our life the way it is… but also because Smartie would shred a dog to bits, if one dared enter her domain!

Sem’s father had working sheepdogs for sheep as well as cattle, many years ago.  Sadly, I haven’t seen any sheepdogs at work up close; the one crofter I know personally doesn’t use sheepdogs to move his sheep.  He and his wife do the herding themselves, with the help of their small grandson, since they only have a few dozen sheep.  I’ve seen crofters on quad bikes in distant fields working in tandem with their sheepdogs to move their large flocks.  The dogs seem to thrive on the work, and know just where to go and what to do at the briefest of signals from their owners.

In writing about things Sem and I have seen while we’re out and about, I’m trying to tap in to the sort of ‘day in the life’ article request, though I know it’s not quite what was meant.  Perhaps it should wait for another time, to do it justice.  (Note to Barbara Byers: some folks do still go to the shops to “get the messages” every day, up here!)  On a perfect, coinciding-with-this-article day, I would be able to say that while we were out today we heard the sound of bagpipes on the breeze, but I’d be lying if I did.  That isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen sometimes, though!

I can’t put this next question any better than Adrienne Jacoby did, so I will quote her:  “… are bagpipes as endemic to the culture of Scotland as we like to make them out to be?”  The short answer is yes!

Being of German ancestry, I used to joke that in Germany, if a child starts to ice-skate on a frozen puddle a booth will appear as if by magic, offering beer and bratwurst for sale.  So it is with Scots and bagpipes: present for every occasion.  As far as I can tell every school has a pipe band, as does every county, and many towns as well.  They are out in force for all the Highland Games, of course, but there are other instances as well, such as performing to kick off Gala Week in each village in the summer, and playing carols when the village Christmas lights are switched on in December.  When they ‘open’ the river each February for salmon fishing in our former village, first the school pipe band performs near the river, and then a lone piper walks down to the river’s edge, playing a tune while the first line is cast.  Really, any reason will do!  When the rowing club in our former village built a boat, for example, there was a piper on hand to ‘pipe’ the boat into the water.  It was supposed to be the maiden voyage but I had it on good, whispered authority that the builders had floated ‘The Bunilidh’ in secret the night before, “to make sure she disnae sink tae the bottom and embarrass us all.”

Last November at 6am local time, to mark the centenary of the end of WWI, a thousand pipers all across the UK stood at War Memorials and piped ‘Battle’s O’er’, a traditional Scottish lament played at the end of battle.  In our former village a young man who has his share of problems both mental and physical went out in the cold, early morning in full regalia and did his part.  He returned at 11am to play again for the Remembrance Day service.  I’m given to understand that pipers around the world joined in as well, each in their time zone, each in their turn.  If that doesn’t hit you right in the heart, I don’t know what would.

Various bands use bagpipes in their music, and you won’t find a Highland Games Dance without them.  For those interested in music, I point you to Runrig (particularly when Donnie Munro was their lead singer) and Skipinnish (particularly when Robert Robertson was their lead singer).  For ‘Celtic rock’ I direct you to the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, though I don’t know much about them other than they apparently put on a hell of a show!

I have no clever segues for the remaining questions.  My apologies!

Erin Friedman asked for book recommendations – I asked my husband if he knew anything specific to the Lowther Hills and/or the McLeod clan, but we came up empty.  I’m also not sure how far back in history you want to go, but between us we can recommend the following, in no particular order:

Kidnapped – Robert Louis Stevenson
Crowdie and Cream* – Finlay J. MacDonald
Isolation Shepherd – Iain R. Thomson
The Silver Darlings – Neil Gunn
A Scots Quair – Lewis Grassic Gibbon
The History of the Highland Clearances (incl. Gloomy Memories by Donald McLeod) – Alexander MacKenzie

*A good adaptation of  Crowdie and Cream was done for the BBC.  I don’t know if it’s available in the States but it is one to look for, if you do read and enjoy the book.

Jon Lewis asked about golf stories: unfortunately neither Sem nor I play golf, though we are surrounded by courses.  I went to pilates classes run by a woman who moved to Brora (a village south of here) all the way from Edinburgh just to live near the golf course there.  Our only other link (ha!) to golf is Sem’s father: he had many jobs in his time, and one of them was building golf courses.  He built the nine-hole golf course at Avoch (pronounced ‘aach’) in the 1930s.  After the war his boss sent him back there because it had been used for tank training and was in dire need of repair!  He also extended Royal Dornoch Golf Course to a full 18-hole course.  Oddly enough, he was not a golfer.  He had a set of clubs so that he could test sites on the greens and make sure the course made sense, but other than that, he did not go on “a good walk, spoiled” for pleasure.

I believe, in one way or another, I’ve managed to answer the questions you’ve all asked.  I didn’t single everyone out by name since some of you had similar requests, but I do thank each of you for your ideas and questions!

What is there left to say, in this 50th column?  Only two things: firstly, thank you, sincerely, for reading my stories and for all of your comments, always.  And secondly… here’s to many more!