‘Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae the Lord be thankit!’
It’s January 25th, the night that no haggis is safe! Lock up your neeps and tatties, and hide the good whisky. The hungry hordes are on the way!
In my family, Burns Night has always been an annual tradition, with my Nan hosting the festivities and always inviting a few new (and unsuspecting) guests each year. Now that she’s gone, I host my own Burns Nights, and always stick to her menu of a cullen skink starter, haggis, neeps and tatties, and cranachan for dessert. Never having been to a Burns Night outside my family, I’ve always suspected that we might do things a bit differently to everyone else, but then that’s part of the appeal: as long as you include a few essential components, every host will have their own twist on the rest of the night.
The elements that can’t be forgotten, in my book, are the piping in of the haggis – although, as nobody I know has any bagpipes, we tend to use whatever musical instrument is closest to hand, including the tin whistle, violin and, perhaps most successfully, the harmonica. The Address to a Haggis has to be delivered by the host, who will stab it as theatrically as they can when they reach the line ‘His knife see rustic labour dight / An cut you up wi ready slight,’ and ideally a spewing out of the haggis’ delicious-smelling ‘gushing entrails bright’ sees an end to any misgivings the guests had about trying their first haggis. (Little side note – if you haven’t ever had haggis before, go and buy one immediately: it’s the one thing that makes me seriously question my commitment to vegetarianism).
In my house, we then tend to relax a bit while everyone gets their teeth into the haggis, but at the arrival of the seriously creamy, very alcoholic cranachan (lots of oats, lots and lots of whisky, lots of cream, with a few raspberries interlaced), some unsuspecting guest will usually be asked to honour Rabbie Burns by reading a poem. Ideally somebody English is chosen so that the attempt to read fluent Scots has maximum effect. My favourite surprise poem to launch on guests is ‘A Man’s A Man For A’ That’, but ‘To A Mouse’ does the trick as well: by the time they get to the line ‘To thole the winter’s sleety dribble, An’ cranreuch cauld!’, all social boundaries tend to have broken down and everyone’s the best of friends.
After that, it’s just a case of more whisky, more whisky and more whisky still, until the wee hours see everyone singing and dancing arm-in-arm around (and occasionally on) the kitchen table.
I recently spent a lovely weekend in the sunny seaside port of Aberdeen. Well, maybe not that sunny (in fact I recommend a very wooly hat), but I still have a strong top 10 things to do there:
- The Maritime Museum
Far and away the best thing to do with your time in Aberdeen- and it’s free! And it’s open on a Sunday! The focus is largely on the oil industry (and when you’re wandering round Aberdeen you find yourself asking all sorts of questions about rigs and life aboard, which are all answered in the museum). As you wind your way up to the impressive viewing platform on the top floor, you’ll not only pass plenty of interesting displays on diving vessels, safety standards, drilling techniques and the various types of oil rig, but also have chance to get really involved in some of the techniques yourself, thanks to the interactive games. Just elbow the kids out of the way (I’m pretty sure these games are for adults too) and then have a go at manoeuvring a diving vessel through the murky water to locate an oil leak, or trying to guide a huge virtual ship into dock in Aberdeen harbour.
- The Ashvale Whale
Just out of the centre is a famed Fish N Chip restaurant, The Ashvale. Order an Ashvale Whale and take on the challenge to defeat the whale- by eating it. Winners are rewarded with the offer of a second, free Whale (really?) or a free desert, as well as a certificate testifying that you did, in fact, eat the said whale (actually a pretty huge bit of fish, for all of those who are worried!).
Local to Aberdeen is the ‘buttery’, or ‘butt’ as I heard it called, a very flat bread roll sold in most bakeries for around 30p a piece. Very salty and chewy, they were originally made as a food for fishermen- something that wouldn’t go stale at sea.
- Macaroni Cheese Pie
Whilst ordering your butts, add a cheeky macaroni cheese pie to your basket. More local to Scotland than specifically Aberdeen, the macaroni cheese pie is absolutely the best combination of two wonderful foods (macaroni cheese and pie!) in one handily pocket-sized snack
If you walk all the way around the town to the northern headland, through all the desolate rubble of the working harbour, you’ll quite suddenly find yourself in the little oasis of Footdee (Fittie to locals). This tiny fishing village, moved repeatedly as the harbour expanded, is a grid-work of incredibly well-kept cottages, all looking inwards on each other, with beautiful courtyards and pristine allotments
- Marischal College
Often referred to as the granite city, Aberdeen is full of imposing, giant buildings, and the main street is one very long testament to granite. Make sure you walk by Marischal College, the second biggest granite building in the world and the most stunning building in Aberdeen, with its intricately decorative granite spires.
- Some very varied and old pubs
There are, of course, plenty of pubs in Aberdeen- this is a student town and a working port. Ma Cameron’s, a rabbit-warren of a pub with a very cosy ‘snug’ bar tempting you in from the street, is highly recommended.
- Doric Scots
Aberdeenshire is famous for its own language, Doric Scots. Don’t be too alarmed if you’re addressed with the phrase ‘Fit like?’, (‘How are you?’) and proceed to be slightly baffled by the rest of the conversation. To learn some essential Scots phrases, get uTalk.
- Whisky tour
In Aberdeenshire, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to distilleries. Although you have to go a couple of miles out of the town to get to one, the region is scattered with distilleries both big and tiny, and it would be a shame to visit the town without making time for a tour and learning a little bit more about how the water of life is made.
10. Aberdeen harbour
The harbour at Aberdeen is endlessly fascinating and there is a fairly constant activity of large ships and pilot boats. To see the comings and goings of the ships, I recommend walking around to the southern peninsula, via Greyhope Road- a very relaxing afternoon stroll- where you’ll get a clear view over Fittie and the harbour mouth.
Have you ever been to Aberdeen and tried any of the local delicacies? We want to hear about your experience.
The scattered islands of the Outer Hebrides, off the Western coast of Scotland, are a haven of beauty, wildlife and mysterious archaeology. Tying in with last week’s Scottish Week here at EuroTalk, these are my top ten reasons to visit the islands, where Scottish Gaelic is still spoken as a native language.
We’d love to hear from residents or fans of this gorgeous part of the world – send us your tips!
1. The beautiful, beautiful scenery
Everybody, without exception, is blown away by the views on the Hebrides, where beaches are bright white and stretch out against a distant, uninterrupted horizon. The air is crisp and unpolluted and the seas, ever changing, create a dramatic backdrop to island life. Go driving and you might be the only person on the wide road for miles. Each of the islands has its own distinct geographical characteristics, from Lewis’ flatness to Harris’ mountains.
2. Black pudding
A local delicacy you’ll hopefully be presented with early on in your trip, Stornoway Black Pudding is now famous the world over. After a couple of slabs of it on your breakfast plate, you’ll not go hungry for the day, and if you’re feeling especially indulgent you might even round the meal off with a couple of kippers smoked in one of the island’s smokehouses. Yum!
3. Harris Tweed
Now internationally famous and found on Nike shoes, the tweed is traditionally made to protect against the extreme weather to be found on the island. It’s well worth taking a visit to one of the workshops or outlets to find out how it has been handmade by locals for centuries, up to the present day.
4. St Kilda
Admittedly, this is not a trip for the faint-hearted, as St Kilda lies a good eight hours’ travel by charter boat from the Hebrides, more from the mainland. Still, if you have time to play with, St Kilda is a fascinating trip. Its story of evacuation in the 1930s, after a period of extreme poverty and starvation, really hits home if you visit the museum, located in the homes of the original residents. The island is also a National Nature Reserve and a likely place to spot interesting flora and fauna.
5. The Blackhouse
You’ll find these in both the Highlands and Hebrides, and if you fancy you can even stay in one in the village of Gearrannan on Lewis, where the blackhouses have become visitor accommodation and you can experience for yourself the cosy, warm, smokey atmosphere. The blackhouse is a traditional home for both people (in one half) and their livestock (in the other), with the peculiar distinction that there is no chimney: instead, the smoke from the central hearth builds up and eventually filters through the thatched roof, creating a smokey, peaty and very warming atmosphere within.
6. Going to a whisky distillery
You can’t really miss this one, and generally in Scotland you’ll have a lot of local distilleries to choose from. On Lewis, you can visit the relatively new Abhainn Dearg distillery (the most westerly one in Scotland) and practice that all-important Gaelic word – Sláinte!
7. Ferries and planes
Island hopping around the Hebrides gives you the chance to see first-hand the vast differences in scenery, and character, of the many different islands. The archipelago is connected by a network of ferries, which, if you have a car, are well worth booking in advance to avoid being stranded somewhere for days. There are also a number of miniature plane journeys to be made, including the shortest ever flight, from Westray to Papa Westray, which takes a mere 1 minute 14 seconds. Don’t be alarmed if your plane only seats up to 8 people or if it lands, a little surprisingly, on the beach, as it does on Barra.
It’s probably a bit optimistic to expect perfect sunshine, even in the summer months, but luckily the Outer Hebrides look majestic in rain, and there is something deeply dramatic about the sudden and extreme downpour, swooping in within minutes, which can drench you to the skin. Nothing to worry about if you’re staying in the blackhouse and get to dry off in front of a peat fire, of course!
Undoubtedly this is one of the main reasons many people visit the islands. From the puffin to the golden eagle to the Minke whale, the islands, with their stunning natural beauty, are host to a rich variety of creatures which elsewhere are rarely seen.
Ranging from the very famous to the barely explored, the Hebrides are full of archaeological wonders from all ages. Perhaps the most well visited are the Callanish Stones on Lewis’ Western coast, which local legend (as often happens with standing stones) attributes to a group of naughty local giants turned to stone as punishment. Legends aside, the stones are enormous and imposing, and especially chilling if you manage to avoid the crowds and view them, early in the cold morning, huddled conspiratorially across the horizon.
Have we convinced you to give the Outer Hebrides a try? Don’t forget to learn a few words in Scottish Gaelic before you go…