Category: Festivals & Events

The Book! Scotland: Celebrations & Soul Food

The Book! Scotland: Celebrations & Soul Food

Well people, it is finally here. My dream, my joy, my very first book, Scotland: Celebrations & Soul Food. This is my around the calendar, around the country tour of Scotland’s unique celebrations, complete with history, photographs and of course recipes to give you the full flavour of each event.

For those of you who have ever wondered what it was like to write a book and bring it to publication, the process is remarkably similar to having an actual baby. You hold an idea in you head, then in your heart, then you get busy, then you are in complete denial, and then you realise you have zero idea what you are doing and wonder if  it is all to late to back out now.  Additionally, since it takes roughly twice as long as a traditional pregnancy you are therefore obligated to gain twice as much weight! (Just kidding.)

The Long Awaited Book Cover

The Long Awaited Book Cover

But at long last the day arrives and you can hold your baby in your hands. I couldn’t believe how beautiful she was when she finally arrived.  I carefully counted her pages and after some tea and toast, quickly retired for a nap in sweet relief.

The Burning of the Clavie

The Burning of the Clavie

The book itself is packed with full-page images of many of the events. (Seriously people, you can not imagine how many things Scots can set on fire and in such an array of ways as to make a dragon blush!)

Layout with Handwriting, Text & Images

Layout with Handwriting, Text & Images

The production team at my publisher Matador were the most helpful, kind and creative support I could have ever hoped for.  Everyone was fantastic, but my hero Terry Compton in particular just took my manuscript and ran with it, far exceeding my expectations.  He combined a wide variety of image sizes with traditional text and then picked out the areas of ‘my voice’ to evoke a true travel journal feel. (I know a few of you have wondered if that is indeed my actual handwriting and the answer is ‘Let’s all Thank Heavens it is not’!)


Kelso Border Riding

Some of the events in the book are what you might expect in Scotland with bagpipe bands, kilts and castles…

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Lerwick Jarl Squad

and some are decidedly unexpected but spectacular none the less.


The Burry Man of South Queenferry

And then there are some that are just so freaky no one believes you until you actually produce photographic evidence.

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Christmas Carousel in Edinburgh

For each event in our rock ‘n roll calendar, there are pictures, history, and eyewitness accounts.

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Pheasant Bridies with Bacon & Port

And then I had to go and create a recipes, with seasonal and regional ingredients to try to evoke the spirit of the event.

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The May Queen

So in order to honour the outrageous wildness of the Beltane celebrations,

Beltane Salmon on a Plank of Native Ash

Beltane Salmon on a Plank of Native Ash

There is a companion recipe of wild Scottish Salmon cooked on plank of Native Ash over an open flame (easy clean up for the dishes as well).

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Jeantopia Unleashed!

Basically this is my absolute dream come true of travel, adventure, history, parties and food!

Now, all of this is fine and well when it is kicking around your head or even when you are typing it up in your own dining room.  But when you have to then put it out there TO BE JUDGED BY OTHERS…the panic sets on hard.

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My First Ever Review (*sniffs with pride*)

So it was with immense relief when (after I was brave enough to work up the courage to read it) my first ever review had some very nice things to say. (Just click on image for full size)  And not that I don’t value the opinions of my family and friends, but these guys didn’t even know me so were under no obligation to spare my frayed feelings.

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Glossy Magazine Review

And then, big glossy magazines started to fall through my letter box.

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The Company My Baby Keeps

And I could see not only my baby being cheered on, but got to see her nestled in amongst her mates. (How am I ever going to cope with my actual children leaving the nest, really?)

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Scots Heritage Magazine Review

And then, you realise that this wondrous dream has left your imagination and begun a life of its own.  And it is really, pretty cool to watch.

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Marketing Material Ahoy!

So we are on to the next phase of the adventure where we will be taking things on the road.  With any luck you can catch us at one of our upcoming events at farmer’s markets, libraries and food festivals over the next few month.

In the mean time you can check out the official website for the book at for any news or events.

Thank you to everyone out there for your support, patience, help and encouragement in bringing this project to fruition.  It has been a total blast and hopefully will be the first of many such adventures!

Huge love,  Jean

Up Helly Aa - Music & Halls

Up Helly Aa – Music & Halls

This is going to be  very different kind of post for me as all the images are actually video clips, but I hope that the format will give you a wee peek through the looking glass to the other side of Up Helly Aa. I must confess I did pinch these from YouTube as I was video-less at this time last year, and still photos just would not do this madness justice.

From the period of 17th century to the late 19th century, Lerwick enjoyed/endured many of the old Yule traditions of mischief and misrule, with Up Hella Aa signifying the last night and climax of the season.  Many of these these activities included significant damage to property as rowdy young men would break windows, tar doorways and even launch dead cats from canons (good times..good times).   To cover their tracks,  pranksters would often disguise themselves or at the very least cover their faces to avoid the obvious fact that in a very small community everyone knows everyone else.

In the early 19th century some bright spark had the great idea that if they took a barrel (of which they had plenty as this was during the herring boom), filled it with tar, lit it on fire and dragged it through the narrow streets of the town,  it was sure to be a huge hit.  And it was…for some, not so much for the wealthy merchants whose homes and shops were often on the receiving of the damage.  Laws were passed to abolish this practice but were mostly ignored.  At some point in mid century the barrel was replaced with a crate from easier dragging.

About the time that the great and good of Lerwick had had it with the annual debauchery, an ancient document covering the history of the islands under Nordic rule between the 9th and the 15th centuries was first translated into English. This magnificent document known as The Orkneyinga Saga (a great read) utterly captured the imagination and re-ignited pride in the islander’s Viking heritage.  C’est viola, many of the destructive elements of Yuletime mis-rule were re-interpreted in more socially acceptable practices to reflect the more noble elements of their fierce and brave forefathers.  Everybody was happy.

For the Viking elements, songbooks and sheet music were written to craft the new traditions and are sung heartily throughout the day and night by the Jarl Squad. The outfits took shape and the galley boat was created as a focal point to gather around and of course, set on fire!

Up Helly Aa Song

Here is what the official Up Helly Aa Song (with accompanying words) sounds like with the Brass Band. ( Just click on the Youtube link).  Very rousing stuff.

 toll clock 2013

But here is the fantastic Stevie and his Jarl Squad.  They keep this amount of energy up as the sing…all day and all night!

Peg's VideoPeg’s Video – Galley Song

We caught up with the Jarl Squad later at about 4:30 and the museum.  This is my friend Peg’s video and boy – they were still going strong!

So, while the very outward public display is all Viking, the elements of disguise, mischief and light-hearted misrule are embraced by the Squad’s performances in the Halls.  Each Squad has to submit their idea to the Up Helly Aa committee months in advance to ensure there are no duplicates – for this year or any from the past.  Most of the themes have some inside joke or reference that would be clear to those within the community.  Others…well, you be the judge.

Remember, these guys have to perform this AT LEAST 12 times throughout the night at each of the Halls.  They also have to keep their faces covered and can not disgrace themselves or their squad, all while imbibing a good amount of drink and being carted around in the back of empty moving vans between locations.  All of the Hall have bands that perform between the Squads to give everyone a chance to dance and the Hostesses of the Halls have plenty of food handy to keep everyone going until 8:00 am.  Wednesday is a holiday for all!

Gaz VadarGaz Vadar and the Bad Boy Stormtroopers

Now, brace yourself, this is where things get good and crazy, but these performances by the Squads are every bit as much of Up Helly Aa as the Vikings and Galley.   This is a clip that is by far one of the most well done skits I could find online.  Not to shabby eh?!

Sqaud 34

 These guys are a bit more the norm of the type of routine that you are likely to see.

Rampant Rabbits

And then some…well, they are about what you would expect from a a bunch of blokes charged with coming up with a dance routine with probably minimal effort.  Also, I have never seen such such a wide array of man-size fluffy animal suits in my life.  Again, google Lerwick, Shetland and just see how in tarnation one wee place so far in the middle of the North Atlantic can be home to such madness!

To only see the grand Viking element of the celebration and miss this unbelievably bizarre all night party would be like going to a wedding and missing out on the reception .  I cannot wait to get back there again as soon as possible!!!!


Up Helly Aa - Processions & Galley Burning

Up Helly Aa – Processions & Galley Burning

On my ferry journey to Shetland, I met a fabulous woman named Peg (who just happened to be American and also had a blog) and her lovely daughter Salem, so I had some fun buddies to enjoy the processions with.  After a very fun and full day of enjoying the town of Lerwick, the darkness descended meaning the next chapter of the festivities would soon commence.


First up at 5:30 pm was the Junior Procession.  I have to say, seeing the lads in their finery all carrying fiery torches was a pretty impressive sight!  If I didn’t know that there was to a be another larger procession later, I would not have felt hard done by to have just witnessed this one.

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Men who have been in Jarl Guards from previous years served as Marshalls for the Junior Procession, which was not only handy for safety’s sake but it give them a chance to break out their fabulous outfits again.

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While it was still dry for the procession, the wind was really beginning to pick up at this stage.


The boys procession swirled into the walled park that held their galley and climaxed as they tossed their lit torches on it to set it ablaze.  A very impressive display from the lads who will no doubt continue on into the men’s squads in years to come.  It was just as we were trying to get our pictures of the burning galley that a misty rain began to descend.

Aside from being great company, my new friends were kind enough to invite me to join them at their B&B, a mere two blocks from the park were the processions ended and the galleys set alight.  We rushed back inside to put more layers on and change camera batteries to ready ourselves for the big event.  We had been so pleased with our location for the Junior Procession that we went back to stake out our same spots.  This was a full 45 minutes before the Men’s Procession was due to start.

We had no sooner rocked up to claim our digs than the most unbelievable, freezing-cold hurricane kicked up that was to last the rest of the night.

Now, I have seen some wild weather in my day, but I have never stood, hunched over, nestled into the backs of strangers (as others nestled into mine) for the slightest bit of protection from the elements.  I could only image that we looked just like the penguins at the beginning of Happy Feet as the wind whipped around us and the rain mercilessly soaked through every layer we had so futilely put on.  And there we stayed…and stayed…and stayed…

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It rained so hard it hurt as you would raise your head 2 inches from the nape of someone’s neck just to see if any torches could be seen, but at long last we were rewarded!  (I bet that this guy was sorely regretting his bare caveman-themed choice of costume on this occasion.)

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I don’t know if you have happened to have seen 1,000 men carrying lit torches snaking their way through a blacked out town during a hurricane, but just in case you haven’t I can assure you it is AWESOME!!!!!!!

Just for a bit of perspective, there are about 23,000 people in Shetland in total from all the islands.  Lerwick as the most populous town has a population just under 7,000 souls.  Out of this community, not counting girls of all ages, boys under the age of 16, Senior Citizens/ OAPs and any disinterested parties, they can STILL muster 1,000 men able and willing to march in the freezing, soaking blackness carrying a lit torch. Pretty impressive any way you slice it.


My camera was not terribly pleased with the wet and cold so I just managed to snap a few pictures of the Squads streaming by as they entered the park.  My friend Peg of A Kilt and a Camera photography and travel blog took some really fantastic images of this event, but I really struggled with numbs hands, driving rain, flames and limited photography skills.


The Squads began their hypnotic swirling around the galley, singing loudly and accompanied by the Brass Band.


Another maroon blast cracked through the night which was the signal to burn that boat down!  The men closest in the circle launched their torches high into the air to land on the deck of the galley.  They then duck down and fade to the back of the pack creating room for the next wave to move safely to the galley to do the same.  So seamless is this transition that all the spectator can see is the steady stream of torches being tossed for about 5 solid minutes as the flames creep higher and higher up engulfing the galley.


And boy does that baby burn!  Custom dictates that everyone stay and watch the fire until the head of the dragon finally falls off.  As spectacular as it was, given the weather there were a fair few of us silently begging for this guy to topple.

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This ends the public part of the event and it is what most tourists think of as the and of Up Helly Aa…. if only they realised that the real party was just about to begin!



Up Helly Aa - Introduction

Up Helly Aa – Introduction

There just ain’t no getting around the fact that this post is going to be a doozy!  I tried, I have really, really tried to get the story, the images and the adventure that is Up Helly Aa into a single blog post but it is just not possible.  So instead, there will be four; Introduction, Procession & Galley Burning,  Music & Halls, and then Shetland’s Gems.  So without further ado, please let me introduce you to Europe’s Biggest Fire Festival and the most visually stunning thing I have ever had the privilege to bear to witness to… Up Helly Aa!

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One year ago today I packed myself onto a ferry to take a verrrrryyyyyy rough 12 hours boat ride to reach the group of islands half-way between mainland Scotland and Norway known as Shetland. Even though I was a bundle of nerves and missing my babies…I was on an adventure and couldn’t have been more excited.

Up Helly Aa is the kind of event that you hear about when folks get talking about various tall tales, and even most Scots only ever see the odd photo or two of a Viking galley engulfed in flames on the BBC website. So it was all I could do not to pinch myself as I found myself catching the first glimpse of the hand crafted galley through the gathering crowds on  their march to the Market Cross to begin the festivities.


Most people just think of Up Helly Aa as a fire festival where the men of Lerwick dress as Vikings and set fire to a galley. That in and of itself would be groovy enough, but it is actually a fantastically choreographed series of events, displays and performances that embrace several chapters of the island’s history and reaffirms the communities bonds in an annual raucous and good-natured party.

For starters, the men of Lerwick (there are other Up Helly Aa celebrations throughout Shetland but Lerwick is the biggest by far) organise themselves into Squads.  These are groups of friends centered around work or family that can range in size from about 16-25 and are primarily social groups (similar to the Crewes of Mardi Gras). The number of Squads varies but there are usually in the region of about 45 Squads at any given time.

Every year since 1882 one man assumes the title of  Guizer Jarl (meaning Earl or Chieftain) but he may have been selected for that role years in advance.  It is his squad that will take top honours and don the bespoke Viking regalia and build the galley to be set aflame.  To be selected as the Guizer Jarl (guizer is a term that means in disguise) is the equivalent of being selected as MVP/ Man of the Match, Prom King & winning an Oscar all rolled into one.  It is HUGE.  It is so big that the people of Lerwick can name  all of the Guizers Jarls and which year they held that honour similar to how others might collect sports cards.  In addition to his regular squad, the Guizer Jarl can invite others friends and family to join – an incredible once in a lifetime honour – swelling the size of the Jarl Squad to around 50-70!

7 UHA BP 1 - 600Up Helly Aa is held on the last Tuesday of January and the day begins with the presentation of “The Bill”.  This hand painted placard is a very tongue in cheek proclamation of the Guizer Jarl that is loaded with jokes and jibes of people and events within the community for the past year.  These can cut very close to the bone but it also quite a big deal to make it into the Bill.  It is always signed with the credo “We Axe for What We Want”.  I wanted to go and see the actual unveiling but was gently informed that “it usually happens around 5:00 am by lads that have been up all night drinking, and well…it’s not what you would call a spectator sport”!

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While some aspects of what has become Up Helly Aa go back several hundreds of years, much of the modern celebration was developed in the 1880s.  As such, the music and songs (of which there are loads) date to that era as well.  The Brass Band is integral part of the celebration and it is when they strike up that the people of Lerwick know that Up Helly Aa has begun at last.

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The Brass Band leads the jubilant Jarl Squad ( who have all grown big bushy beards in the past year) past the Bill with an endless chorus of “ARRRRGGGGHH” emitting from the men as they raise the axes aloft.


There is a Junior Jarl Squad as well and there are right in the festivities with their own Junior Jarl. Later in the evening they will lead their own procession of boys squads and set fire to a smaller galley.

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But for the boys, men and spectators alike, the atmosphere is incredible.  They Jarl Squad look like all their Christmases have come at once and they are having a ball! They are on display and loving every minute of it as they head down to their photo call at the Bressay Ferry Terminal.


While the Brass Band leads the procession the Pipe & Drum Band bring up the rear.  The amount of music, cheering and shouting all ringing off the wall of the narrow street just brings the visceral excitement to an amazing level….and this is all before 10:00 am!

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The Jarl Squad climb aboard their short-lived but beautifully made galley and pose for a fair few rounds of photos – still shouting “AAARRRGGGHH” throughout.

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This is the Guizer Jarl himself, Stevie Grant pictured here enjoying the gloriously bright clear morning (it didn’t last).

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After the group picture, everyone breaks up for a short chance to see family and friends and have a few more photos taken.  The break doesn’t last long as there is a serious schedule of processing and visiting of schools and hospitals to attend.

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The Viking costumes are just amazing in their craftsmanship and detail, and the members of the Jarl Squad are just proud as peacocks to be wearing them.  When I asked this member of the Jarl Squad (Andrew Aiken) for his picture, he happily obliged but his female companions just rolled their eyes and told me to “not encourage him”, poor thing! (I believe it can be quite a long year for the partners and families of those in the Jarl Squad.)


With their break over, the Procession reconvenes to march out to a full schedule of stops and visits.  Bringing the whole show of music, songs and shouting with them at every stop.

20 UHA BP 1 - 600While it is still a school day, absolutely everybody comes out to welcome the Jarl Squad and cheers them on for this first chapter in the festivities.


The Burryman of South Queensferry!

The Burryman of South Queensferry!

This may have been the event that started me on this journey.  During our courtship my soon-to-be husband would send me wild, weird or groovy tidbits about the land which I would soon call home.  The Burryman of South Queensferry grabbed him in particular as it was under five miles from where he spent most of his life and he had never heard of it before, despite having been orchestrated for hundreds, if not potentially upwards of a thousand years!

Welcome to the beautiful town of South Queensferry just 8 miles from Edinburgh on the Firth of Forth.  It was awarded its name by Queen (later Saint) Margaret who first established a ferry for pilgrims visiting St. Andrew’s, and then officially by her son David I upon the Queens death in 1093.

The Burryman Parade is always celebrated on the 2nd Friday of August and is now a stand out part of the week-long “Ferry Fair” which has its origins in the 12th century.  This is the be-decked High Street of South Queensferry as a few of us stalwarts gathered to welcome the Burryman on his annual cross town escapade.


The tradition of the Burryman seems to have stumped academics looking for hard fast dates of inception.  There are references to the elevation of the town to royal burgh (hence a possible play on word of burgh-y man) from both King Malcolm of Canmore (1058-1093) and more recently during the reign of Charles the I (1625 – 1643).  However the guy is literally covered in the prickly burrs of the Burdock plant so that seems a bit of a stretch.

There are other suggestions of the Burryman playing a ‘scapegoat’ or ‘sacrificial victim’  role as his burrs gather all the bad luck of the town (it is considered very good luck to pinch a few of his burrs – I certainly grabbed some). Other suggestions that have to do with similar ceremonies that had existed in other fishing villages such as Fraserburgh or Buckie on the Moray coast that had to do with “raising the herring”.   There are some notable links with other ancient festivals in Europe and in England such as Jack in the Green , Castleton Garland Day, and the Whittlesey Straw Bear, but the Burryman of South Queensferry is the only festival of its kind left in Scotland.


Curiously, on the day itself, every person in town will tell you the same thing.  They claim that the ceremony dates back only a few hundred years when a fisherman washed up on shore after a wreck.  Dressed only in his under-crackers (a union suit for you Yanks) he sought to maintain his modesty by covering himself in the handy and abundant burrs before heading into town to ask for help.  Upon receiving said help, he bestowed good luck on all the towns people as thanks.  Now, I don’t know too many fisher folk that would a) be that fussed about their modesty after a wreck, or b) choose really spiky, itchy burrs to protect their hypothetical modest, but hey – that is the party line from the people who have spent their lives in the town.

A few fun facts, very recently a 10,000 year old settlement was found on the outskirts of town putting human habitation in the area right back to the end of the last ice-age, and the burrs grow locally near the grounds of Hopetoun House.  Just thought I would throw that into the mix as some elements that could indicate a very old local origin indeed.

So, on this glorious August morning we gathered outside the Stag’ Head Hotel to await the mythical Burryman.


And after being dressed in a comfy outfit of heavy woolens, a balaclava and a bowler hat, then plastered with sheets of burrs and finished off with local flowers, the Burryman of 2013 (Andrew Taylor) emerges from the pub with his close friends and attendants to begin the big day.  For many decades the Burryman outfit included a Rampant Lion Flag ( the Royal Standard of Scotland)  around his waist.  When I asked about its absence, the past & current Burryman stated that after looking at historical photographs where no flag was present, they were trying to keep things old skool.  Only men (or stout lads) born in the town can play this important role, and most that take up the post  maintain for several years.  This was Mr Taylor’s second year but his friend in the white t-shirt John Nicol had previously held the role for 15 years!


So at about 8:45 am the Burryman supported by his attendants (Andrew Findlater and Duncan Thompson) were warmly welcomed to applause and people jostling for the first few photographs of this year’s event.


A few tentative steps later and the Burryman, his attendants, some family, friends and a Crier shouting “Hip…Hip…Hoor-ray, it’s..the Burry..Man’s…Day” with associated bell ringing,  all head off to their first stop on their over 8 mile journey that will last the whole day.


The first stop is at the town Provost’s house for their first (of which will later be uncountable) drink of whisky.  Due to the prickly nature of the get up, the Burryman is provided a straw to help is this task.  Apparently, the group can’t eat or sit down all day and can only drink whisky, so…a good time is had by all.  PS the attendants drink at each stop as well so I don’t know how much help they are by the end of the day!


John Nicol (left), Burryman (1996-2011) & Andrew Taylor, Burryman (2012 – )

The procession continues around town all day and takes a wee breather at The Moorings pub at about 4:00 pm.  Silly me thought that this is where things ended, but oh was I wrong.  While at The Moorings I was able to get this picture of past and current Burrymen side-by-side.

After a brief rest from their tour round the houses, the group headed off back to the High Street.


Beginning with this lovely owner of the local ice cream shop, the Burryman continued his whisky sipping extravaganza through the gorgeous cobblestone waterfront of the town.


Stopping to bestow good luck and pausing for pictures with the first of several brides along  the way.


As the day wound down, the procession began to pick up some serious crowd action as we reached the far end of the town.


At the edge of the waterfront sits the historic and iconic Hawes Inn, which is said to have hosted one Robert Louis Stevenson whilst he was writing Kidnapped and subsequently features in the book.  As it was after 5.30 pm I thought surely this is where things would wrap up.  I know that I was beginning to wane and I hadn’t been the one walking a 10k with burrs in all my nooks and crannies.

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But after posing for pictures with a few terrified children, some very surprised tourists and scoffing his requisite whisky, the group turned around and headed back to the town again.   It was then I realised he had only partaken at all the pubs on one side of the High Street, and had to go back and do the same again all the way back on the other side!


Luckily, a piper was ready and waiting for him for this last leg of his journey, which certainly helped to raise the spirits of the crowd as well as the procession’s.

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And after 10 hours and nearly as many miles, countless drinks and a bevy of brides, the crew finally arrived back at their original destination of the Stag’s Head Hotel.

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Huge cheers arose from all for an impressive feat and an amazing day, which has been a part of this town for longer than anyone can confidently document.  At this point  more than a few folks emboldened by the crescendo (or maybe a bit of drink) came out of the crowd to grab wads of burrs off the guy’s suit as good luck keepsake until next year.  He was then helped back into the pub for a disrobing and I am sure a welcome sit down.

So,  just as it has for hundreds and perhaps as long as a thousand years or more, bad luck was gathered up and good luck bestowed on all who cheered on the Burryman of 2013.


Guy Fawkes Night

Guy Fawkes Night

“Remember, remember the 5th of November, the gunpowder treason and plot.  I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”

Tonight is Guy Fawkes Night, more widely known as Bonfire Night, where people up and down Britain gather in the frosty blackness of a November night to celebrate the joyous relief of an event that never happened.

2009 Bonfire Night in Edinburgh,

The story in a nutshell is this; in 1603 a group of conspirators got together and planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London by stacking barrels of gunpowder in the cellar.  The fuse lighter-to be, one Guy or rather “Guido” Fawkes, was caught, tortured and while scheduled to be hung, drawn and quartered, managed to jump to death from the steps of the gallows.  Everyone involved was gathered up and a major act of terrorism was averted.  Phew!

However,  as a few of the juicier details of the foiled plot come to light (no pun intended), it will come as no wonder why over 400 years later people are still marking this day with celebration.  Here is what went down, even if you have no interest in history whatsoever most people will be vaguely familiar with this lady, Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Queen Elizabeth I

For quick recap, she was the daughter of Henry the VIII  of England and  his second wife Anne Boleyn.  Now, I want everyone to take a good look at her and understand three main things of great importance.

1.) This is the very LAST person to exclusively hold the title of Queen of England, from this point onwards the crowns of England and Scotland are joined in the United Kingdoms of Britain (Ireland later  joined the Union in 1800).  The current Queen Elizabeth IS NOT the Queen of England, rather her title is Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, and it irks Scots tremendously when she – and any other British monarchs after 1603 – are referred to as such, particularly by news media, politicians and in films.

2.) Henry the VIII ditched the Catholic religion in England to marry Elizabeth’s mother Anne (she is the one who Henry later had beheaded – lovely) thus rendering England a Protestant country.  Unlike many other European countries at the time England did not abandon Catholicism on the grounds of a deep theological revolt a la Martin Luther in Germany, rather Henry just want to dump his first wife but the Pope wouldn’t let him.

And finally, 3.) Queen Elizabeth I dies childless (i.e. without and heir).

So say it with me, Queen Elizabeth I was….ENGLISH…..PROTESTANT…..CHILDLESS.

Mary Queen of Scots

Now, here we have Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth’s cousin.  The two Queens had a long and tense relationship which ended in Mary’s imprisonment and ultimate execution by Elizabeth on the count of high treason.  Obviously there is a whole lot more to both Mary and Elizabeth’s lives, realms and interactions with each other but will wrap things up by stating that,


James I and VI (b.1565, ruled (Scotland) 1566 – 1625 and (England) 1603-25)

This is Mary’s son James VI of Scotland. He is SCOTTISH….but PROTESTANT…and THE CLOSEST HEIR TO THE THRONE OF ENGLAND.

 While James had been on the throne of Scotland since 1566, he did not know if he would definitely gain the crown of England until after Mary’s death in 1603.  If you have 3 minutes our ubiquitous voice of Scotland, Neil Oliver can explain way better than I can just how big of a deal this is,  if you click right here on James IV Becomes King of England. (Just be sure to click on the reverse arrow to return here.)

If you don’t have 3 minutes James IV of Scotland becomes the FIRST JOINT MONARCH of the UNITED KINGDOMS OF BRITAIN .  He was crowned as James VI of Scotland but as James I of England (and Wales) and Ireland.  So in this moment the concepts of  “UNITED KINGDOM“, “GREAT BRITAIN” and even soon after the “UNION FLAG” come into being, remember this is 1603.  The crowns are joined by peaceful succession NOT conquest.

James I & VI (just the First as far as the English are concerned) is welcomed warmly in England and pledges to relax some of the persecution that the Catholics had suffered under Queen Elizabeth. The Gunpowder Plot comes into being just two years into James’ rule in England in 1605, and the vast majority of accounts of this plot state the main (and only) motivation was along Catholic and Protestant lines.

True, the new King did falter in his balancing act of appeasing the more Puritanical of the Protestants of his court by heating up the trouble with Catholics, particularly at the Hampton Court Conference of January 1604.  It was here that he began to openly express hostility towards Catholicism and by February all of the previous priests had been expelled and recusancy fine were reintroduced.

Some folks began to snap.

Here is a very well-known engraving of the conspirators behind the Gunpowder Plot.  Some had money, some access, some brains but they were all….ENGLISH…..CATHOLIC….and HATED THE NEW KING.

The plot was to wipe out the King and his entire court on the opening of the House of Parliament and install his ten-year old daughter Elizabeth on the throne to be dominated by a new Catholic power structure.  But as in most big moments in history, the Catholic/ Protestant divide may not have been the whole story.

 BBC Scotland Gunpowder Plot

 This clip is just under 6 minutes long but will highlight a totally different dimension of this age-old plot.  Just click of the BBC Scotland link above to access and don’t forget to hit the reverse arrow to return to this post.  If you don’t have viewing time, suffice to say that Neil Oliver puts forth the theory that this plot was nothing short of an attempt at complete ethnic cleansing of Scots in London.  (I bet you can find those six minutes now, huh?)

Whatever the motivation be it religious, political, tribal or all of the above, thankfully a serious bloodbath was thwarted. (Except for the conspirators who ended up plenty bloody indeed.)  The immediate legacy of the averted crisis was that as the news of the plot spread people were encouraged to light bonfires to celebrate the King’s foiled assassination, and that an Act of Parliament designated the 5th of November as a day  to give thanks to “the joyful day of deliverance” from the near disaster.

On the first anniversary of the plot  in 1606, a sermon of thanks was held at the court of  King James VI & I (later of the King James Bible fame), that was to become the origins of the “Remember, Remember the 5th of November” nursery rhyme.

Mask from “V for Vendetta”

Know let’s be honest, whenever anyone hears that rhyme today the immediate trigger is an image Natalie Portman’s shaven head, the above mask and masses of swarming crowds gathering outside the (current) Houses of Parliament.  The chilling film “V for Vandetta” came to the screens in 2006 and portrays a masked terrorist combats the totalitarian regime of a futuristic London.  This film used this Guy Fawkes riff to great effect, and up until very, very recently the mask of “V” was a bit of a cult movie thang….until the recent Occupy movements began in New York and then in London.

The “V” mask has now been adopted as a symbol of the Occupy London protest in response to what is seen as the new tyranny of the markets and the general lack of accountability of their corporations.

Occupy London Protest

Occupy London Protesters

What is particularly eerie is when huge amounts of people wear these masks backwards covering the rear of their heads.   Whilst this leaves their faced free for things like breathing and chanting from behind the photos show a just a sea of masks.  Very effective in its unnerving visual.

Part 1 of 8 of \”Exploding the Gunpowder Plot\”

 But here is a crucial point, the plot didn’t succeed and “V for Vendetta” is a work of fiction.  There has been much debate throughout history as to whether the gunpowder would have worked even if it had been lit, and even then, would it have killed the King and achieved its goal? Well for the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, Richard Hammond of “Top Gear” fame goes on an absolutely AMAZING journey of exploration to answer that question.

Part history, part techie thriller this program (which can be seen in its entirety on YouTube in 8 segments of about 8 – 10 minutes a piece, see above link for the first of the instalments) does an amazing job of researching just what would have been the destructive and subsequently human toll had this plot succeeded.  I found this thrilling and humbling to realise this could very easily have been the moment that altered the British History more monumentally than anything else – and was really only just narrowly avoided.  Really fantastic information that will shake you up for sure. (Think 9/11 and the French Revolution in a one stop shop)

So for the 405th time since the day the Gunpowder Plot was foiled,  join all of us around the country in blasting our skies full or fireworks in commemoration of the blast that never was – whether you are in London,

a village green

Sparkling Away at Pittencrieff Park 2011

or just waving some sparklers in your local park or back garden (safety tip: fleece mittens melt when in close contact to sparks),


Have a Safe &  Happy Bonfire Night!











Tattie Howking

Tattie Howking

I had every intention of firing off a cheery piece to enhance my excitement of our upcoming two weeks break from school known as the October Holidays.  Whilst some folk (my husband) still refers to this time of year as the “Tattie Howking”, (‘Tattie’ being potato and ‘Howking’ being to dig up from the ground…i.e. Potato Harvest) and I can see on my daily commute fields of rich green leaves becoming acres of freshly turned soil over night, I nursed the mistaken notion of  a happy harvest bounty commemorated in this quaint idiom.  Yeah, not so much.  Apparently the history of potatoes is just not terribly fun any way you slice it – get it?!

Basic Anatomy of a Potato Plant

For a quick recap of how the potato come to Europe at all, we need to return to 1532 to the region of Peru/Bolivia  in South America with the not-so-welcome arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in search of gold.  There is evidence that the potato had been in cultivation in this region for about 3,000 – 7,000 years and may have grown wild for as long as 13,000 years ago.  In Jeff Chapman’s, “The Impact of the Potato: The Story of History’s Most Important Vegetable”, he cites Dr. Hector Flores for the extensive use of the potato in Pre-Inca cultures in the Peruvian Andes as well as its representation in Nazca and Chimu pottery.

Funeral of Atahualpa (who had been held captive by Pizarro and De Soto in 1533, who converted to Christianity but was executed anyway. Nice)

The Incas had developed a system of dehydrating and mashing the “batata”, (which is actually a sweet potato but the Spanish mis-pronounced it and attached the new word to what we now know as “potato”) into something called chunu.  This substance could be stored for up to 10 years and was a welcome insurance against crop failures.  The Spanish begrudgingly began to use potatoes as basic rations on their ships, and by 1570 a few Spanish farmers began to cultivate them on a small-scale.

Mature Potatoes in the Field

From Spain, the potato made a modest expansion throughout neighbouring European countries for the next two hundred years, but was considered fodder for animals and sustenance for the starving.  Even peasants refused this new addition that had arrived from a heathen civilization and suspected it to be linked with witchcraft.  This attitude changed for three reasons; by the end 18th century potatoes were often the only crop left after the marauding armies of the various wars had plundered the landscape for grain crops, vineyards and livestock, then there was the growing realisation that the tuber was not harmful but beneficial to health, and finally because of active public relation campaigns from the aristocracy of countries from the USA to Britain, France and even Russia.  Active PR efforts included Thomas Jefferson serving potatoes in the White House to Louis XVI sporting a potato flower in his buttonhole, to Marie Antoinette wearing the potato blossom in her hair, and even Catherine the Great and subsequently Tsar Nicolas I enforcing the cultivation of potatoes through edicts, all were trying to elevate the status of the very practical potato.

This top down adoption was motivated for the simple reason that the potato could produce more food using much less land than traditional grains, and was high in nutrients and could help protect against the routine famines that had plagued Europe for so long.  So at the dawn of the 19th century, after several centuries of faffing about, the humble potato was gaining in use and statue throughout Europe.  From there it help fuel huge population booms and even in part the Industrial Revolution by providing more people with food from a fraction of the land that was once needed to do the job.

In Ireland however, the potato was embraced more completely than by any culture since the Incas.  While in other European countries it was finally recognised as an important food, in Ireland it was often the only food.  A diet of milk and potatoes can (if need be) provide all the essential nutrients to maintain health, reproduction and decrease infant mortality.  By 1840 almost half of the population of Ireland was entirely dependent on the potato which had now narrowed to just one or two high-yielding varieties.

Potato with blight

 The same blight that caused the Great Famine in Ireland hit Scotland at the same time.  Scotland, particularly in the highlands, had begun growing potatoes in earnest after the chieftain of Clanranald returned from a trip to Ireland in 1743.  The region had already sustained other famines of the 1690s and 1780, but in what is now known in Scotland as the Highland Potato Famine,  saw the emigration of 1.7 million people leaving Scotland between 1846-52.  Although hit badly, the potato crops in Scotland did start to recover from 1857 onwards and whilst decimated the economies of Scotland rebounded more quickly than those of their Irish counterparts, in part because of the slightly cooler climes which helped keep the fungus that caused the blight at bay.

Potato Harvest in 1933 (Canada, but you get the idea.) Just look at the curve of that guy’s back…that’s gotta hurt)

Enter the “Tattie Howkers”, the name given to the Irish who would travel to Scotland to help bring in the potato harvest for cash in the wake of the Potato Famines.  For the next 90 or so years this would be how the majority of spuds made it from field to shop up until WWII.  This was back-breaking work and was often performed by children from the age of 8 years onwards.  In the fields from dawn to dusk in the October weather of Scotland – bbbbrrrrrr!

Two Row Potato Digger (Maine, USA 1935)

The digger would unearth the potatoes and the Tattie Howkers would walk behind to gather the harvest and load it into the barrels.  In addition to the hourly pay you could usually take home as much as you could carry from the fields.  Now this remained the general practice of essentially migrant labour up until the 1940s and the arrival of the war.  Since one of the most beneficial things about potatoes were that not only could children plant, harvest and even cook potatoes…maybe then it should be children whose job it fell to sustain the harvest.

Young girls picking potatoes - Scotland

Here are a few clips from that era to get the children of Britain out there to bring in the spuds, which apparently rot if left in the ground too long.  These came with all sorts of severe copyright threats, so I apologise that I can only provide the links to the videos.  Do check them out they are a hoot.  The first is an animation aimed at Scottish children (tam ‘o shanter, sporran and all) to get them motivated for the job.

This next one seems to be for Glasgow in particular – Don’t worry if you can’t understand what they are saying, you get the basic idea.

This last one is aimed at the larger British population and is a bit easier to understand.

Another serious public relations campaign for the essential potato harvest.  This was the new status quo from the  war really up until the 1980s, when a combination of very hearty Scots teenagers and some new migrant labourers from Eastern European countries completed the task.  My husband still speaks enviously of some friends of his that took part in his youth. You could make enough cold hard cash in that two-week period to buy yourself your own TV for your bedroom – a luxury above all else at the time!  Of course all of this labour has now been replaced by machines that can do the work with a  fraction of the time and effort.

So, For the next two weeks as I lounge around in my dressing gown until noon, I will give my own quiet homage to not only the worldly and nutritious potato, but also to generations of workers, mainly children, who harvested the crops and to this day allow me a pre-scheduled fortnight off in October.  Many thanks!

Children's Gala Days

Children’s Gala Days

As summer approaches and the school year draws to a close ( yes, we are still in school), many towns and villages prepare for their summer festivals or Gala Days.  The activities, dates and traditions vary regionally throughout Scotland, but almost everywhere has a local summer party that can last a day or up to a week.   Here in Dunfermline we have the Children’s Gala, which is the largest and oldest celebration of its kind.

Statue of Carnegie in the Glen
Originally organised by the Dunfermline Co-Operative Society in 1902, the Gala’s Organisation and Funding was sponsored by Andrew Carnegie  and his wife via The Carnegie Trust from 1903 through the mid 1970s.  Each year a parade of children representing their primary schools and some local bands would parade down the medieval high street and enter the newly accessible ground of Pittencrieff Park, known locally as The Glen.

Gala Day 1972 by Ken Spowart - gifted to Dunfermline Museum

These were grand affairs  and much cherished by all.  After the parade finished upon entrance into the park, a lunch was provided and an afternoon of games and entertainment rounded off the event.

Thought to be the earliest known photo of Dunfermline Children's Gala - date unknown

 Please bear in mind that at t he turn of the 20th century this area’s main income was from mills, coal mines and farming, so an event on this scale – paid for in full –  would have been a highlight of the calendar for everyone.

Children in the Dunfermline Gala 1954

 The Carnegie Trust had to withdraw its funding for the event in the 1970s and the organisation and fundraising switched to the larger community.  Each year the Gala Committee and hundreds of volunteers raise funds, organise and host the Gala to keep the tradition alive.  Last year over 3,000 primary school children took part and over 15,000 people watched the parade and entertainment in the Glen.

Mermaid in the 2011 Gala

This year’s theme was “Under The Sea” and I have to say I was very impressed with the array of mermaids, undersea creatures,  bands and performers.

Gathering for the Big Event

Everyone who was to take part in the parade gathered in a parking lot just off the parade route.  I tried very hard to prise my terrified children from each of my legs just long enough to capture some sense of the mounting excitement.

Mermaids on stilts - very impressive!

The costumes were fantastic, the bands resplendent in their regalia and each child was given a balloon to create a sea of colour and energy on an otherwise grey day.

Giant Deep Sea Divers

There was a great mix of samba bands, these drummers – on stilts – with their heads covered – walking downhill –  on a cobbled road – drumming out some sick beats (like ya do), and of course…

Bagpipe bands.  Because you just can’t do anything in Scotland without the bagpipes!

My Big Girl's First Parade

Finally, it was my  Pirate Queen’s turn to join in the fun.  After securing the hand and support of her friend Lucy she marched all the way down the High Street for the first time with her school – Go Ladybug!


View from beneath statue of Carnegie looking back up the High Street

The crowd poured into the Glen and the energy shifted from cheering to congratulating the brave schoolkids, and enjoying the afternoon’s festivities.


Enjoying Her First Gala Day Picnic

As a part of the parade each child get a packed lunch, drink and some treats in their goody bag.  It was lovely to enjoy a day full of so many firsts for us but that also continues on our communities’ traditions that have lasted well over a hundred years.

And then the heavens opened and we went home for hot chocolate – ah well!

Beltane 2011

Beltane 2011

As springtime finally comes to Scotland in the form of the flowering of the Hawthorn (or May) flowers, those in the know start getting ready for an all night party known as Beltane.  One of the ancient Celtic fire festivals, Beltane is a time of clearing out the cobwebs, asking for blessings of the growing season to come but most of all just a chance to party.

Flowering Hawthorn - the cue to celebrate

Each year in Edinburgh on the evening of 30th April begins a spectacular Beltane celebration up on Calton Hill.  Starting in 1988 an eclectic group of professional musicians, dancers and academics devised a contemporary celebration that is now an evolving, volunteer, outdoor theatrical event.

Waiting for sunset on Calton Hill

Drawing upon historical records, ritual dance, drumming and symbolic storytelling the event retells the story of the Greenwood Marriage of the May Queen and the Green Man. This year in particular it came just a day on the heels of the royal wedding so one could swing between a very current and a very ancient marriage celebration all in the same weekend!

The May Queen Arrives

Entering the Fire Arch


Opening Ceremonies


Before its current location, the early events were set upon Arthur’s Seat and were not just a celebration of culture but also a protest of the then Thatcher government’s restrictions on the rights of to gather.  What started out as a free community event now sells out the 12,000 tickets (costing £6) that they are allotted each year by the city.  I also hear from very reliable sources that it is not quite as wild (or nudie) as it was in those early days.

If you can’t get to Edinburgh you can have your own Beltane celebration wherever you may reside.  The basic themes are of “out with the old and in with the new”, hopes for prosperity, good luck and blowing off steam from the winter.  The colours of Beltane are red and white, and a good amount of green for the Green Man himself.  Light a fire or candle at sunset and try to (safely) keep it going until dawn when your night of unabashed merriment should end with the washing of your face in the fresh dew of May Day.  If you happen to be face down in said grass by them, well two birds one stone I guess.

Blue Dancer

For those of a more decorous manner a backyard BBQ with friends is the perfect way to herald Beltane.  Be sure to gather lots of flowers for decoration and the women should feel free to pop a few fresh buds into their hair.  The menu should reflect the wildness of the original event so this is the time to break out the wild salmon and maybe some venison.  One of the main traditions of Beltane gone by would be to drive the cattle over the embers or even between two fires as a blessing, so maybe not so much with the beef or lamb for this occasion.

You can also gather the welcome fresh bounty of springtime with asparagus, spinach and of course strawberries!  I am going to experiment with cooking my Salmon on a Plank of Ashwood as the natives of Northwest America would have done, for additional flavour and to save time and effort on the washing up if things get out of hand, so watch this space.

Welcome Summer!

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