It is Tuesday, and this morning I’m in the lobby of the Eden Locke Hotel on George Street in Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s early, Susan is still sleeping in our room, but I’ve got a complimentary espresso and a view of the stone, four-storied, Georgian-styled building just across the street — also known as the Alexander Graham Bell Free House (pub).
That magnificent building and the hundreds of other Georgian-styled buildings that constitute Edinburgh’s New Town were the vision of a self-styled architect, James Craig, who proposed his development as a healthy alternative to Edinburgh’s exploding growth in 1766.
In those olden days “brown water” was simply thrown out the window after a shouted warning to those who might be walking below. That bodily waste water would bubble down the cobble-stoned streets eventually leaching into the conveniently located (communal) water wells. The fecal-rich run-off then morphed into what we now call Cholera — a disease that effectively thinned-out the ever-growing population in Old Town.
Notwithstanding that bit of history, yesterday my wife and I hiked through the narrow, meandering, medieval streets in Old Town looking for lunch. We were in Scotland and decided we would by-pass the burgers, burritos and the pizza that have, regrettably, become endemic.
Yes, we were aiming for authenticity in the form of meat pies and a version of fish stew the Scots call Cullen Skink.
We had previously found meat pies in a noisy, second-story pub that featured large communal tables that encouraged animated conversation. I might also add that this pub did not have any television monitors.
The pie that I got consisted of chicken, peas and carrots swimming together in a glue-like base which was wrapped in a pastry shell about the size of your standard M14 anti-personnel mine. Getting through that pastry required a knife and eventually I had to summon Susan’s help in keeping the “pie” on the table as both of my hands were needed to saw into the shell.
I have to believe that there was some symbolism here, maybe a metaphor, for the troubled history of this small, beautiful country. But if there is a nutritional metaphor for the history of Scotland it is surely Haggis which is made from the lungs, heart and stomach of the sheep that were brought to the Highlands to replace the people.
Susan and I had no desire or appetite for this dish and had not tried to order it. Yesterday, however, we found ourselves confronted with a young man (our server) who said, “How about the Haggis and fries?”
“No” we replied in perfect unison, “Not today.”
“If not today,” he asked. “When? And if not here. Where?”
“What about the Cullen Skink?” we parried.
“No,” he said. “You will never understand the Scots until you have a bowl of Haggis.”
The Haggis came in a bowl atop a layer of perfectly innocent french fries. Haggis itself looked something like loose, sautéed hamburger meat mixed with granola. There seemed to be milk in the bottom of the bowl.
The national dish of Scotland makes sense if you assume it was once the least attractive, least desired protein in a country that didn’t have much protein to begin with. It makes sense that the better tasting parts of the sheep went into the mouths of the nobles, the tenants getting the innards, entrails and whatever else was inedible, unwanted.
I think many Scots took one look at Haggis and decided to leave. Yesterday, we were told there are 25 million people of Scottish descent in the world today, but only 5 million are now found in Scotland.
Many Scots immigrated to Canada, South Africa and Australia. Some came to Appalachia. All the while the Highlander Regiments became the reliable back-bone of the British Army distinguishing themselves at Waterloo, the Crimea and on the beaches of Normandy. They were really good at capturing the standards (flags) of the French.
All of which is something of a paradox because at this very moment the Scottish people now want to stay in the European Union. And, as everyone must know, the United Kingdom is in the process of leaving the EU — Boris Johnson is currently embattled over the terms of departure.
Historically the Scots have been independent thinking, wanting to be left alone. But this time around they want to stay connected with the Continent, the European Union, but want to depart Britain itself.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.