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A Delightful Day in Scotland with Snow, Sleet, and Gale Force Winds

Apologies for this being a short post but frankly, I’m knackered. I’m nodding off as I write this and keep waking with a jolt to find a long line of mmmmmmms typed inadvertently across the page. This week my travels have taken me to London and then north to Scotland, where I’ve wrung every last minute out of every day spending time with the Scottish side of my family before flying back to Shanghai first thing tomorrow morning.
Scotland is where my father was born, later following his thirst for adventure all the way to Australia at the age of eighteen, before marrying an Australian, having three daughters and eventually five grandchildren. His mother, my only surviving grandparent, still lives here as does my delightful middle sister, and my father’s younger brother.
A little bit of me still feels very Scottish, the part that loves being outdoors no matter what the weather, the part that loves bacon sandwiches and strong tea and black pudding (if you’re not familiar with this last one it’s a famed Scottish blood sausage – intensely flavoured), and the part that loves history and stories, because Scotland is full of all of these.
Today was my last day here, and knowing I’d be going back to the dense urbanization of Shanghai I was dying to get outside and get some exercise in the fresh air. I asked my uncle and aunt if they would fancy a hill walk somewhere and they suggested The Pentlands, a row of heavy-set hills just south of Edinburgh covered with yellow-flowering gorse and heather, and populated by a herd of lowland-dwelling highland cows. 
“Should be a lovely bright day” they said. Scottish weather talk is full of euphemisms – “bright” usually means the cloud cover will be so dense you’ll never see the sun, and “bright patches” means it will rain all day except for five minutes here and there. Still, I was desperate to get outside.
When they arrived they took one look at what I was wearing (long-sleeved t-shirt, fleece, corduroy jeans, thick socks, borrowed hiking shoes, and weatherproof jacket) and added all of the following to my person – a wool beanie, gloves, a second t-shirt, and double-layered waterproof trousers. I began to worry that we were also going to need an emergency GPS beacon and a space blanket to prevent hypothermia, but they said not to worry, they were just being prepared for “a change in the weather”. This also sounded like a euphemism for something unpleasant but I decided to ignore it and go anyway.
We started off at the base of the Pentlands near a copse, the rolling green lower hills an easy climb, giving way to steeper terrain covered with dark patches of the winter’s heather, yet to sprout again this spring. Our reward for the first steep hill was a spectacular view over Edinburgh, the Firth of Forth, and beyond.

Just as we were enjoying the view the weather, as they say, “set in” which is a euphemism for “turned bloody awful”. What began as a pleasant outdoor walk on a coolish April day turned out a battle against the elements as the wind picked up speed and brought with it dark, low clouds, rain, and then quite unexpectedly sleet, hail, and half an hour of driving snow. It was all very challenging for a sun-worshipping Antipodean like myself, but I braced myself, pulled up my metaphorical socks and soldiered on, because it had been my idea after all.
The weather didn’t improve enormously over the next two hours but there were some “bright patches” between gales of wind and scudding low clouds.

On the very last hill, and soon after the snow stopped, we found the highland cows at last grazing in the strong wind and completely ignoring us. I never, ever get tired of meeting these wonderful animals, long shaggy coats hiding their large brown eyes. A iconic as pandas in China, flamingoes in Florida and kangaroos in Australia, they aren’t often seen this far south, preferring the colder northern parts of Scotland. What a treat!
Seeing them seemed a fitting end to a fabulous week and a happy bonus on the long list of “Things to do in Scotland” which included – walk on the beach, eat home-made cake, have black pudding for breakfast, visit Edinburgh Castle, drink a pint of beer in a pub with a roaring fire, see my grandmother, have coffee in Morningside and buy enough Mackie’s Salt and Vinegar Crisps and Rowntree’s Jelly Babies to last me a few months in China. All of which I managed to do, making the week wonderful, and exhausting all at once. And now – back East.
What’s on your list when you visit a much-loved place? 

Leaving Scotland

Today I leave Scotland behind, with its snow, and head back to Shanghai, in fact by the time you read this I’ll already be there.  Scotland is truly magnificent, with its wild countryside, clean waters and pure air, and the country has become acutely aware of just how valuable and precious their local food culture is, with so many more restaurants and shops stocking locally sourced produce than the last time I visited. My imaginary food suitcase would be full of Scottish salmon, smoked mackerel, Orkney cheeses, oatcakes, rich Scottish cream, a MacSween’s haggis, Edinburgh tablet (a type of fudge) and litres of pure, fresh water straight from Highland springs. (Actually, don’t tell Chinese customs but my suitcase contans almost all these things, except for the cream and the mackerel.) 
Edinburgh in winter is in full gothic splendor, with the dark stone spire of the Scot monument rising up in front of the ancient castle, perched above the town on a craggy outcrop at the top of the Royal Mile with its cobbled streets and narrow closes. The short winter days, with their lovely soft light, begin well into the day, and by mid-afternoon the twilight has already begun, with soft pink shadows stretching over the snow.  I’ll leave you with some photographs, and see you back in the East tomorrow.

Haggis and Clootie Dumpling at The Castle Inn, Dirleton

I’m much more Scottish than I am Chinese, if that makes any sense, and it’s wonderful to be back in the country where my father was born, even if he did abandon it at a young age to find his fortune in Australia. It’s also pretty fantatsic to be on solid ground again, recovering from the rolling North Sea ferry trip from The Netherlands. 
Now that I’m feeling hungry again I’m hankering after a Scottish pub meal, somewhere warm and cosy with great food, and hopefully a fireplace, and there is no better place I know of than The Castle Inn at Dirleton, sitting in the shadow of the 13th Century Dirleton Castle, half an hour east of Edinburgh.
It’s a lovely old pub, friendly and welcoming, and unlike some pubs they take their food as seriously as their drink. The owner, Bert, has an impressive commitment to local produce, with Sottish smoked salmon by Dicksons of Port Seton, East Lothian haddock, locally grown duck, Shetland rope-grown mussels, and steak and ale pies with East Lothian Belhaven Best Ale and Anderson’s steak all featuring on their well conceived menu.
I for one coldn’t go past their ‘haggis chimney’ with neeps and champit potatoes (that’s haggis with mashed turnips and buttery mashed potatoes), served with a whisky cream sauce. If you have never tasted haggis, it’s not too late. Considered the national dish of Scotland by many, haggis is an intensely savoury concoction made from a sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, ground and mixed with toasted oatmeal, onion, suet, spices (black pepper, allspice) and then cooked inside the sheep’s stomach. I can sense your skepticism about haggis, given that it’s been defamed and maligned by people who have probably never tasted the real thing, but I can tell you, it richly deserves the title of national dish. It’s complex, spicy, and savoury and contrasted beautifully with the creamy and buttery potatoes and sauce. One bite of the Castle Inn’s haggis and I had died and gone to haggis heaven.
Pretty hard act to follow, but the desert blackboard was offering a traditional Scottish Clootie Dumpling with custard. I could remember my 92 year-old grandmother Maisie talking about clootie dumpling, so I ordered a slice. Rich and fruity, like a Christmas pudding without the brandy, it came with hot custard sprinkled with nutmeg. Very delicious. A tot of whisky would have made it taste even better.
Later that day I asked Grandma Maisie about her clootie dumpling. Despite her age her memory is as sharp as ever, and if there’s one thing she likes to talk about, it’s food (other than her other favouite topic, the evil Tory government). She recalls her mother Tansy cooking the clootie dumpling in a cloot – a cloth – in this instance an old linen pillow case kept specifically for the purpose. Once the fruit dumpling had been steamed for several hours, it could then be sliced and fried in a pan with butter, eaten while hot. She still loves clootie dumpling to this day and was planning a piece for her supper. I knew it was good, but I loved the family story behind it even more.