My travels started when I made an off-hand comment to a friend in the UK about WWOOFing in Scotland
“I really want to WWOOF in Scotland for some reason.”
For the uninitiated, WWOOF stands for “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms” and it’s a loosely organized international directory of farms that accept volunteer labor, usually in exchange for some degree of room and board.
Of course it really wasn’t “some reason.” I have wanted to go to Scotland for a long time. As a child growing up in a place where I just didn’t fit in, I often dreamed that there was some place where I really belonged – that I had been mistakenly born in the wrong place. Given my last name, I was drawn to Scotland. I devoured books of Celtic mythology and learned Celtic folk songs. I even tried to learn a little Scots Gaelic from the BBC website and from Celtic musicians I found on Napster.
Who would have thought though that because of that one sentence I would be sitting in a bar in Glasgow, drinking a seaweed gin cocktail and feeling very foreign. It was strange being a native speaker of the language, yet being so obviously from a distant land. Though the din I could barely make out what the bartender said to me. There was a lot of nodding and pointing at the menu.
Amazing cocktails and Scottish seafood at the Finnieston
On the train I read a Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, wishing I could print out the glossary of intelligible Scots words since it was so hard to flip to it on my Kindle. Some of those words still remain in the local dialects I heard while I travelled through Scotland.
Perhaps it is an unconscious rebellion against my Sunbelt childhood that I love nothing more than a cool rainy day. And we had plenty of those in Scotland. And plenty of the pleasures those bring, like coming into a warm cozy pub in Fionnphort and warming my boots by the fire or the beating of raindrops on the roof of the conservatory in Glasgow as we marvelled at palm trees from far away places. And were glad we had chosen to be here.
Dare I say that the whole thing seemed a little “daft.” And at points before the trip I had almost dreaded it. But my work had been harder than usual, and I knew I needed it, though I didn’t have much time to do planning. I did something I almost never do, and ceded control of that to my companion. And as usual commenced the doubting, the fear that everything would go wrong.
But in my most fantastic doubts I imagined it would be a bit like Wicker Man, a film (please see the original and not the Nicholas Cage version) which supposedly takes place not far from our ultimate island destination. More realistically, I thought perhaps we would not have much good to eat, remembering my first volunteer farming experience, where we ate large amounts of Textured Vegetable Protein and I felt sick much of the time. Or we would be knee deep in mud for hours digging for potatoes in the cold rain, a situation I experienced on a farm in Sweden.
When we arrived at the port of Craignure, on the Eastern end of the Isle of Mull, I imagined the work would be pretty similar to that. The rain was driving hard as the bus wound through the single-lane road, passing lochs and mountains that I could barely see. Our journey earlier on the “scenic” West Highland Railway had been similar. Every picture I took is just a bunch of raindrops on a window. Except one point, on Mull where there was a clearly, and I saw three beautiful lochs shining out through the gloaming (a Scots word I am very fond of).
As the bus drove on, the rain lifted and I saw the beautiful rugged coastline. By the time we got to the far west end of Mull, a gentle sea wind greeted us as we stepped out of the bus into the sun and met our host, Rosie, who was immensely friendly and welcoming. I knew things were going to be OK.
Rosie and her family run Dail an Inbhire/Ecocroft, a small bed & breakfast. On their croft they have a large garden, a small shop, and they keep a handful of sheep. Whether you are a WWOOFer or a regular tourist, I can’t recommend this beautiful place enough. Not only is it beautiful, there is lots of hiking, and the food is fresh and delicious. You can have a home-cooked meal (they cater to special diets) or make your own food from items purchased the on-farm shop or in town. The on-farm shop specializes in homemade preserves and fresh-baked bread and pastries.
Hiking amid rainbows
You can’t miss the local lamb, grass-fed Highland beef, wild venison, and the abundance of seafood options. If you want to splurge, there is a fancy restaurant called Ninth Wave in Fionnphort, the main village, where we sampled a large range of seafood caught by our kilt-clad waiter himself.
Venison at Ninth wave
We worked most of the day in the garden, harvesting autumn produce and preparing it for the winter. When I told people in Chicago I was going to Scotland, I got the impression that many of them think it is a bleak arctic landscape. But the Gulf Stream keeps the Scottish climate relatively mild and Ecocroft is able to operate a hoop house at times when Midwestern farms are buried in snow and frost. In late September there was an abundance of blackberries, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, herbs, and of course the infamous kale, which we ate plenty of. Typically we cooked our own lunch in the tiny barn kitchen or shared lunch with the other WWOOFer, an American who was spending the entire fall and winter WWOOFing on various farms in Scotland. I often toasted the fresh-baked bread with newly harvested tomatoes and local cheese, topping it with a fried egg. For dinner we either cooked something or shared a meal with Rosie and her family– her husband Nigel and son Michael. One of the best ones we had was a potato and cheese Gratin Dauphinoise (a recipe they learned from a French WOOFer) with highland beef and green beans from the garden.
The croft garden
After working in the garden each day, we mostly hiked around the beautiful island. I was very glad I brought waterproof shoes and pants, as there are many bogs on the island and rain seems to come along randomly. There are many interesting geological formations and coves to explore. In one cove we found a mass of seaweed welled up from the deep, with a mysterious bucket next to it, half filled as if someone had started to gather the seaweed and had been abducted by a kelpie. The locals we queried do not currently eat seaweed, though there are records of people eating it in the past. But when Nigel found out the seaweed had started to come ashore and that we were interested in seaweed, he employed us in harvesting it to put in the garden as a soil conditioner. Much of the island’s soil is poor for growing crops, so most agriculture there consists of grazing animals, but with proper care of the soil, some parts of the island can grow a decent crop of some vegetables to have alongside your beef or lamb. Rosie told us that living on the island had converted a few vegetarians into eating occasional meat and fish.
One day we went to Iona, a little island off the West Coast most famous for its role in Christianity. St. Columba brought Christianity from Ireland to Iona, where it eventually spread across Scotland to become the dominant religion. Despite that, it is easy to find relics of far more ancient beliefs whispered in conversations with local people and in the landscape itself.
The things a man has heard and seen are threads of life, and if he pull them carefully from the confused distaff of memory, any who will can weave them into whatever garments of belief please them best. I too have woven my garment like another, but I shall try to keep warm in it, and shall be well content if it do not unbecome me - Yeats in the Celtic Twilight, which I read on the train
There is an effort to bring back the old language, Scots Gaelic, and I heard that Gaelic classes and other Gaelic cultural events are well-attended. If I had been there longer I would have loved to see some of the Gaelic choir competitions that the other WWOOFer had attended.
After we took the ferry from Iona, we relaxed by the fire at the local pub The Keel Row and I had a pint of my namesake beer, McEwan’s, which I heard was terrible. Maybe I was tired from exploring Iona, but I enjoyed it.
We hiked back from Fionnphort to Ecocroft. We were pretty lucky that Ecocroft has several large windmills, part of Scotland’s renewable energy renaissance, to use as landmarks and that Scotland has a “right to roam” law similar to Sweden’s, because we got a bit lost and had to wander through more than a few random pastures and bogs. Despite wondering if we would have to sleep out on the moor a la Jane Eyre, I enjoyed our jaunt through the autumn heather blooms.
We slept in the WWOOFers quarters in the barn and at night rain came and went, raindrops on the roof drumming us to sleep. I thought of my ancestors who had lived in this part of Scotland long ago. And how some of them had been cleared from their homes to make room for sheep. Most McEwans live in Australia, Canada, or the United States. The landscape still bears the scars from the Highland Clearances, large empty estates bereft of people. And the sheep might not be ideal for the island’s ecology. The government has tried to encourage people to raise cattle instead.
If it doesn't, I'll go to Hallaig,
To the sabbath of the dead,
Down to where each departed
Generation has gathered.
Hallaig is where they survive,
All the MacLeans and MacLeads
Who were there in the time of Mac Gille Chaluim:
The dead have been seen alive,
- part of Hallaig, a poem about the empty landscape left by the Clearances, translated by Seamus Heaney
When friends back in Chicago saw the pictures of me in Mull, they said they knew I wouldn’t come back, but I did. Though there were many momnents I did not want to.
I was very sad to leave. I wanted to see more of the island. Mull is a big place, full of mountains to climb and little seaside towns. We only saw a fraction of it. Maybe someday an independent Scotland will allow its children back, to repopulate areas of the Highlands that are still hemorrhaging people.
I couldn’t help seeing Scandinavia in the food and the landscape, and thinking of the culinary re-awakening that is happening there, and seeing it happening in Scotland someday. I know some Scots work in those kitchens, at Noma’s Nordic Food Lab and at In De Wulf. Maybe someday they will come home.
We took the ferry back, stopping for a bit in Oban, a port town where a small seafood stand run by fisherman at the ferry terminal seemed to have the best food. The oysters were terrific, with a perfect ocean brininess and brightness. The scallops looked different from any other scallops I’d ever had, with little reddish organs attached to them. A friendly Scottish couple across the table from us told us that was the roe and that often it is thrown out. If that’s true, it’s a shame, as the savory roe was one of the best parts. Later I learned that what we were eating was more correctly the gonads, which sounds a little less attractive. I’d still eat them in a heartbeat.
Another surprisingly delicious food was haggis, a food that has been reduced to a St. Burns Day supper joke among the worldwide Scottish diaspora. But when we had it at Stravaigin, an excellent gastropub in Glasgow, we had to have it again. It was hardly as challenging to the palate as I imagined. Instead it was like a burst of intense meatiness punctuated by fragrant black pepper and rosemary, eaten alongside silky “nepps and tatties.” Stravaigin serves Scottish food, but also lots of fantastically spicy Asian-influenced dishes. Spicy was one thing a lot of Scottish food we ate didn’t have much of. If I had thought about things a little better, I would have carried a small bottle of hot sauce with me.
We took the bus back to London, which turned out to be more scenic than the train, as we wound through the roads alongside Loch Lomond, of the ballad fame. We had one last fine dinner at St. John Bread and Wine, where we made an auspicious sighting of Fergus Henderson himself as we filled up on delicious crispy pig skin and duck hearts. Fergus Henderson is largely responsible for the nose to tail dining movement and wrote the first recipe I ever made with offal, his famous bone marrow salad from his famous cookbook, which I’ve made so many times now that I didn’t bother to order it. I wanted to order more, but sadly I can only eat so much.
Duck hearts with crispy potato cake
From there we took a very long train ride to the airport. And then back to Chicago.
People said not to travel to Scotland for the food. But I loved the food in Scotland. Like the Gulf Coast in the US where much of my family lives, you just have to know where to look. The stuff at a middling average restaurant here, a chip or kebab shop, isn't very good or good for you. You'll find the best food at the simplest places like a seafood stand or at nice restaurants.
I wasn't there for long before I flew to Louisana.
To be continued.