Category Archives: Pilgrimage

The Miller’s Tale

Fresh from the sourdough workshop, the Troubadour and I headed south to IMG_1138Dumfries and Galloway for a look around some museums that had been tickling our fancies. This wide, green, rolling corner of Scotland is often overlooked by travellers heading north to south or the other way round – and yet it holds some magnificent rural and coastal scenery, great gardens, and a host of cultural interest.

On the way down we stopped for coffee at Biggar and found, quite unexpectedly, a great wee local museum, run by volunteers, with an amazing collection of artefacts dating from prehistoric times to the 20th century. We especially liked a series of beautifully-crafted models showing cross-sections of local historic buildings like towers and mills and castles. There was also a huge reconstruction of old shops and businesses from Biggar’s main street in years gone by. Well worth the £4 entry fee us bus-pass-holders get to enjoy! And only £5 for the rest of you.

Above righIMG_1162 (2)t is a picture of Sweetheart Abbey, in the village of New Abbey where we were staying. It’s run by Historic Scotland and currently being renovated for safety reasons but dates from the 12th century and has a story about Queen Devorgilla who carried around her dead husband’s heart in a box tied to her waistband. This was seen as an act of great romance and devotion hence the name  given to the Abbey. I don’t get it. I mean – why??? Anyway it’s a picturesque visit with a nice tea shop and great cream scones.

Left is a picture of the 19th century foundations of the stills at Annandale Distillery. It’s a great piece of excavation work, carried out by Glasgow University – you can see very clearly the hearths from the two stills, with the chimney intact at the back. Like many distilleries, it closed in 1918 and then had a number of decades changing hands. The new owners started distilling in 2014 and the newmake spirit and 3 year old, both peated and unpeated, are a delight. ‘Man o’ Words’, the unpeated, invokes our bard Burns who lived and worked in Dumfries for a while, as an exciseman no less; and ‘Man o’ Swords’ invokes Robert the Bruce. In my heart I’m a woman o’words, not o’swords; but I have to confess I preferred the latter in a glass.

Our main intention when booking the break was to visit ‘The Devil’s Porridge’, a museum in Eastriggs near Annan which commemorates the massive armaments factory which was created there to produce cordite for the first world war. Apparently it was the biggest producer of cordite in the world at the time, and whole towns were built to accommodate the 9,000 staff who were needed to run it – 75% of whom were women, under 21, and working class – coming from jobs on farms and in service or other low-paid work. The collection of photos, uniforms, machinery and other artefacts is excellent and there’s a lot of really helpful interpretive information. There are lots of photos of young women delving into vats of cotton fibre, bare hands and up to their oxters in explosive materials. And yet apparently the workers were delighted to be there, earning two to three times their previous wages, enjoying a great social life, and freed from the servitude and lack of opportunity which had been their previous lot. I regret to say that I didn’t take any photos when we were there – partly because it was a bit cramped and the exhibits too big to get a proper viewpoint. But mainly because I had just come from my tasting session at the distillery and wasn’t entirely sober! Great museum though and I thoroughly recommend it.

And finally to the Corn Mill, also at New Abbey. This is run by HiIMG_1165 (2)storic Scotland, and we were shown round by a really enthusiastic local woman who brought its entire history to life for us. Originally it was built to grind oats for the monks at nearby Sweetheart Abbey; but the mediaeval origins are lost and the mill was rebuilt in the 18th century. It only closed for business in 1948. The interior of the mill shows how successive millers innovated and redesigned to ease the back-breaking burden of hauling sacks of oats around. You have to take your hat off to those informal engineers – the skill and dedication it must have taken to devise ways of, for example, hauling those 200lb sacks of oats from the bottom of the mill to the top. And you also have to spare a thought for the children employed in a lot of the heavy, boring, repetitive and dangerous work of the mill. Phew, phew, so lucky to have been born a century later! IMG_1175 (2)

I found the milling story fascinating in the context of my wider familiarity with barley-milling. At my place of work we use a modern mill which deals with half a ton at a time, yet you could only call it dinky in comparison to the massive millstones used at New Abbey for oatmeal. Also, from the sourdough workshop I was well convinced of the benefits of stoneground flour for breadmaking, and aware that there are very few stone-grinding mills left in Scotland. Now I can see why. The picture below shows a millstone imported from France in the height of the French Revolution – apparently it cost the equivalent of £15,000 at the time, and was shipped in segments; so that the miller had to reassemble it in situ. Otherwise it would have been impossible to shift. It seems that Napoleon put trade embargoes on hold in order to clinch this deal! (Please feel free to insert your own Brexit analogies here, I can’t bear to!)

And so my commitment to stoneground flour is renewed – thank you, Historic Scotland – and today’s tasks include cleaning out the fridge and feeding my little sourdough starters. And sorting out the rest of my Dumfries and Galloway photos; and maybe having a wee nip of Man O’Swords!

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Cooking your way home

Food has a potent impact on our remembered experiences. Certain smells, tastes and visuals can take us back in an instant to events we thought we’d forgotten. The jelly mould your mother used for blancmange, when you came home from hospital after having your tonsils out. The gherkin on the side of a dish of pate that reminds you of a friend of a friend who came on to you in France, oh – eeek – 35 years ago!

Sanjeev Kohli, Parduman Kohli, Arif Mir and Aasmah Mir discuss partition

Right now we’re remembering the partition of India and Pakistan, in 1947; there was a good account of it on BBC2 Scotland last night, hosted by Sanjeev Singh Kohli and Aasmah Mir, a Sikh and Muslim respectively, whose families came and settled in Scotland 70 years ago, after fleeing the riots. I had recently read a great book by Hardeep Singh Kohli, Sanjeev’s older brother: ‘Indian Takeaway: One man’s attempt to cook his way home. In this he explained how he had travelled to India a number of times to visit relatives; but never been a ‘tourist’ in the way that many of his Scottish friends, without Indian connections, had been. They came home raving about India, its spirituality and beauty and he thought he should try to see it with different eyes. Essentially, he wanted to figure out his personal identity: was he more Scottish than Indian, or the other way round?

Product DetailsBeing a big food lover, and coming from a strong Sikh food tradition, he hit on a novel way of exploring his roots: he would travel round India, cooking Scottish food for Indians! This is actually quite hilarious – you know from the start that he’s onto a loser – lack of equipment and ingredients being only the start of it. One of the running themes from a 1990s sitcom features an aspirational Indian family living in the UK, trying to cultivate a taste for ‘Bland’. So Hardeep’s attempts to ‘sell’ Scottish staples like Shepherd’s Pie and fish and chips to his Indian companions is full of pathos and self-deprecation. He’s a journalist, and writes like a stand-up comic; so there’s a steady stream of things to smile and laugh about.

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With a wonderfully truthful sense of childhood influences, he recounts the evolution of his mother’s Glenryck Mackerel (tinned of course) Curry on white rice … a creative cook’s attempt to make the most of cheaply available foods to feed her ever-hungry family. Yes it sounds dire but he assures us it was devoured with delight; and he counterposes it with a poignant account of eating fish curry in a tsunami-ravaged beach café in Mamallapuram.

Hardeep Singh Kohli honours both his parents in their strenuous, determined efforts to survive and prosper as refugees in a strange land; it is especially lovely to see his mother’s sterling efforts so lovingly catalogued. This a great read; do try and get hold of it.



Caked Out

Ah! Epiphany! Find a star and follow it!

Am sitting in the pre-daylight pearly bubble, at the PC, trying to catch up with lots of little jobs that should have been done sometime during the past fortnight when I was off work.  Off to Edinburgh shortly, to catch up with colleagues and friends, and get started again. Doing okay except in one respect: I said I’d make a cake for us to welcome the new year, and you know what? I couldn’t face it last night. I’m all caked out, and what I want to eat today is not more flippin’ cake thank you! Raw carrot and beansprouts seem more attractive, and that’s saying something.

Yesterday I visited friend Rose with broken arm, and took a quiche. Rose, poor soul, is not in a position to be critical but I doubt if Paul and Mary would have been impressed. Mega Soggy Bottom. Dreadful pastry. So, for a week or two at least, cake is not the star I’ll be following. Back to bread perhaps. I had a second go at bread rolls last weekend and they P1010875were a major improvement on my previous batch – you can compare the photos (previous post – Bread of Heaven) and see for yourself. I think this is partly because my kneading has improved and the dough rose better, and partly because I divided them up more evenly. The crumb was quite dense, but in a good way – not one of those full-of-nothing-but-air jobs.

However, back to Epiphany. Not necessarily the mythic journey of kings, or wise men, or astrologers, or whatever, following a literal star through the desert. But a bit of inspiration to reflect on the people and things that are important to you, and joy in finding them. Happy New Year, everybody, and wishing you unfailing hope for your travels.

Harold Fry

51f6yKkUebL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_I’ve just finished reading a fabulous book and am sure that everyone who reads this blog will have read it already, as it’s No. 1 bestseller on Amazon’s literary fiction list. I got it on Kindle so can’t share it round so you’ll just have to make do with a recommendation – not just mine but the thousands of others who got to it before I did.

So, it’s ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ by Rachel Joyce. Harold receives a letter form a former work colleague to tell him she is dying and wish him well. He quickly writes a short, tight reply and sets out to post the letter. However as he lifts it to the letter box he realises it’s not  much of a response to an old friend and sets out instead to walk from the south-west of England right to the Scottish border – over 600 miles – to deliver the letter in person. He leaves behind Maureen, his wife of 45 years, and the taut unhappiness of their marriage. That’s it. I won’t spoil it by telling you what he discovers along the way, but believe me, it’s beautiful.

My take-home message from the book is that you just have to trust in life, and the goodness to be found in other people, even if you haven’t a clue how things are going to work out. As Richard Holloway has said, ‘the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.’ Or words to that effect.

Here’s to putting one foot in front of the other. And to joyful outcomes.


My first labyrinth was in my friend Harriet’s garden, near Beauly.  Small, friendly, perched on a gentle hillside. Walking round it made me think how beautiful Scotland is.


My second labyrinth was at St James the Great in Dollar. This one is a nice two-circle design built between the trees in the church grounds. When we went there it was early summer and a calm, warm evening with the Ochils smiling gently in the background. Very peaceful. Walking round it made me think about how life throws up some unexpected turns; but if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you eventually come home.

My third labyrinth hasn’t been built yet; but I believe it will be, because my friend Valerie has dreamed about it, and what she dreams about has a way of coming to be. She has two possible sites – neither of which she owns or has any control over. But she has found out who does. Then by apparent chance last month, she met a man who designs labyrinths, and has just moved into the village. She has an eye on the local quarry for stones which, she thinks, could be personalised by the builders – i.e. local men, women and children. She has been told that to get planning permission, she’ll need to appeal to some sense of heritage; and then today she found out, from a friend I took for tea, that the village has 6th century links to St Brigid and Iona, traces of which can be seen in the Abbey ruins. And when you walk along the river and pause by the site, its thinness palpably shimmers. Yes, it’s all coming together. The spirit is moving.

Dunfermline on the pilgrim route

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I’ve  just entered a competition where the brief was to write 250 words on the theme ‘My Town’.  Believe me, 250 words isn’t enough, even for a quiet wee place like Dunfermline.  I kept it strictly 11th Century in tone and told the story of Malcolm and Margaret – how she wasn’t that keen on this rough, illiterate (albeit royal) boor, but he kept on at her and eventually she gave in; and civilised him.  She also apparently brought European influences to Scottish church life – she’d been instructed by the Benedictines and believed ‘Laborare est Orare’ – work is the best form of prayer.   I fondly remember pushing a pram up Monastery Street – maybe it was post-natal hormones but I could have sworn I heard the monks chanting and smelt their porridge!  Anyway, today being such a lovely day I took a quick run up the town for some photos, and attach one here for you.   I didn’t hear the monks today; my hormones must be all better now.

Somebody told me once about a ‘Society of Margarets’ – every Dunfermline woman called Margaret gets to join, in honour of QM/St M.  But I can’t find anything about it on the Internet.  Does anyone else know anything about this?