STRAY LEAVES FROM THE TEA BOWL
By Stephen Cashmore
We were entertaining visitors. A couple was waiting for an early evening feed to arrive. When it appeared, all sauce and celery stalks, someone offered congratulations. "What for?" the curious diners asked. "You've just met the Thurso poisoner." (Which is not perhaps, the recommended way to win an award from HOST).
Another man, half-ways through a 'See the Highlands from the window of a luxury coach' tour, was describing a trip to Durness.
"Why, you must have passed by my brother's farm."
"Really? That's interesting. But how would I have recognised your brother's place?"
"You wouldn't. It's the exact same as all the rest. Except for one thing - my brother has the canniest sheep in the whole o' the North."
"Oh, I always thought sheep were such silly animals."
"Nah, nah. My brother's beasts are anything but silly. Let me give you an example. Do ye ken those cattle-traps in the road what's supposed to keep animals from straying into other farmer's parks?"
"Yes. We have them in England, too. We call them cattle-grids."
"Aye, likely. Well, they're no use on my brother's land. They don't work at all. Hopeless, just."
Noting his listener's aroused attention, our man continued; "Let me explain. The sheep line up on one side of the grid. The first brute, why he just turns over on his side and rolls over and over 'til he's across the cattle-trap. The rest see him doing it and they follows on. Before you know it, the entire flock's all chewing the grass in another farmer's park. We have a saying: 'There's wiser eatin' grass.' Well, that saying came about all from the tricks of my brother's sheep."
"Never heed his nonsense, man. His brother's sheep's as daft as he is. Come over here boy, and let me tell you o' the time I lost my watch in Thurso Bay, and found it six months later in the belly o' a lobster that fetched up in one o' my creels."
A youthful foursome breezed in, students perhaps come home for a few days, and anxious to sample the atmosphere of a bar where 'the crack' flows freely, and the genuine art of swearing still exists in all its ribald glory. This is one of the essential passage rites for all intelligent young folk, who have nothing to look forward to, poor souls, but moneymaking and the tedium of respectability.
"Heavens, lassie, what the hell's that you're putting down your neck?"
"It's a mixture of gin and melon liqueur. It's very fashionable in Edinburgh, actually."
"Och, and I thought Edinburgh was a bang-up-to-date kind of place."
"Oh? Did they used to drink this in Thurso?"
"Years ago. I can just about mind it."
"So what's the in-drink here now?"
"Well, there's rum and pure prune juice - muddles yer head, but fair scours yer bowel. Then there's 'windjammer' - that's whisky mixed wi' gripe water. And for gin - well there's only one thing worth drinking gin with."
"What's that? Tonic water? Angostura Bitters?"
"Behave yerself lassie, this is a sophisticated place. Lemon curd."
"Lemon curd! That must be horrible!"
"Far from it. Faarr from it. Half a glass o' gin with a dollop of lemon curd stirred in, and it's called - " and here he whispered something secret into his young listener's ear.
"Oh! With a name like that it must be an aphrodisiac."
"Well, I suppose you could say that. I never felt a need for it myself, though."
The barman, who had been eavesdropping on this interesting dialogue, shook his head. "These folk have never swallowed a real exotic cocktail. Bear with me a moment, and I'll tell you about a drink I had one time when I was working at a hotel over by Ullapool."
This story, which deserves preserving, centred on an Irish ghillie who stayed in a caravan near the hotel, where he was a frequent visitor to the bar. One day he invited the barman over that evening for a drop of something 'extra special'. "But bring along a piece of the hotel's best steak. I'll supply the drink."
Imagining he was going to enjoy a slap-up feed, our visitor did exactly as he was told, arriving at the caravan door with an appetite and a huge hunk of T-bone, which the host promptly threw into a frying pan full of sizzling fat. When the meat was well done, the ghillie scooped it out of the pan and placed it into his dog's bowl. "Hold on, man," he cautioned his astonished guest. The ghillie then proceeded to half fill two whisky tumblers with 18-year-old malt, which he topped up with steak fat straight from the frying pan. "Down in a one-er!" he commanded.
"And what did it taste like?"
"Taste like? Well, I've been a vegetarian ever since."
Highland Archives Index
Steven Cashmore 1999
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