Tag Archives: Scotland

FOR A’ THAT – A review of The Big Burns Supper, Dumfries Jan 24th – 26th 2014

Last weekend I attended the Big Burns Supper 2014, a festival held annually in the pleasant town of Dumfries to celebrate Scotland’s national poet.

devorgilla 1

According to a Scots poet of a later generation, Edwin Muir, the charm of Robert Burns is that he can be all things to all men. Burns represents, he claimed, “to the respectable, a decent man; to the Rabelaisian, bawdy; to the sentimentalist, sentimental; to the socialist, a revolutionary; to the nationalist, a patriot; to the religious, pious”. The sub-text  is, whatever you want your own personal Burns to be, he will be.

The appeal of Burns to the Scots and to their considerable diaspora is easy to understand. He wrote not in highfalutin English but in Scots, for the Scots. He was not afraid to sprinkle his prose and verse with dialect words and phrases. Much of the stuff he wrote has populist appeal, as witness his masterly reworking of a limping old ballad that’s now sung around the world at the turn of the year and been recorded by Bing Crosby, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Boney M and Kenny G, to name but a handful of those who’ve tried their hand at ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

On the flight to Scotland, I allowed myself to speculate as to how the Scots should package Burns to widen the appeal, particularly non-Caledonians. Easy, I decided. Here we have a guy who was anti-authoritarian, even seditious. A convivial soul who liked nothing better than hanging around with his pals and downing a few scoops. A graffiti artist, too. Better yet, he looked like the young Elvis, wrote like Shakespeare and put it about like Sven Goran-Ericksen The Swedish Love Machine. Someone should make the movie. But please… spare us Mel Gibson.

At which point we touched down in Glasgow. Half an hour later I had a pristine, ten miles on the clock Arnold Clark-supplied Opel Astra under me and we were winging our way down the M74, destination Dumfries where the 2014 Big Burns Supper festival was to kick off on the morrow. Having time to spare I got off the motorway north of Moffat and drove past enthralling scenery to show Ann, my wife, the Devil’s Beef Tub, a deep, dramatic, swirling hole in the hills. Thereafter, we retraced our steps before meandering down the scenic A702, stopping for lunch in the well-kept town of Thornhill, birthplace of mega-talented and drop-dead-gorgeous Scottish singer, Emily Smith.

In Dumfries, a place I have only happy memories of, there is a camera obscura, a device that’s a precursor of photography. When the weather permits, it shows you a panoramic image of the town on the inner wall of the building. The custodian was, I remember, always at pains to point out the swans on the River Nith; also The Crichton – “Yin’s the biggest lunatic asylum in Scotland”. I was amused but awed to find that this was the location of our hotel for this trip. On arrival, I found the shadows of the past had been vanquished and that the extensive grounds now host the Royal Infirmary, a business park, two college campuses and The Aston, a fine hotel housing a Marco Pierre White restaurant where we dined with Rosemary and Andrea from the organising team of the Big Burns Supper, who outlined the concept to me.

The festival, first held in the town in 2012, aims to celebrate, via a programme of concerts, comedy, cabaret and community participation, the poet’s life and work. Burns, who died at 37 spent but the last four years of his life here, yet produced fully a quarter of his output during that period. A spiegeltent, a large travelling show tent, constructed in wood and canvas and decorated with mirrors and stained glass, had been erected in the town centre and this was to be the core venue for the festival’s programme. There would be a procession through the town lit by 1,000 lantern. 5,000 individual Burns suppers – haggis, neaps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes) would be served up over the course of the event.

Whisky 1

After dinner, we wasted no times in getting into the festival spirit, perhaps literally, by attending an event titled ‘Whisky for Dafties’, an introduction to the delights of Scottish single malt, hosted in robust fashion by comedian/whiskey fanatic Alan Anderson.

Session 1

Afterwards we repaired to The Globe, Dumfries’ oldest pub and Burns’ local where an impromptu music session was underway in the compact ‘Snug’ and a more formal one in ‘The Room’. We opted for informality. The Globe’s manager Jane Brown, herself a devotee of the poet (and President of the worldwide Robert Burns Society) kindly showed us the upstairs bedroom where our hero enjoyed assignations with the Globe’s blonde barmaid Anna Park. Burns’ other amusement while at his favourite ‘howff’ was to inscribe poems on the windows with a diamond-tipped pen. Some of these poems may still be seen.

Ellisland 1

Next day we visited Ellisland Farm, Burns’ first home in the region, a few miles outside Dumfries, where curator Les Byers, impressive custodian of the poet’s lore and legend gave us more inside track. Dumfries, he advised, was in those days a prosperous, bustling town, more important even than Glasgow as the hub of the lucrative trade in tobacco, a commodity imported through the nearby port of Carsethorn wherefrom, in 1851 alone, more than 21,000 people emigrated to Canada, The States, Australia and New Zealand.

Rockliffe 1

After taking leave of Les, we headed for the sea ourselves, seizing the opportunity of a break in the wet weather to walk on the beach at Rockcliffe and ramble up and over to Kippford via the Jubilee Path, something I’d done many times before.

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Later we attended Le Haggis, an event that fully justified its billing as as “the sexiest show in the festival”, a ninety minute extravaganza involving music, song, cabaret and an amazing display of dexterity, fitness and physique by a pair of burlesque acrobats. In the interim, the band, fronted by a fabulous girl singer (who sings, as I was informed, in the local community choir) brought real meaning to ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’, a song more frequently maladroitly performed either as a turgid dirge or as a jolly knees-up. Another performance that nearly had the tent crashing down on us was a vibrant rendition, by a lassie garbed in a leather basque and ‘sussies’ of Kirsty MacColl’s ‘In These Shoes’.

We attended the lantern procession, a truly amazing sight. More than 30 local groups and organisations took part in the parade, accompanied by several floats and huge puppets. Kudos to the Manchester (another town dear to my heart) Samba School whose rhythmic momentum, aided by a brace of pipe bands, drove the whole thing along. Afterwards, we ducked the late night Roller Disco “I’m not comfortable without my own skates, hehe.” “Yeah, right”, says my wife.

Dick Gaughan 1

Highlight of the next day was, for me, the live performance in the Spiegeltent, of Dick Gaughan, a master interpreter of both traditional and contemporary songs and a guitar genius, whom I first met when I was co-hosting a folk club in England back when Burns was a lad (well, not quite). A dish of the obligatory haggis and its customary trappings fortified us for pints, first in The Ship, my own ‘local’ back in the days when my acquaintanceship with Dumfries was more regular than it is today. The pints there are as honest as ever and the denizens still play dominoes, altogether another proper pub holding back the tide of muzak and expensive swill. Later, in the packed-to-the-rafters Globe we dissected the event with other festival attendees and learned of myriad delights we’d missed. At the end of the evening a girl we met in the street offered to walk us to the taxi rank to ensure we did not get lost, where else on earth would you get that sort of courtesy these days? Truly, Doonhamers (the inhabitants of Dumfries – I’ll explain another time) are salt of the earth.

The festival’s organisers deserve huge credit for The Big Burns Supper. I feel sure it’s an event that will, year on year, grow in stature, appealing not only to the Burns anorak, the patriot and the emigré, but to the wider body of people out there, of every race and creed, who enjoy song, dance, theatre, literature, merrymaking, the craic and just having a great time. Me, I intend coming back – for a’ that.



Homecoming Scotland 2014  In 2014, Scotland will welcome the world as we take to the global stage and celebrate our nation through a year-long series of exciting events. Complementing the Ryder Cup and Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, Homecoming Scotland will be a celebration of the country’s rich culture, natural beauty, active adventures and creative heritage. For more information go to: www.visitscotland.com 

Accommodation  I stayed at Aston Hotel, Dumfries www.astonhotels.co.uk/dumfries


Big Burns Supper http://2014.bigburnssupper.com/

Ellisland Farm, Dumfries www.ellislandfarm.co.uk

Dumfries Museum & Camera Obscura The Observatory, Rotchell Road Dumfries DG2 7SW www.dumfriesmuseum.com


Recipes for Burns Night

Complete Works of Robert Burns  www.robertburns.org/works/ 


robert burns/shirley spear

This year I won’t be doing  my Burns Night thing. The thought of cooking haggis on crutches just doesn’t appeal.

On the 25th January, anniversary of Scotland’s national bard, I’m heaving the dreaded knee op – not the full bifter plastic joint, I hasten to add, just a vacuum out, scrub and polish which, hopefully, we have me lepping about again soon.

Still, doubtess some of ye (especially those Irish who’ve taken to the wearing of kilts at weddings)  may want each  to celebrate the life and work of the bold Rab.

Here, courtesy of top Scottish chef, Shirley Spear, are recipes for the perfect Burns Supper including a mussel brose to start and her famous hot marmalade pudding to accompany the traditional haggis main course. Shirley is an ambassador for Scotland’s Year of Food & Drink which is being celebrated until the end of May 2011. She is also a cook book author and owner of the award winning restaurant  The Three Chimneys, on the beautiful Isle of Skye. .

Mussel Brose

Stage One. Cooking the mussels.


1kg mussels, washed and de-bearded. Discard any that are cracked or open

50 grams butter

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 heaped tablespoon chopped parsley

Freshly ground black pepper

200mls dry white wine

100mls water

Melt the butter in a large pan. You will need a good lid to fit the pan. Soften the onion and garlic in the hot butter. Stir in the parsley and add some freshly ground black pepper. Pour in the wine and water and bring to the boil. Add all the mussels, lower the heat, cover with close-fitting lid and leave to steam until mussels have opened. (If you want to serve mussels traditionally, cook them to this stage and serve them in warm bowls with the cooking liquor poured over them. Sprinkle with extra chopped parsley and chives when serving.) Remove the mussels using a slotted spoon and leave on a large dish to cool. Strain the cooking liquor through a fine sieve and reserve. Rinse out saucepan.

Stage Two. Making the brose.


500 grams potatoes, weighed when peeled and diced. Choose a floury variety that is good for mash.

200 grams onion, weighed when peeled and chopped quite small.

50 grams slightly salted butter.

2 rounded tablespoons medium oatmeal.

Approximately 250mls fresh milk plus 150mls double cream.

Freshly ground salt, black pepper, chopped chives and parsley, to finish.

Melt the butter until hot and foamy. Add onions and cook until soft. Add potatoes and stir together with the onion. Allow to cook gently for a few minutes. Pour in the strained mussel liquor. Bring to boil and then simmer with the lid on for at least 20-30 minutes. Add oatmeal, stir and simmer for a further 5-10 minutes. Meanwhile, remove the cooled mussels from their shells and reserve in a bowl. Retain a few whole for garnish. When brose is cooked, add fresh milk and liquidise. Stir in shelled mussels and the double cream. Reheat and season to taste. Be careful, as salt may not be necessary. Adjust the thickness of the brose at this stage. You may need to add a little more cream or a dash of white wine and water. Finish with freshly chopped chives and parsley stirred through the brose. Serve hot in warmed bowls with whole mussels placed on top for garnish.

Haggis, Bashed Neeps & Tatties

Haggis can be bought from good butcher’s shops and in many supermarkets. Vegetarian versions are also available so no-one needs to miss out. The haggis is already cooked and just needs some careful re-heating until it is piping hot.

Method: Bring a pan of water to the boil. Place the haggis in the pan and turn the heat down immediately. The water should only simmer, not boil as this may burst the case…resulting in a culinary disaster and a ‘murdert haggis’. Some haggis come in a ‘cook-in bag’ to avoid this problem – otherwise wrapping it in foil would help to protect the contents. The length of time it should be gently poached depends on the size of your haggis. As a guide, a 1kg haggis takes around 75 minutes.

For the ‘Neeps’ peel and quarter the turnip and boil for 25 minutes or until soft. Drain and mash with a little butter. Add a teaspoon of caster sugar and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Tatties Peel and quarter the potatoes and boil for 20 minutes or until soft. Drain and mash with a little butter and milk to get a smooth, creamy consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Shirley’s Famous Hot Marmalade Pudding


150gms fine brown breadcrumbs

120gms soft brown sugar

25gms self-raising wholemeal flour (white self-raising would do)

120gms fresh butter, plus extra for greasing the bowl

8 tablespoons well-flavoured, coarse-cut marmalade (homemade is always the best)

3 large eggs

1 rounded teaspoon bicarbonate of soda plus  1 tablespoon water to mix

Butter a 3-pint pudding basin well. Place the breadcrumbs, flour and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Melt the butter together with the marmalade, in a saucepan over a gently heat. Pour the melted ingredients over the dry ingredients and mix together thoroughly. Whisk the eggs until frothy and beat gently into the mixture until blended together well. Last of all, dissolve the bicarbonate of soda in 1 tablespoonful of cold water. Stir this into the pudding mixture, which will increase in volume as it absorbs the bicarbonate of soda. Spoon the mixture into the prepared basin. Cover it with close-fitting lid, or alternatively, make a lid with circles of buttered greaseproof paper and foil, pleated together across the centre and tied securely around the rim of the basin. Place the pudding basin in a saucepan of boiling water. The water should reach halfway up the side of the basin. Cover the pan with a close-fitting lid and simmer the pudding for 2 hours. The water will need topping-up throughout the cooking period. Turn out on to a serving dish, slice and serve hot, with fresh cream, ice cream, or – as is done at Three Chimneys – with Drambuie Custard.

Drambuie Custard

This is a proper egg custard flavoured with Drambuie liqueur. It is served warm, poured around the pudding. Alternatively flavours could be added, such as vanilla, ginger, or crushed cardamom, if you prefer. A tablespoonful of fresh ground coffee can be added, which is delicious with hot or cold chocolate desserts.


275mls fresh milk

275mls fresh double cream

6 egg yolks

100gms caster sugar

2 tablespoons Drambuie liqueur

Whisk the egg yolks together with the sugar until pale, slightly thick and creamy. Gently warm the milk and cream until it is just beginning to bubble. Pour the milk and cream on to the egg and sugar mixture and whisk together. Return the mixture to the saucepan. Bring to the boil very slowly, stirring all the time. As soon as it begins to thicken, or coats the back of the wooden spoon, remove from the heat and pour into a bowl or jug for serving. Stir in the Drambuie, or flavouring of your choice. Serve immediately. Alternatively, cool the custard quickly in a bowl sitting on ice and refrigerate when cold, until required. The custard can be used cold for assembling a trifle, serving with frozen or chilled desserts, or reheated carefully for serving with a hot pudding.

For holiday information on Scotland go to   http://www.visitscotland.com/whiteinvite

Scotland’s Year of Food & Drink is being celebrated until May 2011 and is the first step on the road to Homecoming 2014 and a legacy of last year’s Homecoming celebrations. · The Three Chimneys restaurant and adjoining 5 star accommodation is located on the Isle of Skye www.threechimneys.co.uk

Shirley’s recipe book ‘Three Chimneys, Recipes and Reflections form the Isle of Skye’s World-famous Restaurant’, is published by Birlinn Ltd. Price 16.99

Whisk(e)y for beginners – part 2


Highland Park, Orkney
Heather and sweet damp moss on the nose. Add six drops of water and enjoy the butterscotch sweetness and the long, long finish, like coming home to a welcoming turf fire.

Springbank, Cambelltown
Big rich “see yu, Jimmy” of a peated malt. Pokey but with huge class.

Glenmorangie, Ross
Initially sweet, getting drier as it lingers. Trademarks are citric zest, almonds and the dead giveaway, mandarin oranges.

Linkwood, Speyside
Hard to find, but worth seeking out. Huge, powerful banana and pear drop nose on the 12 year old, then sherry and honey sweetness tailing off to a biscuit-dry finish.

The Glenlivet, Speyside
Buffs know it as “Smiths”. Wild flowers, spice and a malt-laden smoothness on the palate. Dry finish.

Talisker, Skye
Amazing ‘curried’ nose abates to let you enjoy the honey-and-cream mouthfeel. Smoky finish with Shirazzy black pepper overtones.

Laphroaig, Islay
Peat smoke and medicinal overtones up front then seaweed and salt-spray tang. Will arouse the jack tar or beachcomber in you. I used to love this but I’m coming to the conclusion that maybe its streetfightin’ macho appeal makes it more of a young man’s drink!

Johnnie Walker Black Label
Quintessential luxury blended Scotch, smooth as a politician’s tongue.

White Horse. “What?” I hear you say. Yes, it’s often discounted at supermarkets and airports but WH is a better than bog standard blended Sctoch, made very distinctive, classy even, by the blender lumping in Lagavuilin, the astringent TCP-ish Islay malt.

Redbreast 12 year-old
Dark, dramatic, steely and very traditional. Impressive spicy nose, a huge mouthful of quality pot-still whiskey follows. Stays for ever.

Jameson 1780
‘Dublin-style’ par excellence, though it’s made in Cork. Oloroso sherry nose and vanilla and digestive biscuit finish sandwich rich fruitcake flavours.

Black Bush
Like the Titanic, dogged by ice. In pubs they presume you want it on the rocks and you always end up sending it back. Drink neat and enjoy the classy fragrant nose and the explosive sweetness on the palate.

Tullamore Dew
The ‘Irish-meets-blended-Scotch’ end of the spectrum. Use of grain flattens the spices in favour of mellow caramel toffee. Quite a lemony nose. Interesting, but not nmuch to my taste.

Midleton Very Rare
Expensive-but-worth-every-penny exemplar of the blender’s art and craft. This is bottled annually and the 2000 was the best I have tasted for some years – incredible.
Everyone should have at least one bottle.

Connemara, Irish Single Malt
You can argue all night about whether Irish whiskey was ever peated, but this is very fine gear. An Islay-esque flavour without the iodine.

Green Spot. A luxury Irish, made by Irish Distillers for Mitchells, the Kildare St, Dublin, wine merchants. Firm but not aggressive with pleasing acacia honey notes. Classic pot still.

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