Author: Jug Suraiya
Edinburgh’s Princes Street is the most spectacular high street ever invented. Lining one side are hotels and offices and stores, and on the other the land swoops down into a valley as sudden as an exclamation and rises again to become a man-made massif of weathered stone dominated by the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle. It’s a walkers’ city and you can walk the Royal Mile from the castle, through the narrow lanes of Old Town, to Holyrood Palace, once the seat of Mary, Queen of Scots. Hard by the historic palace is the ultra-modern Scottish parliament, symbol of Scotland’s once and (who knows?) future sovereignty.
We could have explored Edinburgh for a month. We had one evening. “What do you like?” asked Norma, our guide. “Pubs,” said my wife, Bunny. “Good,” said Norma. Along with art galleries and museums, Edinburgh also has excellent pubs, which are not just watering holes but centres of social and cultural interaction. We tried the Cafe Royal around the corner from Princes Street, and the Dome on George Street, a truly splendiferous establishment with a glass dome, housed in a former bank.
The next morning, Norma drove us north and west. Past Stirling Castle, scene of many a battle between the Scots and the English, past the burial site of Rob Roy Macgregor , and around the edge of Loch Lomond which together with Loch Ness (home of the world’s most beloved monster, Nessie) claims to be Scotland’s largest loch, pronounced lock, which means lake.
We’d been in Scotland 36 hours and I was getting restive. Not that I didn’t like the place; on the contrary. What was bothering me was that after a day and a half there, I’d yet to eat a haggis. There are several things emblematic of Scotland: Scotch whisky, of course, and tartan kilts, and bagpipes, and Nessie, the Loch Ness beastie. But perhaps nothing is so uniquely Scottish as haggis. Other countries have their variants (the Scots would say travesties) of whisky, tartan and mysterious monsters. But no other country, that I know of at least, has haggis.
Haggis, Scotland’s gastronomic anthem, consists of a sheep’s stomach stuffed with oatmeal mixed with sundry other parts of the sheep, and steamed or baked. Robbie Burns, Scotland’s most celebrated poet, hailed haggis as the ‘great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race’, and on Burns Night, every January 25, from Aberdeen to Addis Ababa and all points in between where Scots and other lovers of Scotland foregather, the haggis is ceremoniously piped in as the piece de resistance of the feast. Nor need vegetarians blanch at the thought. For the canny Scots have devised a sheep-free version of haggis, suitable for shuddh shakaharis, pure vegetarians.
“When do we get to try some haggis?” I asked Norma. We were driving through the Arrochar Alps, magnificent Highland country of wind-swept crags and sudden vistas of valleys. We stopped at the village of Arrochar, where inquiries at a petrol pump led us to the Greenbanks Restaurant and Guesthouse. Yes, they did haggis, the traditional way, served with neeps (red turnips) and tatties (potatoes). I tried a forkful. It tasted like a khichri mildly spiced with garam masala, only less squidgy in texture. “Yum,” I said, and meant it. Norma nodded approval. I’d just passed an unwritten test and become a member of the extended clan.
A nagging thought occurred. What was the plural of haggis? Haggises? Haggii? I kept such quibbles to myself as we drove to Rothesay. Built around the sweep of a sheltering bay, the town of Rothesay is a living museum of Victorian architecture, florid with gables and a flourish of wrought iron in the form of the Winter Gardens, a large circular glass and metal enclosure which houses the visitors’ centre.
The deepening twilight seemed to offer a soft-focus glimpse into the golden haze of an age gone by. The Waverly, billed as the last ocean-going paddle steamer in the world, was chuffing out on its overnight voyage to Glasgow. As I watched its wake arc across the bay, an invisible choir seemed to sing ‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot’. Undiluted, unabashed nostalgia. I thought of the many reasons that I had to return to Scotland.
“Is it haggises or haggii?” I said to myself. As always, Bunny read my mind. “It doesn’t matter, you can just come back for a second helping,” she said. And why not? As an excuse to revisit Scotland, a repeat order of haggis is as good a reason as any.