An Englishman in Dundee
Six foot four and hewn from Scottish granite, this man mountain was the kind of brute who’d risk a coronary to tattoo ‘FREEDOM!’ on his own heart. Red headed and freckled, I imagine his blood ran tartan and his flatulence sang bagpipes. Punters scattered as he swung his claymore of an arm; one woman thrown unceremoniously to the floor. A daring member of the cafe staff came to her rescue, prodding him away with a broom handle and lifting her back to her feet. This only enraged him further and he began attacking the staff. Gallantly they fought back, armed with an arsenal of kitchen weaponry. One produced a long and heavy looking knife sharpener and proceeded to whack the guy’s limbs as hard as you like, eventually forcing him into an arm and ego bruising retreat.
I watched on from across the room, a conscientious objector, glad to be out of the action; I was an Englishman in Dundee the afternoon of a Scottish defeat in the Calcutta Cup and didn’t fancy my head becoming a replacement rugby ball at the end of a vengeful boot. Once everything had calmed down my supper was brought to me. I’d ordered haggis with Orkney Clapshot. Never having tasted haggis before and having no idea what Orkney Clapshot was, I felt obliged to try given I was in the ‘City of Discovery’. Besides, despite not having any baseline experience, I was assured by a notice on the wall that here I would be treated to the ‘best haggis in Dundee’. Having plonked my plate down on the table, the rather heavy-set lady snatched away my empty mug.
‘Wan’e mooer tea there?’ she asked. It took me a good few moments to work through her accent.
‘No thank you,’ I replied.
I looked down at the plate in front of me. A mound of lumpy orange mess and pulverized lamb viscera stared up at me and I began to regret my choice. ‘Baa…’ I thought to myself after pushing it around the plate for a moment or two, ‘…when in Rome…’ Cautiously I took my first bite. It was greasy, gritty and a little too peppery yet, to my delight, quite tasty. In fact flavoured more like beef or pork than lamb, the texture was somewhere between mince and sausage. Furthermore the Orkney Clapshot, which I would later learn was merely mashed potato and turnip, was also very pleasant and I was soon chiding my squeamish ignorance. Who would have guessed that stomach wrapped sheep innards could be so palatable? Not an Englishman. Not this one at least.
After I’d finished up, I stepped out into the refrigerated evening. The sky was clear and a few stars were already shining, winking at me like long lost friends, sadly missing from the polluted firmament of my metropolitan life. I’d travelled from London for a friend’s 21st birthday but had some time to trudge away before I was due at the party so went for a wander.
Turning a corner I entered a long residential street of thin, tall terrace housing. Coming from southern suburbs, very much used to low-built red brick and machinegun pebble-dashing, the dull browns and greys of the Scottish block masonry seemed enjoyably erstwhile and organic to me. Similarly unfamiliar, the pavements, only perhaps a metre wide, ran right up to the front doors. There were no manicured gardens setting homes apart from the street as last defences from the advance of the outside world. No smooth, rolling driveways, despite tarmac’s Scottish conception. Just a narrow gulley of road and lick of pavement before an imposing urban cliff face. I imagined the streets being carved straight and square out of the mountain side, leaving sheer walls of rock behind needing nothing more but doors and windows.
The magic was snatched away however, when I stumbled across the only sign of life in these quiet streets. A boy of perhaps six or seven, lightly clad in shorts and a football jersey, was kicking broken glass around the pavement and against the wall. A few paces before I passed him, his mother came out of the house and, instead of scolding him or dragging him inside, silently removed his shoes before stepping back into the radiating warmth of her home. Moments later the boy reluctantly followed her in and the door was shut behind him. Don’t scenes like this just restore your faith in humanity?
With the limited assistance of the very poor map I had brought with me, I eventually made it to the church hall where the party was being held. On entering I discovered, to my horror, that I had come significantly underdressed. Like a lonely English infantryman at Bannockburn, flashes of pleated tartan screamed ‘They may take our lives…!’ at me from every flank; kilt and trimmings decorating all to a man. The ladies too were very fetching, hugged tight by shimmering ball gowns of every hue and all degrees of modesty. Suddenly, to come dressed in corduroys and a sports jacket seemed quite the faux pas. My scarf was tartan but I was fairly confident that didn’t count. I skirted around the periphery of the hall, trying to avoid being noticed, until I spotted my friend Matt across the room. I caught his eye and he trotted over to me.
‘You look smart,’ I told him as we shook hands. He was wearing his grey and black family tartan along with waistcoat, sporran, knee-high socks and garters.
‘Cheers,’ he said. ‘You look…’
‘Like a geography teacher?’ I suggested.
‘Aye,’ he chuckled. ‘Nice scarf.’
The reason for all the pomp was that the party was to include a céilidh, the tradition of Scottish country dancing. Scots are taught these dances from as early as primary school and is a staple of their upbringing. It’s a truly lifelong practice, the like of which just doesn’t exist in England anymore, if it ever did. If it wasn’t already abundantly clear that I was floundering then it very soon would be.
I made my way to a corner of the room where champagne was being served; if I was going to jig like a Scotsman then I was going to have to gather courage like a Dutchman. I necked several glasses of astringent fizz in the space of just a few minutes. I knew I would suffer later for my binge but figured sufficient lubrication, given what I would soon expect my limbs and limited sense of rhythm to do, was worth the sacrifice of a sore head.
I sat out the first few dances, happy to watch on and further drown my inhibition. However, just before the band stuck up the forth or fifth tune, Matt introduced me to Lauren, a lustrous blonde in a glossy indigo frock who, this being my first céilidh, had kindly offered to look after me. Like a gentleman, albeit one dressed more appropriate for a school field trip than a country dance, I gratefully took the lady’s hand and anxiously made my way out onto the floor.
Strip the Willow involved two lines, one of ladies and another of gents, each facing pair taking it in turns to dance. When it was ours, Lauren and I held crossed hands and swung around very fast for eight bars before breaking away and moving down the line. We alternated between swinging each other round our hooked arms and repeating the action with the next dancer of the opposite sex, the carousel of the dance twirling the tartan world around us until we reached the line’s end. This went on for several rounds. It was fast, confusing and dizzying; the pace nearly throwing me to my knees once or twice. More importantly it was complete escapism; in those few frantic minutes, bouncing along with such an effervescent Scots lass was all this clumsy Englishman wished to live for.
After that I was hooked and rarely left the dance floor for the rest of the night. I was entertained by the terminology as much as I was by the jigs and skips; packhorse ranting with Lauren a number of times and marmalade sandwiching several equally charming young ladies whose names I have regrettably forgotten. Discarding my southern sensibilities I at one point even jigged like a hooligan. I’d become quite the dashing white sergeant.
At the end of the evening, as we caught our breath and hokey-cokied to a more familiar Auld Lang Syne, I was very pleased to have embraced the local spirit of discovery; if I could pretend at being a Scotsman for one night only I was glad I’d made it this one. For those with the lifelong privilege, the céilidh, though entertaining I’m sure, may have drifted away rather familiarly; the empty grey streets would have perhaps appeared rather dour and ordinary; my revelation of a supper digested simply as staple fare. For me on the other hand it had all been a true novelty; though treacherous, strange and intrepid, every part of it a treat. I’d had fun, I’d had surprises, I’d had haggis. As they say north of the border, it’s guid ti hae yir cog out whan it rains kail.