Of Mutton and Men

We were down in Dumfriesshire for the wedding of one of my oldest friends. He and his girlfriend were eloping to Gretna Green, the British equivalent of Las Vegas, and as the only friends living nearby (and a long way from everyone they didn’t want to find out beforehand), we were their lucky guests.

Gretna Green is the Bognor Regis of all things marital, so there was just a hint of cheesiness to the ceremony. This wasn’t helped by the fact that traditionally it was the local blacksmith who wedded the 16-year-olds who crossed the border to take advantage of relaxed Scottish laws—a tradition that persists in the “striking of the anvil” to declare the happy couple man and wife. All that was missing was one of those fairground poles with the ringer to show how many years the marriage will last.

But the emotion of the moment made the surroundings irrelevant, as it always does. It was one of those times when all of your happiness for your friends, and your happiness that they are your friends, gets concentrated in time and space into the now and here that you’re standing in.

We spent the rest of the day and night in Comlongon, a 14th-century castle turned fancy hotel near the Solway Firth (only a few miles from another castle we visited a year ago), eating fine food and drinking champagne. The next morning, livers still reeling from the chemical attack, Jane and I drove west along the coast from Dumfries to Kirkcudbright, taking in ruined castles and abbeys, villages and gardens. Those are the things we photographed, at least, but what I suspect I’ll remember most are the lambs. Lambs everywhere: some of them the brand new white of A4 bond; others the sooty black of puffs of toner; others white and black in spots like so many photocopied bleats. Bouncing and basking and suckling and running in the sun.

Somehow wherever I go I end up surrounded by sheep. Growing up in the Tasmanian countryside makes it inevitable that you become well-acquainted with the sophisticated humour deriving from an ovine environment. The joke I particularly remember from my days at university, home to many a budding Wilde sharpening his wit, was:

Huonville: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

Who could forget that? Or the hilarious variant I encountered on moving from Tasmania to Canberra:

Tasmania: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

Oh ho ho! But it got better. In the early ’90s I spent a year in England, and heard:

Australia: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

And then there’s the one from when I was about to leave Australia and go and work among the Kiwis for a while:

New Zealand: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

Be still, my bleating heart!

Imagine my joy, then, on hearing this old favourite after moving back to the UK, from none other than our good neighbours down south:

Scotland: Where men are men, and sheep are nervous.

Who would ever have thought that such comic subtlety was so universal in its appeal.

Admittedly, I’m a touch defensive on the whole subject of lanoline lust, because I actually did grow up with sheep in the back paddock: three or four at any one time. They were pets, basically, giant woolly lawn-mowers, and like any pets had names: Torny, Wrinkles, Lambert, Handlebars. They would graze contentedly all year, growing wider and woollier until shearing time in summer. Then we would herd them into the chook shed, where one of the local shearers would peel off their fleeces with a trimmer disturbingly similar to the one Dad used on us boys. A few sacks of wool later, the naked ewes and wethers would stumble out into the sunshine and go back to extracting Essence of Sheep from the tender green shoots hidden in the dry grass.

Usually the sheep put up minimal resistance to being herded to the hairdressers, but in the late ’80s we had one that always did: a young wether called Rabuka, after the Fijian coup leader (the letter b is pronounced “mb” in Fijian, which gives you the pun; he was “Rambo” for short). We suspected that the wethering operation had somehow gone wrong, because there was way too much testosterone in this one. He was a pain in the arse, never going where you wanted him, breaking through fences, and generally causing trouble; and eventually, Mum and Dad decided he had to go—to that great paddock in the sky, via Cordwell’s the butchers.

But Rambo was fiercely independent to the end, and refused to be herded into the back of the Rangey. Four of us weren’t enough to cover every possible escape route as we closed in around him, and he would break through and bolt for the far corner of the paddock as his brothers Wether and Ornot looked on.

Beneath the seat of every old four-wheel-drive, however, lies rope.

Dad fashioned a lasso out of the hairy red rope we used to tie down the trailer, and the next time Rambo went galloping past dropped it neatly over his charging head. Rambo jerked the noose tight, bucking and pulling against it until his cheeks turned scarlet, giving the four of us time to hoick him upside down into the back and close the hatch. Dad loosened the rope before the poor critter throttled himself, so that his last minutes on earth wouldn’t be too miserable, and down to the butcher they went.

But Rambo had his revenge, in death if not in life. Normally any sheep we butchered ended up as stewing and roasting cuts, since they were usually too old and muttony to be edible as anything except curry. Rambo was only a couple of years old, though, so as an experiment my parents got half of him turned into sausages.

We tried him a few nights later, with peas and boiled spuds. Only then did we discover the truth about mutton sausage: it’s horrible. Soft, grey and pasty, with that intense sheepy aroma known only to country-dwellers, because sheep older than a few months never end up on supermarket shelves.

We gave it to the cat. The cat wouldn’t eat it.

Fast forward to Scotland, where men are men and sheep are turned into the national dish. You know the score: sheep’s stomach (traditionally, or nowadays an artificial sausage skin) stuffed with mutton offal, oatmeal and spices. I first tried haggis a month or so after arriving here, in what was probably the wrong way: as a pizza topping, in a Stirling takeaway. (Jane dared me, of course.) It was ghastly: soft, grey, pasty, and very, very familiar. Like that of William Wallace, Rabuka’s spirit lived on in the auld toun of Stirling.

I never ate haggis again—until last Saturday. If the banquet the previous evening was any guide, Comlongon’s Full Scottish Breakfast probably tasted as good as it looked on the menu. The only drawback was the haggis substituting for black pudding (which despite its congealed-blood origins I actually like, in small doses; white pudding even more). But what the hell, I thought, I can always leave that aside; so I ordered it.

It was, without doubt, one of the finest hotel breakfasts I’ve eaten in the UK, matched only by the perfect porridge served at a small B&B in Kilmartin. Even the haggis was good—firm and granular in texture, tasty on the tongue—and there wasn’t a hint of throttled testosterone about it.

It was so fine that I recorded it for posterity. (Elements of the dish conveniently marked for non-Britons; the tomato was grilled, and the potato scone is a flat bread, this one fried in bacon fat. Be still, my bleating arteries.)

Later that day, I stared at all the sheep as we drove through Galloway, shouting out “lambs!” whenever a new flock came into view. Brilliant white symbols of spring; of the renewal of life; of care-free gambolling under the sun.

Every one an incipient haggis.