Sunday, 13 December 2009

The return of the oyster

Wild oysters, once the gastronomic delight of kings as much as they were the staple diet of paupers, have returned to the Firth of Forth for the first time in almost a century.

The native oyster, ostrea edulis, is thought to have disappeared from the Forth in 1920, but out of the blue, two have made their way on to rocks somewhere on the south shore of Firth near Edinburgh, prompting jigs of delight from environmentalists and the smacking of lips from gourmands.

They were discovered by Liz Ashton, an aquaculturalist, after she heard rumours that they had been sighted around the estuary, even though an extensive marine survey in 1997 found no evidence of oysters. Taking advantage of a very low tide, she went to investigate and after walking for an hour along the shoreline, came across the pair, 100 yards (91 metres) apart.

“I was ecstatic, I jumped up and down and cheered,” she said. “I phoned my supervisor and told her the good news. Then I measured them and took their photographs, and then left them there to let the tide wash over them.”

Dr Ashton’s joy is partly explained by her deep interest in the native oyster. Overfishing has all but wiped the creature out across Europe, but she and a team from the Institute of Aquaculture at Stirling University are working on a project devoted to re-establish oysters in the Firth of Forth.

The two oysters were almost certainly members of a larger bed (or colony) that remained hidden when surveys of the estuary were carried out. If numbers could be increased, the oysters would promote bio-diversity, providing a habitat and food for little crabs and lobsters, and improving water quality, because the animals are “filter feeders”, taking impurities out of the water.

These highly desirable outcomes depended on the behaviour of humans, Dr Ashton said. “We need to try and restore them. I wouldn’t want people going down there and eating them straight away.”

Her warning was timely. Edinburgh’s restaurant trade has been yearning to supply local oysters for generations. “It’s wonderful news and it would be very interesting to compare them with oysters we serve now,” said Tia Millar, co-director of Fisher’s restaurants in Leith and Edinburgh.

Fisher’s is obliged to use West Coast shellfish and its menu includes oysters in their shells and grilled oysters, although Ms Millar’s preferred method — perfect for a Forthside picnic — is to cook oysters on a barbecue and then when the shells pop, eat them “in their delicious nectar”.

Ms Millar is part of a gastronomic tradition in the city. Long before Mr Pickwick was handing out barrels of oysters to his friends in London, Edinburgh was knee-deep in the creatures, its population reportedly eating its way through millions every year.

Edinburgh’s oysters enjoyed world renown but Scots kept the best of the crop for themselves. Adam Smith even founded an oyster club, which counted the philosophers David Hume and Adam Fergusson among its members. James Boswell and Samuel Johnson dined in a reputable laigh shop, or oyster house, near the law courts; in the nearby Cowgate gentlemen could season their fun with side of orders of oysters and porter.

James Hogg, the novelist, was baffled by the sheer quantities consumed: “What desperate breedy beasts eisters must be, for the they tell me that Embro devours a hunder thousand ever day ... That is only about two oysters for every three mouths.”

As the end loomed for the oysters, the Victorians showed no mercy. Local recipes for Oyster Kromeskies and Oyster Custard from the 1890s, used 24 oysters in each serving and no true Musselburgh Pie was complete without a least a dozen to sweeten the taste of the meat.

“There was a lack of effective management,” Dr Ashton said. “We should learn from that.”

* This one was in the paper a month ago, but it's still quite jolly. And the timelag enabled me to get rid of the dreadful error that was in the original.

Friday, 11 December 2009

For these women, the future's Orange

High on Well Road, past the bookmakers, the bowling alley and Chinese takeaway, you can enjoy the best view of Auchinleck's Orange parade as it slowly takes shape outside the community centre.

The flutes of the Patna band have returned from wetting their whistles at the Railway hotel, and are forming in orderly ranks. Braided union flags and lodge banners are held aloft; the marchers have fallen into line.

I am in the middle of a housing scheme in Ayrshire. This is not the beautiful coastal strip with its luxury golf courses and prosperous commuter towns, but the eastern side of the county, where the mining jobs have long gone from tough and insular communities. For some who live here it is only a dim sense of their Protestant roots that keeps them going.

It is in communities like this in East Ayrshire, Lanarkshire and West Lothian that the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland draws its strength. That's why the residents of Well Road are out in their front gardens in their tracksuits and vests, grinning at each other and waiting for the fun to begin. But there is a curious difference to this march.

True, there are the bands, with their gaudy uniforms and their absurdly militant names, such as the Drongan Young Conquerors. But those trussed-up men with their bowler hats and sashes, who for generations have held up towncentre traffic all across Scotland, are nowhere to be seen. Instead, it's women who catch the eye.

Draped in a blue sash and at the head of the parade march is Helyne MacLean, the mouse-like grand mistress of the women's wing of the Orange Order of Scotland.

Behind her, dressed in their Sunday hats, are ladies from all over the country, who are spending their bank holiday Saturday celebrating the inauguration of a new women's lodge in the village.

At the centre of the parade come the Auchinleck ladies, dressed in regulation orange and brown, proudly strutting along. These are the Sisters of Peden, Orange Lodge No205. To outsiders they look militant and uncompromising; to their supporters on the streets, they are proud defenders of the faith. Staunch or scary, I've come to meet them and to find what makes them tick.

There is a clue to the Orange mindset in the very name of the new lodge, which, like so many others, invokes the memory of a bloody and unblinking Protestant fanatic, long forgotten by the rest of the human race.

Alexander Peden was a Calvinist firebrand who defied the King's soldiers during the Killing Times of the 17th century. Peden was variously imprisoned on the Bass Rock, sentenced to transportation and forced to hide in the shadow of persecution, spending the last months of his life in a cold, dank cave. Surely a bitter and bloody chapter in Scottish history, a story you'd never wish to linger over? Not a bit of it.

After the march has ended, MacLean, nibbling on a piece of Dundee cake in the community centre, confides pleasantly: "The ladies themselves chose the name."

Auchinleck has many surprises. Out on the streets, it's easy to imagine a flash point is approaching as the parade begins to climb towards the village's Catholic church. The crowd, though, remains in good humour, laughing and joking with the scrawny ribbon of spectators spread out along the route.

High on the verge, Eddie McGilvray, the keeper of chapel hall, waves as one of the marchers shouts a greeting. "It's just something they do," he says with a smile and a shrug. "We stand shoulder to shoulder with them when we're watching the Talbot."

McGilvray is talking about Auchinleck Talbot, the village's football team. Just a week before, in a striking display of community solidarity, more than half the population of 7,500 - Catholic and Protestant, men and women - turned out to watch them win the Scottish Junior cup.

For all its modest scale, this parade effectively sounds one of the opening shots of the marching season. This summer there will be 186 marches in Glasgow alone, to celebrate a victory of Protestant forces over the deposed Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Depending on where you stand, these marches are either the nearest Scotland has to Mardi Gras or the physical manifestation of a scar on the national psyche. So why would women want to get involved? For the ladies of the order the answer is simple: their passionate belief in a Protestant Britain is unshakeable and they have every right to express themselves. "The way the country's going, it makes you value it even more," says MacLean. "I'd fight for it even more. But people just haven't got the values I was brought up on - the commitment to their church and country."

Back at the community centre, the lodge banners and union flags are arranged around a photograph of the Queen. The ladies have arranged their hats and coats tidily on chairs, and ensconced themselves in an annex where a buffet has been laid out.

These women have much to unite them. Few are in the first flush of youth and most have been members of the Orange Order for years. Nearly everyone has a parent or grandparent who was a member of a lodge. Margaret Stirkie is the worthy mistress of the Auchinleck lodge; her husband is its worthy master. Janice Frew joined the Sisters of Peden today, "but she was brought up with the lodge" and her husband is another leading Orangeman in the village.

Above all, what defines the women is their backs-to-the-wall attitude, in the face of what they see as attacks on their way of life - by politicians, by politically correct bureaucrats, by the media and by their own churches. It is difficult to meet them without thinking they are out of step with the modern world.

When MacLean joined the Church of Scotland at the age of 13, the spirit of tolerant ecumenicism, she says with regret, was already reaching the church. "That was the 1960s," she recalls, "when people were very much taking charge of their own lives. Even then I felt there was a need, that the churches weren't entirely for the people. I felt then that the Orange Order was a kind of extension of church membership." She joined the order three years later, in 1969.

Within the church of Scotland things have got far worse since the Swinging Sixties for those of an Orange disposition. Last month it was mooted at the Kirk's general assembly that same-sex partnerships might be blessed by ministers. That is anathema here.

"I don't agree with a lot of the trends the church has gone towards," says MacLean. "People in churches are the keepers of the..." she seems to stop herself saying "faith", aware perhaps that it makes her sound almost too committed.

Instead she goes on: "There are some always asking, 'What are you going to do about this?' The answer is, 'What are you going to do about it.'" MacLean is not for turning. She is staunch, in the language of the lodge.

The Grand Lodge of Scotland is firmly on its back foot. It's peak membership of 80,000 was reached in the 1960s; now it numbers 50,000, around a third of whom are women.

First came devolution, a body blow to the unionist cause. Next up was Jack McConnell's crusade against sectarianism. Last month, the Order joined with the Irish republican group, Cairde na hEireann, to sign a declaration that aims to eradicate the boorish chants that often accompany such parades.

But that gesture does not hide the resentment felt among the women tucking into tea and cake about McConnell's determination to put sectarianism "in the dustbin of history". For it is clear to these ladies that the first minister has them - and the organisation they love - in his sights.

"The Orange Order is a celebration," says Margaret Blakely, who has come from Irvine for this little tea. "In Ireland, sectarianism went alongside terrorism - and that's totally wrong."

"If somebody can actually give us the meaning of sectarianism, what Jack McConnell means by the word, it might help," says MacLean. "People don't know what the Orange Order is about, so they say we're sectarian. But what is that? This is our culture, and we feel it's being eroded. If we were any other religion ..." she lets the sentence trail off in exasperation. The women sitting opposite me feel they live in an all-inclusive, liberal society, which embraces the freedom of expression for all religions. Except their own.

"It's like the rest of society is ashamed of the Orange Order," somebody says. "I think they are," agrees MacLean. "You might see a religious parade abroad and think it was interesting, and you would have tremendous respect for these people.

It seems that people don't have any respect for our faith. Tolerance is accepting people for what they are and not for changing them to what you want them to be."

The women's lodge was established 97 years ago, when democratic and socialist principles were taking hold. Yet despite their numbers - women account for 164 of its 432 lodges - they remain discriminated against, with no voting rights at any important level in the organisation.

"It's something we want to change," says MacLean. "We're striving, and I think it will come. There's still a lot of what we call dinosaurs in there, but we really do have a good working relationship with the men. We are an organisation that believes in democracy. We are getting there." But in an organisation that has steadfast as its watchword, don't expect change any day soon.

At least on a local level the women believe they can make a difference. There's talk of increased involvement in Auchinleck's community council, and a determination to continue fundraising for good causes.

It will seem ironic to some that this fiery brand of Protestantism should now be putting its energies into helping others, but the irony

is lost on Walker. "It's about tolerance, isn't it?" she says. "It's about freedom of civil and religious liberty. And if we believe that for ourselves, we have to believe it for other folk."

That's how it is for the ladies of the Orange Order. They have feelings; they can be cheerful and generous with their time. But they are blinkered, and fanatical about their cause. And it's impossible to ignore another irony: the very tolerance they now crave could well sound the death knell for an organisation that, for centuries, has thrived only because of its rigid resistance to progress.

With the marching, talking and the fruitcake taken care of, the ladies of the Orange Order collect their hats and coats, and head home. The Sisters of Peden need to get ready for their celebration dance. But how long can the party continue for the Orange Order?

This piece was written in 2006. The picture is of a parade in Northern Ireland, not Ayrshire.