The politics of porridge
Each morning when I wake here in Spitalfields, I lie for a few moments contemplating the squirrels gambolling in the yew tree outside my window before climbing from my bed to start another day. Once in the kitchen, without any conscious decision, I set about making porridge. This automatic daily ritual extends from autumn until spring every year and is one of three constant elements in my life that are residuals of my years in the Scottish Highlands where, as well as acquiring the porridge habit, I learnt to drink whisky and I began to write too.
Most people know Samuel Johnson’s definition of oats from his famous Dictionary of the English Language 1755, “A grain which in England is generally given to horses but in Scotland supports the people.” It is often quoted as an example of his famous wit, but if you place it into the context of the slaughter of nearly two thousand Highlanders by the English army at the battle of Culloden in 1746, it entirely loses its charisma. Here in the south, we may consider these events as history but in the north of Scotland their consequences still dominate the lives of those living there today. The Highland Clearances and the introduction of sheep created a devastated deforested depopulated landscape – a place that visitors enjoy for its soulfulness.
I was aware of none of this when I accepted a job in the Highlands at the age of twenty three and set out in a train from Kings Cross. I shall never forget the greeting of some of my work colleagues when I offered my hand, introducing myself, “Oh my God, you’re English!” they exclaimed in horror. But the Scots are a magnanimous people and these same colleagues were proud to introduce me to a local celebrity when he paid a visit. It was the heroic shot put veteran from the Highland Games whose fine portrait adorns every “Scotts Porridge Oats” box, and I was honoured to shake his hand. I knew I had truly arrived when, after several whiskies with a distinguished poet at the Dounreay Nuclear Power Facility Social Club in Caithness, I received an intimate piece of advice.” Never trust the English” he told me,“when you go down south, be polite, and smile and nod when they speak to you but never believe a word they tell you.”
The Highlands are inspiring place where, in spite of everything, the oral culture of generations remains alive, most people still carry a repertoire of traditional songs, and I shall never forget meeting the great bard Sorley MacLean, a seventh generation poet. It was the playwright Norman Malcolm Macdonald who started me writing, asking what stories I had myself. He lived on a croft that his family had acquired outside Stornaway on the Isle of Lewis at the time of the 1886 Crofting Act. Out of all the conversations I had with Norman, I recall him now talking about porridge, how his forefathers filled themselves up with it before going out to fish for herring in small boats. He showed me the porridge drawer (a traditional feature in many Highland homes) where they poured the surplus porridge to cool and slice up to eat like cake.
In those days I ate my porridge neat, but nowadays the Sassenach in me has resurfaced and I enjoy it with a spoonful of honey and a little milk.