The name Canon Angus MacQueen was mentioned to me on more than one occasion when I was writing Seaweed in the Kitchen but sadly, I didn't make the time to take the ferry from South Uist to Barra to visit the retired Cathloic priest. In one way meeting the Gaelic speaking, doyen of seaweed after my book had been published would I thought, be a far more relaxed expedition. I wondered however, if a ninety two year old would make time for a relative newcomer to the world of seaweed eaters. I am a fortunate lady because my request to chat about eating seaweed was accepted.
Canon Angus MacQueen in his home on the Isle of Barra
Canon MacQueen was born on the Outer Hebridean Isle of South Uist in 1923 and was the youngest of seven children. He left the Island to go a Catholic seminary on the mainland at 13 but returned to the Hebrides as a priest in Eriskay, and latterly, on the Isle of Barra.
For centuries crofters have collected seaweed from the shore and ploughed it into the Machair ( land by the sea that is rich in sand blown in by Atlantic winds). The seaweed used by the crofters as manure is kelp, Laminaria digitata and L. hyperborea. Islanders however, refer to it as tangle. Canon MacQueen talked of the importance of tangle, which he described as 'a wonderful fertiliser from the ocean'. He painted a magical picture of his summers as a boy on the north end of South Uist, which he described as a barefooted childhood from March to October.The children delivered the cows to the Machair gate and were in charge of them until night time. Having taken a note of the activities of the bull and cows as they enjoyed their life on the Machair (to report back to their parents), the children were free to enjoy long summer days on the Machair and seashore. Canon MacQueen recalled that his mother would give him a home baked scone with homemade cheese, butter or crowdie to eat for lunch. His blue eyes twinkled as he recounted that being youngsters, they would eat the piece (lunch) on the road to the Machair.
White clover and wild thyme growing on the Machair
'We never saw a human being until late at night, so as you can imagine, these young barefooted people with a shirt, no boots, stockings or underwear, who had eaten everything on the way to the Machair, were hungry by 11 o'clock. We had nothing to eat, we had eaten out pieces. We knew where to find water from spring wells, as people did hundreds of years before. We had plenty to drink but we were hungry.'
The children ate what they could on the Machair, following the seasons as they sucked the nectar from wild Machair flowers.The beauty of the Machair is that it works in harmony with nature. Beyond the Machair is the Atlantic and it was here that Canon MaCqueen went for a swim and to find more food in amongst the fermmain (seaweed). He continued, "After a year or two you became an expert, on what to eat and what not to eat. What to eat, was nice things, like the baby seaweed on the tangle (kelp) - the dulse. We grew throughout the summer months feeding ourselves on seaweed."
Canon MacQueen describes a romantic youth in sympathy with nature. The removal of the herd from the Machair coincided with the nesting season of the waders and so, the children knew the whereabouts of nesting birds. "Curracag ," he said " I forget the English name," and at this point he tufted his good head of hair into a Mohican style. " Oh you mean peewits or lapwings," I laughed. 'Yes' he said.
"In the morning, when the birds were out looking for food, we children crawled stealthily through the grass and took the eggs." He told me that they placed the eggs in a grandfather's tweed bonnet (hat) in neat rows. Canon Macqueen explained that curra (from curracag) is Gaelic for bonnet (cap). It would appear that curracag is Uist Gaelic for lapwing. The Gaelic word for lapwing is adharcan luachrach.
Having taken the eggs, the children would walk from the Machair to the big house and sell the eggs to the gentry, who Canon MacQueen said, were slowly discovering the Islands. Canon MacQueen chuckled, "The birds on the Machair came from all over Europe and one Saturday we children got paid one pound two shilling and threepence for their eggs.We teased each other that we'd have to be careful how we took off our grandfathers' hats."
The children earned money from selling lapwing eggs at a time when crofters didn't often use coins, even for postage stamps.Crofters exchanged goods with each other; to some extent this still occurs on Uist today.
After a day on the Machair with the cattle, the children went home to a hot plate of potatoes and perhaps cormorants, made by their mothers. Canon MacQueen said that the cormorants were best cooked in a stew because then the older ones became tender. On a Sunday many people had to walk some distance to church and so he recalled that his mother, who'd been a cook for the gentry in Perthshire, would offer lunch to the congregation. She cooked sea birds in a soupy, broth gravy, which would be eaten with lots of potatoes grown on the Machair. The children helped to peel the potatoes with their fingers and at lunch, the congregation ate with their fingers, as they dipped potatoes into the seabird soup. Canon MacQueen said," We never saw beef, in spite of the cattle on the Machair, that was for going off to England. Mutton and lamb yes. I didn't eat beef until I left the Island" Canon MacQueen and I are both saddened by the demise of the Sunday lunch, be it composed of seabirds, roast beef or chicken or a vegetarian dulse and potato cake. Today, beef from North Uist is much sought after. In my opinion, it's an excellent choice for Sunday luncheon.
Canon MacQueen and his barefooted childhood friends ate naturally using their hands; whether it was flowers on the Machair or seaweed on the shore. They didn't have matches to light a fire so there weren't any beach barbecues, which a child of today might equate with a beach party. The barefooted children ate with the seasons and understood the meaning of wild, local food. The Canon also mentioned his friend Peggy Angus to me. He described her life in her croft on Barra as prehistoric and suggested that I must go off at this angle, not just to understand Islanders but my own life. My life aside, an understanding of the seasonal freshness, which comes with foraged hand to mouth living, is something which every 21st century child and adult should try to grasp.