As part of the 2021 Wellington Region Archive Project Celebrating 60 years of dancing, I’ve perused old issues of Harbour City Happenings for stories about our people, events and history. In the May 2000 issue, I came upon an article I wrote about my time living in Scotland and the range of good food I helped to cook (and eat!)
Over 1979-1980, I worked as a ‘mother’s help’ for a family in a three-storeyed stone house dating from 1831 called Urrard, on a 2,500 acre estate of farmland and moor in Killiecrankie, a stunning area near Pitlochry in the Central Highlands of Scotland.
On the east bank of the River Garry, a tributary of the River Tay, this was the site of the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689; the opening battle of the first Jacobite Rising in Scotland against the Government. The battle was a victory for the Jacobites, but with huge losses on both sides, including Viscount Dundee who raised the army of Jacobites. Claverhouse’s Stone at Urrard, is said to mark the spot where he died.
From my bedroom on the third floor, I looked down the Pass of Killiecrankie—beautiful in the spring with all the different colour greens in the woods, full of reds and oranges in autumn and stark in the winter with the bare limbs of the trees covered in snow and ice.
The farm at Urrard was leased to a tenant farmer; Archie and his wife Ruth (a Scottish Country dancer) who had a house at the bottom of the steep drive up to Urrard. A gamekeeper, Alaistair, lived in a cottage on the estate, raising pheasants and ducks for annual shoots. His wife Isobel, who was Cordon Bleu trained, cooked delectable Scottish treats for us including mouth-watering shortbread, scones and oatcakes.
Below is a reproduction of my article from Harbour City Happenings about my working life at Urrard, including a recipe for oatcakes.
Simple but full of flavour
My job revolved around cooking and eating. Perhaps it’s the mind-sapping cold from the winds sweeping in from Siberia or just the age-old recipes that inspire the concentration on good food in that part of the world. A liking that has been transported to New Zealand as so many of us have Celtic blood in our heritage (my connection is to Clan MacMillan)
In summer, we had greens from the garden and watched the potato and barley crops growing in the fields. And then had masses of berries—raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, redcurrants and blackcurrants. Raspberry fool just about every night for dessert!
Walking up the moor, gathering rowan berries from the trees to make jelly to go with venison from the estate. Cooking salmon, grouse, woodcocks, pigeons and ducks. Neeps in winter. Toffee and fudge at village fairs. Haggis and black pudding from the butcher in Pitlochry. At Hogmanay, visiting neighbours for black bun. And always, shortbread, shortbread, shortbread; baked three or four times a week and so perfect with a cup of tea. (Yes, I put on weight while I worked in Scotland!).
We had shooting parties of twenty-two during the season. The dining table had enough extensions to sit all. All morning, we’d cook soup, casseroles and baked potatoes on the Aga stove to be ready for the shooters after their time on the moor. Cheese, crackers and fruit finished the meal.
Nothing really fancy for the whole time I was there, just simple but flavoursome food. Comfort food to get us through the cold but enjoyable as well to share with friends and neighbours. One of my favourites is oatcakes, lovely with cheese or other toppings. This recipe makes 25.
1 cup fine oatmeal
1 cup medium oatmeal
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp caster sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
60g lard (or equivalent), melted
1/2 cup warm water
Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Line two oven trays with baking paper
Combine oatmeals, baking powder, salt and sugar
Make a well in the centre, add lard & water
Using a flat-bladed knife, mix to a firm dough
Turn onto a surface lightly sprinkled with fine oatmeal; press into a flattish square
Roll dough out to 30 x 30cm square (about 3mm thick), sprinkling with extra oatmeal if necessary
Cut into rounds or squares. Repeat with leftover dough.
Place oatcakes on trays about 5mm apart. Bake for 25 minutes. Allow to cool on trays.
Originally published in Harbour City Happenings, Vol 3, No. 2 May 2000
More about my life in Pitlochry…including some dancing
The children in the family, aged 10 and 14, were away at boarding school except for holidays, when we did a lot of activities together such as going to the Highland Games in Kinloch Rannoch and Pitlochry and celebrating Christmas.
After gathering produce from the garden and cooking in the morning, I worked in the family’s Malt Shop in Pitlochry, 6km south of Killiecrankie during the afternoons.
The road wound through stunning forest parks. With the sun setting at 2.30pm in the winter, it wasn’t quite as nice driving then. I had my first ever experience of driving in the dark in a snowstorm. Not pleasant. And the steep drive up to Urrard was often very icy. Much care was needed so I didn’t skid off the track into the woods!
At the Malt Shop we had a range of over 120 whiskies from distilleries all over Scotland. The small shop was extremely busy over the summer, with tourists (mainly from the USA, Europe and Japan) crowding in to buy their choice of whisky.
Being an off-licence, we were unable to offer tastings. Occasionally at the end of the day, the staff would go to a local hotel and taste a few malts. My favourite was Talisker, a single malt from the Isle of Skye.
A staff tour of the Blair Athol Distillery just down the road from the shop gave us a great insight into the malt-making process. The source of water for the whisky is the Allt Dour—in Gaelic ‘the burn of the otter’ which flows through the distillery grounds.
During my time in Killiecrankie, I wrote long letters back home to my parents and my sister (Karen is also a Scottish Country Dancer and she worked in Pitlochry at the Green Park Hotel in 1977). My mother kept all the letters and they form a wonderful archive of memories.
In October 1979, I started dancing with a group in Pitlochry and usually got a lift there with Ruth as she lived nearby.
I’d left New Zealand in March 1978, so by October 1979, I hadn’t danced for nearly two years. On 16 October, I wrote home to my parents:
I went to Scottish Country Dancing on Thursday for the first time. After all the bad weather when I couldn’t go walking, it was great getting some exercise again. The club is quite small but everybody is very friendly. I haven’t forgotten how to dance! From next month there are regular Saturday night dances in one of the hotels in Pitlochry which will be good to go to.
On 24 December 1979, I wrote to Karen:
Last Saturday I went to a very good Scottish Country Dance in Scotlands Hotel with a Scottish Country Dance band playing. There was quite a big crowd (about eight sets). People come from miles around including Aberdeen. They don’t have any time between the dances so I got quite rather puffed and hot! Also they don’t brief the dances but luckily most of the dances they do are popular ones.
Urrard is only a few kilometres from Blair Atholl Castle, the seat of the Duke of Atholl. On New Year’s Eve I was invited to a Hogmanay ceilidh in Killiecrankie, put on for the workers from the Atholl Estates.
We did some Scottish Country dances at the ceilidh including dancing Duke of Perth three times! I’ll always remember the wondrous sight of the snow-covered hills glistening in the moonlight when we left the hall after Hogmanay.
In mid-January 1980, I decided to return to the bright lights of London. On 14 January 1980, my letter home said:
On Thursday night I went to dancing for the last time which I was sorry about as I know everybody now and they’re all so friendly. They gave me a lovely pendant from Heathergems made in Pitlochry from varnished heather stems.
I didn’t take any photos of dancing in Pitlochry, as in those days I didn’t have a flash on my camera. However, in 1983, Ruth and Archie visited New Zealand and I had a wonderful catch-up with them. With Scottish Country Dancing, we make friends and connections around the world!
5 December 2021