The name Canon Angus MacQueen was mentioned to me on more than one occasion when I was writing the original text of Seaweed in the Kitchen. Sadly I didn’t make the time to take the ferry from the Isle of South Uist to Barra and visit the retired Catholic priest. In one way visiting the Gaelic speaking doyen of seaweed after my book had been published, would I thought, be a far more relaxed expedition. However, would a ninety two year old make time for relative incomer to the world of seaweed eating. I was a fortunate lady for my request to visit and talk about eating seaweed was accepted.
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 which is rich in sand blown in by Atlantic winds). The seaweed used by the crofters as manure is kelp, Laminaria digitata and Laminaria. hyperborea. The Islanders refer to as tangle. Canon MacQueen noted the importance of tangle, which he described as a wonderful fertiliser from the ocean. He painted a magical picture of summers as a boy on the north end of South Uist as he described 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 life on the Machair to report back to their parents, they enjoyed 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.
‘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 our 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 to swim and to find more food in amongst the fermmain (the Gaelic word for 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 through out 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 a Uist Gaelic for lapwing, the Gaelic word 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 shillings and thrupence 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 where crofters didn’t often use coins, even for postage stamps . Crofters exchanged goods with each other and to some extent this still happens 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 their mothers .Cormorants Canon MacQueen said were best cooked in a stew because then the older ones tenderised. On a Sunday many people had to walk a long way to church and so his mother, who’d been a cook for the gentry in Perthshire would offer lunch to long distance members of 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 in 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” Both Canon MacQueen and I are saddened by the demise of the Sunday lunch be it composed of seabirds, roast beef, chicken or a vegetarian potato and dulse cake. Today beef from North Uist is much sought after; it is in my opinion an excellent choice for Sunday luncheon.
Canon MacQueen and his barefooted childhood friends ate naturally with 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 barbecue, which a child of today might equate with a beach party. The barefooted children ate with the seasons and understood wild local food. Canon MacQueen, who died last month, enjoyed a childhood of seasonal freshness This comes with foraged hand to mouth living. It is still available to the 21st century child and adult too. Slow down and breathe – go sea=-weeding,