The Taste of Scottish Hospitality

FOR the first time in nearly 50 years, I spent Thanksgiving Day outside America, where the day seems to be primarily an eating orgy to fill the day-before-the-pre-Christmas-shopping-spree. Driving through sun and rain along the turbulent west coast of Scotland, I learned a new respect for its meaning. Instead of eating too much turkey and dressing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie, I ... well, I ate too much Scottish food. When I first tasted Scottish blood pudding that morning at breakfast, I decided to ignore my habit of asking the ingredients of dishes new to me, but finished every crumb.

While we lunched on fish and chips wrapped in newspaper, we watched gulls try to fly in wild winds over ocean breakers and a few hardy souls playing golf on a course that sloped down to the ocean; a single fishing boat labored toward the harbor.

In late afternoon, we enjoyed high tea before a brisk fire in a walnut and marble fireplace in an old hotel. I stirred chunks of dark sugar and cream into a cup of strong, hot tea, sipping it between bites of haddock, potatoes, turnips, carrots, and hot scones. For dessert, we served ourselves from two tables crowded with pies, cakes, more scones, fairy cakes (muffins), eclairs, homemade candies, and bowls of fruit. Only visitors or the rich go to the dining room for dinner, a more expensive version of high tea.

After a week in the Highlands, I had already made some of the transition from American to Scottish travel and living. When I heard the price of a room, I mentally doubled the figure to find its value in dollars, and remembered that it included breakfast. The elegant Portland Arms hotel in the fishing village of Lybster where I spent that evening, for example, was one of the most expensive at L42, but it was ``with'' the luxury of a private bathroom. Most nights we took a cheaper room ``without,'' sharing the bathroom.

BREAKFAST, included in room prices, was usually tea or coffee, varied juices and cereals, and ``cooked breakfast,'' a sausage larger than a hot dog, bacon that resembles ham, eggs cooked to order, blood pudding, toast, scones, and the ever-present slice of fried tomato - the only part of the meal I've never really understood. In the north, breakfast sometimes included smoked kippers or ``finnan haddie,'' smoked haddock poached in milk with two eggs on top.

If we finished breakfast, we might skip lunch, or make do with an inexpensive ``pub snack'' of Scotch Pie (a hot meat and vegetable-filled pastry), or a ``ploughman's'' with fresh breads and cheeses, radish sprouts, and chutney, a spicy, chunky relish. Pubs are more varied than American bars; children eating lunch with their parents is not unusual, and many patrons have a polite dog seated at their feet.

The first night, jet lag caused us to miss dinner; the hotel owner, seeing us in the doorway as he piled coal into the fireplace, called the bartender, who said, ``Well, I could only do a little soup and maybe some sandwiches.'' Ten minutes later he brought us two huge bowls of lentil soup he was probably simmering for his own supper, and a foot-high stack of sandwiches, grated cheddar on homemade bread. The Scots don't believe in tipping, but we left a tip that probably disrupted tradition.

At 10 p.m., most hotels close, which means they lock the doors and turn off all the lights, and don't turn them back on until morning. One day we decided to walk on the beach at 5 a.m.; night lights dimly illuminated the hallway, but at the head of the spiral staircase leading to the ground floor, we looked down into a pool of black. We thought about falling down the tapering steps, reaching for a handrail and mistakenly grabbing a sword hung on the wall. We recalled the size of the hotel owner, and his trophies for the sport of curling, and decided we didn't want to encounter him in the dark. We returned to our room and watched the sun rise over the slate roofs of the town.

THOUGH travel in Scotland is facilitated by the fact that everyone speaks English, it is not quite American English. The Scots are very literal; a milk shake is simply milk shaken with flavored syrup: no ice cream. When a sheep stepped in front of us on a busy motorway, which corresponds to our interstate highways, my companion muttered, ``Controlled access, Scottish style.''

Even road signs are direct; in some small towns, a red-bordered triangular sign showing a woman clinging to the arm of a bent man with a cane is a warning to watch for elderly people crossing the road very slowly. We once saw a sign picturing an army tank with a red X over it. ``Do you suppose that means `watch out for tanks?''' I asked, just as a tank roared out of a hedge in front of us, crossed the road, and disappeared into the woods.

While I walked through the coastal town of Brora, searching out small stores, I thought of my fellow Americans, who would spend the next day jostling one another in crowded shopping malls. In the butcher shop, a clerk was taking whole fish from a box delivered at his doorstep minutes before, arranging them precisely in the display case. In the back room, another man sliced chunks from a side of pork. Every few minutes he would bring a stack of chops to the front of the shop and flip them deftly to another tray.

When I asked for some cheese, the butcher wiped his hands, picked up a gleaming knife, eyed a large wheel of cheese in the corner of the display case, then whacked off a chunk. He dropped it in the center of a sheet of paper on the scale, waited for my nod, tucked the paper around it without using tape, and handed it across the counter.

WE walked up the cobbled street and bought stamps from the post office, a notebook from a stationer's, and a blanket from a weaving shop where we spent 20 minutes discussing Margaret Thatcher and travel with the elderly proprietor. Nearby, I found a good price on wool and cotton tights, designed for keeping women's legs warm in a society where few wear trousers. Local customers dropped all their purchases in a string bag and strolled back to their bicycles. We got in our car and drove in blowing rain to the Loch Lemster Standing Stones.

By this time in our trip, we had sprained our necks looking over both shoulders for ancient monuments; often, when I spotted likely looking bumps on the horizon, they turned out to be sheep. Though various books discuss most known ruins, we didn't expect to find neon signs pointing the way or uniformed rangers to lecture us.

What we found was a small, flat area on which to park the car and a convenient wooden swinging gate into the sheep pasture where the stones stood. The stones stand taller than I am, in an oval at least 50 feet wide and 100 feet long; some have tilted or fallen onto the boggy ground, and some of the small cairns in which the ashes of dead ancients were buried are nearly covered by the deep green grass.

We spent an hour walking among the stones, staring at the blue-green lichen covering them, leaning against their cold, venerable backs. The center of the circle had been marked with a stake driven into the ground, and I stood there for a long time, slowly turning under the damp sky, expressing sincere gratitude for many things, including the privilege of seeing how others live.

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