Try this at home: how the Ambrosians fed themselves

James Hogg explains the secrets of a Border dish to his fellow Ambrosian, Christopher North, aka Professor John Wilson...

North: May I ask, with all due solemnity, what are rumbledethumps?

Shepherd: Something like Mr. Hazlitt’s character of Shakespeare. Take a peck of purtatoes, and put them into a boyne – at them with a beetle – a dab of butter – the beetle again – another dab – then cabbage – purtato – beetle and dab – saut meanwhile – and shake o’ common black pepper – feenally, cabbage and purtato throughhither – pree, and you’ll fin’ them decent rumbledethumps.

[A boyne is a cooking pot, a beetle is a type of spoon, and “pree” is pray” in Hogg’s Scots ]

James Hogg persuaded Sir Walter Scott of the merits of a hearty breakfast, according to Annette Hope writing in A Caledonian Feast:.

“As for Scott himself, breakfast was his chief meal. If we can believe James Hogg, it was he who persuaded his friend into the habit, when the latter complained of headaches due to writing or studying late into the night, after refueling all the day’s professional and social engagements.

“At Hogg’s suggestion, Scott took to rising, like his predecessors in the law courts, at five. He lit his own fire, then shaved and dressed, and by six he was at his desk.

“By the time he joined his family round the table between nine and ten, he had, in his own words, “broken the neck of the day’s work” and could do justice to the porridge and cream, the salmon, the home-cured ham and cold sheep’s head, the pie, and the bread and oatcakes spread thickly with butter, which he loved so much.”

In The Scots Kitchen, F Marian McNeill relates an encounter between Hogg and the author behind Meg Dod’s Cook and Housewife’s Manual, Christine Isobel Johnston

“Her sense of humour and power of delineating character are shown in her stories and sketchest, and a good example of her ready wit has been told by Mr Alexander Russell, editor of the Scotsman.

“On a visit to Altrive, Mrs Johnston and her party were kindly received by the Ettrick Shepherd, who did the honours of the district, and among other places took them to a Fairy Well, from which he drew a glass of sparkling water. Handing it to the lady, the bard of Kilmeny said, ‘Hae, Mrs Johnston, ony merit wummin wha drinks a tumbler o’ this will hae twuns in a twalmont.’

‘In that case, Mr Hogg,’ said the lady, ‘I shall only take half a tumbler’.”

In the book, Meg Dods records Christopher North’s “superlative sauce for game”:

“1 heaped saltspoon of good cayenne pepper, ½ saltspoon salt, 1 small dessertspoon of caster sugar, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 2 tablespoons Harvey’s sauce, 1 tablespoon mushroom ketchup, 3 tablespoons port wine.

“Heat the sauce by placing the ingredients in a basin in a saucepan of boiling water.

Serve it directly it is warm with geese, duck, roast pork, venison, or any grilled meat. “

Up the Yarrow Valley, the women of Lowland Scotland were great brewers in their day, and Tibbie Shiel was famed by the Ambrose tavern’s epicures for her green grozet (gooseberry) wine:

North: Now sir, you have tasted Tibbie’s green grozet. St Mary, what are the vine-covered hills and gay regions of France to the small yellow, hairy gooseberry gardens of your own forest!”

“The last of the long line of Luckies of the old school to achieve more than local fame was Tibbie Shiels,” F Marian McNeill writes in The Scots Cellar, “whose little inn still stands on St Mary’s Loch.

‘A cosy bield, this o Tibbie’s,’ quoth the Ettrick Shepherd, ‘just like a wee bit wren’s nest’, and Christopher North made it the scene of one of his Noctes. Besides North and Hogg, Tibbie’s clients included Sir Walter Scott, De Quincey, Lord Aytoun, Allan Cunningham and Robert Chambers, and in later years, Robert Louis Stevenson.

Tibbie is described as ‘a sagacious woman, gifted with a large amount of common sense and a fund of dry, quiet humour, and at the same time deeply religious and a strict Sabbatarian’.”