Feeding an interest in local history

bishopbriggs school 1908 09 hand in
bishopbriggs school 1908 09 hand in

The heart of a dining club is good food and good cheer.

In the Borders there are three still meeting more than 200 years after their foundation. And another Border dining club, and its creator Sir Walter Scott, inspired two of Scotland’s greatest cookbooks, definitive of their times in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The golden era of the dining club was Scotland’s Age of Enlightenment: a flowering of free thought and debate from the middle of the 18th century when Scots invented the modern world. Conversation and conviviality flourished in societies, sitting around the supper tables of town and country taverns across the land. Each club espoused its own raison d’être, membership rules and customs – not all of them respectable.

The Wig Club’s exploits are too delicate for detailed discussion here, but suffice it to say its seal “could not nowadays be exhibited in decent society”, wrote Harry Cockburn in his Book of the Old Edinburgh Club. Cockburn concluded that as the members were “all well-known men, peers of the realm, landed proprietors and officers, one might have expected them to have set a good example. They were perhaps more gifted with high spirits than brains”.

More innocently, the Pious Club met to eat pies, the Dirty Club wore unclean linen and the Boar Club grunted instead of talking. Clubs gave the Georgians a social freedom not found at formal dinner parties, and while most had a common aim in the enjoyment of life, others embraced a more public purpose.

The Poker was founded by Edinburgh’s literati in 1762 to ‘poke up’ resentment of England’s treatment of Scotland, and to establish a Scottish militia, which the English had denied, but was seen by the Scots as essential to national dignity – not least by the philosopher David Hume, historian Adam Ferguson and Sir Walter Scott, who were all members of The Poker.

Sir Walter was also a member of Selkirk’s Forest Club, the first of three surviving Borders dining clubs, all by nature less riotous than their cousins in Edinburgh. Scott may have had the Forest Club in mind when he penned this conversation between Mr Glossin and Mrs Mac-Candlish in Guy Mannering:

“I have been thinking a club dining here once a month would be a very pleasant thing.” “Certainly, sir; a club of respectable gentlemen.”

“True, true. I mean landed proprietors and gentlemen of weight in the country; and I should like to set such a thing agoing.”

The lairds of the Forest Club still drink and dine 223 years after its inception in 1788, meeting once a year on the third Monday of November at Bowhill, and previously at Selkirk’s County and Fleece hotels. Today, 36 members wear the club’s traditional uniform of “a Dark Green Dress Coat with Dark Green Velvet Collar and the Club Button, a Buff Coloured Waistcoat, with the small Club Button, and a Black Necktie”, as described in the club’s minutes from 1958. A penalty of “a Scots pint of Claret” in 1788, then a bottle of champagne in 1834 and, finally, from 1876 a fine of five shillings awaited those who dressed incorrectly, or attempted a speech – forbidden at dinner.

A nominee called the ‘Preses’ presides over the meal with another, the ‘Croupier’, and together they propose the standing toasts to the Queen, the Royal Family, the Flowers o’ the Forest and to the ‘Strangers’, or guests, present. “Little is written about the food in over 200 years of Club minutes,” writes Michaela Reid in her history of the Forest Club, but there is a nod to a traditional ‘sheep’s heid broth’ amid the scallops wrapped in lemon sole, fillet steak and lemon mousse served on the Millennium Dinner menu.

The Forest Club’s success inspired the Borders’ two other enduring dining clubs: the Tweeddale Shooting Club in 1790, which met at the Tontine Hotel in Peebles, and the Jedforest Club in 1810, which gathered at the Spread Eagle Inn in Jedburgh. But it was a fictional Border dining club, invented by Sir Walter Scott in 1824 in his novel St Ronan’s Well, that inspired a Scottish cookery book as influential to our national cuisine as Mrs Beeton’s in England and Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste in France.

In Sir Walter’s tale, a society of gastronomes called The Cleikum Club is hosted at Innerleithen’s Cleikum Inn by its termagant landlady, Meg Dods – who legend holds Scott based on Miss Marian Ritchie of the Cross Keys in Peebles. “Man is a cooking animal!” declares the imaginary club’s founder, Mr Peregrine Touchwood, who both “understood and loved good cheer” and the virtues of the Border larder, serving “the boils done to a popple, the roast to a turn, the stews to the nick of time.”

The name ‘Cleikum’ derives from the legend of St Ronan, a seventh century monk whose method of dealing with the evil and ignorance of his time was symbolically displayed on the sign hung over the doorway of Meg Dods’ inn: the saint with his crozier ‘cleeking the De’il by the hint leg’. Thirteen hundred years after St Ronan thwarted the De’il in the Leithen Valley, the schoolchildren of Innerleithen carry a replica of the ‘Cleikum Crook’ in the annual St Ronan’s Border Games.

So it was with more than a little mystery in 1826, two years after Scott published St Ronan’s Well, that the persona of Mistress Margaret Dods presented to the world its first work of cookbook fiction: The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, illustrating Scotland’s distinctive eating traditions of the age through the characters and drama of the Cleikum Club.

The cookbook’s true author, Christine Isobel Johnstone, shared Sir Walter’s mission: to preserve for the sake of their excellence, as well as their nativeness, dishes which were in danger of slipping into undeserved oblivion. Her written record of Scottish culinary traditions, customs and national classics included cock-a-leekie, inky pinky, howtowdie (a pullet, derived from the French word hutaudeau) and bashed neeps. Meg included haggis in her suggested Bill of Fare for St Andrew’s Day, Burns clubs or other Scottish national dinners – making the Cleikum Club the first ‘establishment’ to celebrate a Burns dinner with haggis. All Scottish cookbooks since Meg Dods’ owe a debt of gratitude to Sir Walter Scott and Mrs Johnstone.

F. Marian McNeill echoed Scott and Johnstone’s cries a century later in 1929 in what is still the definitive book on Scots cookery: The Scots Kitchen – its Traditions & Lore with Old Time Recipes. Almost half of the national dishes described within – such as crappit heids, fat brose, powsowdie, collops and partan pie – are Meg Dods’ recipes, interspersed with McNeill’s scholarly researched quotations, poetry and ballads.

Today, in the 21st century, a modern version of the Border dining club is preserving knowledge of our own local fare.

The Berwick Slow Food Group organises seasonal feasts to promote both ‘the pleasures of the table’ and food that’s ‘good, clean and fair’. Membership is open to everyone interested in food, and you can find its programme of meals, films, talks and visits to local producers at www.slowfoodberwick.co.uk.

Or you can start your own convivial dining club – I think I will.