Last weekend was the Pacific Northwest Highland Games and Clan Gathering. During the summer, Highland Games take place all over the US—and in Scotland too, of course–some big, some small, some hundreds of years old. This one is mine. It’s the one my family and friends convene at every year. There is camaraderie, familiarity, tradition–the predictability of knowing that come the last weekend of July, I will be there, for at least part of the weekend.
If you don’t like bagpipes, you’d better not go. The drone of the bagpipes gets into your blood, into the very marrow of your bones after a while.
The bagpipes greet you before you even enter the grounds, and they provide a constant counterpoint to all of the events of the weekend, from dawn to long after dark. That sound, at once measured and completely wild, is produced by disciplined pipe bands marching in unison, and by lone pipers calling the clans or greeting the sunrise. There is a savage edge to bagpipe music. It’s not a tame sound.
And there is a wild fierce thread running through the soul of the most civilized of Scottish Americans: the elderly ladies sitting placidly in the shade of a clan booth, the young folks hoisting a few beers, the proud old gentlemen with ramrod backbones and set jaws, bearing flags and swords. Make no mistake–they are not completely tame either.
The young girls compete in Highland dancing, the Celtic musicians play their hearts out, the burliest of men toss cabers, and the pipe bands drink all night, only to get up bright and early to perform all day in the sun. The vendors hawk their Celtic-themed wares, and the food booths do a brisk business in haggis samplers, meat pies, bangers and mash, and scones.
Everywhere you look there is tartan, worn with a slight swagger or a blatant strut. These are proud people, and stubborn too. Proud of their Scottish heritage, and stubborn enough to have maintained this tradition of annual gatherings, to hold fast to their tartans and their clan names through all efforts to stamp them out, through the Jacobite Risings, Highland Clearances, and subsequent transportation to the New World, through assimilation into American life, and all of the years since.
It is a testament to Scottish tenacity that any of us are here at all, to wear our tartans and laugh and drink and squabble amongst ourselves, to share a flask of fine old single malt scotch, then tumble into a sleeping bag in the wee small hours, wake to the sound of bagpipes at dawn and do it all again the next day.
This shortbread recipe is from a perfectly wonderful cookbook called Sara Walker’s Highland Fling Cookbook: The Delightful Cooking of Scotland. It was published in 1971, has a homey tartan book jacket (Macleod tartan, I think), and is full of useful stories and tidbits such as the following: “It is said that Scottish shortbread should be eaten while drinking Scotch whiskey, and so it is on Hogmanay by Scots all over the world.”
The resulting shortbread is basic, old-fashioned, and infinitely comforting, whether served with tea, a glass of milk, or a wee dram of Scotch.
St. Bride Shortbread
(from Highland Fling Cookbook)
- 1/2 pound salted butter
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tbsp light cream
- ½ tsp vanilla
- 2 ½ cups flour
- ½ cup rice flour
Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the egg yolk and beat. Add the cream and vanilla and beat.
Sift together the flours and add gradually to the butter mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon.
When the dough becomes too thick to work comfortably with a spoon, knead with your hands.
Pat the mixture firmly into an ungreased 7×11 inch cake pan. Prick all over with a fork and flute the edges with the back of a teaspoon.
Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Turn the heat down to 200 degrees, and bake for 1 ½ hours or until the shortbread is lightly golden. Cut into squares while warm. Remove from pan and cool on a wire rack.
Yield: about 36 squares