Tag Archives: Scotland

The Gorbals Boy Who Went to Oxford

This is a writer that I would love to have met.

Ralph GlasserRalph Glasser was famously the Gorbals boy who went to Oxford.

Glasser was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants who lived on the top floor of a three-storey slum tenement in Warwick Street in the Gorbals, Glasgow. He was left motherless at six, cursed with a father who was an incurable gambler, and abandoned by two older sisters who fled the house. He left school at 14 to became a soap-boy in a barber’s shop and then presser in a garment factory. After each 12-hour day, Glasser would head for the Mitchell Library while his father headed for card schools or the illegal gambling dens that prospered in Glasgow. Glasser studied diligently at night school and won a scholarship for Oxford University. He famously cycled the 400 miles to the land of the dreaming spires. From Oxford, Glasser went to work for the British Council and later into public relations and Third World consultancy. He became a distinguished psychologist and economist. Glasser’s life can be traced in his writings.

“The streets were slippery with refuse and often with drunken vomit. It was a place of grime and poverty…The Victorian building, in red sandstone blackened by smoke… was in decay. Splintered and broken floorboards sometimes gave way under your feet. Interior walls carried patches of stain from a long succession of burst pipes. Rats and mice moved about freely….”

Bert Hardy Gorbals 1948His life had all the cliches of a tale of rags to some kind of riches, but it had substance, too. Glasser could never have been accused of living a life that was unexamined. Those who read his trilogy of Growing Up in the Gorbals, Gorbals Boy at Oxford, and Gorbal Voices, Siren Songs as simply the tale of the physical journey of a Jewish boy to manhood, missed the greater significance of his work; Glasser was capable of producing an enduring narrative, but it was his self-searching that made much of his work irresistible. This spirit of indomitable inquiry was shown to its greatest effect in Gorbals Legacy, almost an afterword to his Gorbals Trilogy. If the reader is looking for tales of black sannies, dispirited men huddling on street corners, or the consolations of poverty, Gorbals Legacy is not the place to go. It is, rather, the chronicle of an inner journey. It pays no service to the conventions of time. No dates are mentioned. The mundane world of jobs and money are ignored. It is a psychological, even spiritual, investigation of an individual psyche and its motivations and desires. There is a tide of human experience and Glasser produced a singular, spectacular wave in his last words in print. Gorbals Legacy looked back at a life that contained too little happiness but had ultimately produced a gentle acceptance of existence and more than a degree of contentment.

“In pre-war days for a Gorbals man to come up to Oxford was unthinkable as to meet a raw bushman in the St James club, something for which there were no stock responses. In any case for a member of the boss class, someone from the Gorbals was in effect a bushman, the Gorbals itself as distant and unknowable as the Kalahari Desert.”

“…Self-inquiry has taken me deeper than I ever imagined, to show me that nothing, no perception, no vision will ever answer the questions that possessed me when I left the Gorbals to cycle to Oxford.”

The search for these answers included a stay in San Giorgio, a small Italian village, and in Acharacle in the Highlands where Glasser, an adviser on environmental matters for the UN, attempted to find solutions for the wasteful way many communities lived. This was typical of the restless seeking that so characterised Glasser.

“…the Gorbals at my shoulder always, like the Hound of Heaven”

Dark, heavily bespectacled and softly spoken, Glasser had an elusive, magus-like quality in person, and on the printed page: acquaintances longed to learn more, and felt that he had not only done and seen a great deal but might also have some of the answers.

Ralph Glasser, writer, economist, environmentalist; born April 3, 1916, died March 6, 2002

Excerpted from The Sunday Herald.

More at The Telegraph.

Image: Bert Hardy, Gorbals Boys, 1948.



A Wee Toast to the Haggis

Haggis TossSomething unusual is happening in the kitchen. A huge stock pot has been gently bubbling on the burner for hours, a piece of parchment paper covering a dark, exotic mass of meatlike objects that bob gently in the broth. The aroma is unique, a rich, heady mix of lamb stew with sharper, more acrid undercurrents that evoke sensory description more common to complex wines: musty, earthy, sweet with a citrus finish.

Jan. 25 approaches and, with it, the 250th anniversary of the birth of Scottish poet Robert Burns. Fans of Highland clan lore praise haggis as a national treasure. Others find it alarming, a concoction of seemingly inedible organ meats and roughage better suited to a dog’s breakfast than a banquet table.

The truth is somewhere in between. It is essentially a form of sausage, composed for the most part of lamb offal and steel-cut oats.

The offal in question is organ meat – lamb kidneys, liver, hearts and lungs. Once darkly red, glistening specimens of varying texture: firm hearts; resilient, elastic kidneys; puffy, yielding lungs; glutinous liver, they are simmered down and ground up.

Drained and cooled, the organs are brown, dense and sweet. They are minced, mixed with fat, diced onion, oats and spices and packed into casing to be poached (traditionally, a lamb stomach; these days, into a more conventional beef intestine or canvas sausage sleeve). Two hours or more in 165F water complete the cooking, blending the flavours and softening the oats.

The end result is a lot like a country-style pâté: rich and creamy, with the oats giving a bit of a nutty, crunchy texture.

Scottish Toast

It was originally eaten during poor times or war. The meats involved were cheap and available, high in iron and other minerals and promoted strength and endurance. You’d feel good and full in the cold.

Now, butchers have worked with it over the years, adjusting the seasonings, so it also tastes delicious. Like good pâté, the ingredients may sound scary but, once they taste it, most people want some more.

Is it good for you, too? The fat, oats and spices make it stable, with a long shelf life (a bonus in the days before refrigeration). Organ meats are rich in vital nutrients. Fat fuels the diet of all cold-climate cultures. Most versions of haggis are at least 50 per cent fat – but just three ounces per serving will do.

The world record for throwing a 1.5 pound (680 gram) haggis is 180 feet 10 inches (over 55.2 m.) The sporting haggis weighs 500 grams, with a maximum diameter of 18 cm and length of 22 cm. An allowance of 30 grams is given and this weight is used in both junior and middle weight events. The heavyweight event allows haggis up to 1 kg in weight, but the standard weight of 850 grams is more common, with an allowance of 50 grams.

Burns Day is a great excuse to try it. Just as millions discover an inner Irishman every St. Patrick’s Day, the splendour of skirling bagpipes, kilted porters and steaming haggis at a Robbie Burns night banquet connects with a wild, passionate side of the Scottish character. The heady poetry of “Rabbie” can intoxicate even more than the generous servings of single malt whisky.

Serving it is easy: Just reheat the cooked haggis in a bag in hot water until the internal temperature reaches 155F or bake it for 30 minutes in the oven along with traditional mashed potatoes (tatties) and turnip purée (neeps).

Excerpted from: Toronto Star, January 24, 2009.

Image: Darren McCarty competes in the throwing of the haggis competition during Highland Games in Livonia, Michigan in 2000.

Scottish Rap

No Rabbie BurnsRap music originated in the medieval taverns of Scotland rather than the mean streets of the Bronx and Brooklyn, an American academic has claimed.

Professor Ferenc Szasz argued that so-called rap battles, where two or more performers trade elaborate insults, derive from the ancient Caledonian art of “flyting”.

According to the theory, Scottish slave owners took the tradition with them to the United States, where it was adopted and developed by slaves, emerging many years later as rap.

“The Scots have a lengthy tradition of flyting – intense verbal jousting, often laced with vulgarity, that is similar to the dozens that one finds among contemporary inner-city African-American youth.

“Both cultures accord high marks to satire. The skilled use of satire takes this verbal jousting to its ultimate level – one step short of a fist fight.”

Flyting is a contest of insults, often conducted in verse. The word has been adopted by social historians from Scots usage of the fifteenth and sixteenth century in which bards would engage in public verbal contests of high-flying, extravagant abuse structured in the form of a poetic joust; the classic written example is The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie, which records a gloriously scurrilous contest between the poets Walter Kennedy and William Dunbar.

Echoes of the genre continue into modern poetry. Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, for example, has many passages of flyting in which the poet’s opponent is, in effect, the rest of humanity.

The academic, who specializes in American and Scottish culture at the University of New Mexico, made the link in a new study examining the historical context of Robert Burn’s work.

Comparing flyting and rap battles, he said: “Two people engage in ritual verbal duelling and the winner has the last word in the argument, with the loser falling conspicuously silent.”

Source: The Telegraph.

Image: From the book cover for No’ Rabbie Burns, by Stuart Macfarlane under the pen name, Stuart McLean.

Address to the Kibble


Fair fa’ your honest, pebbled face,
Great chieftain o’ the dog food race!
Aboon a’ treats ye tak your place.
In nourishing sustenance ye dinna fail.
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang’s my tail.

My groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your heaped up nuggets like a golden hill,
You warm my belly against the chill
In time o’ need.
While thro’ your pores aromas fill
My nose and heid.

I bend my heid an’ tak a bite
And chomp ye up wi’ ready slight
Chewing your crumbly entrails bright,
My nose thrust deep to trench a ditch;
O ye are such a glorious sight
Crunchie-munchin’ rich!

Then, paw for paw, they stretch an’ strive;
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a’ their weel-swall’d kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld guid doggie, maist like to rive,
“Bethankit!” hums.

Is there that owre his mishmash stew,
Or withered bone he canna chew,
Or tasteless mush wad mak him spew
Wi’ perfect sconner,
Looks down wi’ sneering, scornfu’ view
On sic a dinner?

Bedevilled mutt! See him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither’d rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash
His sma’ paw a nit;
Thro’ bluidy flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

But mark the doggie, kibble fed,
The trenbling earth resounds his tread,
His waggly tail waves like a blade,
He’ll mak it whissle;
An’ mane, an fur, an’ ears will sned
Like taps o’ thrissle.

Ye Pow’rs, wha mak canines your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
The doggie world wants nae skinking ware,
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish a gratefu’ prayer,
Gie us oor kibble!

Robert BurnsRobert Burns (25 January 1759 – 21 July 1796) (also known as Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s favourite son, the Ploughman Poet, the Bard of Ayrshire and in Scotland as simply The Bard) was a poet and a lyricist. He is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland.

A pioneer of the Romantic movement, he became an important source of inspiration to the founders of both liberalism and socialism. A cultural icon in Scotland and among Scots who have relocated to other parts of the world (the Scottish Diaspora), celebration of his life and work became almost a national charismatic cult during the 19th and 20th centuries.

His themes included republicanism (he lived during the French Revolutionary period) and Radicalism which he expressed covertly in Scots Wha Hae, Scottish patriotism, anticlericalism, class inequalities, gender roles, commentary on the Scottish Kirk of his time, Scottish cultural identity, poverty, sexuality, and the beneficial aspects of popular socialising (carousing, Scotch whisky, folk songs, and so forth).

Burns and his works were a source of inspiration to the pioneers of liberalism, socialism and the campaign for Scottish self-government, and he is still widely respected by political activists today, ironically even by conservatives and establishment figures because after his death Burns became drawn into the very fabric of Scotland’s national identity.

Read Robert Burns’ “Address to a Haggis” and its English translation. Haggis recipe, history and cultural significance included.

Read “The Complete Works of Robert Burns” at Project Gutenberg