Murdo & Mussels

By the side of the winding road from Inverness to Kinlochbervie stands a granite monument inscribed with the legend ‘Welcome to Mackay Country’ and when I pass it I feel like I’ve come home. It’s not my home though and it never has been. In all honesty and to my eternal chagrin it might never be, but this grand ‘Mackay Country’, or ‘Sutherland’ as the less self-absorbed Mackay’s call it is the only place on earth where goosebumps rise when I hear the whispers of my forefathers on the wind. I gaze wistfully over the heathered moorland and eagle-circled crags with a longing that I can’t explain and become, as you can see, poetical and spiritual and deeply, tediously irritating. I can’t help it for I am a Mackay of the Clan Mackay strong of arm and bushy of beard and I will fight you, fuelled by salted porridge and haggis like the brave warriors before me, our great virile balls, swinging in the breeze, bekilted and bare of arse and crushing your windpipes under our feet, you invading Sassenach bastards.

My Great-great-grandfather was a ‘proper’ Mackay and of course he was called Murdo. Of course he was – I didn’t just saddle my poor boy with a stupid name on a whim. From the day that my own grandfather, John sat me on his knee and told me of his grandfather Murdo, I have been all but obsessed with this man who died fifty years before I was born and almost ninety before his young namesake.

He was a fisherman and lived in a two-room croft, on a hillside overlooking the North Sea, not far from the village of Bettyhill, which, in turn is not far from John O’Groats. This is as far north as we can get on this island and as wild. On the map it goes Bettyhill, Orkney, Faroe islands, Arctic. Mackay Country is a barren, hard and staggeringly beautiful land. I know that John travelled by train from London to Bettyhill just before The Great War to meet and spend time with his grandfather, Murdo and this makes all of this less abstract; a man that I knew well and loved visited that croft, spoke to this man, met his children, saw his nets, spoke to him of London and life. How I wished I had sucked more of the marrow of Grandpa John’s life when he was alive.

That Murdo Snr. was a fisherman brings me great comfort and incredible pride. I can imagine his gnarled, bleeding hands, salted and blue, heaving nets in the freezing rain. I see him smoking, drinking a dram by the fire, thawing. Maybe he fiddled in the gloaming, a bow tiny in those great working hands. Perhaps he couldn’t read and regaled his boys with stories told to him by his own grandfather – ancient Highland legends of gods and men. I don’t know if he was happy, if he was a good man or bad. I presume he had a powerful faith, as most did in that time and place and I expect that he led the most simple and Spartan of lives.

What the fuck, I wonder often, would he make of mine?

There is nobility in pulling a gleaming salmon from a frothing sea, selling it, and buying only the things that without which life would be rendered impossible. He raised a family in two rooms on the proceeds of the ocean and died in the parish to which he had been born, having never ventured more than a few miles south his whole life long. He must have fostered some sense of adventure in his son though- Jack Mackay, my great-grandfather, made it to London as a Metropolitan Policeman. His son John, my grandfather, lived in Pimlico and worked for the gas board, and his son, Christopher, my father, was a lecturer. When I sold the first salmon in my shop I thought about Murdo and the completion of a circle. When I named my son for him it felt like a tribute to a myth or a god. Murdo Mackay of the Clan Mackay is my hero; it is as simple as that. I love him – I love the idea of him and I grasp for him when I don’t know what to do, when life is too complex and I imagine him rolling eyes heavenward at my ‘problems’ as the snow batters his ravaged old face.

We went there, Sara and I with some friends and a (as yet unnamed) Murdo shaped foetus in situ. We stopped at the ‘Mackay Country’ stone and took hilarious photos for Instagram, pointing at it and then at me, ‘MACKAY COUNTRY LOL’ etc. It’s probably what Murdo Snr would have wanted. We stayed in a croft, not far from where Murdo Snr kept his. We had hot water and Wi-Fi, snorkels and prosecco. The parents among us plugged in the baby monitors and worried about the stair gradient. I thought again about Murdo, shitting in an outhouse, eating only when there was food, setting his sons broken bones under candle light and spending his day off hearing about the burning fires of hell from the local preacher man.

A few miles east is the most gorgeous beach on earth and you must, if you can, go there before you die. We can’t be friends if you can’t find the poetry and beauty in ‘Sandwood Bay’. You must walk four miles from the nearest road, along a dirt track that winds through moorland and bog, mountains and ancient quarry. Eagles circle overhead and the bones of crofts long since abandoned, jut from the earth and you wonder in awe at how anyone lived here, in this place and for so long. Suddenly as you break the bow of a hill the salt in the air hits you and the sand whips up around your face and you gasp at a vista of dreams, a beach of the whitest sand leading to the most azure sea you will ever see. There will be no one there and you will pity every other person on earth who at that exact moment is not gazing down upon Sandwood Bay. You will run down the dunes, relieving yourself of such accoutrements as clothing and dive into the turquoise froth where your nuts will retract with the force of a thousand horses and you will nearly die of shock as your core temperature plummets to levels of death and suffering.

This is the North Sea and the next mainland to which you could swim, should you be so inclined is Iceland. Ice. Land. On the sunniest of days the sand glows warm, the sea twinkles blue and you could easily be on a deserted Thai island were it not for the fact that testes rarely evacuate scrotum in The Indian Ocean. I thought about Murdo again. Standing up on the cliffs, looking sternly down at his progeny, choosing to jump into a sea that was for me a playground but for him a mortally dangerous necessity.

Not far from Sandwood Bay and as far as the eye can see are beds of jewelled coal black mussels, thriving in the clean, clear waters and just waiting to be plucked. A plump mussel, briny and raw, with your feet still in the water is the greatest of things to eat and forget Murdo, this is an act that connects us immediately to our pre historic ancestors, this is something unchanged for millennia and about as far removed to how we eat now as to be unrecognisable to most. ‘Oh my GOD, that’s disgusting! You’ll get food poisoning! Is it alive? You are so gross’.

The mussel moves me in ways that only a few foodstuffs do, it’s so base, so simple, so ancient. It’s weird and sexy and tastes sweet and salty and nothing a human hand can do improves it. I love an oyster as much as the next macho man but oysters are so obvious, so ‘Fall of Rome’ with their gnarly armour and pearly iridescence. The sluts of the seas, all slippery and sexual, ‘Look at me’ says the oyster, ‘anoint me with your shallot vinegar and marvel as I tumble down your throat with viscous salty abandon’.

No, for me the most honest of the bi-valves is the mussel, the Land Rover Defender to the oysters Aston Martin. Both good in their own way, driven by Rick Stein and James Bond but where you could enjoy a pint with Rick, ruminating on Ulysses and the writing of Elizabeth David, Bond would fuck your wife and kill you.

As a chef of some twenty years standing now, you might consider it surprising that I have long considered that the chef is nothing short of a gastronomic vandal, oppressing ingredients and bending customers to his will. Almost nothing gets on my tits more that a waiter asking me if I would like him to explain the chef’s ‘concept’ to me. ‘Unless it’s to cook food and let me eat it, I am supremely uninterested’ I say, although of course I don’t because I am English and I mumble something about how super that would be.

The chef has prepared for you today ‘textures of carrot’

I love the texture of carrot: It’s crunchy.

‘And for your main course Chef would like you to enjoy his ‘anatomy of owl with a veneer of fennel jus’. Please smell this old leather belt whilst listening on earphones to a dog barking in Soweto to truly experience Chef’s vision.’

God sake.

The best food is untouched by ‘chef’, but it must be fresh. Supermarket fish for example is not fresh; it is horrid and requires all of the numbing garlic and white wine that you can chuck at it. It doesn’t smell right, feel right, cook right or most importantly, taste right. A fresh piece of fish, one that that swam yesterday and cooked simply in a pan with plenty of sea salt, pepper and a squeeze lemon is one of foods greatest joys. You simply can’t replicate it with fish that has ended up in your kitchen via a supermarket. It’s the feel of it, with just a whisper of iodine and sweetness. Like a raspberry off the bush or a carrot from the ground there is a feeling about things fresh for which there is no substitute in science.

When food is fresh you don’t need to do anything to it – in most cases you don’t even need to cook it at all. I would no more mess around with a fresh piece of fish than I would put lippy on my baby girl; both are perfect and to add is to detract.

When you pick your mussels, savour one raw. Close your eyes as the gentle waves break at your feet and allow yourself to become part of the sea for the briefest and most magical of moments. Find your brill stiff fresh and baste it with nothing but golden butter and cry happy tears as a burnished exterior gives way to a translucent pearly white centre. Pluck your raspberry, warm with sunlight from the bush and think not of coulis or mousse. Let each bead burst on your tongue, sweetness and acid in symbiosis and dependant on nothing for perfection. This is how to eat for maximum pleasure and it hardly ever happens, so busy are we with our lives of such immutable tensions.

I have infrequent moments of pure joy; when my son creeps into our bed, terrified by thunder and smelling faintly of wee and mango shampoo is one but for longer than I have had children I have found eye rolling ecstasy in putting into my mouth something unfettered and unadorned. A mussel is everything to me that food should be. It speaks of a past for which I have only an intellectual inkling but an emotional obsession, a constant presence across the millennia that links me to my forefathers and theirs. We gather them for free in a place of wild beauty, with friends or family to share around a table later and they taste delicious. It is a humble beast, the mussel, the proletariat of the sea, workmanlike and reliable but there is magic within and without that dark, glimmering carapace and we would be foolish to relegate it below its flashier cousins.

I dream of Sutherland very often and search property pages for cut price crofts overlooking raging seas. I doubt I could live there permanently, certainly not with a young family and definitely not without the legion mod cons that my posh Edinburgh wife would demand. But I need something approaching a home there, an escape, a tangible link to my past that I can share with my son whom when he’s old enough may think of his namesake as I do; just a fisherman, husband and father yet (and without proof or reason) a god amongst men, a role model and an inspiration. I want to sit with Murdo, looking out to sea, on a pilgrimage I suppose, to our family seat; wild and beautiful still and barely different from when Murdo Snr. bestrode these hills like the Highland colossus that in my minds eye he almost certainly was.

Leave a comment