Can you tell a skirl from a skirlie? Anne McGuire MP explains

Written by Anne McGuire MP on 15 April 2013 in Culture
The Labour member shares her two great loves – food and dance

This article is from the April 2013 issue of Total Politics

What do you do with ‘skirlie’? Is it a dance, the noise the bagpipes make, or something you eat?

For the uninitiated, it is a food, made with oatmeal, onion and suet and should never be confused with ‘skirl’, which is the noise of the bagpipes. 

And this is where my hinterland starts – with cooking, and a real love of Scottish traditional music and ceilidh dancing. On Saturday nights in our house the two came together, after the football reports were finished on the radio and when Take the Floor started, a BBC programme that kept traditional music alive when its popularity declined, particularly among younger Scots. Dinner was cooked while the reels and jigs were being played on the radio. So when our children were young, we had a family ceilidh up and down the kitchen.

There’s something really infectious about a good jig or reel. I defy anyone to keep from tapping their feet in time to the uplifting beat. There is nothing like the sight of a room full of people dancing the same steps – well, basically the same ones – birling and swinging partners round the floor. Dances such as the Gay Gordons, Boston Two-Step, Canadian Barn Dance, the Dashing White Sergeant, and of course the Eightsome Reel and Strip the Willow are all part of my repertoire. However, sometimes you need to catch breath, so these are interspersed by the Pride of Erin and the St Bernard’s Waltzes. I was once asked by an English man who was at a ceilidh how we all knew the steps. He was astonished to find out that in Scotland we learn the dances at school and you never forget the steps. So when you go to a ceilidh in many parts of Scotland, all of the family join in, from the youngest to grannies like me.

However, all this dancing fare sets up an appetite, so pretty early on I learned to cook. I have piles of cookbooks and will always try out something new. I love making soup – my current favourite is sweet potato, roasted peppers and Tabasco – and every weekend I make a pot to leave when I go back to London. My favourite is trying out new casseroles, and when we have guests, I am pleased to see clean plates. And for afters, I make a mean shortbread and carrot and courgette cake.

The only complaint I ever had was from my father in my younger days, who told me that pineapple was a fruit for pudding and not an accompaniment for gammon, which was fashionable at the time. He was right of course – although I am not averse to a sweet and sour pork.

Tags: Anne McGuire, Hinterland, Issue 57

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