By Franz Scheurer
The Outer Hebrides is real frontier territory. They say that Scotland is the last remaining wilderness in Europe and if this is true, then the Western Islands are its remotest part. Harsh conditions shape the people, and although polite enough, they are aloof and make it clear that they do not really welcome foreigners, and a person from Glasgow is just as much a foreigner here, as someone from Australia.
History here is a largely oral tradition, passed on through generations, relying on memory, hearsay and imagination. This makes for a very colourful history. The church imposes strict rules and although the kid’s swings in public parks are no longer padlocked on Sundays, working is frowned upon and you are not allowed to fish. Alcohol is generally unwelcome and you do not see many pubs outside of Stornoway, the main city on Lewis. Lewis and Harris are two joined islands, and on Harris, on a narrow, tortured track out to Husinish you will find Amhuinnsuidhe Castle.
Amhuinnsuidhe Castle has been in the news a bit lately, as it is for sale and reputedly being eyed by celebrities from Madonna to Sting. The locals, too, are looking for a way to buy the castle and keep it from falling into foreign hands.
The castle itself is a magnificent structure dating back to 1864. Charles Adolphus, the seventh Earl of Dunmore, a keen fisherman, had it build by architect David Bryce, right beside his favourite, salmon-rich river, overlooking the Sound of Taransay. (Amhuinnsuidhe, pronounced “Avonsuey”, as in Chop Suey, means ‘sitting on the river” in Gaelic) Built from specially cut Ayrshire stones, shipped in all the way from Glasgow at an enormous expense, it was never liked by the Earl’s English bride and his endeavours to make it bigger and better eventually forced him to sell the estate.
The castle is currently privately owned and photography, painting, stalking, fishing and cooking holidays are offered, with expert tuition, absolute pampering, glorious views, great accommodation and guest facilities. The staff is absolutely marvellous and will cater to your every whim. We decided to take part in the cooking course, run by Rosemary Shrager. Rosemary is well known in the UK as she is often seen on television brandishing her own kind of magic. She is a larger than life woman in every sense and to use an Australian idiom: She’s a hoot!
Rosemary teaches traditional cooking with flair. Far be it for her to teach you to follow a recipe she concentrates on cooking techniques and understanding of food, believing that through understanding comes proficiency, and she is extremely good at it. A mixture of sergeant major, slave-driver, confidante, comedian and bon-vivant she convinces with her passion and spurs the pupils on to excel themselves. She might be loud and sometimes even intimidating, but she also listens and is eager to learn. Rosemary and the current owner Jonathan Bulmer started the school in May 1999, with the purpose of showing off the local produce, provided in abundance by the island and its surrounding waters.
Rosemary Shrager worked for Pierre Kofffmann and Jean-Christophe Novelli and developed her unique style largely through self-education, an insatiable appetite for knowledge and a deep commitment to do her best using nothing but the best at all times. She will teach you that you can fillet a fish, de-bone a rabbit, take the breast of a duck, and prepare a sea urchin or a lobster. She will make you poach and fry her ‘Walnut Gnocchi’ even if it does take three hours and show you how to make a fabulous Gravadlax. Local baking hero, Effie Morrison, will teach you the art of making Clootie dumplings, oatcakes and scones.
Rosemary’s first book, “Rosemary, Castle Cook” is entertaining and educational and a joy to read. The photography by Christopher Simon Sykes is excellent and does the food, the island, and its people justice. (Published by Everyman Publishers Pic, London ISBN 1 84159 049 5)
Should you feel the need to explore Scotland, (and I reckon you should!) you could not do better than finishing with Amhuinnsuidhe Castle and Rosemary Shrager. You will have braised, steamed, fried, kneaded, stirred, ladled, sifted, strained, grilled, poached, sautéed, boiled, clarified, conched, mixed, sweated and been dead on your feet, you might even need another holiday, after Rosemary finishes with you, but you will be a better cook!
For more information or bookings:
Isle of Harris
Western Isles HS3 3AS
Tel.: 01859 560 262