Christmas Day is one of only two occasions when meat is served in the community kitchens here, the other being haggis on Rabbie Burns Night. There is nothing like a predominantly vegetarian diet to stoke appreciation and a lusty appetite for flesh! In this community, as in the various others that I have spent time in, I notice the communards in the local pubs and restaurants with a particularly keen glint in their eyes, as they order in their steaks and casseroles.
Seems to be part of the spirit of the age. I know more "reformed vegetarians" than perhaps any other category of diner – I myself spent almost a decade without flesh passing my lips. Up here in the north of Scotland, it is an easy transition to make. The low population density and fine grazing land means it is easy to find superb local and organic meat from animals that have spent most or all of their lives in the great outdoors. The butchers in the neighbouring town sell venison culled in the local woodlands together with pheasant and other game birds. Our travelling fish seller – Graham, who comes by weekly in his wee van with a big smile, a hearty greeting and a phenomenal memory for names – generally has wild salmon on board.
This is the only place I have lived in Britain where wild food is common. At this season, you can see teams of hunters – generally, I guess, from the neighbouring RAF airbase – gathered by the roadside, brandishing guns, off to the woods to shoot. I used to be unreservedly against hunting. Then I read an inspired essay by Ted Hughes in which he described how hunting and fishing were truly unique in their ability to tie him into the natural world – to force him to study the habits and speak the language of the creatures he hunted. To truly identify with and respect them. It was positively shamanic in tone.
I find this deeply plausible. Here in the community, there are a number of folk who are expert in flaying and butchering road-kill and I have partaken of sumptuous barbeques of young deer shot in local woodlands owned by community members. Even the vegetarians are in on the act. There are others in the community who organise "wild food" tours, describing the wealth of tastes freely available in the edible landscape that surrounds us. The effect is to subtly, but unquestionably, tie us more deeply into our own distinctive natural environment.
Eating locally and with the seasons is an important ethic within the community. This does have its challenges. The weekly box of organic vegetables delivered to subscribers (including Liz, my wife, and I) of our community-supported agriculture scheme will be filled with root vegetables and winter greens for months to come yet. But, this wonderful, local, wholesome and respectfully harvested meat is a major compensation.
On other fronts, this festive season brings familiar and comforting rituals. The game of "Angels and Mortals", where each draws the name of another from a hat on whom, for 10 days or so, to shower anonymous gifts and blessings. The solstice spiral meditation, a form of labyrinth laid out in the auditorium of the Universal Hall that one walks as an end-of-year meditation. The Boxing Day walk up in the Cairngorms and the Polar Bear swim in the Moray Firth on New Year’s morning.
As for a New Year’s resolution, no need to look further than the sign at the top of the main stretch of road in the heart of the community. Under the ‘STOP’ on the road-sign, someone has inserted the word ‘Worrying’.