The Vegan Nomad goes Celtic
The concept of a "Celtic Country" is problematic in many ways. The history of the British Isles is one of successive migrations, invasions and assimilation. Far from what Kippers and the right would have you believe, we are all genetic mongrels. A year or so, because there was a special offer on at Ancestry.com, I got my DNA ethnicity checked with the following results: I am 44% British (probably southern English); 43% West European; 8% Celtic (probably Ulster Irish); 3% Scandinavian (blooming Vikings!); 2% Iberian.
My DNA reflects the history of Britain. The first wave of colonisers were the Neolithic "Beaker People" from Iberia. Since then there have been successive colonisations of Celts; Romans; Germanic Tribes; Vikings and Normans (also norse in origin.) Baltic merchants in the Middle Ages; Flemish weavers in Tudor times; French Huguenots finding refuge in the Georgian era; Irish navvies building the railways in the Age of Steam; West-Indians helping re-build post-war Britain; Commonwealth citizens seeking a better way of life... These islands have always been a patchwork quilt of peoples, which - for me - makes the decision to leave the EU a sad, backward-looking one.
The Celtic peoples once dominated Western Europe but were driven west, first by the Romans, then by successive Germanic tribes migrating from the East, themselves under pressure from the horseman of the Asian steppes. What survives are the Celtic languages (and a common attitude to music), strung pearl-like along the Atlantic seaboard from Galicia in Spain to the Highlands of Scotland. Sadly most of these languages are struggling, usually because of official prejudice by politicians of the dominant language. France has always been very chauvinist when it comes to other languages in its polity, hence the decline in the use of Breton. The British government was very aggressive in trying to eradicate the Celtic languages, forcing their users to move as far away from points of central power as possible. (In How Green Was My Valley, the author recalls being caned and forced to wear a board at primary school with "I Spoke Welsh" on it.) Thus Scottish Gaelic (introduced by Irish settlers) is now only spoken in the Highlands and Islands and is losing numbers rapidly, though there are an increasing number of musicians singing in that language which, I hope, will raise its profile. Irish, as a first language, is largely confined to the "Gaeltacht" on Ireland's west coast, which is shrinking, though there are always strong political efforts to halt its decline. Welsh alone is a true success story. It's numbers have remained stable for decades and there is a strong push to increase the number of speakers to one million. (The excellent "Hinterland" or "Y Gwyll" on BBC 1 was as dark as any scandi-noir and naturally bilingual in Welsh and English.) Encouragingly there have been attempts by enthusiasts to revive Cornish and Manx both of which became extinct by the 19th C.
As I have written before, the growth in numbers of people following a vegan diet has grown noticeably and remarkably in the seven years I have been back in the UK. For example: the first time I visited Wales, I struggled to find vegan food and on the second occasion a few years later there was excellent fare - but only at farmer's markets. On my last visit, just over a year ago, I found a very exciting vegan scene. This is marked less by the presence of "permanent markers", such as vegan restaurants, but by the acknowledgement of the need to cater for vegans - the appearance of "vegan options" everywhere. But visit the Riverside Market just outside the Millennium Stadium to see what's on offer. I went back to my sit in Redwick with a bulging backpack and carrier bags full of tasty treats; so much so that the five mile ride home was a bit tricky.
A similar tale unfolded in Ireland. The first time I visited I struggled to find anything, even bread, as the traditional Soda Bread is made with Buttermilk. On my second visit I found, to my delight, that in the town of Ennis a wholly vegan restaurant 'Peckish" had appeared. (And their food is excellent.) Now the West Coast of Ireland feels like a place lost in time in many ways, but to find that a vegan cafe was a going concern there really speaks to the increasing normalisation of the vegan diet. Scottish food is the butt of many a joke, not least by the Scots themselves, normally in reference to deep frying everything. (Most often cited is the "Deep fried Mars bar" invented at the Carron fish shop in Stonehaven but there are also places offering a "Deep Fried Pizza" at which my mind boggles.) However, Glasgow has long been a veggie hotspot, which is certainly accurate, but the home for the Vegan is Edinburgh, which has a very exciting vegan community. There are a number of full vegan restaurants such as the delight-filled "Holy Cow"; veggie/vegan restaurants like "Novapizza" with its superb vegan pizzas and pasta; and many vegan stands at the five (yes five!) regular farmer's markets. It was at the Stockbridge Market, which packs a lot of stalls into a rather small space, that I found "Considerit"; a stall loaded with the most wonderful array of chocolates and doughnuts (mmm... doughnuts...). If you have a sweet tooth, as I do, then this was vegan heaven. So successful was this stall that the company running it have since opened up a permanent cafe in the city. (Sadly, a lovely coffee shop-restaurant "The Caffeine Drip", which although not fully vegan, offered vegan alternatives for almost every menu item, has had to close. As this place had a South African owner, I was chuffed to find such Saffer delights as "Koeksusters" - a plaited doughnut sweet soaked in syrup. Where will I get my fix now?) Finally, a visit to Edinburgh wouldn't be complete without a trip to "Bain's Retro Sweets". Okay, not all their sweets are vegan, but there are enough to fill a (big) goodie-bag!