The Condenser

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Big Murray and the "Calf's Head Debacle"

Poor Big Murray. He's not too bright. His head is "too much taken up with birds, and squirrels, and bees' bykes, and animal life of all sorts." When he finally does something right - or so he thinks - it turns out his boss messed up the directions. To be honest, it took me a couple of reads to really figure out what was going on in this excerpt from More Bits from Blinkbonny (1885) by John Strathesk, but the subject of "head singeing" and the dialect was too good to pass up.

Shortly after the scene between the butcher and the dog, Murray committed another mistake, indirectly concerning Mrs. Spowart again, which, whether he was entirely to blame or not, produced his dismissal from Wallace's. "Tak' a' thae heads to the smiddy an' get them singit first; then tak' the calf's head to Spowart's, and bring the sheep's aues here," were the master's orders.

The sheep's heads and the calf's head were in one basket,—a calf's head was a new thing to Jamie,—and he left all with the smith, with instructions to have them singed, and he would come back for them; but to do the calf's head first, for he had to take it to Spowart's.

The singeing of a sheep's head is peculiar, I believe, to Scotch cookery, and is done by the blacksmith, partly on the fire, partly by a rod of red-hot iron; the object being to take all the woolly hair off, without burning or at all scorching the skin. The process is sometimes called "singin'," and many a Sunday dinner in Blinkbonny consisted of a "singit" sheep's head and trotters. Glorious broth it made, dotted with "blue pat peas," turbid with barley brae, and accompanied by a bit of a pease bannock; a snuff o' the "singe" in it was not objectionable, and the head and trotters went "far," in housekeeping phrase, backed up as they were with turnips, carrots, and roasted potatoes. "We've seen the day."

"Singe a calf's head?" said Archie Dawson, the smith,—"singe a calfs head ? Ye're wrang there, my man; I never either did that, or heard o' ony ither body doin't."

"The maister telt me that I was to take a' thae heads to the smiddy to get them singit first; then I was to take the calf's head to Spowart's."

"Spowart's?" said the smith. "There's nae accountin' for what thae English folk'll eat; a calf's head is for ord'nar plottit, but if ye say this ane's to be singit I'll do it, but mind dinna blame me. So here goes!" and a sharpened poker was driven into the nose, and the head singed in a few minutes.

Big Murray meantime had gone to get his bite,—it could hardly be called a dinner,—and he was back in the smithy as soon as the calf's head was cold enough to carry. He took it to Mrs. Spowart's, and, finding the kitchen door open, laid it on the floor, cried, "Here's yer calf's head!" heard the answer, "All right; just leave it," and was back at the smithy for the sheep's heads, which he brought to the shop.

He had not been long there before Mrs. Spowart's servant, carrying a queer-looking brown paper parcel, and accompanied by Mrs. Spowart herself, entered the shop, which smelt strongly of the late arrival of the sheep's heads.

"The very same smell!" said Mrs. Spowart sniffingly. Then confronting the butcher she said angrily, "Whatever do you mean, Mr. Wallace, by sending me such a calf's head?"

"I never sent a better to anybody," said Wallace firmly. "What's the matter with it?"

"The matter, Mr. Wallace?—the matter? It has been burned to a cinder;" and, pointing to the sheep's heads, " If an accident had occurred to it such as these have had,—for the calf's head has precisely that smell, and is as black as these,—you should not have sent it."

It dawned upon Wallace "that that big blockhead Murray had"—but the opening of the brown paper parcel converted dawn into day, for there was the calf's head blackened with soot, and redolent of singed hair.

"This is more than mortal can stand!" said the furious butcher, storming at Murray. "You monstrous idiot, you—you"—for, despite Mrs. Spowart's presence, his tongue was uncontrollable, "whatever put it into your fozy skull to gang an' get the calf's head singed?"

"You telt me to get a' the heads in the basket singit first, an' then to tak' the calf's head to"—but here he was interrupted by the perspiring, "comflusticated" butcher, who shrieked,—.

"Get out o' my sicht if ye respect your life !" and as Murray disappeared, he flung the calf's head after him, saying, "There's mair sense in that dead calf's head than in yours, ye dooble docus."

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