• Ged Connell
Location:
Spey Bay
Date:
Saturday 9th August 2008
Reference:
SWI2008/001

Ged:

Well, you can get wild food from the hill and mountain environments. You can get it from hedgerows, old railway embankments, woodlands, by the seashore and by riverbanks as well.

Simon:

What sort of things do you ...? What’s the sort of range of foods you ...?

     

Ged:

Well, you can get mushrooms or fungi ... wild berries ... And then you’ve got various plants which you can eat. The tubers, if you dig them up, you can eat the root tubers. They’re good for starch and carbohydrates. And then you’ve got various plants where you can just eat the leaves. And then you’ve got various plants where you can eat the actual stem what grows above ground. And then you have plants which you can just use the berries and eat the berries, make them into jams or jellies. Yeah, I guess that’s as much as I can think of just now.

Simon:

What got you started in foraging? Did it just come out of the type of work you do?

     

Ged:

Yeah, just ... Well, I guess I was always fascinated as a child, you know, at what was growing around me and what you could use it for. And the way of eating food for free or wild food for free without actually having to pay for it ... So yeah, from quite a young age I had quite an interest in all the food for free plants but I never really had the confidence to go out and pick it because I wasn’t sure if that was what it ‘said on the tin’. So it took me quite a while to know for sure which plants were the real deal to pick. So that wouldn’t have been really until I actually was working in the countryside. So, yeah. Because there’s an awful lot of plants that are very similar to plants which are edible and they’re not. They’re quite poisonous. So it took quite a while.

Simon:

Did you ever eat the wrong thing by mistake?

     

Ged:

No, but what I have done, well what I used to do, is just try a teeny little piece. If there’s one or two plants I’m unsure about you just try a teeny bit and you might just get a mild stomach upset so it wouldn’t be too fatal. So no, I’ve been quite fortunate with that.

Simon:

Is it just fruit and veg that ...?

     

Ged:

No, there’s also meat as well which I’ll forage for. But that would be in the way of roadkill. Especially in this area, around Speyside, there’s an awful lot of roadkill with the rabbits and hare and ... There’s also squirrel as well which you can eat. In fact anything in the way of roadkill ... Badger! I’ve never tried badger, but badger, fox ... But the main ones would be hare, rabbit and venison, roe deer. So they’re a good source of food for free. There’s also birds as well. Crows, rooks ... You can make a rook pie, pigeon pie. But I do occasionally go out and maybe shoot one for the pot and ... You know, rabbit or roe deer as well.

Simon:

... (inaudible) ... roadkill is if the animals have been there a while.

     

Ged:

Yeah, that’s the thing. It’s trying to work out how fresh it is. Cos the problem is with roadkill as well is just before it’s death, all it’s ... Well, depending on the situation, but sometimes it might just freeze up and all it’s muscles go stiff through fear and adrenaline and the hormones running through it’s blood system and that’ll cause it to get rigamortis quicker than if it was a natural death where it didn’t anticipate that happening. So that can happen and it’s very tough eating that. It’s very tough meat. But you usually get an idea of how fresh it is and whether it’s worth eating. Cos the idea with a lot of meat, like venison, is if it’s picked off the road, I usually let it hang for a couple of weeks. If it’s good weather conditions and it’s not too hot, then that’ll help to break down the enzymes in the meat and that’ll soften it so it’s not too tough. Same with rabbits but maybe not as long. You’d probably leave them for three or four days.

Simon:

How much of your diet would you say is roadkill?

     

Ged:

It’s depending on the time of the year. This time of the year, I’d say it would be about 20% or 25% maybe. But obviously, going into the winter, it wouldn’t be as much foraging to do. There’s always something for every season but summer and autumn are the main two seasons. Winter is fairly scarce. There’s mushrooms and not much in the way of plants really, unless you can eat the tubers of various plants. But there wouldn’t be much in the way of plant life in the winter to eat. Spring’s fairly ... It’s OK but it’s not as abundant as summer or autumn.

Simon:

So it’s not really sustainable in itself?

     

Ged:

Well, it possibly is if you harvested enough in, say, summer and autumn. You can freeze a lot of plants and the meat. But you’d have to be gathering quite a lot of food. It’d be a full-time occupation, I’d say, but it could be done. I mean, I guess you could live. You could sustain yourself from plants and animals for the ... Yeah, forever really, if you took the time to go foraging but it would be a full-time occupation.

Simon:

How much do you think the ... could you get from foraging that would be representative of the typical diet of older times?

     

Ged:

I’d say quite a lot of it would be. Cos I notice when some of the old ladies join us on the walks if you point out a plant what’s edible, they’ll know it but it’ll be a totally different name to what I know. They’ll be: “Oh, that’s such a plant.” And, you know, they say: “Oh, we used to pick this on our way to school!” whereas that just doesn’t happen nowadays I guess. There’s that caution of: “Don’t pick wild plants!” whereas I guess in their day it was ... You know, they was taught which plant to pick. So a lot of the food I pick, I guess, would have been picked years ago.

Simon:

So these older ladies, do they have recipes and ...?

     

Ged:

Yeah, I guess they would. There’s a lot of the old wives still using things like various berries for recipes ... I’m not so sure about a lot of the leafy plants but there’s a lot of old jams and pickles and that which you don’t see much in the shops. You see them at the garden fetes and charity raising events. You see various pickles and jams what they’ve baked and you’ve never heard of those ones in the shops.

Simon:

How many generations back ...?

     

Ged:

Well, these would be ... There’s a lady in her eighties who comes on one walk and she’d be eighty-two I think. So ... And I guess she’d have had that recipe handed down to her and that knowledge ... And then there’s probably ladies in their sixties as well, and gents as well, who come on the walks and know quite a lot about, you know ... Cos that’s the beauty of it, when you’re on the walk you’re always learning off other people, especially the older people, about various plants which they’ve picked and I’ve never picked them so it’s always nice to gain a new plant in your list of things to pick.

Simon:

And is it solely from curiosity and interest in nature ... (inaudible) ...?

     

Ged:

No, it’d be more from an interest in nature but a wee bit of the holistic view as well because I’m quite interested in the medicinal properties of some plants, you know? A lot of them seem to have been lost in time because I guess everybody now just relies on the chemist for remedies and the doctor and chemical synthesized remedies whereas, if you read a lot of the old books from the eighteenth century about what plants were used to treat ailments, it’s incredible. It’s all out there in the hedgerows and there’s very few people that’ll go and make the effort to see what’s about and what you can pick.

Simon:

So do you use any natural remedies yourself?

     

Ged:

A few, but I keep in the cupboard nettles, dried nettles. That’s always a good one for ... That’s a detox. A little bit of comfrey, that’s quite good for headaches as is a plant called feverfew. That’s quite good for headaches as well. And chamomile, chamomile herbal tea. And peppermint, that’s good for stomach upsets. A few things like that. But for the serious stuff like homeopathy it’s got to be made up in tinctures and I never really got that advanced in that type of field.

Simon:

And are there any ... is roadkill the same as poaching for example?

Ged:

What with poaching?

     

Simon:

And what makes it different?

     

Ged:

Roadkill and poaching? Well I guess with roadkill it’s ... I just see that as an opportunity not to be missed really because it’s ... It’s just an opportunity. Whereas poaching ... Well, poaching, I guess it depends on what you’re poaching and where you’re poaching it. I think maybe taking the odd salmon from the river or the odd roe deer from some estate, I don’t really see much of an issue with that really. But full scale poaching is pretty bad. There’s people who blow bits of the river up and just haul off hundreds of salmon in one go.

Simon:

... (inaudible) ...

     

Ged:

No, but I know people that do it, the bailiffs on the river. It’s big organised gangs in the Central Belt who come up. You can get something like £2 a pound of salmon, you know a twenty pound salmon is £40 or £50. And you can quite easily get a dozen of those in a night so it’s five or six hundred pounds of money to be made in one night so you can see why there’s an incentive there for people to poach them.

Simon:

... (inaudible) ...

     

Ged:

Yeah, yeah. Through the back door of restaurants most of the time. I’m sure there’s probably one for the pot as well but most of it is profit driven really.

Simon:

So with your walks and ... are more people getting interested?

     

Ged:

Yes, there are. There’s more of a ... More from the younger, from school children. Well, they’re coming along with their parents, they don’t come along by themselves but ... You know, the parents seem to be trying to encourage them to come along on the walks. And it depends on what type of walk it is as well. You find if the walk has a theme to it, you know, like a free forage or something what might have happened years ago like with the Celts or something ... But if you just advertise it as a ranger walk or a guided walk it doesn’t seem to attract that many people. It has to have a theme to it these days to attract anybody. But there’s a lot of younger people now that have started to come on the walks, yeah.

Simon:

Do you think there are people that ... (inaudible) ... their own foraging afterwards?

     

Ged:

Yes, there is. Although when we run our survival events we stress the importance of plant identification. We say: “If in doubt, leave it out,” because there’s an awful lot of responsibility on ourselves sometimes because we think, well, we’re showing them these plants which are out there and there are edible properties or medicinal properties but there’s also a lot of plants out there which are quite poisonous. So, you know, we do stress that you’ve got to know your plants before you start picking them. There also is the other issue about picking plants on other people’s property because it is against the law to actually uproot a plant without the permission of the landowner. You can pick a leaf but if you actually uproot it that’s a legal offence.

Simon:

Are there potential risks to the environment in people foraging?

     

Ged:

Not ... Well, possibly in that, you know, there are some plants which have got a lot of medicinal properties but they are also quite scarce in that region so there is the possibility of being over picked. Certainly with some mushrooms it can happen, like chanterelles. You know, people pick a lot of chanterelles and sometimes they’ll not re-grow in the same area. Usually you’ll get, well not always, but some mushrooms will come up year after year, but if you harvest too many of them they might not reappear every year in that spot so there is a danger of that being exploited too much. Same with some plants as well, that can happen with various plants. I mean, one person just for their own consumption is OK but there are people in this area who pick a lot of mushrooms for selling to restaurants and stuff, you know? You can make a lot of money picking chanterelles. I think it’s something like £20 a kilo, you can sell them on to the restaurants for. If you choose the right place it wouldn’t take you long to pick a kilo of mushrooms.

Simon:

Have you ever come across other people out foraging?

     

Ged:

Not much to be honest. The only time I do is, maybe, in autumn time when the mushrooms are out. Berries, the raspberries along the railway embankments ... That tends to be a popular pastime cos everyone recognises raspberries I guess. And blackberries, brambles ... Other than that it would just be when the mushroom season’s out.

Simon:

Do you get people after magic mushrooms as well?

     

Ged:

No. Well, I’m sure you do but I haven’t come across them around here. But yes, cos there is quite a lot of magic mushrooms on the lowland pastures and just in the uplands as well. There’s also the fly agaric mushroom, the red and white one. You know, what you see on kiddies fairytale books. That’s got a lot of hallucinogenic properties.

Simon:

And some of that actually links back into the medicinal traditions.

     

Ged:

Yes, that’s right. I know the fly agaric carries quite a bit of a Celtic ... well, Scandinavian mythology with it. I don’t know if you’re aware of the connection with Father Christmas with the red and white fly agaric but in Lapland the favourite food of reindeers is fly agaric and the only way they can bring them down from the highlands to the lowlands is to lay a trail of fly agaric out. Of course, when they eat a fly agaric, that actually gives a high to the reindeer. And the Laplanders wait for the reindeers to pee that out and the Laplanders actually drink the urine of the reindeers cos all the poisons that filter through the kidneys of the reindeer, the Laplanders get high on that. The idea about Father Christmas being red and white, there’s an association between the fly agaric being red and white and the reindeers flying through the sky, well that’s them high on the fly agaric. And Father Christmas coming down their chimneys, well in the likes of Siberia the shamans ... the traditional way into someone’s house was down the chimney. So there is a wee connection there, how true that is I really don’t know.

Simon:

I thought the red and white was Coca Cola?

     

Ged:

Yeah, well, I know if you talk to a lot of youngsters ... I know, that’s right. Cos they model Coca Cola on Santa Claus colours, the red and white, because it’s an instantly recognisable symbol I guess. But that’s got a lot of ... They used to use the fly agaric in the olden days. They used to put it in a saucer of milk and the flies would land and die in the poisons of the fly agaric seeping into the milk. That’s why it’s called fly agaric. Cos it was used to kill all the flies. It’s what the Vikings used to take before they went into battle. The ‘Berserkers’ the troops were called. And I guess that’s why somebody who’s gone berserk in modern days, there’s a connection there.

Simon:

Are there other plants that you’ve foraged yourself that have a similar mythology?

     

Ged:

Let me think ... None that spring to mind now. Umm, no ... Only the ... Well, I used to collect fly agaric when I was younger. But no, not really. None that springs to mind.

     

Simon:

And have the old ladies that come on the walks ...?

     

Ged:

No, they’ve never mentioned about links to mythology with the plants, no.

     

Simon:

Do you know of any plants where they use ... (inaudible) ...?

     

Ged:

Emm ... No, I don’t. Not with shepherds. I know on the hills though, there’s a shrub called juniper and that’s what the guys who used to make the illicit whisky on the hills, that’s the wood they used to use for fuel to burn the stills because juniper doesn’t give off any smoke so that never attracted any attention to Customs and Excise men.

Simon:

Do you gather seaweed?

     

Ged:

A little bit. I’ve not really ventured too much on seashore plants to be honest, but I’ve tried kelp and seaweed for ... kerodene, I think it was. But to be honest there’s not that much foraging I’ve done on shorelines because I find it’s quite sparse. I don’t really get the opportunity as well, because it’d be more on the West Coast rather than around here for kelp and seaweeds. It doesn’t seem to grow as much on the North Sea as it does on the Atlantic.

Simon:

You don’t gather clams?

     

Ged:

No, I’ve never tried that for seafoods, no.

Simon:

Are there any other materials you gather in the way people used to gather stuff ... (inaudible) ...?

     

Ged:

Umm ... Well, gorse flower was quite good as a dye and nettle, the stalks from nettle, makes a really good rope. It’s as strong as any natural, well plastic, rope you get today. You know, braided nylon. But it takes a long time to make. It’s very labour intensive but I guess in those days it wouldn’t have been labour intensive at all, it’d be seen as just another task to do. Heather as well, I guess. That was used for thatching.

Simon:

... (inaudible) ...

     

Ged:

Yes, and hazel. Down Aberlour, in some of the woods there, there are signs that some of the woodlands were worked woods in coppice, hazel and oak and ash. And they would have been cut down maybe every ten years and you would have got pole diameters of an inch and half, two inches, which we use to make gates and fencing ... hurdles, brooms ... that sort of thing. You can still see evidence of that in some of the trees where they’re all suckered out. That’s usually in old coppice woodlands.

Simon:

This is where people traditionally harvested ...?

     

Ged:

Yes. They would have cut back the stems. I think, depending on the type of wood, it would be anything from a seven to a fifteen year cycle and so every seven years, say if it was hazel, you’d chop all the rods, the stems, right back down to the stump of the tree. You’d harvest that, you’d have it for ... well, depends. Various tasks, making gates and hurdles. And after another seven to ten years that cycle would be ready again and there would have been people employed in the woods from April through to October doing the wood ... as woodsmen, just living in the woods constantly.