Journey to… Lastbus Works Canteen

In the middle of the north east countryside, scattered with traditional farm houses, sits a retro travel-themed eatery which feels like it’s been transported from some abandoned stretch of US highway. I made a return visit last week for more delicious cooking, just to make sure I hadn’t imagined it.

Bus benches

I’ve eaten at a lot of cafés and restaurants in the north east, and when it comes to decor, there’s often little to shout about. This decor brought tears to my eyes. Everything is recycled, from the bus seats that form booths against the walls to the building itself, constructed by the owner using disused electricity pylons. Vintage posters and record sleeves adorn the bare wood, and oil cans at each table dispense olive oil for dipping bread. It’s ingenious. The room is filled, but not overstuffed, and every item has a purpose – like the bicycle wheel suspended from the roof, home to pots of cutlery.

You can expect a good meal in most places in Aberdeenshire: a hearty soup, standard fillings for sandwiches, home bakes. By and large the offerings are quite similar, allowing for the occasional specialty. In its menu, too, Lastbus stands apart from other eateries.

Lastbus door

On weekdays, soups are accompanied by a selection of cakes and desserts. My first visit brought a flavoursome lentil and bean soup, the second a rich butternut squash and sweet potato soup. The sundaes are not to be missed. Stacked with yoghurt, granola, fresh pineapple, and pomegranate seeds, they’re heavy on indulgence and light on guilt.

For vegetarians fed up of bland, stunted menu offerings, and even someone like myself who is not (more just a cheapskate), Lastbus is a paradise. The menu changes frequently, but you can bet whatever’s on offer is fresh, tasty and totally meat-free.

The singular drawback is that, being nestled atop a hill behind New Pitsligo, Lastbus requires a car (or a walk from a nearby bus stop) to reach. But with fantastic, great value food in dreamy surroundings that you don’t find on just any Scottish hillside, it’s completely worth the journey.

Check out lostcafe.org for more information.

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Journey to… St Monans Sea Queen Day

A couple of weeks ago, I took a trip around the East Neuk to St Monans to watch the annual crowning of the Sea Queen. It’s a tradition I first came across in Mike Hildrey’s documentary, Sunrise to Sunset: East Neuk Fishing, and a prime example of the role of women in a fishing community. Since this is exactly the topic I’m examining in my own documentary, I seized the chance to see the ceremony first hand.

 

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Once a place where the fishing industry thrived, St Monans Harbour still berths a smattering of boats, though nowadays these are mostly for leisure instead of work. It’s this historic connection to the sea that gave rise to the practice of selecting a Sea Queen. Every year for over half a century, a St Monans girl has been selected to assist with the organisation and smooth running of community events. She is chosen by her peers on the merit of her existing dedication to the community. This year it is Caitlan Duncan’s turn, the latest in a long line of Sea Queens to serve her community, and there is an entire day built around honouring the new ‘monarch’.
 
Brightly striped stalls lined the harbour front, offering refreshments, raffles – typical gala fare. Over the course of the afternoon, locals performed music on the stage, and of course ran the aforementioned stalls. The seafront remained busy the entire afternoon, so the appeal clearly reaches more than just a keen handful of organisers. The fact that the practice of crowning a Sea Queen has remained while fishing’s presence has fizzled is testament to the locals’ respect for and pride in the heritage of their village. I was struck by a strong sense of community, something that obviously hasn’t been lost with time.
 
In keeping with the historical precedent of the day itself, the ceremony was steeped in tradition. Caitlan and her party sailed from Anstruther on board the Reaper, a Fifie lovingly restored with support from the Scottish Fisheries Museum and crewed by experienced volunteers. They paraded to the stage, led by a piper, and the party were introduced one by one: a fisher lass, page boy, two attendants, then, of course, Sea Queen Caitlan herself. She and her attendants wore ceremonial cloaks, handmade in the 1980s by Maureen Lishman. A slightly newer tradition, then, but the design seemed informed by how previous cloaks might have looked. The fisher lass wore a traditional striped dress and carried a basket, a more contemporary nod to fisher fashion.
 
Once on stage, the party seated themselves on antique chairs reserved especially for the occasion. Caitlan traded her short cloak for a full length one, and was crowned by her predecessor. The use of a crown in the ceremony, made by local Yvonne Sutherland, is a new tradition going forward.
 
I will need to do some more research, but among the roles available to women in fishing communities, this is one of the more unique ones I’ve come across. Admittedly, though, when I first saw the ceremony and heard of its history, I couldn’t help but compare it to the very similar contest held at home in Peterhead. Each summer, during the annual Scottish Week, we crown a Buchan Queen and two Princesses. While the principle is generally the same, and the practices arose at roughly the same time, the Buchan Queen is more of a gala queen, where the Sea Queen is more specifically tied to the traditions – and perhaps superstitions – of fisher people.
 
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As well as taking in the festivities, I took the opportunity to wander along the coastal path to the 18th century windmill that sits atop a hill overlooking St Monans. It’s been restored and turned into a viewing platform, offering panoramic views that take in Pittenweem, the Firth of Forth and the Fife countryside.
 
Why a windmill in a village known for fishing? It’s thought that it was used to draw up water to be used in salt processing. St Monans was just one of many places salt processing was conducted along the Forth estuary. Only after I found the door firmly bolted and padlocked and returned to the harbour did I discover that the key can be borrowed from the local Spar (in exchange for a small deposit, of course). All that means, though, is that it’s definitely something to revisit in future.
 
And as for the Sea Queen, I’ve seen what the tradition is today, but its origins remain as mystical as the fantastical connotations of the title itself. More digging will need to be done…