Category Archives: Scottish Highlands

Fandabi Bannocks: How long will Scottish-style survival rations be good to eat?

This is all based around an excellent video by Fandabi Dosi, aka Tom Langhorne, who specialises in actually living the survival techniques and equipment of Scotland in the 16th Century or so. Multiple uses of the plaid (“the great kilt”), starting fires in a notoriously wet country, that sort of thing.

This particular video is about his take on a Highland survival food. He comes up with his own recipe, which as far as I’m aware doesn’t actually exist historically, but it could well have done, or at least a close variant.

So I tried it…and yeah, it pretty much works as advertised. It isn’t, as he points out, going to win any baking awards, but it’s calorifically dense (my sums say about 1,000 calories a biscuit, so three biscuits a day is a reasonable claim), and they’re definitely edible. More than that, they are one of these foods that feel calorie dense when you’re eating them, if I was massively hungry in the hills this would be a very welcome snack. Not as good as firing the stove up and cooking something substantial, but easily enough to fill me up a bit.

But about that shelf life claim – how long will these things stay edible without refrigeration? Given the ingredients I’m willing to bet on months, and wouldn’t be surprised if it was into the years. Not necessarily “best before”, I can imagine they’ll continue to dry out and may get a little more challenging to eat, maybe needing a soak in water first, as with hard tack / ship’s biscuit, but I’m looking more at the bacterial side: will they be safe to eat, rather than pleasant.

So I cooked some up, have them stored in a cool (not refrigerated) dry place, wrapped in greaseproof paper tied with string (the modern equivalent of Tom’s beeswax impregnated cloth), and I’m going to take a bacterial swab every six months, both from the surface and from the inside of a broken open biscuit, and I’ll see what I can get to grow on an agar plate.

Note for the microbiologists: this isn’t entirely rigorous. I’ll be using standard nutrient agar in aerobic conditions, because that’s the limit of my training and the kit I have access to.

Note for the non-microbiologists: the stuff I’ll be using to grow any bacteria I find is not set up to favour stuff that is particularly harmful to humans, specifically anaerobic food poisoning stuff like botulism. This is entirely on purpose, I’m not trained to mess with stuff like that.

What I’ll be looking at is whether bacteria grow on them more generally. I’ll also be able to pick up moulds and fungi etc, which may or may not be harmful if eaten. See, for example, the blue mould found in many cheeses, and is entirely harmless. Or ergot, a fungus that grows in rye and has similar effects to LSD, but in a far more unpleasant way.

All Sky Camera Update

In 2020 I started a new job as a science technician in a school. A few months later the UK went into a coronavirus lockdown and I was told to do my job from home…which was an interesting challenge. We’d all seen it coming, so I’d already filled my home workshop with two carloads of broken equipment and antique science stuff in need of a polish, but it didn’t quite fill the time. So I started looking around for funding opportunities for…well, anything.

The Institute of Physics was offering grants for £800 for anything not-curriculum related and ideally relevant to the local area, and we’ve got a fairly dark sky, even from the roof of the school, and an all sky camera costs about £800…so I applied and they sent us some money. All Sky Optics, who supply this kind of thing, were hugely helpful both supplying the right bits and with lots of advice.

It’s been up there for three years now (it took a while to build as a project with students), without a break, in all weathers, taking hundreds of long exposure photographs each night, and then automatically stitching them together into videos each morning, all run by a Raspberry Pi and an astronomical camera.

As the name implies, it films (nearly) the whole sky with an ultra-wide angle lens, like an extreme fish-eye. The centre of the image is directly overhead, and the circumference of the circular image is the horizon. We’ve caught noctilucent couds, meteors, satellites including the international space station, the milky way slowly rotating, and quite a lot of seagulls. And the aurora. From our location it’s a reasonably regular thing, and wow, did it kick off last week. We normally get a green arc and some pillars on the northern horizon, but this one was directly overhead, with a lot of red in it.

Project Fish: Clachtoll Jellyfish Bloom

We took The Fish (need to find a better name?) over to Clachtoll on the west coast of the northern Highlands of Scotland to see what was under the surface. Good timing, it turns out, as a jellyfish bloom was going on. When conditions are right jellyfish reproduce in huge numbers all over Scotland, sometimes even resulting in issues for nuclear power stations!

Project Fish is the “engineering arm” of Fishing For Footage by Julia McGhee. (I use the term “engineering” loosely, especially in this context!)