This week, two-hundred and twenty-four years ago, Robden of Solway Firth died.
He was just 37 years of age. His lighter-Scots dialect ensured audiences beyond Scotland mourned, as sorrowfully as the Scots themselves, the death in Dumfries of The Bard, Rabbie Burns.
His verses no doubt warmed many a fair-maiden’s heart and girded the loins of Scots from The Rhins of Galloway to Dunnet Head. There is also very little doubt that he probably loved his cockles, which have been eaten in Scotland for at least the past six thousand years, in vast quantities.
A cockle, by the way, is the common name for a group of mostly small, saltwater clams that live in sandy, sheltered, and often dangerous beach areas throughout the world.
Burns, whose exquisitely-crafted lines included … “Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie, O, what panic’s in thy breastie! Thou need na start awa sae hasty, Wi’ bickering brattle! I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee, Wi’ murd’ring pattle!” … and which I often recite after a wee dram or four, may not have even made it to thirty-seven had he been forced to grab his own cockles.
For cockling, you see, is for brave hearts. Real ones. Not Australian anti-Semites.
When sweet Molly Malone screeched - for it was her that was sweet, not her voice - in Dublin’s fair city about her lively cockles, she did so with the happy knowledge that before her had gone intrepid cockle-pickers who traversed swathes of dangerous quick-mud so she’d have something to croon about.
Let’s go to the Solway Firth.
The Firth itself, to which Burns was oddly linked since he was born over a hundred miles away, has a name derived from two thirteenth-century words that mean mud and ford, a wholly appropriate name. The soft mud flats, which appear bridge-like between shallow sea channels while the tide is out, are mortally deceiving.
One evening in early February 2004, twenty-one cocklers drowned in Morecambe Bay, the next large sea inlet down from Solway, as the tide crept in. As a result of this extreme danger, and for additional environmental reasons, cockling is banned on the Solway.
But, in the fiery land of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Robert the Bruce, Rob Roy, and Sheena Easton, rebellion is rife, and a cockling gang was reportedly afoot.
The gang was allegedly rampaging along the coast with their cockling tools, causing immense damage to the microbiology of the region, and leaving residents in fear of their safety.
Whether those residents were the cockles themselves or Scots living nearby the Firth was unclear in the reports. But, it was claimed that while illegal cockling was flourishing, policing of these barbarians of the cockle-world was nonexistent, the authorities washing their bivalve-stained hands of the whole matter.
The police (both of them) said they had inadequate powers to enforce the ban. And, Marine Scotland added that it’s not safe for its staff (of geriatric volunteers in wellington boots, one might imagine) to tackle the cockle gang alone. A deep row broke out and the Scottish Parliament clammed up over the whole issue.
Now, you could be saying to yourself, why so much fuss over cockles in the first place?
And indeed, vitamin-wise, cockles are not the Centrum of the Sea. Per serving, cockles contain 3% of riboflavin and 4% of niacin. You’ll get no thiamin, vitamin A, B6, B12, C, D, E, K, folate, pantothenic acid, choline, or betaine. You’ll get zero carbohydrates or fat of any type, just a drop of calcium, and about 8% of protein.
You will get a marvelous 25% DV of iron, but that might come at a price: an unhealthy dose of your favorite gram-negative bacterium, E.Coli.
To the Ribble Estuary.
Cockles from the Ribble Estuary in Lancashire, a little further down from Morecambe Bay, but on the same side of the country, have been found to contain levels of E.coli which will kill you dead, and so trade in local cockles has been halted.
Before that happened, a $700 permit was all you needed to nab your own cockles from this contaminated environment. And so, what followed has been described as a ‘cockle gold rush’, during which time more than two-hundred tons of cockles were collected by around three-hundred people in a single day. The local coastguard was dragged from a salty dream no less than twenty-six times to rescue inexperienced prospectors who thought they could handle their own cockles.
From a much more comfortable and safer distance, cockles are a good source of semiological intrigue. As art imitates life, and vice versa, it is no surprise that even cockles have made their way into the cultural weave of a nation. Take this ditty, allegedly written for Mary, Queen of Scots, whose sad demise at Fotheringhay ended almost two decades of captivity:
Mistress Mary, Quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With Silver Bells, And Cockle Shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.
In this symbolically-rich poetic rhyme, Mary is first asked how her reign over her realm fairs. She’s reminded of her nation’s Catholic heritage (Silver Bells are Catholic bells) and then taunted for her husband’s dalliances (with those Cockle Shells), and one suspects with those very pretty maids lined up for his convenience.
The beheaded Queen of the Scots. The deadly cockles of Ribble. The (now infamous) Cockle Gang of Solway. Cockles have meaning, albeit one of impending doom, and so profoundly rooted in British and Irish culture, they will probably continue to be a way of supplementing income, diet, and verse for thousands of years to come.
Remember that even after sweet Molly Malone had died of the ‘fever’ (probably from E.Coli, we now realize), her forlorn, mollusk-loving ghost still wheeled that barrow through the streets of Dublin wailing from beyond the grave about her unyielding love for cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o.
Now doesn’t that warm the cockles of your heart.