International Vegetarian Union (IVU)
IVU logo 35th World Vegetarian Congress
'Food for all our futures'

Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland
July 8-14, 2002
Hosted by

The Vegetarian Society
of the United Kingdom

This article first appeared in Satya, September 2002:

Edinburgh: Host of the World Vegetarian Congress
By Rynn Berry

All at once Scotland seems both the likeliest and the unlikeliest place to have hosted the 35th World Vegetarian Congress. It wasn’t so long ago that Scotland was considered to be the uncouth, “Wild West” of Europe. When Mary Stuart left the glittering court of France to travel to Scotland and become its queen, the French court reacted as if she had elected to commit suicide. Truly, it was a barbaric place. The Lords of Scotland spent their days in the saddle, hunting animals and waging blood feuds; and their nights, carousing, brawling, and wenching.

It also has to be remembered that Scotland is the original home of beef production. Commercial cattle ranching in the U.S. was organized and financed by Scottish banks, and the largest cattle ranches in the U.S. are still owned by families of Scottish descent. It is still the world’s leading wool producer. The countryside seems to be upholstered with sheep and cattle being reared for wool and beef. Everywhere you look an animal is grazing.

The national Scottish dish, which is proudly served at every pub and which poet Robert Burns nicknamed “the chieftain of puddings,” is one of the most depraved dishes on the planet. It is called “haggis,” and is made by stuffing the large stomach of the sheep with the minced lungs, liver and heart plus sheep fat, oatmeal, salt and pepper. The stomach is inflated, sewn up and boiled for three hours, then it is punctured and served at the table. Haggis has given rise to a number of other awful offal dishes that are popular in Scotland and Northern England called “blood puddings.” [actually called 'black puddings', made with blood - ed]

But, astonishingly enough, every pub and restaurant has at least one vegetarian dish on offer, and some of the best vegetarian restaurants in Europe are to be found in Edinburgh.

As the author of the Vegan Guide to New York City, I had a more than casual interest in sampling their cuisine. Finding them all, however, posed a wee challenge. The Vegetarian Guide to Edinburgh, about which I’d heard so much, is now completely out of date. Its author had decamped to Ireland, and can’t be coaxed to return to do an update. So we had to surf the Internet and download references to Edinburgh restaurants from several international Web sites. But the effort certainly paid off. Vegetarian restaurants such as Bann’s Vegetarian Café (5 Hunter Square), which specializes in Vegan Haggis with Neaps (mashed turnips) and Tatties (mashed potatoes), and an array of vegan Indian and Thai curries; Black Bo’s (57-61 Blackfriars St.), featuring Cordon Vert-style vegetarian food, such as Eggplant Stuffed with Tomatoes and Herbs, and Vegan Haggis Balls with Tofu and Rosemary in a Ginger Wine Sauce (you will struggle to find a non-lacto vegetarian dish, but the expert chefs are more than willing to cook a vegan adaptation of any dish on the menu.); Henderson’s Bistro Bar (4 Hanover St.), the oldest vegetarian restaurant in Edinburgh, which serves Nut Loafs and Salads—and even the all-vegetarian Baked Potato Shop (56 Cockburn St.) with a range of vegan toppings that include vegan Haggis and Vegi Chili—stand in comparison with the best vegetarian restaurants in New York and San Francisco.

Also, on the credit side of the ledger: Two months ago, the Scottish parliament outlawed fox-hunting, making it the first European legislative body to pass such humane legislation.

The 35th World Vegetarian Congress
The week-long conference was hosted by the International Vegetarian Union [it was hosted by The Vegetarian Society UK, IVU merely allocates the veunue - ed] and held on the bosky campus of Herriot-Watt University, located on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Rabbits scampered on the grassy swards and ducks sailed in flotillas on the ponds. Although the temperature never rose above 73 degrees and the air was autumnally chilly in the evenings, the days were almost 24 hours long. By 3:30 a.m., the sun was streaming through the bedroom windows, and it didn’t set until after 11 at night.

Although this was the smallest World Congress that I’ve attended, it was gratifying to meet delegates from as far afield as Australia, Singapore, Russia, Korea, and a sizeable contingent from Japan. In fact, I tried out my broken Japanese on a young woman who works as a professional window washer; she earns a good living climbing to the top of Tokyo’s skyscrapers and applying her squeegee to begrimed glass. Hiroko said that when she was employed at a chick hatchery in Japan, she was so appalled by the cruelty she witnessed that she promptly changed her diet to veganism, and her job from chick hatcher to window washer; she and her clients are seeing much more clearly now.

Despite the diminutive size of the conference, there was an impressive lineup of speakers. Among those who stood out were Derek Antrobus, a journalist who talked about the rise of vegetarian culture in England; Ruth Heidrich, a world-class marathoner and tri-athlete, who said that it is important for our bodies to make contact with the earth through the vibration of each strike of the foot; Nikolai Kalanov, who spoke about vegetarianism in Russia, past and present.

Francisco Martin, a long-time raw-foodist and the founder of Spain’s first animal rights organization as well as the Vegan Society of Spain, spoke about his campaign to abolish bull-fighting in the rural provinces of Spain. Dawn Carr of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals described how the remorseless methods of factory farming are now being applied to aquaculture and fish farming.

Claude Pasquini, a professor of Wildlife Biology from Luxembourg, emphasized that we humans are an aggregate of cells and that when we eat we are feeding our cells; and a vegan diet is simply the most efficient way of feeding the billions of cells all working synergistically to animate us as living beings. The cells eat, excrete, rest and seemingly possess a will of their own, but they work together for the greater good of the organism. That each of us is but a colony of cells, Dr. Pasquini avers, is all the more reason why we should empathize with the smallest of creatures.

I’m sorry to report that the cells that Dr. Pasquini was talking about were not particularly well-fed at the conference; the food left a great deal to be desired. Of course, food is the last reason why people go to vegetarian conferences, but had the Congress organizers been astute enough to recruit some of the local Edinburgh vegetarian chefs, the Congress would have been far more enjoyable.

The final banquet on Saturday was followed by several hours of authentic Scottish dancing in which most of the attendees gleefully participated.

While in Edinburgh for a post-conference tour, some friends and I decided to practice a little vegan activism. We went around to the custom kilt-makers’ shops and identified ourselves as vegans who were ethically opposed to wearing wool. Could they craft a custom-made kilt out of synthetic wool, say, fleece or cotton? “No way!!” they expostulated. “Kilts have to be made of wool!”
Although Edinburgh has been called “The Athens of the North,” which may be a fitting epithet architecturally and academically, ethically and dietetically, Edinburgh has a long way to go before it becomes the Athens that we associate with such ethical vegetarian thinkers as Pythagoras, Plato, Socrates, Theophrastus, and Plutarch.

Rynn Berry is the Historical Advisor to the North American Vegetarian Society, and the author of such books as Famous Vegetarians and Their Favorite Recipes ($18.95 postpaid) and Food for the Gods: Vegetarianism and the World’s Religions ($22.95 postpaid). To order either of these books or the 2002 edition of the Vegan Guide to New York City ($11.50 postpaid), send a check to: Rynn Berry, 159 Eastern Parkway, Suite 2H, Brooklyn, NY 11238.