Imperial Haggis Catchers and Beauty Queens: A true story

Spring 1987.

I’m in my first year at secondary school. The May Day Carnival is just around the corner. One day all the boys in our year are called into the school hall. It’s time to select who’ll be the May Queen and her attendants. So the boys all vote, on the basis of whom they fancy the most. A day later the results are announced.

The town I live in has a slightly unusual schooling system. We all go to the same secondary at age 11, but two years later there’s a 13-plus exam and some people go on to the grammar school. A lot of the parents don’t like this. They argue against judging young people on the basis of intellect at such a vulnerable age. It can get quite impassioned. There’s a lot of concern about self-esteem. In spite of this, there’s no one arguing against young girls being publicly judged by their peers on the basis of sexual attractiveness when they’re two years younger. Not that my friends and I are bothered. We were never in the running. Never in with a chance, so what does it matter? Besides, we have alternative plans for the carnival. We will be going as Imperial Haggis Catchers.

What, you may be wondering, are Imperial Haggis Catchers? To be honest, I don’t really know. None of us do. It’s a combination of things floating round in our heads and it seems like a good idea at the time. There are various sources of inspiration:

  1. An “Imperial Guard” costume featured on an episode of Blue Peter. They show you how to make it and it looks cool.
  2. A general obsession with the haggis. Not the actual foodstuff; it just happens that two of us have recently been on holiday to Scotland and brought back cute, cuddly “haggises” that we keep on our desks.
  3. Fuzzbuzz, a reading scheme from when we were at primary school. We didn’t read the books – they were for children with learning difficulties – but we knew they featured haggis hunts. And for that reason, we always wanted to read them.
  4. A Scottish boy in our class. Two out of the three of us fancy him. This is never voiced as a reason for our haggis-catching enthusiasm; neither can what we’re doing possibly be construed as a way of seeking to attract him. Even so, and perhaps all the more so, if I were him, I’d be a bit scared.

So there we are. We are the Imperial Haggis Catchers; the pretty girls are the Beauty Queens.

The May Queen dresses in white lace, like a bride; we wear cardboard tabards, spray-painted bronze, with split peas glued on to look like studs. The May Queen carries a bouquet of flowers; we, having decided our actual haggises are too small, carry a cuddly womble, wrapped up in chicken wire to show that he’s been captured. The May Queen is made up like a grown woman; we paint our faces white and blue, unwittingly pre-empting Brave Heart. The May Queen rides on a float; we push a wheelbarrow. I’m not sure why we do this. We just do.

I look back on that day and can’t help but feel a little proud. Fuck them. Fuck the school and the town. Fuck the whole rotten May Queen system. We were 12-year old girls and weren’t going along with any of it. We stood out. No one knew what we were meant to be. We didn’t look like girls, didn’t look like boys. We looked like Imperial Haggis Catchers. We looked ridiculous and we were cool as fuck.

In the years that followed, the May Queen and her attendants were the first girls at school to have sex. The first to get pregnant. The first to leave without a trace. We, the not-pretty ones, studied hard, left the town, went on to university. A resounding victory for the Haggis Catchers? Well, not really. Not quite.

On the day of the carnival we got ready at the lead Haggis Catcher’s house. Her mum made us tuna sandwiches. I remember this because I wanted to eat them but didn’t. I was in the early stages of anorexia. Two months later I was admitted to hospital and didn’t return to school until March the following year. Even then, I wasn’t really better. For the rest of my teens I wasn’t ugly or pretty. Didn’t look like a girl, didn’t look like a boy. I wasn’t one of them. Removed from the game, I was still a Haggis Catcher. It wasn’t a victory.

If I had a daughter, I’d never want her to have to face the same judgements we did. I’d want her to feel free to explore, free to choose how she wanted to be. I’d want her to know that regardless of the body you inhabit, you don’t have to spend your teens either primed for or hiding from some sexual competition. I’d want others to defend her right not to be judged. That’s what I’d want. And in addition to that, I’d tell her one more thing: it’s perfectly possible to feel affection for imaginary haggis creatures without adopting an imperialistic attitude towards them.

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5 Responses to Imperial Haggis Catchers and Beauty Queens: A true story

  1. LadyCurd says:

    Two things struck me about this after I read this fecking marvellous post.
    A) we would have been friends at primary school
    B) can you adopt my girls please- you are EXACTLY the type of mum they need.

    • LadyCurd says:

      Oh except I was 6 in 1987. You would have been one of the big kids I was terrified of.

    • glosswitch says:

      It’s just rhetoric! I’d be crap in real life! … Ooh, go on then! I’ve still got that haggis somewhere and I’ll show them a good time (I always thought if I had girls I’d call them Omble and Oddler, too).

  2. Of the many things I love about this post, the thing I love most (whilst acknowledging that it is a bitter-sweet kind of love) is that you show how both the beauty queens and haggis catchers end up suffering as a result of these expectations. It would have been easy to go down the ‘aha, but all the beautiful people bummed out in the end’ compensatory victory route. Instead you offer compassion through your own vulnerability, and I feel touched by that. 🙂

    • glosswitch says:

      Thank you for such a lovely comment! I just find it all a bit sad that the alternatives seem to be embracing a very objectified type of sexuality or having none at all. There is a middle ground to negotiate, but it’s really difficult at times.

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