There’s something special about soup. Whether it’s the classics – Scotch broth, lentil, Cullen skink, oxtail – or a more exotic taste, a bowl of soup is the perfect dish to warm you up on a cold Scottish night.
Almost everyone will have fond memories of their granny’s lentil soup – a thousand tiny variations passed down through the generations.
It’s simple, cheap and healthy – not to mention a clever way to trick the kids into having their five a day.
But more than that, soup is a leveller. It brings people together to enjoy a shared experience.
And it’s that social dimension that is being tapped into across Scotland, with communities rallying around local issues – with the help of a bowl of soup.
The Homeless World Cup in Glasgow last week acted as a potent reminder that too many people in Scotland are without a home. Living on the street, or in temporary accommodation, throws up many issues, not least of which is the difficulty in cooking for yourself.
And while soup kitchens are nothing new, Edinburgh’s Souper Saturday aims to offer more than just a meal.
Its founder, Mark Diver, wanted to provide a space for homeless people or otherwise vulnerable adults to come, not just for food, but to relax and socialise as well.
“There are plenty of places to just go and eat but it’s very much like a cafe/fast food restaurant type idea – you go in, then you eat, then you leave,” he says of other support services.
“They are not encouraged to hang around, they are not encouraged to sit back and socialise. For instance, if they go in they are not allowed to go out for a cigarette and come back, once you leave that’s you out – it’s not very conducive for people having a proper social interaction.”
It was while homeless himself years ago that Mark experienced first-hand how easy it is to become isolated. Often, he says, temporary accommodation doesn’t allow for guests, and it can be hard to keep up friendships when faced with issues that frequently come hand in hand with homelessness; lack of employment, no budget for social activities and being housed outside your community.
“The perception is that social isolation is restricted to older people, but there are people with mental health difficulties, there are people with substance misuse problems…who have become isolated from their family, from their peer group, who could be doing with help to reintegrate themselves socially,” Mark says.
He estimates round 70% of the guests who come to Souper Saturday are homeless, while others may have been previously, but what matters to Mark is raising awareness that people have a right to their social life.
“Some people just don’t have anybody to talk to through the week so they definitely do come for the social aspect, which is nice,” says Rachel Jacgung, one of the volunteers who are on a first-name basis with regular guests.
“Even for me to meet new people was the reason I wanted to volunteer.”
Guests who come to Souper Saturday are free to stay for the whole six hours – while the volunteers, some of whom, like Mark, were formally homeless, provide porridge, sandwiches and hot food at different times throughout the day.
And of course, the ubiquitous soup is always on the menu. Back when Souper Saturday started, it was a pot of soup that was the focal point.
“Basically we’d just make a pot of soup and people would come in in dribs and drabs, and there would be six or seven of us and we’d sit round the table and eat soup – it was more of a family dinner,” Mark says.
Now, with an average of 40 guests to feed each week, the menu has grown accordingly, with a mix of funding and donations helping to keep the kitchen running.
It’s the volunteers however, that Mark pays special tribute too. “It’s extremely important how much we rely on volunteers and how much the people who volunteer with us give,” he says.
“Especially with us, because it’s a Saturday and because it’s six hours, the people who volunteer with us are giving up a substantial part of their social life to help others with theirs.”
Souper Saturday is held every Saturday from 8.20am – 2pm at the Old Saint Paul’s Church in Edinburgh.
Soup is also at the heart of community-based social enterprise groups across Scotland, part of a grassroots movement that began in Detroit back in 2010 and has since spread worldwide.
The idea is simple. Gather up the local community, get them to donate £5 at the door, feed them bread and soup, have some live music and, most importantly, have them listen to short pitches from local groups about how to make the town a better place.
The audience then vote on the idea they like the most, and all the money raised at the door is donated to the group to help fund it.
The first Stirling Soup was held in May this year. Organiser Kathryn Welch, who was inspired by news reports on Detroit Soup to set up her own, says: “It was just so perfect, heart-warming, simple, properly grassroots and very informal that it felt like a lovely thing to do.”
Kathryn visited other Soups in the UK before organising Stirling Soup. “Every Soup is a bit different, because it reflects what the organisers are interested in, what the community is interested in,” she says. “People were really pleased to see Stirling have its own thing like this.”
She had only two criteria for groups looking to pitch at the event, first that they were genuinely Stirling-based, and second that the kind of money that could be raised at a Soup would make a difference to them.
In May, a 130-strong audience spent a Friday night with some soup, live music and five pitches, choosing to donate to Stirling Citizens for Sanctuary which helps the resettlement of refugees.
“With the help of the Soup money, we have been able to fund befriending events, including a drop-in session, a visit to the Alva Games, and a beach outing planned for later in the summer,” says the sanctuary’s Savi Maharaj.
The group have also been able to fund their regular befriending and support activities, such as providing children’s clothes and toys, as well as making contacts with other groups involved in the event. “We are very grateful for the funding, support, and publicity we received from Soup,” he added.
Kathryn says: “It’s really nice because it’s over to the audience and community to judge who they think is the most relevant, so the winner can only be the organisation that does the idea that people want to see happen the most.”
The Soup itself, as well as helping raise money for the community, was borne of it. The bread was donated by the Riverside Bakery, soup ingredients from Sainsbury’s, cooked by Sprinkle Happiness Catering and eaten to live accompaniment my musicians from the Stirling University Live Music Society.
The only cost to its organisers was booking a venue, covered by a raffle on the night, which allowed them to hand over all £630 made on the door to the sanctuary.
After the success of the first Soup, Kathryn and other volunteers are organising a second sesson for September 2, with more live music, more pitches and the sanctuary returning to tell the audience how they used the money raised last time.
The first Soup in Scotland took place last year in Edinburgh, with its latest edition due after the Fringe.
Organised by Phil Bolger and Rob Peacock, Edinburgh Soup has already been run four times and so far raised over £4000 for local groups.
The pair describe the audience as “amazingly supportive and encouraging,” with an average of 150 people attending.
“We are very proud since we started this idea in Scotland nights like Stirling have followed our lead, and soon Inverness and Aberdeen,” say Phil and Rob. “There’s something in all of us that moves towards warmth, sustenance and community.”
As a way for the community to rally around causes that matter to them, the Soup movement has already taken hold in Edinburgh and Stirling, and with Wick, Inverness, Aberdeen and Falkirk Soups simmering away it appears to be becoming a useful staple among Scottish communities. Which feels sort of fitting.
This article was first published by Positively Scottish (18/07/16).