A FRUSTRATED restaurateur, I started a food movement in 2009. I called it the underground restaurant movement after my own supper club. I wanted to cook for people and earn money, but I didn’t have the vast sums needed to invest and didn’t fancy taking on the risks associated with starting a restaurant. A full one-third of restaurants go bankrupt within 18 months. Also as a single parent with a young daughter, I couldn’t – and didn’t want to – work full-time outside the home.

Having travelled extensively in Latin America and the Caribbean – notably a trip in 2000 to visit Cuba – I was inspired by the paladares set-up, whereby people opened their homes to strangers, feeding them for a fee. This had the plus side of allowing tourists to participate in local life, meet local people, and see inside local homes.

“Why not do that here?” I thought. My first supper club was held at the beginning of February 2009, announced on my blog msmarmitelover.com.

Word spread quickly and The Guardian came to the first one.

For the next few years, I had to learn a new business – how to run a restaurant with very particular limitations. It was exciting but also a lot of pressure. My first book, Supper Club: Recipes And Notes From The Underground Restaurant, came out in 2011. I set up a site to encourage other supper clubs; my intention was to create a food movement that enabled women to earn money from their cooking.

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I soon realised this was also great for retired chefs who no longer want to submit to the crazy exhausting schedules of a full-time restaurant but still love cooking.

Cooking for money is different from putting on a dinner party. It’s way more stressful – you are aware that people are spending their hard-earned money on your food and you cannot half-arse it.

Fast forward to 2020 and the pandemic and suddenly I was out of a job. The government grant was pathetically small – I’d never made much money but at least I made a living. Since then, even when things opened up again, the momentum was gone.

In Scotland, the movement is still going strong. I first visited supper clubs there in 2011, going to a selection in Edinburgh and on the Border. Today it’s less of a trend than it was a decade ago, but there are still sporadic supper clubs happening.

I was excited to hear earlier this year about the launch of an unusual new dining event, a “dark skies” supper club, taking place on every equinox and solstice. This was far north in Sutherland, not too far from Lairg.

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I drove up to attend the first one in mid-March. The supper club is run by a couple, Monica Shaw and Mark Washer, at their house, who moved to the area only six months ago.

“This is actually the ‘equilux’,” explains Monica, “not the equinox. I know it sounds like a high-end fashion brand but it’s when day and night are equal. It occurs a few days before the spring equinox and a few days after the autumn one.”

Monica, 44, a writer and mountain guide, hails from Chicago, although she has been living in the UK for over 20 years. After meeting in Inverness two years ago, she got together with Mark, 52, an architect from Somerset. Both of them are interested in the same things – the outdoors, geology and astronomy. For a while, they lived a nomadic life in a van, camping every night, changing location every day.

Finally, they felt they needed to settle down. Originally, they were looking for a forest or woodland retreat, but they came across the Old School Byre near Lochinver, a small fishing port an hour north of Ullapool.

The drive up was spectacular. The further north I got, the more it looked like somewhere Scandinavian, perhaps Iceland. The Vikings named the area “Southlands”, which morphed into the word “Sutherland”. The area is undergoing a resurgence of interest: Jamie Dornan – much to the excitement of locals – will be filming a Netflix series there this summer.

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But out of season, it was hard to find accommodation. In Lairg, having arrived late at night, I phoned every single lodge and all of them were closed. They didn’t open until April. I parked and gazed at the tiny house lit up in the middle of the loch. What was I going to do?

I dropped in on the local hotel, with a bar full of men watching the darts. “I’ve got nowhere to stay,” I announced, ordering a drink.

Within minutes, I had three offers. One young man who got chatting to me said he was gay and on the autism spectrum. “I got banned from my local Lidl because I organised their untidy shelves,” he said.

“I rather think they should have hired you,” I commiserate.

His parents ran a bed and breakfast, usually closed at this time of year. He called his dad and I ended up staying in a pine-clad attic room in a comfy bed with a home-cooked breakfast the next morning.

The next day, I passed through Lochinver and then on to the stone Old School Byre, standing proud on a hill, surrounded by sheep. Next to the main house is a small lodge, which Mark and Monica rent out as an Airbnb, with the unusual addition of an attached small observatory.

The National: Scots pine saplings near Lochinver, Sutherland. PIcture Mark Hamblin-2020VISION

Mark is doing an Open University course in astronomy and planetary science, so the move and the supper club are fantastic opportunities to develop his long-standing interest in the skies.

Northern Scotland has the advantage of long dark nights with no light pollution. The spectacular sky show of the Aurora Borealis is a regular occurrence in this part of the world, but as one supper club guest remarked: “Northern lights go fast, blown by the solar wind.”

I looked through one of Mark’s powerful telescopes at the moon. I’d never seen it like that before – the level of detail, the craters, the silvery Swiss cheese texture. With the other telescope, housed in the mini observatory, he takes high-quality pictures.

Recently they’ve been looking at Pons-Brooks, a passing comet visible right now.

“I think the Andromeda Galaxy is really cool because it’s something you can see both with the naked eye and through that telescope; you can take a really detailed picture,” says Monica.

Another reason they moved to Sutherland is that it’s a Unesco geology site, an area of Lewisian gneiss rock – the oldest rock in Europe.

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On the night of the supper club, there were 12 guests, mostly locals. But when I say locals, I mostly mean the English – only two of the guests were Scottish, from Glasgow.

From talking to them, it occurred to me that many of the English “ex-pats” were escaping the Tories – the appeal of moving to a politically progressive nation courtesy of the SNP. Nobody had been there longer than two years, impelled by lockdown.

Jugs of margarita cocktails were served in a salt-rimmed glass and people brought wine, a lot of wine. These guys can drink.

The meal was Mexican-themed, a cuisine Monica knows well as she used to live in Texas. People should not expect “a multi-course formal dinner”, she says, “it’s more like a meze”. She used local ingredients too, so it became a highland Mexican hybrid, with “chocolomo” venison stew, chilli beef, frijoles negros refritos, butternut squash/feta tamales and a salsa bar. I contributed a pumpkin seed mole sauce.

For dessert, Mark made fantastic deep fried churros and a chocolate sorbet – the hot and cold combination worked even better than the traditional hot chocolate.

Both work remotely, which is fortunate, as Mark explains: “There’s no work up there – you need a croft, or sheep.”

The National: Scottish traditional soup known as Cullen Skink containing undyed smoked haddock, potatoes and milk. Named after the Aberdeenshire village of Cullen on the north coast of Scotland..

There are some local businesses – a “destination” bookshop in Lochinver with an erudite selection of Scottish literature and local know-how; a renowned pie shop; Flossie’s Beach Store at Clachtoll Beach which coincidentally specialises in Chicago-style hot dogs.

I drove up to the gate of Helen Lockhart, who has lived here off-grid for 16 years. Her workshop Ripples Crafts is stacked with merino wool skeins dyed in jewel tones that she has mixed, but: “I don’t use local sheep because their wool is too rough.”

The Assynt Facebook group is lively and a source of connection. The Assynt Crofters’ Trust is rightly celebrated for winning a rare fight against private freeholders for common grazing. In March it was the lambing season; it was a pleasure to see sheep roaming freely.

I took a road trip the next day to look at the area, following the glistening snail’s thread of the coastal road, marvelling at the diamond lochs and burns, the tangled birch trees, the coconut-yellow gorse. I saw a vintage red telephone box seemingly in the middle of nowhere, like a scene from the film Local Hero.

I mounted picturesque stone humpback bridges and gazed at the Air Force Blue sea, ending up at the Kylesku Hotel where seals occasionally bobbed up their heads.

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But on my way back to the house, I was stopped by the local policeman.

“Do you know why I’ve stopped you?” I shook my head.

“It’s because of your driving – you were crossing the white line in the middle of the road.”

I was so busy looking at the scenery I hadn’t even noticed a white line down the centre of the empty road.

He wasn’t backing down: “Can you step out?”

Suddenly it occurred to me that he thought I’d been drinking. At two o’clock in the afternoon.

“Well, have you?”

“All I’ve had is a Cullen Skink.”

“What’s that drink then?” asked the policeman suspiciously.

“It’s a soup,” I explained patiently, not quite believing that he didn’t know the dish.

I passed the breath test. The result was zero.

The policeman asked me several nosy questions about where I was staying and concluded with: “Have a lovely time here.”

Up until that point, I was having a lovely time, but now, I felt taken aback and a bit shaken. When I told locals, they were shocked.

“He’s new but he won’t be popular round here if he carries on like that,” grumbled one. “His wife and kids will be shunned at school,” predicted another. Now I felt sorry for him. Maybe it was a mix of curiosity and zeal for a new job.

The supper club scene seems to be thriving in Scotland.