The healthy Scots diet of two hundred years or so ago consisted of a fairly limited bill of fare composed of local foods: oats as chief cereal grain; root vegetables such as turnips and potatoes; leeks, cabbage and kale supplemented by wild vegetables such as nettles, sorrel and garlic; butter, cheese and other dairy products; fish, shellfish and seaweed; some meat and game; and numerous varieties of wild berries in summer.
The emphasis in this diet on fish livers and fish liver oils, shellfish, organ meats, blood, and healthy fats like lard—and the resulting robust health of the traditional Scots—helps dispel the modern myth that vitamin A is toxic and the modern notion that we cannot obtain sufficient vitamin D from food.
The mistress of the Scots kitchen turned these honest, simple ingredients into a nourishing assortment of dishes which are quite distinct from those represented by the bulk of other British Isle cuisines. This distinction in some part recalls the days of the Auld Alliance—Scotland’s political consolidation with France against the English from the thirteenth century until the end of the sixteenth—which left a bright and lasting influence on Scottish cuisine both in its style and its lexicon.
The foods, menus, history and folklore of Scottish domestic culture are celebrated with a robust affection and pride that are delightfully infectious in Florence Marian McNeill’s The Scots Kitchen: Its Lore and Recipes. McNeill first published The Scots Kitchen in 1929, with the aim of commemorating and extolling the Scots national tradition as expressed in its regional gastronomical heritages that she, even by the start of the last century, feared might be lost forever “in this age of standardization.”
McNeill was born in 1885 in Orkney, the archipelago of islands just north of Scotland, at a time when the previous century of Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions had wrought their stark and sometimes brutal dislocations and disruption of the ancient Scots traditions in social and domestic life. Her early years on the islands helped to shape her life-long fascination and pride in Scottish history and cultural traditions. Later in her life she produced a four-volume history of Scottish customs, folklore and ancient festivals called The Silver Bough, today considered an essential source by historians in the field.
The Scots Kitchen evokes the era before the forced pace of social change brought about by industrialization, and conjures the image of the self-sufficient farmstead, and within, the capable mistress at the helm of her bubbling cauldrons and sizzling “girdles” over the peat fire. McNeill generously interlards the many old recipes with historical, literary and contemporary commentaries that animate the period, as well as provide a constant social context for the heritage of the recipes and menus.
Speaking of the period pre-dating the Agrarian Revolution (which spanned roughly 1750 to 1850) McNeill paints the scene of the early Scot amid the gifts of his homeland: “In olden times, when the population was small and sparse—by the beginning of the sixteenth century it did not exceed half a million—the means of sustenance were on the whole plentiful. The moors and forests abounded with game; elsewhere ‘herds of kye nocht tame’ with flesh ‘of a marvelous sweetness, of a wonderful tenderness, and excellent delicateness of taste’ ranged the hills. Rivers, lochs, and seas teemed with fish. Sheep were valued mainly for their wool, cows for their milk. Butter and cheese were in use in the earliest times and the oat and barley crops have always provided the staple bread.”
By the end of the seventeenth century, however, the Scottish peasantry suffered a period of great scarcity of food and even famine that lasted intermittently into the first fifty years of the next century. Partially a result of civil and religious wars, as well as the continuous struggles with England, and partially a result of failing farming techniques, the life of the rural poor was one of grinding poverty and want. Gradual improvements in the raising of crops as the eighteenth century drew near brought dietary improvements to most rural dwellers, and to the gentry, a gradual development from a plain to a more sophisticated daily menu.
Mairzy Doats and Scots Eat Oats
“Look at the Scotch, with their oatmeal porridge, as robust a set of men as ever lived. A Highlander will scale mountains all day upon a diet of oatmeal stirred in water fresh from a gurgling spring with his finger, in a leather cup.”1
Oats “were hardly known on the continent . . . but were raised in Scotland to the highest perfection. One gathers, indeed, that in early times abroad oats were regarded as a weed.”2
Oats thrive in the cool, damp Scottish climate, even though the soil is sometimes thin and poor. The ancient custom of composting the oat straw thatch of their cottages—replaced each year when saturated with the residues of constant peat smoke oozing through—has likely been one secret to their oats’ vigor.
Weston Price conducted his own experiments in the 1930s to prove the efficacy of smoked roof thatch to fertilize oats, which permitted them to produce heavily in the short and cool northern season. McNeill simply asserts that something in the good earth made them “the flower of our Scottish soil, and through that magic cauldron, the porridge pot, Scottish oatmeal has been transmuted through the centuries into Scottish brains and brawn. (Alas for the deterioration wrought in our cities by the abandonment of the ‘halesome farin’ of rural Scotland for cheap imported food stuffs!)”
“There is one kind of food,” the distinguished doctor, Sir James Crichton-Browne, writes in 1901 in Stray Leaves from a Physician’s Portfolio, “that is helpful to the brain and to the whole body, throughout childhood and adolescence, and that is oatmeal. Oats are the most nutritious of cereals, being richer than any other in fats, organic phosphorus and lecithins. . . . At one time it was the mainstay of the Scottish peasants’ diet and produced a big-boned, well-developed and mentally energetic race, but it is so no longer, having given way to less useful and economic foods, and in the case of children in the large towns. . . to tea and [wheat] bread with dripping, margarine or jam.”
The sting of Samuel Johnson’s oft-repeated witticism scorning the Scot’s preference for horse-fodder is mitigated by another of his own admiring observations during a visit to Scotland about the oat-heavy diet. “Such food makes men strong like horses, and purges the brain of pedantry.”
McNeill marks the progression of grain preferences among the Scots in the last several centuries wherein ancient barley gave way to the supremacy of oats, which in its turn, during the most recent hundred years is “threatened by wheaten flour, the victory of which would be regarded by many as a national disaster.”
“Up until the middle of the last [nineteenth] century,” lamented Lord Boyd Orr, director of the Rowett Nutrition Institute at Aberdeen in the early 1920s, “the people of Scotland were eating natural foodstuffs. With the introduction of machinery, this has been changed. . . . Natural foods have been changed into artificial foodstuffs, with the very best substances purified away that the Almighty put there to keep us in perfect health.”
As these comments reveal, the Scots themselves were well aware of the detrimental changes that modern agriculture and food processing were wreaking on their long-venerated primary foodstuff. McNeill often turns to the details of careful oat milling and preparation that she fears will one day be utterly abandoned: “A good miller knows just what samples of grain to select, just how long the process of drying in the kiln requires, just how to set the stones for the correct shelling and grinding of the cleaned and dried oats. The method of kilndrying is somewhat more arduous than the modern method of mechanical drying, but it is to the kiln that we owe the delectable flavor of the best oatmeal.”
At one time, water-driven oat mills with stone grinders dotted the Scottish landscape at intervals of about every eight miles. McNeill continues, “In meal from the local mills, as in château wines, there are constant minor differences in taste, due in part to the quality and age of the grain, and in part to the temperature and time taken in the kiln. Country folk with a natural palate always appreciated the fact that the age-old primitive structure of the local mills provided an agreeable variation in the flavour of the meal. Far too much of the meal in the market today [1920s] is mass-milled by a process which affects adversely both its flavour and nutritive qualities. That is why so many children do not enjoy the porridge as their parents did. . .”
“The best oatmeal is well-ripened on the stalk, dried by sunshine and, if necessary, in the gentle warmth of a small kiln, and ground between two honest mill-stones. Some sort of virtue disappears with rapid drying, while high-speed milling between opposed surfaces of steel may possibly add a trace of iron to our diet, but cannot achieve the effect of a little fine sandstone dust.”3
Before, during and after the advent of the water-driven mill, with which the Scots had experimented perhaps as early as 700 AD, farmwives milled their oats by hand with the use of a quern, “a hand-mill composed of two circular stones with a hole in the centre of the upper one, through which it is fed corn [grain], and a wooden handle. The meal falls from all sides on to a wide tray, and by means of a wooden spindle can be ground coarse or fine at will…” The ancient quern worked so efficiently that it had continued in common use through the nineteenth century and even well into the twentieth.
Farmers who grew their own oats but sent them to the local mill to be threshed, winnowed and ground into meal also received in return a bag of “sids”—the inner husks of the oats to which some of the nutritious kernel would adhere. From these sids an ancient Celtic dish called sowans”(or sowens) was made.
The sids were soaked in water for approximately one week (or even more) until they were well soured. The liquid was then poured off and reserved, the sids squeezed to extract the last bits of goodness, and then discarded. The reserved liquid would sit another two days, collecting as sediment at the bottom of the vessel. McNeill comments that this sediment “contains practically all the nutritious properties of the oatmeal in its most easily digested form. When required for use, pour off all of the clear liquid (swats) and put some of the sediment (sowans) into a saucepan, allowing a gill [five ounces] for each person, with two gills of water and salt to taste. Bring to the boil, stirring continuously, and cook gently for ten minutes or longer, until thick and creamy. Serve like porridge, in wooden bowls or deep plates, with cream or rich milk.”
In his 1904 work Scottish Life and Character, William Sanderson quotes an Englishman’s impression of sowans to his friends after his return south: “The lady of the house boiled some dirty water, and by the blessing of God it came out a fine pudding.”
Ubiquitous oats were prepared in many ways, and many of them deceptively simple. “The ancient way of dressing corn [grain],” writes Martin Martin circa 1695 in A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland, “which is yet used in several Isles is called Graddan, from the Irish word Grad, which signifies quick. . . . A Woman sitting down, takes a handful of Corn [sheaf of grain, in this case oats], holding it by the Stalks in her left hand, and then sets fire to the Ears, which are presently in flame; she has a Stick in her right hand, which she manages very dexterously, beating off the Grain at the very Instant, when the Husk is quite burnt, for if she miss of that, she must use the Kiln, but experience taught them this Art to perfection. The Corn may be so dressed, winnowed, ground and baked within an Hour after reaping from the Ground. The Oatbread dressed as above is Loosening, and that dressed in the Kiln is Astringent, and of greater strength for laborers: but they love the Graddan, as being more agreeable to their taste.”
The Kail Yard
“As oats and barley were the staple grains,” McNeill explains, “so kail [kale] was long the staple vegetable. His kail-yard was, in fact, to the old Scots crofter what his potato plot was to the Irish peasant. There he planted cabbages for summer and green kail for winter use, in addition, of course, to potatoes. . . . The vogue of kail, however, was originally confined to the Lowlands. The Highlander preferred the common nettle in his broth, and appears to have regarded the use of kail as a symptom of effeminacy.”
Kail was so ubiquitous a vegetable that it lent its name to the vegetable garden in general (the kail-yard) as well as to the evening meal, regardless of what else might be served (“Will you come and tak’ your kail wi’ me?”), and, by extension, the general term for broth or soup.
The potato traveled to Scotland via Ireland, and its first recorded appearance there is in 1701. In his Domestic Annals of Scotland, published in 1885, Robert Chambers tells us that “About 1773 it was beginning to be cultivated in gardens, but still with a hesitation about its moral character, for no reader of Shakespeare requires to be told that some of the more uncontrollable passions of human nature were supposed to be favoured by its use…”
Turnips were introduced at about the same time. Carrots, summer cabbages and other “coleworts” provided welcome variety in the diet.
Fish and Seafood
The Scots have traditionally eaten more fish than their carnivorous neighbors in England. McNeill describes the vast bounty of fish and sea food available to the Scots: “The great salmon-rivers and innumerable lochs and trout streams, together with the wide sea-track that skirts our shores from Stornoway to Eyemouth—the immemorial route of the annual migration of our herring shoals—provide us with a wealth of fish of high quality. The most important of our white fish are haddock, cod, plaice and hake; others are whiting, halibut, turbot, lemon-sole and ling; and in our herring (as in our oats) we possess a foodstuff of the highest nutritional value and of a quality unexcelled in any other part of the world.”
A diet high in fish and sea foods, including sea weeds, was observed to bestow particular vigor and lustiness to seaside inhabitants. Martin Martin in A Description of the Western Isles tell us “It is a general Observation on all such as live on the Sea Coast, that they are much more prolific than any other people whatsoever.”
And McNeill remarks in a footnote that “Aphrodite was born of the sea, and was commonly held to exercise her influence through certain products of the sea, notably (in the Scottish tradition) trout, skate, shell-fish and salt. Skate-bree (the liquor in which skate has been boiled) is a famous old Scottish love-potion.”
Shellfish was also very important as a staple of the diet—of these, oysters reigned supreme throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with Scottish oysters shipped by the thousands of barrels all through the British Isles.
In The Good Scots Diet: What Happened to It? author Maisie Steven emphasizes the fact that fresh fish would have made a significant contribution to the diet of inland dwellers to such a degree that they actually became tired of it—a startling thought to us nowadays when such bounty would be relished as the highest luxury.
In The Scottish Gael (1831), James Logan writes, “In Aberdeenshire the servants, during the summer, had so much salmon that they refused to eat of it oftener than twice a week.” “But on the West Coast,” comments Maisie Steven, “the fish which added most to the frugal diet of the common people was unquestionably the herring. . . . Because of the herrings’ well-known habit of arriving periodically in great shoals, it is easy to understand how some technology for preserving surpluses came to be devised, and how this led eventually not only to each cottage having its own barrel of salt herrings as a bulwark against want, but also to the emergence of that succulent item so beloved of gourmets everywhere, the Scots kipper. It is of interest, however, that in earlier times the term ‘kipper’ frequently refers to salmon rather than the herring. . . . The traditional cereal-based diet being short in vitamins A and D meant that herrings, richly endowed with these, could provide an excellent supplement.”
McNeill provides at least a dozen recipes for fish liver dishes, attesting to their popularity, and remarking that “The livers, which must be perfectly fresh, make a rich and nourishing stuffing. (Cod liver is richest in oil.) In Shetland, where they are much used, a special utensil called a pannabrad (panna, kettle and brad, melting) is used for melting fish livers, and the oil obtained is stored for winter use.”
The Cook and Housewife’s Manual of 1826, allegedly written by Mistress Meg Dods, the dauntless landlady of the inn in Sir Walter Scott’s novel St. Ronan’s Well, was actually penned by Mrs. Isobel Christian Johnson, wife of an Edinburgh publisher and herself the editor of Tait’s Magazine. McNeill shares many of Meg Dods’s recipes in order to exemplify the Anglo-Gallic style of cooking that Mrs. Dods/Mrs. Johnson considered the greatest the world had ever known. McNeill feels that the work, filled with practical culinary advice as well as sound gastronomic philosophy, is “not unworthy to be placed alongside its French contemporary, Brillat Savarin’s Physiologie du Goût.”
The Manual’s simple but refined method of vegetable preparation would be appreciated today: tender vegetables are steamed—never boiled to death in water—and served with complementary fresh herbs and butter; potatoes are to be fried in goose fat; sorrel is cooked in butter. Luscious soups, such as oyster, are thickened with egg yolks and cream, and again with the addition of simple, but fresh and complementary herbs.
Breakfast in Scotland
McNeill readily admits that it is not dinner, but breakfast, that is the meal upon which the Scots particularly pride themselves. In Scotland, she gently but wryly comments, dinners are generally “more distinctive than distinguished.”
“In the breakfast,” asserts Dr. Johnson, “the Scots, whether of the Lowlands or the mountains, must be confessed to excel us. . . . If an epicure could remove by a wish in quest of sensual gratification, wherever he supped, he would breakfast in Scotland.”
Neither tea nor coffee—fashionable amendments to wealthy tables which made their way to Scotland via France and England in the early eighteenth century—appears on the Highland breakfast-table described by Tobias Smollett in Humphrey Clinker:
“One kit of boiled eggs; a second, full of butter; a third, full of cream; an entire cheese made of goat’s milk; a large earthen pot, full of honey; the best part of a ham; a cold venison pasty; a bushel of oatmeal, made into thin cakes and bannocks; with a small wheaten loaf in the middle, for the strangers; a stone bottle full of whiskey; another of brandy, and a kilderkin [half a barrel] of ale.”
No less than dinner, the first meal of the day was a social occasion in which guests, extended family and travelers alike were regaled with the best the gentry household had to offer.
McNeill recounts another bounteous breakfast spread enjoyed by a French visitor: “In 1784, at the house of Maclean of Torloisk, on the island of Mull, Faujas de St. Fond found the breakfast table ‘elegantly covered with the following articles: Plates of smoked beef, cheese of the country and English cheese, fresh eggs, salted herrings, butter, milk and cream; a sort of bouillie of oatmeal and water [clearly porridge was a novelty to the Frenchman!], in eating which, each spoonful is plunged into a basin of cream; milk worked up with the yolks of eggs, sugar, and rum; currant jelly, conserve of myrtle, a wild fruit that grows among the heath; tea, coffee, three kinds of bread (sea biscuits, oatmeal cakes, and very thin and fine barley cakes); and Jamaica rum.’”
“The breakfast!” exclaims Dr. Redgill in Susan Ferrier’s Marriage, after vigorously abusing the Scottish dinner, “that’s what redeems the land—and every county has its peculiar excellence. In Argyllshire you have the Lochfyne herring, fat, luscious, and delicious, just out of the water, falling to pieces of its own richness . . . . In Aberdeenshire you have the Finnan haddo’ with a flavour all its own, vastly relishing. . . . In Perthshire there is the Tay salmon, kippered, crisp and juicy—a very magnificent morsel. . .”
In My Schools and School-masters, Hugh Miller, describing the “genuine Highland breakfasts” he enjoyed on his visits to an aunt in Sutherland, writes: “On more than one occasion I shared in a not unpalatable sort of blood-pudding, enriched with butter, and well seasoned with pepper and salt, the main ingredient of which was derived from the yeld [young] cattle of the farm. The practice was an ancient and by no means unphilosophic one. . .”
Another contemporary writer also recalls collecting vitamin D-rich blood from living animals: “Some of the stronger cattle were bled in the spring by an expert. The blood was carefully prepared, salted in a tub, and set aside for use. We called it black pudding.”
Blood sausages, or blood puddings, were made from ox, pig’s, sheep’s and goose blood. The blood was often thickened with oatmeal or barley meal, enriched with suet, lard or other fat, and seasoned with onions, pepper, salt and other spices. Tripe skins were used as casings, except in the case of goose blood sausages, for which the skin of the goose’s neck served this purpose.
Although never great meat-eaters, the Scots raised beef and mutton of excellent quality; in fact, the famous roast beef of Olde England, according to McNeill “at its best is Scots beef, which always fetches a higher price in the London market.”
Milk from cows, sheep, and goats has been an important cornerstone of the Scots diet, and especially to help eke out the times when the diet was largely cereal-based. Fresh milk, buttermilk and whey were primary beverages for a very long time, along with supplemental ale brewed from barley and oats.
Whey was drunk fresh, or fermented further to create a sparkle, and was a favorite thirst-quencher. Of interesting historical note, McNeill explains that “Whig, (Old Scots quhig) is the acetous liquid that subsides from sour cream, and is the origin of the political term, which was first applied by Scottish Episcopalians (who were almost invariably Tories) to Presbyterians, and by Presbyterians of the Established Church to those of the dissenting bodies.”
Buttermilk was also in great demand in the summertime, both among the rural people and city dwellers. McNeill notes it “was valued as both food and drink, and was held to cool the stomach in fever and to aid the cure of dysentery and other ailments.” J. Jamieson in the Book of the Old Edinburgh Club recounts the popularity of buttermilk in the city: “In old Edinburgh, throughout the summer months, one might witness daily the picturesque sight of milkmaids on horseback riding into town with soordook [buttermilk] barrels strapped across the saddle behind them. . . . It has been estimated that at the end of the eighteenth century a thousand pounds a year was paid in Edinburgh during the months of June, July, August, and September for this very inexpensive beverage, which was sold for a penny the Scots pint (i.e. two Imperial quarts).”
Yet one more romantic evocation of the era from Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica paints an irresistible bucolic scene:
“The milking-songs of the people are numerous and varied. They are sung to pretty airs, to please the cows and induce them to give their milk. The cows become accustomed to these lilts and will not give their milk without them. This fondness of the Highland cows for music induces owners of large herds to secure milkmaids possessed of good voice and some ‘go.’ It is interesting and animating to see three or four comely girls among a fold of sixty, eighty or a hundred picturesque Highland cows on meadow or mountain slope. The moaning and heaving of the sea afar, the swish of the wave on the shore, the caroling of the lark in the sky, the unbroken song of the mavis on the rock, the broken melody of the merle in the break, the lowing of kine without, the answering of calves within the fold, the singing of the milkmaids in unison with the movement of their hands, and of the soft sound of the snowy milk falling into the pail, the gilding of hill and dale, the glowing of the distant ocean beyond, as the sun sinks into the sea of golden glory, constitute a scene which the observer would not, if he could, forget.”
McNeill adds that well into the twentieth century, the milkmaids in many parts of Scotland would call their cows with “Proochey, leddy, proochey moo!” [Approchez moi!]
How to Hunt a Haggis
Haggis is simply the apotheosis of the sausage. Poet Robert Burns regaled it as the “great chieftain o’ the puddin’ [sausage] race,” and further honored it with a long, mock-heroic poem, “Address to a Haggis,” that in recent times is ritually recited before serving forth the haggis during Burns Night suppers, held each January 25 on the anniversary of Burns’s birth. (This year he celebrated his 250th.)
The origin of the name haggis is sometimes attributed to the French hacher—from which we derive the terms “hash” and “hatchet” in English— but it is more likely that it simply came from the Scots verb hag, meaning to hack or chop. Similar stuffed concoctions were prepared by many peoples since antiquity, but only the Scots seem to have preserved the custom to the present day. McNeill semi-humorously rails against the modern prejudice suffered by haggis: “Why everybody except the Scots stopped stuffing the paunch whilst they went on stuffing the intestines, the annals of gastronomy do not reveal. And why so many people furth of Scotland regard the haggis as an uncivilized dish and sausage as a civilized one is another mystery.
“The choice of haggis as the supreme national dish of Scotland is very fitting. It is a testimony to the national gift of making the most of small means; for in the haggis we have concocted from humble, even despised ingredients a veritable plat de gourmets. It contains a proportion of oatmeal, for centuries the national staple grain, whilst the savoury and wholesome blending of the cereal with onion and suet. . . is typically Scottish. Further, it is a thoroughly democratic dish, equally available and equally honoured in castle, farm and croft. Finally, the use of the paunch of the animal as the receptacle of the ingredients gives that touch of romantic barbarism so dear to the Scottish heart.”
George Saintsbury, perhaps the most influential English historian of the early twentieth century, Professor of English at the University of Edinburgh, and a “distinguished critic of food and wine as well as letters” writes: “Generally speaking, Scotch ideas on food are sound. The people who regard haggis and sheep’s head as things that the lips should not allow to enter them, and the tongue should refuse to mention, are, begging their pardons, fools.”
The Scots Tradition Today
In 1985, Maisie Steven published The Good Scots Diet: What Happened to It? The cry of distress in her title reflects recent alarming trends in the modern Scots diet that one sees, to greater or lesser degree, in all parts of the industrialized world. Steven noted that health workers recorded a decline in the quality of the diet in certain areas in Scotland in the 1920s, but the health of children in some agricultural districts was still quite sound as revealed in the findings of the Medical Research Council’s Report No. 101:
“The town children appeared to be poorly developed, often pale, and in Glasgow frequently rachitic, thus forming a striking contrast to the country children, who were sturdy, well-developed and rosy-cheeked, and in whom rickets was almost non-existent.”
Their food, Steven notes, “consisted of soups, stews, porridge, milk, oatcakes and scones, the cottage gardens contributed a limited variety of vegetables and some soft fruit. [The researchers] noted the fact that although the parents were in general very poorly paid, they did at least have rent-free houses and received some extras such as meal, potatoes and milk; fresh air and exercise were also duly acknowledged as having contributed to the altogether superior physique of the country children.”
In the 1960s, rickets made a disturbing reappearance among children in Glasgow, and many of the elderly were found to be suffering from anemia and osteomalacia, while middle-aged citizens were commonly plagued with overweight, hypertension, and heart disease. Typical modern Scots foods were flour and sugar products of numerous kinds, tinned meats and soups, pasta, syrups, buns, cakes and biscuits. Stevens relates the habitual daily menu for children as consisting of a packet or two of crisps (potato chips) for breakfast—or no breakfast at all—followed by pastry or rolls for lunch (a West Scotland “specialty” was a white roll stuffed with crisps) and for supper a meat pasty or sausage roll, followed by pie or trifle or ice cream.
Could there be an alternative to this dietary wasteland? Stevens relates an interesting story: “A few years ago a Dane, Paul Stemann, wrote a most interesting account of his trek across the Highlands with a pack pony. While he greatly appreciated the people and the superb scenery, his comments on the food were less than complimentary. He missed nothing—the tired vegetables in the shops, the general lack of well-cultivated gardens on the West coast—but especially he wondered why it was that fresh food seemed to play such a small part in the daily menus. ‘All through the Highlands,’ he writes, ‘there were venison, salmon, lobster, crab, wild raspberries, rowanberries, chanterelles—all the most delectable foods. It was all around, but never put in front of you.’”
Steven was still able to find living persons who could indeed remember alternatives: “An elderly lady from the Outer Hebrides who kindly cast her mind back for the benefit of this study to the food of her childhood early this century, recalled that main meals in those days frequently centred around fish of one kind or another—salted herring or mackerel, dried salt fish, shellfish—although mutton, fowls and rabbits were also regular fare. Potatoes still formed a basic part of the food—not infrequently twice in the day—other vegetables apart from turnips being comparatively rare except in broth. Oats, Indian (maize) meal and flour, along with dairy produce, formed the basis of the other meals; puddings were almost exclusively rice and carrageen (purple seaweed); fruit remained as scarce as it had ever been.
“She recollected: ‘The “piece” we carried to school consisted of oatcakes or sometimes scones, with crowdie [curd with butter], treacle or jam. And well I remember how ravenous we always were by the time we had walked the long miles home! A bottle of seal oil always stood on the mantelpiece and we seemed to be given a dose for every kind of ailment.’”
The industrial standardization of food that F. Marian McNeill feared would overtake Scottish cooking spells the death not only of culinary culture, but eventually of the people who once were sustained by their native dietary culture. McNeill refuses to consider defeat, however: “We may rest confident that out of the domestic travail through which our women folk are now passing there will emerge a new delight in the home, and, not least, in the kitchen.
“Lean gu dlùth ri cliù do shinnsre,” says the Gaelic proverb: “Let us follow in the brave path of our ancestors.”
The following instructions for “the one and only” oat porridge, from The Scots Kitchen, are wonderful to contemplate if only for the theatricality of the ritual!
“The halesome parritch, chief o’ Scotia’s food.” –Robert Burns
(The One and Only Method)
Oatmeal, salt, water
“It is advisable to keep a goblet [cast iron cooking pot] exclusively for porridge.
Allow for each person one breakfastcupful of water, a handful of oatmeal (about an ounce and a quarter), and a small saltspoon of salt. Use fresh spring water and be particular about the quality of the oatmeal. Midlothian oats are reputed to be unsurpassed, but the small Highland oats are very sweet.
Bring the water to the boil and as soon as it reaches boiling-point add the oatmeal, letting it fall in a steady rain from the left hand and stirring it briskly the while with the right, sunwise, or the right-hand turn for luck—and convenience. A porridge-stick, called a spurtle, and in some parts a theevil, or, as in Shetland, a gruel-tree, is used for this purpose. Be careful to avoid lumps, unless the children clamour for them. When the porridge is boiling steadily, draw the mixture to the side and put on the lid. Let it cook for from twenty to thirty minutes according to the quality of the oatmeal, and do not add the salt, which has a tendency to harden the meal and prevent its swelling, until it has cooked for at least ten minutes. On the other hand, never cook porridge without salt. Ladle straight into cold porringers or soup-plates and serve with individual bowls of cream, or milk, or buttermilk. Each spoonful of porridge, which should be very hot, is dipped in the cream or milk, which should be quite cold, before it is conveyed to the mouth.”
The traditional Scots seasoning for porridge is only salt; sugar, as used by the English, was early on considered “deplorable.”
Traditions in Porridge Preparation
The old Scottish preparation of sowans resembles almost precisely the ancient Russian dish called oat kissel (pronounced “kee-SYELL”)—made from whole oats, which also produced a smooth, soured gel that was understood to be easily digested and especially nourishing for children, the elderly and convalescents. This complex method of preparation was certainly a means to address all of the components in grain that have been a challenge for the human digestive anatomy.
Oats contain more phytates than almost any other grain—in fact their high phosphorus content is largely bound up in their phytates. At the same time, oats possess relatively small amounts of phytase, the enzyme needed to neutralize phytate. The usual means to reduce phytate content in wheat or rye—by soaking for eight to twelve hours in a warm, slightly acid medium—is far less effective with oats. Germination and/or fermentation are the means to best convert phytate in oats. The old, traditional harvest methods provided natural opportunities for the oats to start and stop germination after harvest in their ripening and storage out doors, when in contact with light applications of dew or rain. The scythed sheaves first stood in the fields for days or even weeks until the crop was fully harvested. The sheaves were then collected and expertly piled in large, twenty-foot tall stacks and lashed down with ropes against wind, rain and snow. Of course it would be a disaster if the oats were actually to sprout fully before they were needed, but it seems likely that natural conditions allowed for some conversion of phytates while in storage. Drying in the kiln removed excess moisture and allowed for better milling and removal of the outer hull. The “sids” that the miller returned to the Scots farmer would contain most of the phytate still present in the oat groat—as it is contained in greatest concentration in the bran. The very long souring process—a week or more on average—would give the sids the time they needed to ferment, while also converting the gluten, starches and sugars into a nearly pre-digested form.
Another common preparation of oat porridge in the Scottish kitchen included the farm wife cooking a large pot of porridge early in the week that would be poured into the drawer of the kitchen cupboard and left to cool and congeal. All week, family members would cut a slice to take with them to the fields and eat cold under its new name, calders. Certainly the calders soured pleasantly as the days went by. Slices were also fried in butter to accompany fish or eggs.
“Whey-whullions,” according to The Scots Kitchen, was “formerly a common dish among the peasantry of Scotland, consisting of the porridge left at breakfast, which was beaten down among fresh whey, with an additional quantity of oatmeal.”
Although one finds numerous references to the old tradition of soaking the oatmeal overnight before making breakfast porridge, there are just as numerous old methods that do not employ a pre-soaking stage. In particular, the preparation of brose is a very early version of “quick oats” if there ever was one: “Put into a bowl two handfuls of oatmeal. Add salt and a piece of butter. Pour in boiling water to cover the oatmeal and stir it up with the shank of a horn spoon, allowing it to form knots. [The oatmeal inside the knots is raw.] Sup with soor dook [buttermilk] or sweet milk, and you have a dish that has been the backbone of many a sturdy Scotsman.”
Milk brose is made similarly, except with boiling milk instead of water, and sometimes the liquid left from boiling kail was used to prepare kail-brose. At one time servants in straitened circumstances had to make do with plain brose three times a day, with perhaps pease-meal brose or turnip brose on a Sunday and not much else. A skin ailment called Scotch fiddle was also common at this time, so called because of the constant itching between the fingers of the sufferer. Whether this was a kind of dermatitis or eczema brought about by an excessive near-raw oat diet, or a deficiency symptom because of a general lack of nutrients, or even scabies mites from cramped and abject living quarters is now difficult to tell. At the time, the cure was to stop eating oats and subsist on pease porridge until the skin cleared.
NETTLE KAIL [BROTH]
“If they would eat nettles in March
And drink mugwort in May,
So many fine maidens
Would not go to the clay.”
Funeral song for a Scottish mermaid.
“This simple but delicious soup is associated especially with the month of March, when nettles are young and fresh and the black March cockerel [young rooster] is exactly a year old, with young and tender flesh . . . . In the old days, March time was tonic time, and it was believed that nettle kail—taken three times during the month, sometimes on three consecutive days—purified the blood, cleared the complexion, and in general, ensured good health for the ensuing year.
A year-old cockerel, young nettles, oat or barley meal, butter, salt, pepper, wild garlic or onion, water.
Gather a sufficient quantity of young nettles—it is advisable to wear gloves. Strip off the young, tender leaves at the top, discarding the coarser ones, and wash in several changes of salted water. Dry in a clean cloth and chop finely, unless the leaves are very small. Put the dressed and stuffed bird (see below) into the kail-pot with two quarts of cold water. Bring slowly to the boil, and add the nettles—about three-quarters of a pint—and a handful of oat or barley meal, stirring well. Add salt to taste, a good pat of butter, and a little wild garlic or onion. Simmer until the bird is tender, then season the kail to taste.
For the stuffing, rub a piece of butter into twice its weight in oatmeal or barley meal, or substitute finely chopped suet for the butter. Season with salt, pepper and a little wild garlic. Mix the ingredients well and stuff the bird. Insert a skewer in the opening.
Nettles make an excellent substitute for spinach in early spring.”
Common Fish Dishes from The Scots Kitchen
To Fry Herring in the Scots Fashion
Wha’ll buy my caller [fresh] herrin’?
They’re bonnie fish and dainty fairin’
Wha’ll buy my caller herrin’
New drawn frae the Forth?
—Lady Nairne: Caller Herrin’
Fresh herring, oatmeal, pepper, salt, dripping
“Cleanse, dry and trim the herring. Score across slantwise in two or three places on each side. Sprinkle with pepper and salt and toss in coarse oatmeal on a sheet of kitchen paper until they are thoroughly coated. An ounce of oatmeal and the same quantity of dripping should be allowed for every two herring. Make the dripping smoking hot in a frying-pan and brown the herring nicely on both sides, allowing them from ten to fifteen minutes. Drain on paper and serve very hot. They may be garnished with parsley and cut lemon. In Buchan, vinegar and oatcakes are considered the perfect accompaniment to this dish.”
Crappit (Stuffed) Heids
Formerly a favorite supper dish all over Scotland.
Heads of haddock, forcemeat
“The original Scots farce was simply oatmeal, minced suet or butter, pepper, salt, and onions made into a coarse forcemeat for stuffing the heads of haddock and whiting. Modern crappit heads are farced with the fleshy parts of a boiled lobster or crab, minced, a boned anchovy, the chopped yolk of an egg, grated bread or pounded biscuit, white pepper, salt, cayenne, a large piece of butter broken down into bits, with beat eggs to bind, and a little oyster liquor. A plainer and perhaps as suitable stuffing may be made of the roe of haddock or cod parboiled, skinned and minced, mixed with double its bulk of pounded rusks or bread-crumbs, a good piece of butter, shred parsley, and seasonings, with an egg to cement the forcemeat. Place the crappit heads on end in the bottom of a buttered stew-pan, pour the fish-soup gently over them, cover and boil a half-hour.”
Crappit Heids from the Isle of Lewis
The heads and livers of fresh haddock, oatmeal, pepper, salt, milk
“Chop the livers, which must be perfectly fresh, mix them with an equal quantity of raw oatmeal, add pepper and salt, and bind with the milk. Stuff the heads with this mixture, and boil them with the fish. The liquor makes good stock for fish soup.
A similar stuffing is made with cods’ livers, but the body, not the head, is stuffed, through the gullet.”
Mrs. Dods/Mrs. Johnson preferred her fish to be “ripened” for two days or more, as fresh fish was considered “harsh”—this last a Scots predilection of the time for slightly “high” fish dishes. Two descriptions follow.
“These are fish heads rolled in a cloth and put into the crevice of a stone wall, where they are left until they acquire a gamey flavour. They are then cooked—usually roasted—and are eaten with butter and potatoes.”
This description is attributed to the early twentieth-century English naturalist and author Harry Mortimer Batten: “Skate are placed on damp grass and covered with sods for a day or two. They are too tough if eaten fresh, but seasoned for just the right time they are the most excellent breakfast dish I know. And they make very good soup. . . . Skate must be fried or baked and served with the skin on, never boiled. . . . Skate are said not to take salt. They are frequently hung up unsalted and eaten ‘high’—an acquired taste—as in the Island of Lewis.”
Cheese in Scotland
The Scots have made cheeses since time immemorial, and although they never matched the inventiveness and variety of the French, their cheeses have been an important and loved food for generations. Here is a recipe for a fresh curd cheese that was often made especially for children.
(An old Highland Recipe)
Buttermilk, new milk, sugar, nutmeg, double cream
“Warm two quarts of buttermilk slightly at milking time. Carry the vessel to the side of a cow and milk into it a pint of milk. Stir well. At the next milking, add another pint and stir again. Let it stand till it firms and gathers a hat. Remove the curd, place it on a hair sieve, and press the whey through till the curd is stiff. Put into a mould and leave for half an hour. Turn out and strew with sugar and nutmeg, and serve with thick cream.”
Crowdie or Cruddy Butter
“Crowdie” is another common farmstead cheese product—”crowdie” derives from Old Gaelic for “curd.” In good times, oatcakes were adorned with thick coatings of crowdie.
“In Iverness and the Ross shires there is a rural breakfast article called crowdie, not the common composition, oatmeal and water or milk, but made thus: Take two parts fresh sweet-milk curd and one of fresh butter. Work them well together and press them in a basin or small shape and turn it out, when it will slice nicely. When whey is much used for drink in hot weather the curd may be usefully thus disposed of. It is eaten with bread and butter and keeps a long time, if goût is liked. This preparation, when the curd is well broken and blended with the butter, is sometimes made up in wooden moulds and kept for months, when it becomes very high flavoured though mellow.”
(Traditional Cottage Recipe)
The large stomach bag of a sheep, the pluck (including heart, lungs and liver) beef suet, pin-head oatmeal, onions, black pepper, salt, stock
Brown and birstle (dry or toast) a breakfastcupful of oatmeal before the fire or in the oven. Clean the great bag thoroughly, washing it first in cold water and then, after turning it inside out, scalding and scraping it with a knife; then let it soak overnight in cold salted water. In the morning put it aside with the rough side turned out. Wash the pluck well and put on to boil covered with cold water, letting the windpipe hang over the side of the pot to let out any impurities.
Let it boil for an hour and a half, then take it out and cut away the pipes and any superfluities of gristle. Mince the heart and lungs and grate half the liver. (The rest of the liver is not required.) Put them in a basin with half a pound of minced suet, two medium-sized onions finely chopped, and the toasted oatmeal, and season highly with black pepper and salt. (A pinch of cayenne, say some housewives, ‘makes all the difference.’) Over the whole pour, preferably when cold, as much of the liquid in which the pluck was boiled (or, better still, good stock) as will make the mixture sappy.
Fill the stomach bag rather more than half full—say five-eighths—as it requires plenty of room to swell. Sew it up securely and place it on an enamel plate in a pot of boiling water (to which half a pint of milk is often added), or, better still, boil it in stock. As soon as it begins to swell, prick it all over with a large needle to prevent its bursting. Boil steadily, without the lid, for three hours, adding boiling water as required to keep the haggis covered. Serve very hot without any garnish.
The usual accompaniments are mashed potatoes and mashed turnips or, better still, the two mashed together with a good piece of dripping.
Traditional Meat Dishes from the Scots Kitchen
(Old Family Recipe)
Ox head, ox foot, salt, pepper, cayenne, mustard, bay leaf, mace, cloves or allspice or nutmeg, water
Soak half an ox head and a foot for a few hours. Break them up into several pieces. Remove from the foot as much of the fat and marrow as possible. Scald head and foot with boiling water and, when cool enough, scrape and clean them thoroughly. Put them into a large saucepan, plentifully covered with cold water, and add two tablespoons of salt. Bring this very slowly to the boil, skim carefully, and let it simmer for three hours. Take out the head and foot and remove all the best meat from them. Return the bones to the pan, adding more water if there is not enough to cover them. Add a bay leaf, a blade of mace, and a very few cloves, if liked. Let this simmer for two or three hours longer. Strain into a basin and put aside till it gets cold. There should be at least eight breakfast-cupfuls of liquid. Next day (or sooner) remove all the fat from the top of the stock, which should now be a jelly. Trim and chop the meat and put it into a clean saucepan with the stock. Let this simmer for fifteen or twenty minutes. Add half a teaspoon of mustard, the same of allspice or nutmeg if cloves have not been used, and season rather highly with pepper and cayenne. Pour into wetted moulds and put in a cool place to set. Turn out and serve with salad.
To Dress a Sheep’s Head
O Lord, when hunger pinches sore,
Do Thou stand us in stead
And send us, from Thy bounteous store,
A tup or wether head.
—Robert Burns: A Grace
The head, after singeing, should be boiled long and gently, as for Powsowdie (see below) along with the trotters. It is then split and laid flat on a large ashet [serving tray] with the trotters around it, the tongue sliced, and, if liked, balls of yolk of egg. The dish is garnished with sliced vegetables—carrots, turnips and onions—that have been cooked in the broth. Parsley or brain sauce may be served with it.
Powsowdie or Sheep’s Head Broth
(Pow = head; sowdie = sodden, or boiled)
Sheep’s head and trotters, mutton, barley, peas, carrots, turnips, onions, parsley, salt, pepper, water
Choose a large, fat, young head. When carefully singed by the blacksmith, soak it and the singed trotters for a night, if you please, in lukewarm water. Take out the glassy part of the eyes, scrape the head and trotters, and brush till perfectly clean and white; then split the head with a cleaver, and lay aside the brains, clean the nostrils and gristly parts, split also the trotters, and cut out the tendons. Wash the head and feet once more, and let them blanch till wanted for the pot.
Take a large cupful of barley, and about twice that quantity of soaked white (dried) or fresh green peas, with a gallon or rather more of water. Put to this the head, and from two to three pounds of scrag [bony parts of the neck] or trimmings of mutton, perfectly sweet, and some salt. Take off the scum very carefully as it rises and the broth will be limpid and white as any broth made of beef or mutton. When the head has boiled rather more than an hour, add sliced carrot and turnip, and afterwards some onions and parsley shred. A head or two of celery sliced is admired by some modern gourmands, though we would rather approve of the native flavour of this really excellent soup. The more slowly the head is boiled, the better both the meat and the broth be. From two to three hours’ boiling, according to the size of the head and the age of the animal, and an hour’s simmering by the side of the fire, will finish the soup. Many prefer the head of a ram [tup] to that of a wether [castrated sheep], but it requires longer boiling. In either case the trotters require less boiling than the head. Serve with the trotters and sliced carrots round the head.
McNeill supplies the following helpful home-preparation notes: “To singe the head at home, hold it over the fire, and as the wool singes scrub the burnt wool off with a knife; then hold the head over the fire and repeat until all the wool has been singed and rubbed off. Finally, go over the whole head carefully with a hot iron or poker until no trace of wool is left.” It is said that the reason why the head was so tender in the old days was that the blacksmith’s boys played football with it! “The decay of the smiddy [blacksmith’s shop] has sadly reduced the popularity of this excellent soup.”
Two Recipes for Fowls
(A luncheon soup which may be a legacy of the Auld Alliance.)
Fowl, ham, celery, onion, thyme, parsley, mace, salt, eggs, cream.
Take a fresh fowl; joint and let the pieces soak for half an hour in cold water to which you have added a dessertspoonful of salt, then wash it well under the tap and put it into a stew-pan with a slice of ham, a stick of celery cut small, a sliced onion, thyme, parsley and a bit of mace. Cover with a quart of cold water, put the lid on, and bring it to the boil; then draw it to the side and let it cook gently for an hour and a half; strain, and immediately clear off all the grease with paper. Put it into another stew-pan and add a dessertspoonful of chopped parsley and a ladleful of first stock. Let it heat up for fifteen minutes and add the minced white meat of the fowl. Remove from the fire, stir in three strained yolks of egg and a dessertspoonful of warmed cream. Pour into a heated tureen.
MacNeill believes that “fowlie” is a corruption of volaille, and “feather” of velouté —”the more so as the soup bears a strong resemblance to the French velouté de volaille.”
A cock or plump fowl, leeks, prunes, Jamaica pepper, salt, veal or beef stock
Cut off the roots and part of the heads of two or three bunches of leeks and wash thoroughly. Truss the fowl and place in a large pot with three or four of the leeks, blanched and chopped, and two quarts of good stock. Bring to the boil and cook gently for two hours or longer, until the fowl is tender, when it should be removed. Clear off all the grease with paper. Add the remainder of the leeks, blanched, with more salt, if required, and Jamaica pepper to taste. Simmer very gently until the leeks are tender. Half an hour before serving, add a dozen or so of prunes, unbroken. Remove the skin and bones from the fowl and mince the white meat fine and place in a tureen with the soup.
(Note courtesy of Meg Dods: “The soup must be very thick of leeks, and the first part of these must be boiled down into the soup until it becomes a lubricious compound.”)
- Robinson, Solon, How to Live, Saving or Wasting, or Domestic Economy Illustrated, 1860
- McClure, Victor, Scotland’s Inner Man, 1935.
- Gastrologue, The Scotsman Magazine, c. 1920.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2009.🖨️ Print post