The cuisine of the people of Scotland has long been a self-deprecating joke about deep fried food, a loathing of anything green and all washed down with any liquid on the yellow to brown spectrum. Though you only need to dig beneath the surface of modern day Scotland and take a step back through the history of our forefathers and you will find that Scottish cuisine is an eclectic mix of cultural, topographical and seasonal influences.
To understand Scottish food, one first has to understand the landscape, people and history of the nation. Scotland is a rugged land split into three by nature where over 80% of the population squeeze into less than 10% of the land mass. The Highlands to the north evoke thoughts of a prehistoric landscape with mountains of some of the oldest rock on earth punctuating heather filled glens and interspersed by fast flowing rivers and deep lochs. Historically covered by woodland, the forests are now largely manmade but still home to a multitude of wildlife, with an unforgiving environment in the west contrasted with perfect farming land in the east.
Separating the Highlands from the gentler farmland of the Southern Uplands is the Central Lowlands. By far the most populous area and bisected like an artery by the rivers Clyde and Forth, the placid landscape of this area over time became home to the country’s two largest cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Surrounded on three sides by seas and oceans and with innumerable islands to the west coast, with Orkney and Shetland to the north, the bounty of the sea is equally part of the Scottish culinary map as that of the land. Both sea and freshwater, play a huge part in Scottish life and always have; just as well as there is a plentiful supply always on hand from the sky. Home to a wonderfully descriptive tongue, many a Scot will curse a ‘dreich’ day as impermeable greyness descends. However with typically wry humour the observation of today’s rain being tomorrow’s whisky is often noted.
The story of Scotland and its cuisine is one of indigenous peoples, of invaders both benign and aggressive, of military alliance and conquest and of mass economic immigration from overseas. The cuisine of Scotland is not so much defined by a flavour or a style, but by the natural and plentiful produce that the land and seas provide and the many different people who shape the ethnic makeup of the modern nation.
The ‘Scots’ as a nation have always seemed to be those who lived with the seasons and off what nature provided. In the Mesolithic period long before the Scots were ever classified as such, the various tribes that lived on this land were largely hunter gatherers, living off wild animals and fishing the seas and rivers, gathering fruits, nuts and plants. As far back as 9000BC there is evidence of large scale hazelnut processing on the island of Colonsay off the west coast. Around 4000BC these nomadic hunters began to settle, clear the forests to plant cereals and farm sheep and cattle to supplement their hunting and fishing, and this lifestyle remained a constant and largely still is. When the Vikings invaded in the 8th century they brought with them many of the methods that are synonymous with Scotland and Scandinavia to this day such as smoking, salting, curing and pickling.
The ‘Auld Alliance’ with France in 1295 that would last over 250 years brought much more than just armed assistance to Scotland. The food and wine flavours of that country would last within the Scottish cuisine and in the Scottish dialect far longer than the armed support of our Gallic cousins. Cooking terms and traditional Scottish dishes such as ashet, stovies, hotch potch, collops and gigot are all derived from French. Surely Charles de Gaulle’s thanks to the nation in an Edinburgh address ‘what Frenchmen feel is that no people has ever been more generous than yours with its friendship’ must be reciprocated in so many ways.
At the time of the Highland Clearances in the latter part of the 18th century a nation of people were brutally forced onto ships bound for the New World to make way for more lucrative sheep farming. Those who remained found themselves on small strips of infertile coastal land and the sea offered the only hope; fisherman from these villages started leaving home in search of herring, a small oily fish which was found in huge quantities. A very difficult and oppressive period in Scottish history, the tales of fishing for herring were told in both prose and verse, with Neil M. Gunn’s seminal work The Silver Darlings telling of the life around the times on the seas chasing the shoals of herring and avoiding being press ganged into the navy. Back on shore the fishwives went to work gutting sixty herring a minute. To preserve they were salted in great barrels for transporting to the cities or smoked into kippers, a delicacy most commonly associated with Loch Fyne on the west coast. This industry would continue to support these communities until the advent of World War I.
Salmon was also a mainstay from the 1700s onwards and was largely seen as a peasant food due to the quantities in which wild salmon was available; in fact there was legislation in place to prevent employers feeding their employees salmon too often. How times change as the wild salmon declined to terrifyingly low numbers through overfishing and disease and fishing for wild salmon on rivers like the Tweed is now strictly controlled. In Edinburgh around this time oysters were another tremendously popular fruit of the sea, being sold in thousands in the many oyster cellars around the old town, washed down with porter. This passion for seafood has not waned in the intervening years, with shellfish found plentifully on the west coast in particular. Hand dived scallops and langoustines are highly prized on tables both at home and on the continent from these clean, crisp and icy cold waters where the sea lochs become the Atlantic Ocean, whilst squats and lobsters add to the array of species found in Scottish coastal waters. Crabs are also found in great numbers around islands like Mull and a visit to any west coast fishing village will see creels piled up, the worn and weathered intricacy of the ropes that hold the prized crustacean in place silently speaking of a harsh life at sea.
The historical bearing of Scotland’s traditional produce and way of life still shapes much of what could be defined as Scottish cuisine. Aberdeen Angus, and Scotch Beef are still famous around the world and synonymous with quality; while in many areas the traditional native breeds of sheep, such as the oldest, the tiny Soay, are still valued for their rich flavour, a fleece, which is rolled rather than shorn, and a conservationist approach to grazing. Venison, long seen as the food only of the aristocracy from feudal times when the common man would’ve been forbidden ‘to take one from the hill’ is becoming more mainstream in consumption. Indeed with the bear and wolf being hunted to extinction and their traditional forest homes being destroyed, man is now the only hunter of the animal which has become known as the Monarch of the glen, the Red Deer, which moved from the forest to the heather filled countryside. Moving from four legs to two and the grouse is still seen as the ultimate prize when it comes to Scottish game. A shy little bird reared on heather moors from August 12th each year they literally become fair game and their rich flavour appears on menus worldwide.
When you think of crop farming in Scotland oats are what spring instantly to mind. A cereal seemingly made for the sometimes harsh, and frequently wet Scottish climate, oats and oatmeal would have been the staple of the average Scot for several centuries. Versatile and high in protein it was mixed with water or milk and possibly salt to make porridge and eaten several times a day. To enable those who worked the land to carry their meal with them the oatmeal and oats were mixed with fat and cooked on a girdle over an open fire to make oatcakes that provided a much needed energy boost whilst out on mountain or glen. However barley farming was, and still is, also widespread and this cereal is the basis of the famous Scotch Broth, a nurturing soup made with mutton and vegetables, as well as the water of life itself, whisky. Scotland is also blessed with a perfect climate for soft fruit farming. In Perthshire and Angus especially you will find many a fruit farm where children will get their first experience of gathering their own food as they pick their own strawberries, raspberries and currants. Raspberries especially thrive and it is no surprise that their tart sweetness finds itself in Scotland’s national dessert of cranachan alongside oatmeal, whisky and heather honey. A true treat in summer when the short 6-8 week fruit season appears and the flesh of this red berry is succulent and ripe. Further evidence of seasonal eating of the Scots is the countrywide habit of foraging for wild berries, with brambles that grow unchecked along hedgerows and forest paths a favourite. Many a Scottish child remembers making jam and jelly at their mothers shoulder, waiting for the warm jam to set to have on a ‘piece’ of bread, maybe butter and the sweet sticky fruit preserve.
Since the end of the 19th century the largest influence in changing the ways the Scots viewed flavours and food has been through immigration. Perhaps there has not been a huge influence of Jewish cooking on the flavours of Scotland but from 1870 – 1910 there was a large migration of Jews from the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Russia. Arriving via Hull and Grimsby they settled in the Gorbals area of Glasgow in particular where the main railway station was at that time. Mainly moving further south within the city to Giffnock and Mearns you find Jewish delis and restaurants selling dishes such as cholent and borscht with gefilte fish and Jewish chicken soup prevalent on many a Scottish table as Sabbath approaches.
An even bigger influence of mass migration around that time was that from Italy. Following unification in 1861 millions of Italians left to escape intense poverty and war, with many Italians settling in Scotland, mostly Tuscans who settled in Glasgow and those from Lazio who favoured Edinburgh. Scots-Italians have come to prominence in every walk of life in Scotland from arts and law to sport, but in the early 1900s it was food that was the main outlet for many Italian immigrants. By 1905, there were over 300 Italian cafes in Glasgow alone, it would therefore be fair to say that Italians made the ‘fish supper’ what it is in Scotland today, serving pesce e patate to a hungry population. Even today most towns and cities in Scotland, especially in the central belt will still have an ‘Italian chippy’. The other great addition to the cuisine of the Scots from Italy was ice cream, especially the hand churned milky white vanilla that no seaside visit would be complete without.
In modern day Scotland, Italian culture still has a huge influence, with Italian restaurants, pizzerias and delicatessens still retaining their popularity with a population beginning to see past the pasta and pizza that would have been ubiquitous in years gone by. Likewise Scots-Italian proprietors are looking to the native produce such as venison and langoustines, bringing Scottish influence to Italian food, through both the produce and the adaptation of traditional recipes to the Scottish palate; Carbonara cooked traditionally without cream would not go down well with a large percentage of Scots.
In the 1950s and 1960s in response to appeals from the UK government to citizens of the Commonwealth there was mass migration from the Indian subcontinent, with a huge number of people from partitioned India and the new nation of Pakistan travelling to the cities of Scotland looking for work and a new life. It was natural for these new immigrants to bring the cuisine of home with them and soon heady spice was becoming the norm in Scottish cities. Over the intervening years the development of these flavours as well as their place within the Scottish psyche has changed.
In Scotland now while you will find the ‘traditional’ heavier curries in many establishments, some of which have existed from the 1970s and 1980s, there is a new wave of people who holiday in India and crave the tastes they experience on the subcontinent once home. Therefore lighter, fresher, more fragrant dishes are starting to appear, with dishes changing over the past twenty years to develop more of an authentic homely feel to them. In the 21st Century authenticity is key for many. As well as the influence of spice on the Scottish palate the produce of Scotland has also had a happy marriage with these heady flavours. As well as the development of chicken and lamb traditionally seen in India, and in Pakistan especially, the Scottish staples of haddock and salmon are a common feature as well as more unique ingredients like haggis and smoked haddock. It is symptomatic of the extent of the Scottish larder that the influence between spice and produce would not be all one way.
However it is not only in restaurants and takeaways that you will find South Asian influence. There must be very few Scots home cooks who do not have a curry or two within their repertoire or who would not have a Tandoori marinade for chicken when the coals are lit on the summer barbecue. Spice from South Asia like cumin and cardamom are finding themselves into mainstream Scottish cooking and coriander has replaced parsley as a finishing herb for many a chef and cook when making a Cullen skink or venison stew.
It is not only through inward migration that tastes and aromas of the sub-continent have entered the Scottish palate. Many regiments of the British Army marched proudly from Highland glens and Lowland cities to the four corners of the world, as did Christian missionaries and those just seeking land and adventure in the New World, discovering many flavours that Scotland has now adopted.
The Scots of the post-war era, certainly up until the eighties, seem to have lived off that old proviso that cheap and comforting was best. My own reminiscences of childhood meals in the west of Scotland were of mince and tatties, homemade soup and steak pie on ‘Ne’erday’ (New Years Day). In fact a straw poll of eating habits from around the country found that most who had grown up in the seventies and eighties fondly remembered the meal of minced beef stewed with gravy salt, onions and carrots served with a big dollop of mashed potatoes. If Scotland had a national dish to speak of at that time then surely this was it, largely due to the economics of eating. Mince made from cheaper cuts like skirt went a lot further than more expensive cuts and was well bulked up with water, readily available root vegetables and even rice therefore a whole family could be fed relatively cheaply whilst still satisfying the Scots urge for meat and potatoes.
Whilst eating habits seemed to be similar countrywide, regional variations were also evident. Depending on the local catch, delicacies such as Arbroath smokies (hot smoked haddock), Cullen skink (cold smoked haddock and potato soup) and crabs all featured highly in coastal communities, while hunting for spoots (razor clams) and seaweed was another common pastime along the coast. Steak pie and stewed sausages were more prevalent inland within the big cities whilst the influence from overseas saw kedgeree, a rice dish with smoked haddock and spice based on kitchiri and brought back by Scottish soldiers during the British Raj; pakoras, and spaghetti Bolognese beginning to exert an influence.
With a history of consuming what the land provides in terms of produce, with simple, basic earthy flavours; in contrast, modern day Scotland is an eclectic melting pot of tastes, aromas and cooking styles. Heavily influenced by migrants and travel, the cuisine has been injected with different spice, seasoning and culinary habits. Scottish food has hence developed a cosmopolitan feel. However in terms of what is eaten the geography of the country and its climate still plays a huge role. Beef is still seen as the primary source of animal protein closely followed by lamb while stewing, long slow cooking and roasting are still viewed as preferred cooking methods by many. White fish makes up the bulk of the fish eaten along with the contentious farmed salmon. However in a throwback to our forefathers shellfish, mackerel and herring are beginning to make a comeback. Furred and feathered game, whilst not finding mass popularity, are abundant in the wild. With the landscape, climate and island status of the nation still hugely influential in what is grown, reared, swims and flies, the socio-economic aspect notwithstanding, Scotland in the 21st century is truly a cosmopolitan land of plenty.