Traditional Scottish Food – an introduction

Scotland has one of the best natural larders in the world. It has never really been a secret. Prehistoric man knew it thousands of years ago. The sea provided them with fish, cockles, clams, oysters, limpets, mussels and prawns while the forests offered deer, wild boar and other game. Having cleared the land, the first settlers were able to rear domestic animals so adding dairy, beef, pork and lamb to their diet. Crops such as oats and bere, a primitive form of barley, made it possible to make bread and the first homebrew. Traditional Scottish food traits are still present in Scotland today. An essential part of Burns Night and St Andrews Night celebrations as well as regular items in a Scots diet, they help to remind us of the rich history of Scottish cuisine.

As far back as 1400, traditional Scottish food remained simple in its preparation and presentation through the ages with an emphasis on cooked meats, hearty soups, broths and smoked fish dishes with nearly all ingredients sourced locally. Scotch Broth, Black pudding, Haggis, Cullen Skink and other classics may have originated in these times.

French Influence, Potatoes and Whisky Making
In the 16th century a touch of Gallic chic came with the French cooks at Mary Queen of Scots’ court introducing new methods of food preparation including the introduction of rich sauces. The French ‘escalope’ became the Scottish ‘collop’ and ‘Hetoudeau’-a boiling fowl- became the Scottish ‘Howtowdie’. Travel and exploration in later years brought new ingredients to the Scottish kitchen including potatoes, wheat flour, coffee, lemons, spices and precious tea and sugar.

Georgian Influence, Whisky and Claret
In the late 18th century Georgian hostesses entertained in grand style in their new dining rooms. Instead of the usual two large courses of food at dinner, wealthy families now offered guests several smaller courses including soup, fish, game, roast meat, pudding and dessert. Food was richer with more complicated recipes and there was a greater emphasis on cream and sugar in desserts. Until the arrival of the Coffey or Patent still in 1831 which revolutionised whisky-making, claret and brandy would still take pride of place on the Georgian sideboard.

Plain & Healthy, Queen Victoria and Tearooms
While the poor continued to eat plainer and perhaps healthier fare, all classes were soon to acquire a sweet tooth as Scots baking came into its own in the 19th century. The coffee shop gave way to the tearoom laden with pancakes, scones, Dundee Cake, shortbread and small ‘fancies’ or pastries. Queen Victoria endorsed the new trend by taking Selkirk Bannock and tea on a visit to Sir Walter Scott’s daughter at Abbotsford House.

World War II and Digging for Victory
In the 20th century food became a major issue as shortages developed during World War II. Before 1939 the UK imported over 50 million tons of food annually which meant that the country could not be self-sufficient during a war or a sea blockade. A Scotsman, John Raeburn from Kirkcaldy, initiated the famous Dig For Victory campaign which saw all land capable of being cultivated being turned over to food production. In Scotland alone it is estimated that 6000 pigs alongside chickens, rabbits and goats were raised in private gardens with families feeding them food scraps.

Scotland Food & Drink in the 21st Century
Scotland still has the best natural larder in the world and this is being recognised by the many chefs, food critics and journalists who publicise and write about the quality and innovation to be found in Scotland’s food. The growing number of restaurants throughout Scotland and the number of chefs setting up business in Scotland is quite remarkable.

There is still a lot of interest in traditional Scottish food but new ideas and innovations are bringing Scottish cuisine to the fore. Add to that the huge increase in production of artisan production of cheese, meat products, jams and preserves as well as the vibrant drinks industry especially the burgeoning gin distilleries – and we have a food culture that is alive and kicking attracting marketing at home and overseas.

Scotland’s food industry generates sales of over £9 billion and employing around 300,000 people. Food and drink is a diverse industry in Scotland today and a vital part of our economy. Food exports are worth £3.75 billion and Scotland provides 70% of the UK’s fish catch, 40% of the UK’s soft fruits and 25% of the UK’s beef herd. The challenge now is to maximise the potential of that larder by adding value through innovation, new product development and exciting marketing opportunities.

(See also Modern Scottish Cuisine)