Tour Scotland
Home Page


Good Scots Diet

In view of the fact that magnificent breakfasts seem to have been the norm among the wealthier people of Scotland, it comes as something of a disappointment to find that this does not at all seem to have been true of her inns. To quote Henry Graham in The Social Life of Scotland :

" In consequence of the small number of passengers on the roads in those days of bad travelling, the inns of Scotland were miserable in the extreme. The Englishman, as he saw the servants without shoes or stockings, as he looked at the greasy tables without a cover, and saw the butter thick with cow-hairs, the coarse meal served without a knife and fork, so that he had to use his fingers or a clasp-knife, the one glass or tin handed round the company from mouth to mouth, his gorge rose."

" With pitiless monotony, day by day and month by month, families patiently subsisted until the cattle, having returned to pasture, were restored to health, and they could get fresh beef again. Besides this stale diet there were the 'kain hens', which formed part of the laird's rent from his tenants, food which became no less intolerably tiresome to the palate. Vegetables were not served on table, potatoes and turnips being almost unattainable; and the 'neeps' or parsnips or greens were only used as ingredients in the kail. Sweets there were
none: dessert was unknown.

The profligate hospitality of the era is summed up thus by Graham: " The spirit of those old days was eminently hospitable, and exuberantly hearty. Neighbours were wont to come, without sending word, on horseback; and in the effusiveness of hospitality there was shown a 'pressing' of guests to stay, which it was a meanness to omit and offence to resist. The bashful ate till full to repletion; the amiable and obsequious fed in meek compliance; the stalwart only dared to refuse, and the prudent saved themselves by keeping something always on their plate. Then, as always, were the inevitable dishes, broth, beef and hens."

Henry Graham in The Social Life of Scotland also says:

" Other things had changed in the social condition of the people, and had changed mostly for the better. The fare was no longer restricted to the monotonous oat and barley bread in all its forms. In the kailyard, there was no longer a meagre supply of vegetables, chiefly cabbage and greens; but turnips, carrots, potatoes and many others in which they took pride and loved to cultivate, along with the currant and goose-berry bushes, and roses, and beloved peppermint. The use of these had, it was said, a markedly favourable effect upon the health of the peasantry.

Good Scot's Diet by Guy Mannering: " Two fowls, a huge piece, of cold beef-ham, eggs, butter, cakes, and barley-meal bannocks in plenty, diluted with home brewed ale of
excellent quality, and a case-bottle of brandy."

Also by Guy Mannering: " The present store-farmers of the south of Scotland are a much more refined race than their fathers, without losing the rural simplicity of manners, they now cultivate arts unknown to the former generation, not only in the progressive improvement of their possessions, but in all the comforts of life. Their houses are more commodious, and the best of luxuries, the luxury of knowledge, has gained much ground. Deep drinking, formerly their greatest failing, is now fast losing ground; and, while the frankness of their extensive hospitality continues the same, it is, generally speaking, refined in its character, and restrained in its excesses."

Dr Johnson, although not given to undue appreciation or praise of the general run of Scottish food, had some flattering things to say about the breakfasts. " Not long after the dram may be expected the breakfast, a meal at which the Scots, whether of the Lowlands or mountains, must be confessed to excel us. The tea and coffee are accompanied not only with butter, but with honey, conserves, and marmalades. If an epicure could remove by a wish, in quest of sensual gratifications, wherever he had supped he would breakfast in Scotland."

Dr Samuel Johnson, in 1773, comments upon the absence of yeast bread in Scotland. " Their native bread," he observes, "is made of oats or barley. Of oatmeal they spread very thin cakes, coarse and hard, to which unaccustomed palates are not easily reconciled." The learned doctor continues: " The barley cakes are thicker and softer; I began to eat them without unwillingness; the blackness of their colour raises some dislike, but the taste is not disagreeable. In most houses there is wheat flour, with which we were sure to be treated, if we staid long enough to have it kneaded and baked. As neither yeast nor leaven is used among them their bread of every kind is unfermented. They make only cakes, and never mould a loaf. "

Inevitably a wide range of regional milk dishes evolved around the country, incorporating not only milk itself but also cream, buttermilk, whey and curds. Milk was either drunk on its own or used with porridge and brose, or at times added to broths; cereal puddings did not become popular till the nineteenth century. Dr Johnson, writing of the Hebrides, observes: " A dinner in the Western Islands differs very little from a dinner in England, except that in the place of tarts, there are always set preparations of milk. This part of their diet will stand some improvement. Though they have milk and eggs, and sugar, few of them know how to compound them into a custard."

It should not be forgotten that a considerable proportion of the barley used would have been incorporated in broth, always a popular dish in the Highlands especially. Somewhat surprisingly, we find that this was an item which found great favour with Samuel Johnson. Boswell writes: " At dinner Dr Johnson ate several platefuls of Scotch broth with pease in them, and was very fond of the dish. I said, "you never ate it before, sir." "No, sir, but I don't care how soon I eat it again."

James Boswell waxes most eloquent upon the breakfast provided in the Chief's residence on the island of Raasay. After an early morning drink of goat's whey, he partook of an excellent breakfast: " as good chocolate as I ever tasted, tea, bread and butter, marmalade and jelly. There was no loaf bread, but very good scones, or cakes of flour baked with butter, there were also barley-bannocks of this year's meal, and, what I cannot help disliking to have at breakfast, cheese. It is the custom all over the Highlands to have it; and it often smells very strong, and poisons to a certain degree the elegance of an Indian breakfast."

Memoirs of a Highland Lady. " At this time in the Highlands of Scotland we were so remote from markets we had to depend very much on our own produce for most of the necessaries of life. Our flocks and herds supplied us not only with the chief part of our food, but with fleeces to be wove into clothing, blanketing, and carpets, horn for spoons, leather to be dressed at home for various purposes, hair for the masons. We brewed our own beer, made our bread, made our candles; nothing was brought from afar but wine, groceries, and flour, wheat not ripening well so high above the sea. Yet we lived in luxury, game was so plentiful, red-deer, roe, hares, grouse, ptarmigan, and partridge; the river provided trout and salmon, the different lochs pike and char; the garden abounded in common fruit and common vegetables; cranberries and raspberries ran over the country, and the poultry-yard was ever well furnished. The regular routine of business, where so much was done at home, was really a perpetual amusement. I used to wonder when travellers asked my mother if she did not find her life dull."

Return To Scottish Cooking

Tour Scotland
Tour Edinburgh
Tour Island Of Skye

Rent A Self Catering Hoilday Cottage In Scotland

Share This Tour Scotland Web Page

Top Destinations
Tour Europe