The Scots' culinary heritage

We hae meat and we can eat

Some hae meat and canna eat, Some wad eat that want it; But we hae meat, and we can eat, And sae the Lord be thankit. - Robert Burns, The Selkirk Grace

We hae meat, and we have seafood too. Massive rubbish dumps of oyster, mussel, scallop, whelk and limpet shells are the first evidence of enthusiastic Mesolithic seafood-eaters around our coast. Not content with just foraging the Scottish shore, they went on to make hooks for catching fish. It was the start of a long relationship between the Scots and food supplies from the sea that continues today.

Yet every generation faces the question of what’s worth saving and what’s not. We may still have a seafood industry, and can still eat seafood, but are we happy that so much of it is sold to enthusiastic seafood-eaters in other countries?

Were he around today, there’s no doubt how Sir Walter Scott would have voted on this question. He was unhappy to see any of Scotland’s heritage disappearing and, besides campaigning for other causes, he welcomed the publication in 1826 of the first Scottish cookery book to feature native culinary traditions: The Cook and Housewife’s Manual by Mistress Margaret (Meg) Dods. These distinctive food traditions, he argued, should not be allowed to ‘fall into oblivion in our day’.

There’s no doubt either how Florence Marian McNeill would have voted on the seafood question. Born in Orkney in 1885, and one of the first university-educated Scotswomen, she believed there was a cohesive force in folk culture and heritage that defined the identity of a country. In the period between two world wars she wrote The Scots Kitchen (1929), the first history of Scotland’s food with recipes, which provided the evidence, among other things, of the seafood-eating Scots. She argued for saving the best traditions from the past.

But many people living in urban Scotland at this time were hard put to preserve their culinary heritage. Divorced from the sea, the land and its growing seasons, unemployed Dundee fathers – known as kettlebilers – stayed at home while their wives worked in jute factories because they could be paid less than men. For these families, kettles of boiling water for tea replaced the porridge pots of previous times.

Less desperate was the scenario in my grandmother’s cramped tenement kitchen, in similarly deprived urban Glasgow. Despite this, she still practised the art of clever economy cooking, coaxing wonderful flavours and aromas from cheap cuts of meat and vegetables in slow-cooked, meal-in-a-plate broths and stews. She baked on the girdle but never in the oven.

Rural Scots in the period between the wars were also more able to preserve their traditions. Vast geographical differences, from remote islands to fertile lowlands, had created such diverse foods as seaweed-fed mutton, from the isle of North Ronaldsay, and creamy cheeses from lush Ayrshire grasslands. Yet in the second half of the 20th century, nothing was safe from the rise of multiple food retailing, the flood of ready-made meals and the multimillion pound export trade, which continued to remove not just seafood but so much more of the country’s best food assets.

Protesting against these potential downsides have been the current generation of farmers, fishermen, producers, retailers and caterers– dedicated, determined and hardworking visionaries – who each make an important contribution towards the survival of traditional food ways and unique foods of the place. Now their combined effort is gathering momentum.

Compared with a decade ago, interested and culturally aware buyers can find more Scottish foods in the marketplace. There is more seafood at its peak of freshness just after catching; more naturally fed, properly matured native cattle and sheep; more available wild game; more fully sweetened soft fruits, picked at their peak of ripeness; more artisan producers of cheeses, smoked foods and specialist baking; more menus that tell the eater the full provenance of the food; more farmers’ markets, farm shops and specialist retailers; and many more exciting new developments.

On the cooking front, I’m pleased to find my grandmother’s thrifty traditions making a comeback. The porridge pot is back in its rightful place along with economy broths and stews that fit the mood of the times. One Edinburgh butcher has recently reported such a demand for oxtails that he has had to import!

And there are more cooks now who recognise that the intrinsic quality in Scotland’s best beef, lamb, mutton, seafood and game is something to shout about. Rather than smothering with too many added aromas, flavours and textures, they know that good cooking is when good things taste of what they are.

We hae meat and we can cook … so let’s be thankful and vote yes to everything that’s worth saving.

Catherine Brown is an award-winning Scottish food writer and historian. Her book Broths to Bannocks: Cooking in Scotland 1690 to the Present Day has recently been updated and republished by Waverley Books

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