The Borders’ culinary heritage is well documented

The early Scottish cookbooks

The Borders’ culinary heritage is well documented

The Borders’ culinary heritage is well documented thanks to the writings of early Scottish cookbook authors, says food historian Fiona J. Houston

The Scottish Borders may not have been the only cradle of the Scot’s cuisine but they did play a role in establishing the canon of Scots cookery.

Elizabeth Cleland’s New and Easy Method of Cookery of 1755 was one of the first cookery books published in Scotland. She was an Edinburgh lady who set up a cookery school for the daughters of the gentry. Her recipes and techniques reflect the middle class interests of the time. There is a Borders connection. Reproduced by Paxton House to celebrate the refurbishment of their 18th-century kitchen, the book is there for us all. It would otherwise have remained obscure, since only a very few copies had survived.

A second book with a Borders link is the Cook and Housewife’s Manual of 1826 by Mistress Margaret Dods. She was a fiction, the landlady of the Cleikum Inn in Sir Walter Scott’s St Ronan’s Well. The actual author was Mrs Christine Johnstone, the wife of Scott’s publisher. Scott himself had a hand in it, as can be seen in the opening conversation. At the inn, the ‘Cleikum Nabob’ discourses over dinner about cooking through three ages. He starts with the rude methods of the hunter, continues with the pastoral phase with its ‘simple, mild broths, seasoned perhaps wit the herbs of the field, decoctions of pulse, barley cake, and the kid seethed in milk’, and ends with the ‘Age of Gastronomy’. This, the Nabob declares, was interrupted by the Reformation, which set culinary matters back ‘three centuries’. He concludes, ‘Episcopy: roast beef and plum pudding – and what is left to the Presbytery but its lang-kail, its brose and mashlum bannocks’.

In this last reference to everyday food, Scott captures the essence of Borders fare at his time. He may be disparaging about it, but it was a wholesome diet. Lang-kail is the barley-based soup flavoured with kail. Brose in this context means the quick form of porridge, made by pouring hot water on to oatmeal and adding a knob of butter, and mashlum bannocks are girdle-cooked flatbreads, made with a mixture of meals. Barley, oats, and peasemeal were the most commonly used.

Because of Scott’s popularity, the Meg Dod’s Manual rollicked through editions during the 19th century. She included a section of sixty Scots National Dishes, from haggis to a creation by the French chefs of the Duke of Buccleuch in honour of another Scott character, this time from Guy Mannering. It was a rich game stew containing ‘fowls, hare, partridge, and moorgame, boiled in a large mess with potatoes, onions and leeks’. Its name was ‘Potage à la Meg Merrilies’.

Later writers have commented that many of the dishes in the Meg Dods Manual, and a very large number of those in Elizabeth Cleland’s book, have French origins. This was attributed to Scotland’s connections with France through the Auld Alliance. Now we see it differently. They come from France via Hannah Glasse (a lady from Northumberland as it happens). Her book preceded Elizabeth Cleland’s by some eight years and clearly had an influence on her. As the Paxton House edition’s editor, Peter Brears, points out, fifty of her recipes are taken directly from Hannah Glasse and so reflect what the English middle classes were eating at the time. He then rather dismisses the Scottishness of the rest of her work, saying, in effect, that most of the basic rustic dishes were common to both England and Scotland.

This is unfair. Peasant dishes that draw on similar raw materials may have similar methods of dealing with them. Elizabeth Cleland’s recipes for broth, fish, and her large number for venison, have the ring of authenticity. They reflect the availability of foodstuffs in Scotland. So do many of the Meg Dod recipes. She speaks of ‘The land of kail’ because kail was indeed the most commonly grown vegetable. Through the voice of the Nabob again, the Borders are honoured for their fare. Of Melrose he says, ‘You English Gentlemen never saw the Grey-gudewife pear…The Abbot’s haugh yonder – the richest carse land and fattest beeves in the country. Their very names are genial and smack of milk and honey!’ We may have lost the Grey-gudewife but the Jeddart pear survives, the White Melrose apple, and our local tatties, the Yetholm gypsy, all of them good fare.

Perhaps the most significant debt that we owe ‘Meg Dod’ is that she inspired F. Marian McNeil in 1929 to write her evergreen book The Scot’s Kitchen. The nucleus of Marian’s book she declares to be from her predecessor. But hers is no simple compilation. She visited all parts of Scotland, from the Outer Isles to the Borders, watching and taking recipes from traditional folk. Through her we can still find out how to cook authentic Borders recipes from Scott’s despised mashlum bannocks to the wonderfully named Rumbledethumps.

Fiona J. Houston recently lived as an eighteenth century woman in the Borders for a year, an extraordinary experience recorded in The Garden Cottage Diaries


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