Scotland's Food Landscape: Sheep
A look at the place of lamb and sheep in Scotland's landscape, history, farming heritage and diet
If you were to travel around Scotland seeking an insight into how the country farms and feeds itself, you would inevitably look at the way the land is used. Allowing, for now, that in the modern world there's not always a reliably logical connection between how a country farms and how it eats, the evidence of Scotland's landscape still suggests the domination of one particular animal.
You won't travel far in Scotland without seeing them. On fields of green and hills of heather, in fenced, stone-dyked and hedged enclosures, up in the Highlands, across the Borders, on islands, in glens, on muirs, even beaches, and on single-track roads. The Scottish landscape is specked with the white-ish presence of some six and three quarter million sheep.
These woolly inhabitants are far more than the providers of that leg of lamb studded with garlic and rosemary for Sunday’s roast. Sheep have been at the heart of historic political conflict as well as great movements of the Scottish population, they’ve led the world in cutting-edge DNA engineering, and daily touch the lives of close to 10,000 producers, processors and others whose livelihoods depend on them.
This gentle beast provides the ingredients for at least two of Scotland’s iconic national dishes, as well as regional dishes that still connect us to the early days of rural living and traditional food culture.
History & Heritage
Today, the reality of modern sheep farming is less about the romantic image of a shaggy-coated animal standing on a misty hillside and more about the unrelenting commercial pressures of modern consumers and retailers, who demand a uniform product that's less fatty but still meaty.
It’s a very long way from the primitive, long-haired breed first domesticated perhaps as far back as 4000BC. The Romans, the Danes and twelfth-century monks all then had a subsequent influence on a Scottish lineage that produced both wool and meat, and some milk too.
In the late eighteenth century, as the French Revolution blazed, sheep were the spark that ignited the most incendiary issue of Scottish land ownership. As the feudal masters of the Highlands saw the commercial possibilities of large-scale sheep farming, it was the tenants on their lands that had to move on to make space for big flocks.
These ‘clearances’ threw the local population out to endure a precarious living on the coast, or to lowland towns and cities soon to be industrialized, or further still, across the ocean to Canada and the USA.
Describing the sheep we eat
For any explanation of sheep as farm animals and, ultimately, food, a few definitions are in order. What is lamb, for instance? And what makes it Scottish? The latter is easy; the former can get a bit complicated.
To be 'Scotch' lamb, it has to be born, raised, finished and slaughtered in Scotland. Every animal receives a unique number that is the indicator of its movement through to slaughter, carrying information regarding its origin, ownership, health record and so on.
To be sold as lamb, the animal should be under a year old. Classically, ‘new season’ lamb would be born very early in the spring and come to market in late summer. Buy it any earlier in the year and you’re either getting ‘old season’ lamb, born the previous year, or an animal that arrived in the midst of winter and was raised indoors. (Incidentally, from nine to twenty-four months old, you might hear young sheep called ‘hoggetts’.)
Breeds and seasons
So, whatever its age, what actually is this lamb you’ll be eating? The most numerous breed in Scotland is the ‘Blackie’, or black-faced sheep. This hill-breed can live well in the difficult conditions of Scotland. But the lamb that comes to table in most numbers is a cross breed, crossed at least twice with breeds that offer bigger frames, more muscles and lighter bones. Not forgetting better mothering and faster growing qualities. The result is your modern roast lamb with plenty of muscle but not too much fat.
Seasonally, from August, lambs from the north of Scotland are sent, via the market, to be ‘finished’ as store lambs at bigger Lowland farms where the grazing is richer than the poorer pickings of the north.
Only a very few flocks are kept in Scotland for milk, though some of the country's most highly thought of cheeses are made with ewe's milk.
Finished lambs go to market to be sold, and then head for the abattoir, where after slaughter they are graded, and priced per carcass. Of course, these means that smaller animals aren’t as valuable because they don’t produce as much meat, so it’s more likely that your black-face lamb meat will go to the less glamorous parts of the food chain, such as pies and ready meals.
The slaughtered lamb goes to a cutting plant or to individual butchers to be butchered into the cuts that find their way into supermarket chiller cabinets or high-street butcher counters.
Of course, there are some alternatives to the industrial food chain, where provenance isn’t lost after the final sale. Some sheep farmers and crofters have taken a more direct route to the market, raising (and in certain rare cases, slaughtering) then butchering their own animals, on a small scale, to be sold online, at farmers’ markets or farm shops. Their efforts to offer complete traceability, fewer food miles and improved animal welfare has increasingly found favour with consumers concerned that their food has been produced to the highest ethical standards.
Besides lamb, these smaller enterprises have been reviving the public’s taste for mutton, still suffering from an out-dated perception of being tough and ‘gamey’.
It was never quite thus. In the days when sheep were kept for wool, there were many more older animals as a result, and eating them seemed pretty natural. But as wool prices declined and frozen Australian lamb arrived, mutton soon left Scotland’s household menu.
Not in the Shetland Islands, however. There, Reestit Mutton lives on. It’s a cured dish made from a variety of cuts, salted and then dried hanging from a rafter (reestit) in a croft over an open peat fire. Whilst the exact technology of preservation has moved on, you can still sample this traditional delicacy at the Up-Helly-Aa celebrations in January.
Shetland is also home to one of the rarer, more traditional sheep breeds you will find in Scotland. The Shetland sheep is a small-boned creature with fine wool and a range of colours valued by knitters of Fair Isle jumpers, and flesh flavoured by grazing wild on the natural plant life of the islands. That unique identity has been recognized by its PDO status.
This brings us to the iconic national dish that has Scottish sheep at its heart. Haggis, ‘sheep’s pluck in a sheep’s stomach’, is the subject of poetry, myth and ceremony. Whilst not always containing sheep’s liver, heart and lungs in the early days (some calf and pork innards were involved) and with its origins more likely to be south of the border, it’s a dish that blends frugality, national identity and a hearty dish all in one recipe.
Out on the football terraces, or at a lunch break, there’s another typical Scottish dish that owes its filling to the ubiquitous denizen of the Scottish hills and glens. A Scotch pie has a hot-water pastry casing, made with beef dripping (not pig fat as in England), traditionally filled with minced mutton.
Lamb or mutton, however you slice it, or eat it – in a pie, on a sandwich, for a Sunday roast or summer BBQ, on Burns’ Night or a pub night, it’s a food that dominates the Scots culinary landscape, much as it does its physical scenery.