Best 13 Scottish Foods (& Scotland’s Cuisine History)
The food of Scotland is, of course, much like that of England. The two countries have, after all, been joined at the hip for over 200 years. But all is not well with the Union.
Independence from England has long been a dream for many. In 2014, the Scots narrowly voted to stay part of the UK. Then came Brexit, the effects of which mean the Union is closer to breaking-point than any time since 1707.
Scottish seafood suppliers are especially vexed, with many facing ruin. They recently parked their trucks outside Westminster in protest at the Brexit changes that held up exports of live crab, lobster, and langoustine at the border. By the time they reached France and Italy they had ruined.
With exports falling anyway because of Covid-19, the industry is beginning to focus more on its home market for sales and hoping to challenge this island nation’s peculiar aversion to fish.
So, with separation on the cards, we take a look at what makes the cuisine north of the border uniquely Scottish.
The food of any country is first shaped its own natural larder. In Scotland that is seafood, dairy, game, vegetables, fruit, and oats.
Another factor though is the country’s relationship with France. Mary, Queen of Scots returned from a trip with an entourage of French staff, considered responsible for revolutionizing Scots cooking and for some of Scotland’s unique food terminology: ashet (assiette), a large platter; cannel (cannelle), cinnamon; collop (escalope); gigot, (gigot), leg of mutton; howtowdie (hétoudeau), a boiling fowl; syboe (ciboule), spring onion.
But in Scotland, just as in England to the south, though arguably even more violently, the people’s relations with the land were abruptly severed during the brutal Highland clearances. To make way for mass sheep farming, peasant farmers were evicted, often by burning down whole villages, sending them to the coastal areas where they settled in crofting communities.
Later, landlords provided “assisted passages” to get rid of tenants, paying their fares out of the country. With little choice, facing famine and collapse of their livelihoods, between 1815 and 1870, 170,000 Scots crossed the Atlantic to Canada, taking with them their cuisine and culture that has had an undeniable influence on that country.
So how has all this shaped Scottish fare? Well, it’s simple but hearty, and uses minimal seasoning.
The high price of meat in medieval times meant it was rarely consumed, and that is evident today in traditional Scots fare, with its emphasis on dairy and veggies. But that didn’t stop the Aberdeen Angus becoming a worldwide favorite steak.
Oats are big too. Scotland’s east Atlantic position causes heavy rainfall making it unsuitable for wheat. But oats and barley thrive in the damp country and are a distinct part of the Scottish diet. Oats for porridge and baking, and barley in stews and, yes, that most famous of Scottish produce, whisky – which was produced here before Ireland.
But Scotland’s biggest export is the famous Scottish salmon. That and trout and halibut, blue mussels, oysters and scallops have helped build an important aquaculture industry.
Of course, remote fishing communities scattered along the coast have existed for centuries. The country is about half the size of England and Wales, but has pretty much the same amount of coastline, that’s including 790 islands. The pristine, cold clear waters where the warm Gulf Stream meets the cool North Atlantic are perfect for over 60 species of quality seafood.
The Italians made the most of this when they traveled here in the 1800s. Bringing fish fried in batter, il Tricolore graces the doors of many fish and chip shops in the country.
Let’s look at some of the traditional favorites that continue to grace the tables of the land.
1. Arbroath Smokies
In a technique similar to that found in Scandinavia, fresh haddock is gutted at sea, cleaned, tied in pairs to a long wooden pole, and hung over a hardwood fire for 50 minutes.
The process results in a golden brown, succulent, smokey meat unique to the area. It now has PGI status, and unless it’s smoked within 8 miles of the town, it just isn’t an Arboath smokie.
The best way to eat them is, of course, straight from the fire. Failing that, reheat under the grill and have them like a regular kipper for breakfast. They go well in crêpes and omelettes and as mousse or pâté. They make a great Cullen skink, too.
2. Cullen Skink
Hand filleted finnan haddock, smoked over oak shavings, poached in milk, with onions and potatoes and a good slug of fresh cream – it’s enough to warm the cockles of your soul on a cold winter’s day. The sweetness of the fresh whole milk mingles with the smokiness of the cured fish giving a blend of flavors and fragrances you won’t get anywhere else.
It is said to be the origin of New English chowder, but that is more briny, though the chowder certainly did come from across the Atlantic.
Cullen is the picturesque fishing town on the Moray Firth, from whence the dish is said to originate. Skink comes from High Middle German meaning weak liquor, or the Middle Dutch word schenke, meaning shin, as in beef shin, or both?
It doesn’t matter. It is a soup to savor.
Perhaps it’s the long cold winters, but the Scots do good soups. This one traditionally uses leeks, boiling foul, barley to add body, and prunes. Often added as a garnish, the prunes are best cooked in the stock, giving this simple soup a subtle sweetness, although they are most often left out all together in modern recipes.
It’s warming and tasty and often served on Burns Night.
4. Scotch Broth
A particularly hearty soup, this one is based on the abundant barley, beef, and root vegetables and is so old it likely pre-dates written history. More modern recipes include potatoes, which didn’t arrive until the 18th century, and substitute the beef for lamb, which became more popular around the same time.
The barley really is the key ingredient. The cheap grain provides a filling, chewy texture to the dish, and a distinctive nutty taste.
It is such a staple of the country, it can even be bought in a can – if you must.
5. Scotch Pie
Meat enclosed in pastry was a staple source of quick, cheap, and convenient nutrition for working people all over the British Isles for hundreds of years. The Scots took this one with them when they emigrated to Canada, where it is still popular today.
So revered is it that there is even a World Championship Scotch Pie Award, won in 2020 by James Pirie & Son of Newtyle.
The rules stipulate that the pie comprise a round shell of pastry, not in aluminum foil, filled with minced beef, lamb, or mutton with rusk, stock, or water. It can include a cereal or soya binder, but no vegetables, and must be topped with a pastry lid.
A handy snack, it is eaten in the hand, though many cover theirs in gravy or baked beans.
Oats have always been abundant here, well, since medieval times anyway, as they thrive in the inclement weather. Porridge is an even more ancient tradition, going back to Neolithic times when cereals were boiled in water or milk.
The two came together as porridge around the 17th century, when oats became more prolific and formed the basis of almost every meal, especially in rural areas.
And lucky for that as they are a highly nutritious and sustaining food, helping keep the body warm in the cold winter months.
Traditionally, the oats cooked in water or milk are eaten with salt, and many still do. Though sugar or honey, fruits, and spices are often added today – a real energy bomb that does more than warm the stomach. Oats are good for the heart and libido, lower blood pressure, absorb toxins, and scour artery walls.
Oatmeal is an ingredient for many Scottish recipes, the most famous being bannock, a heavy, flat scone-like bread. Its wholesome oaty taste makes it a perfect side for a breakfast of Cullen skink or to mop up a bowl of Scotch broth.
The simple mix of oatmeal, flour, baking soda, and buttermilk used to be cooked on the bannock stane (stone) placed on the floor in front of the fire. You can make do with a griddle or skillet, though.
Easy to make round a camp fire, the bread traveled well to Canada, and became a filling, staple meal for explorers, trappers, and prospectors.
Suggest to a Scot that stovies originated in France and they’ll tell you to skedaddle aff cos yer heids full ‘o mince. But in Scotland, to stove means to stew and came from the French adjective étuvé (braised). So there.
Wherever it came from, stovies is a delicious way to use up leftovers, usually on a Monday from the remains of the Sunday dinner.
Melt the dripping, add a layer of sliced potatoes, sliced onions, sliced swede, a layer of meat, if there’s any left, and stock, then repeat. Cook for about 30 minutes and garnish with parsley or chives.
A thick, gloopy, unctuous iconic Scottish dish.
Many turn their nose up at the thought of haggis. But animal stomach has been used in national cuisines throughout the centuries. From Italy to Egypt, from Nigeria to Romania, chefs have created delicious dishes with tripe.
What the Scots did was, rather than chop it up, they stuffed it.
Meat was always expensive in the land, so people simply had to make the most of every bit. It was a quick way to cook up the perishable innards after a hunt: chop them up, stuff them in the stomach, and boil it on the fire.
It was also a convenient way for traveling cattlemen to carry a wholesome meal as they traveled to market.
Of course, modern alternatives, perhaps creating our modern sensitivities, mean the stomach is rarely used today, sausage casing being used instead.
But the filling remains as traditional as you can get: sheep’s heart, liver, and lung are mixed with onion, oatmeal, suet, salt, stock, and spices all boiled together for about an hour. As a way to make cheap meat palatable, it is exceedingly flavorsome and the aroma as it boils away is incredibly appetizing.
Vegetarian haggis is today a popular alternative, and either that or the original can be found on special occasions, especially Burn’s Night. Serve with neeps and tatties.
10. Chicken Tikka Masala
Curry is important in Scotland. Huge numbers of people left during the partition of India and arrived in the country, bringing with them the intoxicating flavors of the East. They took such a hold, that Glasgow is recognized as the curry capital of Britain.
Perhaps that’s why so many people have been happy to accept the claim that chicken tikka masala originated in Glasgow.
The story goes that a Scot ordered a chicken tikka in a restaurant but sent it back saying it was too dry – it needs a sauce! Chef Ali Ahmet Aslam, wanting to please his guest, threw together a tin of tomato soup, spices, and yoghurt and inadvertently invented the chicken tikka masala.
So entrenched is this story, it became part of a parliamentary campaign to get it Protected Designation of Origin.
It failed. The use of tandoor ovens goes back centuries, boneless tikka cutlets date back to the first Mughal empire, and spices and marinades have been used since the 15th century. Given the only unique aspect was a can of tomato soup (unique heritage?), the bid was rejected. And quite right too.
Now this is a Scottish invention, um… with the key French influence of plenty of butter.
It began as a medieval biscuit bread made from leftover dough and cooked at a low temperature to create a kind of rusk. It was the French influence of Mary, Queen of Scots’ court who refined it into the recipe we know today: flour, salt, sugar, and plenty of good quality butter. She was said to have had an insatiable obsession with the biscuit.
Rich and crumbly, they go well with a good cup of tea.
Raspberries grow well in the east of Scotland, where the temperature and moisture are ideal. So unsurprising that they form the basis of this king of Scottish desserts.
Toasted oatmeal mixed into pureed raspberries, with sugar, cream, honey and whisky. The mixture is then layered in a glass with whole raspberries and served chilled.
A delectable dish, traditionally served for breakfast. What a way to start the day.
13. Tipsy Laird
Trifle is often seen as a kids’ dessert – a base of sponge, layers of jello and custard, and cream topping.
But the original, from way back in the 1500s, has the sponge soaked in alcohol, making it a dish strictly for the grownups.
Line a bowl with ladyfingers, dowse in whisky or Drambuie – Scotch whisky infused with heather honey, herbs, and spices. Puree the raspberries with a good shot of whisky or Drambuie, and layer over the sponge, followed by a layer of custard – preferably homemade, not from a powder! Repeat the layers and chill for a good long time allowing all the flavors to fuse.
When you are ready to serve, whip up the cream, with a shot of whisky or Drambuie, and cover over the top. Decorate with raspberries.
It is another Burn’s night favorite.