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    From Haggis to Shortbread: Navigating Scottish Food

    By Julie Steele
    More by Julie

    Savouring Scotland

    Real cultural immersion provides the best authentic experience of a country – and what better way to engage the senses of taste, smell and touch than through food?

    One of the best things about visiting Scotland is exploring our delicious Scottish food, from iconic dishes like haggis and shortbread to regional specialities such as Cullen Skink and Arbroath Smokies. Not to mention our fantastically varied natural larder. Scottish cuisine has a long, fascinating history and plays an integral part in our national culture.

    In this blog, you’ll discover all you need to know about Scottish cuisine to inform and enhance your food experiences in Scotland. Welcome to your travel guide to Scottish food.

    Straight To:

    A Brief History of Scottish Cuisine

    Scottish food

    Scottish venison served with brambles, nasturtium and Rock Rose gin.

    Haggis Bon Bon

    A Haggis Bon Bon

    The abundant natural Scottish larder fed the earliest hunter-gatherers on our land, including the quality seafood, meat, and plant produce we still enjoy today. Many of the dishes mentioned in this blog originated from the earliest Scottish settlements. Archaeological evidence shows that ancient Picts, Gaels and Celts kept cattle, pigs and sheep for food and warmth and grew crops like barley, wheat and oats.

    The Common Diet

    Over centuries of Scottish history, for ordinary people, the simplest meals were made in a pot over the fire from a mixture of peas, beans, oats or barley – a type of ‘brose’. Kale and cabbage were easy to grow and often added to such dishes. Dairy milk, butter and cheese, as well as fish, ale, and occasionally meat, were consumed by those who could afford to.

    Foraging

    Foraging from nature was essential to access more dietary variety – various types of nuts, berries, mushrooms, nettles, herbs, edible greens, and fruits may have all been available through the seasons. Today, some of the top Scottish restaurants use fresh, foraged ingredients to add local flavour to their dishes and showcase the quality of our natural larder.

    Baking

    As wheat became more popular, so did the popularity of baked goods. Scones, drop scones, shortbread, Dundee cake, steamed puddings and Clootie dumplings are all examples of classic Scottish sweet treats. The Scots have a reputation for having a sweet tooth, and you’ll find many opportunities to indulge while you’re here, from tray bakes and cakes to delicious puddings for dessert.

    Outside Influences

    Of course, invaders and incomers have also changed Scottish cuisine over time. The Vikings’ brewing and curing methods, the importation of herbs and spices in the 12th century, the influence of French cuisine through the Auld Alliance around the time of Mary Queen of Scots, and even the recent Indo-Caledonian creation of haggis pakora, are all fantastic examples. These influences have improved and enriched Scottish food, which all combine to make Scottish cuisine what it is today.

     

    Provenance and Sustainability

    Scots are proud of their bountiful natural larder and local specialities. In many cafes and restaurants, you’ll find the chefs and staff are keen to share the provenance of their ingredients, and will happily tell you all about it if they’ve not already listed the information on the menu.

    Iconic Scottish Dishes

    Cranachan

    Cranachan, Photo Credit: VisitScotland

    Haggis is the iconic Scottish food associated with Burns Night celebrations the world over and is most often served with mashed turnip (‘neeps’) and mashed potato (‘tatties’). Though visitors may be duped into believing the haggis is a four-legged hairy wild animal with one side’s legs longer than the other to allow it to run around hills, in fact, the haggis was traditionally made from sheep’s offal, oats, suet, onion and spices and cooked inside a sheep’s stomach. Find out much more on our blog all about haggis.

    Often following haggis, neeps and tatties on a traditional Burns Night, cranachan is a delicious dessert usually made from oatmeal, fresh cream, raspberries, honey and whisky. Yum!

    Scotch Pies

    Scotch Pies, Photo Credit: VisitScotland

    Mince & tatties is a classic Scottish meal that most native Scots over a certain age remember well from childhood. It’s a savoury minced beef dish, usually made with onions and carrots and served with mashed potatoes and peas.

    Standard fare at Scottish football matches, the humble Scotch pie is often known simply as ‘a pie’ in Scotland! A small, double-crusted pie about 8 cm in diameter was traditionally filled with minced mutton, but now, it is usually a peppery mixture of minced beef or lamb, onion, herbs, and mace or nutmeg. The hard crust makes it perfect for eating by hand while on the move, warming both hands and belly.

    Scotch eggs

    Scotch Eggs

    Scotch eggs are often assumed to be Scottish because of their name; these tasty picnic snacks are probably more accurately described as British. A scotch egg is a boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat in a round or egg shape, then coated with breadcrumbs and either baked or deep-fried. Considerable debate surrounds the exact origins, but the most common theory relates to the 18th and 19th century trade of the export from Scotland of ‘scotched’ – semi-boiled, preserved – eggs to the London markets. Indeed, the savoury version has been known across Britain as a scotch egg since the early 19th century.

    Shortbread

    Scottish Shortbread

    Shortbread is a traditional Scottish sweet biscuit made from butter, sugar and flour. Back in the 12th century, it was a more savoury treat made from double-baked leftover bread dough. It developed over the centuries with input from French baking methods due to the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France, and by the time of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the 16th century, it took a similar form to what we eat now. You’ll usually see it in three classic shapes: fingers, rounds and petticoat tails.

    You’ll need to brush your teeth to appease your dentist after eating Scottish Tablet! An extremely delicious sweet treat made from (lots of) sugar, condensed milk and butter, it has a grainy, harder texture than fudge.

    Fish and chips

    Fish & Chips

    Fish & Chip shops, or ‘chippies’ as they are known, are plentiful across the UK. But you might see a few choices on the menu in Scotland. For example, cod, haddock or other white fish, and an option for ‘special fish’ where the fish is breadcrumbed instead of battered. A great choice for a takeaway dinner, especially in coastal towns where the fish is freshly caught.

    Traditionally, Scottish porridge is made simply with rolled oats, water and a pinch of salt – a cheap, easy way to fill up and warm up in the morning. Often, a spoonful of honey or syrup is added to sweeten it. A creamier version can be made by replacing some of the water with milk or cream.

    Scottish breakfast

    A Full Scottish with link sausage, bacon, black pudding, egg, mushrooms, beans, tomato and a tattie scone

    Alternatively, the traditional Scottish or ‘Full Scottish’ breakfast provides a morning feast, often featuring black pudding, fried haggis, Lorne or square sausage, tattie scones, and the usual bacon, eggs, beans, and tomatoes. Black pudding is a type of blood sausage made from pork blood, fat, oats or barley. It’s an ancient food, dating back centuries in Scotland, and you’ll often spot ‘Stornoway Black Pudding’ on Scottish menus during your travels here. Lorne sausage, often called square sausage or slice, combines minced pork, beef, rusk, and spices. Its square, flat shape perfectly fills a sandwich or roll. Tattie scones are a Scottish type of griddle scone made from potato mashed with butter, salt and flour.

    Scotch Broth

    Scotch Broth

    For lunch or dinner, you might enjoy a warming bowl of thick Scotch broth. An ancient Scottish dish, one of the first recipes for it was published way back in 1755. Traditionally a hearty soup made from beef or mutton, barley, split peas, onions and a selection of vegetables, nowadays it may be made with vegetarian stock and without the meat. The vegetables usually include a combination of carrots, turnip, and leeks, perhaps with whatever other vegetable happens to be at hand chucked in too.

    Cheeseboard with oatcakes

    Cheeseboard with Oatcakes

    Often served with Scotch broth and other soups, the humble oatcake has been a staple of Scottish cuisine since at least Roman times and possibly way before that too. An alternative to a cracker, oatcakes are traditionally made with oats, salt and water on a griddle (‘girdle’ in Scots) or baked in the oven. They sometimes include flour and butter. In ancient times, Scotsmen would carry oats in their sporrans (a pouch bag worn around the waist at the front, serving as a pocket but it is also said to function as a weight to keep the kilt in place), so that they could make oatcakes over a fire wherever they found themselves – one of the original fast foods! Luckily, we have oatcakes from Scottish brands such as Nairns, Stockan’s and Patersons available in our supermarkets, so we don’t need to do that.

    Regional Specialities

    Wherever you go in Scotland, you’ll find regional variations of national dishes and recipes. Some regions have also become quite famous for the invention of their own special dishes. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

    Cullen skink

    Cullen Skink

    Originating from the town of Cullen on the Moray Coast, Cullen Skink is a hearty, creamy soup made from smoked haddock, potatoes and onions. Perfect for warming you up after a day exploring, it’s found on menus all over the country. ‘Skink’ is a Scots word that means shin, knuckle or hough of beef. Originally, Cullen Skink was made with scraping of beef from the shins of cattle, but by the 1890s, beef had become too expensive for locals, so they started to use smoked haddock, which was in plentiful supply at the harbour. There’s even an annual Cullen Skink World Championship competition!

    The famous Forfar Bridie comes from the Angus town of Forfar, and is said to date back to the 1850s. It’s uncertain where the name of this horseshoe-shaped meat pasty comes from – possibly due to their regular appearance on wedding menus, or perhaps because a lady called Margaret Bridie used to sell them at market in Forfar. Like a Cornish pasty, Forfar Bridies contain minced steak, butter, beef suet and seasonings encased in shortcrust pastry and are perfect for eating on the move.

    Stornoway Black Pudding is a blood sausage made from pork blood, beef suet, fat, oats, onions and seasonings. Black pudding is an ancient food dating back centuries, and the Stornoway speciality gained PGI status in 2013. You’re bound to find it in your Full Scottish breakfast.

    Arbroath Smokies

    Arbroath Smokies, Photo Credit: VisitScotland

    Holding Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status since 2004, Arbroath Smokies are a special kind of smoked haddock that can only be produced within a 5-mile radius of Arbroath town centre. Authentic Arbroath Smokies are still made using traditional methods dating back to the late 1800s. The haddock is cleaned and salted overnight before being dried and hung up, ready to smoke over a particular kind of fire in a barrel for 30-45 minutes. The simplest way to enjoy a smokie is to heat it with butter in the grill or oven.

    Although originating in Spain and Portugal, marmalade has a very long association with the Tayside town of Dundee. From the 1790s, the Keillor family made and sold orange marmalade, including strips of orange rind in the distinctive spreadable, semi-liquid form that we know today. In 1876, ‘Keillor’s Dundee Orange Marmalade’ was among the first brands to receive a legal trademark. Mackays are the only remaining Scottish preserve brand making Dundee Marmalade locally.

    The Aberdeenshire buttery or ‘rowie’, or ‘Aberdeen roll’, is a flakey, buttery, salty flat roll popular across the North East of Scotland and typically eaten for breakfast. It’s traditionally made from butter, flour, lard, salt, sugar, and yeast, and it was often used by fishermen as an easy snack to carry that was more robust and longer-lasting than a bread roll. Usually served at home toasted and topped with butter, jam or golden syrup, it’s a high-calorie treat – the high-fat content ensures it becomes extremely hot, so watch you don’t burn your tongue.

    Seasonality and the Scottish Natural Larder

    Scotland is rightly very proud of its extensive and varied natural larder. Our short film Skye’s Foodie Culture provides a fabulous introduction.

    With so many sustainable, locally sourced, fresh and high-quality ingredients, you’ll surely come across most of these on restaurant, cafe and hotel menus during your travels across Scotland. This really is the very best of Scottish food.

    Scottish Seafood

    Scottish Seafood

    Seafood

    With nearly 30,000km of coastline – including all the Scottish Islands – it’s no surprise that Scottish fish and seafood are some of the best you’ll find anywhere in the world.

    Salmon, hot smoked salmon, cod, haddock, monkfish, hake, prawns, langoustines, scallops and crab are the most common items you’ll come across. You’ll often be able to literally see the area of the sea where the fish was caught.

    Scottish Beef

    Scottish Beef

    Scotch Beef

    Scotch Beef has held PGI status since 1996. Only certain Scottish cattle that meet exacting standards can bear the Scotch Beef standard. Authentic Scotch Beef is of the highest quality, and fully traceable, providing peace of mind to those who cook it and eat it.

    While most of the cows used are a cross between Scottish and European breeds, there are several Scottish heritage breeds that may be name-checked on menus, including the famous Aberdeen Angus and Highland Cattle, Ayrshire, and Belted Galloway.

    Seabass with julienned vegetables

    Sea Bass with Seasonal Vegetables

    Vegetables

    The types of vegetables that grow best in Scotland haven’t changed much in hundreds of years. In the past, the typical Scottish diet included home-grown peas, beans (eaten fresh and dried and used as a grain during the winter months), kale and cabbage.

    It might be surprising to learn that most Scots ate their greens daily back then. The most common crops include carrots, broccoli, onions and potatoes. Fresh, local Scottish produce picked and prepared in season is the best you can get.

    Pigeon Breast

    Pigeon Breast

    Game

    Game meat is plentiful in Scotland and a great way to taste local, seasonal food. Game comes from wild animals that have been hunted, and the meat’s ‘gamey’ flavour comes from the animal’s naturally varied diet of grasses, insects, berries and grains. The best time to try fresh game is usually autumn or winter.

    Pheasants, grouses, partridges, rabbits, pigeons, and hares may all be found on Scottish menus.

    Scottish Berry Pavlova

    Scottish Berry Pavlova

    Scottish Berries

    Scotland’s long summer daylight hours are credited with supporting our delicious berry crops. Wide wild edible varieties are there for the picking – including wild cherries, blaeberries, blackberries and sloes. You’ll find these while out walking in woodland and along the edge of quiet trails and roads, predominantly in Perthshire and Fife but also in Aberdeenshire, the Highlands, Arran, Ayrshire and the Scottish Borders. In line with the Scottish Outdoor Access Guide, only take what you will eat, don’t disturb the environment, and leave plenty for the local wildlife to enjoy.

    Perthshire and Fife, in particular, also host many successful berry growers, and there are plenty of farms across Scotland where you can pick your own strawberries, raspberries, and many other varieties. Scottish berries are second to none in season, so try them when you get the chance.

    Scottish Food: Porridge

    Porridge

    Grains

    Grains have formed part of the Scottish diet for thousands of years. Scientific analyses of residues on pottery fragments from the Isle of Lewis date a form of ‘porridge’ made of milk and wheat all the way back to Stone Age settlers 5,500 years ago. Barley porridge has been found in 2,500 year old pots, also from the Outer Hebrides.

    It is believed that the Romans originally brought oats to Scotland. It was quickly apparent that this crop was hardier and more reliable, thriving in Scotland’s climate of long daylight hours, plenty of rain and acidic soil. Over the centuries, oats have become a predominant feature in numerous meals and recipes, including many mentioned in this blog. Wheat, barley and oats are still grown in Scotland today.

    Scottish Food: Arran Cheese

    Isle of Arran Cheese

    Scottish Dairy

    Scotland is hard to beat for quality dairy milk, cream, cheese, and ice cream. Cow’s milk has been a food staple in Scotland since ancient times. Nowadays there are dairy farms all over Scotland but the majority of dairy herds are found in the south-west. Here the wet, warm climate supports the growth of lush grass for dairy cattle to munch, helping them to produce creamier and more flavoursome milk. You’ll be sure to drink tasty local milk and cream during your travels, and very likely to spot Scottish cheeses and ice cream on menus too. A couple of speciality, ancient Scottish cheeses to look out for are:

    • Crowdie – believed to have been introduced to Scotland by the Vikings, this soft, creamy cheese with a sharp flavour was traditionally made by crofters and smallholders using the spare milk from the house cow. There are many variations, and it’s often rolled in toasted oats and black pepper.
    • Caboc – possibly Scotland’s oldest cheese, this is rich and creamy, made from thick double cream and rolled in toasted pinhead oats
    Scottish food: Venison

    Venison

    Venison

    Venison in all its forms – from stew, steak, loin, pie, to pate and even salami – appear often on Scottish menus across the country. Roe and red deer are native species, while sika and fallow deer have been successfully introduced. Without any natural predator – since the wolf’s extinction in Scotland – deer populations continue to increase.

    The culling that happens through coordinated deer management programs gives us the high-quality wild venison that reaches our plates with the help of the Scottish Quality Wild Venison assurance scheme. There are also around 70 deer farms in Scotland.

    Old Scottish Dishes

    Skirlie is a traditional Scottish side dish, made from oatmeal, onion, fat and seasoning. Usually served alongside meat as a kind of stuffing, and it also makes a great ‘skirlie mash’ when stirred through mashed potatoes. It’s similar to white pudding but without the skin. The name ‘skirlie’ comes from how it’s cooked in a pan and the noise it makes sounds like a bagpipe’s ‘skirl’.

    Cock-a-Leekie Soup gets its name from its two main ingredients: chicken and leeks. The first recipe was printed in 1598, and traditionally, it was a thin consomme-type soup with chunks of chicken flesh and leeks, thickened a little with rice or barley. Nowadays, it may also be made thicker and creamier, containing other vegetables too, such as carrots and celery. It makes for a tasty lunch or starter and is still very popular across Scotland.

    Atholl Brose has been compared to Baileys Irish Cream liqueur: it’s a traditional alcoholic drink dating back to the 15th century, made from uncooked brose, honey, whisky, and sometimes cream. ‘Brose’ means uncooked porridge, and ‘Atholl’ comes from one of the legends related to this special concoction. In 1475, the Earl of Atholl was sent to capture Iain MacDonald, the Lord of the Isles, who was leading a rebellion against King James III of Scotland. Discovering the well used by MacDonald and his troops, the Earl of Atholl ordered it to be filled with whisky, oats and honey – spiking the enemy’s well. Not surprisingly, MacDonald and his troops lingered at the well and thus were captured.

    Bannocks – typically round flat or quick breads – have been cooked and eaten for centuries in the British Isles. The Selkirk Bannock is a local, ancient variant that is named after the Scottish Borders town where it came from. A spongy, buttery variety, made from wheat flour with lots of raisins, it was famously said to have been eaten by Queen Victoria on a visit to Scotland. Enjoy a slice toasted and slathered in butter.

    Stovies, or stoved potatoes, is another classic Scottish dish. ‘To stove’ means ‘to stew’ in Scots. Onions and potatoes are stewed slowly with fat such as beef dripping, lard or butter, and meat leftovers to make stovies. In fact, it’s a great way to use up leftovers from a roast dinner. The result is a tasty hash that melts in the mouth! A hearty, warming meal for a cold winter’s day, and often served with oatcakes.

    Modern Classics

    A Mars bar, coated in batter and deep-fried? Yes, the deep-fried Mars bar was first created in a Scottish fish and chip shop in the 1990s. It’s become synonymous with the unhealthy nature of the Scottish diet – although whoever coined that was obviously oblivious to the wonders of the Scottish natural larder! It’s true that Scots often enjoy baked and fried goods, and that, combined with a sweet tooth, is what gives you the unique opportunity to try a deep-fried Mars bar while you’re here.

    Scottish food: Macaroni pie

    Macaroni Pie

    Another favourite from the chippy, the macaroni pie is a Scotch pie case filled with macaroni and cheese, then baked without a pie lid. It can be eaten hot or cold, at home or on the move. It’s a favourite post-pub night out snack too.

    Irn Bru, the bright orange carbonated drink, was introduced by Scottish drinks company AG Barr back in 1901 and is more popular than Coca-Cola in Scotland. It also makes a very effective hangover cure if you’ve tucked into too many whiskies the night before.

    Anything made by Tunnocks – Tea Cakes, Caramel Logs, Caramel Wafers, SnowBalls – brings a smile to the face! Established in 1890, Tunnocks is a family-run Scottish business that continues to produce some of the nation’s favourite sweet snacks with eye-catching and beloved wrapper designs. Delicious with a cup of tea.

    Taste Your Way Around Scotland With Us

    Meet the Author: Julie Steele

    “Julie moved to the beautiful Cairngorms with her husband in 2012, where they are raising their children in the freshest air you can imagine. She is a freelance writer and editor with a background in Scots law and publishing, and a passion for travel. Naturally curious, she loves to write about all things Scottish, from its language, history and culture to where to find its best baked goods!”

    View profileMore by Julie

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