Recipes from Scotland – the famous Cullen skink and more

Real-deal totally basic recipes from Scotland here and on other linked pages: Cullen skink, skirlie (our preoccupation with oatmeal), what to do with kail, also tatties and herring, mussel stew, with shortbread and scones to follow. Oh, and hairy tatties. As made by my very own granny.  Authentic or what?

Here are some Scottish recipes. They are very much simple and traditional ways of cooking mostly from times gone by and these days much modified.

For example, not everyone today makes the famous Cullen Skink – see below – with a real fish stock, or just add chunks of potato, rather than the suggested mashed potato, as a thickener.

Traditional recipes from Scotland evolve. These methods link back into domestic culinary traditions, long before fan-assisted ovens and microwaves!

Cullen Skink

These days, Cullen Skink (traditional recipe below) features in plenty of collections of recipes from Scotland.

What is less often explained – and what especially appeals to me with so many fisher-folk in my own ancestry – is that the name is probably ironic, or a kind of a joke.

Classic Cullen skink
Classic Cullen skink – and even the oatckes are made near Cullen!

‘Skink’ usually meant a meat-based soup in Scots, or even a cut of meat. (For interest, see the skink as meat recipe below.)

Skink is possibly cognate with shin (of beef) or even shank, and seems linked to Middle Dutch schenke, meaning shin. (You’ll be a hit at your next dinner party if you murmur that at an appropriate moment.)

If my mother, from Aberdeen, made a reference to skink it always meant some cut of meat. Nothing to do with fish.

So, the implication is that the fishers from Cullen on the Moray Firth coast – like so many others at the time in this perilous trade – were so poor they couldn’t afford meat, so made their soup with fish.

An analogy is the ironic description of herring as ‘two-eyed steak’.

Jollys of Orkney quality fish
Jollys of Orkney quality fish – typical of the fine fish shops that can be found in small Scottish (mostly coastal) towns.

(Pictured here) From Eyemouth to Kirkwall and beyond on the east side of Scotland, there are quality fish shops – so you can get the smoked fish for the Cullen skink. Give the supermarkets a miss just this once, will you?

The display pictured here is from Jollys of Orkney, but I appreciate this may be a bit far to go for some of you.

To Make Cullen Skink

Skin a smoked haddock (original recipe suggests a ‘Finnan haddie’) and cook with just enough water to cover, along with a chopped onion.

Remove and flake the fish, adding bones to a fish stock that you are meanwhile boiling up separately.

Strain this stock, adding to it a pint / 568ml of already hot milk and the flaked fish. Salt to taste (though, these days, smoked fish tends to be salty enough).

Boil a little longer, adding mashed potato to thicken, then some butter and pepper. Serve immediately.

As an aside, the best I ever ate was at The Maltings in Berwick-upon-Tweed – which isn’t even in Scotland, though it’s very close. The worst? Hmm. In a well-known huntin-fishin hotel by the River Spey in Moray, only 25 miles / 40 km from Cullen. Enough…

Skink - just one  of many old published recipes from Scotland
Skink as soup has a long history in Scottish cooking – but it usually meant a beef cut for stew. The one here, in an old book of recipes from Scotland, certainly features meat, not fish.

Recipes from Scotland. Skink: An Old Scots Stew Soup

Beef – mixed vegetables – water – seasonings

Make beef stock from a leg of beef. (No stock cubes in those days!!!!) Reserve the choicest parts of (what my granny would have called) the ‘boiling beef’.

Cut up whatever vegetables you can find in your kailyard– for example carrots, neeps, leeks, onions, cabbage etc, blanch for ten minutes.

Add to the stock base and boil till tender. Add the chopped bits of boiling beef to the tureen and serve the soup seasoned.

Tatties And Herrin (Potatoes And Herring)

Among the simplest of recipes from Scotland, it was really more a staple in season for the fishing communities of both Lowland and Highland Scotland.

In its original form this traditional Scottish recipe suggests a three-legged pot is almost filled with potatoes (peeled or otherwise) and half-filled with water.

Salt herring, washed, are laid on top of the tatties. Cook for an hour or so over a peat fire. Not to be confused with…

Hairy Tatties – recipes from Scotland all but vanishing!

Though I can’t say I ever cooked herring in a pot over a peat fire, I do remember hairy tatties from early childhood.

Why were the potatoes hairy, you ask? Well, that’s back to my granny again – the one who used to dry fish outside on the clothes-line.

Soak the dried fish (some say for at least a day!), discard water – to remove the salt – then simply boil up the fish, usually cod, and mash into the cooked tatties (around equal quantities, I think).

It’s the simplest of these old-time recipes. In the resultant dish, the tatties take on a fibrous look when the fish has been pounded through them.

Eat with some kind of mustard sauce or just mustard. (Hmm, maybe my ancestors would have thought this would be too much like actually enjoying yourself…)

Today, try to get the tatties from your local farm-shop instead of the over-packaged ones in the supermarket!


Real oatmeal stuffing in a packet
Oatmeal (or skirlie), stuffing or just accompaniment in Scottish cooking. Probably not one your five-a-day, however. Easily microwavable – so very time saving. (Add a little water…)


Ah, the Scottish preoccupation with oats and oatmeal!

Skirlie, mentioned by Sir Walter Scott in ‘Old Mortality’ is said to be short for ‘skirl in the pan’ where skirl is a Scots word meaning shrieking (as in the skirl of bagpipes).

Skirlie - home made.
Skirlie – being made at home from scratch. And looking a bit on the dry and gritty side, to be honest…and that’s bread sauce onthe left – we must be having roast chicken then…

It refers to the noise made by the frying pan when butter is melted. To be honest, I can’t say I’ve ever heard butter shriek, but you get the general idea.

Anyway, chop two ounces of suet, melt in a hot pan.

Add chopped onions and brown well.

Add enough oatmeal and stir to absorb the fat. Cook for a few minutes. Good as a stuffing-type accompaniment to roast chicken, or with mince.

Confession: here in Scotland these days we sometimes buy skirlie in packets from our local supermarket!

Nettle Soup Or Broth

The story goes that Highland folk preferred nettles to kale (kail) in the spring. They considered the kale of the Lowland Scots to be positively effete!

Traditionally (and obviously!), you must gather young nettles from a clean source before chopping them very finely.

As usual, as this relates to the old ways of Scottish cooking, it assumes you have at hand some good stock – chicken this time – in which you have cooked a quantity of barley. (Bleaah!)

Simply add the nettles, simmer till tender, then season. Variations include adding milk, butter and mashed potato as thickener.

mussels, outdoors
That was a memorable plate of mussels…Since that day, some years ago that particular pub has found its way into community ownership. Hurrah for that. It’s the Old Forge, Knoydart.

Mussel Stew

A Classic Shellfish Dish. It Works For Oysters Or Cockles As Well.

For about 30 mussels, use 1 tbsp butter, 1 tbsp flour, 1 onion, 1 cup milk, good splash of white wine, salt/pepper/parsley.

After scrubbing the mussels, discarding any open ones, place in pan with white wine, cover and bring to boil. Simmer gently c. 10mins until all the mussels are open.

Strain liquid and keep aside.

Remove mussels from shell, discarding beards.

Melt butter, stir in flour, add mussel liquid, continuing to stir, then add (warmed) milk.

Add finely chopped onion, simmering till cooked.

Add seasoning, parsley etc, then mussels and cream. Do not allow to boil, or mussels may go rubbery. Serve in soup plates.

See also the main Scottish food page. And there is some background to some traditional foodstuffs in Scotland on that Scottish cooking link.