MUST SEE SCOTLAND - Must See Scotland has all you need to know for your Scottish travel plans. With an independent viewpoint, it offers impartial advice in an entertaining style. It strips away ‘destination marketing hype’ to inform about what you really should see. (You could, for instance, give Loch Ness a miss!)


Recipes from Scotland - Cullen skink and much more

Real-deal recipes from Scotland: 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?

Recipes from Scotland

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 with a real fish stock, or just add chunks of potato, rather than the suggested mashed potato, as a thickener.

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

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.

‘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’.

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

Jollys of Orkney quality fish

Jollys of Orkney quality fish

Buy the smoked haddock at a top quality fishmonger’s shop.

This happens to be Jolly’s in Kirkwall, Orkney – but that might be a bit far 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 tried 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: 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)

Not so much a recipe from Scotland, 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

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, discard water - to remove the salt - then simply boil up the dried fish 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!

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.

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


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).

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 buy skirlie in packets from our local supermarket!

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.