Scottish food – the ingredients of old are still around

This page tells you about some of the traditional ingredients in Scottish food. There’s lots here on old-style Scots cooking – from skirlie to giant breakfasts.

Oats, Haggis, and High-Calorie Breakfasts!

As there are quite a few food-related and drink pages elsewhere on this site, further down the page you’ll find them in a box or summary.

When I used to write about traditional Scottish food for clients, these tourism-promoting folk always preferred if I started with an assurance of its authenticity and quality.

And it’s true. These days there are some superb places to eat in Scotland – restaurants that just let the quality of the local ingredients speak for themselves. 

But word of mouth, personal recommendations and review sites remain the best way to discover them – especially in view of the changes that the pandemic of 2020 and beyond brought to the dining scene in Scotland.

Scotland is famous for seafood
Scotland is famous for seafood – though much of it is exported.

So, about this quality bit, let me point you to our distant ancestors – the Stone Age ones.

At Skara Brae, the preserved Neolithic village in Orkney, you can peer down into the subterranean houses of these ancient folk.

There you can see, amongst the stone furniture, slabs or rectangular tanks set into the sandy floors. 

I’ve always thought that these might be early examples of flat-pack, self-assembly furniture.

After all, IKEA started in these northern, Scandinavian places. But no – archaeologists say that these ‘tanks’ could have been for holding shellfish, to keep them fresh. 

Picture the scene: Neolithic man enters and flings down a neatly-skewered sabre-toothed tiger. (It makes a nice change from mammoth.)

He grunts in a way that suggests that a couple of scallops flash-fried and served on those wee squares of black pudding would be great after the exertions of the hunt….

Beremeal shortbread - positively decadent
OK, it’s not quite the same as primitive beremeal bannocks. It’s a modern-ish twist on an ancient product, primitive barley or beremeal – a Scottish food in Orkney speciality

Actually, as well as being gourmet consumers of bivalves, apparently, these early folk were also farmers and herdsmen with a quite wide-ranging diet.

Probably they grew bere, an early form of barley, and made bannocks – primitive cookies.

No doubt these had a taste not unlike the nutty flavour of the bere-bannocks still made on Orkney today – an authentic link to ancient traditions with which many of Scotland’s foodstuffs are associated.

They do make the beremeal shortbread here seem positively decadent though.

Oat Cuisine – The Traditional Ingredient In Scottish Food

(Sorry about that, but the use of the above sub-head involving the oat cuisine pun is mandatory when writing about food in Scotland.)

Moving on, it’s a small step from bere to oats, because this is a crop especially associated with Scotland – originally because in the poorer soils of the Highlands and in the cooler summers it was a reliable cereal crop.

Oats - former Scottish food staple.
A staple Scottish food, home-grown. The field of oats has just been harvested and only some stray plants on the edge of the field missed the combine harvester’s cutter-bar.

Baking bannocks

Before the introduction of the potato (or tattie), for example, oatmeal was very important in the Highland diet. Many a clansman, cattle drover or soldier would march all day on just a portion of oatmeal.

It was usually cooked over an open fire on a griddle (called a girdle in Scotland) to form a kind of bannock.

In the Lowlands, too, oatmeal was an important Scottish food. Well into the 20th century it was the staple diet of Lowland farm servants.

Slightly earlier it was part of the salary both of the rural minister and of the rural schoolmaster (or dominie).

Scottish universities even had a holiday called ‘Meal Monday’ when students from outlying parts would trudge home for another sack of the stuff, as it was their staple term-time diet,

This, of course, was before the invention of the pot-noodle or the peanut-butter sandwich.

Traditional Scottish meal barrel
Meal barrel – used in Scotland to store oatmeal

As a curiosity, some years ago I acquired from an old neighbour a custom-made meal barrel (pictured). Her family, from old farming stock, had used it for years. 

Heck, I’m not altogether sure it’s traditional really, but it was definitely used to store oatmeal. I’m sure they dipped into it daily, taking out a handful for making the porridge.

In farm or cottar house kitchen, the art of oatcake making was also highly regarded. Traditionally, these were made on a girdle as a round shape cut into quarters. 

Traditional oatcakes

From this quartering comes the traditional word for a Scots oatcake – fardel, from Old English feorth-dail or fourth part.

Sometimes these oatcakes were referred to as ‘sooty bannocks’. This was really sauté (or fried) bannocks, from the French influence on traditional Scottish cooking. More on this on the Scottish cooking page.

In rural communities, in its simplest form oatmeal was made into brose, then a staple Scottish food.

This nourishment is basically oatmeal with hot water, the first cousin of the more familiar porridge still popular today with those concerned with a healthy diet. (Oats are an excellent source of soluble fibre.)

Other dishes with oatmeal

Oats are also the chief ingredient of the Scots’ skirlie (oatmeal fried with onions and animal fat, sometimes as a stuffing for chicken) or in the white or mealie pudding, a particular favourite Scotland food in north-east Scotland.

Oatmeal is also used as a coating for fried fish, especially herring. It also coats chicken in those restaurants following the philosophy that anything with a coating of oatmeal must be authentically Scottish.

That’s why you may find oats turning up mixed with cream or ice-cream on the sweet course.

Haggis and stoemp
We had haggis just the other night. With stoemp, that Belgian comfort vegetable dish. (Get him and his fusion cuisine…)

Haggis – a much loved Scottish food!

Haggis is a sheep or lamb’s stomach bag, which, along with oatmeal, is stuffed with suet, stock, liver and other offal (eg heart), onion, pepper and spices.

Oats are an important ingredient in haggis, which is probably the best known item of traditional food in Scotland thanks to Robert Burns.

Though associated with Scotland, again, there is a school of thought that says this method of stuffing and cooking inside a natural bag is found all over the world.

I don’t know any Scots who make haggis at home. It’s usually bought from the butcher ready-made and simply boiled or microwaved.  

It has an important ritual function as the main item to be consumed at Burns Suppers. Several hotels and restaurants offer it as a starter so that visitors can at least say they have tried it.

Search around hard enough and you can also try varieties such as haggis wonton, haggis tortellini, pakora, dumplings, fritters and so on as imaginative Scottish chefs find new takes on what was a very humble dish.

Failing all that, try a bag of haggis crisps. (Potato chips.)

How not to drink whisky at Burns Suppers

Haggis crisps. Whatever next?
Haggis crisps could be served with drinks instead of that over-filling hearty soup, notably for St Andrews’s Nights. Suitably ironic and jokey. Maybe I’m not being reverent enough about all this, Small wonder folk write to me to complain.

And can I just take off on a hobby-horse of mine for a moment? It’s about the role of whisky at Burns Suppers.

I have observed that some guests – few of them Scots, perhaps – pour whisky over the haggis. What’s that all about?

Sounds like a waste of good whisky to me. Scotland’s national drink is understandably an element in this particular mid-winter revelry.

But picture the equivalent scene at a fine dinner in France. Your host pours you a glass of wine.

You thank him and pour it over your main course. I don’t think so. So it’s up to you. I don’t want to be prescriptive, but…

The Traditional Scots Breakfast

This high-calorie, high-protein start to the day is still standard fare – or at least an option – in most Scots-owned bed and breakfast establishments and will be on the menu in all hotels.

This substantial offering has evolved from the lavish spreads enjoyed by the well-to-do in the Scotland of old.

Contemporary descriptions of breakfast spreads in the houses of clan chiefs in the 18th century describe plates of salt beef, salt herrings and smoked salmon all being commonly available.

Though salt herring, as a Scotland food, seems to have disappeared, porridge, kippers or yellow (smoked) fish, bacon, black pudding, sausage, mushrooms, tattie scones and eggs of are often on the menu.

All of these in any combination form the basis of a meal designed to sustain a hard day’s sight-seeing, or possibly a couple of thousand feet of mountain ascent.

‘In the breakfast’, the English lexicographer Dr Johnson pontificated, during his 1773 visit, ‘the Scots…must be confessed to excel us….If an epicure could remove by a wish in quest of sensual gratification….he would breakfast in Scotland’.

Doesn’t he sound like a pompous old so-and-so?

A Traditional Breakfast Dish Recipe

One traditional dish which is a direct descendant of those days is ‘Ham and Haddie’.

Today, the ham would be traditionally cured Ayrshire bacon and the smoked haddock; perhaps Finnan haddie or Arbroath smokie, the names referring to two east coast fishing communities (Finnan = Findon)

Recipe – Ham And Haddie

Put the rashers of bacon on to grill until crisp. Place the smoked haddock (sometimes called ‘yellow fish’) in a pan with just enough milk to cover. Add a knob of butter.

Bring to a gentle boil and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Carefully transfer fish to a warmed dish and set aside.

Melt a little more butter in a second pan, stir in two tablespoons of double cream and same amount of the milky poaching liquid.

Reduce for a minute or so till it thickens. Add pepper to taste.

Pour the creamy sauce over the fish and top with the bacon rashers.

If really really hungry add a fried or poached egg as well!

Before tea and coffee, much stronger beverages were on offer at breakfast time. 

The Highland laird Mackintosh of Borlum, writing in 1729, laments that ‘When I come to a friend’s house of a morning, I used to be asked if I had had my morning’s draught yet. I am now asked if I have had my tea.’

He complains that instead of ‘the big quaich with strong ale’ all he gets is a cup of tea, then fiendishly new and fashionable!

Scottish cookery books worth a look.

More on Scottish food
Here are some traditional recipes such as Scottish shortbread, and Cullen skink. Here’s what to do with an Arbroath smokies.
Plus, there is some background information on Scottish cooking, including all you ever need to know about kale (or kail).
Even more on old-style traditional Scottish food – in case you want to make sheep’s head broth! (Bleah.)
All about Scottish high tea, the carbohydrate Olympics.
Did I mention oats? That must mean porridge. (Tip: soak the oatmeal/rolled oats in a milk and water combination – say 50/50 overnight and pop it in the fridge. This makes a lovely creamy porridge – This is a top tip we got from an award-winning Scottish chef!)
And finally, what exactly are neeps? A humble root vegetable, actually. But, they are an essential part of the menu for Burns Suppers.