Book Review: The Food of the Scots

Fans of hot and spicy food claim that curry has replaced fish and chips – and haggis – as Scotland’s “national dish”. But, according to Alexander Fenton, hazelnut gruel was the favourite food of Scots (especially on Islay) long before the first Burns supper or the opening of the first Indian restaurant. Fenton’s book, The Food of the Scots, is a comprehensive and fascinating history of our native cuisine. Incredibly, he begins his story in the Stone Age! He reveals that botanical/archaeological examination of ancient middens proves that hazelnuts were a staple food of Scotland’s Neolithic people. Not only could the nuts be eaten fresh, but they could be stored for hungrier times, or used for trade. In Islay they liked them roasted, as carbonised remains dated around 6500 BC proves. For those bored with a diet of nut roast or gruel, the hazelnuts could also be pounded into rough dough and cooked on hot stones to produce a kind of bannock. Fenton, who had a distinguished career as an ethnologist and was a mainstay of the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University, is the son of an Aberdeenshire crofter. Although his book is crammed with the culinary customs of Orkney and the North East of Scotland, the Lowlands and the West Highlands and Islands are closely examined too and there are some fascinating glimpses of Islay life in it. On a chapter on special food and customs for seasonal occasions, Fenton tells of a ritual in which horses’ ears were anointed with butter on the first ploughing day of spring. In Orkney that had the somewhat les savoury custom of sprinkling their horses with urine at that time of the year! Islay perhaps had more butter to spare than Orkney, because dairy products were traditionally an important Islay export. In 1263 a tribute of 300 beasts laid on the island by King Haakon of Norway was paid in oatmeal and cheese, and in 1614 the Crown Rental of Islay included 3,083 stones of cheese per annum. Continue reading.....As in other areas of Scotland a 'handsel' – a gift of food or drink – was often given on Islay by tacksmen as a gesture of thanks for work done over the year. Fenton quotes Dr Maclagan’s collection of Islay lore, now in the keeping of the Folklore Society in London, which tells of Handsel Monday, the first Monday (and presumably working day) of the year. A large feast of mutton and potatoes, described as buntat’ breac, was prepared for the tenants, cottars and servants. Each guest helped him- or her-self with a long spoon from the nearest dish. The 'square bottle' of whisky also circulated. Given that the main diet of agricultural workers consisted of mainly oatmeal and potatoes at that time, the 'handsel' of mutton and whisky would have been a much looked forward to feast. Although Highlanders had no strict taboos against eating pork, the way Jews and Muslims do, Fulton reports widespread distaste at eating the meat throughout the isles. However, this distaste was wearing off by the late 18th century, and in 1804 pig owing was so common on Islay that Bowmore was troubled by a 'destructive crowd of pigs' running about the streets. Offending pig-owners were fined 2/6 sterling. Fenton's book doesn't quite bring the story of Scots cuisine up to date, as he has little to say on the profound influence of Italian, Chinese and Indian sub-continent immigration on our national palette, but nonetheless, the Food of the Scots is a fascinating read not just for historians and foodies, but for laymen too. Sadly, while Fenton has written a lively volume, it comes at the academic text-book price of £40. Try Amazon, or pester Argyll & Bute library service! Les Wilson

This story was published with kind permission from the Ileach local newspaper.

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