Highland Food: "Highlandmen are not Nice of their Diet."

A cartoon by Cham that appeared in the 5th December 1845 edition of the Charivari magazine. One in a series of Monsieur Trottman visits Scotland cartoons. Here he comments on the Highland diet which is dominated by dairy  - milk in fact. A 'nourrice' is a wet nurse.

A cartoon by Cham that appeared in the 5th December 1845 edition of the Charivari magazine. One in a series of Monsieur Trottman visits Scotland cartoons. Here he comments on the Highland diet which is dominated by dairy - milk in fact. A 'nourrice' is a wet nurse.

No visitor to the Highlands left without some comment on the food they found their. Some of these comments conflict, and some are just a little perplexing. For example, MacCulloch asserts that fish was not eaten in the Highlands: "Even in summer I have entered the Highland cottages hundreds of times without finding fish, either in the act of eating or in possession." Pennant supports this by stating that "there are a few, a very few of the natives who possess a boat and nets."Yet MacCulloch also asserts that "no one need live worse than I have lived in Sutherland on boiled salmon and oat cakes, and on nothing but boiled salmon and oarcakes for weeks, at breakfast, dinner and supper." Whether this diet was provided for him wherever he went, or what he caught for himself is not clear, but he insists that the locals were not allowed to fish for salmon or trout,by their proprietors, nor use their lochs - even those the owners "never saw, and probably never will." 

Penant asserts that when the crops fail, the peasants "prowl like other animals along the shores to pick up limpets and their shellfish, the casual repast of hundreds during part of the year in these unhappy islands." On William Daniell's aquatint of the Kyle of Tongue and Ben Loyal, people can be seen gathering shellfood on the vast expanse of sand that is revealed there at low tide.

What is for sure is that the diet in the Highlands was very limited. "Oh dear!" wrote Keats to Fanny in 1818. "I must soon be contented with an acre or two of oaten cake, a hogshead of milk and a Cloathes basket of eggs morning, noon and night when I get among the Highlanders." In the far north you would be lucky to be offered eggs. Milk really was the staple diet: it was what travellers were offered wherever they went (for the Highland population was noted for its generosity) - Pococke at Ben Klibreck, for example (page 59 in my book), whilst Pennant asserted that "kindreds and hospitality possess the people of these parts. We scarce passed a farm but the good woman long before our approach, sallied out and stood on the roadside, holding out to us a bowl of milk or whey."

A French print published in 1872 remarking on the generosity of Highland hospitality.

A French print published in 1872 remarking on the generosity of Highland hospitality.

"The Highland Breakfast." After a painting by John Phillip.

An imaginative French image of the Highland milkmaid.

An imaginative French image of the Highland milkmaid.

For his two images of the Highland Breakfast, Sir Edwin Landseer seems to suggest that the food was shared between man and beast...

Cheese was sometimes available, but not always to be recommended. James Hogg related how on Lewis, with his friend Malcolm, they settled down to eat some biscuits and cheese, but found neither had a knife with them. One was needed as "we found it impossible to get one bite of our cheese.Malcolm was despatched to a shealing , which was rather a covered cave, to borrow one. The inmates willingly sent the only one that they had, which was a piece of an old kelp-hook fixed in a deer's horn. This, instead of cutting our cheese, not withstanding out utmost efforts, did not make the smallest impression. Malcolm was again despatched to a rivulet at a considerable distance, and came back carrying two large stones. On one of these we laid the cheese, Malcolm sitting on his knees held it with one hand, damning them both most heartily; whilst I with the other stone struck with all my force on the back of the knife. By these rude means we at length got it hacked into irregular pieces, and having allayed our hunger, and thirst too...we returned the knife, and proceeded on our journey."

In Macnab's cottage Faujus de Saint Fond was struck by the "religious solemnity" of the ritual as a small girl handed round a bowl of milk, followed by oatcakes, butter and whisky to the guests (page 147 in my book). 

Bread, on the other hand was scarce. Keats fell upon a bit "like a sparrow" when he found some - "I cannot manage the cursed oatcake." The scarcity of bread was put down to the lack of yeast by the Penny Magazine, there being no breweries in the north.

An engraving from Faujus's

An engraving from Faujus's "Voyage en Angleterre, en Ecosse, et aux Iles Hebrides", 1797.

Pococke, on the other hand, was delighted to find excellent bread at Caithness - he declared he had never eaten better in all his life - and he was amazed to hear that it was baked in a pot.

Cows were of course found in the Highlands, but they were rarely raised for their meat. John Knox noted that "these poor people [at Gairloch] bleed their cattle in the spring and fall, which they preserve to be eaten cold; a species of food very general in the highlands from want of grain." 

Indeed, such poor people had to be resourceful. Rob Donn recorded the woman who "made the most of what resources she had when she boiled the otter that was hanging from the cross-beams."(Gemble). Robertson records that Daucus Carota was eaten raw during August and September, "but in the spring they boil it, deeming it in both cases very wholesome food." Perhaps this was the same as the Orbus Tuberosus, which Pennant said Highlanders hold "in high esteem. They sometimes chew them, at others make a fermented liquor with them."

MacCulloch once came across a soup made of Cormorants, on which he passed no judgement, so it must presumably have been a not unpleasant concoction. On St Kilda of course, seabirds formed part of their staple diet.

"Bird Catching from Above." A print published in 1813.

The Rev. James Hall summed up the diet of the poor: "Breakfast, meal and bree - that is water-gruel...Dinner, meal and bree kail, or a kind of soup meagre, in which there is boiled perhaps some barley or grits, with some kail or a scanty allowance of barley-cakes. Supper, meal and bree, or in place of this, sowens, a kind of frumarty made from the husks of grit, or oatmeal. On Sundays, they have after their meal and bree, some milk, or perhaps two eggs. If any farmer is reported to eat meat, the laird considers this as a fraud on him. 'I must look sharp after this man; he has his farm too cheap. They tell me he eats flesh-meat.' "

Hogg experiences Sowens, which he considered "a distinctly sour dish at the best of times..but as he did not use the necessary precautions to shill or strain them, they were unconsciously rough with seeds."

On Skye, Catherine Sinclair noted that "some of the poor have scarcely any notion of any food but oatmeal, and when a gentleman asked a boy one day  if he did not tire of porridge, the youth looked up quite aghast with astonishment, saying 'Would you hae me no like my meat?' "

The images of the interiors of the cottages show a scene as simple as the food they ate:

"A Highland Cottage", from a 19th century engraving.

"Katie Fergusson. Ledcharry - Luib." An original watercolour signed J.E.M.B-K and dated 1892.

A sketch by Sir Edwin Landseer.

A sketch by Sir Edwin Landseer.

Of course for the wealthier, there was a good deal more variation in their diet. Dr Johnson went so far as to say "If an epicure could remove by a wish in quest of sensual gratifications wherever he had supped , he would breakfast in Scotland." He was impressed with this meal, whether in the Lowlands or the Mountains, and on their tour, they had only one meal that they could not eat, at Elgin. John Knox, too was impressed by the breakfast fare sometimes on offer: eggs, herring, haddocks and whiting, venison, beef and mutton, moor-fowl, all sorts of jams and honey, though he finds the Highland cheese"very indifferent." As for fish, Knox was impressed by the choice he found on Skye - 13 different types, all caught locally.

A private photograph titled simply

A private photograph titled simply "Durham" at the bottom. Whether referring to the place, the maid, or the fish-seller I do not know, but the other photos in the set depict the Nairn region, c.1890.

And one must not, of course, forget tea, that famous institution, here taking place in the Montrose region:

For all the evident poverty, it should not be thought that the situation was worse in the Highlands than elsewhere. MacCulloch goes so far as to say that "better fed children than those of the Highland peasantry there cannot be...in far better and higher condition than the children in large English towns where the wages are high." He ascribes this in part to the humble potato which became an increasingly important part of the diet during the 19th century.

I started with a French cartoon, and I shall end with one. I think it suggests that, reading between the lines, it was known abroad that the quality of cuisine in Scotland was not high!

A cartoon from Charivari magazine, date unknown.

A cartoon from Charivari magazine, date unknown.

I'm not sure that the yound lady will be staying long with her Scottish beau!