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14 Jun 2021

Edinburgh’s Pantry: herring, haggis and hucksters

Written by Lindsay Middleton, PhD student at the University of Glasgow and the University of Aberdeen
A hollow wine jug, shaped like a salmon, is made from glass and silver. It has a large yellow and black eye above the spout mouth. It is displayed against a plain grey background.
Scottish salmon has always been a prize food. When filled with red wine, this ewer takes on a life of its own | Alexander Crichton, wine ewer (c.1881–82), glass and silver, Brodick Castle
This is the second in a series of articles that highlights the food and drink to be found in Edinburgh’s pantries of the past, written especially to mark the re-opening of Gladstone’s Land on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. We have taken the opportunity to illustrate this series with images of National Trust for Scotland interiors and collections across Scotland.

In the previous Edinburgh’s Pantry article, I discussed the grains and pulses that formed the base of breakfast, lunch and dinner for many people in historical Edinburgh. If there were hungry mouths to feed, and not much money to spare, then oats, peas and barley would have made regular appearances in broths, porridges and stews, alongside root vegetables and bread. But for the rich and poor alike, there was a dietary item that was prized above most others: meat.

Edinburgh’s wealthy inhabitants would have enjoyed meat as part of their diets, and the city’s coastal location meant fish and shellfish were also readily available. This article explores how these foods were sold and eaten.

A cast-iron wire meat roaster is displayed against a plain grey background. It has large spikes in the middle to pierce meat, and a hoop at the top to hang from.
A cast-iron wire roaster with spikes to pierce meat. The hooks are used to hang the meat over the fire | Weaver’s Cottage, Kilbarchan, c.1900

Today, meat can be bought for relatively low prices. Most of us buy our meat from supermarkets rather than butchers and are perhaps too comfortable with having it readily available – without any of the messy preparation to deal with. But eating meat was not always as easy as picking up a plastic-wrapped tray of chicken thighs; in the past, both buying and eating meat would have been a very different process.

While in the Middle Ages it was more common for Scottish people across the social spectrum to eat meat, from the 17th until the 20th century meat became expensive, which meant it was inaccessible to many. The cost of meat fluctuated depending on availability and seasonality.

The dietary accounts of people earning the lower wage show that meat didn’t feature at all. Bacon, as just one example, cost 8d (pence) per lb which, for a handloom weaver in Glasgow in the early 19th century earning roughly 8s (shillings) a week, was just too expensive. Half of their weekly budget would be spent on oatmeal, bread and potatoes; the other half would probably be consumed by their rent. Some working-class accounts show that small amounts of bacon and coarse beef factored into a yearly budget, but compared to the quantity of potatoes and bread eaten, it was extremely scant; most working-class people would never eat butcher’s meat. [1]

If meat could be bought, the man of the household got the first choice and the largest servings; women and children would have looked on enviously, rarely seeing a share. In the poorest families, even eggs were reserved for the working man, while women and children made do with potatoes and bread.

From the 17th century onwards, wealthy people living in the countryside ate the meat farmed and hunted on the land around their estates. The rural working classes may have owned a few animals, but they would only have been eaten when their other uses – milk, eggs and labour – had been spent.

A black and white photographic print of an older woman standing on her croft on an island. She holds a lamb under her arm. Around her feet are several sheep and hens, eating from the ground.
Bean Iain Chlachair (Mary Campbell, Mrs Iain Campbell) holding a lamb on her croft at Gleann Dail, Uibhist a Deas (Glendale, South Uist) | attributed to Margaret Fay Shaw, c.1929–35, Canna House

Rearing and feeding an animal was an expensive undertaking that could only be done when there was food and money to spare. Turnips, potatoes and cornmeal fed cattle and pigs, but not if the family had to sustain themselves on these vegetables too. Fattening a pig took around a year, and records from the period after the First World War show a piglet ate ‘about a hundredweight of pig-meal at 36s a hundredweight every month, as well as household scraps’. [2]

A painting of a horse and wagon, waiting outside an inn. Several people sit in the wagon or mill around beside it, as well as some farm animals. The print is framed in a narrow gold frame and is hung on some striped wallpaper.
Print of The Market Cart, by Clifford R James (1929) after George Morland. Depicted is a wagon outside an inn with a number of people and animals, including pigs, horses and a dog | Drum Castle

Pigs were a valuable addition to any family, especially if they could forage for food and graze rurally, but only if the family could afford to feed them. In the early 20th century, tenant farmers would have been responsible for raising and looking after animals for the owner of the estate that they lived upon, but that did not necessarily mean they got to enjoy the spoils of their labour. Indeed, from the mid-18th century onwards, the Highland Clearances saw wealthy landowners depopulate their crofts in favour of the more profitable flocks of sheep. However, while animals covered the countryside and replaced many of Scotland’s rural populations, meat was still not readily available – and certainly not for those who were forced from their homes and left to starve.

Edinburgh’s many markets meant that, perhaps unexpectedly, those who lived in the city would have had better access to meat than those who lived in the countryside. Farmers brought cattle and sheep into the city to be processed by butchers, who in the 17th and 18th century were called ‘fleshers’. Just around the corner from Gladstone’s Land is a narrow lane called Fleshmarket Close.

An almost panoramic painted view of the Lawnmarket in old Edinburgh. Very many people fill the streets along with pigs and hens. The buildings either side are recognisably those of the Royal Mile.
Artist’s impression of Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket in the 17th century | © Claire Hewitt, National Trust for Scotland

The meat was sold in the markets, while the hides and fleeces were treated and then sold or exported. You can imagine the sensory overload: Edinburgh’s busy, bustling streets would have been full of people from all walks of life, as well as sheep, horses, cattle, chickens and pigs. Some of Edinburgh’s residents kept their own animals in burgage gardens and courts. These were small patches of land between buildings, used for rearing poultry and pigs, and growing vegetables. Live animals would be milling around the streets, while the fleshers butchered animals then and there, hanging up the carcasses as they did so. Dirt, blood and dung would have mingled underfoot, and Edinburgh’s busy markets would have been a cacophony of visceral noises, sights and smells.

However, as the population of Edinburgh’s Old Town rapidly expanded over the 19th century, animals were increasingly replaced by people. Accommodation was crammed into every nook and cranny, and these spaces grew more limited.

An old-fashioned meat roasting tin is displayed against a plain grey background. There is a small hook on top of the tin itself. It also has two hooked handles in front of the tray section.
Light and designed for cooking meat while travelling, this is a small meat roaster made from tin, found in Kirriemuir | Angus Folk Museum collection

When it came to buying meat, a person’s choice was tied to their income. An unskilled Glaswegian labourer who earned 8s a week in the early 19th century ate no meat but occasionally spent money on salted herrings. The majority of the middle classes in the 19th century lived on £150–£200 a year, and even this would need to be carefully managed: on average a leg of mutton cost 8½d per lb at this point, so one joint would be bought per week and used over several days.

A view of the re-created kitchen at the Georgian House. A large table stands in the centre of the room, filled with platters, plates and pottery. Behind stands the range, with tin kettles and meat hanging over it. Other pots, pans and utensils hang from the walls.
The kitchen at the Georgian House, as it may have looked in the 1790s. Meat dishes and platters can be seen in the foreground; the oven in the background has a meat spit (with some chickens cooking!).

Almost regardless of period, the rich had enough money for the choicest cuts of beef, mutton, poultry and venison. Breakfasts would regularly have featured bacon, and dinners included large joints of meat that could be roasted, boiled or stewed. Cookbooks published in Edinburgh during the 18th century, like Elizabeth Cleland’s A New and Easy Method of Cookery (1755), contain recipes like ‘To boil a haunch of Venison’, ‘To roast a Ham, or Gammon of Bacon’, ‘To dress a Goose with Onions or Cabbage’ and ‘To Roast a Calf’s Head with Oisters [sic]’. These dishes would have taken a lot of time, space, money and fuel to prepare, and so only those with large kitchens, disposable income and servants who knew how to fillet and truss animals would have regularly enjoyed such meals.

An oil painting showing Robert Burns sitting at the head of the table, surrounded by family and friends, about to begin a haggis supper. Young children stand around the table, which is set before the fire in a cottage-type room.
Robert Burns and his family celebrating with friends. A large haggis is on the table | Alexander George Fraser (the elder), The Haggis Feast (c.1840–50), oil on canvas, Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

For those with less income, cheaper meat was available once fleshers had sold the best parts of the animal to wealthier customers. Tripe, offal and trotters were cheap and were often turned into foods like sausages, haggis or puddings. Puddings consisted of blood, inferior meat and offal, which were then combined with oatmeal and stuffed into the entrails or stomach of sheep and pigs. These were made at the time of the killing in the markets and were the types of meat products that the working-classes could afford on occasion. Very occasionally, the working classes may have had enough money put aside for a joint of meat to be cooked on a Sunday or for a celebration – this would have been eked out for as long as possible. The leftover scraps, bones and dripping were resourcefully used in the days that followed; as little food was wasted as possible.

People buying cheap meat were also in danger of eating adulterated or diseased meat. During the 19th century in particular, Britain’s animal supplies were not large enough to feed the rapidly expanding population. Although meat was soon imported in tins and then in refrigerated ships from countries with surplus animals, tinned meat was unappetising and regarded with suspicion for decades. In the meantime, dishonest butchers would adulterate their meat, filling sausages with skin, cloth or even sawdust to bulk them up. In times of disease, butchers would often hide infected meat in sausages and puddings. But meat was still sought after as a marker of class and status, so the poorer inhabitants of British cities may have rather eaten these items than go without.

A classical-style oil painting showing men and women examining creels of fish at a market. Zeus is in a chariot in the sky, pulled by two horses.
A busy fish market | Francesco Bassano (II), The Element of Water (c.1530–69), oil on canvas, Leith Hall

If you could not afford meat, fish and shellfish were a more inexpensive option. Edinburgh’s nearby coast meant that fishermen would have had a plentiful supply to bring to market, fished from both the sea and rivers. This produce was sold by fish sellers and vendors called ‘hucksters’, which was the name for people who sold small items and goods on the street. Hucksters would gut fish and shuck shellfish on the streets, adding to the smells and mess from the butchers and other vendors. Again, the street names of Edinburgh hint at this history, with Old Fishmarket Close mere minutes from Gladstone’s Land.

An oil painting showing two people wading in the sea, with some fishing boats a little further out. Hills can be seen on the other side of the bay.
The fishing tradition on the east coast included mussel beds in the Forth and Tay estuaries, herring and white fish | George Balmer, On the Coast of Fife (c.1825–46), oil on canvas, Brodick Castle

There was a great variety of seafood that could be sourced in Scotland – probably even more than is available today, due to overfishing. Edinburgh’s 18th-century cookbooks list pike, salmon, turbot, cod, sole, carp, eel, trout, sturgeon and plaice among their fish recipes. These fish would be potted or salted for preservation, or stewed, fried or roasted on the fire. Larger fish would have been expensive, but mackerel, herring, eel and whiting were smaller and cheaper. Salted herring and ling added much-needed flavour and protein to the very plain diet of Scotland’s working classes.

Shellfish was cheaper than fish, and crabs (called partans), lobsters, oysters, scallops, cockles and mussels would have been heaped in baskets to be sold in great scoops, or fried by street vendors to be eaten as you wandered the streets. By the 19th century, the dwindling supply of oysters made them rare and therefore more desirable to the wealthy. Until this point, shellfish had been an affordable, protein-rich addition to the diet, which could even be foraged individually by the very poor. Evidence of the prolificacy of shellfish can still be seen in the walls of Edinburgh’s buildings today, with shells dotted in the stonework of historical properties like Gladstone’s Land. Excavated Mesolithic middens have revealed that huge amounts of shellfish were eaten by Scotland’s coastal communities thousands of years ago.

A dish used to serve oysters is displayed against a plain grey background. The dish almost resembles a flower, with six petals surrounding a round section in the middle.
A French porcelain oyster-plate from a set of 17. Oysters were served on the half shell in these six depressions (c.1900–20) | Fyvie Castle

Edinburgh’s markets meant that its citizens would have had a wide variety of foods to choose from – if their income allowed them the luxury of choice. All sorts of meat, game and seafood were available for purchase, even if they were merely a mouth-watering fantasy for most people. Whether choosing the plumpest goose or snacking on shellfish, customers knew where their meat and fish came from – a far cry from the sanitised packets of bacon and fish fingers that we buy from supermarkets today.

A fish knife and fork, with bone handles, lie in a blue velvet-lined box. The box is displayed against a plain grey background.
This fish knife and fork set was owned by the artist E A Hornel, who lived at Broughton House in Kirkcudbright | electroplated fish knife and fork with bone handles (c.1870s), Sorely and Sons, Glasgow

Give this traditional recipe a try:

“To Stew Haddocks or Whitings

Put them in the Pan, with a little Water, Pepper, Salt, Mace, chopped Parsley, Lemon-peel and Onion; a good Piece of Butter worked in Flour; let them boil on a quick Fire.

When you think they are [done] enough, put in a little [white] Wine, then take out the Fish, and thicken the Sauce with the Yolks of three Eggs well beaten; take Care it does not curdle: When you put Butter and Flour in any thing; stir till it dissolves; shred the Parsley.”
Elizabeth Cleland, A New and Easy Method of Cookery
Printed for the Author, Edinburgh, 1755, p. 34

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About the author: Lindsay Middleton is a SGSAH-funded PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow and the University of Aberdeen. Her work with the National Trust for Scotland is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Lindsay has written a research report on historical recipes, food and drink as part of an internship with the Trust. She has also been instrumental in creating a new Food Tour for Gladstone’s Land.

[1] Gourvish, T R, ‘The Cost of Living in Glasgow in the Early Nineteenth Century’, The Economic History Review, vol. 25, no. 1, 1972, pp. 65–80. JSTOR (accessed 7 June 2021)

[2] Alexander Fenton, The Food of the Scots: A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology, Vol 5, John Donald: Edinburgh, 2007, p. 281

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