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16 Jan 2020

Scottish food traditions

Written by James Walsh
A scotch pie sitting on a small white plate
Scotch pie
With our rich rivers and seas, and fertile fields, Scotland has been blessed with great produce. And while some of our culinary traditions date back thousands of years, other Scottish food and drink trends are just getting started ...

Scotland has always been a place of abundant natural resources. The earliest hunter-gatherers caught their food in the rivers and on the hillsides, and archaeological evidence from settlements from the age of the Picts, Gaels and Celts shows that they kept cattle, sheep and pigs, and grew basic crops like oats and barley.

There’s evidence of early Scots brewing heather mead, or heather ale, prior to the arrival of the Romans. When the Vikings arrived in northern and western Scotland around AD800, they brought with them improved brewing methods, as well as techniques like ‘salting’ and ‘smoking’ that would change the way people in Scotland cooked and preserved food. It’s even thought that the famous Aberdeen Angus cattle breed is descended from imported Scandinavian cows.

In the 12th century, medieval foodies started seasoning their meals and experimenting with herbs and spices imported from distant lands. In the 16th century, French chefs brought their cuisine to the royal court of Mary, Queen of Scots. Yet traditional Scottish food has, for the most, been built around basic ingredients. Porridge, stews, broths and soups were the staple diet of ordinary people for centuries – cheap dishes that could be cooked on an open fire, and that would keep Scots warm and their stomachs full throughout the day. (We also produced Scotch whisky to put some extra fire in our bellies!)

Spread of medieval food
Spread of medieval food

Things are a little different nowadays. Modern Scotland is home to Michelin-starred restaurants, world-renowned food and drink suppliers, and hundreds of food festivals and farmers’ markets. Where once only the richest Scots could afford luxuries like salt or bread, Scotland is now considered one of the best natural larders in the world.

Of course, we’ll never stop celebrating and enjoying our favourite traditional Scottish foods ...

A farmers’ market with lots of people enjoying a day in Edinburgh
Popular farmers’ market in Edinburgh

Famous Scottish foods

Thanks to the abundance of life in our lochs, rivers and seas, Scotland is one of the biggest exporters of seafood in the world – Scottish salmon was the first foreign product to gain France’s prestigious ‘Label Rouge’ quality mark, while more than a third of the world’s langoustines are sourced in Scotland.

From Aberdeen Angus beef and Stornoway black pudding to Orkney cheddar cheese, food farmed and made here in Scotland has made a name for itself in every corner of the world.

So what are the dishes that Scotland is most famous for?

Haggis

Haggis is our national dish, and the first recipe dates back to the 15th century (in recorded history). Made by blending boiled sheep offal with onions, oatmeal, suet and stock, then stuffing this mixture into a sheep’s stomach, it’s traditionally served with neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes) and whisky sauce.

Celebrating Burns Night

A rustic serving of haggis, neeps and tatties
Haggis, neeps and tatties

Porridge

The breakfast of champions! Porridge has always been a cheap, easy way to warm yourself in the morning and fill up for the day. ‘Proper’ Scotch porridge is made with ground oats (the real kind, not the quick-cooking variety) and water, and cooked slowly on the hob with a pinch of salt. Traditionally, that’s it, but some people add honey or syrup to sweeten the flavour.

Of course, there are those days when only a fried breakfast will do, and a full Scottish breakfast may include black pudding, fried haggis, lorne (or square) sausage and tattie scones, along with the usual eggs, bacon and beans.

Oatmeal porridge, Scottish oats in a bowl on table, sitting on kitchen linen.
Oatmeal porridge

Soups and pies

Soups have always been an easy, hearty Scottish staple. Cullen skink is made with smoked fish, leeks and potatoes, while Scotch broth is made with barley, seasonal vegetables and braising cuts of lamb or beef.

Pies, on the other hand, were once thought of as a decadent luxury, but now Scotch pies (pastry filled with minced meat, spices and gravy) are a cheap snack, often enjoyed at football matches.

 A bowl of Cullen skink - a creamy soup made of smoked haddock, potatoes and onions
Cullen skink

Sweet things

From puddings like cranachan (made with whipped cream, raspberries and oatmeal) to cakes and sugary treats like clootie dumplings, Dundee cake, tablet and shortbread, Scots love anything sweet! We even invented the deep-fried Mars bar (don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it).

A glass of Cranachan - traditional Scottish dessert with whipped cream, roasted oatmeal and raspberries
Cranachan

Popular Scottish drinks

The king of Scottish drinks is whisky; around 40 bottles of Scotch are shipped overseas every second (yes, second!). There are distilleries all over the country – the natural conditions of different regions affect the flavour of the whisky, with the islands known for their smokiness, and Speyside for its fruitiness.

Scotland also produces some of the world’s finest craft beers and gins. In 1970 there were only 11 breweries in Scotland, but now there are more than 100 craft and independent brewers making all kinds of great beer. The same goes for gin, with various producers using locally grown botanicals to make world-class spirits.

And no list of iconic Scottish drinks would be complete without Irn-Bru. Launched in 1901, Scotland’s favourite fizzy drink comes in a bright orange can and claims to be ‘made in Scotland from girders’. Thanks to Irn-Bru, Scotland is one of only a handful of places in the world where Coca-Cola isn’t the bestselling drink.

Bottles of Irn Bru on the shelves at a supermarket.

Scottish food recipes from around the Trust

Want to try making some traditional Scottish recipes at home?

We’ve got two super scone recipes – one for Burns Night with haggis and cheese, and the other using Irn-Bru as the secret ingredient!

Here’s a long list of great bakes to have with your afternoon tea.

Try this traditional whisky sauce recipe with your haggis.

To give your Christmas a Scottish twist, try making perkinshaggis sausage rollsoatmeal stuffing or Clootie dumplings.