A history of Scottish food and drink

Published 2nd Apr 2015
Updated 6 th Oct 2023

Scotland is a country rich in culture, steeped in history and saturated with amazing food and drink.

From historic staples such as porridge, haggis and whisky through to modern creations like craft gin, haggis pakora and dare I say it, the deep fried Mars Bar. Scots have never been afraid to experiment and create new things and through the ages have provided the world with a love affair for some of its better known (and perhaps more infamous) creations.

Scotland's diverse culture comes from the myriad races, settlers and ethnic groups that have come together to eventually call Scotland home. With each new group of people, from the ancient Picts, to the Scoti, through to the modern day Scots Polish, a new layer of adaptation and cultural fusion is added.

The Picts and the Celts

The first recorded race to inhabit this land were widely regarded to be the Picts, described as a 'tribal confederation of hunter-gatherers', they originally lived in an area of Scotland known as Pictavia, which lay to the north and east of the country.

First mentioned during the Roman campaign of Emperor Severus in 210 AD, little is known about their society other than that it died out in the 9th century when they were replaced by Gaelic and Celtic tribes.

They did however leave a legacy of brewing and their meagre diet of fish, vegetables and game would almost certainly have been supplemented by Heather ale. This 2000 year old recipe has recently been revived and its current incarnation Fraoch (from Williams Brothers) is flying off of the shelves.

The Picts, along with their Celtic descendants would have hunted deer and game in Scotland's valleys, fished by the open sea and the native lochs and eventually raised sheep and cattle in the grasslands and smaller hills for wool and meat.

Scottish soil was arable and perfect for growing oats and barley, which was reflected in many medieval recipes including bread and oatcakes.  While many root vegetables and soft fruits were also grown leading to most traditional Scottish foods being very healthy.

The arrival of the Vikings

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The arrival of the Vikings in the 8th and 9th centuries, brought new cooking and preservation techniques, alongside improved forms of brewing. 'Salting', a technique created by the Norsemen to preserve food on long journeys and 'smoking', a style of cooking that would have added new depths of flavour to fish and meats were quickly adopted. New breeds of cattle and sheep were also brought to Scottish shores by Scandinavian settlers, it is thought that the most famous of Scots cattle breeds, the Aberdeen Angus, descended from this lineage.

Aberdeen Angus. Picture: CC

Aberdeen Angus. Picture: CC

Medieval Times

When the Scottish population began to migrate towards towns and castles, Scottish cuisine, especially for the nobles and lairds, began to expand and took on influences from the rest of Europe including countries such as France, Spain and Italy.

The meats on offer would have been far different from today and would have included more recognisable fare like rabbit and pigeon, sitting alongside swan, peacocks and even seals. Fish was also very popular due to strict religious observance and would have seen more unusual fish like pike, eel and lamprey and even sea mammals like the porpoise, being served to guests.

Seasoning also advanced greatly with food often being flavoured with herbs and spices, including garlic, rosemary, cinnamon, peppercorns, mint, root ginger, cloves and nutmeg. Some of these spices would even have been imported from as far as the Middle East, brought back by crusaders and pilgrims to the Holy Land. Salt however was considered a major luxury and would only have been used Lairds and the royal families of the age.

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The medieval cookbook, 'A Forme of Cury', written around 1390, offers a rare glimpse into the type of foods on offer and includes ingredients such as sawge, persel, and saueray, quinces, peeres, garlek and grapes (sage, parsley, hyssop and savoury, quinces and pears, garlic and grapes) with recipes involving geese, swans, rabbit and suckling pig.

Forme of Cury. Picture: Wikimedia

Forme of Cury. Picture: Wikimedia

16th century and beyond

In the 16th century, the Auld Alliance with France was bolstered by Mary Queen of Scots, whose time in France saw her develop a love of French cuisine, leading to her bringing these new cooking techniques home to Scotland with her. These included the introduction of rich sauces, as well as new food terminology including gigot for a leg of lamb and ashet for a platter of food.

Modern times

Over the past two centuries, mass immigration to Scotland from Italy, China, the Middle East, India and Pakistan has led to new cultures influencing Scottish cuisine in amazing ways. The Italians reintroduced the emphasis on fresh produce and a love of ice creams and sweet desserts, while those from Asia introduced better forms of spices.

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This fusion of culture looks set to continue with the expansion of the EU. More Spaniards and Eastern Europeans are beginning to migrate to Scotland and this has seen a large array of small specialist shops and eateries grow, leading to what could soon become a new wave of Scottish cuisine.

Scotland continues to be one of the best natural larders in the world and has been a staple provider for both the UK and global markets and Scotland Food and drink exports are now worth over £5 billion. Scotland also provides 70% of the UK's fish catch, 40% of the UK's soft fruits and 25% of the UK's beef herd.

Traditional Scottish food and drink:

Cereals: Porridge and Skirlie

Soups: Cullen skink (a thick soup made using smoked fish with potatoes and onion), Scotch Broth and Baud bree Hare broth.

Fish and Seafood: Crappit heid (a dish made using a cod's head), Arbroath smokies, Cabbie claw and Eyemouth Pales.

Arbroath Smokies

Arbroath Smokies. Picture: CC

Meat, poultry and game: Black, red and white pudding, haggis, chicken tikka masala, lorne sausage, scotch pies, stovies, solan goose (a dish made using gannet), mince and tatties and howtowdie wi drappit eggs.

Vegetarian dishes: Clapshot, tattie scones and Rumbledethumps

Puddings, cakes, sweets and desserts: Clootie dumpling, apple frushie, cranachan, butteries, bannock, petticoat tails, tablet, scones, shortbread, soor plooms, Edinburgh rock, Dundee cake and Tipsy laird.

Cranachan. Picture:TSPL

Cranachan. Picture:TSPL

So next time you happen to visit Scotland or should you be lucky enough to live here make sure to sample all the foods this wonderful country has to offer.




Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
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