Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Scottish Food and Culture


A small, rocky country of streams and lakes, with a moderately cool climate, and proud, vigorous inhabitants, Scotland is also known for short-bread, marmalade, and Scotch whisky. Though about 5 million folk make their homes in the Highlands, Lowlands, and Uplands, it could almost be said that one of Scotland’s principal exports is people: an estimated 20 million Scots have emigrated to other countries.

They have carried with them their kilts and their pipes, their brogue and their oats to whatever wee corner of the world they decided to call home. And several times a year they gather for their Scottish Games – a day of Highland flings and sword dancing, tug-of-war and the flinging of the mighty caber all to the stirring wail of the kilted bands. Always, Scottish souls are stirred by the foot-tapping rhythms, and Scottish eyes mist as “Scotland the Brave” fills the air. And though they may be heard to call themselves “Scotch and proud of it,” they’d rather you refer to them as Scots and their fine smoky whisky as Scotch.

Early accounts show a predominance of oats, barley and dairy products as the mainstay of both urban and rural diets in Scotland. Although sheep and black Angus cattle were raised, they were mainly for export rather than local consumption. The general porridge and milk diet was supplemented with kale or cabbage. Small amounts of fish were used in coastal areas and occasionally some meats in the interior.

By the 1800s, the rapid growth of urban areas in Scotland became the impetus for agricultural improvement and diversification. There was a sharp increase in the use of wheat bread, meats in broths and stews, and wider acceptance and use of potatoes. This soon made barley and oats a minor part of the daily fare except in the more remote agricultural settlements where economic factors still limited the variety of the diet.

Although people generally ate what was available and what they could afford, good food simply prepared is still the keynote in Scotland. Scots have never been keen on seasonings, sauces, or exotic mixtures of foods.

The earliest influences on the Celtic and Gaelic traditions of Scotland were English. But English influence gradually threatened to become English control. In 1295, John de Baliol, King of Scotland, formed an alliance with France, making England the common foe. This alliance lasted several hundred years and through many successions of kings. To this clay many Gaelic food names can be traced from the original French name: flam from flan; tartan purry from tarten-puree; kickshaw, quelque chose; stovies, a l’etuvee; and jigget, gigot.

Scottish food retains the individuality of its people. To this day Scottish foods preserve their simplicity while retaining the most delightfully endearing names – even if some of the sources are long forgotten.

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