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Beautifully illustrated family history books with a difference by a frequent contributor to the UK family history press. I write for Family Tree Magazine UK; Discover Your Ancestors Online Periodical and Bookazine; Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine. The publishers of my family history books are Pen and Sword Books and The History Press. I tweet (and retweet) thought-provoking content designed to help you tweak your approach to (your family) history at @RuthaSymes . Do follow me.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Tatties and Neeps - Scottish ancestors and their food


Tatties and Neeps

Click here for more on books by Ruth A. Symes


What Scottish recipes can tell you about your family history


[This article was first published in the now obsolete Discover My Past Scotland 2008] 

If your family hails from Scotland, you may have inherited a taste for Scotch eggs, haggis, broth, scotch pancakes or shortbread. Even when other ‘more important’ clues to family history such as wills, family bibles, and birth and death certificates are lost, family recipes have often been passed down unchanged from generation to generation and they can tell us quite a lot about our families in the past.  

Dishes inherited from your Scottish forebears may tell you something about what foodstuffs were available in their locality in the past - their proximity to the sea, and their access to fresh (as opposed to preserved) food. More importantly, they may provide you with more exact information about where your family came from, their income level and class status, the size and composition of their families, the way they celebrated important events and even their religious beliefs.  


Many traditional Scottish dishes include seafood from the country’s extensive coastline – a natural larder.

In general, Scottish food over the centuries had a homely and ‘cold weather’ feel. Oats and barley were the main staple and could soon be made into porridge or oatcakes. Spices - expensive to import - do not feature much.  Some foodstuffs, of course, originated in particular regions and towns in Scotland and may provide evidence as to where exactly your family came from. Arran potato salad, for example, comes from the Firth of Clyde; Haddock Skink is a thick fishy soup from Cullen in Morayshire;  Clapshot – a vegetable dish consisting mainly of potatoes and turnip and often eaten with haggis - comes from the Orkneys, and brown trout bake, as well as many dishes based on oily fish such as herring and mackerel were favourites with the Highlanders.

Particular methods of food preparation may also help you pinpoint your family origins. In Aberdeenshire, for example, it was common to prepare grouse by wiping it inside and out with a damp cloth and removing the kidneys. The bird would then be stuffed with mushrooms, fried in butter and covered in cream. To find out more about the provenance of your family recipes take a look at a specialist book on Scottish cookery such as Catherine Brown, Scottish Regional Recipes (Chambers 1993). See also list below. A useful website showing where different Scottish foodstuffs originate is http://recipes.wikia.com/wiki/File:Map_of_Scotland.jpg. Alternatively, just google the name of your dish and discover its geographical history.

There were variations in the Scottish diet according to class status and economic circumstances and, from your family fare, you should be able to hazard a guess as to whether your ancestors lived at subsistence level or at a level of luxury. For many Scots in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, meat was too expensive to eat regularly. Game, dairy produce, fish, fruit and vegetables were all more common on the Scottish table than animal flesh and main meals tended to centre on soup. There were many variations including Scotch broth, Partan bree (made from crab and chicken stock and a favourite in North-Eastern Scotland) , Cullen Skink, Cock-a-Leekie, and Hairst Bree (sometimes known as Hotchpotch). These soups were generally prepared using a potage of vegetables, herbs and roots with perhaps a little meat stock.

In a frugal economy, it was customary to make sure that no part of an animal went to waste. For those in the middle of the social scale there was Howtowdie (roast chicken stuffed with oats), Potted hough (a kind of paste made using the gelatine from animal bones) and mince.  Also popular were black, red and white puddings (made from animal blood). Offal, or low-quality meat could easily be carried in a pig’s stomach – hence the genesis of the dish that has become a national symbol - haggis. Your wealthier Scottish relatives, on the other hand, may have feasted on grouse, haunch of venison or roast Aberdeen Angus beef with side dishes of curly kail, neeps and tatties (swede and potatoes) and colcannon or rumbledethumps (mashed potato).

More popular than meat on many a Scottish table in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was seafood particularly shellfish including lobster, crab and many varieties of fish much of which was preserved by smoking.  The presence of some dishes in your family tradition may tell a sorry story. A dish called ‘Crappit heid,’ for example,  was eaten by poor fishermen in North Eastern Scotland. Having sold the body of the cod they caught, they would keep the head and stuff it with oats, onions, beef fat and white pepper.  Other typical Scottish fish dishes are Arbroath Smokies, Cabbie Claw (or Cabelew), Ceann Cropaig, Eyemouth Pales, Finnan Haddie and kippers.

The Language of Scottish Food

Your family today may use words to describe certain foodstuffs which betray your Scottish heritage. A ‘cloutie’ or ‘clootie dumpling,’for example, was named after the cloth or cloutie in which it was wrapped. Some culinary terms have been inherited from the Scotland’s cultural exchange with France (especially during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots). These include ‘collop’ from ‘escalope,’ gigot for a leg of mutton and ‘howtowdie’ derived from ‘Hetoudeau’ for a boiling fowl.

Whilst savoury food in nineteenth and early twentieth century Scotland tended to be plain, baking was traditionally more adventurous. You may have inherited recipes for dumplings, pastries, shortbreads, scones, pancakes and small fancies. Such delights were consumed by the better off in the famous tearooms of the Scottish cities. Indeed, the very notion of ‘high tea’ derives in part from Scotland. There are a whole range of traditional Scotch puddings with fantastic names such as ‘Burnt Cream,’ ‘Apple Frushie,’ ‘Blaeberry Pie’, ‘Carrageen Moss,’ ‘Cranachan,’ ‘Stapag’ and ‘Tipsy Laird.’  Sweets were also popular and included Edinburgh rock, macaroons, Moffat toffee and a kind of fudge known as ‘tablet’.


Food and Health


You may have noticed some odd causes of death on your family certificates. These can attest to a lack of food or food of poor quality in your family household in the past. ‘Marasmus’ – a wasting of the flesh - was commonly cited in the deaths of young children who were deprived of calories and protein. ‘Teething’ – an odd but commonly given cause of death – may suggest a contamination of milk or other foodstuffs, and the dreaded ‘cholera’ was spread by infected water and food.


Cookery Books


Family cookery books can give a useful insight into your ancestors’ probable diet. If you have inherited a published Scottish cookery book, you can assume that whichever of your ancestors first used it had a reasonable income and a certain level of literacy. Scotland had her own range of cookery writers before Mrs Beeton appeared on the scene in the nineteenth century. These included, Mrs Dalgain  (The Practice of Cookery Edinburgh, 1734), and Mrs Maciver (Cookery and Pastry as Taught and Practised by Mrs Maciver, teacher of those arts in Edinburgh, 1789). But, be careful not to make too many assumptions from these published books about the way your family ate in the past. They will probably tell you more about how your ancestors aspired to eat rather than what they actually ate. Andrew Stewart’s The Scottish Cookery Book Containing Guid plain Rules for Makin’ Guid Plain Meats; Suitable for Sma’ Purses, Big Families and Scotch Stamachs, (J. Menzie’s, 1878) might offer a more representative picture.

Handwritten cookery books are also probably a more accurate record of what actually appeared on your ancestors’ plates. Look out for memorandum written down the side of recipes which can tell you how different generations of mothers and daughters adapted dishes to suit their own tastes, budgets and family size. But remember that even those recipes written down in cookery books do not necessarily reflect what your ancestors ate every day. Rather, they probably record the dishes eaten on special occasions such as Christmas, Easter, Hogmanay and Burns night. Recipes for shortbread, which tended to be eaten as a treat at weddings, Christmas and New Year, are a case in point. In Shetland it was customary to break shortbread over the bride’s head as she entered her new home. Likewise, ale-crowdie (consisting of ale, treacle and whisky) would only be served at Scottish weddings. Whoever found the ring inside it would, supposedly, be the next to marry.

If you do come across a handwritten cookery book, it is worth having a go at sourcing the ingredients and making some of the dishes. There is nothing quite like the sense of connection with your ancestors that you feel when taking your first mouthful of food from a recipe once cooked by your great-grandmother. And if you haven’t inherited any recipes, don’t despair. Take a look at some of your more colourful family anecdotes. These often involve information about food and its preparation. That story about Great-Uncle Stuart being kicked by a cow may well have occurred as he milked it in order to make ‘Hatted Kit’ – a sweet dish favoured by crofters that depended on fresh warm milk.

Of course, you must be careful not to read too much about family history into your eating habits. In recent years, we have all become much more wide-ranging in our  food tastes as food from all over the country and all over the world has become available to us at relatively cheap prices. Nevertheless, there is still something to be learned from certain family recipes, and it is certainly important to continue the traditions for our own children.

Keywords: Food, European Ancestors

Useful Books



Brown, Catherine, Scottish Regional Recipes, Chambers, 1993.

Dickson-Wright, Clarissa and Crichton-Stuart, Henry,  Hieland Foodie: A Scottish Culinary Voyage with Clarissa, NMSE 1999

Fenton, Alexander, The Food of the Scots: A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology Vol 5, John Donald, 2007.


Lawrence, Sue  A Cook’s Tour of Scotland: From Barra to Brora in 120 recipes, Headline, 2008.


Mabey, David. Traditional Eating and Drinking in Britain, A Feast of Regional Foods. Macdonald and James, 1978.

Richardson, Paul. Cornucopia: A Gastronomic Tour of Britain. Abacus 2002.

Tannahill, Reay. Food in History, Eyre Methuen, 1973.

Wilson, Carol and Trotter, Christopher, Scottish Traditional Recipes: A Celebration of the Authentic Food and Cooking of Scotland, Southwater, 2009

Useful Websites

www.foodmuseum.com Food history, news, features and temporary exhibits.

www.greatbritishkitchen.co.uk Sections on regional cooking and eating history.

http://recipes.wikia.com/wiki/File:Map_of_Scotland.jpg Site showing where different Scottish recipes originate from.

http://www.visitscotland.com/guide/inspirational/features/very-scottish/trad-food Information on food from the official site of Scotland’s official tourism organisation

http://www.recipes4us.co.uk/Cooking%20by%20Country/Scotland%20Recipes%20Culinary%20History%20and%20Information.htm Scottish food and cuisine

http://scotland.org/homecoming2009/food-and-drink/ Site celebrating homecoming year.

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