Throughout December our office has been blessed with a veritable stream of sweets and treats as colleagues bring in baked goods and sweeties, in the festive spirit of giving and sharing (and the winter spirit of needing sugar to burn!). As I prepare to leave work for the Christmas break, my mind invariably goes to the upcoming Christmas meal and the preparations involved.
Christmas dinner, or the Christmas feast, has existed in some form for hundreds of years. However, the Christmas fare we know today – roast turkey, potatoes, Brussel sprouts, sausages, stuffing, cranberry sauce and more – has its origins in Victorian Britain when communal feasts gave way to family gatherings to share in the bounty of the season. Traditionally, the Scottish Christmas meal was quite different.
It might be said that Scotland, generally, has a poor culinary reputation. With our deep-fried Mars bars, and chippies, Scotland’s cuisine at first glance might make a poor impression. Scotland as the land with no ‘art of cookery’ was observed by English traveller Fynes Morrison in 1598 when he visited and was appalled to be served ‘great platters of porredge, each having a little peece of sodden meate’ and ‘a Pullet with some prunes in the broth’. From the 18th century Scotland was indeed known as the ‘land o’ kail’ and ‘land o’ cakes’ – in this case, not the sweet baked good, but the hardened oat cake.
As a winter vegetable Kale was uniquely suited to the Scottish climate as it could not only tolerate harsh weather, but benefitted from periods of hard frost. It became a significant part of the Scottish diet. By the end of the 18th century, oatmeal had become the ‘people’s grain’ and porridge and oatcakes were inextricably linked with Scottish food. So much so, that the eating of oatcakes took on symbolic significance:
“The integration of hard oatcakes into eating habits was such that they became symbolic food, used to record events and taking different forms and shapes. A ‘crying’ oatcake was made with cream and sugar when a baby was born. An oaten ‘mill bannock’ was made to celebrate the harvest home. At Halloween, very salty oatcakes were made which were though to induce dreams. ‘Teethin bannocks’ were made with butter and oatmeal for babies to cut teeth on. And oat farls with a slice of cheese on top were given to children who came round the doors looking for a treat at Hogmanay” (Scotland’s Past in Action: Feeding Scotland, Catherine Brown, National Museum of Scotland (1996), p.67)
While the traditional staple diet might have been kale and oatmeal, there was nevertheless a plentiful variety of meat, game and fish available to add flavour.
Christmas in Scotland traditionally brought a number of specially prepared foods into the home that helped to enhance everyday meals. For example milk, butter, cream or spices were used to enhance bannocks or to create Yule ale. In 1821 the prevailing Christmas dish of the people was said to be Yule brose, a type of liquid dish made with the stock of beef, or Yule ‘sowens’, a type of soft dish made from the husks of oats steeped in water until they turned sour. In coastal areas fish would be served at Christmas, often smoked yellow haddock, and in other regions families slaughtered a ‘yule sheep’ on Christmas eve to have fresh meat the next day. Those with more means feasted on beef or goose and enjoyed a more varied diet. It was not until the late nineteenth century that turkey became the expected Christmas meal.
Although some of the traditions and food served at special occasions is no longer commonly practised, there are still dishes which are closely linked to seasonal events and Scottish identity. Stovies at New Year, haggis, neeps and tatties for Burn’s Night, porridge, shortbread and Irn-Bru. These items have become associated with Scottish culture.
In the National Records of Scotland our archives too, hold evidence of the Scottish palate with recipes from the seventeenth century onwards, receipt books, menu cards and more. Why not try a recipe from our archives to bring in the New Year?
‘To make Almond Squirts’
Pound of Almonds
Pound of Sugar
“Take a pound of Almonds blench them and beat them in a mortar put in a spoonful of Rosewater now and then to keep them from oyling, when they are well beaten, take a pound of candy broad sugar beat & searched, put in the half of your sugar among your almond put them in a clean pan and set them on the fire, and stear them around till they come clean from the pan and take them out and work it up with your other half of your sugar, and put them throu the squirt, and make them in different shapes and send them to the oven.”
‘To make seed cakes’
Pound of fine flower
Pound of lofe sugar
Nine egg yolks
Five egg whites beaten
Two spoonfuls of Sack
Pound of carioway
Sack – wine term referring to white fortified wine imported from mainland Spain or the Canary Islands.
“Take one pound of fine flower well dried one pound of lofe sugar beaten fine: fearce them both togather then take one pound of sweet butter wash it weell in Rosewatter and work it well with your hands till it be very soft then strow in your sugar and flower by defrees till it is half in still working it with your hands then put in nine yolks of Eggs and five Whites beaten up with two spoonefulls of sack then by degrees work in the other half of the suger & flower when your oven is hot put in a quarter of a pound of carioway have your pans or papers very well butter’d let them not be a boue half full sift a little double refine suger over them when you fit them in to your over: which must be prity quick.
There may be half a pound of Corrance in st of carioway.”
- The Scots Kitchen: Its traditions and lore with old-time recipes, F. Marian McNeill (1948)
- No Place Like Home, Exhibition text of documents at General Register House, National Records of Scotland (2000)
- Scotland’s Past in Action: Feeding Scotland, Catherine Brown, National Museum of Scotland (1996)
- Scotland: A Description of Scotland and Scottish Life, edited by Henry W. Meikle (1947)
- Scottish Life and Society: The Food of the Scots. A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology, Volume 5, Alexander Fenton (2007)
- BBC, History of Christmas
- ThoughtCo., Feasting: The Archaeology and History of Celebrating Food