Food is a collective human need, and meals are symbolic of sharing and nurturing each other. Food stimulates all of our senses, evokes experiences of childhood, special occasions and can be a source of excitement and comfort. In this article we look at recipes found in National Records of Scotland’s archives and how they represent social and cultural changes throughout Scottish history.

It could be said that recipes, inherited from past generations are an extension of a family history. Collecting, remembering and practising these dishes is a method of honouring past family members. As recipes evolve and new ones are created over time they can also be indicative of changes on a wider scale. Events outside of the home, such as failed crops, war and trade links had a fundamental impact on what was consumed by families across Scotland.

The staple diet of Scots centred around the ‘people’s grain’. Oatmeal was used in meals at all times of the day, not just at breakfast, and methods of preparation and cooking to create porridge and oatcakes for example, were passed down from mother to daughter. Other staples foods included sea kelp and kale, which were able to grow in the harsh Scottish climates. In times of famine, Scottish families often had to relocate to other parts of the country to find employment in order to afford food. Scotland experienced failed harvests in the late seventeenth century (1680s), mid-eighteenth century (1739-40), and the potato famine of the mid-nineteenth century saw the second wave of Highland clearances. At this time land was given over to the grazing of cattle and sheep, and the space to grow much needed crops for bread and other fundamental foods was scarce.

Over the centuries, influences from abroad introduced new tastes and varieties of food to Scotland. Benefitting from the Auld Alliance and well before Mary, Queen of Scots and her mother Mary of Guise, French cooks, cooking methods, terms and menus entered the Scottish kitchen. Mary’s court became renowned for lavish banqueting, a taste which influenced the rest of society. Scotland’s other great trading connection was the Netherlands. Spices, onions and apples had been imported from the Netherlands since the Middle Ages and it remained Scotland’s main source of luxury food products.

The growth of the British Empire also brought new varieties of food to Scotland. Food and drink traditions, notably from the far east, were embraced. The ceremony of drinking tea with invited guests was taken up by the higher classes of Scottish society in the early eighteenth century, and merchant receipts for tea litter the National Records of Scotland’s archives. Tea first arrived predominantly from China, until new markets in India and Ceylon were established. The temperance movement of the Victorian era also saw tea drinking soar, as tea was wisely supplied to soldiers across the empire and an alternative to the drunken lower classes in Britain itself.

The British families living across the empire were not among the first to experiment with ‘fusion food’. The spices of India had been imported to Britain since the fifteenth century and the food of Stuart Scotland was flavoured by quantities of cinnamon, cloves and pepper. Largely imported by the East India Company, founded in 1600, these exotic spices were seen as a status symbol and would only have appeared at the tables of the aristocracy. However, it was in Victorian times, when women could more easily accompany their husbands across seas, that British cuisine changed significantly.

This recipe for ‘currey’ from the papers of the Hamilton Bruce family (NRS reference GD152), was written by Miss Bruce, who we believe was the daughter of a military family living in India. This recipe may have been written from memory on their return to Scotland and includes the spices cumin and turmeric.

Recipe for curry and curry powder. Papers of the Hamilton-Bruce family of Grange Hill and Falkland, 1761-1817 (National Records of Scotland, GD152/35B/2/7)

Interestingly, the noun ‘cury’ in Scotland meant cooking or a concoction, probably originating from ‘to cure’ and was assigned to these spicy casserole like dishes from the far east. This ‘currey’ dish appears to have been a favourite of the Bruce family and a way to immortalise and relive their time spent in India.

Today, the tradition of handing down recipes is not as common, and a quick search on the internet can fulfil the need for recipe ideas for the next meal. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to sit around the family table, perhaps only once a week or on special occasions, the simple ritual of making and sharing of food often holds substantial social and cultural meaning. This has been recognised by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as it has added 19 food and drink related traditions to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. While we may think nothing of eating a steak pie on New Year’s Day, haggis on Burns Night, or just an Indian ‘carry-oot’ on a Friday night we are all shaping our living food culture and traditions.

Here are another couple of recipes from the archive attempted by our archivists.

Seed Cakes

Recipe for seed cakes. Reproduced with kind permission of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Scotland (National Records of Scotland, CH10/77/1)
Recipe for seed cakes. Reproduced with kind permission of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Scotland (National Records of Scotland, CH10/77/1)

Orange Jelly

Do you have any family recipes? Feel free to share in the comments.

Jessica Evershed


One thought on “Food and Family

  1. Brilliant, an authentic taste of the past , and you have shown they do work. The boiled chicken doesn’t look great, but the final dish does.


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