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Old World Scotland
Chapter IV. On Kale and Beef


THE natural vegetable of Scotland was the green kale, of which nettles, leeks, onions, ranty-tanty (sorrel), carrots, and turnips were, most of them, probably late, and all of them certainly inadequate, and partial rivals. For unnumbered centuries the place of kale in Scottish domestic economy has been almost as unique as that of potatoes during the last two hundred years in the domestic economy of Ireland. A "gude kale-yaird " was as indispensable to the old Scottish cotter—and even his betters —as the potato-plot is to the Irish peasant.

"Although my father was nae laird,
'Tis daffin to be vaunty,
He keepit aye a gude kale-yaird,
A ha' house and a pantry."

A recent writer on Ireland has bemoaned the adoption by the Irish of "Raleigh's fatal gift," which he describes as a "dangerous tuber" and a "demoralising esculent"; but although the green kale has been in use in Scotland for unnumbered centuries, no suspicion of dangerous or demoralising tendencies have been mooted of it; nor has it manifested any tendency unduly to ''swell the population," except, perhaps, in a merely gastric sense. In ancient times every Scottish meal was flavoured with it in some form or other, great ingenuity being shown in varying the methods of its preparation. Both blades and stalks were utilised, nothing of the precious vegetable being discarded. A "Godly Song" has it that

"The monks of Melrose made good kail!
On Fridays when they fastit,"

which, being interpreted, means, that if they eschewed flesh, they at least did not scruple to make use of broth in which beef had been boiled. Even yet kale is the common name in Scotland for broth, and even a synonym for dinner.

Kale had thus in Scotland forestalled the potato, which in Ireland had become the chief and universal food of the masses before the end of the seventeenth century, but did not come into general use in "'the land o' cakes" and kale till nearly a century later. For a long time the Scottish peasant's treatment of potatoes was curious and tentative. At first his view of them was probably identical with that of the housewife, who refused potatoes offered by a neighbour—they would "eat sae fine with the mutton," she said—on the ground that "we need nae provocations in this house." He regarded them, that is, as less palatable than kale—or at least as a superfluity so long as kale was "to the fore "—and less nourishing than oatmeal and when, towards the latter half of the eighteenth century, the fanner began planting them in the fields, there was a certain apprehension lest it should be attempted to substitute them, as in Ireland, for oatmeal, if not even for kale and beef. But, chiefly on account of its abundant yield, the potato was bound to win in the end, although the predilection of the Scot for it has never been so excessive as that of the Irishman. He has mastered it, indeed, as completely as the Irishman has been mastered by it; and he may now be said to have succeeded in making the most that can be made of it, whether as an article of diet or as a source of profit. Its fortune has somewhat modified the position of green kale, but the cotter's garden-plot is still the "kaleyaird," and the time-honoured vegetable has not been ousted from its place in the nation's esteem. It is needful, however, to explain that it was chiefly among the Lowlanders that kale attained its extraordinary vogue. It is a vegetable essentially Saxon and non-Celtic. The more unsophisticated Highlanders regarded its use as a symptom of effeminacy; the Grants who, living near the Lowland line, had grown fond of it were contenanced as the "soft kale-eating Grants," and a Gaelic poem on the battle of Killiecrankie mocks at Mackay's defeated soldiers as "men of kale and brose." When the Highlander indulged in such a luxury as broth he preferred the common nettle; and, indeed, it was somewhat appropriate to the cateran. As for the aboriginal mountaineer, his appetite for vegetables was fed chiefly on wild fruits and nuts, the roots of wild herbs, and the leaves of certain trees.

In the very early centuries oats and kale were probably far less important staples of diet among the poorer classes than they subsequently became. In the case of Europeans vegetarianism like teetotalism, is essentially a modern fad, chiefly affected by persons more or less languid and unhealthy morally or physically. A vigorous and energetic race is always carnivorous, and in later times it was simply the scarcity of flesh that compelled the Scottish peasant to feed on it so sparingly. The aboriginal cave-dwellers were beyond doubt great eaters of flesh, and as long as it abounded it must have formed the chief food of the whole community. Abundant it seems to have been till at least the sixteenth century. Bishop Lesley records of the Bordermen of his time that they made very little use of bread, living chiefly upon flesh, milk, and cheese, and sodden barley. The northern Highlanders, who also were marauders, ate flesh largely, and often ate it raw. Lesley, indeed, affirms that they preferred it dripping with blood, because it was then "mair sappie and nourishing"; but his information on the point appears to have been defective, for though they did frequently eat beef and venison raw, their custom was to prepare it by squeezing the slices dry between wooden battens. One reason for this ultra- savage style of feeding was probably the original scarcity of cooking utensils, for the Highlander's antipathy to the arts of the craftsman was inveterate. When the aboriginal Highlander or Borderer did condescend to cook his dinner, his appliances were of the simplest lie contented himself with seething the flesh of the animal in its own paunch, or in its skin. The brue, or broth, obtained in this way was the common drink of the Highlander; and Lesley affirmed it to have been so excellent that not the best wine, nor any other kind of drink, might be compared to it. Probably its quality was very similar to that of the strong Lowland soup called skink.

To the Highlander's habit of battening himself on raw flesh may probably be traced time tradition that now and then he was addicted to cannibalism. (The men of Annandale were also famed for similar dietetic eccentricities.) No doubt the calumny—if calumny it were—obtained a wider and more permanent acceptance by reason of the fact that the authority of St. Jerome could be quoted in support of it. But, calumny or not, it had gained such credence, even in Jacobite times, in England that when the outlandish host appeared across the border some nervous folk were seriously concerned lest they or any of theirs should be ravished away to grace some conqueror's board.

As a matter of fact, the ancient Highlander, or at least the Highlander of the later Middle Ages, was very temperate in food and drink. No doubt he now and then indulged in frantic "spreeing," especially after a more than commonly successful foray; but as a rule he despised luxury and eschewed both gluttony gluttony arid drunkenness. He broke his fast with a light meal, and took nothing more till in the evening he dined in the great hall of his chief. Here, the character and quality of the food provided were regulated to some extent by the rank of the guest. But all ate sparingly; corpulence—pace Sir John Falstaff an inconvenient endowment for the professional thief—being held in high abhorrence.


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