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A Highlander and his Books
The Gastronomic World of Sir Walter Scott

By Kay Shaw Nelson

            Sir Walter Scott, one of the most prolific beloved writers of all time, author of many notable novels and narrative poems, was also a social historian who had a keen interest in Scotland’s food and gastronomic traditions. Early in the 19th century, there was a notable renaissance in Edinburgh and the Lowlands of old Scots’ dishes and dining customs that were looked upon with new respect, and “The Whole World’s Darling” did a great deal to foster and promote the revival of Scottish self-awareness and make people proud once again to be Scots. It has been said that if ever a man was a publicity agent for Scotland, it was Scott.

            While some persons may consider the gastronomic world of Scots to be of trifling importance, it is interesting to consider a few references in his notable works in which the acclaimed author welded the Highland and Lowland culinary traditions to achieve a heightened awareness of the past and make the rest of the world take notice. He gave us a wealth of valuable and fascinating information for food historians and devotees of Scottish gastronomic lore.

            Scott’s tastes in food were said to be plain and Scottish, and he maintained a lively interest in foods that were grown in his country, regional fare, and is known to have enjoyed the conviviality of fine dining in his home, at clubs, and while traveling. “The Wizard of the North” was familiar with the kitchens of royalty, aristocrats, and crofters.

            Revered as “probably the greatest storyteller that Scotland ever produced,” in his tales of adventure and intrigue with colorful characters and great descriptions of everyday life and special occasions, Scott was a marvel at depicting Scottish manners, dialect, and persons of note being those with which the author was most intimately and familiarly acquainted. Through his professional studies, Scottish history, antiquity, and walking expeditions into the Highlands and the Borders Country, Scott acquired an immense knowledge of local legends, people and their daily lives that went into the writing of his ballads and novels.

            In 1824 Scott wrote that he only ate twice a day – a “bountiful” breakfast and a “very moderate” dinner. In his novels we can easily trace the evolution of the Scottish breakfast that has been acclaimed as one of Scotland’s most notable repasts and one that Scott fondly extols in detail.

            At Abbotsford House in the Borders where the author lived the life of a country magistrate and the landowner, his breakfast, served about nine, is said to have comprised porridge with cream, “salmon, fresh or kippered,” “a home-made ham, a pie, or a cold sheep’s head,” followed by “oatcakes, or slices of brown bread spread thick with butter.”

            In Old Morality (1816), Scott’s truest historical novel, there is an inviting description of a feudal morning meal.

            “The breakfast of Lady Margaret Bellenden no more resembled a modern dejeuner, than the great stone hall at Tillietudlem could brook comparison with a modern drawing-room. No tea, no coffee, no variety of rolls, but solid and substantial viands – the priestly ham, the knightly sirloin, the noble baron of beef, the princely venison pasty; while silver flagons, saved with difficulty from the claws of Covenanters, now mantled, some with ale, some with mead, and some with generous wine of various qualities and descriptions.”

            In Waverley, Scott’s first novel, published anonymously in 1814 and the first book of The Waverley Novels consisting of thirty-two tales, we find two descriptions of the eighteenth century Highland breakfast, of diverse types.

Scott Monument from Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh

            “Waverley found Miss Bradwardine presiding over the tea and coffee, the table loaded with warm bread, both of flour, oatmeal, and barley-meal, in the shape of loaves, cakes, biscuits, and other varieties, together with eggs, reindeer ham, mutton and beef ditto, smoked salmon, marmalade, and all the other delicacies which induced even Johnson himself to extol the luxury of a Scotch breakfast above all other countries. A mess of oatmeal porridge, flanked by a silver jug, which held an equal mixture of cream and buttermilk, was placed for the Baron’s share of this repast.”

            Then there is an outdoor breakfast where Waverley found himself.

            “Much nearer to the mouth of the cave he heard the notes of a lively Gaelic song, guided by which, in a sunny recess shaded by a glittering birch-tree, and carpeted with a bank of firm white sand, he found the damsel of the caravan, whose lay had already reached him, busy, to the best of her power, in arranging to advantage a morning repast of milk, eggs, barley bread, fresh butter and honeycomb…To this she now added a few bunches of cranberries.”

            Dining and drinking are aptly described in Scott’s novels. In Waverley a chapter entitled “The Banquet” we read how the colorful participants dined.

            “The entertainment was ample and handsome, according the Scotch ideas of the period, and the guests did great honour to it. The Baron ate like a famished soldier, the Laird of Balmawhapple like a sportsman, Bullsegg of Killancureit like a farmer, Waverley himself like a traveller, and Bailie Macwheeble like all four together.” “When the dinner was removed, the Baron announced the health of the King, politely leaving to the consciences of the guests to drink to the sovereign de facto or de jure, as their politics inclined.”

            In Old Morality, a dinner for a laird and his domestics who partook of some of the fare included “an immense charger of broth, thickened with oatmeal and colewort, in which ocean of liquid were indistinctly discovered, by close observers, two or three short ribs of lean mutton sailing to and fro. Two huge baskets, one of bread made of barley and of pease, and one of oat-cakes, flanked this steaming dish…The large black jack, filled with very small beer of Milnwood’s own brewing, was allowed to the company at discretion, as were the bannocks, cakes and broth; but the mutton was reserved for the heads of the family…A measure of ale…was set apart in a silver tankard for their exclusive use. A huge kebbock (a cheese) and a jar of salt butter, were in common to the company.”

Portrait of Scott by Sir Henry Raeburn

            Scott has many references to the Highland fondness for meat, especially steaks. When curiosity entices Waverley to make an expedition to a den of robbers and was received with gracious hospitality, he marvels at the voracity with which they devour the meat. “Steaks, roasted on the coals, were supplied in liberal abundance, and disappeared…with a promptitude that seemed like magic, and astonished Waverley.” He is to experience more feasts and adventures before the actions of the plot are resolved.

            In A Legend of Montrose (1819), involving a conflict in the Highlands during the Civil War, there is a description of a Captain who “bent his whole soul upon assaulting a huge piece of beef, which smoked at the nether end of the table.” And at a dinner for Gentlemens with lighted candles two English strangers are treated to “an unexpected display.” “The large oaken table was spread with substantial joints of meat, and seats were placed in order for the guests.” But elsewhere we read that a “clumsy oaken table” was spread with milk, butter, goat-milk cheese, a flagon of beer, and a flask of usquebae.”

            Rob Roy (1817), a rousing tale of skullduggery and highway robbery, and dramatic episodes, has a vivid meal description.

            “At dinner, which we took about noon, at a miserable alehouse,” the men enjoyed the produce of the hunters “in the shape of some broiled moor game a dish which gallantly eked out the ewe-milk cheese, dried salmon and oaten bread…Some very indifferent two-penny ale, and a glass of excellent brandy, crowned the repast.”

            At another repast a landlady prepare some victuals “…in the frying pan, a savoury mess of venison collops, which she dressed in a manner that might well satisfy hungry men, if not epicures. In the meantime the brandy was placed on the table, to which the Highlanders, however partial to their native strong water, showed no objection, but much the contrary.”

            In Guy Mannering (1815), revolving around a historical event and notable for its colorful characters, we read about a hearty game stew. “It was, in fact, the savour of a goodly stew, composed of fowls, hares, partridges and moor-game, boiled in a large mess with potatoes, onions, and leeks, and from the size of the cauldron, appeared to be prepared for half a dozen people at least,” cooked by a gypsy girl, Meg Merrilies who, we learn elsewhere, likes her “tass of brandy”.

            The Antiquary (1816), reputed to be Scott’s favorite among his novels, is a historical tale “embracing the last ten years of the eighteenth century,” in which Powsowdie, sheep’s head broth, made with the head and trotters, vegetables, and barley, is mentioned. And in St. Ronan’s Well (1823), there are recipes for haggis including cockscombs and deer’s tongues.

Statue of Scott within the Scott Monument on Princes Street in Edinburgh. 

            As for pork, in The Fortunes of Nigel, Scott reminds the reader that “the Scots, till within the last generation, disliked swine’s flesh as an article of food as much as the Highlanders do at present.”

            Scott has several references to fish, and in The Antiquary his Maggie Mucklebackit is haggling over haddocks and whitings, bannock-flutes (turbot) and cockpadles (lump fish), with Jonathan Oldbuck.

            While visiting the Northern Isles in 1814, Scott wrote in his diary that Shetlanders “would not touch skate” and said dog-fish “is only for Orkney men.”

            Scott did not agree that salmon should be served with a sauce. For he wrote: “The most judicious gastronomes eat no more sauce than a spoonful of the water in which the salmon has been boiled, together with a little pepper and vinegar.”

            As for herring he stated, “It’s nae fish ye’re buying, it’s men’s lives.”

            In Heart of Midlothian (1818), there is an interesting comment about Dunlop cheese. A Midlothian lass, Jeanie Deans, boasts about her skill in making cheese saying “we have been thought so particular in making cheese that some folk think it as gude as the real Dunlop.”

            Rob Roy mentions nettles and describes how Andrew Service, the old gardener of Loch Leven, raised them under glasses to make an early spring nutritious soup featuring the herbs.

            In his novel The Bride of Lammermoor, Scott describes a dinner with desserts that were “a fairy feast of cream, jellies, strawberries, almond-cream, and lemon cream.”

            In his book, Sir Walter Scott, Edward Wagenknecht writes that entertainments at Abbotsford were lavish, with great festivals at hunts, harvest home, and Christmas. A menu he includes is indeed bountiful:

            “A baron of beef roasted, at the foot of the table, a salted round at the head, while tureens of hare soup, hotchpotch, and cockey-leekie extended down the centre, and such light articles as geese, turkeys, entire suckling pigs, a singed sheep’s head, and the unfailing haggis, were set forth by way of side dishes. Blackhawk and moorfowl, hundreds of snipe, black puddings, and pyramids of pancakes formed the second course. Ale was the favorite beverage during dinner, but there was plenty of port and sherry for those whose stomach they suited. The quaighs of Glenlivet were filled brimful, and tossed off as if they were water.”

            Kenilworth (1821), a tale of 16th century England that draws on Scott’s familiarity with the Elizabethan age, offers vivid descriptions of the lavish revels held to entertain royalty. A special point is made of Queen Elizabeth’s dislike of “all coarse meats, evil smells, and strong wines.”

            Scottish dishes were popularized in court circles. “Nobody among those brave English cooks,” says Laurie Linklater in The Fortunes of Nigel, “can kittle up his Majesty’s most sacred palate with our own gutsy Scottish dishes. So I e’en betook myself to the craft, and concocted a mess of Friar’s Chicken for the soup, and a savoury hachis, that made the whole cabal coup the crans (to go to wreck and ruin).”

            One of Scott’s most memorable lines in his fiction comes from this book: “And my lords and lieges, let us all to dinner, for the cockie-leekie is a-cooling.”

            In the same book more Scots dishes are featured.

            “For the cheer, my Lord, a mess of white broth, a fat capon, well larded, a dishe of beef collops for auld Scotland’s sake, and it may be a cup of right old wine…”

            Clod, a kind of course brown wheaten bread used in Selkirk, leavened and surrounded with a thick crust, is mentioned by Scott in Redgauntlet (1824) and is said to have been one of his favorite breads.

            Of utmost significance, Scott is believed to have been instrumental in the publication of one of Scotland’s most important culinary works, The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, or Meg Dods’ Cookery, as it was commonly known. It was published in Edinburgh in 1826 under the pseudonym of Mistress Margaret Dods.

            The name Margaret or Meg Dods was taken from that of Scott’s impulsive and eccentric innkeeper character in his fictitious novel of social life, St. Ronan’s Well (1823), but she is said to have been modeled on Miss Marian Ritchie, the landlady of his local inn, the Cross Keys in Pebbles. In the book Meg sets up and runs the Cleikum Club, an institution established to foster high quality Scottish food and drink.

            The manual was actually complied and written by Mrs. Isobel Christian Johnstone, an author of some note and wife of an Edinburgh publisher. The humorous and often incomprehensible introduction, a dialog between gastronomes who plan the Club, is so clever that it is thought to have been written by Scott. In the zany framework, punctuated by Scottish comments and gastronomic philosophy as well as domestic advice and household hints, are hundreds of marvelous exact recipes, many of them with strange footnotes. Whether or not Scott was the author remains a mystery but the book has a great deal of literary merit and is valuable by the authoritative remarks.

            Mrs. Johnstone’s greatest contribution to Scotland, however, has been to provide a written record of its culinary traditions, customs and national dishes. Many of the old dishes with imaginative names include Inky Pinky, Cabbie Claw, Venison Collops, Frair’s Chicken, Bashed Neeps, Cock-A-Leekie, Stoved Chicken, and Howtowdie, among others.

Statues of both Robert Burns and Scott in Glasgow's George Square. 
Note the height of the Scott statue towering over that of Burns.

            Although later editions of the manual contained over twelve hundred recipes covering several cuisines, the importance of the book is the section on Scotch national dishes. All Scottish cookbooks since then, including modern volumes, owe a debt of gratitude to Mrs. Johnstone and Scott.

            During Scotland’s Age of Enlightenment supper became the really important meal to promote good conversation and conviviality, and Edinburgh suppers became a byword. Many took place in taverns and the all-male events for men of like tastes and opinions thus came into clubs, some with strange names and customs. One of them, the Poker Club, to “poke up” resentment against England’s treatment of Scotland, included among its founder members Adam Ferguson and David Hume, and among the last of the aging members in the 1820s was Sir Walter Scott.

            It is my firm determination to re-read some of Scott’s books for The Epicurean Scot has left us a marvelous heritage of memorable meals and good times. I have only begun to appreciate some of them. (KSN: 1-09-08)

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