Why Everything You Know About Scottish Food Might Be a Myth
From the whisky sold in foreign liquor stores to tartan-boxed shortbread clutched by Edinburgh tourists, we’re told that Scotland’s food is rooted in history. But many traditional dishes aren’t as “Scottish” as we might think.
Authenticity is at the heart of Scotland's national cuisine, an idea projected across the world by our tourism industry and food exporters. From the Scottish whisky sold in foreign liquor stores to the tartan-boxed "traditional" shortbread clutched by tourists in Glasgow and Edinburgh, we're told that Scottish food is rooted in history.
But many of Scotland's traditional dishes aren't as authentically "Scottish" as we might think. The poetic visions we have about Scotland—perpetuated by tartanry and Braveheart—miss out on the global nature of real Scottish food.
Take the sheep from North Ronaldsay, for example. Thought to be around 5,000 years old, the unique breed of seaweed-eating sheep was brought to Orkney by Norse sailors. It forms part of a genetic lineage of sheep that stretches from Scandinavia, through Shetland and the Faroe Islands to Iceland. As such, North Ronaldsay shares an agricultural identity with non-Scottish territories across the North Atlantic.
It's not the only Scottish livestock with an international back story. The Highland cow or "heilan coo" is one of the oldest herds of cattle in the world, dating back to 1885. Their red hair is attributed to Queen Victoria, whose soft spot for gingers prompted breeders to appease the monarch by breeding out black Highland cows—an irrevocable English influence on a supposedly Scottish breed.
Haggis also plays a major role in Scotland's culinary identity, but the dish itself is likely to have been adapted from a Roman recipe and the name has Old Norse etymology, stemming from the origin hǫggva, meaning "to chop." The ingredients are organ meats, animal fat, oats, vegetables, and imported spices—usually accompanied by neeps (a.k.a. swede) and tatties (a.k.a. potatoes).
The neeps are probably of Swedish origin, where they have been found growing wild. As for the tatties: rice has been imported to Scotland since the 14th century whereas potatoes arrived to the country some 200 years later. Varieties of potato were passed down through patriarchal lines in Scottish fishing communities, so domestic production has rendered the potato a traditional product, but its origins are no more "Scottish" than rice, and certainly its history is more brief.
Perhaps the most iconic Scottish food, however, is venison. An encapsulation of nature's almost untamable might, the stag that lends its meat for the dish fits with Sir Walter Scott's vision of Scottish Highlanders as "noble savages," living in Britain's last great wilderness. Wild game certainly plays a role in Scottish gastronomy but in a 2008 UK-wide survey, only 0.7 percent of the households surveyed reported buying any game at all. Many Scots are enthusiastic about game consumption but a lack of retail distribution, compounded by food safety paranoia, means that venison can never really be considered an every day menu item. Sadly, the stag has more in common with the tourist-luring dinners of upmarket restaurants than the daily cuisine of Scotland's people.
Of course, no matter a dish's history or provenance, as long as people consider it culturally theirs, it becomes part of their food identity. But there still seems to be an emerging interest among Scotland's food community in finding a new and accurate gastronomy to call their own. Young restaurateurs, disruptive food supply networks, and producers are looking past the myth to serve up a sincere reflection of Scotland and its collage of cultures.
With thanks to Chris Wright. Illustration by Carly Allen-Fletcher.