Colored image of a traditional Scottish breakfast

Anthropology: Overview of Traditional Cuisine in Scotland (United Kingdom)

Scotland is known for its beautiful green landscapes, rich history, and diverse culture. Thanks to its geography and the temperate climate, Scotland produces some of the finest venison, beef, lamb, fish, and other seafood, that are distinctive to Scottish fields, rivers, and seas. Scottish cuisine is one of the most savory, hearty, and nourishing in the whole of the United Kingdom. The traditional culinary meals are so much more than haggis and date back thousands of years. This article will overview some of the traditional Scottish cuisine, its history, and its significance for Scottish culture.

Scotland – United Kingdom’s treasure full of natural resources

Scotland is known for its stunning landscapes. The country is located in the northern part of Great Britain. Therefore, it has access to the sea, rivers, and lochs. The abundance of natural resources provides them with sea and freshwater fish, and other seafood, like cockles, clams, oysters, limpets, mussels, and prawns.  Other raw ingredients, such as game, fungi, venison, honey, and a great range of edible plants are provided by the forests.

Historically, much of Scotland used to be covered in woodland. Prehistoric men cleared the land and were able to rear domestic animals. This way, they added dairy, beef, pork, and lamb to their diet. They would then start growing crops of oats and barley, which made it possible to make bread and the first homebrew. According to the evidence, early Scots brewed heather mead, or heather ale, prior to the arrival of the Romans. With the arrival of the Vikings around AD800, the Scots learned improved brewing methods. The Vikings also brought ‘salting’ and ‘smoking’ techniques that allowed Scots to preserve their food and changed the way it was cooked.

image of Scottish landscape, showing the farmland of sheep and a loch
Farming in Scottish Highlands (

Early Scottish foods

The traditional Scottish food was simple in preparation and built around basic ingredients. After the ice age, the first hunter-gatherers arrived in Scotland. The very early Scottish diet included deer, which were hunted on the land, and seals, from the sea. Various indigenous plants were used in addition.

Once farming was established, Scots began to raise sheep and cattle, and they started to grow wheat and barley. Thanks to the introduction of agriculture, primitive oats quickly became the staple of Scottish cooking. The food was based on cooked meats, soups, broths, and fish dishes. People also ate fruits and nuts, according to archeological evidence. Thanks to rich agriculture, most of the ingredients necessary were sourced locally. Some of the early dishes that are believed to have originated as early as the 1400s, are, for example, Scotch Broth, Black Pudding, Haggis, Cullen Skink. During this time, Scots began to season their meals and experiment with herbs and spices that were imported from outside of their lands.

French influence on Scottish foods

In the 16th century, French chefs brought their cuisine with them to Mary Queen of Scots’ royal court. Again, this influenced the methods used for the preparation of food and enriched sauces. The Scottish ‘collops’ and ‘Howtowdie’ were in fact the French ‘escalopes’ and ‘Hateoudeau’. Thanks to travel during those times, there were new ingredients introduced to Scotland. These included potatoes, wheat flour, coffee, lemon, spices, tea, and sugar.

Scottish cuisine in the late 18th and early 19th century

The potato famine in the 1940s meant starvation and death for many Scots. However, in the late 18th century, the famine was over and the food became richer again. The preparation of recipes was more complicated and desserts were creamier and sweeter. The potato continued to be one of the key ingredients of the Scottish diet. Nevertheless, wealthy families offered several small courses instead of the two main large courses. Hearty soup, fish, game, roast meat, pudding, and dessert were served in Scottish dining rooms. People would also drink claret and whisky along with their meals.

In the 19th century, baking was more popular in Scotland. Pancakes, scones, Dundee cake, shortbread, and pastries were endorsed by wealthy Scots. Meanwhile, the poor continued with a simpler and healthier diet.

Scottish diet today

Since World War II, Scotland started producing more food, in order to be more self-sufficient due to food shortages that they faced during the War. Scots introduced some variations to traditional Scottish recipes because, due to hard times, they were unable to buy certain ingredients (such as beef for the broth).  They would use what was available to them at that time (the beef broth was replaced by Cullen skink served with smoked haddock).

Over the years, Scotland became the best natural larder in the world, which is recognized by chefs and food critics.  Nowadays, Scotland is home to many restaurants, famous food and drink suppliers, and hundreds of farmers’ markets.

Famous traditional Scottish foods

There are now many new ideas used in Scottish cuisine to make it innovative and unique. Unfortunately, there is a popular perception that all that is eaten in Scotland is fried food, because of people’s love for deep-fried fish and chips, hamburgers and other fast-food available nowadays. This, however, exists and is enjoyed almost everywhere else in the world.

Immigration to Scotland plays a significant role in the kind of food that is served in Scotland today. Over the years, there was large-scale immigration to Scotland (and the rest of the United Kingdom) from various parts of the world, including Italy, the Middle East, India, Pakistan, and later Eastern European countries, like Poland. Due to this, new restaurants opened in the larger towns and cities, serving food from different parts of the world, often influencing the traditional Scottish dishes. Despite this, the traditional Scottish recipes are what Scotland is famous for. They are an important part of Scottish history, culture, and heritage.

Porridge – the famous Scottish breakfast of champions!

Porridge has been popular in Scotland since early times. It has always been easy and cheap to prepare. Traditionally, Scotch porridge was made using ground oats. They were prepared by slowly cooking with a pinch of salt. The rich and full breakfast that can now be enjoyed by most people in Scotland includes black pudding, fried haggis, Lorne sausage, and potato scones. In addition to this, there are usually eggs, bacon, and beans.

image of traditional Scottish porridge oats
Traditional Scottish porridge made with Scott’s oats (

Cullen skink – simple and easy Scottish soup

Soups have been part of Scottish cuisine for many centuries. Cullen skink is a hearty, traditional Scottish soup made with smoked haddock, onion, and the very important ingredient in the Scottish kitchen – potatoes.

Skink is a Scots word meaning ‘shin’, ‘knuckle’, or ‘hough of beef’. It originated from the Middle Dutch ‘schenke’ (meaning ‘pork’, or ‘ham’), and Scots used ‘skink’ to mean ‘soup’.

Cullen skink originated in the town of Cullen in Moray, in the northeast of Scotland. The town was a thriving center for herring fishing and specialized in the production of smoked haddock. Thus, Cullen skink became the local specialty. There are different variations to the local recipes, in order to make the soup thicker. The soup is served with bread and enjoyed as an everyday dish in the northeast of Scotland.

colored image of traditional Scottish soup Cullen Skink served on a table with bread
Cullen skink (

Scotland’s national soup – Cock-a-leekie soup

Cock-a-leekie soup is another traditional Scottish soup or broth. Made using leeks and chicken stock, it is often thickened with rice or barley. Originally, the soup was prepared using prunes that were added during the cooking. Some people still add prunes to the recipe, but there are many variations of this soup today. The soup is especially eaten during the winter, as the traditional version is warming and very nutritious. It’s served during St. Andrews Night Dinner or Burns Supper, during which Scots celebrate the life and poetry of the poet Robert Burns.

Cock-a-leekie soup can be traced back to the 16th century. Today, there are vegetarian versions of this soup with leeks and other vegetables, chicken-flavored meat substitute, and prone.

image of a traditional Scottish Cock-a-leekie soup
Cock-a-leekie soup (

Arbroath smokie – Scottish smoked haddock

Haddock is very popular in Scotland. The Arbroath smokie is a smoked haddock fish that originated in a small fishing village of Auchmithie, near the town of Arbroath in Angus, Scotland.

According to legend, Arbroath smokie became popular after a shop was caught on fire, and burning barrels that contained haddock were preserved in salt. People found that smoked haddock is tasty and began to smoke the fish from then on. However, it is more probable that the villagers from Auchmithie were of Scandinavian descent as the preparation process of Arbroath smokie is very similar to the smoking methods used in Scandinavia.

The fish are first salted for a night, then tied in pairs, and left overnight to dry. Then they are hung in special barrels containing hardwood fire and covered with a lid, thus creating a very hot, humid, and smoky fire.

image illustrating the traditional arbroath smokie fish drying process
Arbroath smokie drying process (

Scotch pie – the national Scottish food icon famous all over the United Kingdom

Scotch pie has actually been evidenced to have originated in England around 500 years ago. However, the records are not clear.  The Scotch pie used to be called the mutton pie and is served hot in any town in Scotland. Cheap and easy to prepare and eat, as it does not require cutlery or a plate to consume.

Scotch pie is known as simply “a pie” in Scotland but is popular in other parts of the United Kingdom, and even outside of the UK in countries such as Canada.  Scotch pies are served by restaurants all over Scotland. This traditional Scottish pie is famously sold on football grounds as hot food. Hence, some Scots call it “football pies”.

Traditionally, Scotch pies are prepared by making a shell of hot water crust pastry. The shell is filled with mutton (sheep’s meat). The filling is spiced with pepper and other ingredients.

image showing the traditional Scottish Scotch pie
Scotland’s well-known Scotch pie (

Mince and tatties (potatoes) – popular Scottish school canteen dish

Mince and tatties consist of minced beef, onions, carrots, or other vegetables, seasoning, and stock. This simple dish dates back hundreds of years and is one of the most famous traditional Scottish dishes. Mince and tatties is a genuine Scottish classic that is eaten all over Scotland. According to polls on Scotland’s favorite dishes, mince and tatties are so loved by Scots that it beats gourmet dishes such as haggis, smoked salmon, and sirloin steak. The dish is known for being a traditional school meal because the ingredients could be easily used to feed large numbers of children in Scottish schools.

Image showing traditional Scottish Mince and tatties
Traditional Scottish Mince and Tatties served with green peas (

Haggis – a distinctive, savory Scottish pudding

Haggis is probably the most famous traditional Scottish dish. Despite the fact that many countries have produced similar dishes, haggis is believed to be of Scottish origin. This dish is made of a sheep’s pluck (heart, liver, and lungs). It is minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, salt, and stock. Traditionally, this should then be encased in the animal’s stomach and cooked. However, today people use an artificial casing instead.

The earliest printed recipe for haggis dates back to 1615. However, there is evidence of a recipe with the name “hagese” that was made with sheep’s pluck and herbs and dates back to around the 1430s from an English cookbook.

Today, haggis is widely available in supermarkets all over Scotland, with variations of the traditional haggis. For example, the commercial haggis is made from pig rather than sheep’s pluck. Kosher haggis is pork-free and fully conformant to Jewish dietary laws. And finally, most commercial and cheap haggis is encased in an artificial casing rather than animal stomachs.

Colored image of Scottish traditional haggis
One of Scotland’s most popular traditional dishes – Haggis (

Tablet – Scots’ favorite sweet

The Scottish tablet is a medium-hard confection that melts in the mouth. It is usually made from sugar, condensed milk, and butter that are boiled into a softball and crystallized. Traditionally, Scottish tablets were made with just sugar and cream. It can be flavored with vanilla, whisky, or nuts.

Tablet was first mentioned in the early 18th century in “The Household Book of Lady Grisell Baillie”. However, it is not clear when the tablet was first produced in Scotland, or who came up with the recipe.

Image showing traditional Scottish tablet
Galloway Scottish Tablet (

Shortbread – traditional Scottish biscuit

Shortbread dates back to 12th century Scotland and was probably introduced thanks to the French pastry chefs. The first printed recipe, however, was found in 1736, written by a woman named Mrs. McLintock. It was a luxurious biscuit, served only for Christmas or weddings, or given as a gift.

Scottish shortbread is also known as a shortie and is made from sugar, butter, and plain wheat flour. A unique part of shortbread making is that it does not contain baking powder or baking soda.

In Scotland, there is a tradition to break a decorated shortbread cake over the head of a new bride at the entrance of her new house for good luck.

Image of pieces of Scottish shortbread
Scottish shortbread (

Cultural significance of traditional Scottish cuisine in anthropology

Scottish national cuisine was deeply influenced by its geographical location and the old clan system. Scots ate what was available for them to produce and afford. Historically, wealthy families were the only ones that were able to afford meat, while the lower classes could only afford secondary products from animals. Thus, traditional Scottish cuisine heavily relies on roots, herbs, bread, dairy products, and animal organs. The traditional Scottish dishes are easy and simple to prepare, yet they are often nutritious and continue to be loved by many Scots.

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