The people of lowland Scotland would have eaten foods very similar to those eaten in England such as; bread, mutton, venison, beef, geese, swans, and any vegetables and fruits that were in season. Although sugar was available it was very expensive and would have only been consumed by the very wealthy. Most people including the Highlanders would have used honey as a sweetener.
The mainstay for the average person would have been bread with pottage. Pottage is like a thick soup or stew we might eat today. It was made in a large pot, over the fire, using any ingredients that were to hand. This would normally include vegetables, grains, herbs and spices, and was more likely to contain fish than meat. People of this period ate much more fish than we do today that’s because the church forbade the eating of meat on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
Pottage is such a simple meal, with easy preparation, that I have to assume the people of the Highlands would have eaten a similar dish.
Most highlanders were subsistence farmers who lived off the land. This meant if they couldn’t hunt it, fish it, or grow it, they couldn’t eat it. The best information I could find were the rent records kept by the Abbots of Iona. This really feels like a snapshot of the past as rents were paid in goods rather than money. The goods, of course, would be whatever crops were available. This includes; cattle, bere – a type of barley, oats – mainly black oats, and dairy products such as cheese and butter.
You'll notice there was no mention of haggis. Ironically, the first documentary evidence of this iconic Scottish dish comes from a cookbook from Lancaster, England in 1430 AD.
I was always led to believe that oats were a mainstay of Scottish food, either in the form of oatcakes or as a porridge. And this seems to be true. John Froissart a fourteenth century chronicler wrote this about the Scots:-
“They neither care for pots or pans,
for they boil beasts in their own skins. They are
ever sure to find plenty of beasts in the country that they pass
through. Therefore they carry with them no other purveyance,
but on their horse: between the saddle and the pannel, they place
a broad plate of metal, and behind the saddle, they will have a
little sack full of oatmeal, to the intent that when they have eaten
of the sodden flesh, then they lay this plate on the fire, and
moisten a little of the oatmeal: and when the plate is hot, they
cast some of the thin paste thereon, and so make a little cake in
manner of a crak'nel, or biscuit, and that they eat to comfort their
stomachs. Wherefore it is no great wonder that they make
greater journies than other people do.”
Then there were cattle. A clan measured its wealth in cattle. The herd would provide dairy foods, so the majority of healthy animals would not be killed for meat. The old and infirm were normally be slaughtered in autumn and winter when grazing was poor. Archeological research shows that the bones of slaughtered animals were cracked open, presumably to get to the marrow, indicating that all parts of the animal were eaten.
Hunting also provided a great source of meat such as; dear, wild boar, ptarmigan, hare, rabbit, and capercaillie. (This is a bird native to the Highlands.) The sea and lochs also provided an abundant source of fish. This included; cockles, clams, oysters, limpets, mussels, prawns and seals. Meat and fish would have been preserved by drying or salting – if salt was available.
The prominence of good, hearty food does not mean that the dishes were bland. It wasn’t unusual for food in this period to be highly spiced, especially in the cities where spices were used to disguise the taste of rotten meat. In the highlands native herbs such as bog myrtle, wild garlic, vetch (wild liquorice) and wild marjoram, would have been used to add flavor. Of course there were also forged foods like nuts and cloudberries. (Cloudberries grow in the mountainous areas of the northern hemisphere.)
I doubt that water would have been consumed, unless it came from a trusted source like a spring. But having a source of clean water would have been viewed in much the same way we view champagne today. Traditionally, weak ale would have been brewed and consumed by everyone, including children. The fermentation process made the liquid safe to drink. The same goes for milk, before the advent of pasteurization, milk was not pure enough to drink without some kind of processing, hence the consumption of cheese and butter.
Discovering what kinds of foods were available in the Highlands has been much harder than I anticipated. Because the Highland clans had an oral tradition there is very little period writing to draw from. Archeological sites in the region are just starting to uncover facts regarding daily life. I look forward to reading about their discoveries.