A recent scientific study  has been published showing that in the Victorian era people living in the country ate better than those living in the cities. This got me wondering what people ate and drank during the time of the Statistical Accounts of Scotland. Could a similar assertion be made looking at what is recorded in the parish reports? Other questions also came to mind, such as when did they eat and why did they have this particular diet?
I decided to do some of my own research and record some of my findings in three blog posts. This first post looks at what Scots ate and drank. The second will look at why they ate and drank what they did, while the third will look at food scarcity, provision of food, and the link between food and health.
Looking through the Statistical Accounts it is clear to see that there were many similarities between parishes, with the staples being:
In Bathgate, County of Linlithgow, “the common people here subsist on oat meal, pease meal, barley, potatoes, milk, chiefly butter milk, greens, a little butter and cheese, sometimes the offals of beef, mutton, lamb, or veal, or a small piece of beef, and, on a particular occasion, a leg of lamb or veal. For three quarters of the year, potatoes constitute nearly two-thirds of the food of a labouring man’s family.” (OSA, Vol. I, 1791, p. 355) Whereas, in North Uist, County of Inverness, “the ordinary food is potatoes and barley-bread, which are almost exclusively used among the poorer class. The small tenants of a better class use, in addition, some milk in summer, and mutton and beef in winter.” (NSA, Vol. XIV, 1845, p. 173)
A great account of what people ate in the late 18th century can be found in the parish report of Speymouth, County of Elgin. (OSA, Vol. XIV, 1795, p. 400) There are even descriptions of what the Picts ate in the County of Caithness area (OSA, Vol. XX, 1798, p. 536) and what people in the Highlands ate back at the end of the 6th and beginning of the 7th centuries! (OSA, Vol. X, 1794, p. 541)
There are also clear differences between the classes. Not all of the working class was able to include meat in their diet due to its cost or lack of availability. In Longforgan, County of Perth, “the farm servants formerly lived with the family; and their usual food was broth made of kait and barley, or grotts, (unhusked oats), without meat, and bannocks made of pease and bean meal. Now they live apart from the family in their bothie, and get what is called livery meal, i. e. w peeks of oat-meal per week, and 3 choppins (quarts) of skimmed milk per day.” (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 492)
For many, meat was reserved for special occasions. For example, in the parish of Alvie, County of Inverness, “in regard to animal food, such as beef, mutton, and poultry, that is a luxury in which the small tenants never indulge, except at marriage feasts, baptisms, Christmas, and new year.” (NSA, Vol. XIV, 1845, p. 90) In Kirkden, County of Forfar, on Christmas Day “the servant is free from his master,” and goes about visiting his friends and acquaintance. The poorest must have beef or mutton on the table, and what they call a dinner with their friends” (OSA, Vol. II, 1792, p. 509) Many reports state that even though people had little money, they were still content with their situation. The people of Birsay and Harray, County of Orkney, “are as well contented as poor people can be expected; … can make a feast, at a wedding or a christening, on their own provisions, with a drink of their own ale.” (OSA, Vol. XIV, 1795, p. 332)
Even differences within the same class was noted. For the Scots in the parish of Kirkinner, County of Wigton, “their ordinary food is porridge and milk to breakfast, broth with bacon and potatoes or oat-cake to dinner, and porridge or beat potatoes to supper… The Irish population live mostly on potatoes and milk or salt herrings.” (NSA, Vol. IV, 1845, p. 17)
As for those of a higher standing in society, for example in the parish of Orwell, County of Kinross, “the better sort, however, live in a very different manner; most of the farmers and master tradesmen keep as good a table as any gentleman of L. 500 a-year; and their common drink after meals is whisky-punch…” (OSA, Vol. XX, 1798, p. 137)
Horsley, John Callcott; Coming Down to Dinner, 1876. Photo credit: Manchester Art Gallery.
For the upper classes in particular, food and drink was a way of showing their wealth and status in society. There are many references to grand dinner parties and feasts in the Statistical Accounts of Scotland. It was reported in Glasgow that “the first instance of a dinner of two courses in the neighbourhood of Glasgow was about the year 1786. Mrs Andrew Stirling of Drumpellier, who made this change in the economy of the table, justified herself against the charge of introducing a more extravagant style of living, by saying, that she had put no more dishes on her table than before, but had merely divided her dinner, in place of introducing her additional dishes in removes.”(NSA, Vol. VI, 1845, p. 229) You can find an account of one particularly lavish dinner “held on the 21st of August 1679, at the baptist of an early and distinguished benefactor of the country” in the parish report for Whitekirk and Tynninghame, County of Haddington. (NSA, Vol. II, 1845, p. 37)
Oats and potatoes
It is clear from reading the Statistical Accounts that oat-meal was one of the most important sources of food in Scotland, along with potatoes. The writer of the parish report for Bendochy, County of Perth, extolled the virtue of the most Scottish of staples – oats:
“The common people live on oatmeal pottage twice a-day. It is the most wholesome and palatable of all their food, being purely vegetable; notwithstanding the reflection in Johnson’s Dictionary, that ” oats are eaten by horses in “England, and in Scotland by men.” Such food makes men strong like horses, and purges the brain of pedantry. It produces hardy Highlanders, who by their strength and dress are so formidable to their enemies, that they call them, “Les diables des Montagnes.” (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 349)
There is an interesting account on the value of oat-meal in the parish report for Cambuslang, County of Lanark. (OSA, Vol. V, 1793, p. 254) For information on the cultivation and use of potatoes it is worth reading the report for Glenurchy and Inishail, County of Argyle. (OSA, Vol. VIII, 1793, p. 338) If you would like to find out more on what Scottish farm labourers ate (and in particular oat pottage!) take a look at the British Farmers Magazine (Volume 2).
Recolte des Pommes de Terre, Jules Bastien Lepage, 1879. By Samuel austin [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.
There were also some differences between parishes, depending on where they were situated and what was abundant in the area. For example, people living near or on the coast also enjoyed fish and seafood, like the parish of North Uist, County of Inverness (NSA, Vol. XIV, 1845, p. 167) and St Andrews and St Leonards, County of Fife (OSA, Vol. XIII, 1794, p. 197). In Lochalsh, County of Ross and Cromarty, “during the summer and beginning of harvest, they are much employed in fishing of sythe, (a small species of the cole fish), herrings, and sometimes ling, cod and skate. The sythe are eat fresh; the herrings are pickled, to be eat with the potatoes during the harvest, winter, and spring. Though 63 boats be employed in this manner, there are no fish exported from the parish.” (OSA, Vol. XI, 1794, p. 425)
In Aberdeen “a considerable variety of fish are caught in the vicinity of this place, as haddock, whiting, cod, ling, turbot, skate, flounders of different kinds, halibut, plaice, sole, mackerel, dog-fish, and occasionally herrings… The market is well supplied with fish upon very reasonable terms. This is a great relief to the poor, as fish makes a principal part of their food.” (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 155) However, in Portmoak, County of Kinross, a line was drawn at eels as a source of food! “As the bulk of the people have an aversion to them as food, from their serpentine appearance, this fishing turns to little account in the view of profit.” (OSA, Vol. V, 1793, p. 159)
Some parishes, however, was in stark contrast to places like Aberdeen. In St Cyrus, County of Kincardine, it was reported that there was a “reduction of the fishing boats, and of the number of hands that went to sea with them” which “leaves no foundation for a nursery of seamen, and prevents the inhabitants from enjoying that abundant supply of excellent food, with which the sea is stored.” (OSA, Vol. XI, 1794, p. 112)
Interestingly, it was noted that inhabitants of Leuchars, County of Fife, seem only to fish for amusement or when they fancy some fish to eat! “Is it not supposeable, that if their fishings were properly attended to, they might supply all the district with this wholesome and agreeable article of food?” (OSA, Vol. XVIII, 1796, p. 597)
Price of food
Many parish reports give the price of food, for example that of Dalgety, County of Fife (OSA, Vol. XV, 1795, p. 262), Kirkcaldy, County of Fife (OSA, Vol. XVIII, 1796, p. 53) and Kirkmichael, County of Dumfries (OSA, Vol. I, 1791, p. 61). This extract from the Falkirk parish report is very interesting as it provides a comparison between prices then and earlier, as well as pointing out the changes in its number of bakers.
“It appears from Dalrymple’s Annals of Scotland, that the price of a hen in 1295 was only one penny; but now one that is well fed will cost fifteen or eighteen pence. Forty years ago, the price of butcher meat in this market was only about 2 d. per pound; but now it is from 4 d. to 6 d. or 7 d…. About 60 years ago this town and neighbourhood were chiefly supplied with wheaten bread from Edinburgh and Linlithgow. There were then only 3 bakers in Falkirk, and they were but occasionally employed. Hence it is, that the people in the remote parts of the country, when they come to procure bread for feasts or funerals, do still enquire of the bakers if their ovens be heated. There are now 18 bakers in the town of Falkirk, and 6 in the different villages within the parish. They make excellent bread, and the price is regulated by the Edinburgh assize.” (OSA, Vol. XIX, 1797, p. 86)
The parish report from Holywood, County of Dumfries noted that farm labourers can survive on such little wages as they are given some land by farmers “from whom they have cottages, allowing them as much land for one year’s rent free, to plant potatoes in… and these potatoes constitute at least one half of their year’s food. (OSA, Vol. I, 1791, p. 28) (We will look at the provision of food as a means of payment in the next blog post.)
While exploring food and dink in Scotland, it has been fascinating to learn a little about labourers’ homes. In the parish report of Criech, County of Sutherland:
“Once in three years, all the earthy part of these houses is thrown on the dunghill, and new houses built again of the same materials. The cattle commonly occupy one end of the house, during the winter season. Some holes in the walls and roofs serve for windows and chimneys. An iron pot, for boiling their food, constitutes their principal furniture.” (OSA, Vol. VIII, 1793, p. 376)
In Campsie, County of Stirling:
“The houses of every decent inhabitant of this parish, consist at least of a kitchen and one room, generally two rooms, ceiled above, and often laid with deal floors, with elegant glass windows; and I believe, few of the tradesmen sit down to dinner without flesh meat on the table, and malt liquor to drink…” (OSA, Vol. XV, 1795, p. 385)
Changes in diet
Changes in what the Scots ate and drank is also reported in the Statistical Accounts. This was in the main due to better farming and production techniques, as well as there being exports from further afield. Formerly, in Kilsyth, County of Stirling, wheat bread was only eaten on special occasions, little or no meat (beef, mutton or veal) was consumed, and tea was not drunk. By the time of the parish’s report, this had all changed. (OSA, Vol. XVIII, 1796, p. 307) In the parish report of Luss, County of Dumbarton, it was reported that “there is… a more plentiful supply of food than formerly. The extended culture of potatoes, as well as the increased productiveness of population here than elsewhere, they continue much attached to their native soil, in which generally their forefathers have dwelt from time immemorial.” (NSA, Vol. VIII, 1845, p. 162) Other discussions on changes in diet can be found in the Appendix for Monquhitter, County of Aberdeen (OSA, Vol. XXI, 1799, p. 143) and the parish report for Carmylie, County of Forfar. (NSA, Vol. XI, 1845, p. 361)
For some fascinating comparisons between eating practices over the years take a look at the report for the parish of Glasgow, County of Lanark. For instance, “the dinner hour about the year 1770 was two o’clock: immediately after that, it came to three o’clock, and gradually became later and later, till about 1818 it reached six o’clock.” (NSA, Vol. VI, 1845, p. 229)
There is a wealth of fascinating information in the Statistical Accounts of Scotland on what Scots ate and drank. There are the common staples, such as oats and potatoes, but there also many differences between parishes, including their location and its population, as well as changes over time. As with everything, habits and technology have changed the landscape. In the next blog post on Scotland’s food and drink we will look at why Scots ate and drank what they did.
 Regional differences in the mid-Victorian diet and their impact on health, Peter Greaves, 2018. Published in JRSM Open.