Scotland, stop selling yourself shortbread!

F.M. McNeill and the case for regional cuisine, by Robbie Armstrong

Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 4: Hyper-Regionalism.

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Unusually I’m going to start this newsletter with a full length shout out to my favourite food podcast, which is back today with a new series. If you haven’t already listened to Lecker, then I would highly recommend going through its back catalogue now and listening to its many interviews ─ which range from talking Caribbean food with Riaz Phillips at Smokey Jerky, to the sounds of Tooting Market with Dipa Patel, and a lot of kitchen chat in between from Thom Eagle, Rebecca May Johnson and more ─ all with Lucy Dearlove’s narration and soothing production.

It makes sense that the new series is explicitly on the subject of kitchens, given how many of them Lucy has recorded in over the years, investigating how even identical fitted kitchens reflect different experiences, stories and personal histories. Within this framework, Lucy looks at how aspirational cookbook and TV kitchens ignore the lives reality of so many people, and where the inflexibility of standard kitchen design starts to erase cultural and even gender identity. I haven’t listened to it yet (I’m going to put on episode 1 as soon as I’ve sent this) but everything Lecker makes me look at a subject in a new light, so please do set aside some time for it this week.

Back to today’s newsletter. History is “shadowed in the kitchen”, Florence Marian McNeill declares in The Scots Kitchen, the subject of today’s article by Robbie Armstrong. Yet neither McNeill’s or Armstrong’s true concern is the history of the Scottish kitchen but rather its present and future (on a related topic, the other podcast you need to listen to is Landed, on the colonial past and possible futures of the Scottish farm). There is a contradiction at the heart of contemporary Scots cuisine which is that in the eyes of food media it is composed of a set of clichés and yet those clichés are very real ─Vittles has as much to answer for here, having published articles on munchy boxes, haggis suppers, and deep fried Mars bars, even with its tongue in its cheek. Armstrong asks when do these clichés stop merely reflecting reality and reinforce that Scottish cuisine must inevitably be a certain way: deep fried, excessive, parodic. There is more to Scots food than can ever fit inside a big wrap, however much we love to see it assembled.

Scotland, stop selling yourself shortbread!: F.M. McNeill and the case for regional cuisine, by Robbie Armstrong

‘In the early Scots kitchen the fare consisted of game or fish boiled or seethed in primitive fashion over the peat embers; barley bannocks and oat-cakes baked on the ancient greadeal; cheese and butter; wild fruit, wild herbs, and the honey of the wild bee. In the Highlands, in particular, the ancient parsimony was long preserved. “The great heroes of antiquity,” says Sir John Sinclair, “lived chiefly on broth. The water in which a piece of mutton or venison was boiled, thickened with oatmeal and flavoured with wild herbs, formed the morning and evening meal in the hall of a Highland chief.”’

 – F.M. McNeill, The Scots Kitchen

Florence Marian McNeill was born in Holm on the Orkney mainland in 1885. Renaissance woman par excellence, she was not just a writer but an editor, folklorist, suffragette and political activist, as well as a founding member of the SNP. Following stints as an English teacher and working in the women’s suffrage movement, she published her first book, Iona: A History of the Island, in 1920. She travelled and lived in Germany, France, Greece, Palestine and Egypt in the intervening years, before returning to join the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, taking part in the Peacemakers’ Pilgrimage in South Wales in 1926. Two years later, she moved from London to Edinburgh, working briefly as a researcher on the Dictionary of the Scots Language before embarking on a long project to document Scottish cuisine. 

The Scots Kitchen was first published in 1929, when McNeill was forty-four. Captivating and often charmingly digressive, it is as much historical document and political treatise as it is recipe guide. Its aim is ‘not to provide a complete compendium of Scottish Cookery, ancient or modern … but rather to preserve the recipes of our old national dishes’. To do this, McNeill focuses on the regional cooking, housewives’ recipes and cookbooks of old that she believed were at the heart of Scottish cuisine. ‘All parts of the country, from the Shetlands to the Borders have been levied, and all types of kitchen, from Old Holyrood to the island shieling,’ she writes proudly. This celebration of regionality was McNeill’s way of preserving the diversity of Scotland, defining the country anew by contrasting its past with the present threat of industrialisation, emigration and the first wave of globalisation. In McNeill’s vision, the national feeds into the local, the international into the national, the folklore into the political, and the personal into the universal. 

The pageant of Scottish History, McNeill declares, ‘is shadowed in the kitchen’. Few regions, delicacies or ingredients are left unexplored – Corstorphine cream to Glasgow tripe, Rutherglen sour cakes to Kilmeny kail and Selkirk bannocks – all somehow leveraged to reinforce the nation’s sense of identity through its food. There are references to partan bree (from north-eastern Scotland where much of the country's fishing fleet is based), sea-moss jelly (from the Hebridean isles), Edinburgh rock (‘an important industry in the capital [where] the world-famous rock is one of the triumphs of the Scottish confectioner’s art’). She lists local specialties like rumbledethumps from the Borders, cod-liver bannocks from Barra, and Tweedside’s potted salmon roe. The rum, limes and sugar of Glasgow punch speak of the city’s role in the slave trade, while the oats and barley of so many Highland dishes tell a tale of wet, non-arable land. The traditional Gaelic dish crappit heid (a boiled fish head stuffed with oats, suet and liver) can be traced back to the fishing communities of northern Scotland and the Hebrides, whereas the preparation of smoked fish traces the link between the North East and the Vikings.  

Today, the status and scope of The Scots Kitchen is unquestioned. The late food writer and broadcaster Derek Cooper said of it that ‘If I were asked to name the best book ever written about Scottish food there would be no doubt in my mind.’ Yet McNeill, and regional Scots cookery itself, feels at risk of being forgotten. The 2015 reissue of The Scots Kitchen by Birlinn Ltd (introduced by the inimitable Scots cookery book writer Catherine Brown) is out of stock on its website. Meanwhile, Scotland has become a place at ease with selling a culinary version of itself that is not just divorced from the regional, but scarcely representative of what anyone in the country actually eats on a regular basis. It seems that, somewhere between the publication of The Scots Kitchen and today (and despite the wealth of our regional food) Scottish cuisine has become the butt of a national joke. 

In many ways, the geography of Scotland could not be more conducive to a hyper-regional cuisine. Scotland boasts around half of the UK’s coastline – three times the length of France’s. It has over 30,000 lochs and some 900 islands. There are highland, lowland and maritime regions of varying geographies, ecologies and microclimates. Cool Atlantic waters are warmed by the Gulf Stream, making it perfect for fish. It is rainy (in case you hadn’t noticed), making it too wet for wheat, but perfect for oats and barley. It has a stock of fish, shellfish and ancient cheeses, and some of the most sought-after beef and game in the world. McNeill proclaims that ‘Certain districts such as the Lothians, Clydesdale, Angus, Moray, and the Carse of Gowrie are as fertile as any in the British Isles, exotic fruits and flowers grow freely in the open air. And nowhere in the world are farming and gardening prosecuted with greater skill and enterprise.’ Why, then, are there so few regional culinary identities in the country today? 

Scotland has long been a country of great inequality; nothing is scarce here but money, McNeill says, a statement ‘true of Scotland throughout her history’. McNeill details how, in the seventeenth century, Scotland was a country rich in salmon (a fish so common it was despised by the upper classes), as well as grouse, partridge and trout, yet in the same period, Dutch fishermen ‘fished round our coasts until they had practically established a monopoly, out of which their country made enormous gains’. She dismisses the popular belief that before the Union of the Crowns Scotland was ‘a poor and barbarous country’ as ‘contrary to fact’, and says that despite periods of acute poverty, Scotland was ‘never much worse off than England, and often she fared much better’. In contextualising Scottish political and culinary history adjacently, there is an underlying message – Scotland has, throughout its past, had a rich, plentiful and healthy diet, yet this has been impacted by internal and external forces time and again. Though once cheap, regional foodstuffs have more recently been sold for high prices at home and abroad, while a stark inequality between the classes has prevailed despite the nation’s wealth.  

McNeill also hints at the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the Scottish diet, and the recipes that ‘in this age of standardisation, are in danger of falling into an undeserved oblivion’. She bemoans that ‘In Scotland to-day, as perhaps the world over, there is of good home cooking less and less … there is neither the variety there used to be, nor the respect for quality.’ Pre-industrialisation, Scotland’s diet remained high in healthy, and often regional, foodstuffs – vegetables, fruit, oats, fish, seafood, dairy products and game (even if much of the working class made do with offal and offcuts). Industrialisation and globalisation saw the advent of convenience foods, refined sugar, salt and flour. McNeill feared that oats and barley were ‘threatened by wheaten flour, the victory of which would be regarded by many as a national disaster’. Alas, bannocks and oatcakes were steadily replaced by cakes and biscuits. 

Since deindustrialisation swept across the country in the 1970s, Scotland has continued to suffer from high mortality rates and low health outcomes, and despite numerous campaigns, our diet remains stubbornly high in sugar, salt and saturated fat while low in fruit, vegetables and seafood.  But this does not mean we should represent our cuisine as deep-fried and deeply unhealthy, or ourselves as a nation that only eats Rabbie Burns shortbread, haggis crisps and Irn Bru chicken pakoras. This would be to lean in to a stereotype based on a diet that has contributed to us being, for half a century, one of the sickest nations in Europe. What started as a very real health problem has mutated into an act of self-flagellation (ironic or otherwise), drawing media attention and controversy that feeds the vicious cycle. 

When we do celebrate Scottish regionalism, it often feels detached from any true sense of regionality. As more and more local butchers, greengrocers and fishmongers are replaced by chain supermarkets, it becomes harder for local people to find food from their own area at an affordable price (as a child who grew up in Peeblesshire, I vividly recall the arrival of supermarket chicken, lamb from New Zealand, and the impact Greggs had on the local butchers and bakers). Local seafood is sold to the continent and fine-dining restaurants at high prices but can be hard to buy in the fishing towns from which they originate. Salmon is rarely line-caught and often farmed on an industrial scale, wreaking ruin on marine ecosystems through pollution, parasites and high fish mortality rates. Game, local fish and seafood are often hard to find outside of high-end restaurants, while we import locally abundant foods like beef, lamb and oats.

 Above all, the Highland Clearances – which broke apart not only the clan system but communities, systems of shared land ownership and the tradition of the shieling – eviscerated Highland food. It might now be impossible to imagine regional Highland cuisines because the people who worked the land were removed, and with them went their music, language and of course, their culinary traditions. Indeed, many ended up in cities such as Glasgow, where these traditional foods were replaced with processed ones. Following the clearances, many Highlanders left or were incentivised to leave for the Americas or Australasia (a disproportionate number went on to profit from slavery and colonialism, thus repeating the cycle of displacement). 

The emigration of Scottish people has been a double-edged sword: it has allowed Scottish traditions to travel the world, but it has also created an overly simplistic idea of Scots cuisine and culture – one that is heavy on signifiers like teacakes, bagpipes, Burns and Scotch whisky, but light on regional intricacies and eccentricities. As McNeill writes, ‘native dishes have a habit of deteriorating on alien soil’. National dishes such as haggis, meanwhile, are too often mass-produced and hollowed out, seeming to exist for the benefit of visitors.

While it’s tempting to blame outside influence, perhaps we ourselves have too often given the impression that Scottish cuisine consists of the clichéd classics like smoked salmon, oatcakes and stovies, rather than the varied foods that come from Scotland’s rich and regional larders. Many traditional dishes, the last vestiges of regional cuisine, have been so endlessly repeated that they are often tasteless facsimile of the genuine dish. We Scots are quick to define our unique national identity, yet at the same time we act up a stereotyped version of ourselves – in both a cultural and culinary sense. Either that, or we play up to that other stereotype, deep-frying everything from haggis to pizza. We may have made something of selling the deep-fried Mars bar to tourists, but in doing so we have also sold it to ourselves. 

From the 1970s onwards, McNeill’s influence unexpectedly began to suffuse the Scottish culinary world once again. Ubiquitous Chip, a famed Glaswegian restaurant, started detailing the provenance of its ingredients on menus and cooking seasonal produce and game. Writers such as Catherine Brown in the 1980s and 90s, and Sue Lawrence in the 2000s, published countless books celebrating the regional dishes of the country. Jim Fairlie started Scotland’s first farmers’ market in 1999, and there are now over fifty-five markets helping to re-establish links between local food producers and consumers. The resurgence of regionality in single malt whisky has shown that consumers both at home and abroad crave terroir and individuality (even if, out of the 126 Scottish distilleries, only a third are owned by Scottish firms). Bere barley, probably Britain's oldest cereal in continuous commercial cultivation, is making a comeback. 

It is undeniable that the seeds sown decades ago are fuelling a renaissance in Scottish cuisine, even as some things die out (perhaps Lewis’ crappit heid, Barra’s cod-liver bannocks and Shetland’s reestit mutton will remain largely consigned to cookbooks). There is a burgeoning movement of local food producers and suppliers, game hunters, community organisations and market gardens re-establishing regional cuisine and supporting local food systems. Heritage wheat and native breeds are making a comeback, foraging is on the rise and new food initiatives are popping up all over the country. Modern Scottish restaurants such as Inver, Timberyard, Cail Bruich, Eòlach, Heron and many more are securing Scottish cuisine’s place firmly in the twenty-first century by sourcing seasonally and sustainably, with a strong focus on locality. 

Scotland is still a country rich with local produce and regional ingredients – the task of the new movement will be to reconnect these products with consumers. There lies a long road ahead, but Scotland’s Good Food Nation bill gives some hope. It states (optimistically) that by 2025, Scotland will be a place ‘where people from every walk of life take pride and pleasure in, and benefit from, the food they produce, buy, cook, serve, and eat each day.’ The Glasgow City Food Plan will use integrated food policies to tackle climate change while achieving a food system that is equitable, sustainable and healthy and also tackling obesity and food poverty. Nourish, a non-governmental organisation, works for a ‘fairer, healthier and more sustainable food system in Scotland’, while social enterprise and supermarket Locavore is building a ‘local food system which is better for our local economy, the environment and our communities’.

The learnings from The Scots Kitchen do not exist in a historical vacuum. The political undercurrent of the book reflects McNeill’s drive to champion and reinforce a strong sense of Scottish identity and culture based on its history, food, beliefs and religion; to send a salvo towards those who would see Scotland as just another part of the United Kingdom. At a crucial point in global geopolitics, she subtly argued that Scotland might better manage its wealth and resources on its own. Today once more we stand at a precipice; independence may offer an opportunity to fix a broken food system and tackle the inequality and poverty that lies at the heart of this nation’s ill health. Or we might watch on as the mismanagement of land, water, food and finances continues from outwith and within. 

Above all, The Scots Kitchen presents us with an idea of regionalism which is not in thrall to nostalgia. Through rediscovering local recipes and championing lesser-known national dishes from the ages, McNeill wasn’t only trying to preserve a food culture that she felt was being lost to the forces of industrialisation and emigration – she had understood early on that we must champion regional food culture to make the best out of our present food system. This is not simply a romantic notion of localism, but one crucial to a healthy, interconnected system; one that is resilient, where the regional is the global, and the local the national. Ultimately, the future of Scottish cuisine will be secured at a local level, and lies firmly in this generation’s hands … just so long as we stop selling ourselves shortbread. 


Additional Reading

The Scots Kitchen by F.M. McNeill, 1929. 

Perhaps the greatest Scottish cookbook ever written. This and most of her other works are available second hand.

Scottish Regional Recipes by Catherine Brown, 1981

No woman since Flossy McNeill encapsulated the dizzying diversity of Scottish cooking like Catherine Brown

Scottish Cookery By Catherine Brown. 

This sits in the very top tier of Scottish cooking books, including all manner of recipes to reflect the country’s rich and varied natural larder.

Catherine Brown, Making Better Out of Good: Scotland's Food and Drink, 2015 

Brown’s pamphlet explores Scotland’s often fraught relationship with food, and like The Scots Kitchen, argues that by looking back we can find a way forward. Cover design by the late, great Alasdair Gray.

A Caledonian Feast by Annette Hope. 

A definitive culinary history of Scotland (kindly loaned to me by Eòlach’s Verity Hurding).  

The Cook and Housewife’s Manual by Margaret Dods, 1826

Journalist and editor Isobel Christian Johnstone wrote pseudonymously as Margaret Dods (named after a character in Sir Walter Scott's novel 'St Ronan's Well') 

The Highland Clearances by John Prebble. 

Prebble tackled this controversial subject back in 1963, when it was being largely ignored by academic historians, recounting how Highlanders were deserted and betrayed into famine and poverty, often by their former clan chiefs as they grew rich on meat and wool. 


Robbie Armstrong is a journalist, reporter and audio producer from Glasgow. You can find him enthusing about foraging, fermentation and the joys of magnet fishing on Twitter and Instagram.

All photos credited to Robbie Armstrong.

Many thanks to Sophie Whitehead for additional edits.