Ultimate Guide to the Most Traditional Food of Scotland
Scotland boasts some of the most visually stunning landscapes in the world. But, the unique geography offers much more than just beautiful photos and walks. With hundreds of miles of coastline and acres of prime farmland, Scotland are the proud producers of some of the finest quality beef, lamb, scallops, langoustines, salmon and plenty of other seafood to boot. We are a couple of Scots who grew up eating, and loving, these great products. So we are here to share our list of the most Traditional Food of Scotland.
Read on as we take a deep dive into some of the top traditional food of Scotland, to really understand what they are and where they came from.
Traditional Food of Scotland: Top 3 Must-Try Scottish Dishes
Haggis has to be the most famous of all the Scottish dishes; but it is also a love-it or hate-it dish. I think it is the idea that puts people off more than anything.
2. Deep-Fried Mars Bar
The Scottish (particularly the West Coast) love anything deep-fried. And chocolate bars are no exception!
The Plate Unknown
Hey there! We are Katie & Matt, the duo who love food - and learning about it even more!
We have worked in the food industry for 30 years combined and are set to travel the world to continue learning about the food of the world.
Haggis is undoubtedly the most famous of the traditional food of Scotland. But what is a haggis?
The Wee Scottish Creature
Well, these small woolly creatures live in the Scottish Highlands and have one set of legs shorter than the other. This allows them to run around more easily on the steep hillsides. There are two different types of haggis – one whose left legs are shorter and the other whose right legs are shorter. Having one set of shorter legs does make catching them much easier. All you have to do is around in the opposite direction.
This is the story that we, and thousands of other Scots, have told foreigners for years (and were told as children!). To the point that 33% of American tourists believe this story to be true! Why do we tell it? Well, in part, because it’s fun to mess with people – the Scots have the best sense of humour! But mostly because explaining what haggis actually is, greatly decreases the likelihood of someone actually trying it.
What is Haggis?
Traditional Haggis is made from Sheep’s Pluck (heart, liver and lungs), minced with onion, oatmeal, suet and seasoning. Next, this combination and stock mix together before cooking in a sheep’s stomach. Well, we did warn you that it would put you off trying it! But being put off means you miss out on the great taste of haggis.
In the Western World, prime cuts of meat are readily available and relatively affordable to most people. Therefore, offal (internal organs) has become much less desirable; many will even refuse to consider such things as food. In recent times “Nose to Tail” cookery has made a comeback, though mainly at top-end restaurants. And even then, they choose useful euphemisms for the parts they’re using so they don’t put off diners.
But that initial distaste means you’re missing out as the rich flavour and spices that make Haggis a joy to eat. Even when served with boiled and mashed “neeps” (turnips) and “tatties” (potatoes), possibly the least interesting accompaniment to anything, it is still a pleasure to eat. Click here to learn what does haggis taste like.
These days, an artificial casing is usually used rather than sheep’s stomach. But it does still contains the traditional offal.
In the 1960s various producers started offering “vegetarian Haggis”. They replaced the meat with various pulses, mushrooms and grains. I know many meat eaters who prefer the vegetarian version, actively choosing it over traditional Haggis if offered. Although how much of this is flavour based and how much is squeamishness about the ingredients is up for debate.
Where does haggis come from?
Like most dishes, the exact origin is unclear. The first written appearance is in a 15th century English cookbook. Later, there is a further mention by Scots poet, William Dunbar, around the turn of the 16th century.
There is another theory that a Scandinavian nation imported it. The “hag” in haggis could derive from old Norse haggw or old Icelandic hoggva meaning “to chop”.
There are suggestions that the Ancient Romans prepared a similar dish. Or that it dates back to prehistoric times when hunters would chop the offal, which would spoil quickly, and add dried grains and spices. They would then boil this in the stomach, using the leather as a pot.
Personally, I like the last suggestion as it makes the most sense to me. Even now we save weight when hunting deer by removing the organs immediately. Although we don’t cook them on the spot. So the idea that they wouldn’t want to waste any part of the animal, nor carry back extra meat which would spoil before they returned makes perfect sense.
The origin not being from Scotland doesn’t really matter. It’s not like countries are lining up to claim haggis as their own. Haggis is, however, known around the world as a traditional food of Scotland, having become well ingrained in popular culture for centuries. Even before our national poet, Robert Burns, immortalised the dish in his poem “Address tae a Haggis” (forcibly taught to all Scottish schoolchildren), poorer Scots ate haggis during times of celebration.
When the Chieftain or Laird slaughtered some sheep for a feast, they turned the unwanted offal into delicious Haggis and served to the rabble. Now it is traditionally eaten every January 25th on Burns night – our celebration to Robert Burns. Served with neeps and tatties, and a dram of whisky. Burns night is a celebration of all things Scottish, usually followed by a Celidh (kay-lee) – traditional Scottish dancing.
Now I have to admit I haven’t participated in a Burns night celebration in many years and I don’t eat Haggis particularly often. Now that my Scottish citizenship has been revoked… It is not that I dislike our national dish, it’s just I don’t find the usual serving particularly interesting or desirable. Boiling and then mashing root vegetables is hardly the stuff of dreams. Though mashed potato with obscene amounts of butter, cream and salt is amazing! I still have PTSD from being forced to recite Burns poetry in front of the class and from being taught Scottish country dancing from the age of 8.
Alternative Ways to Eat Haggis
This is not to detract from Haggis itself. It is surprisingly versatile, full of flavour and properly warming on a miserable day, of which we have many.
Walking around Edinburgh you will find it employed in a host of different ways. From Haggis Pakora to Haggis Burritos. Even battered and deep-fried Haggis, adding the other culinary element Scotland is well known for – deep frying EVERYTHING.
If you’re new to Haggis maybe trying one of these more innovative Haggis creations as a stepping stone to the “purist” version is the way to go. But honestly, if you can get your head around what it’s made from – and, be honest, how many hot dogs etc. have you eaten with suspect meat sources – you’ll find something genuinely very enjoyable. Plus another excuse to have a few drinks in January.
Deep-Fried Mars Bar
Something you will definitely hear about if you spend any length of time in Scotland is the Deep-Fried Mars Bar.
This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. The chocolatey treat, Mars Bar, starts by being chilled – chilling is essential so it doesn’t melt instantly in the fryer – before being dipped in batter. The same batter is used for fish/sausages/haggis as for the Mars bar. Finally, comes the deep-frying. It is removed when crispy on the outside and gooey in the middle.
This sweet and savoury, crispy and gooey snack is so much better than it sounds on the surface. Although not recommended for anyone who is following any kind of diet plan.
I am incredibly biased as this great treat originated in my hometown of Stonehaven, just to the South of Aberdeen on Scotland’s east coast. Credit for the dish goes to John Davie who worked at The Haven fish and chip shop (now The Carron). The first mention of it was in the Aberdeen Evening Express in 1992. So maybe not old enough be a truly traditional Scottish food, but certainly an iconic one.
If you are looking to try this cultural icon for yourself be aware that not all Fish and Chip shops (Chippy or Chipper, depending on where you are in Scotland) will do this for you. They need to have a separate fryer for it as it can taint the oil. On the flip side of this is that many other chocolate bars are available in deep-fried style. So you aren’t confined to Mars Bars and can really go wild with it.
The Arbroath Smokie is a slightly less famous Scottish delicacy. Although it is one of the very few with protected status under EU law (for now).
Arbroath is a small fishing town on the North East Coast of Scotland, just to the north of Dundee. Although the Smokie itself originates in the village of Auchmithie (ok-mith-ee), a few miles further north.
The story goes that a storehouse full of Haddock, which was being salted overnight, caught fire. Although most of the fish burned, the villagers noticed that the fire actually cooked some of them, leaving a pleasant smokey flavour. It’s a nice wee story but, in reality, it’s much more likely the villagers were of Scandinavian descent where this process is much more prevalent. But never let facts get in the way of a good story!
The preparation of the “smokies” is still done using traditional methods dating back to the late 19th century. They are first salted overnight, then tied in pairs using hemp wire and left to dry for a further night. Once salted, tied and dried, they are hung over a triangular length of wood with one fish on either side of the wood – called the “kiln stick”. The purpose of the sticks is to hang the fish over a special barrel containing a hard-wood fire. Once the fire is lit the lid is put on the barrel and secured with wet jute sacks (wet jute is used to stop them catching fire).
This process creates a very smokey, hot and humid fire for the fish to cook over. These conditions are essential to get the fish cooked, without burning, and the intense smokey flavour. This usually takes just under an hour.
Finnan Haddie (Finnan Haddock)
Finnan Haddie is another smoked fish of contested origin. Claim to this dish is made by two locations. Firstly, the hamlet of Findan, sometimes referred to as “Finnan”, in Aberdeenshire, And secondly, the village of Findhorn at the mouth of the river Findhorn in Moray.
Finnan Haddie is one of the main ingredients of Cullen Skink, a thick soup made with smoked haddock, potatoes and onions. It is also poached in milk for breakfast. Every hotel I have worked in has served this with poached egg and some of the poaching milk foamed on the top like shaving foam. Plus it is also one of the main ingredients in kedgeree.
Traditionally, the haddock are first gutted then split in half, lightly salted or brined and smoked over peat and greenwood fire. The temperature is kept cool to give a firm and silky texture. This method of production doesn’t give a long shelf life, particularly when compared with the Arbroath Smokie. So these were not well known outside the Aberdeenshire area until railways were constructed linking London to the north in the 1830s.
Of course, there is an apocryphal story about this method being discovered due to a fire at a curing house in Portlethen, near Findan. But once again it is much more likely to have been a method taught by Scandinavians.
There is evidence of Finnan Haddie in Aberdeenshire at least as early as the 1640s. However, the method had most likely been used for a long time before this. Nowadays you’ll see “undyed smoked haddock fillets” in most supermarkets. In hotels, you will see milk poached smoked haddock, with Kedgeree on fewer menus. Cullen Skink, on the other hand, is the most ubiquitous dish in Scotland using Finnan Haddie.
Best of the Rest: Other Traditional Scottish Foods
There are several Scottish chefs who would like to argue that Scotland has the best natural larder in the world. This is an interesting use of the word “natural” as almost nothing we grow here in Scotland is originally from here. Nor does it look like its “natural” state before humans messed with it. But that aside, Scotland can certainly boast world-leading meat from Aberdeen Angus cows. Plus there is the established Highland Wagyu, in addition to the lesser-known breeds such as Dexter and Galloway.
Stepping away from the cows, there is also great meat in the form of red deer venison and lamb.
Some of the world’s best shellfish also comes from Scotland including hand-dived scallops, lobster, crab and oysters. I have sat in 3 Michelin Star restaurants in New York proudly displaying “Orkney Lobster” and “Oban Scallops” on the menu. Many of the best restaurants in Paris and London have standing orders with specific boats off the west coast of Scotland.
There are also excellent fisheries in mackerel, herring and haddock. Not to mention the wild Scottish Salmon fished from our rivers and farmed Salmon which has made the fish affordable to all. You can read a more detailed breakdown on the difference between wild and farmed salmon here.
Root vegetables, mushrooms, apples and berries all make an appearance as top Scottish ingredients. So it’s easy to see why such a claim is made to having the best natural larder.
The Scottish restaurant scene is awash with eateries proclaiming to use “the best local and seasonal produce”. Even though the cooking methods are generally European in origin, you can still get an idea and delight in the amazing produce that Scotland has to offer.
Chicken Tikka Masala
This famous curry has contested routes in Southeast Asia and the UK more widely. But the romanticised story we love the most is that it started in Glasgow.
The story starts in the 1970s in the Glasgow-based Scottish curry house, Shish Mahal – which boasted a cult following. It is said that a customer complained his chicken tikka was too dry so sent it back. As luck would have it, Mr Ali (the owner) was on a liquid-based diet due to a stomach ulcer. He decided to add some of his spiced tomato soup to the dish. With customers returning time and again to enjoy this creation, the Chicken Tikka Masala was born.
This fizzy Scottish drink is often referred to as “Scotland’s other national drink”.
Launched by AG Barr back in 1901, the recipe has remained a secret ever since. All they will say is that it contains 32 ingredients.
Loved for being the best hangover cure, you could be forgiven for feeling fearful of this bright orange drink. Mother’s around the country say it contains so much food colouring, it will turn your insides green.
Irn Bru became the focus of public outcry when a change to their recipe came with the introduction of the sugar tax. Purists, Scotland-over, will still wax lyrical of the good old days when Irn Bru was their favoured, sugar-filled, “tin of ginger”.
Us Brits love a cuppa. And there is no better accompaniment than Shortbread: a much loved traditional food of Scotland.
Shortbread first appeared in a Scottish cookbook dated 1736. Amended over time, by 1850 the recipe was a ratio of just butter, flour and sugar. And this simple recipe is still used to this day.
This is now such a staple of the biscuit aisle, that in 1980 the EU threatened to classify it as a “common biscuit”. This resulted in a battle, with the Scottish Association of Master Bakers. They argued that the biscuit’s ancestry as a “flour confectionery” gave it additional status. The bakers won.
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The Plate Unknown is an educational food blog. Here we share information about world food culture, the origin of dishes from around the world, and tips for taking a food-focused trip.