The Native Scottish Diet in Boswell's Tour to the Hebrides


In the late 18th and 19th centuries it became sort of a fad for high-born Englishmen and women, particularly in the literary establishment, to travel to Scotland and write travel books. There are dozens of such examples including Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland by Dorothy Wordsworth (sister of the more famous brother). However none is more well known than the 1773 trip undertaken by friends Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. Johnson published his travel book A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland in 1775, and Boswell waited until 1785 with his Tour to the Hebrides of the same trip. It has been said that while Johnson's book focused on Scotland, Boswell focused on Johnson. This is true to a large extent and is one of the primary reasons people continue to read Boswell's book today, and as an autobiography.

Boswell also kept a detailed daily diary - and for a portion of the trip - recorded the food each day. This should be familiar to anyone who has kept a travel diary, the days food seems like one of the most important events - wait a week and who can remember what they ate. Food provides the author with a sense of immediacy and background texture (flavoring).

From the perspective of the modern "native nutrition" movement (such as the Weston A Price Foundation) , Boswell's book also provides a glimpse into the now lost Scottish traditional diet. This document contains excerpts of food related quotes from Tour to the Hebrides to help reveal what native Scots ate in the late 18th century. Scotland at this time was already well on the road to modernizing with imported goods such as coffee, lemons, wheat-flour. But many of the traditions were still visable, in particular with the poorer peasants.

The Scottish native diet is close in character to the native Icelandic diet. This is not surprising since there is a strong Norwegien background in both cultures. It is mostly meat and dairy, animal protien and fats, with very few vegetables. For more on the native Icelandic diet, see Daphne Miller's The Jungle Effect (2008).

Some things to keep in mind:

1. Excluded are the many quotes about drinks, which were typically tea, coffee, whisky, wine, punch and beer. These are obviously not native, other than the tea. Hard liquor was not popular until the 15th century and later, wine a southern luxury. Beer would have been the most popular native drink.

2. 'tart' is a pastry dish, not always sweet, like a pot pie.

3. 'collop' is, in general, a meat steak. Wikipedia has this to say:
Scotch Collops are a traditional Scottish dish. It can be created using either thin slices or minced meat of either beef, lamb or venison. This is combined with onion, salt, pepper, and suet, then stewed, baked or roasted with optional flavourings according to the meat used. It is traditionally served garnished with thin toast and mashed potato. The methods used to create this dish in its various guises have direct parallels with the Middle Eastern treatment of meat in their cuisine, such as Kebabs and Koftas.
4. Note the lack of vegetables. I thought perhaps Boswell neglected to mention the side dishes, but at times he is specific (see September 15th) about carrots, potatoes, greens etc.. so I assume many meals were simply meat-only affairs. This concurs with other literature of the period, and the Icelandic diet.

5. Note the abudance of meat, many meals are "surf and turf" with 3 or 4 different types of meat and fish.

6. Note the abundance of dairy in the form of raw cream, butter, curds, whey drinks and cheese.

7. Johnson and Boswell prefer "wheat bread", which is hard to find in the Highlands, so they often ate the native (and more nutritious) barley or rye.


Dinner = lunch
Supper = dinner

Easy to remember: "D" comes before "S"

Food Quotes (Scotland, 1773)

August 21: We had a broiled chicken, some tarts, and crabs' claws.

August 22: At dinner Mr. Johnson eat several platefuls of Scotch broth with pease in them.. We also had skate, roasted lamb, roasted chickens, and tarts.
Ed. Note: I received the following message from a reader about pease who says "I used to think this pease was just archaic spelling for peas until I was taught to cook this pottage. Pease were distinct - split yellow, dried peas. Also used in Pease Pudding still served in the north of England as a creamy veg. Yet 'mushy peas', served in the north too, were always over-cooked dried GREEN peas - prepared with a pudding-like consistency."
August 26: Breakfast.. They set down dried haddocks, broiled, along with our tea.

August 26: ..gave us good fish .. beef collops and mutton chops

August 29: ..roasted kid..

August 30: (ed: The following relates a poor peasant family) They will live all the spring without meat upon milk and curd, etc.., alone.

August 30: We had mutton-chops, a broiled chicken, and bacon and eggs.. Dinner.

August 31: We had a broiled chicken, mutton collops or chops, mutton sausage, and eggs..

September 1: ..they brought us out two wooden dishes of milk. One of them was frothed like a sillabub (ed: old English desert made up of whipped cream, whipped egg white, lemon juice, lemon zest, sugar, nutmeg and an alcohol). I saw a woman preparing it with such a stick as is used for chocolate (ed: probably something like this, see last picture), and in the same manner.. I put by the froth and took the cream with some wheat-bread which Joseph had brought for us from Fort Augustus.. I also gave each person (ed: peasants) a bit of wheat-bread, which they had never tasted [before].

September 6: We had for supper a large dish of minced beef collops, a large dish of fricassee of fowl, I believe a dish called fried chicken (ed: probably "friars chicken", a chicken broth with eggs dropped in), a dish of ham or tongue, some excellent haddocks, some herrings, a large bowl of rich milk, frothed, as good as bread pudding as I ever tasted, full of raisins and lemon or organge peel, and sillabubs made with port wine. (ed: this meal is at an aristocrats home)

September 7: Dinner.. roast mutton, a chicken-pie

September 8: on a sideboard was served up directly, for us who had come off the sea, mutton-chops and tarts.. coffee and tea

September 9: ..breakfast: as good chocolate as I ever tasted, tea, bread and butter, marmalade and jelly.. very good scones, or cakes of flour baked with butter. There was a plate of butter and burd mixed which they call "gruitheam" (Gaelic).. and cheese.. if often smells very strong.

September 10: breakfast.. eat cold mutton and bread and cheese

September 10: She treated us with cream and barley-bread.

September 10: I observed.. a good garden well stocked with kitchen stuff, gooseberries, rasberries, currant, strawberries, apple-trees.

September 10: ..all of the people have little boats and catch fish. There is plenty of potatoes here. There are blackcock in extraordinary abundance, moor-fowl, plovers, wild pigeons.. There is a great deal of fish: rock cod, haddocks etc..and fresh water trout..a place where one may live in plenty, and even in luxury.

September 15: We had a venison pasty today and most excellent roast beef.

September 23: We had here an excellent dinner, in particular a remarkable leg of broiled mutton with turnips and carrots.

October 3: Dinner.. I ate boiled mutton and boiled salt herring, and drank beer

October 5: We had the best goose I ever eat.. and we had whisky in a clam-shell, according to the ancient Highland custom.

October 9: There was an abundance of cream both at dinner and supper.

October 12: Breakfast.. I had some barley bread and cheese..

October 13: They eat mutton and potatoes and drank whisky. I licked some oatmeal. I had not done this since I was a boy. (ed: unclear what "licking oatmeal" is - perhaps gruel in a bowl without a spoon).

October 14: We had tongue and fowls and greens to dinner..

October 14: We had beef collops, potatoes, sowans and cream for supper.

October 17: We had a couple of bottles of port and hard biscuits at night, after some roasted potatoes.. by way of supper.

October 19: ..took a repast of cold mutton, bread and cheese and apples

October 19: We had cuddies and some oysters boiled in butter, that we might say we had fish and oyster sauce. We had roasted potatoes..a mug of sweet milk.

October 20: ..breakfast was prepared - milk, cheese, eggs, bread and butter.