I often ponder while writing passages about eating and food in my Scottish historical romances what exactly did the Highlanders of the sixteenth century eat? Pastoralism and fishing were the mainstays of the culture though wherever possible crops were grown. Lazy beds, that is fields made from sea weed, were also used to increase crop land. Their diet consisted of oat porridge or pottach, milk, and eggs. They had some vegetables, especially kale and turnips in season. A variety of fish were mainstays in the Highland diet and they had an abundance in the lochs, streams, rivers, and oceans.
Highlanders ate little meat and slaughtered animals for special occasions. If meat was provided at any other time, it most likely came from livestock that had died for some reason. Sheep were raised for wool. Their cattle were used like currency in the modern world and reiving or stealing was prevalent among the Highland clans.
One of Chief Andrew Munro’s obligations in A Highland Pearl and A Highland Ruby was providing hospitality to visitors and for special occasions. The chiefs frequently served cream, butter, cheese, game, poultry, fish, mutton, beef, tea, coffee, chocolate, wine, and spirits. White bread was only offered to important guests.
Barley was used to distill whisky (the Scottish spelling), but the most common drink in the Highlands was ale. Although imported and expensive, wine was a favorite beverage.
Sweet Mutton Hot Pot and Dumpling
1 ½ lb. neck of mutton or lamb 1 turnip, chopped
2 t redcurrant jelly 6 oz. mushrooms, sliced
2 onions, chopped 1 parsnip, chopped and blanched
3 carrots, chopped 1 T tomato purée
1 pint vegetable stock or water
4 oz. self-raising flour 2 oz. shredded suet 1 t chopped parsley
Set oven to 375* F or Mark 5. Put the pieces of meat in the bottom of a large casserole. Spread them with the redcurrant jelly and place in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove and add the chopped vegetables and little salt and pepper. Stir the tomato purée into the stock or water. Pour over the meat and vegetables. Return to the oven. Reduce the heat to 350* F or Mark 4 and cook for about 1 ½ hours until the meat is tender. Dumplings: mix together the flour, suet, parsley and seasoning with enough water to form a stiff dough. This should make about six small dumplings. Add the dumplings to the hot pot for the last 30 minutes of cooking. Serve with buttered mashed potatoes and green vegetables. Serves 4-6
Excerpt from A Highland Pearl:
Andrew looked in Maidie’s direction. He continued to stare at her until Davina touched his arm for attention. He answered her question then turned back to watch Maidie. He couldn’t blame his brother for being taken with the lass. The woman had a way about her, different from most. She seemed gentle, kind, although strong-willed, and her beauty a natural wholesome sort. She sat now with the grace and look of nobility—golden hair piled in a stylish coiffure, a simple blue linen frock dipping in the front with lace over her breasts, and covered with a quilted darker blue vest. Nellie did a good job finding suitable clothes. She looked his way. He smiled. She returned the smile. His heart beat faster. Gad! The lass had three men giddy over her.
Andrew watched Gavin finger the large ruby hanging from his neck on a heavy silver chain. He told Andrew the old peddler who sold him the stone in Stirling, said it came with the Crusaders from the Holy Land and would bring good luck to the owner. Andrew knew all too well his brother called upon the stone’s power to give him good luck with women he desired. Now the rogue turned his desires to Maidie. Andrew determined to thwart his brother’s amorous intentions toward the healer. She was no ordinary wench Gavin could twist around his little finger at a whim.
Servants began clearing tables while the musicians took their places in the center of the hall. One played a flute, one a beautiful Scottish lap harp adorned in crystals and painted with gold filigree, the other the pipes. A bard took a stool beside the harpist. The piper began with a haunting melody while the diners quieted to listen to the music. Maidie and the others turned on the benches to face the musicians. She listened intently.
Andrew watched his brother, who sat staring not at the musicians, but the healer. Davina rose then made her way to Maidie’s table. She squeezed between Tavish and the lass. The two women engaged in conversation, laughing and smiling often.
The musicians played while the bard sang about the great Munro chief and his exploits, the song one Andrew had not heard before. The musicians certainly knew how to raise their honor pay—sing songs about the greatness of the chief and his accomplishments. He smiled, nodded toward the singer, hoping the song impressed Maidie. She turned in his direction. The two exchanged ardent stares.
Andrew thought he might ask Maidie to dance, but his wound throbbed. He could do nothing but sit and stare at her. Gavin smacked the table with his hand, causing a mug of ale to overturn, then rose and made his way from the head table while the musicians began to play a fast reel. Couples rose to dance.