The Train Journey
Giles travels through the heart of the Western Highlands by all manner of trains to see how the railways opened up this dramatic landscape to a wider world. Scottish food was once all about living off the land; catching, farming or growing what you could eat. The coming of rail in the Victorian era meant that food could now travel. Giles earns his keep with a stint stoking the boiler of the steam service from Mallaig then finds out what life is like as a freight train driver on the single track line across Rannoch Moor.
The Foods That Made West Scotland
The red deer is Britain’s largest and oldest native mammal. We’ve been killing and eating them since the end of the last ice age around ten thousand years ago. As people settled and began to farm, deer were pushed back into the wilderness of the Highlands, making way for sheep and a very different way of life. Estates swallowed townships and rich landowners started to look to think of deer as sport. After Queen Victoria adopted Balmoral as her Scottish retreat in 1848, stag hunting got the Royal seal of approval and became more about bagging a trophy than about putting food on the table. Now the balance has shifted again. Since the demise of their last major predator, the wolf, deer numbers have been steadily on the rise. Nowadays they need to be controlled in order to limit their effect on the landscape and prevent the deer from running out of food.
What you planted in the Highlands could make the difference between life and death. The key to survival here was getting the most out of the soil, and nothing provided greater reward than the humble potato. Packed with energy – they were excellent fuel for the working man or woman. The potato is now so much a British staple that it’s easy to forget its South American roots. It arrived here in the late 16th Century and wasn’t welcomed with open arms. The Scots were initially a little suspicious but, by the end of the 18th Century, the potato had become the food of choice for a working family and the way to eke out a living through the Highland clearances.
The clearances forced Highlanders to the coast. By 1890 three quarters of crofters in the West of Scotland relied on fishing for their main income. Herring were known as ‘silver darlings’. The men fished for them and the women prepared them for sale. They were called herring girls. As the shoals moved round the coast of Scotland towards East Anglia, the herring girls followed the fish. These were young girls, barely out of their teens, who gutted, salted and packed herring from dawn to dusk. A skilled herring girl could gut up to 60 herring a minute. They worked in teams of three, two gutters and a packer. Together they’d earn just one shilling per barrel.
Ayrsire Cattle and Dunlop Cheese
The lush green fields of Ayrshire stand in stark contrast to the majestic mountains of the Highlands, but even here, where conditions are far kinder for farming, food production was originally focused on survival. Meat was a luxury and animals had to be used for all they were worth. Cattle were kept for milk and cheese was a staple. This was usually a soft fresh cheese, made at home, something similar to crowdie today. The only problem was it didn’t last long. Harder, longer lasting cheeses were tricky to make and recipes sought after.
In the late 1680’s a native of Dunlop, called Barbara Gilmour returned to her homeland after spending more than a decade in Ireland. She’d fled to escape religious turbulence in Scotland and she came back with a recipe for full fat hard cheese. Her method spread right across Scotland by the end of the 18th Century and it’s making a return to Dunlop today.
In Britain we’re unfamiliar with wild mushrooms because we’ve never really needed them. On the continent, hunger forced people to eat what they could. As an island nation, there’s always been something else for us to catch or grow. Before the advent of mushroom farming in the late 18th century, all of our mushrooms came from the wild. There are thousands of varieties but only a fraction are edible. The forests, fields and woodlands of Scotland offer some of the richest habitats for fungi in the world. Thanks to the North Atlantic Drift, the West coast is warmer and wetter than the East and the native, well established woodlands are perfect for anything from ‘penny buns’ (otherwise known as porcini or ceps) to chanterelles.
Italian Ice Cream
Scotland has always been open to outside influences. It was the Northernmost outpost of the Roman empire and, from the 13th to 16th Centuries the ‘Auld alliance’ forged a strong bond with France. But if there’s one culture that’s left its mark on Scottish food it’s the Italians.
In the 1890’s thousands of families fled poverty stricken Central Italy for Scotland. Many came to seek passage to the Americas but something made them stay. Glasgow was one of the first ports of call and there was a living to be made selling ice cream. Quick to realise that pizza and pasta weren’t going to cut it with the Scottish natives, many Italians expanded into fish and chips and the Italian café and chip shop was born.
Scottish farmed salmon is big business. It’s Scotland’s biggest food export with a worldwide retail value of £1 billion. And all this for an industry that is only 40 years old.
Wild salmon leaping in soft watered rivers are one of the enduring images of Scotland. Ice houses, hatcheries and the railways helped bring this remarkable fish to a wider market, but supplies were never guaranteed. The Victorians began the process of breeding and hatching salmon to replenish game stock in the rivers but, in the late 1960’s, these techniques were combined with a bit of inspiration from some enterprising Norwegians and Scotland began to successfully farm salmon in the deep sheltered sea lochs of the West coast. The first harvest in 1971 was around 14 tonnes. Today the industry produces more than ten thousand times this a year.
- Series Producer
- Sarah Gibbs
- Giles Coren
- Alys Fowler
- Lucy Worsley
- James Wong
- Executive Producer
- Lisa Ausden