What Did Sir Walter Scott Eat?

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By guest blogger Josi Kilpack

ladyofthelakes_coverMy most recent book Lady of the Lakes: The True Love Story of Sir Walter Scott was my first opportunity to write a story set in Scotland. I’ll never claim to be the best researcher—I mostly like to read novels and watch movies set in the time and/or place J. One thing I specifically looked for was what was different between what the Regency English (my previous historical fiction forays) ate as opposed to what the turn of the 19th century Scotsman ate. Scotland didn’t have the economy or the aristocracy that England had, they had a large middle class and lower class which meant that food was very different depending on who’s table you dined at. Walter was raised pretty solidly middle class, his father a writer for the signet—a type of solicitor in Scotland—their family would have sheep’s head soup most Sundays which was made by boiling a skinned sheep’s head for about 24 hours. Yum. They are also famous for their “fish, fowl, and flesh”—three separate courses between the soup and the dessert of a typical middle-to-upper class coursed dinner. Vegetables would be eaten in smaller portions—they liked their meat—and they ate a great deal of root crops that grew well in the colder temperatures and stored well through winter, though they pickled quite a few. Often they wouldn’t even eat things like potatoes, cabbage, and carrots until January, when they had used their other stores.

For breakfast—my favorite meal of the day—they ate similar to what we think of as an English Full Breakfast: back bacon, sausage, eggs, baked beans, porridge, and mushrooms, but Walter might also have black pudding (made with pig’s blood) Haggis (sheep organs mixed with other stuff and packed into a sheep stomach) and the traditional Scottish breakfast bread: Bannock, sometimes referred to as oat cakes. I’ll skip the entrails and blood-based recipes, thank you, but I can totally go for Bannock!

To make it, blend the dry ingredients together, and then add cold butter (back then they would have used lard or bacon fat) either grated, or blend with a pastry blender. Then add the wet ingredients and mix until you have a sticky dough. Divide dough into two portions and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead a few times to smooth it out and reduce the stickiness and roll to a ½ inch thick circle about the size of your pan, cut it into wedges and cook on medium heat in a little oil or butter for a few minutes each side, until browned. You can also bake them at 375 for 20 minutes, or until edges are browned. Split and spread with a little butter and jam and you’re good to go!

2 cups flour (all-purpose works great)

1 cup quick oats (must be quick)

1 Tablespoon baking soda

1 Tablespoon sugar

½ teaspoon salt

¼ cup cold butter

1 ¼ cup buttermilk (or half buttermilk and half milk, or half milk and half yogurt)

Eating at the Northwest Edge

dsc_0404County Donegal is a splendid place to visit if you’re into scenery. There are spectacular cliffs falling directly into the ocean (with small brave roads clinging to the side of them for the fearless), broad sweeps of golden beach—for those who like a gentle sun and don’t mind cold water, and beautiful vistas of hills and rounded mountains. The county is one of Ireland’s largest, and it hangs off the northwest corner of the island. Everything to its east is Northern Ireland, but Donegal is part of the Republic of Ireland, connected by a tiny strip only five feet wide to County Leitrim. Otherwise it’s surrounded by Northern Ireland and the Atlantic Ocean.

It’s always been a hard place to find enough to eat, and became harder after 1610 when the English, victorious after the Battle of Kilmacrennan in 1608, carved away what is now the city of Derry (Londonderry the name given to the city by the English) and most of the arable land in Donegal to group it with the parts of Ulster that are now Northern Ireland, still part of the United Kingdom.

What was left in Donegal was spectacular scenery: splendid mountains spilling into the sea, rolling hills, peat bogs that provided fuel, and stony ground. For the people who lived there, there was never enough land to plant much besides potatoes and some grains, mainly oats. In fact, in the late 1830s and 1840s when what they call in Ireland the Great Hunger swept across the island, wide areas of Donegal became depopulated, and remain so. The potato failure was part of the cause, but only part. During the whole of the famine period, Irish-produced food from all over the island of Ireland was still being exported to England.

Even before those dreadful days, those in Donegal grew barely enough food to survive. It has long been obvious that the hungrier people are, the less selective they become about what they eat. In a charming book titled “The Last of the Name,” Charles McGlinchey, who was born in 1861 and lived to be 93, remembered the Donegal of his childhood, and even earlier Donegal his father and grandfather told him about. Back in their day, everything that they ate was produced at home. When the grain was threshed (they called it corn), each family had a measure that lasted them for the year. Primarily it was oats, which grew better in such a northerly cool moist climate—oats and potatoes, which grew everywhere on small plots of land. In the morning, they would have oaten porridge and milk, or oaten scones hardened on an iron in front of the fire. “There’s nothing as tasty with a layer of butter on it as oaten bread,” he remembered. For their midday meal, it would be potatoes with salt and buttermilk. At the end of the day it was oaten bread and milk with porridge again. They caught some fish as well, and there were hens and ducks and geese, but anything beyond the staple diet was called “kitchen,” and there was not always kitchen available. Nearly all the eggs and butter were kept for sale, one of the only ways to earn a bit of coin to buy necessities that could not be created at home.

Given the easy affluence we have now, it’s hard to imagine such a life in which generations grew and flourished—at least to the extent of producing children, who also grew to produce children—and easy to see why the Great Hunger had such a devastating effect. Easy to see why the iron hand of British government, which encouraged that subsistence diet, also produced rebellion, and, in the end, revolution.

In my novel, The Defiant Heart (now also the 2d part of the two-novel volume, Diarmaid the Irishman), I tried to picture what that life must have been like, and the people who survived and fought against the forces that caused it.