19th Century Food

From Lewsiana, by W Anderson Smith (J&R Parlane, Paisley 1874-1886).

Let us first consider in detail the domestic arrangements in the hands of the women, and trace in order the results of their industry, which is untiring, if not always regulated to the best advantage.

As soon as the family is astir in the morning, the grown-up girls, or whoever is entrusted with the duty, prepares to go to the stack of peats on the moor for a supply of fuel.  Before setting out with her creel, she partakes of the roasted potatoes which it is the common custom of the country people to place in the ashes of the day’s fire before turning in for the night.  On her return the fire is made up, and cooking commences, which consists in boiling a huge pot of potatoes, to be eaten with butter or milk by the family; or perhaps a piece of fish, fresh or salted, should the men be fishermen; or a few herring, brought over last season from Wick or Fraserburgh.  If the potatoes are finished, as they will be in spring, porridge takes their place, this breakfast being eaten about ten or eleven in winter.  These dishes form the principal part of the diet, to which may be added, when the family is well off, eggs from their poultry, together with the universal, wholesome and palatable barley bread, and of late years an occasional cup of tea.  A repetition of this meal again about six in the evening may be said to constitute the customary diet.

It may be here observed that, as the white oats does not grow well in most parts of the Lews, the old native black oats is still cultivated; it has a much smaller grain and smaller yield generally, and is too dark for porridge.  This, then, they principally consume in the form of sowens, made thus:  As the meal comes from the mill it is steeped in water, until the grain dissolves and the whole sours; this takes from three days to a week.  The mixture is then strained, and the fine allowed to settle, while water is added regularly to keep it to a right consistence.  This is kept for making a kind of pudding called sowens, which, when well strained and not allowed to become too sour, is a most agreeable and exceedingly nourishing food.  Eaten with milk, it is a favourite supper both among the natives of the Hebrides and many parts of the mainland of Scotland.

Occasionally they slaughter one of their small sheep or some of their chickens, and therewith make soup, adding a few cabbages from their gardens.  “Gardens” is certainly a dignified title for the small patches of land surrounded with high dykes, containing a few scared-looking cabbages, and overtopped by an interior circle of lank willow wands destined for the ribs of creels.  Excepting pots for boiling, which is an Hebridean’s only mode of cooking, a gridiron for firing the cakes of oatmeal or barley is the sole utensil.  It is set on two long hind legs and two short fore ones – like a kangaroo – and thus suited to the fire on the floor.  Potatoes, now so universal, have only been introduced about a century [with a catastrophic crop failure in the 1840s] and tea has not been at all used in the West more than twenty years.  A field in Dalbeg is known as the ‘tea field’ from having been once manured by the tea thrown ashore from a wreck, no other use being found for it.

Before the notorious root brough life or laziness to the now numerous population, the inhabitants were necessarily scant and red deer numerous.  Venison, game, fish, milk, and the produce of the land they chose to cultivate, and the cattle or sheep they could afford to keep, enabled them to keep the wolf from the door.  At present they are of necessity omnivorous; no fish comes amiss to them.  Skate kept for such a length of time that when rased to the mouth it attachs the nostrils like a bottle of smelling salts, and known and beloved as sour skate, is a favourite with all.  Indeed, it often exercises after a time a fascinating influence over the originally contemptuous Sassenach.

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