Traditional Scottish cookery is all about basic comfort food: solid, nourishing fare, often high in fat, that will keep you warm on a winter's day spent in the fields or at sea. But Scotland has been a frontrunner in the recent British culinary revolution, and an inspiring array of local and sustainable produce is on offer. Scotland's traditional drinks – whisky and beer – have also found a new lease of life, with single malts being marketed like fine wines, and numerous new microbreweries.
Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner
Though it's making a comeback, surprisingly few Scots eat porridge for breakfast – these days a cappuccino and a croissant is just as likely – and even fewer eat it in the traditional way; that is, with salt to taste, but no sugar.
The typical 'full Scottish' breakfast offered in a B&B or hotel usually consists of fruit juice and cereal, toast and jam, a pot of coffee or tea, and a fry-up combination of any or all of bacon, sausage, black pudding (a type of sausage made from dried blood), grilled tomato, mushrooms, potato scones and a fried egg or two. Most B&Bs offer a vegetarian version these days. An increasing number are eliminating the fried plate in favour of a healthier option like fruit salad.
Fish for breakfast may sound strange but was not unusual in crofting (smallholding) and fishing communities where seafood was a staple; many hotels still offer grilled kippers (smoked herrings) or smoked haddock (poached in milk and served with a poached egg) for breakfast – delicious with lots of buttered toast.
Scotch broth, made with mutton stock, barley, lentils and peas, is nutritious and tasty, while cock-a-leekie is a hearty soup made with chicken and leeks. Warming vegetable soups include leek and potato soup, and lentil soup (traditionally made using ham stock – vegetarians, beware!).
Seafood soups include the delicious Cullen skink, made with smoked haddock, potato, onion and milk, and partan bree (crab soup).
Scottish seafood is among the world's best, and it's a major highlight of a visit to the country, particularly along the west coast. There's an increasing awareness of sustainability issues and most serious seafood places will give information on provenance. Tucking into some local hand-dived scallops and creel-caught langoustines as the sun sets over a west-coast or island bay is one of Europe's great gastronomic pleasures.
And it's not all about crisp linen, claw crackers and finger bowls. A number of simple seafood shacks serve up delicious fresh fare in a very no-frills manner – a great way to eat straight from the boats without busting the budget.
Juicy langoustines (also known as Dublin Bay prawns, Norway lobsters or, in some places, simply 'prawns') are a highlight; crabs, squat lobsters, lobsters, oysters, mussels and scallops are also widely available.
Scottish salmon is famous worldwide, but there's a big difference between the now-ubiquitous farmed salmon and the leaner, more expensive, wild fish. Also, there are concerns over the environmental impact of salmon farms on the marine environment.
Smoked salmon is traditionally dressed with a squeeze of lemon juice and eaten with fresh brown bread and butter. Trout, salmon's smaller cousin – whether wild, rod-caught brown trout or farmed rainbow trout – is delicious fried in oatmeal.
As an alternative to kippers, you may be offered Arbroath smokies (lightly smoked fresh haddock), traditionally eaten cold. Herring fillets fried in oatmeal are good, if you don't mind picking out a few bones. Mackerel pâté and smoked or peppered mackerel (both served cold) are also popular.
Scotland is famous for its smoked salmon, but there are many other varieties of smoked fish – plus smoked meats and cheeses – to enjoy. Smoking food to preserve it is an ancient art that has recently undergone a revival, but this time it's more about flavour than preservation.
There are two parts to the process – first the cure, which involves covering the fish in a mixture of salt and molasses, or soaking it in brine; and then the smoke, which can be either cold smoking (at less than 34°C), which results in a raw product, or hot smoking (at more than 60°C), which cooks it. Cold-smoked products include traditional smoked salmon, kippers and Finnan haddies. Hot-smoked products include bradan rost ('flaky' smoked salmon) and Arbroath smokies.
Arbroath smokies are haddock that have been gutted, de-headed and cleaned, then salted and dried overnight, tied together at the tail in pairs, and hot-smoked over oak or beech chippings for 45 to 90 minutes. Finnan haddies (named after the fishing village of Findon in Aberdeenshire) are also haddock, but these are split down the middle like kippers, and cold smoked.
Kippers (smoked herring) were invented in Northumberland, in northern England, in the mid-19th century, but Scotland soon picked up the technique, and both Loch Fyne and Mallaig were famous for their kippers.
There are dozens of modern smokehouses scattered all over Scotland, many of which offer a mail-order service as well as an on-site shop. A few recommended ones include Hebridean Smokehouse for peat-smoked salmon and sea trout, and Inverawe Smokehouse & Fishery for delicate smoked salmon and plump, juicy kippers. Marrbury Smokehouse, supplier to Gleneagles Hotel and other top restaurants, is another one to try.
Steak eaters will enjoy a thick fillet of world-famous Aberdeen Angus beef, and beef from Highland cattle is much sought after. Venison, from red deer, is leaner and appears on many menus, particularly in the Highlands. Scotland, particularly Ayrshire, has some quality pork that appears in various forms.
A variety of meat-based deli products is beginning to appear from smaller, often organic, producers, with pork, mutton and venison being used in a very tasty array of smoked and charcuterie products.
Traditional Scottish puddings are irresistibly creamy, high-calorie concoctions. Cranachan is whipped cream flavoured with whisky, and mixed with toasted oatmeal and raspberries. Atholl brose is a mixture of cream, whisky and honey, flavoured with oatmeal. Clootie dumpling is a rich steamed pudding filled with currants and raisins; it's so named because it's wrapped in a 'cloot' (linen cloth) for steaming.
Vegetarians & Vegans
Scotland has the same proportion of vegetarians as the rest of the UK – around 8% to 10% of the population – and vegetarianism is now firmly in the mainstream. Even the most remote Highland pub usually has at least one vegetarian dish on the menu, and there are many dedicated vegetarian restaurants in the cities. If you get stuck, there's almost always an Italian or Indian restaurant where you can get meat-free pizza, pasta or curry. Vegans, though, may find the options a bit limited outside Edinburgh and Glasgow.
One thing to keep in mind is that lentil soup, a seemingly vegetarian staple of Scottish pub and restaurant menus, is traditionally made with ham stock.
Most B&Bs offer a vegetarian fry-up option these days, though vegans are advised to explain beforehand to their host exactly what the term means – just in case.
Eating with Kids
Following the introduction of the ban on smoking in public places in 2006, many Scottish pubs and restaurants have had to broaden their appeal by becoming more family friendly. As a result, especially in the cities and more popular tourist towns, many restaurants and pubs now have family rooms and/or play areas. Children's menus are common but not usually very imaginative.
You should be aware, though, that children under the age of 14 are not allowed into the majority of Scottish pubs, even those that serve bar meals; and in family-friendly pubs (those in possession of a Children's Certificate), under-14s are only allowed in between 11am and 8pm, and must be accompanied by an adult aged 18 or older.
Farmers Markets & Food Festivals
Many towns, city districts and villages, particularly in the south of Scotland, have a regular farmers market that showcases local produce. There's an inspiring variety of new, sustainably grown fare, with everything from chorizo to tea being brought from farm to table by small-scale producers. Local food festivals are another increasingly popular way to publicise regional delicacies.
You'll have plenty of choice for eating in Scotland. It’s wise to book ahead for midrange restaurants, especially at weekends. Top-end restaurants should be booked at least a couple of weeks in advance.
- Cafes Open during daytime (rarely after 6pm), cafes are good for a casual breakfast or lunch, or simply a cup of coffee.
- Pubs Most of Scotland's pubs serve reasonably priced meals, and many can compete with restaurants on quality.
- Restaurants Scotland’s restaurants range from cheap and cheerful to Michelin starred, and they cover every cuisine you can imagine.
Scottish breweries produce a wide range of beers, with generic multinational lagers alongside traditional-style real ales and a huge and growing selection of craft-brewed beers from small regional brewing operations.
Traditional Scottish ales use old-fashioned 'shilling' categories to indicate strength (the number of shillings was originally the price per barrel; the stronger the beer, the higher the price). The usual range is from 60 to 80 shillings (written 80/-). You'll also see IPA, which stands for India Pale Ale, a strong, hoppy beer first brewed in the early 19th century for export to India (the extra alcohol meant that it kept better on the long sea voyage).
Draught beer is served in pints (568mL, usually costing from £2.60 to £4) or half pints; alcoholic content generally ranges from 3% to 6%. What the English call bitter, Scots call heavy, or export.
The craft-beer revolution of recent years has hit Scotland with full force, and a large number of small breweries are producing beers ranging from organic lagers to traditional Scottish ales, American-influenced pale ales and various styles of dark beer. An increasing number of pubs have given over one or more taps to local craft beers or real ales, immeasurably improving the Scottish beer scene.
Visit http://glasgowcamra.org.uk/breweries.php for a comprehensive list of Scottish breweries, both large and small.
Scotch whisky (always spelt without an 'e' – whiskey with an 'e' is Irish or American) is Scotland's best-known product and biggest export. The spirit has been distilled in Scotland at least since the 15th century and probably for much longer.
At a bar, older Scots may order a 'half' or 'nip' of whisky as a chaser to a pint or half pint of beer (a 'hauf and a hauf'). Only tourists ask for 'Scotch' – what else would you be served in Scotland? The standard measure in pubs is either 25mL or 35mL.
As well as whiskies, there are whisky-based liqueurs such as Drambuie. If you must mix your whisky with anything other than water, try a whisky mac (whisky with ginger wine). After a long walk in the rain there's nothing better for putting a warm glow in your belly.
Top 10 Single Malt Whiskies – Our Choice
After a great deal of diligent research (and not a few sore heads), Lonely Planet's Scotland authors have selected their 10 favourite single malts from across the country.
Ardbeg (Islay) The 10-year-old from this noble distillery is a byword for excellence. Peaty but well balanced. Hits the spot after a hill walk.
Bowmore (Islay) Smoke, peat and salty sea air – a classic Islay malt. One of the few distilleries that still malts its own barley.
Bruichladdich (Islay) A visitor-friendly distillery with a quirky, innovative approach – famous for very peaty special releases.
Glendronach (Highland) Only sherry casks are used here, so the creamy, spicy result tastes like grandma's Christmas trifle.
Highland Park (Orkney) Full and rounded, with heather, honey, malt and peat. Award-winning distillery tour.
Isle of Arran (Arran) One of Scotland's newer distilleries, offering a lightish, flavoursome malt with flowery, fruity notes.
Macallan (Speyside) The king of Speyside malts, with sherry and bourbon finishes. The distillery is set amid waving fields of Golden Promise barley.
Springbank (Campbeltown) Complex flavours – sherry, citrus, pear drops, peat – with a salty tang. The entire production process from malting to bottling takes place on site.
Talisker (Skye) Brooding, heavily peated nose balanced by a satisfying sweetness from this lord of the isles. Great postdinner dram.
The Balvenie (Speyside) Rich and honeyed, this Speysider is liquid gold for those with a sweet tooth.
Haggis – Scotland's National Dish
Scotland's national dish is often avoided by visitors because of its ingredients, which admittedly don't sound promising – the finely chopped lungs, heart and liver of a sheep, mixed with oatmeal and onion and stuffed into a sheep's stomach bag. However, it actually tastes surprisingly good.
Haggis should be served with champit tatties and bashed neeps (mashed potatoes and turnips), with a generous dollop of butter and a good sprinkling of black pepper.
Although it's eaten year-round, haggis is central to the Burns Night celebrations of 25 January, in honour of Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns, when Scots worldwide unite to revel in their Scottishness. A piper announces the arrival of the haggis and Burns' poem Address to a Haggis is recited to this 'Great chieftan o' the puddin-race'. The bulging haggis is then lanced with a dirk (dagger) to reveal the steaming offal within, 'warm-reekin, rich'.
Vegetarians (and quite a few carnivores, no doubt) will be relieved to know that veggie haggis is available in some restaurants.
Takeaways serve deep-fried haggis with chips – tasty, but don't tell your cardiologist.