Does the Scots word tatties derive from the Gaelic buntata I wonder?  There should be a srac (downward sloping accent) on the first a of buntata to show where the word is stressed but I don’t know how to do it on this keyboard.  Both words will come, via the Spanish patatas, from the Taino word batata, though in this Arawak language of the Caribbean it meant what we’d call a sweet potato and it was these that Columbus brought back to Spain in the 1490s.  Our white potato was not ‘discovered’ by the Spanish until the 1530s where it was being grown by the Incas of Peru and called papa in Quechua.  For some more information, have a look at The Etymology of the word “potato” by Sam Dean, 2013, at http://www.bonappetit.com

Incidentally, we get other words now used in English from these languages.  From Taino: barbecue, canoe, hammock, hurricane and tobacco.  From Quechua: cocaine, condor, guano, jerky (dried meat sense), puma, quinine and quinoa.

Better get back to my main theme.  I’d been looking at potato recipes in my cookery books as part of a failed attempt to prune my collection and then yesterday I heard a short item on Call Kaye on Radio Scotland about the revival of interest during lockdown in what they called “grannies’ recipes”.  Probably this is for some form of comfort in difficult times but the three interviewees spoke of the seasonality involved, the use of a small number of local ingredients, the ability to stretch portions to accommodate unexpected visitors, and the healthier nature of ‘wartime cookery’.  It wasn’t all about romanticising the past either: we learned that a high percentage of men were too underweight to be accepted into the army.

This discussion lasted for less than 10 minutes and I wish Radio Scotland would make longer, more serious programmes – not just about food – and cut out some of the giggling nonsense, phone-ins and quizzes that take up most of their mornings.  (I’ve girned about this before in Dearie, dearie me –  November 2019.)

The potato recipe with the best name is surely rumbledethumps, named either “from the sound of the beating spoon against the pan” (Judy Paterson) or “from the Scots word ‘rumbled’ meaning mashed, and ‘thumped’ meaning beaten down” (Catherine Brown). I have the recipe in four different books and three of them credit it to the Borders.  However I first heard about it as a child from a neighbour who came originally from Montrose; Mr Anderson was a vegetarian, the first one I ever knew about in the early 1960s.  For an oldish man, he had lovely smooth skin and he ate lentils, eggs, cheese, vegetables; his wife made him rumbledethumps and the name struck and stayed with me.  He was an electrician and he worked at a glacial pace.  When he promised his wife he’d do something, her response invariably was “When, Harold? When?”.  My sister and I have adopted this phrase to use when the other one shows signs of backsliding.

My parents once gave him and his wife a lift to Montrose to attend a relative’s funeral and when they got back, Mr Anderson said, as he was getting out the car: “Thanks very much.  I enjoyed it grand”.  (My second favourite Montrose story concerns John Lennon.  A Scottish journalist went to interview him during his bed-in with Yoko Ono in Amsterdam and asked Lennon where he’d been when he’d got the idea for his protest.  “Montrose”, he said, and was most put out when the journalist burst out laughing at the thought of the Fife town’s hitherto unknown role in the quest for world peace.  “Wot’s he laughing at?” Lennon demanded to know.  Yoko intervened gently: “Montreux, John”.)

The key ingredients of rumbledethumps are cooked potatoes and cabbage, with butter, salt and black pepper.  Some folk include an onion or syboes with some chives and when all are beaten together, the finished dish can be put into a baking dish, sprinkled with cheese and finished off in an oven or under the grill.  The cabbage should not be  overboiled and nor should the onions be fried till crispy.  Some milk or even cream can be added along with the butter when mashing the tatties.  Any leftovers can be made into small flat patties and fried – no wicked waste here.

Colcannon is very similar and is of Irish origin, then popularised in the highlands.  I’ve now got a copy of Christian Isobel Johnstone’s 1826 book The Cook & Housewife’s Manual (see More about snaisters and a wee diversion from didoes – 24 June) and she said colcannon is “made by boiling and mashing greens, young cabbage or spinage (sic), and mixing them with mashed potatoes, butter, pepper, and salt, pressing it into a buttered shape to be turned out, or dishing it like mashed potatoes”.  She goes on to write: “Plain Colcannon is made in cottages with infinitely less ceremony, and it is quite as good.  Boil the vegetables till nearly done; put the peeled raw potatoes to them; drain them from the water when done, and with pepper, salt, a shred onion, and a good piece of butter or dripping, beat them up together”.   I’m not sure if she was wanting the green veg to continue to boil while the tatties were cooking or if it was a case of using the same hot water.

F Marion McNeill in The Scots Kitchen adds carrot and turnip to the cabbage and tatties: “two cabbages, two or three good red carrots, eight or ten potatoes, and two turnips, all well boiled.”  All of these then went into “a good piece of melted butter” in a stewpan where they were thoroughly mixed – must have been a mighty big stewpan.  When seasoning was added, it was to include mignonette which I had to look up; it was originally a mix of peppercorns, cloves and spices used to flavour sauces but then became a sauce of minced shallots, pepper and vinegar.  She also has a recipe for an Aberdeenshire dish called Kailkenny which she thought might be a corruption of Colcannon; it wants equal quantities of boiled cabbage and potatoes, mashed with salt, pepper and a cupful of cream.

Photograph included in Theodora Fitzgibbon’s A Taste of Scotland in Food and in Pictures, 1972

Clapshot is another great name for a dish, from Orkney this time.  All sources I’ve seen agree that the key ingredients are potatoes, turnip (ie swede), butter, salt and pepper; the only controversy is onion or no onion.  Catherine Brown in Broths to Bannocks: Cooking in Scotland 1690 to the present day thinks that it was the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown who suggested including onion on the say-so of F Marion McNeill; however McNeill has just the addition of chives in her recipe and tells us that it makes a big difference to mash the tatties and turnip together.

Mackay Brown wrote about making clapshot in one of his weekly columns for The Orcadian, collected into the book Under Brinkie’s Brae:

“I peeled carefully the precious ‘golden wonders’ – and thought what a shame, in a way, ‘golden wonders’ being so delicious boiled in their thick dark jackets.  And while the tatties and neeps were ramping away on the top of the electric grill, it came into my mind that somewhere, a while back, I had read a recipe for clapshot that advised an onion to be added.  (It may be in one of the books of F Marion McNeill, the Orkney-born connoisseur of food and ancient Scottish lore.)  In no time at all I had an onion stripped and chopped and delivered (my eyes weeping) among the neeps and tatties in the rampaging pot …. Fifteen minutes later the probing fork told me that all was ready. Decant the water into the sink, set the pot on the kitchen floor on top of last week’s Radio Times, add a golden chunk of butter and a dash of milk, then salt and plenty of pepper, and begin to mash …. Everything about clapshot is good, including the smell and the colour.  I think this particular clapshot, with the onion in it, was about the best I’ve ever made … .  And it made a glow in the wintry stomach.”

Lastly, to stovies.  This was a regular Monday night meal in our house, made in the old iron stewpan which over the years had a fair bit of its inside eroded into our food.  When I got a wee bit older I wondered why the potatoes didn’t stick and burn as there was so little liquid in the mix; turns out that’s the skill of the cook.  Molly Weir explains in a note in Molly Weir’s Recipes that “The essence of stovies is that they must be kept as dry as possible and if the potatoes are not in danger of burning (keep shaking them about), do not add any water at all.  It is only added to keep the food safe”.

Theodora Fitzgibbon says that the word stovies comes from the French etouffee (more missing accents), meaning to stew in a closed vessel.  To start with, fry a couple of onions until golden before adding sliced potatoes.  She advises that you have your potatoes all the same size and put them in the pan with no more than half an inch of water – seawater, if available.  Dot them with butter, put a lid on and simmer very gently, shaking the pan from time to time.  Finally, she recommends shaking a handful of fine oatmeal over the stovies – and so does Molly Weir.

F Marion McNeill gives us Lady Clark of Tillypronie’s recipe for Stoved Potatoes (from French etuve, she says).  She recommends “potatoes of a good quality” put into a pot with only enough water to prevent burning; they’re to be sprinkled with salt, dotted with butter, covered and simmered gently until soft.  This Lady Clark was an accomplished cook herself and collected thousands of recipes, starting in 1841; she died in 1897 and her husband published in 1909 The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie.

As with all these basic potato dishes, there are variants.  We used to have bits of sausage in our Monday night stovies and here’s a recipe from Maw Broon’s Cookbook with added turnip, carrot and mutton:



2 thoughts on “Buntata

  1. I really enjoyed this blog on food and recipes of the past. When I was very young I became fascinated with food, trying out anything new that arrived in the shops from abroad. Then I got into collecting old recipe books which were readily available and very cheap then. Over the years my collections grew into a large collection but over the past few years I’ve cut it down, putting out lots of them to charity shops. The social history many contain is impressive and absorbing (and probably very underrated by historians.) Sometimes I even used the books for their recipes.

    Great stories about Mr Anderson. Reminded me of a man who lived in the Highlands and who died on holiday in Spain. His body was taken home and a friend who went to see him in his coffin noticed how suntanned he was and commented that his holiday had done him good.


    1. Thanks, Lena. I’m finding it very hard to prune my collection of recipe books and also to stop myself from cutting out recipes from magazines and newspapers but I must try harder! Some of the books are like old friends though and will never be in danger. I’ve also kept the “Homecraft Book …. Cookery, Laundry, Housewifery” which the girls were given in first year of secondary school while the boys did technical; going to pass it on to my favourite niece who’ll be suitably horrified at the 16 items for “Daily Work of House” and the 11 stages for “Laying of Table”.


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