“Brother, let us breakfast in Scotland …”

While looking for what Dr Johnson had said about Scottish breakfasts, I came across this quote from Henry Kingsley, brother of the more famous Charles Kingsley who wrote The Water Babies: “Brother, let us breakfast in Scotland, lunch in Australia and dine in Paris”. After failing to graduate from Oxford, Henry went to Australia where he started writing, dug for gold and joined the mounted police, before returning to the UK and moving to Edinburgh where he was briefly the editor of a paper called the Daily Review.

I found Kingsley’s quote in my now well-thumbed copy of The Scots Kitchen by F Marion McNeill, just under the following Johnson quote which I’d had in mind: “In the breakfast, the Scots, whether of the Lowlands or mountains, must be confessed to excel us. The tea and coffee are accompanied not only with butter, but with honey, conserves and marmalades. If an epicure could remove by a wish in quest of sensual gratification, wherever he had supped, he would breakfast in Scotland.”

James Boswell was Johnson’s travelling companion on a Hebridean tour in 1773 (see also Oats: still supporting the people) and he wrote an account of a breakfast in Raasay House on 9 September: “After a most comfortable sleep, I had goat’s whey brought to my bedside. Then rose and partook of an excellent breakfast: as good chocolate as I ever tasted, tea, bread and butter, marmalade and jelly. There was no loaf-bread, but very good scones, or cakes of flour baked with butter. There was a plate of butter and curd mixed which they call gruitheam; cakes of what is called graddaned meal, that is meal made of grain separated from the husks, and toasted by fire, in place of being threshed and kiln-dried ……….. There were also barley-bannocks of this year’s meal, and – what I cannot help disliking to have at breakfast – cheese. It is the custom over all the Highlands to have it; and it often smells very strong, and poisons to a certain degree the elegance of an Indian breakfast.”

Boswell went stravaiging over the island during their four-night stay as I suppose he was younger and fitter than Dr Johnson and he recounts several times what he was eating and drinking, not only in the Macleod laird’s house but also in the other houses he visited. Dr Johnson’s final paragraph about their Raasay visit begins: “Raasay has little that can detain a traveller, except the Laird and his family” whereas Boswell’s contains the sentence: “I confess I felt some pain in leaving Raasay.” They took their Sabbath-breaking leave on Sunday 12 September and went off to visit Flora Macdonald by way of Portree, but alas neither wrote a word about what she gave them for breakfast.

My main sources for this post

In 1784, a geologist from France with the grand name of Barthelemy Faujas de Saint-Fond described his breakfast at the house of Maclean of Torloisk on Mull, descriptions of which I found in both The Scots Kitchen and A Scottish Feast. He had been visiting Staffa to study Fingal’s Cave and according to Wikipedia, he was “first to recognise the volcanic nature of the basaltic columns there”. (That’s The Loon’s department rather than mine though.) In 1797, he published Voyage en Angleterre, en Ecosse et aux les Iles Hebrides but whether he made more than one trip to Scotland I don’t know. Anyway, his Mull breakfast would have fair set him up for the day ahead; he describes the table “elegantly covered with the following articles: Plates of smoked beef, cheese of the country and English cheese, fresh eggs, salted herrings, butter, milk, and cream; a sort of bouille of oatmeal and water, in eating which, each spoonful is plunged into a basin of cream; milk worked up with yolks of egg, sugar, and rum; currant jelly, conserve of myrtle, a wild fruit that grows among the heath; tea, coffee, three kinds of bread (sea biscuits, oatmeal cakes, and very thin and fine barley cakes); and Jamaica rum.” This was eaten at ten in the morning, in the parlour in front of a fire of both peat and coal. He goes on to describe the substantial dinner which they started at four in the afternoon, followed by the drinking, then the tea / coffee with “small tarts” and at about ten at night having to “remain until mid-night over supper nearly of the same fare as the dinner, and in no less abundance.” He observes: “Such is the life which the richer classes lead in a country, where there is not even a road, where not a tree is to be seen, the mountains being covered only with heath, where it rains for eight months of the year, and where the sea is in a state of perpetual convulsion.”

Could this summary paragraph of his be pared down a wee bit, I wonder, for use by VisitScotland?

He didn’t just pay attention to “the richer classes” though. Annette Hope in A Caledonian Feast tells us that, according to de Saint Fond: “The peasants on Mull ate potatoes and milk, though some took oatmeal made into porridge or cakes; for drink, they had pure water and some drops of whisky on their festive days.”

In Humphrey Clinker by Tobias Smollett, published in 1771, there’s a description of a breakfast table in the Highlands: “One kit of boiled eggs; a second, full of butter; a third, full of cream; an entire cheese made of goat’s milk; a large earthen pot, full of honey; the best part of a ham; a cold venison pasty, a bushel of oatmeal, made into thin cakes and bannocks; with a small wheaten loaf in the middle, for the strangers; a stone bottle full of whisky; another of brandy, and a kilderkin of ale ………. Great justice was done to the collation by the guests.”

However in 1729, Mackintosh of Borlum was writing disparagingly of the new fashion for drinking tea in the morning: “When I come to a friend’s house of a morning, I used to be asked if I had had my morning draught yet. I am now asked if I have had my tea. And in lieu of the big quaigh with strong ale and toast, and after a dram of good wholesome Scots spirits, there is now the tea-kettle put to the fire, the tea-table and silver and china equipage brought in, and marmalade and cream.”

I took a diversion in search of this character and was glad I did cause he was some man! William Mackintosh of Borlum, 1658/1662? – 1743, was one of the leaders of the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion and was captured after the Battle of Preston; he escaped from Newgate Prison the night before his trial for high treason and a £1000 price was put on his head but he managed to get abroad. The bold ‘boy’ (now about 60 though) re-appeared in Scotland as part of a group of 6000 Scots and Spanish soldiers for the lesser-known 1719 Rising; they were defeated at the Battle of Glen Shiel and he was once again on the run. He was taken prisoner somewhere in Caithness and imprisoned in Edinburgh until he died in 1743 when he was in his 80s – a pity he didn’t manage to hold on for another couple of years and get freed, even temporarily, by the Bonnie Prince himself. Anyway, while in jail he got two bits of writing published. In 1729, it was An essay on ways and means for Inclosing, Fallowing, Planting etc and in 1742, A scheme for curbing depredation in the Highlands. Going by the date, it must have been in the former that he was decrying tea-drinking, unless it was in a letter maybe – I couldn’t see his name in F M McNeill’s bibliography. There’s a lengthy article about him, reproduced from The Celtic Magazine, at https://electricscotland.com/history/scotreg/borlum.pdf and you can listen to Mackintosh of Borlum’s Salute on YouTube, though it’s in the form of a piping tutorial by Pipe Major Donald Macleod.

Better get back to my theme. In her historical introduction, F Marian McNeill includes two breakfast descriptions by Sir Walter Scott and this one is from Waverley, set in 1745 and published in 1814: “Waverley found Miss Bradwardine presiding over the tea and coffee, the table loaded with warm bread, both of flour, oatmeal, and barley meal, in the shape of loaves, cakes, biscuits, and other varieties, together with eggs, reindeer ham, mutton and beef ditto, smoked salmon, marmalade, and all the other delicacies which induced even Johnson himself to extol the luxury of a Scotch breakfast above that of all other countries. A mess of oatmeal porridge, flanked by a silver jug, which held an equal mixture of cream and buttermilk, was placed for the Baron’s share of this repast.”

She also has an extract from Susan Ferrier’s novel Marriage – a very funny book which I must re-read – written in 1810 and first published anonymously in 1818. Dr Redgill pronounces: “The breakfast! That’s what redeems the land – and every county has its peculiar excellence. In Argyllshire you have the Loch Fyne herring, fat, luscious, and delicious, just out of the water, falling to pieces with its own richness – melting away like butter in your mouth. In Aberdeenshire, you have the Finnan haddo’ with a flavour all its own, vastly relishing – just salt enough to be piquant, without parching you up with thirst. In Perthshire there is the Tay salmon, kippered, crisp and juicy – a very magnificent morsel – a leetle heavy, but that’s easily counteracted by a teaspoonful of the Athole whisky. In other places you have the exquisite mutton of the country made into hams of a most delicate flavour; flour scones, soft and white; oatcakes, thin and crisp; marmalade and jams of every description.”

My old pal Lucy Bethia Walford, 1845 – 1915, (see Oats: still supporting the people and Give me the making of the scones of a nation *) was a Colquhoun of Luss by birth, but living somewhere near Edinburgh as a girl. She remembers two of her uncles walking to her house for breakfast: “I can see my parents’ breakfast table yet: the many varied dishes, hot and cold; the dark and light jellies – (black currant and white currant – what has become of white currant jelly? – one never sees it now); then such potato scones, barley scones and scones that were just ‘scones’ and nothing else, each kind nicely wrapped up in its snowy napkin, with the little peak that lifted and fell back, falling lower and lower as the pile diminished; the brown eggs that everyone prefers to white – and why? – the butter, the sweet, old yellow butter, framed in watercress. It does not seem strange, all things considered, that the two bachelors who appeared at half past eight o’clock on the doorstep of their brother’s house found it worth their while to bring to the long leisurely meal before them sharpened appetites and pleasantly tired limbs.”

F Marion McNeill includes this as an example of a “modern Highland breakfast” pre-WW1 but doesn’t say where it was on offer

That Highland breakfast shown above would have been for ‘those and such as those’. By contrast, Annette Hope (in A Caledonian Feast) refers to a 1905 report from the Dundee Social Union: “Its findings were that in most families with young children the usual breakfast was porridge and milk, followed by tea and bread and butter, and generally eggs for the parents. If the family was short of money, only the wage-earner had an egg. However, where both parents worked, breakfast and dinner, for parents as well as children, consisted only of bread and butter or margarine and tea.”

The late writer Derek Cooper has an entry in A Scottish Feast titled “O the West Coast Breakfast” and dated 1979 in which he praises the breakfasts that folk used to get on west coast steamers compared with what had confronted him the previous year: “On the table lay an assemblage of convenience goodies. Mini-pots of lime marmalade, domino-sized foil-pax of Kerrygold butter, terribly refined sachets of Tate & Lyle sugar. The porridge when it came was a runny poultice tasting of cardboard made by stirring water unenthusiastically into a packet mix. To my Oat Brek I added a few drops of UHT milk or was it powdered Skimmo? The tea bag was thin, the toasted Grannie’s Pride bread was limp as a loofah. I spread it with butter from my little doll’s house tub and tackled my boiled egg which tasted egregiously of fishmeal. Supposing Dr Johnson had been confronted with this rubbish; would he have swept it impetuously from the table?”

He ends with a heartfelt plea for the return of the west coast breakfast: “Come back sugar in generous if unhygienic bowls and big pats of butter on openhearted plates. Come back creamy milk in jugs, porridge made with roughground oats, fish from the seas, bread looking like bread and not like anaemic slices of surgical lint. And come back soon.”

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

As a child, my family breakfasts don’t particularly stand out so I suppose it was the usual mix of porridge, cereal, toast etc which everybody else was having. However I remember the thrill of getting Sugar Puffs from Aunt Jeanie in the summertime – a cereal which my mother strongly disapproved of! (We also got Creamola Foam later in the day there, another banned item at home.)

Before I was driving myself, a friend going home to the Black Isle would sometimes give me a lift to Inverness where I’d get the north train. She believed in getting on the road early so we’d be looking for breakfast in Dunkeld or Pitlochry at the back of nine o’clock. This turned out to be a very bad time as cafes were not open till ten and hotels wouldn’t take us as we weren’t residents so many were the disappointments we had going along the main streets. Once in Pitlochry though, an aged retainer took pity on us and gave us sandwiches of left-over toast and bacon from the hotel guests’ breakfast, along with coffee served in the filthiest coffee pot I’d ever seen, but I couldn’t have cared less! On another of these trips, we stopped at Balinluig where there was the most wonderful sign up in the cafe: “Only items on the menu may be ordered”. This meant that if, for example, “sausage, egg and tomato” and “bacon, egg and beans” were menu items, a request for sausage, bacon and egg would be refused – and quite right too! Travellers were to take what they got and not waste everybody’s time by footering about with the food choices.

Nowadays in Glagow it’s all smashed avo on sourdough, though what’s wrong with mashed avocado I don’t know. Teeth must get broken on the tough crust of the toasted sourdough and the knives provided are usually nowhere near sharp enough to cut through it. The avocados have almost certainly been flown several thousand miles, though I understand some are now grown in Spain but this includes the Canary Islands. What about mashed neeps as a local substitute? With added butter and black pepper and with its bright colour, it could make an interesting alternative start to a hipster’s day.

I still prefer something more traditionally breakfasty of a morning; when Rama and I were recently in the new version of Epicures in Hyndland Glasgow, he had one of their avocado things and I ordered yoghurt with granola and berries. It was beautifully arranged on the plate but had alas been given a severe sifting of icing sugar before it left the kitchen and so was far too sweet. Yesterday though, I found almost perfection at Storehouse of Foulis (a place raved about at least three times before) where I had a bowl of proper porridge with a smaller bowl of mixed berry compote – unsweetened – and though almost certainly from a frozen mix it was most acceptable.

I’m more and more coming round to The Loon’s way of thinking when it comes to the right time for having breakfast. When I was working it’d be at 6.30 but now I try to wait till 9.30 or even 10.00 as I was hearing that it’s good to prolong the hours of fasting. Most workers though don’t have this luxury of choice unless they’re sure of getting a break after an hour or so for something to eat. We can’t all be like Sir Walter Scott who by the time he sat down for a huge breakfast at ten o’clock had been writing for three or four hours. The most I manage after waking early is going back to bed with a cup of fruit tea and a bit of unread Sunday newspaper.

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One thought on ““Brother, let us breakfast in Scotland …”

  1. Pingback: A Perverse Pleasure or ” … the horrid islands of Harris” – Splendid, Bella!

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