One pot wonder: Scots love affair with soup

Sandy Neil tucks into some rabbit broth.
Sandy Neil tucks into some rabbit broth.

While England may be a nation of roasters, the Scots are kings of the big cooking pot.

“With typical resourcefulness the Scots have turned their hand to concocting wholesome and flavoursome dishes out of the most meager of provisions,” explains Janet Warren in A Feast of Scotland.

She adds: “Nowadays, in times of greater prosperity, we have never quite lost this sense of thrift, tending to use cheaper cuts of meat than our English counterparts, and many of Scotland’s splendid national dishes, created out of necessity, have survived on their own merit.”

Catherine Brown in Classic Scots Cookery continues: “Our eating traditions have been shaped by sources of heat and cooking equipment. Slow-burning peat, rather than coal, created cooking heat for much of the population in early times, which resulted in a tradition of slow-simmering and stewing in a large pot over a gentle peat fire. Scotch broth, haggis and clootie dumpling are just a few of the classics that depend on the long slow simmer.”

Warren adds: “Most dishes were prepared in the kail pot, and long slow cooking over the open peat fire produced delicious and nourishing meal broths similar in nature to the French pot au feu.”

This similarity between the Scots’ thick, strong broth and the French pot-au-feu, or ‘pot on the fire’, perhaps traces to the Auld Alliance from the 12th century, or later to James V’s marriage to Mary of Guise-Lorraine in 1538, which introduced many French culinary fashions to Scotland, like eating dessert: before we ate sweet and savoury dishes side by side.

“When the broth was ready the meat would be removed and served separately with a sauce, while the stock and vegetables made a sustaining first course or a separate meal,” Warren says. “This was the best way of tenderising meat too, because sheep, cattle and poultry were kept for their wool, milk and eggs, so they were a little old when they reached the cooking pot.

“Recipes vary not only from region to region but from family to family, each household having its own favourite version, which would be handed down generation to generation.”

Diners on a gastronomic tour of Scotland’s soups could sup on a bowl of ‘bree’ (from the Doric for ‘broth’), whether bawd bree, ‘hare soup’, or partan bree, from the Gaelic partan for crab. Highlanders liked to gather nettles for their soups, or crop kail, cabbage and potato from their kail yard, and their delicious vegetable soup concoctions testify to their ingenuity with only a few ingredients to use. St Columba’s favourite meal was reputedly brotchán roy: a leek or nettle broth thickened with oatmeal.

Even the influential, and outspoken critic of the Scots, the English lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson, spread the word about the merits of Scotch broth.

“Barley broth is a constant dish and is made well in every house,” he wrote in a letter to an English friend. In August 1773 when Johnson was dining with his travelling friend, James Boswell, at the New Inn on Castle Street, Aberdeen, dinner began with a tureen of Scotch Broth with barley and peas in it. Johnson ate several platefuls, and seemed very fond of the dish, remarked Boswell in his journal.

“You never ate it before?” asked Boswell. “No, sir;” replied Johnson, “but I don’t care how soon I eat it again.”

“Cocky-leeky: so thick that the ladle stauns o’ itsel,” is how James Hogg the Ettrick Shepherd described the version of chicken and leek soup that he enjoys with his cronies, Christopher North and Timothy Tickler, in Ambrose’s Tavern. The column also refers to ‘hotch potch’, which, along with cocky-leeky, they think the best two soups ever created, but epicures of the Noctes Ambrosianae also wax lyrical about grouse soup.

“But, oh! My dear North, what grouse soup at Dalnacardoch. You smell it on the homeward hill, as if it were exhaling from the heather ... As you enter the inn the divine afflatus penetrates your soul. When upstairs, perhaps in the garret, adorning for dinner, it rises like a cloud of rich distilled perfumes through every chink on the floor, every cranny of the wall.”

One of the most memorable lines of Sir Walter Scott’s fiction concludes the final page of The Fortunes of Nigel, as King James VI and I exclaims: “And my lords and lieges, let us all to dinner, for the cockie-leekie is a-cooling.”

Scott’s historical tale The Antiquary lauds ‘powsowdie’, a sheep’s head broth which was a favourite Scots Sunday soup, as a housewife explained in F Marian McNeill’s The Scots Kitchen: “[it] needs little watchin’, and disnae gang wrang w’ owre lang boiling. Cleek it on [suspend it from the chain above the fire] an’ let it het richt through the boil; then cleek it up [on a higher link] so as it’ll not boil owre and pit oot the fire, and ye may lock the door and gang a’ to the kirk.”