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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Historical Notes 1750 - 1900
D Omand - Moravian Field Club

Food and Drink
For most of the people in Caithness oatmeal was the basis of the traditional diet; oatmeal was the stuff of life. It was made into: bannocks (oatcakes), brose (oatmeal mixed with water and milk added), broachan (oat meal gruel, a thin porridge) and sowans (soured oatmeal which was boiled). Often it was eaten with kail, a kind of cabbage. The oatmeal was stored in a large girnel (chest). Fish especially herring and sellags (young coalfish) as well as shellfish, mostly the humble wilk (periwinkle) provided an important protein supplement for those who lived near the coast. Moreover, the crofter-fisherman's small income from the sea supplied him with a valuable source of ready money. By the early 19th century herring were augmenting and varying the dreary diet of many inland crofters and barrels of herring became commonplace in the cottages. As part of the winter feed fish were dried. The coming of potatoes in 1754 added further variety although initially potatoes were grown only in the gardens of the gentry and it was not until the 1780's that tenants were producing them in small hand dug plots of land called lazy beds. By introducing swedes into the county in the late 18th century Sir John Sinclair indirectly added another dish, clapshot (mashed neeps and tatties), to the crofters’ menu.

Beef was extremely scarce and generally not available fresh to the crofter tenants who might, however, salt some for the winter. Some mutton was eaten by the tacksmen (intermediaries between laird and tenant) and better-off crofters. Throughout the winter months fresh meat was available to a few Lairds who maintained pigeons in doo-cots. Henderson states that around 1800 there were six doo-cots in Caithness one conical in shape, the remainder being square. Inflation of food prices seems to have affected previous generations too. In 1787 beef cost one half penny - lp per pound; in under 20 years it had risen to two and a half p. Perhaps some consolation might be had from the fact that fowls wore a mere 5p each.

The customary beverage of the ordinary people was ale. Tea (with sugar) only became common in humbler homes within the past century. Milk, obtained from ewes, was drunk in summer but most of it appears to have been made in to cheese. Early cheesers were simple, round, wooden vessels with partitions containing holes. The cheese curd was placed in the upper part of the vessel and a heavy stone was placed on top of it, displacing the whey which drained through the perforations. On larger farms cheeses were made in more efficient presses, consisting of heavy stone blocks in an iron frame, which enabled them to be lowered as the cheese was pressed down.

A good example of this type may be seen in Reay village. Distilleries (there were 14 in Halkirk parish alone in the mid 18th century) and illicit stills were numerous and in the Old Statistical Account Ministers of Caithness record the excessive drinking. There appears to have been no general shortage of food either. Unlike many of the counties of northern Scotland it could be argued that Caithness suffered from plenty. Indeed 18th century travellers, e.g, Cordiner and Pennant - "The county abounds with stags, roes and. salmon". testify to the abundance of food in the county. At this time Caithness, Banff and the Lothians were the great grain-growing counties of Scotland and Caithness exported it's surplus grain to Orkney, the Highlands and the Hebrides. The Old Statistical Account records that in 1793 25,000 bolls (1 boil = c. 140 lb.) were shipped from the two Caithness ports of Thurso and Staxigoe. At the former port, two large grain storehouses had been built by the Earl of Caithness.

Published October 1974