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Caithness Historical Notes 1750 - 1900
Food and Drink
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.