The first time I visited Scotland I stayed at a former hunting lodge near Montrose. A group of us spent Christmas there, and saw red squirrels, a haggis, and a ruined castle. It was tremendous fun. But on the nine-hour train journey back to London, the conductor decided to close the buffet car because the tea urn was broken.
We had no food for almost half a day’s travel on the grounds that it was impossible to make tea.
When I mentioned this to various friends, their response was to shrug and to comment that, well, did I expect anything better of Scottish attitudes towards food? This seemed only to have been confirmed by the fact that I had spotted a banner in Stonehaven, proudly proclaiming a local pub as the ‘birthplace’ of the deep-fried Mars bar.
With its reputation for heavy drinking, and enthusiasm for a cuisine that makes a virtue of the deep-fat fryer, Scotland is not usually held up as a paragon of culinary sophistication. But anyone who visits the country realises that it’s possible to eat well – very well – there: that there are interesting independent food shops, farmers’ markets, local producers of smoked fish, venison, biscuits, and other specialities, and plenty of excellent restaurants.
So why, then, this insistence that Scottish cuisine is best exemplified by White Lightening cider (which sold at around 8% alcohol per volume, before being discontinued by its producer for encouraging heavy drinking) and deep-fried fast food?
The idea of Scotland as a land of clans, tartan, country dancing, and highland games was invented during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As Hugh Trevor-Roper explains in Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger’s classic The Invention of Tradition (1983), ‘the whole concept of a distinct Highland culture and tradition is a retrospective invention.’* Until the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Scotland was connected, culturally, to Ireland. The construction of the ‘Highland tradition’ was an attempt to create a distinct, unique Scotland. It was adopted in three stages:
First, there was the cultural revolt against Ireland: the usurpation of Irish culture and the re-writing of early Scottish history… Secondly, there was the artificial creation of new Highland traditions, presented as ancient, original and distinctive. Thirdly, there was the process by which these new traditions were offered to, and adopted by, historic Lowland Scotland: the Eastern Scotland of the Picts, the Saxons and the Normans.
This process was consolidated in the early- to mid-nineteenth century, with the popularity of Sir Walter Scott’s novels about an idealised Scotland, and the Victorian ‘discovery’ of the country. As clothing, music, and language were co-opted in this remaking of Scotland, so was food: shortbread, oats, smoked fish, haggis, and neeps and tatties also became emblematic of this new, imagined nation.
These dishes and ingredients not only represented Scotland, but Scottish people themselves. Stereotyped as hardy, brave, and prudent, this was the frugal, healthy fare of a nation accustomed to preparing for hard times. Even the national drink – whiskey – was to be drunk slowly, and in small quantities. Advertisements for Scottish produce in the twentieth century urged mothers to buy Scottish oats so that their children would grow up to be as big and strong as Scotsmen wielding the cabers, stones, and hammers of the highland games.
So when, then, did Scotland’s reputation for bad eating originate? As far as I can see, over the course of the twentieth century, reports on Scotland’s bad eating habits have usually accompanied descriptions of poor, urban working-class life, particularly in Glasgow and Edinburgh. In the fiction boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, best exemplified by Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (1993), the rural idyll of the highland myth, or the uptight, anxious middle-class hypocrisy described in Muriel Spark’s 1961 novella The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the desperation and dysfunction of Scotland’s junkies and addicts is held up as alternative way of understanding a nation coming to terms with the social and economic implications of the demise of its industries.
But the poking fun at deep-fried Mars Bars and the country’s heavy drinking is part of another set of attitudes to working-class people: as chavs (or ‘neds‘ as they’re called in Scotland) as people who are feckless, stupid, and self-indulgent. Their enthusiasm for deep-fried pizza, sausages, and chocolate is meant to suggest their lack of self-control and unwillingness to take responsibility for their own choices. These are the ‘scroungers’ of Tory legend.
In a review of Rian E. Jones’s new book Clampdown: Pop-cultural Wars on Class and Gender (2013), John Harris comments that the early 1990s saw a shift in British culture where working-class life became characterised – increasingly – in a set of deeply pejorative stereotypes:
The watershed in her story is the moment embodied by so-called Britpop, and lad culture, both of which encouraged a kind of class tourism, whereby many a young bourgeois could fake an interest in such totems of supposed proletarian authenticity as football, dog racing and greasy spoon cafés, all of which defined the tenor of British pop circa 1994-5… As Jones sees it, the way was thus opened for a horror show that arrived just under a decade later, when two former private schoolboys came up with the cheap and nasty cast of the hugely successful sketch show Little Britain, not least Matt Lucas’s Vicky Pollard, every right-wing trope about working-class women brought to life. Jones juxtaposes her with the infamous 1992 speech by the-then Tory minister Peter Lilley, who took aim at a ‘little list’ of ‘benefit offenders’ including ‘young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list’.
Her point is that cultural expression can carry much political weight: as it turned out, the Little Britain worldview dovetailed conveniently with the programme of the current government.
Scotland’s transformation into the land of the deep-fried Mars Bar was part of this process: it was another manifestation of the ‘demonisation’ (not a term I particularly like) of the working class.
The current Scottish food revival, including even the enthusiasm for the strictly locavore ‘Fife diet,’ is also part of a process of re-imagining Scotland: one that privileges its landscape, and which positions it as a ‘green’ nation with a healthy respect for its environment, as well as its (invented) food traditions. But – and this is what, I think, prevents this outbreak of Scottish foodie-ism from being irredeemably middle-class – Scotland has introduced a National Food and Drink Policy, which aims to promote the sustainable production of food in the country, while ensuring that diets improve. (It’s even managed to introduce a minimum pricing law for alcohol.) It’s no use producing wonderful food, if most people can’t afford to eat it. The government in England should take note.
*This is also the Hugh Trevor-Roper who dismissed African history on the grounds that it described ‘the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.’ So there’s that too.
Hugh Trevor-Roper, ‘The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland,’ in The Invention of Tradition, eds. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 15-41.
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.