While Scotland isn’t exactly known for its culinary heritage, the country’s eating habits are changing, and from the cities to some of the furthest islands, you can often eat extremely well with a strong emphasis on fresh, local and organic produce.
In most hotels and B&Bs you’ll be offered a Scottish breakfast, similar to its English counterpart of sausage, bacon and egg, but typically with the addition of black pudding (blood sausage) and potato scones. Porridge is another likely option, as is fish in the form of kippers, smoked haddock or even kedgeree. Scotland’s staple drink, like England’s, is tea, drunk strong and with milk, though coffee is just as readily available everywhere. However, while designer coffee shops are now a familiar feature in the cities, execrable versions of espresso and cappuccino, as well as instant coffee, are still all too familiar.
The most common lunchtime fare in Scotland remains the sandwich. A bowl or cup of hearty soup is a typical accompaniment, particularly in winter. A pub lunch is often an attractive alternative. Bar menus generally have standard filling but unambitious options including soup, sandwiches, scampi and chips or steak pie and chips, with vegetarians suffering from a paucity of choice. That said, some bar food is freshly prepared and filling, equalling the à la carte dishes served in the adjacent hotel restaurant. Pubs or hotel bars are among the cheapest options when it comes to eating out – in the smallest villages, these might be your only option.
Restaurants are often, though not always, open at lunchtimes. When they tend to be less busy and generally offer a shorter menu compared with their evening service, and this can make for a more pleasant and less expensive experience. For morning or afternoon snacks, as well as light lunches, tearooms are a common feature; you will often find decent home baking.
As for fast food, chip shops, or chippies, abound, the best often found in coastal towns within sight of the fishing boats. Deep-fried battered fish is the standard choice – when served with chips it’s known as a “fish supper”, even if eaten at lunchtime – though everything from hamburgers to haggis suppers is normally on offer, all deep-fried, of course. Scotland is even credited with inventing the deep-fried Mars bar, the definitive badge of a nation with the worst heart disease statistics in Europe. For alternative fast food, major towns feature all the usual pizza, burger and baked potato outlets, as well as Chinese, Mexican and Indian takeaways.
There’s no doubt that, as with the rest of the UK, eating out in Scotland is expensive. Wine in restaurants is marked up strongly, so you’ll often pay £15 for a bottle selling for £5 in the shops; house wines generally start around the £10 mark.
In many parts of Scotland outside the cities, inflexible meal times mean that you’ll have to keep an eye on your watch if you don’t want to miss out on eating. B&Bs and hotels frequently serve breakfast only until 9am, lunch is usually over by 2pm, and, despite the long summer evenings, pub and hotel kitchens often stop serving dinner as early as 8pm.
If you’re travelling in remoter parts of Scotland, or staying at a B&B or guesthouse in the countryside, ask advice about nearby options for your evening meal. Many B&Bs and guesthouses will cook you dinner, but you must book ahead and indicate any dietary requirements.
As for restaurants, standards vary enormously, but independent restaurants using good-quality local produce are now found all over Scotland. Less predictable are hotel restaurants, many of which serve non-residents. Some can be very ordinary despite the highfalutin descriptions on the à la carte menu. You could easily end up paying £30–40 a head for a meal with wine.
In central Scotland, particularly in Edinburgh and Glasgow, there’s a range of international cuisines including Japanese, Thai, Caribbean and Turkish, as well as the more common Indian, Chinese and Italian establishments. Glasgow is one of Britain’s curry capitals, while Edinburgh’s restaurant scene is very lively, its seafood and vegetarian restaurants a particular strength.
Among traditional desserts, “clootie dumpling” is a sweet, stodgy fruit pudding bound in a cloth and cooked for hours, while Cranachan, made with toasted oatmeal steeped in whisky and folded into whipped cream flavoured with fresh raspberries, or the similar Atholl Brose, are considered more refined.
Most Scots get their supplies from supermarkets, but you’re increasingly likely to come across good delis, farm shops and specialist food shops. Many stock local produce alongside imported delicacies, as well as organic fruit and veg, specialist drinks such as locally brewed beer, freshly baked bread, and sandwiches and other snacks for takeaway. Look out too for farmers’ markets (scottishfarmersmarkets.co.uk), which take place on Saturday and Sunday mornings; local farmers and small producers from pig farmers to cheese-makers and small smokeries set up stalls to sell their specialist lines.
Scotland is notorious for its sweet tooth, and cakes and puddings are taken very seriously. Bakers with extensive displays of iced buns, cakes and cream-filled pastries are a typical feature of any Scottish high street, while home-made shortbread, scones or tablet (a hard, crystalline form of fudge) are considered great treats. In the summer, Scottish berries, in particular raspberries and strawberries, are particularly tasty.
You’ll also find a number of specialist cheese shops, while many restaurants serve only Scottish cheeses after dinner. Look out for Isle of Mull, a tangy farmhouse cheddar; Dunsyre Blue, a Scottish Dolcelatte; or farmhouse Dunlop, the local version of cheddar.
As in the rest of Britain, Scottish pubs, which originated as travellers’ hostelries and coaching inns, are the main social focal points of any community. Pubs in Scotland vary hugely, from old-fashioned inns with open fires and a convivial atmosphere, to raucous theme pubs with loud music and satellite TV. Out in the islands, pubs are few and far between, with most drinking taking place in the local hotel bar. In Edinburgh and Glasgow you’ll find traditional pubs supplemented by upbeat, trendy café-bars.
The national drink is whisky, though you might not guess it from the “alcopops” (bottles of sweet fruit drinks laced with vodka or gin) and ready-made mixers consumed on a Friday and Saturday night. Scotland also produces some exceptionally good cask-conditioned real ales, yet lager is much more popular. Pub opening hours are generally 11am to 11pm, but in the cities and towns, or anywhere where there is demand, places stay open much later. Whatever time the pub closes, “last orders” will be called by the bar staff about fifteen minutes before closing time to allow a bit of “drinking-up time”. In general, you have to be 16 to enter a pub unaccompanied, though some places are relaxed about people bringing children in, or have special family rooms and beer gardens where the kids can run free. The legal drinking age is 18. As with the rest of the UK, smoking is not allowed in any pubs, bars or restaurants.
Scotland produces a prodigious amount of mineral water, much of which is exported – tap water is chill, clean and perfectly palatable in most parts of the country, including the areas of the Highlands and Islands where it’s tinged the colour of weak tea by peat in the ground. Locally produced Irn-Bru, a fizzy orange, sickly sweet concoction, has been known to outsell Coke and Pepsi in Scotland.
Malt whisky is made by soaking barley in steeps (water cisterns) for two or three days until it swells, after which it is left to germinate for around seven days, during which the starch in the barley seed is converted into soluble sugars – this process is known as malting. The malted barley or “green malt” is then dried in a kiln over a furnace, which can be oil-fired, peat-fired or, more often than not, a combination of the two. Only a few distilleries still do their own malting and kilning in the traditional pagoda-style kilns; the rest simply have their malted barley delivered from an industrial maltings. The first process in most distilleries is therefore milling, which grinds the malted barley into “grist”. Next comes the mashing, during which the grist is infused in hot water in mashtuns, producing a sugary concoction called “wort”. After cooling, the wort passes into the washbacks, traditionally made of wood, where it is fermented with yeast for two to three days. During fermentation, the sugar is converted into alcohol, producing a brown foaming liquid known as “wash”. Distillation now takes place, not once but twice: the wash is steam-heated, and the vapours siphoned off and condensed as a spirit. This is the point at which the whisky is poured into oak casks – usually ones which have already been used to store bourbon or sherry – and left to age for a minimum of three years. The average maturation period for a single malt whisky, however, is ten years; and the longer it matures, the more expensive it is, because two percent evaporates each year. Unlike wine, as soon as the whisky is bottled, maturation ceases.