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Celebrating the Highlands and Islands – a region steeped in culinary heritage


In a new guest article to celebrate the Year of History, Heritage & Archaeology, Three Chimneys Restaurant owner Shirley Spear talks about the culinary heritage of the Highlands and Islands.

Shirley Spear is the owner and retired Head Chef at the renowned The Three Chimneys Restaurant on the Isle of Skye and this year she is collaborating with Highlands and Islands Enterprise to History Scotland’s culinary heritage throughout the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.

During 2017, Scotland is celebrating the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology. Scotland is a nation steeped in history and cultural heritage, with a wealth of ancient buildings telling fascinating tales. The year also represents an opportunity to celebrate the history behind Scotland’s most successful industry, food and drink.

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I love the fact that we will be looking at food and drink from a cultural perspective because we have the most amazing culinary heritage in Scotland; that was what inspired me to take-up the challenge of running The Three Chimneys.  I genuinely wanted to use the opportunity to rekindle interest in real Scottish food and cooking, making the most of local ingredients in season and taking pride in serving traditional dishes, in a modern way.

What fascinates me is how different and wide-ranging our food was hundreds of years ago, and still is today! The history and heritage of our daily bread, was directly connected with the whole way-of-life in different regions of our country.  Food culture is associated with our crofting, fishing and farming communities, as well as the differing classes in our cities, county towns, villages and countryside estates.

Feeding the family

We have an amazing history that dates back to the beginning of time; we have some of the oldest rock formations in the world and archaeological sites proving that community life existed in Scotland long before the pyramids were built.  Discoveries have shown us that man has been hunting, fishing and farming for his family for many thousands of years, in ways which are surprisingly sophisticated and with ingredients that remain familiar to us in our diet today. Just last year the 1900-year-old remains of an Iron Age man were uncovered in Orkney and analysis indicated that he had a diet rich in fish.

Scots were great merchants and seafarers, trading worldwide, returning to our ports with goods from around the globe whilst our diet was surprisingly healthy and has been well-documented since the 1500s. The Highlands & Islands really outdid themselves with ingenious methods and recipes.

4,000-year-old pottery sherds discovered on the Isle of Rum revealed that its Neolithic inhabitants enjoyed drinking ale made with cereal straw, cereal pollen, meadowsweet, heather and royal fern whilst in 1832, the largest single entity drystone construction in the world was built around the Orkney island of North Ronaldsay to enclose its native sheep, which still to this day live on a diet of seaweed and are prized for their meat.

Chefs would be proud to use these ingredients in our fine-dining restaurants today and there has been a surge of interest in foraging for wild foods such as these, including seaweed and herbs.  Native meat is now farmed more widely once more and appears on Scottish menus.

The coming of the railways

The advent of the railways in Scotland expanded the movement of goods around the country; white fish and shellfish landed at remote fishing ports to be delivered to city markets whilst fresh eggs and dairy produce were transported to the wider population from the countryside.  Oats and barley were used for brewing and distilling and wheat was milled into flour for expanding bakeries, marking the beginning of large-scale production.

Today, Scotland is renowned for its raft of new food and drink businesses, especially in rural areas, devoted to making special products with local ingredients, with many using these hundreds of years old recipes but with a modern twist, including Stornoway’s Stag Bakeries and its seaweed biscuits, the Isle of Skye Brewing Co which reintroduced brewing to the area with its Red Cuillin ale and Dunnet Bay Distillers with its flyaway success, Rock Rose Gin, which uses a root favoured by the Vikings for its powers in strength and healing.

I hope that the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology will encourage people to explore some of our outstanding historic places and discover the treats lying in Scotland’s wonderful larder. I’m quite sure that the Iron Age man eating a diet of predominantly fish in Orkney 1,900 years ago would not have imagined that food and drink would become Scotland’s most successful exporting industry, celebrated across the world for its produce.

Get a free guide to the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology with the Mar/Apr issue of History Scotland, on sale now.

(Skye image copyright Paul Lucas)

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