The Glasgow Cookery Book: A century on - Scottish nostalgia

06 August 2014
imports_CESC_0-l10rboiv-100000_38271.jpg The Glasgow Cookery Book: A century on - Scottish nostalgia
For generations of cooks, the Glasgow Cookery Book has been a mainstay of Scottish home cooking. Liz Small explains how a handwritten notebook became a recipe book which is still in print a century later. ...

For generations of cooks, the Glasgow Cookery Book has been a mainstay of Scottish home cooking. Liz Small explains how a handwritten notebook became a recipe book which is still in print a century later.

In September 2009, Waverley Books published a revised edition of ‘The Glasgow Cookery Book’. Working on such a tome, that commanded such respect, was a serious undertaking, and we drew deep breaths at the book’s legacy and power.

How to tackle a new edition? Was a new edition even necessary, or possible? Would the traditionalists simply want their existing book maintained, in a purple cover? Was it too old? Were the recipes out of date? Should curry recipes be added to reflect Glasgow’s contemporary diversity?

And would a cookery book that had no celebrity chef, no colour pictures and no cookery school behind it anymore, sell?

We set off to find out. We started on this adventure of discovery because Alex Gray, the crime writer, showed us a notebook. This notebook had many recipes in beautiful copperplate handwriting. She showed it to Waverley because we had created and published ‘Maw Broon’s Cookbook’.

The notebook turned out to have belonged to Ella Cowan, a family friend of Alex Gray’s family. Alex and the notebook led us to meet Glasgow Caledonian University’s archivist Carole McCallum (pictured here) who explained that before The Glasgow Cookery Book’s first edition was published in 1910, students at The Glasgow School of Cookery and The West End School of Cookery painstakingly copied down coursework recipes in their own notebooks.

Carole explained that Ella’s elegant notebook dated to 1909, a year before the book was published. In 1908 Glasgow’s two cookery schools amalgamated into the Glasgow and West of Scotland College of Domestic Science (known affectionately as the Do. School, or Dough School).

Today the rights to the book are owned by Glasgow Caledonian University, and over the years the book has been revised many times. We found out that since the metric edition, published in 1975 by John Smith & Son Limited, an institution in itself, there had been no new edition. All the recipes had been retested and edited for that edition, and it is that edition we obviously decided to base ours on.

We found out that Caledonian University’s Research Collection, together with the Alumni Relations department, were keen for a new edition of the book. It seemed that whatever cookery fashions come and go, there is always an appetite for a straightforward guide to cooking good food.

Since 1910 the ‘purple’ book had seen many printings and many different covers that all looked pretty similar, although each design reflected the typography and style of the time.


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We found out that the book meant many different things to many different people but that everyone, without fail, loved the book and regarded the book with great love and awe.

Whatever its power, and legacy, ‘The Glasgow Cookery Book’ moved minds, hearts and souls, stirred memories and sometimes provoked grown women to misty-eyed smiles. Why? This did not seem to be just a book we were involved in. This was a movement; an arc of a celebration; a collection of recipes and advice that had survived almost a century, and now we too seemed to have been touched by this iconic monument to cookery wisdom, high standards, and Glasgow.


Ella Glaister, who was the school’s principal, had overseen the creation of the first printed, original ‘Glasgow Cookery Book’. The book was published as a course book, but coincided with the government’s push for training working class girls and women in domestic science, and in teaching women how to cook and look after their families.  Over the years, the College was to develop, and run an impressive and inventive range of courses to meet the needs of the changing times.

Cookery courses for World War One soldiers; classes in deprived areas to show how to ‘Cater Without Coupons’ in World War Two, and classes in preparing for emigration to Canada are just a few examples of the extraordinary helpful courses the College ran. Classes for ‘Engaged Girls’, and courses for domestic science teacher training – all areas of cookery were covered.

It was fortuitous that the book was so clear and comprehensive. Each recipe, tried and tested by the students was prized for its reliability and non-nonsense, practical steps. The economy of words, and the book’s culinary wisdom, became famous by word-of-mouth beyond the confines of the college.

Because the College was known for its exacting standards, the general public gradually learned of the book’s reputation. The commonsense approach inside the book made an easy transition from the classroom to the home. And with over 1000 recipes, today, each one stating what you have to do, right down to the position in the oven, there is nothing missing from this book. 

So what did we change for our edition? Well, not much. We worked with a great team of enthusiastic former students and staff of The Queen’s College Glasgow (as the College became in 1976), who were professional but fun, and every recipe was checked thoroughly (one more time!). The Sheep’s Head Broth recipe had to go, as it contravened new government food-safety guidelines. Incidentally, once we had published the book, and were selling it at food shows and fairs, we met a lot of people who had enjoyed the said broth while they travelled in the Middle East, and they gave us funny looks for removing it - but rules are rules. 

And we added notes and an introduction by Alex Gray and Carole McCallum to explain the book’s story through the last 100 years. A large, beautiful purple book emerged, after many months of hard work from our Queens College alumnae  and the creative team at Waverley. So having enjoyed a thoroughly excellent experience in publishing the book with Caledonian University and all the former alumnae, we would say the enduring legacy is – an amazingly clever book, and all the history it brings to the table.

While Italy has its ‘Silver Spoon’ Cookbook; America its’ Julia Childs’ ‘Mastering the Art of French Cookery’ book; we have our very own ‘Glasgow Cookery Book’.  We’re just waiting for the film…

The Glasgow Cookery Book is published by Waverley Books.

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