Rules, rules, rules: Medieval Scotland’s Food System

Is Scottish food just haggis, whiskey, neeps and tatties, fried Mars bars and Irn Bru? Each month food history enthusiast Sarah Gowanlock will be uncovering the real taste of Scotland by exploring its rich food history, from the Stone Age to today.

In a time when the majority of our food is imported, this series will allow you to take a closer look at how earlier Scots fed themselves and discover why oats were so important, what bog butter and guga is, how the food system changed after World War II and much more.

The founding of the royal burghs in the 12th century also changed how food was regulated. Bread, meat, drink and imports were strictly monitored and prices were set by burgh courts. 


The Black Death contributed to a smaller pastoral economy and the Scot’s diet adapted accordingly with less meat and more oats and barley. When meat was consumed, its quality could not be assured, as evident by the many regulations and court records of unscrupulous fleshers, or butchers. It seems likely that many people experienced eating bad quality or inedible meat. Regulations also controlled where the slaughter took place and the quantity of meat; fleshers sold whole or side (half) carcasses or quarters of mutton.

Since meat was required to be sold in such large quantities, few ordinary folk could afford to eat it regularly, or at all. Instead, ordinary folk would have eaten sausages, offal — the internal organs and entrails (nose-to-tail dining before it was cool) — and mart.

From the Irish and Gaelic, mart was the meat slaughtered toward the end of the year and preserved through salting for the winter months. Oxen or cows, or sheep in the Borders and goat in the Highlands were slaughtered in November because many of the animals would not have survived the tough winter.

Salted meat was prevalent through the mid-eighteenth century until the introduction of turnips and sown grasses, which became new sources of winter food for cattle that meant fresh slaughter was possible in winter for the upper classes. The tradition of ‘yule mart’, salted meat intended for Christmas, was still prevalent in the early 20th century. 

From archaeological digs in Aberdeen, we also know that pig became more important in the Scottish diet in the 14th century. Only nobility ate venison on occasion, a privilege protected by further regulations. Gannets or solan geese were also a popular choice for royalty in the 16th century.

Fish was also an important staple of the medieval Scottish diet. During Lent, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays (about half the year), the Catholic Church forbade consuming meat — the burgh courts weren’t the only ones setting rules. Along with herring, pike, salmon, and bream, eels were also common, caught in lochs with wicker traps and barbed spears like the one below.

Eel Spear
An iron medieval eel spear or leister dating from the 16/17th Centuries. Visit the Historic Environment Scotland’s archive to find more artifacts.



Those who lived in towns and cities could buy bread from the bakers. Bread baking was considered a public service and the burgh courts set the price of bread once a month by weight, dependent on supply. Even the kind of bread was regulated; certain types of high quality loaves could only be made during feast days.

Only big houses and monastic buildings were fitted with ovens for bread or meat, and ovens never became standard in Scottish farmhouses or for ordinary citizens.

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The bread oven in Stirling Castle along with some spooky wax models. Image Credit

Most of the cooking in regular households took place over an open hearth. The tradition of open hearth cooking meant the everyday baked goods were flat bannocks, pancakes, oatcakes and scones, which were round cakes of wheat or barley flour baked on girdle.

Bannocks were made on a flat iron girdle or a stone placed near the fire. Cooks would have mixed barley meal with water and salt to make a stiff dough, rolled it into balls and pressed round cakes out by hand or with a roller until about 9-10 inches in diameter and half an inch thick. Then, they would have been placed on the stone or girdle and constantly turned until completely cooked. In 1773, Dr Samuel Johnson remarked that ‘their native bread is made of oats or barley. Of oatmeal they spread very thin cakes, coarse and hard, to which unaccustomed palates are not easily reconciled.’


Ale, beer, and wine was also closely regulated by authorities who set price and controlled for quality. Ordinary folk drank ale, which was brewed from barley. Ale was considered a food rather a drink to quench thirst. Most brewers were women who brewed in their own homes. Beer, which is ale made with hops instead of barley, was more expensive and less common.

Meanwhile, the upper classes were drinking wine, particularly claret. During Roman and Anglo-Saxon times, grapes were grown in parts of southern England for wine, but Scotland had always been too far north. The earliest evidence of wine drinking appears in the 12th century within the Acts of Parliament of Scotland, in the time of David I (1124-53), which regulated wine’s retail and wholesale prices. The royal household was the largest consumer, followed by the Catholic Church, but burghs did regulate wine for taverns which indicates that wine was sold to the wider public too. 

At first, wine was imported from France, but soon supply came from further afield: Spain, the Canary Islands, Alsace, Portugal, Germany and Turkey. Supplies would arrive seasonally and because there were no preservatives, it would sour within a few months. As it turned, spices were added, and sometimes sugar or even an egg to thicken it, and it was served hot.

Because it would quickly sour and was very expensive, some tavern owners would mix the sour wine with good wine in order to continue to serve it. Measures for drinks were regulated too and had to be authenticated with the ‘town’s mark’. According to a 1571 report, the tasters, or ‘cunnars’, would go through town four times a year to test the wine and ale for quality and enforce the many regulations…which sounds like a lush job, sign me up!

Regulations set by the burghs greatly advantaged the upper classes, but they also protected consumers from buying rotting meat or subprime wine and getting swindled or ill. We can almost see these regulations as the beginning of promising good food to consumers.

Over four hundred years later, in 2016, the Scottish Government committed to bringing forward a Good Food Nation Bill. The Government have been delaying the public consultation on the Bill and SFYN Scotland is worried that it will slip off their agenda. Visit the Scottish Food Coalition’s website to learn more.

Fancy experimenting with bannocks or making mulled wine with egg? Have you salted meat in the mart style? Tell us about it in the comment section below!

Originally from the States, Sarah first came to Scotland to study medieval history and social anthropology at the University of St Andrews. But it wasn’t until she returned to the States and started working at a botanic garden that she rediscovered the joy of knowing where food comes from. Now back in Scotland, Sarah is a SFYN Scotland committee member, avid cyclist, and urban explorer.

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