The Way It Was...


Life was primitive in the old Clan days. The shallow soil of the Highlands was broken with a crude spade-plough worked by foot, the "cas-chroim." The main crops on the cultivated low ground were barley and oats, which provided bread and porridge.... Flax was also grown. On the more level ground it was possible to use horse-drawn ploughs with four small horses abreast and a highlandman walking backwards between the center animals to guide the plough from the stones.

The staple summer dish of the clans was a mixture of milk and whey, also oatcakes and porridge, augmented by fish caught locally. On the West Coast and in the Isles, whale and seal steaks gave variety to the fish diet of the Mainland: salmon, trout and pickled herrings. [Ed. Note - NO SEAL was harmed, killed or eaten by the MacColin folk!! That's our ancestor and therefore our totem!]

Geese and poultry were kept. Meat was eaten more in the winter, also salted butter, crowdie, and skim-milk cheese. The surplus in livestock formed the principal Highland trade: cattle, horses (far more than realized), sheep, goats and pigs. The money obtained from the sale of hides, wool, and especially of livestock in the lowlands of the South was for centuries the Highlanders' constant source of income.

The animals were normally pastured on the moorland near the cultivated land in the broad straths and narrow glens. On higher ground, even the highland cattle were only hardy enough to be loosed for a few summer weeks. The stone huts whose ruins are still found through the mountains were never permanent habitations, but were the summer shielings put up to shelter the women and children who enjoyed their annual outing as cattle herders.

At the onset of winter, beasts were slaughtered to provide barrels of salt meat, two or three households often sharing one carcass; and the making of haggis ensured that nothing at all was wasted. Even the "braxty" mutton from sheep found dead on the hillside was eaten.

The cattle that were spared for breeding were bled alive to give the raw material -- fresh blood -- to be mixed with oatmeal for "black pudding." By Spring they were often so weak that they had to be manhandled out to pasture in the "lifting time."


For local consumption, heather ale was brewed in the home from very early times. By the sixteenth century frequent mention is made of Brogac, "The Stimulation," a sweetened malt liquor whose production (anyway, in Inverness) had to be repeatedly restricted to prevent a grain famine. About this time, whisky, uisgebeatha, "the water of life," began to take over in Inverness, and soon private stills were started by lairds and tacksmen all over the Highlands -- suppressed from the eighteenth century onward by harsh revenue demands that only led to illegal distillation.

In the seventeenth century, the Islemen had a dangerous "stop the breath" whiskey, which was distilled four times from oats. They also had a milder whiskey which was only thrice distilled, called "trestarig," from the Danish word "trost" which means "comfort," and "arak" which translates to "distilled spirit."

The chieftains and tacksmen drank a great deal of claret, but the Privy Council laid down a scale for them, at least in the Hebrides, and strictly limited the import of wine.'


You will need the stomach bag of a sheep. Wash it well in cold water. Turn it outside in, scald and scrape it with a knife, then soak it in cold salt water overnight. Wash the pluck and put into pan of boiling water, letting the windpipe hang over the side, add a teaspoon of salt. Allow it to boil for about 2 hours, then remove it from the pan, cut away the windpipe and any superfluous gristle.

Take a quarter of the liver and mince it along with the heart and lights. Add about 1/2 lb. chopped suet and 2 chopped parboiled onions. Toast 2 teacups pinhead oatmeal in oven until golden and nutty and add to the mixture. Season well with salt and pepper. Mace and cloves can also be added. Moisten with about 1 pt. of the puck or onions boilings. Drain and dry the bag and fill it three-parts full with the mixture. Room must be allowed for the oatmeal to expand or the bag will burst.

Sew up bag with trussing needle and coarse thread. Prick bag here and there with needle and plunge the haggis into pan with enough boiling water to cover. Place an old plate under the haggis, put on lid and allow to boil slowly for 2 to 3 hours, keeping the haggis covered with water. Remove when done, slit the bag and serve steaming hot.


Sift 4 cups flour, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon baking POWDER in a large mixing bowl. Cut in 1/4 cup butter or margarine with pastry blender until mixtures resembles corn meal. Stir in 1-1/2 cups currants. Mix 1-1/3 cups buttermilk, 2 eggs, and 1 teaspoon baking SODA. Stir into flour mixture until well moistened, but not over mixed. Turn the batter into a greased 2 quart casserole or soufflé dish, cover and bake at 375 degrees for 50 minutes.


Preheat oven to 425 degrees. coat a baking sheet evenly with 1 Tablespoon of softened butter. Sift 4 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and 1 teaspoon salt together into a deep mixing bowl. Gradually add 1 cup buttermilk, beating constantly with a large spoon until the dough is firm enough to be gathered into a ball. If the dough crumbles, beat up to 1/2 cup more buttermilk into it, by the tablespoon, until the particles adhere. Place the dough on a lightly floured board, and pat and shape it into a flat circular loaf about 8 inches in diameter and 1-1/2 inches thick. Set the loaf on the baking sheet. Then, with the tip of a small knife, cut a 1/2-inch deep "X" into the dough, marking the top of the loaf into quarters. Bake the bread in the middle of the oven for about 45 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Serve at once.


Since the Celts' diet changed but little from the fifth to the sixteenth century, it is pertinent and enlightening to us to see what they had and didn't have. Of course, there were notable additions to the pagan Irish larders with the discovery of the New World, and with increased trade with the Continent and the East. The most important import was to be "the Celts' second-best friend," the potato, brought by the Spanish from Peru, though it would not become a significant food until well after our time.

Food was never a problem in the fertile Ireland of the fifth century. Although there were no towns, each farm was a self sufficient settlement with prodigious sources of food, domesticated and wild, in the fields, the rivers, the forests and the barnyards.

Though they had, as yet, no domestic chickens (does anyone know when the chicken became a common domestic animal in Europe?), they did have beef. As well as being the measure of wealth and the reason for wars, cattle also supplied the main part of the food and clothing. They were slaughtered in the fall, in anticipation of the coming lack of fodder. Salt beef was a winter staple.

Other domestic animals included pigs -- blood sausage ("black pudding") and bacon were as popular with the Irish then as now. Sheep and goats, aside from providing wool, were also a source of food.

The common cereal crop was oats, augmented by wheat, barley and rye, from which an unleavened bread was made in "man size" and "woman size" loaves. A larger loaf was baked for guests, before whom a cut loaf should never be placed. A porridge called "stirabout" was also made, which was the basic Celtic fare, day in and day out, throughout the year.

Kitchen gardens provided cabbage, leeks, garlic, onions, parsnips and carrots. Watercress was gathered from the wild, as was laver (a red-purple marine algae which was eaten with wildfowl).

From forest and meadow the Irish gathered blackthorn berries, sloe (a kind of wild plum), whortle and rowan berries and strawberries. Apples were carefully cultivated, and hazelnuts were a choice food. Most fruits and nuts were eaten raw, though some apples were made into cider, and there was a kind of wine made of whortleberries.

Milk products were a summer staple: butter, a thick sour milk, curds and cheese. A preferred kind of cheese was made of curds compressed until the block was stone-hard. Queen Maeve's nephew, angered by some slight (it was not hard to be annoyed by this high-handed lady), put a clod of cheese in his sling and shot her in the forehead, killing her instantly!

Beekeeping was a big item, and regulation of this industry takes up much space in the Brehon Laws (q.v.). Honey was the only sweetener, and was eaten with everything. It was even used to baste the roast. It was also made into mead, which was reserved for the nobles. The common folk drank (you guessed it!) beer, which was made from fermented barley boiled with aromatic herbs brewed in oaken vats.

The chase brought in venison of red deer, which was considered a princely food. The hunt also provided wild boar, badger, hare, and various wild birds, also goose eggs. Fish came from both fresh water and the sea. Salmon was highly revered and considered food for kings.

Meat and fish were roasted or broiled over open fires of wood, or peat burning hearths (cow dung was used as fuel by the poorest families); or it was baked underground between rocks, or boiled in large bronze cauldrons. The size of the household cooking pot, indicated by Brehon Laws pertaining to the mandatory possessions of a middle-class farmer, was "...a cauldron into which a hog fits."

Seasonings consisted of butter, salt, bacon and vegetables. Salt was much valued, as it was not as easily come by as it is today.

I hope this modest listing of native foods will give an idea of what we were accustomed to eating at home in Ireland and Glenderry, and assist "clannies" shopping for clan meals -- although where you'll get whortleberries and badger remains a mystery!