First Monday Library Chat: National Library of Scotland

Welcome to the September 2015 edition of the First Monday Library Chat! This month we travel to Edinburgh where we have the pleasure of talking to Olive Geddes at the National Library of Scotland.

The National Library of Scotland has rich holdings of pre-modern manuscript and printed recipe books. Can you give us an idea of the scope?

We have forty-two manuscript recipe books dating from the late seventeenth century to the early twentieth century. Although there is a concentration on the central belt, most parts of Scotland are covered. Many, such as the recipe book dated 1683 from the Sutherland Estates Papers, and the series of seventeenth and eighteenth century recipe books in the Fletcher of Saltoun Papers form part of the archives of major Scottish landowning families. Others, such as Katharine Jane Ellice’s illustrated recipe book, compiled at Glenquoich, the family’s shooting lodge in the Highlands in the mid-nineteenth century have come to NLS as single items. The seven recipe books covering four generations and over a hundred years, compiled by members of the Malcolm of Burnfoot family from Langholm near Dumfries are of particular interest.

Recipe book of Katherine Bruce, Lady Saltoun, dated 1688, from the Fletcher of Saltoun Papers, NLS, MS.17854
Recipe book of Katherine Bruce, Lady Saltoun, dated 1688, from the Fletcher of Saltoun Papers, NLS, MS.17854

We are fortunate to have many early published recipe books in our printed book collections including some from England, France and Italy as well as Scotland. John Reid’s The Scots Gard’ner, published in Edinburgh in 1683 is the first Scottish gardening manual. But, as well as gardening instructions, he gives advice on ‘How to Use the Fruits of the Garden’. For this, many consider it to be the first published Scottish cookery book. In the eighteenth century Edinburgh was home to a number of cookery schools. They provided practical instruction for the young ladies but some teachers, for example Elizabeth Cleland, published their own cookery books. Her New and Easy Method of Cookery appeared in 1755.

I noticed on your website that the NLS is currently hosting an exhibition titled ‘Lifting the Lid’ which chronicles 400 years of food history in Scotland. I’m sure that our readers would love a short virtual preview!

Kinfauns Castle Family Receipts, 19th century, MS.24778
Kinfauns Castle Family Receipts, 19th century, MS.24778

Our summer exhibition ‘Lifting the Lid’ tells the story of Scotland’s changing relationship with food and drink down the centuries. ‘Lifting the Lid: four hundred years of food and drink in Scotland’ is being staged during Scotland’s Year of Food and Drink 2015. It highlights the wide differences in diet within society and across the country over the past 400 years, and what we lessons might learn from this.

Many consider the Scots the ‘sick man of Europe’ with much of the blame laid on our eating habits – for example the deep fried mars bar and our traditional reluctance to eat fruit and vegetables. In the eighteenth century Samuel Johnson decried the Scottish diet, describing oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”.  Yet, if you look back in time, before the industrial age, the rural poor were said to be ‘remarkably healthy’ with a simple, frugal but wholesome diet despite the limited availability of food.

At the other end of the social scale, wealthy families ate flesh on a daily basis, hired French chefs and experimented with new foods and techniques that, over time, have influenced the national diet. Curry is one of these “new” foods. The exhibition reveals imported curry powder was being sold in Edinburgh as early as 1798 for 2/6d – a huge sum, way beyond the means of an ordinary worker. It was clearly a taste that could only be indulged by the well to do.

Press cutting from the Edinburgh Evening Courant, 5th July 1798, pasted into John Caird’s,The Complete Confectioner, Leith, 1809, Maca.92.
Press cutting from the Edinburgh Evening Courant, 5th July 1798, pasted into John Caird’s,The Complete Confectioner, Leith, 1809, Maca.92.

Foods – such as kale and porridge that feature prominently in what was once a basic Scots diet, ­are now touted as superfoods and feted by celebrities. Meanwhile Scotland struggles with an obesity epidemic as sugary and calorie dense foods have taken over from the simple, frugal diet of days gone by. The exhibition will help visitors understand more of these trends as it takes people back in time to find out what our ancestors ate and how it links to today.

The main focus of the exhibition is on our manuscript and printed recipe books. They are supported by household accounts and inventories, tradesmen’s bills, menus, visitors’ journals, maps and amateur and government films about food from our collections.

Rather than taking a chronological approach the exhibition is arranged like the sections of a recipe book starting with Soups and Broths, then Oatmeal and Bread, Fish and Shellfish, Meat Poultry and Game, Vegetables, Desserts and Baking, and finishing with Jams and Preserves. Drink, from ale and whisky, to tea and barley water is threaded through the exhibition. The aim is to consider what different dishes and ingredients meant to Scots in the past and today. Old and new material is mixed together as is different types of material to contrast the richness and diversity of Scotland’s larder and the myths and traditions associated with its peoples’ diet.

The exhibition runs to 8th November and admission is free.

For those of us living afar, could you tell us a little more about how we might be able to consult your holdings via digitization schemes or virtual exhibitions?

Those wanting to know more about our holdings should consult the food history source list on our website. The exhibition pages on our website give an introduction ‘Lifting the Lid’.  But, our web feature, ‘Recipes from Scotland’, is due to go live in October. At the same time, digitized versions of all our manuscript recipe books will be available to view on our website. ‘Lifting the Lid on Scottish food history’, a learning resource for schools was launched in August. Finally, our Recipe of the Month from the Library’s Collections runs throughout the Year of Food and Drink 2015.

Can you give us a few highlights from your collection? OR Can you highlight one or two of your favourite items?

The recipe for ‘Cherie marmalade with very little sugar’ in an anonymous late seventeenth century recipe book is one of my favourites [MS.15912]. While today we might buy reduced sugar preserves for health reasons, as sugar was then an expensive luxury item, I suspect this recipe was cost conscious.

Page from Stephana Malcolm’s recipe book begun in 1790, Acc.10708/3
Page from Stephana Malcolm’s recipe book begun in 1790, Acc.10708/3

Another favourite is the 19th century recipe collection of Stephana Malcolm who offers three recipes for rhubard which she calls ‘Spring Fruit’. [Acc.10708/3].  Her ‘Spring Fruit Pudding’ is for a hot baked pudding while Spring cream or mock Gooseberry Fool’ was a cold dessert. Stephana’s third rhubarb recipe is for a savoury soup.  These very different uses of rhubarb suggest its culinary use was still experimental. All three rhubarb recipes appear, along with two others, in the 1823 edition of Dr Kitchiner’s The Cook’s Oracle. As an enthusiast for gastronomic purges, the medicinal qualities of rhubarb as well as its value as a food, appealed to him. His book may have been the Stephana’s source.

Cite this blog post
Elaine Leong (2015, September 7). First Monday Library Chat: National Library of Scotland. The Recipes Project. Retrieved June 14, 2024, from

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