While Scottish cuisine might be more infamous than famous, any recent visitor to the country knows this reputation is unfair. Today, Scottish food is experimental and delicious. Chefs take advantage of the country’s surplus of fresh produce and additive-free meats and seafood to create surprising fusions of traditional and modern cuisine that are sure to satisfy the appetite of any hungry traveler.
Traditional Scottish cuisine developed as a result of the country’s abundance of seafood and game, as well as the uniquely mobile lifestyle of ancient Scots. It’s thought the two quintessential Scottish dishes—oats and haggis—both developed out of a need to transport and to preserve food while roaming the countryside. Scottish food also reveals the influences of many other cultures, including those of its neighbors on the British Isles and of other European countries, particularly France. While traditional dishes are still available throughout the country, the cuisines of Edinburgh and Glasgow are distinctly cosmopolitan, demonstrating the influence of migration from greater Europe and Eastern cultures.
The flavor profile of classic Scottish cuisine is heavy on carbs and meat—primarily oats or potatoes and beef, venison or lamb. Stews and soups are understandably popular, given the rainy climate, and you’ll also find plenty of salted or smoked meat and fish. (The Vikings brought these food-preserving techniques to the British Isles when they first invaded in the late 8th century.) Overall, traditional Scottish food tends to be simple and hearty. It’s well suited for working or traveling people, and it relies more on quality ingredients than any fancy cooking techniques.
The Dining Experience in Scotland
If you’re looking for authentic Scottish pub food, your best bet is—you guessed it—a pub. Scotland, like the rest of the United Kingdom, has a thriving, lively pub culture. In one of these establishments, you’re just as likely to find a delicious blood sausage, cut of venison or plate of fish and chips as a mug of good beer. Many of the best pubs are historic sites as well, so you can get a good dose of culture alongside your edible indulgences. To find these places, simply ask around. There’s usually one nearby, and locals will be happy to help you find it.
Outside of traditional Scottish pub fare, there’s also a large spread of modern and international cuisine. This is available for a wide range of prices. At the cheap end is Scotland’s fast food scene, which has seen increased criticism in the face of the country’s high levels of heart disease and obesity. Normal European fast food items, such as kebabs and pizza, are available, as well as more distinctly Scottish variations, including fried haggis served fish-and-chips style and the infamous “munchy box” (essentially a pizza box filled with all the greasy treats you crave after a long night at the pub).
On the other end of the spectrum, Scotland has recently become home to a vibrant scene of trendy international restaurants. This is especially prevalent in Glasgow and Edinburgh. In these places, you can find stylish eateries serving modern, experimental variants of many cultural cuisines. Look for everything from Indian to Argentine food. It might not be the Scottish food you sought, but Scots are exceptionally proud of this nascent culinary scene, especially in Glasgow.
Typical Scottish Dishes
No trip to Scotland would be complete without tasting these famous Scottish dishes:
Yes, you knew it was going to be on the list. Made from minced sheep’s pluck (liver, lungs and heart) mixed with spices and oatmeal and served inside the animal’s stomach lining, this is the quintessential Scottish dish. (Just make sure you try it before making up your mind about it!) The dish is so highly regarded in Scotland that one of the country’s most famous poems is called “Address to a Haggis,” by beloved Scottish poet Robert Burns. Since importation of haggis to the United States has been banned since 1971, your trip to Scotland might be your only chance to taste the real thing.
● Neeps and Tatties
Usually served with haggis, these side dishes are made of mashed root vegetables—“neeps” are turnips, and “tatties” are potatoes—cooked with butter and chives. They make a great pair!
Historically, porridge (also known as oatmeal, gruel or a variety of other names) was the staple carbohydrate in the Scottish diet. Then potatoes were introduced to the British Isles, and the dish’s popularity waned. Today, however, porridge finds itself at the center of the health food renaissance, and it’s readily available in haute restaurants across the country, as well as in pubs and simple eateries. It’s made with salt, not sugar, and is stirred with a “spurtle,” a special pointed spoon.
● The “Full Scottish”
The Scottish version of the classic English breakfast plate, this usually includes fried eggs, tomatoes, baked beans, ham or bacon, butter, bread and sometimes even haggis. Go ahead and ask for the “full Scottish” in the morning, but be warned. It might put you right back to bed.
● Bangers and Mash
Another iconic dish across the United Kingdom, bangers and mash is sausages and mashed potatoes. Though the classic variation uses pork sausage, around Scotland, expect to find more exotic varieties, such as venison or boar. The mashed potatoes are made with a generous portion of butter and salt.
● Black Pudding
Another infamous Scottish dish, this one is made of congealed blood and oats mixed together to form a sort of savory pudding. From basic chippies (fish and chips restaurants) to upscale eateries, black pudding is available all over. Give it a try. You might just be surprised!
● Scottish Tablet
Scottish tablet is sugar, condensed milk and butter cooked together into a chewy brick of sweetness and flavor. This Scottish dessert can be found all over the nation and in many different variations. Some even include exotic flavors, such as dates or whisky. It’s tasty, inexpensive and easy to pack, making it the perfect gift to bring back home!
You might know what shortbread is, but did you know it was invented in Scotland? This tasty treat, which needs no introduction, has been a Scottish dessert staple since 1736. You’re likely to find the best of it in a shop that isn’t much younger than that.
Backroads Pro Tip
If you’re looking for an authentic Scottish dining experience, it doesn’t get much better than a Burns Supper. This is a formal dinner of three to seven courses hosted to celebrate the life of Scottish poet Robert Burns. You’re most likely to find one on January 25, Burns Night, the anniversary of his death, but they’re hosted year round, and they typically include traditional dancing, plenty of drinking and, of course, lots of haggis and whisky.
Regional Foods and Specialties
Due to its small size and relative interconnectedness, most Scottish foods are available throughout the country. However, for true foodies, the regions that house the best and freshest cuisines are all worth a visit.
● Wild Salmon
Scottish salmon was the first non-French food product to be awarded the prestigious Label Rouge from the French government. The salmon, which comes from the icy waters of the northern Atlantic, earned this distinction by being some of the freshest and least-polluted fish around. Anywhere on the Scottish western coast, you’ve got a good shot at tasting some of the best fish you’ve ever had.
Also coming from the northern Atlantic, Scottish scallops and oysters are internationally renowned for their flavor and freshness. The best place to find them is on the Kintyre Peninsula, west of Glasgow. This remote bit of Scotland stretching out toward Ireland might be a trek to visit, but the food will make the journey worth it.
● Aberdeen Angus Beef
Famously lean, tender and juicy, Scottish Angus beef has earned well-deserved notoriety across the world. Angus cattle is native to the counties of Aberdeen and Angus in the famously beautiful region of northeast Scotland.
● Scottish Whisky
No guide to wining and dining in Scotland would be complete without a mention of Scotland’s most famous export, whisky. Scottish whisky has been world renowned for centuries, and it’s produced all over the country. The flavor, however, varies widely depending on its origin. Scottish whisky production can be broken down into six regions: Lowlands, Speyside, Highlands, Campbeltown, Islay and Islands. Each has its own distinctive flavor and style of production, so if you’re a whisky fanatic, consider making the rounds!
Backroads Pro Tip
The European Union assigns certain food products its “protected geographical indication” (PGI) label. This designation guarantees the product is produced with the best possible practices and that the product is actually from its traditional place of origin. This ensures, for example, the prohibition of selling “Scotch whisky” that doesn’t come from Scotland. Twelve products of Scottish origin currently qualify for this designation, including Shetland lamb, Orkney Scottish Island Cheddar and Scotch whisky. Keep an eye out for this label, and be comforted you’re eating (or drinking) the best of the best!
Scottish Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
● Arbroath Smokie: a type of smoked haddock that’s famous in Scotland
● Bried: bread
● Butterie or Rowie: a type of fluffy bread roll, also called an “Aberdeen Morning Roll”
● Chappit or Champit: “mashed,” usually used to describe turnips or potatoes
● Dumpling: a sweet fruit pudding
● Dram: a glass of whisky
Words to Know When Dining Out
While everyone in Scotland speaks English, Scottish Gaelic is also widely spoken, especially in rural areas. Don’t be afraid to butcher it; locals will still appreciate the effort!
● Thank you: Mòran taing (MAW-run TAH-eeng)
● Cheers!: Slàinte mhòr agad! (SLAHN-tchuh VORR AH-kut!)
● Where is the restroom?: Càite bheil an taigh beag? (KAHTCH uh vehl un tye bek?)
● Bon appetit!: Ith gu leòir! (EETH goo laythir!)
Though there’s less of a tipping culture in Scotland than in, say, the United States, a 10 percent tip is still standard in most situations. For sit-down restaurants, 10 percent is a must; for a meal in a pub, the custom is less rigid, and you should use your judgment. Unlike in the United States, there’s no need to tip in casual situations, such as self-serve cafes or when you’re just getting a beer.
In Scotland, dining times can vary widely, ranging from 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at sit-down restaurants to the wee hours of the morning at pubs or fast food joints. In general, cafes and upscale restaurants have table service, but at some pubs, you’ll have to order food at the bar.
Don’t be afraid to ask for the check. In Scotland, as in most of Europe, it’s considered rude to bring you the bill before you request it.