Fearn Balintore and Hilton Community Collage

Chapter 13 - Food

A survey of past times would be incomplete without some reference to food. If it was plain it was nourishing and above all cheap. Our forefathers got their vitamins all right thought it is unlikely that they had ever heard of such things.

Oatmeal, potatoes, salt herring and white fish were the staple articles of diet and every household had a 'food bank' in the form of a pit of potatoes and a barrel of salt herring which lasted well into the spring.

The fishermen always sold the best of their catch but kept something back to feed the family. This was the non-commercial fish, either too small or a kind for which there was no market, but which were nevertheless welcome and tasty additions to the menu at home.


Fish were often eaten fresh but if plentiful they were also dried out of doors to preserve them. Small fish were cleaned, lightly salted, sometimes split, and hung from an ordinary smoking speight fixed to nails on the side of the house or shed as shown in the photograph of Cromarty.


Fishertown, Cromarty, c.1890.

They were sometimes dried on a hake, which was specially made for the job. It was a triangular wooden frame with pegs to which the fish were attached and it too was hung outside like the speight. The fish took a day or two to dry and would then keep for
about a week when they were boiled or roasted on the brander. The brander, a wire arrangement laid on top of a red fire, was a rough forerunner of the modern grill and it was often used for cooking fish as a change from boiling.

Large fish such as cod were split, heavily salted and laid on boards or on the stones on the shore to dry. They were only put out on good days and taken in it wet weather which meant that the drying process might take up to a month. This was worth it, however, as it would then keep for four to five months, stored up in the rafters. Pieces were cut off as required and when boiled were delicious. Gulls were a hazard with both methods of drying and a close look-out had to be kept for them.


Cod could also be dried indoors. After salting it was hooked up  inside the canopy of the praze with a piece of fence wire and hung over a red hot fire. The skin became very black but the inside remained beautifully white. Haddock were also dried in the praze,
hooked on to nails at the side where they would not interfere with the pot hanging from the crook; sometimes they were dried on a speight placed right across the fireplace but this was not common.

Ling, catfish, lee and saithe could all be eaten fresh, boiled or cooked on the brander. Gurnard was sometimes skinned, but also boiled spikes and all, and very good it was. It is sometimes known as the 'crooner' because of the groaning noise it makes when captured.  [27]

Fluke (flounders) and whiting were delicious. Sliced conger eel was cooked in the same ways but its chief drawback was a mass of tiny bones which made it unsuitable fare for children. Rock turbot (the male lump fish with a pink breast) was only pleasant to eat in early spring before the taste became too strong. Only a small part was edible but that part could be boiled and eaten cold with vinegar when it tasted much like salmon, or it could be fried. It is known as the 'cocky paddle' or by its Gaelic name of mhorcan. The female of the species was never eaten, nor was the dogfish.

The family barrel of salt herring was prepared at home, getting the  fish little by little themselves or free of charge from the herring boats at the weekends.

The main meal was about 6.00 p.m. when the day's darg was over and the whole family present. A favourite dish was fish sauce (soup) made with fish stock, onions and potatoes. 'Crappit heid' was made by stuffing the head of a cod or a large haddock with a mixture of oatmeal, onions and its own liver, and cooking it in boiling water.  This was a case of 'Waste not, want not,' when the fishwife preparing speldings did not waste the heads she cut off. Potatoes always appeared and 'tatties and herrin" was a great favourite, and potatoes and milk were a common supper.

The names of the potatoes sound strange today for they have almost vanished from the scene - Champions, Table Talks, Up-to-Dates, Arran Chiefs, Fortyfolds, Langworthys and Blacksmiths.  Boiled in brine and water they were even more floury than ever and
the skins did not split in cooking. But some children liked when the skins split - these were 'laughing tatties!' When peeled a wooden plocan or chapper was used to mash them, and wooden ladles broke them up in soup.

A popular potato dish, easily prepared and used for breakfast or supper, was potato slices - 'slishacks'. During the Second World War when the need for economy in food was being cried from the house, a recipe appeared in a daily paper.  'Slice cold mashed potatoes and fry both sides until brown in hot fat. Use with bacon etc.' Our slishacks, of course! The village Mother Hubbards knew a thing or two about 'make do' in the kitchen and 'mend' as well.

Potato soup and vegetable broth were made with bones and sheep's head broth and roasted trotters were part of the winter diet, with the main ingredients got from the butcher for very little. These were cheap, nourishing dishes which did not strain the finances overmuch.  Lights were bought for very little and boiled for soup and the meat
eaten, and liver was fried as usual. Generally speaking, butcher meat was not nearly so popular as fish. Rabbits were freely poached on Shandwick Hill and Cadboll cliffs, and made very good eating. The poachers sold them from door to door for 1/- to 1/6d. per pair and later from 2/6 to 3/- until the beginning of the Second World War. Scarrows (cormorants) were shot or stoned on the rocks, and then skinned and boiled for broth and the meat eaten. They tasted just like wild duck.

Oatmeal sometimes came from the mills at Fearn and Rockfield but was usually bartered for fish with the farm-workers who had plenty meal but little money. Needless to say, porridge featured in the diet, and skirley was another dish made by mixing oatmeal, onions and suet, fried in a pan and eaten with potatoes. Occasionally a housewife, given time and inclination, would prepare white puddings from oatmeal, suet and onions. One of the children might be sent to the butcher's for a pitcher of blood which when added to the mixture produced black puddings.

For lack of ovens baking was simple. Oatmeal bannocks (rounds) and oatcakes (triangular) were cooked on the brander which in time gave way to the girdle (griddle) though they continued to be browned before the fire on a trivet, or toaster, hooked to the fire bars. In Tain Museum there is a bakestone from Hilton which was used to prop up
the baking in front of the fire, either to bake or to brown. In fact, any heavy object could be used for this purpose. 

Oatcakes made on the brander were more favoured than 'loaf-bread' by some of the older people who were against the new-fangled 'Tommy' loaf when it was introduced early this century by shop bakers. On the other hand a 'doorstep' with butter and sugar or jam cut from the 'Tommy' with its choice crusts top and bottom was the very height of bliss to a hungry boy or girl. Another snack for a hungry child just home from school was a slice of turnip from the soup pan eaten on an oatcake. Cake was unknown except when bought at the New Year and at weddings, as was fruit.

The earliest reference to vegetables appears in 1610. Andrew Denune had a kailyard then in Hilton 2 showing that early on the fisherfolk appreciated this specific against scurvy. Later on vegetables came from the butcher's garden where a big cabbage cost 1d. about 1900, and turnips came from the nearest farm. Few people had gardens themselves till white fishing had ceased and black sheds were removed and replaced by gardens.

The 'clootiedumpling' was then as now a great favourite all round.  It is a boiled suet pudding. The ingredients could be very simple, just flour, suet, a little spice and soda dissolved in water, but if times were prosperous it could be enriched with syrup, treacle, sugar and fruit.  The mixture was wrapped up in a damped, floured cloth leaving room for expansion, and boiled for about three hours. It was made on festive occasions such as New Year, weddings and 'treats'. Eaten hot, sprinkled with sugar, it made a meal and the left-overs were fried with bacon and egg or eaten cold.

Very little jam was eaten. Syrup and treacle were more popular with the children, often bartered for whelks, while in good times butter and crowdie were bought from the farms or shops and used on oatmeal bannocks.

If no hens were kept, eggs were bought from the farms, but in spring seagulls' eggs were retrieved from the cliffs at the expense of life and limb and made a welcome addition to the diet.

No one ate mussels but they sometimes bought cockles from Johnny the Cockles' cart from Inver. Whelks were washed in several waters, boiled for twenty minutes and removed from the shell with a pin.

The children, as sure-footed as mountain goats on the rocky shore, would sometimes stay the pangs of a healthy hunger with pieces of a rope-like tangle (Cuvie) which they usually peeled with a mussel shell and then crunched. The cone-shaped root or 'cockle' was exceptionally tasty when peeled and could be swapped for marbles, buttons, a pocket-knife and so on. Dulse, a brown seaweed rich in iodine, was also eaten. It tasted best roasted on the brander or dipped into boiling water. Either way it turned green and this slight cooking made it more digestible and less likely to cause choking. A special seaweed, only found near the summer house below Geanies, could be boiled to a jelly. This use of seaweed may be the reason why the majority of the people had such lovely teeth when dental treatment was nil.



Milk came from several local sources apart from the farms, and when the usual supply dried up in winter the people did without entirely until the introduction of the 'tin cow' - Nestle's condensed milk. The Macraes at the Commercial Hotel had a cow, an excellent milker even if she only grazed on the shore and possibly on the washing. The Bonnys in Balintore kept two cows in a black shed behind their shop and sold milk, and a cow or cows were kept between Park Street and Shandwick. Johnstones the butchers also
provided goats' milk. Sometimes a fishwife would bring home a bottle, or even a pail, of milk from her round. Old Shandwick Farm ran a pony-drawn milk cart in the 1930s but a constant supply was never reliable until the late Dr. A. K. Mackenzie, Tain, instituted a
milk round. This milk came in large cans on a horse-drawn float from Arabella holdings. The villages benefited greatly from this development and as the quantity increased the method of transport improved, as did the health of the people and especially the children.

After the Second World War the Milk Marketing Board began a daily milk delivery to the doorstep, and this constant supply of T. T. milk is of tremendous value.

Continue in Chapter 14
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