DECADES ago, the food eaten on Scotland's islands was almost all local. Apart from tea, coffee and sugar, most ingredients were taken from the field outside the croft or the sea at your doorstep. Salting then smoking were traditional methods of preserving fish and meat; and of course fruits were bottled to last the winter. With the introduction of refrigeration and the ease of air transport, though, the muddling of the seasons began. Instead of waiting for that first raspberry to emerge from between the canes at the foot of the garden, you could find berries imported from far afield. Instead of awaiting the new lamb season, there were imports of frozen lamb from the other side of the world. And with this gradual change came a shift in attitude. Instead of treating crabs and oysters as everyday fare if you lived near the sea, because there was little else to eat, they became the food of the elite or were immediately shipped off to the continent where they were devoured appreciatively.

Instead of cooking an old-fashioned plate of mince, tatties and skirlie, islanders, like Scots on the mainland, would return from foreign holidays and cook spaghetti Bolognese or chilli con carne. Nothing wrong with that, obviously; variety is never a bad thing. And the choice now on the islands is so much better than it was in the 1970s and 1980s when you were often lucky to find any fresh fruit in a local shop. But sometimes it felt as if the food of the islands had lost its link with the past. Just as Gaelic was being heard less frequently, so traditional dishes were cooked less often. Even now, as older generations pass on, so many of the old dishes and recipes die. Not all, of course, are worth reviving, but the core ethos – that local and seasonal is always best – is definitely good.

But there is now certainly hope. Touring the islands for my new book, A Taste Of Scotland's Islands, I was fortunate to speak to many producers and cooks who continue to use local ingredients; some still use traditional recipes, perhaps brought a little up to date to suit modern palates. On the beautiful island of Raasay, the village shop in Inverarish is flourishing, selling everything from Skye’s Misty Isle Gin (accompanied by the shopkeeper’s tasting notes – "you get a hint of cinnamon") to postcards and ice-cream. They also sell local venison, and salad leaves, edible flowers and vegetables from the walled garden at Raasay House. John William Gillies, the "deer man", now adds red wine, red pepper and Worcestershire sauce to his traditional venison casserole. Dulse or another frond of seaweed from the shore is added to an island gin along with tonic. Modern ideas combined with traditional ingredients is surely the way ahead, but always with a respect for the past.

Visiting the Scottish islands has always been, to me, a joy, whatever the weather. But with more focus on local sourcing in restaurants and cafés, more availability of local ingredients in shops and of course more artisan food producers and farmers’ or producers’ markets, they are now also a culinary cornucopia. And provided we respect both history and nature, visitors will surely continue to be welcome. Island life is alive and well and the distance it takes to get to some of them should never be an obstacle; it is all part of the adventure.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous quote: "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive" used to ring true in island holidays of the past when the arrival heralded a week of mostly canned or processed food. Now the journey is easier with faster ferries and flights, as well as more connecting bridges.

But as well as improved infrastructure, the welcome on the table is now more likely to be an abundance of local produce and the cuisine both modern and traditional. My new book is a personal culinary tour, a discovery of wonderful cooking on some of Scotland’s many idyllic islands. It is partly my tribute to the wild beauty of the islands and to their people; mostly, however, it is a celebration of their food.


I can think of few places in the world where there is such evidence of the continuity of diet spanning 5,000 years. But on Orkney, the collective name for the archipelago of 70 islands off the north east of Scotland, I was lucky enough to visit the fascinating Skara Brae, a Neolithic village dating back to 3,100 BC, centuries before the Pyramids of Giza were built. At Skara Brae, the best-preserved Neolithic village in Europe, you can look inside the houses from the Middle Stone Age with their central fire and a large stone, to cook their bread or bannocks on, at the side; you can see the "saddle querns" where barley was ground between two stones. Neolithic Orcadians ate – as well as seabirds such as fulmars, gannets and auks – shellfish, fish, cheese, meat and game. And barley. Wheat was also found in excavations here, which is interesting as it is no longer possible for it to be grown as it is too cold; Orkney 5,000 years ago was some three degrees warmer than now.

An interesting continuous feature of this diet is barley. This would have been the ancient variety of barley known as bere which has been grown since Neolithic times on these islands, and is still grown and milled there.

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The Barony Mills at Birsay were built in 1873. In those days there were dozens of watermills all over the islands. The saddle querns of Neolithic times had given way to trough querns in the Bronze Age, then to rotary querns in the Iron Age and finally to the more sophisticated water-powered wheel, introduced by the Norsemen, to grind the grain. By the end of the 17th century there were at least 50 mills in Orkney; nowadays there is just one working mill – the one at Birsay.

I entered this tall Victorian mill on a bitterly cold day, the wind whipping outside against the weather-worn stone. The miller then was Rae Philips, whose father and grandfather had also been millers here, and Rae showed me what constitutes his working day during the long winter months: milling bere. In summer, the mill becomes a tourist attraction. Rae has since passed away, but his legacy lives on. The bere, formerly known by its Norse name of bygg, arrives at the mill and is dried down for six to eight hours to a moisture level of about 8 to 10%, ready for grinding. Then the great wheel outside the mill creaks into action as the sluice gates are opened and the enormous weight of water causes the wheel to slowly turn. The dried grain is then taken to the stones: firstly the shelling stones, to crack the husk and free the kernel. The husks are not wasted but are used to heat the kiln. Secondly the kernels are delivered to a pair of French "burr" stones to be ground into coarse meal called grap. This unsieved, roughly ground bere is then reground to a fine meal by the bere stones, which also remove the dust.

This bere flour or meal is sieved and bagged for customers to make into bannocks, oatcakes and pancakes – a taste of the past worth preserving.

Cranberry and orange bere muffins

Makes 8 large muffins

My recipe is based on one from Lorraine at Cafelolz, Kirkwall, Orkney. Lorraine Pilkington-Tait, also known as Lol, hence the café name, was born and bred in Stenness on the mainland of Orkney, then worked in the hospitality industry all over Scotland. She is a self-taught baker and cook and opened Cafelolz in 2000. Before that she lived in New Zealand for 15 years with her Kiwi husband, and it was there she embraced the wonderful coffee/café culture of NZ.

100g beremeal

100g self-raising flour

50g dark brown muscovado sugar

75g caster sugar

1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 level tsp cinnamon 100g dried cranberries

Zest and juice of one small orange (50ml juice)

100g butter, melted and cooled slightly

2 large eggs

5 heaped tbsp natural yoghurt

25g-40g sunflower and/or pumpkin seeds

Mix the beremeal, flour, sugars, bicarbonate and cinnamon together in a large bowl. Stir the cranberries through. Sprinkle over a few of the seeds.

In a separate bowl, combine the orange juice and zest with the butter, eggs and yoghurt. Gently combine the two bowls; do not over-mix.

Dollop spoonfuls into eight large muffin cases in a bun tin, then sprinkle the remaining seeds on top.

Bake in a preheated oven (200C/400F/Gas 6) for 10 minutes, then reduce to 180C/350F/Gas 4) for a further 15 minutes or so, until a wooden cocktail stick inserted into the centre comes out dry. Baking time is about 25 minutes altogether.

Eat warm, with a dod of butter if required.


A conversation with Hamish Taylor from Flodabay, eastern Harris, is always fascinating. As is often the case with islanders, he is a man of many parts, having been a radio engineer, radio officer in the merchant navy and a fisherman; he loves anything to do with the sea, and boats. He is also the boatman for the island of Pabbay to the south west of Harris, a trip from Leverburgh of some 35 to 40 minutes. The island had a considerable population in past centuries and most of the St Kilda stewards were Pabbay men. In the early 19th century the population was estimated at about 100 and they produced corn, barley and illicit whisky. But then it was cleared of its inhabitants in the 1840s to make way for sheep, yet another example of the Highland and island clearances and the valuing of sheep over people by landlords.

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The Harris island of Pabbay (not to be confused with Pabbay south of Barra) is now run as a single sheep farm, and Hamish goes out to take the two or three shepherds there and back. They stay on the otherwise uninhabited island for the duration of the lambing season.

When I spoke to him back in 1999 for my Scots cooking book, he described to me his version of Ceann Cropaig, which was traditionally cooked inside a large fish head. He likes to make small fishcakes from the liver, but instead of using cod which is the most common for a Crappit heid, he prefers to use coley, since there are fewer worms. After washing the fish liver well, he mashes equal quantities of liver with wholemeal flour (again with the hands – their heat helps release fish oil which binds the mixture) and drops little cakes of the mixture into simmering water to poach. Once cooked, they float to the surface and are served with whole boiled fish.

Hamish Taylor’s Ceann cropaig (Crappit heid)

Serves 4

According to Hamish, this was quite a well-known supplement to a staple diet of boiled fish, "back-in-the-day". Hamish prefers flour to the standard oatmeal.

4 medium-sized coarse fish, such as Coley

1 large teaspoon of black pepper

1 large teaspoon of salt

½ a small onion, finely chopped

2 cups of wholemeal plain flour

A good handful of fresh fish livers (washed)

Lay the fish in a large pan and generously cover with salted water and set to boil. While the fish comes to the boil, mix the pepper, salt and onion into the flour.

Gradually add the seasoned flour to the livers, mixing thoroughly with your bare hands. The more you mix, the softer the mixture becomes, so continue adding flour until the mix consistency is so firm that a ball of mixture just begins to slump when laid on a plate. The livers will have been largely transformed into fish-oil by the mixing and the heat of your hands. Form the mixture into small fishcake-shaped patties.

When the water boils, reduce the heat to a simmer and gently lay the patties into the water, over the fish. Carefully maintain the heat at a gentle simmer to avoid the patties disintegrating.

Cooking should take about 20 minutes. Generally, when they are cooked, they float. Gently lift them out of the water with a large perforated spoon and lay on a plate. Leave to cool a little, then check by cutting one with a knife. The centre should be fairly dry (the water should not have permeated through it).

Serve with the boiled fish.


Jeanette Cutlack is one of the few haggis makers in the Hebrides. She began making it a few years ago from her home at Ballygown near Torloisk, overlooking the isle of Ulva, when her son’s school was hosting a Burns lunch. It went down well and so she resolved to continue. Since then, Jeanette has changed and developed the recipe. The haggis is made with sheep’s offal and beef suet, both from the local slaughterhouse. Though haggis recipes vary, she uses primarily lungs and some hearts but tends not to use liver as it can give the haggis quite a dense texture. I agree that liver does not always make for a pleasing mouthful in a haggis. Jeanette’s Isle of Mull haggis has a wonderful, true, clean taste that is perfectly spiced. When she began, she was making some dozen haggis a week but now she has orders for around 50 a week in the summer season.

In 2014, she set up a small restaurant in her house. This forced her to come up with different ways of serving her haggis as most guests want to try it. She is also given suggestions from friends and diners. One diner of Moroccan descent suggested a haggis pastilla (haggis, chopped apricots, almonds and cinnamon baked in filo) which turned out to be a success.

Mull haggis pastilla

Serves 4

3 sheets filo pastry (approx. 30cm long)

50g butter, melted

1 haggis (450–500g)

1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 tsp honey

1 tsp ras el hanout (spice blend)

75ml lamb stock or hot water

50g chopped apricots (or dates)

A pinch of chilli powder,

1 tbsp tomato puree,

The zest of one orange

1 tbsp flaked almonds

A small pinch of ground cinnamon and 1 tsp icing sugar, to decorate

Brush the filo pastry with melted butter and layer one sheet on top of another.

Mix the haggis and the next eight ingredients together and place the mixture in the centre of the layered filo sheets; bring up the edges so that the mixture is enclosed. Flip it over and lay on a flat greased baking tray or a 20cm cake tin and sprinkle some flaked almonds on it. (At this stage, you can chill overnight if baking the next day.) Bake in a preheated oven (200C/400F/Gas 6) for about 20 minutes until golden brown. Sieve the cinnamon and icing sugar over the top and serve at once, with a couscous salad.

This is an edited extract from Sue Lawrence's new book, A Taste Of Scotland's Islands (Birlinn, £20)