Northern Constabulary Pipe Band at Inverness Tattoo Scotland
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Mighty Scottish Highlanders and Their Real Food Diet

Part 1 of a 3 part series on the nutrition of the Scottish Highlanders

By Stanley A. Fishman, Author of Tender Grassfed Meat and Tender Grassfed Barbecue: Traditional, Primal and Paleo

The plow of the farmer, tilling the soil at the old battlefield of Assaye, in India, hits something solid. The farmer examines the bone his plow has turned up. It is a human thighbone, much larger, stronger, and thicker than usual. The farmer knows he has found the remains of one of the Scottish Highlanders.

Once, the Highlanders of Scotland were a group of people noted for their incredible strength, size, health, endurance, vitality, and prowess in battle. Armed only with swords and small shields, they consistently defeated much larger armies of professional soldiers armed with guns and cannon. Finally defeated by overwhelming numbers and superior technology, they were recruited by their conquerors, and won victories for them all over the world. While most of the men were away fighting for the British Empire, their families were eventually driven off their land and out of their country, to accommodate the demands of industrial agriculture. These people were known as Highlanders.

Nutrition and Physical Strength of Scottish Highlanders

What was the secret of the Highlanders’ prowess? Why were they larger, stronger, faster, and able to defeat much larger groups of enemies in hand-to-hand combat? What gave them their incredible endurance, which enabled them to march sixty miles over steep roadless hills and fight a battle—all in one day? Why did they recover from horrible wounds that would have been fatal to most other men?

It could not have just been their hard physical work, because all the peasants of Europe and India did hard physical work. The difference was in their diet. While most of the people of Europe ate a plant-based diet of grains and vegetables, the Highlanders ate mostly animal foods, just like their ancestors did.

The Highlands of Scotland is a high land, full of hills, mountains, streams, and valleys. The soil is not very good for agriculture, but provides great grazing lands.

What did the Scottish Highlanders Eat?

The Scottish Highlanders based their diet, first, on the raw milk of their herds. They kept large herds of small, agile cattle, and large herds of tiny sheep, and large herds of goats. All of these animals produced milk, which was drunk and added to porridges raw, and made into raw cheese and raw butter. The cheese and butter were used at all times, but especially in the harsh, cold winters.

The Scottish Highlanders diet varied with the seasons. During the spring and summer, wild game of all kinds, including the native red deer, were hunted and eaten. Fresh fish was a vital part of the diet during these seasons, as the many rivers and streams were rich with salmon and many other kinds of wild fish. Beef was not eaten during good weather, which led some travelers to mistakenly conclude that the Scottish Highlanders did not eat beef.

During the fall, many cattle, sheep, and goats were killed, and their meat salted to provide meat during the cold part of the fall and during the long winter. Every part of the animal was used for food, including all the internal organs. The famous Scottish dish known as Haggis, made from innards and oatmeal cooked in the stomach of a sheep, originated in the Highlands. Few vegetables were available (though onions and turnips could be found in season, along with some wild vegetables, such as nettles). The main fruit available were wild berries, in season.

The only grains that could be grown in the Highlands were barley and oats, which were made into breads, porridges, and cakes. Sugar was largely unavailable, though some honey could be found. Grains were usually eaten with raw milk, raw butter, or raw cheese, or all of them. Oats were dried and carried in a pouch in wartime as a survival food.

Raw Milk and the Scottish Highlanders

It should be understood that the Highland cattle were not bred for giving huge amounts of milk, like modern dairy cattle. The amount of milk they produced was dependent on the quality of the plants they grazed on. In a bad year, when a particularly cold winter had damaged the native forage, they produced less milk. At these times, the Highlanders would take some blood from their cattle, and use it for food, often in the form of blood puddings.

This diet produced a group of people who were much stronger, much larger, and much healthier than most other Europeans. Their incredible vitality was not always stopped by age. One Highlander became famous in England when he enlisted in a Highland regiment at the age of seventy, and fought in the French and Indian War, becoming famous for his prowess with the broadsword, when he led small parties of men into the thick brush to hunt down enemy sharpshooters.

This is the first of a three part series on the Scottish Highlanders Traditional Diet. The second part will describe some of the incredible feats the Highland soldiers performed in battle, feats possible only because of their superior strength, agility, and endurance. It will also describe the incredible ability the Highlanders had to heal from the most severe wounds, without medical treatment.

Stanley Fishman is the author of Tender Grassfed Meat. His newest book is Tender Grassfed Barbecue: Traditional, Primal and Paleo He is a frequent guest blogger on See Stanley’s other “recipes” for good health on his Guest Blogger page.

This post is part of the Real Food Wednesday blog carnival, please visit Kelly the Kitchen Kop for an amazing array of real food recipes and stories!

See part two of this series, Well Fed Scottish Warriors Waged Fierce Battles 

See part three of this series The Destruction of the Scottish Food Culture