History 371: Topics in Thematic and Comparative History

Flavours of the Past: Scottish Food History 

Hours: lecture-lab-tutorial
Offered: May 15, 2023 - June 30, 2023, Tuesdays & Thursdays 10am-12:30pm, on campus, face-to-face 

Spring 2024: TWF 11:30am-12:20pm
Pre-requisites: none
Instructor: Theresa Mackay
This course examines the foodways of Scotland in the long nineteenth century, with a focus on the coastal west Highlands and Islands. The course uses food and food practices as a lens through which to examine major social, cultural, environmental, and economic change across the century (roughly 1770s to 1914). The roles of indigenous Gaelic-speaking people in reproducing, adapting, protecting, and innovating food culture will be investigated, framing foodways and daily lives in relation those shifts.
Using a range of primary sources (e.g. cookery books, recipes, parish reports, travelers’ narratives, etc.) and scholarly works, we will look at traditional foodways practices in the west Highlands and Islands, the spaces in and on which these practices took place, and the associated material culture, such as wooden tools and baskets. Exploring how multi-generational households in coastal mainland and island townships sustained themselves during times of bounty, hardship, and land dispossession, we will consider the coastal kitchen—gendered workspaces of women and a gathering space for families—as a networked centre of Scottish culture crosscut with tensions of power.
This course will also set foodways in Scotland within the transnational context of neighbouring northern European countries, such as Ireland, Sweden, and Norway. The aim will be to uncover food system challenges in the Highlands and Islands and understand how feeding a family and community required significant flexibility, resilience, innovation, and agency.


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Photo of traditional meal, with thistle, book of poetry and sporran in the background.

Haggis, neeps (mashed swedes), and tatties (mashed potatoes), is a traditional meal served annually in January during Burns Night suppers to celebrate Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns. Credit: VisitScotland / Luigi Di Pasquale.

Woman carrying large basket of peat on her back.

Dried peat was burned for cooking and heating homes. Carrying the peat this way in Skye, in a peat creel basket often made of willow, left hands free for other tasks such as drop spinning. Credit: High Life Highland, Am Baile.

Black and white photo of house and shed.

A coastal house with a boat-roofed shed on the Isle of Eigg taken by Mary Ethel Muir (M.E.M.) Donaldson (1876 – 1958), author and photographer who documented the early 20th century north and west Highlands and Islands. Credit: MEM Donaldson Collection, Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, High Life Highland / Am Baile.

Photo of people planting potatoes on a sloping field.

Potatoes were a significant part of daily meals in the Highlands and Islands during the 18th and 19th centuries. The failure of these crops due to potato blight in the 1840s led to widespread starvation. Credit: High Life Highland, Am Baile.

Photo of small homes with three children in the foreground.

A croft is a small holding or stretch of land that was usually rented from the landowner. The chimney-less houses on the crofts typically had one main living area where the family would cook, eat, work, and entertain guests. Credit: High Life Highland, Am Baile.

Row of stone houses with three children posed in front.

Taken by Scottish photographer George Washington Wilson (1823-1893) for his Highland history talks, he described the interiors of these homes as “What light there is [comes] from the orange glow of the peat fire, on which a large pot is simmering…while fowls cluck about and assert their co-tenancy with the crofter and his family.” Credit: High Life Highland, Am Baile.

  • Am Baile – Highland History and Culture
  • The Old and New Statistical Accounts of Scotland, 1791 - 5 and 1845  
  • The Napier Commission
  • Abrams, Lynne. Myth and Materiality in a Woman’s World: Shetland 1800-2000. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.
  • Costello, Eugene. “Temporary Freedoms? Ethnoarchaeology of Female Herders at Seasonal Sites in Northern Europe.” World Archaeology 50, no. 1 (2018): 165–84. 
  • Dodgshon, Robert A. No Stone Unturned: A History of Farming, Landscape and Environment in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. Edinburgh; Edinburgh University Press, 2015.
  • Harvey, Kathryn. “Three Centuries of Scottish Cookery.” In Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson, eds. Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook. The Digital Press at The University of North Dakota, 2021.
  • Hunter, James. Insurrection: Scotland’s Famine Winter. Edinburgh: Birlinn Ltd, 2019.
  • Mitchell, Janet. “Cookbooks as a Social and Historical Document. A Scottish Case Study.” Food Service Technology 1, no. 1 (2001): 13–23.
  • Ritchie, Elizabeth. “Men and Place: Male Identity and the Meaning of Place in the Nineteenth-Century Scottish Gàidhealtachd.” Genealogy (Basel) 4, no. 97 (2020): 97. 
*This is a sample of potential readings. Only specific chapters or sections of books will be used, not entire works. A final list will be distributed as part of the course syllabus.
By the end of this course, students will:
  • gain an understanding of the major themes, scholars, and scholarship in foodways and cultural history of nineteenth-century Scotland.
  • use specific examples to explain how the coastal kitchen in the Highlands and Islands can be described as a centre of culture, adaptation, resistance, and change.
  • identify key turning points and the role of empire in nineteenth-century Scottish history and their impact on food sovereignty and food practices of the Gaelic-speaking people.
  • identify and analyze the impacts of land dispossession (The Clearances) on Highlands and Islands culture, economy, and environment
  • identify, describe, and analyze gendered food practices of the coastal west Highlands and Islands and their relationships with land, material culture, and power.
  • describe and compare transnational coastal food system challenges of the time period, briefly examining neighbouring northern European countries.
  • learn to analyze a range of primary source documents and artifacts, including recipes, cookery books, parish reports, and travelers’ narratives.
  • practice research and critical thinking skills while formulating strong, evidence-based arguments to persuade others, in both written and presentation formats.
Theresa Mackay

Theresa Mackay is a Ph.D candidate in History at the University of Victoria. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Simon Fraser University and a Master of Letters with Distinction from the University of the Highlands and Islands (Scotland). Her research on rural innkeeping and the impact of women on tourism and hospitality infrastructure in Scotland’s early nineteenth century won the 2016 Women’s History Scotland Leah Leneman prize and was subsequently featured extensively on the BBC. Her Ph.D research builds on this work, looking at coastal foodways in the west Highlands and Islands and the daily lives of rural women. Theresa’s past teaching experience includes Capilano University, Camosun College, Royal Roads University, and the University of Victoria. She is a two-time recipient of the Hugh Campbell and Marion Alice Small Graduate Teaching Fellowship in Scottish Studies.