THE Scots national vegetable was the green kale, of which nettles, leeks, onions, ranty-tanty (sorrel), carrots, and turnips were—most of them—probably late and—all of them—certainly inadequate and partial rivals. For unnumbered centuries the place of kale in Scottish domestic economy has been almost as peculiar as that of potatoes during the last two hundred years in the domestic economy of Ireland.
'Although my father was nae laird,
'Tis daffin to be vaunty,
Me keepit aye a gude kale-yaird
A ha' house and a pantry';
and indeed a 'gude kale-yaird' was as indispensable to the old Scottish cotter as the potato-plot is to the Irish peasant. A recent writer on Ireland has bemoaned the adoption by the Irish of ' Raleigh's fatal gift,' which he describes as a 'dangerous tuber' and a 'demoralising esculent.' No dangerous or demoralising tendencies attach to the green kale, nor has it manifested any tendency to 'swell the population,' except in a merely gastric sense. It forestalled the potato to some extent, which in Ireland had become the chief and universal food of the masses before the end of the seventeenth century, but did not come into general use in 'the land o' cakes' and kale till nearly a century later. For a long time the Scottish peasant's treatment of potatoes was curious and tentative. At first his view of them was probably identical with that of the housewife who refused potatoes offered by a neighbour—they would ' eat sae fine with the mutton,' she said—on the ground that' we need nae provocatives in this house.' He regarded them, that is, as less palatable than kale—(which is essentially the vegetable of a carnivorous race, in that it must be used as an adjunct of meat to be at all beneficent)—and less nourishing than oatmeal; and when towards the latter half of the eighteenth century the farmer began planting them in the fields there was a certain apprehension lest it should be attempted to substitute them for the latter. But the potato was bound to win in the end, and in the end the potato won, though the feeling of the Scot for it has never been excessive. He has mastered it, indeed, as completely as the Irishman—who is nothing if not lazy and disposed to rely on every form of energy, from miracles downwards, except his own—has been mastered by it; and he may now be said to have succeeded in making the most that can be made of it, whether as an article of diet or as a source of profit. Its fortune has somewhat modified the position of green kale, but the cotter's garden-plot is still the kale yard, and the time-honoured vegetable, though used less variously than of old, has not been ousted from its place in the nation's esteem. We should explain, however, that it was chiefly among the Lowlanders that kale attained to extraordinary vogue. It is a vegetable essentially Saxon and non-Celtic. The more unsophisticated Highlanders regarded its use as a symptom of effeminacy; so that the Grants who, living near the Lowland line, had grown fond of it were contemned as the 'soft kale-eating Grants.' When the Highlander indulged in such a luxury as broth he preferred the common nettle as more appropriate to the cateran. As for thei aboriginal mountaineer, his appetite for vegetables was chiefly fed on wild fruits and nuts, the roots of wild herbs, and the leaves of certain trees.
In the very early centuries oats and kale were probably far less important staples of diet among the poorer classes than they subsequently became. In the case of Europeans vegetarianism, like teetotalism, is essentially a modern fad, chiefly affected by persons more or less languid and unhealthy both morally and physically. A vigorous and energetic race is always carnivorous, and in later times it was simply the scarcity of flesh that,compelled the Scottish peasant to feed on it so sparingly. The aboriginal cave-dwellers were mighty eaters of meat, and as long as it abounded meat must have formed the chief food of the whole community. Abundant it seems to have been till at least the sixteenth century. Bishop Lesley records of the Bordermen of his time that they made very little use of bread, living chiefly upon flesh, milk and cheese, and sodden barley. The northern Highlanders, who also were marauders, ate flesh largely, and often ate it raw. Lesley, indeed, affirms that they preferred it dripping with blood because it was then 'mair sappie' and nourishing; but his information on the point appears to have been defective, for though they did frequently eat beef and venison raw their custom was to prepare it by squeezing the slices dry between wooden battens. One reason for this ultra-savage style of feeding was probably the original scarcity of cooking utensils, for the Highlander's antipathy to the arts of the craftsman was inveterate. But he was ingenious in a way, and contrived a kitchen-range and buttery of his own. That is, he built a fire, and over that fire he hung the paunch of his last kill, and in that paunch he seethed the flesh of the original owner. According to Lesley, the 'brue ' he got in this way was so excellent that not the best wine nor any other kind of drink might compare to it; and no doubt its quality was very similar to that of the strong Lowland soup called 'skink.' To his habit of battening himself on raw flesh may probably be traced the tradition that now and then he was addicted to cannibalism. (The men of Annandale were also famed for just such dietetic eccentricities.) No doubt the calumny—if calumny it were—obtained a wider and more permanent acceptance by reason of the fact that the authority of St. Jerome could be quoted in support of it. But, calumny or not, it had gained such credence even in Jacobite times in England that when the outlandish host appeared across the Border some nervous folk were seriously concerned lest they or any of theirs should be ravished away to grace some conqueror's board.
As a matter of fact, the ancient Highlander, or at least the Highlander of the later middle ages, was very temperate in food and drink. No doubt he now and then indulged in frantic ' spreeing,' especially after a more than commonly successful foray; but as a rule he despised luxury and eschewed both gluttony and drunkenness. He broke his fast with a light meal, and took nothing more till in the evening he dined in the great hall of his chief. Here the character and quality of the food provided were regulated to some extent by the rank of the guest. But all ate sparingly: corpulence—pace Sir John Falstaff an inconvenient endowment for the professional thief—being held in high abhorrence.
It is quite sad to think now that Scotland is one of the places of the world most affected by bad food. Rates of heart disease, alcoholism, and obesity are unusually high there. People think of soda and shortbread as being "traditional foods." I would say the dietary history of oppression of indigenous customs and adoption of cheap poverty foods as "traditional" is quite similar to what has happened with Native Americans or Pacific Islanders. There may also be some genetic predispositions unique to people who were hunter-gatherers (or mostly hunter-gatherers) until somewhat recently.
Also, it explains how Andrew's potato skepticism may be an ancient cultural trait...
In hunting, the flesh was occasionally eaten raw, after the blood was squeezed out; but the Irish were more accustomed to this barbarous food, and Campion remarks, that the flesh thus swallowed "was boyled in their stomaks with aqua vitae, which they swill in after such a surfeite by quarts and pottles." They also, he says, bled their cattle, and baked the curdled blood spread with butter. A French writer, some centuries ago, describes Scotland as "pauvre en or, et en argent, mais fort bon en vivres;" and again, "assez des veaux et vaches, et par le moyen la chair est a bon compte."