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Changing eating habits in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands

Une autre alimentation et son evolution: l’Irlande et les Highlands d’Écosse
Jean-Pierre POUSSOU

Résumé

For those who study the history of food, there are at least three reasons which give a better understanding of how the situation in Ireland evolved. Firstly, food in Ireland was different from the beginning of the modern period. Whereas in most of Europe cereals – or rather daily bread – was the staple food, in Ireland this was not the case. Cereals were merely a supplement in the form of gruel or flatbread. Secondly, when eating habits began to change, principally in the 17th century, this was not marked by increased use of cereals, but by the predominant role of the potato, at least for the majority of the population. Finally, and not least, this change in eating habits led to a devastating catastrophe, the Great Famine of 1846-1847. For the purposes of comparison, the changes in the Scottish Highlands are equally interesting, but on the whole less significant than what happened in Ireland.

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Introduction1

  • 1 This article was first published in French as « Une autre alimentation et son evolution: l’Irlande (...)
  • 2 See L.M. Cullen, The Emergence of Modern Ireland 1600-1900, London, Batsford,1981; and L.M. Cullen, (...)

1For those who study the history of food, there are at least three reasons which give a better understanding of how the situation in Ireland evolved. Firstly, food in Ireland was different from the beginning of the modern period. Whereas in most of Europe cereals – or rather daily bread – was the staple food, in Ireland this was not the case. Cereals were merely a supplement in the form of gruel or flatbread.2 Secondly, when eating habits began to change, principally in the 17th century, this was not marked by increased use of cereals, but by the predominant role of the potato, at least for the majority of the population. Finally, and not least, this change in eating habits led to a devastating catastrophe, the Great Famine of 1846-1847.

2For the purposes of comparison, the changes in the Scottish Highlands are equally interesting, but on the whole less significant than what happened in Ireland. The eating habits of the Highlanders are less well-known due to the absence of first-hand accounts and the rarity of narrative sources - visitors to the Highlands only became more frequent from the 18th century – but geography, common Celtic culture and what we know from the 18th century, allow us to conclude without too great a risk that conditions and habits were almost identical.

Irish dietary change from the XVIth century

3A good indication of what Irish eating habits were at the beginning of this period is provided by a book published in London at the time of the Restoration.

  • 3 [Original spelling] Anon, The Present State of Ireland Together with some Remarks about the Antient (...)

The Common sort of People in Ireland do feed generally upon Milk, Butter, Curds and Whey, new Bread, made of Oatmeal, Beans, Barley and Pease, and sometimes, of Wheat upon Festivals, their bread being baked every day against the fire. Most of their drink is Buttermilk and Whey; They feed much also upon Parsnips, Potatoes and Watercresses; and in those Contreys bordering on the Sea, upon Sea weeds such as Dullusk, Slugane, but seldome eat Flesh. The middle sort of Irish Gentry differ not much from the same kind of dyet, save only that they oftner feed upon Flesh, eat better Bread, and drink Beer more frequently. They are all of them, when opportunity offers itself, too much inclined to drink Beer and Usquebagh [whisky] to an excess. And both Men and Women of all sorts extremely addicted to take Tobacco in a most abundant manner. The best sort of Irish do imitate the English both in Dyet and Apparel, but not without a palpable difference (most commonly) in the mode of their Entertainment.3

  • 4 L.M. Cullen, ‘Eighteenth-Century Flour Milling in Ireland’, Irish Economy and Society, vol. IV, 197 (...)
  • 5 Ibid. p.9.

4This is of course at a date at which changes are already apparent, notably the appearance of wheat bread on feast days, the potato, whisky and tobacco. In fact at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern period, Irish food was essentially based on milk products, butter in winter, curds and whey in summer. The diet included meat, and in coastal areas fish, with oat gruel as a supplement. The same diet can be found in Scotland. Cereal flour is sparsely noted even though the Irish manorial economy included mills.4 However, the flour mills were small and, in fact, in the 18th century, the market for flour was limited to Dublin. Even in an area as active as Cork none were to be found.5

  • 6 J.-L. Flandrin, M. Montanari, Histoire de l’alimentation, Paris, Fayard, 1996, p. 391, almost forge (...)
  • 7 F. Braudel, ‘L’Europe des Carnivores’, Civilisation matérielle, Économie et Capitalisme, XVe-XVIIIe (...)

5This specific diet is to be explained firstly by geographical constraints, which is why it is to be found, with nuances and sometimes important differences, in most wet mountainous areas. This was the case in the Auvergne in central France or in the eastern and central Pyrenees. The inclusion of Ireland in this zone may seem surprising but the humidity there and the acidity of the soil create conditions similar to those in wet mountain areas. It is in these areas where cereals are hard to grow – or at least in sufficient quantity – as explained by Gerald of Wales, who accompanied the Normans to Ireland where grass is abundant due to the frequent rain. These two factors allow for quite high levels of livestock, which explain the abundance of meat and milk products. In Ireland the marginalization of this system of cultivation and diet6 which low density population also made possible, only occurred in the 18th century, or even the first half of the 19th century, and there, the change was marked by the considerable place occupied by the potato. The model proposed by Ferdinand Braudel remains essentially unchallenged, and it is established that in Europe, less and less meat and more and more cereals were being consumed from the I6th century on. The price of cereals was to become a major economic and social issue, whilst the consumption of meat declined until around 1850, when scientific practices in livestock raising and new pastures in the New World changed that.7 However that cannot be said to have been true of the whole of Europe.

  • 8 P. Flatrès, ‘Les structures rurales de la frange atlantique de l’Europe’, in Géographie et Structur (...)
  • 9 K. Nicholls, Gaelic and Gaelicised Ireland in the Middle Ages, vol. 4, The Gill History of Ireland, (...)

6In the case of Ireland in particular, diet was not just a purely geographical phenomenon, but also stemmed from cultural practices. Pierre Flatrès has been accused of being over-categorical about the existence of a real indigenous rural culture extending from Brittany to Scotland, and Galicia, northern Portugal and Norway, as remains of an ancient rural Celtic civilization.8 It is nevertheless obvious that the ancient Irish, contrary to the population of England, had never been attracted to a predominantly cereal-based agrarian system. This can be seen with the arrival of the English conquerors at the end of the 17th century: they brought in a new agro-alimentary system based on bread and flatbreads made of cereal, peas and beans, a system that was only really established in the Pale and in limited geographical areas around the main ports which serve as bases for the English invaders. For their part, the Gaels maintained their traditional diet in which milk products and meat were primordial.9

  • 10 Nicholls, ibid., Cullen, op.cit.,, 1981.
  • 11 Editor’s note: Arthur Young, A Tour in Ireland, with general observations on the present state of t (...)
  • 12 Cullen, The Emergence of Modern Ireland, op.cit.,; Cullen, ‘Comparative Aspects of Irish Diet…’, op (...)

7Why should that be the case? The Irish are a livestock breeding people which is the logical consequence in such a humid country. Up until the 17th century Ireland was a sparsely populated country with an abundance of forests and bogs. Agriculture there was viable in clearings and in relatively well-drained and dried areas. Barley is mainly consumed as porridge or as cakes or baked bread when mixed with butter.10 In fact, winter and summer diets are different: barley cakes, porridge and flat bread in winter, milk products in the summer. This pattern can be found almost intact right up until 1862 in a fairly isolated area such as County Tyrone. Bread was not unknown however and was used for journeys.11 It would be fallacious to conclude that this was a poor diet for a poor people. It is a diet which remained essentially medieval, which indicates the backwardness of the island rather than its poverty.12 At the end of the 17th century the Irish also used to eat meat, poultry, eggs and fish if they lived near the coast.

8Following the English conquest, this system was greatly modified, even if change was slower west of Shannon. Deforestation, drainage and the drying out of marshes led to a big increase in cereal production, particularly on land farmed by Scottish or English colonists, who arrived in the context of the ‘plantation’ system. There was also a rapid population increase. In addition there was the growth in commercial agriculture based on the export of livestock up to 1666, then on salted meat and salted butter subsequently. The consumption of meat diminished drastically, and was reduced to pork and poultry for most Irish people. At first, the more abundant cereals took a greater place in their diet, but the production of cereals was not sufficient for demand in view of the rapid population growth. The country was ill-adapted to cereals and even if the Irish had increased the portion of cereals in their diet, even envisaging the resort of importing cereals, there would have immediately been a strong Malthusian brake.

The introduction and spread of potatoes in Ireland

  • 13 See D. Dickson, New Foundation: Ireland 1660-1800, Dublin, Helicon History of Ireland, 1987. See al (...)
  • 14 Cullen, ‘Eighteenth-Century Flour Milling in Ireland’, op.cit.,

9It is here that the arrival of the potato and the great development of its cultivation enter the scene. The variety of potato produced in Ireland, apple potato, developed from the 1640s as a vegetable garden plant. For a long time, it was only to be found on small, subsistence plots particularly in the poorer areas of Connaught and west Ulster. Generally speaking, the Irish would have a small plot next to their cabin where they would grow cabbage, potatoes and flax. They would also have a cow or two. The great advantage of the potato was that it was a winter food.13 However, its use outside the vegetable plot only extended slowly. It was only in the second half of the I8th century that it replaced bread, gruel and porridge in the diet of the poorest and that it became the agricultural crop around which the whole island’s economy revolved. The extensive use of the potato as foodstuff for the lower and middle classes led to farm-produced cereals and livestock becoming export products and reserved for the needs of the population of Dublin, the capital, where the number of mills increased in the 18th century (there were forty-four in 1770-1771) and, during the French wars. The building of mills remained strong since there were big profits to be made in the sale of flour.14 But this must be placed within the context of the fact that flour never played an exclusive role in the Irish diet and the potato had become an essential foodstuff in Ireland.

10It is also to be noted that, in an Ireland where the population growth tended to be constantly higher than the increase in resources, the massive use of the potato was not a bad solution. Arthur Young underlines this with conviction. Paradoxically, this increased role of the potato went hand in hand with increasingly intensive cereal production which was sold in towns or exported, whereas over medium or long distances, the potato, which is more difficult to conserve, was not a product in which was easy to trade. The potato had the additional advantage of constituting feed for the greater number of pigs, as pork, which had previously been the food of the social elite, became more widespread as food for the popular classes.

  • 15 A. Young, A Tour in Ireland, with general observations on the present state of that kingdom in 1776 (...)

But of this food there is one circumstance that must forever recommend it, they have a bellyful, and that let me add is more that the superfluities of an Englishman leave to his family: let any person examine minutely into the receipt and expenditure of an English cottage, and he will find that tea, sugar, and strong liquors, can come only from pinched bellies. I will not assert that potatoes are better food than bread and cheese; but I have no doubt of a bellyful of the one being much better than half a bellyful of the other; still less have I that the milk of the Irishman is incomparably better than the small beer, gin, or tea of the Englishman; and this even for the father, how much better must it be for the poor infants; milk to them is nourishment, is health, is life.15

  • 16 Cullen, ‘Comparative Aspects of Irish Diet…’, op.cit.,

11Arthur Young’s account brings us to considerations about the growing place of the potato in the Irish diet. It was undoubtedly the food of the people, but not only the popular classes. This was not simply a question of poverty. Louis Cullen has underlined the fact that, in many respects, the increase in potato consumption also reflected the fact that cereal production increased between 1750 and 1770, even though this may seem paradoxical. On the one hand, the potato enabled better rotation of crops, on the other, it meant that cereals could be used other than for ensuring subsistence. Potatoes also helped increase the production of alcohol from grain and provided food for a larger number of pigs. In fact, in Ireland in the second half of the 18th century and at the beginning of the 19th century, there was both an increase in the production and consumption of potatoes, and in the production of cereals. Exports of grain and flour doubled up to 1820, and increased by a further 50% between 1820 and 1840. At the same time, there was a strong increase in the production of whisky, and a general development in agricultural sales (butter, meat and pork).16

  • 17 See M. Daly, The Famine in Ireland, Dublin, Dublin Historical Association, 1986.
  • 18 Young, op.cit.,, p. 344.
  • 19 C. O’Grada, Ireland : a New Economic History 1780-1939, Oxford, Clarendon, 1994; C. O’Grada, Black (...)
  • 20 See L. Cullen, Anglo-Irish Trade 1660-1800, Manchester, MUP, 1968.

12That by no means forestalled increasing poverty. The incomparable advantage of the potato is that it grows on land where cereals cannot be cultivated, which increases the amount of productive. Its productivity is considerable – a small plot of land is sufficient to feed a family, and it has a high yield – reaching a ton per acre,17 something which Arthur Young had perfectly understood when he noted that in Ireland an acre could feed more than eight people for a whole year, whereas to feed eight people with wheat, it would take twice the acreage, which would be doubled to four acres to allow for fallow fields.18 At the beginning of the 19th century the average consumption of potatoes per person per day was 2.3 kilos and could reach 4 kilos. Whereas during the 18th century cereals had played an increasing role, the potato overtook them in the 1770s, and virtually eliminated cereals from the diet of the poorest. This was not the only foodstuff, as milk products, oat broth, and in some areas, fish and eggs continued to figure. The Great Famine should not make us forget that, up until then, this state of affairs had not appeared particularly imbalanced or abnormal.19 On the contrary, one cannot escape the fact that it had produced good results and had in fact helped the response to the very rapid demographic growth which ‘submerged Irish society’.20 The expansion of the potato did not precede population growth but was an answer to that issue.

  • 21 M. Morineau, ‘Croître sans savoir pourquoi : structures de production, démographie et rations alime (...)
  • 22 See J. Mokyr, Why Ireland Starved. A Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy 1800- (...)
  • 23 Mokyr, ibid. p.9-10.
  • 24 M. Daly, The Famine in Ireland, op.cit.,
  • 25 See L. Cullen, ‘Comparative Aspects of Irish Diet’, op.cit., p. 46. See also : L.M. Cullen, T.C. Sm (...)

13If one calculates the rations of an Irish adult at the end of the 18th century, it can be seen that they were sufficient. Michel Morineau finds a total of 3,843 calories from 10 pounds of potatoes (3,459 calories) and a pint of milk (393 calories if whole milk, 207 if skimmed). The vitamins and minerals these bring were balanced and in sufficient quantity.21 Elsewhere, contemporaries underlined the physical strength and good health of the Irish.22 In all, not only did the Irish have sufficient food and energy, but the production of both was relatively stable and reliable, according to Joel Mokyr. It was a comparatively well-nourished and well-heated society, if poorly housed and clothed.23 It must not be forgotten that potatoes were accompanied by vegetables, milk products, eggs, herrings and oatmeal, and that the Irish appreciated this diet, so much so that those who settled in Great Britain and were earning higher salaries, continued to use these foodstuffs as their staple diet.24 If some observers were concerned about poverty in Ireland and of the dangerous preeminence of the potato in their view, it must be recognized that, up until 1845-1847, there had been no famines comparable to those in the Beauvais and Picardy area of France in the 17th century, few issues concerning foodstuffs, and few major price increases in the basic foodstuff of the Irish people. Certainly, Ireland had witnessed famines in 1728-1729, 1740-1741, and had been on the brink of famine in 1744-1745, 1756-1757 and 1799-1800, but on the European level, these cannot be considered as major crises, even if the 1740-1741 episode was serious and the extension of the potato in Ireland is often wrongly credited to the latter.25 To sum up, following the growth in the cultivation of the potato, there were no further subsistence crises in Ireland or in the Scottish Highlands.

  • 26 A. de Tocqueville, Voyage en Angleterre et en Irlande de 1835, Paris, ed. 10/18, p.283-284. Journey (...)

14On the contrary, the population was well-fed, healthy and maintained high demographic surpluses. The population may have been considered poor in view of usual European standards, but it was well-nourished, and in all, could not be considered to have been in a totally deprived situation. When Tocqueville stopped at a country priest’s in Cork in 1835, he found the dinner modest, but noted the presence of the potato: “The linen was white, the cover very simple and the meal very modest: it consisted in a large piece of salmon, potatoes and a sort of cake made in a hurry, the only extra which my presence had occasioned.”26 An earlier passage from Arthur Young can also be quoted:

  • 27 A. Young, A Tour in Ireland …, op.cit., p.345.

If any one doubts the comparative plenty, which attends the board of a poor native of England and Ireland, let him attend to their meals: the sparingness with which our labourer eats his bread and cheese is well known: mark the Irishman’s potatoe bowl placed on the floor, the whole family upon their hams around it, devouring a quantity almost incredible; the beggar seating himself to it with a hearty welcome; the pig taking his share as readily as the wife; the cocks, hens, turkies, the cur, the cat, and perhaps the cow – all are partaking of the same dish. No man can often have been a witness of it without being convinced of the plenty, and I will add the chearfulness, that attends it.27

A Potato Dinner, Carhirciveen, Pictorial Times, 28th February 1846, Unattributed, 12cmx14cm. Courtesy of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, Quinnipiac University, Online Resource [licensed by Creative Commons]

Causes of the famine

  • 28 See L. Kennedy, ‘Why One Million Starved: an Open Verdict’, Irish Economic and Social History, vol. (...)
  • 29 P. Goubert, Beauvais et le Bauvaisis au XVIIe siècle, Paris, SEVPEN, 1960.
  • 30 The situation should not be exaggerated. Irish society was much more diverse than is often believed (...)

15Why then did the crisis take on such a degree in 1845-1847? Firstly, one has to remember the infection brought about by the lightning ravages caused by the phytophtera infestans. From 1845, the potato harvests were catastrophic. Ireland was not the only country to be hit by this crop disease, but it was affected far more severely and lost three-quarters of its normal potato harvest. To this first and massively important fact must be added that there was no other country which was so highly dependent on the potato. To add to that, this dependency was accompanied by considerable poverty. The Irish were far from being badly nourished, but they nevertheless lived in greater poverty compared to European standards. Capital formation was totally insufficient in the island where productivity was low, the agricultural system un-modernized and where the difficulties of transporting aid were considerable due to the archaic transport network and means of transport.28 The famine was so great – affecting millions of people - that all the measures taken remained insufficient when, at the same time, in Scotland, where hundreds of thousands were affected, it did not have the same consequences. Apart from the question of accidental blight, the crisis can be explained by the existence of real mass poverty (also to be found in the Beauvais area crisis),29 with approximately three million of the total 1830s population of eight million in poverty.30 It can also be explained by the predominant role played by the potato in Irish diet (also true for the Beauvais area where cereals were predominant).

16The consequences were huge. On the one hand there were more than 1 million deaths – 16.5% of the population – and around 400,000 births lost, with a very pronounced regional distribution, with the west of Ireland, Connaught in particular, being particularly hard hit. On the other hand, the phenomenon of emigration engendered by the famine was considerable. There were 2.5 million departures between 1845 and 1851, and others followed. The result was that Ireland’s demographic history is unique in Europe, marked by a sizeable drop in population: 6.53 million inhabitants in 1841; 5.1 in 1851, 3.2 million in 1901; 2.8 million in 1961. As for the economic and social history of the island, it was profoundly modified. In this respect, the Ireland of 1900 was very different to the Ireland of 1840.

17The large-scale abandoning of potato cultivation and the choice of a different diet, similar from then on to that of the rest of Europe, would not have been sufficient to maintain a large population or the economic structures which had hitherto prevailed. The poverty of the island and its inhabitants was to lead to massive and inevitable emigration. Another Ireland emerged. Thus between the end of the 16th century and the end of the 19th century, Irish agriculture, Irish economics, society and diet had been totally transformed three times. It is a unique occurrence.

  • 31 Cullen, ‘Comparative Aspects of Irish Diet’, op.cit., p.53.

18One must be careful however not to assume that all this happened rapidly. Each time, including the last, the changes took decades. It is true that the consumption of flour per inhabitant quadrupled between 1860 and 1900, which explains how bread, wheat bread, and the accompanying butter, tea and sugar, came to play such a large part in the Irish diet.31 Nevertheless, the potato remained a constant in ordinary fare. It was only after 1920 and especially 1945 that Irish food was truly modified, becoming more and more like that in England.

Changing eating habits in Scotland

  • 32 See T.M. Devine, ‘Why the Highlands did not Starve : Ireland and Highlands Scotland during the Pota (...)

19We must now examine the Scottish Highlands. The Highlands also suffered from the potato blight which affected a large part of Europe. The drop in production of potatoes in Europe averaged one third. The worst affected countries were the Netherlands (-50%), the Scottish Highlands (-67%) and Ireland (-75%).32 In the Highlands, there was excess mortality in 1846 and at the beginning of 1847, but no great mortality crisis. The main effect was not a demographic crisis but greatly increased emigration in the districts which were most severely affected. There are many reasons which explain this difference between the Scottish Highlands and Ireland. Firstly, there is the question of numbers. In the Highlands it is estimated that between 200,000 to 600,000 people were affected by the dearth of potatoes, compared to 3 million in Ireland. It was therefore easier to organize aid. In fact, only the north-east corner of the Highlands was affected, and dependence on the potato was not total in those parts where meat, oats, barley, milk and fish were also present in the regional diet. It must also be noted that the great landowners had already transformed agriculture in those parts and, further, that the economic recession only hit after the peak of the famine.

  • 33 See A. Gibson, T.C. Smout, ‘Scottish Food and Scottish History 1500-1800’, in R.A Houston, I.D. Why (...)

20Futhermore, the potato did not have the same importance in the Highlands as in Ireland, even though developments had been comparable, but with several major differences. Thus at the end of the Middle Ages, thanks to the introduction of cattle, the Scottish Highlands consumed more meat that in Ireland. However, progressively, as in Ireland, cereals, especially oatmeal, eaten mainly in the form of porridge, took a greater and greater share of the diet. As the population grew, the situation in the Highlands became more and more difficult to sustain, as was seen at the end of the 17th century during the very severe ‘seven ill years’. This new situation was the corollary of increased sales of sheep in England, particularly on the London market. Whilst food in the Lowlands became almost exclusively cereal-based, like in England, in the Highlands, dairy products retained a large role, until, at the end of the 18th century, the potato came in as a major part of the diet.33 In 1773, Samuel Johnson had noted that

  • 34 S. Johnson, Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, 1775, Chapter 3, Skye. Republished in To the (...)

Their gardens afford them no variety, but they always have some vegetables on the table. Potatoes, at least, are never wanting which although they have not known them long, are now one of the principal parts of their food. They are not of the mealy but of the viscous kind.34

  • 35 See M.H Thévenot-Totems, La découverte de l’Écosse du XVIIIe siècle à travers les récits de voyageu (...)
  • 36 L.E. Cochran, ‘Scottish-Irish Trade in the Eighteenth Century’, in T.M. Devine, D. Dickson, Ireland (...)
  • 37 See T. Donnachie, A History of the Brewing Industry in Scotland, Edinburgh, Donald, 1979; P. Mathia (...)
  • 38 Thévenot-Totems, La découverte de l’Écosse…, op.cit.,, p. 495.

21In normal times, and to visitors who were treated to generous hospitality, the situation did not seem bad. Barley or oatmeal was served as gruel. It was allowed to thicken slowly over the fire and was served cold, with milk. In addition to this basic, cheese, milk and meat were served. Game and fish – especially for those near the coast where there were also shellfish – and whisky could also be served.35 There was however no abundance, and cereal harvests were often insufficient. The Highlands were therefore subject to periodical crises essentially due to low yields. These were permanent due to the poor mountain soil and wet climate. Constantly lacking in cereals, Scotland was to import grain from Ireland from the 18th century, and Ireland became Scotland’s principal supplier of grain.36 As life for the country dwellers was hard, the advent of the potato was thus appreciated, the more so as it freed up part of the barley harvest for beer and whisky production.37 In the islands, poverty was as great, even if food was varied: whey, fish, and shellfish. Cereals grew badly and the soil there was sparse, which again made the potato welcome.38

  • 39 J.-P. Poussou, La terre et les paysans en France et en Grande-Bretagne aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, (...)
  • 40 See A.J. Gibson, T.C. Smout, Prices, Food and Wages in Scotland 1500-1780, Cambridge, CUP, 1995.
  • 41 See A. Gibson, T.C. Smout, ‘Scottish Food and Scottish History…’ op.cit., pp.68-71.

22This frugal diet nevertheless appears to have been sufficient, subsistence crises excepted, until the mid-18th century. The Highlander is generally depicted as a robust character. The type of food already shows the major changes in agriculture and in diet,39 comparable to the changes seen in Ireland, with a marked drop in dairy products for Scotland, but the Highlanders ate more meat and fish than the Irish at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern era.40 From the 16th century, this diet was clearly different to that of Lowlands Scotland where cereals, as in England, had an almost exclusive role. Meat was rare, and contrary to the Highlands, from the 17th century on, butter, cheese and milk were rarely eaten. It was garden vegetables, poultry, eggs and fish, notably herring, which brought variety to their diet.41

  • 42 T. Pennant, Thomas, A Tour in Scotland, 1769 (1771), introduced by Brian D. Osborne, Edinburgh, Bir (...)
  • 43 Quoted by A. Gibson, T.C. Smout, ‘Scottish Food and Scottish History…’ op.cit., p.72.

23Whilst it was very similar to that in Ireland, and very different from that in the Lowlands of Scotland, the Highlander’s diet was clearly more varied and more balanced overall. But, crossing the Highlands in 1769 and 1772, Thomas Pennant noted the presence of meat in the diet while, concerning the inhabitants of Aran, he remarked that they mainly ate potatoes and oatmeal, to which they added dried mutton or goat in winter.42 But it was at that time that diet was undergoing profound changes. On the one hand, Highlanders were consuming greater quantities of oatmeal imported from Ireland or the Lowlands, to which fish and shellfish were added on the coasts. On the other, from the mid-18th century, the potato was gaining ground, and they were becoming increasingly dependent on it, something which did not occur in the Lowlands. In 1846, the Famine Relief Committee estimated that in the Highlands, three-quarters of daily rations were composed of potatoes, whereas they only made up one-quarter in the Lowlands.43

Conclusion

  • 44 L. Cullen, ‘Comparative Aspects…’ op.cit., pp.51-52.
  • 45 L. Cullen, The Emergence of Modern Ireland, op.cit., pp.141-142.

24Thus, the convergence of the Scottish Highlands and Ireland to European food standards was only accomplished late in the second half of the 19th century. In Ireland, after the Great Famine, whilst income was increased threefold between 1845 and 1911, flour consumption per capita increased fourfold, and bread became the staple, with wheat flour replacing traditional cereals. Even for the poorest, food was now based on baker’s bread, butter, tea and sugar, a diet which is less nutritious in vitamins than that based on potatoes.44 Even today, Irish food and cooking remain relatively simple, but they are characterized by a widespread and high use of butter, the highest in the world, high meat consumption, and the highest consumption of potatoes in the world. This brings us back to the culinary and dietary traditions of the island, even if the love of the potato is recent, as we have seen.45 With less place for the potato and a greater place for meat, the diet in the Highlands has followed the same pattern.

  • 46 For the agricultural development of Ireland after 1850 see B.K. Graham, L.J. Proudfoot (ed.), An Hi (...)

25It is often a tendency to depict in the darkest hues the increased dependence on the potato experienced by the Irish and the Scots from the mid-18th century. This is a vision which is wholly influenced by the Great Famine of 1845-1846. In fact, up until the famine, the potato’s contribution had been mainly positive. The diet was, it is true, lacking in variety but it was quite sufficient in normal times. It allowed a larger number of people to survive in conditions which were not that bad if contemporary observers are to be believed – all insist on the robustness of the Irish and the Highlanders - and underpinned an economy which could export agricultural products.46 What must be retained as a general conclusion is that Ireland, like the Highlands, which had developed a specific diet compared to the rest of Europe at the end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th century, still had a specific, but different, diet at the end of the 18th century and beginning of the 19th century.

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Notes

1 This article was first published in French as « Une autre alimentation et son evolution: l’Irlande et les Highlands d’Écosse » in Du bien manger et du bien vivre à travers les âges et les terroirs, edited by the Fédération historique du Sud-Ouest and the Société historique et archéologique du Périgord, Pessac, Maison des sciences de l’homme d’Aquitaine, 2002, pp. 175-191. It was translated and edited for this issue by Susan Finding.

2 See L.M. Cullen, The Emergence of Modern Ireland 1600-1900, London, Batsford,1981; and L.M. Cullen, ‘Comparative Aspects of the Irish Diet 1550-1850’, in H.J. Teuteberg (ed.), European Food History : a Research Review, Leicester, Leicester University Press, 1992, pp.45-55.

3 [Original spelling] Anon, The Present State of Ireland Together with some Remarks about the Antient [sic] State thereof, London, Wilkinson & Burrell, 1673, ‘Of their Dyet’ p. 151 (link to EEBO Bodleian copy). The main thesis of this treatise is the opposition between the civilizing influence of the English over the barbaric Irish. Editor’s Note: a 1730 edition of this pamphlet is to be found in the Dubois collection at the Poitiers University Rare Books Library (Ref. : FD 2153).

4 L.M. Cullen, ‘Eighteenth-Century Flour Milling in Ireland’, Irish Economy and Society, vol. IV, 1977, pp.5-25.

5 Ibid. p.9.

6 J.-L. Flandrin, M. Montanari, Histoire de l’alimentation, Paris, Fayard, 1996, p. 391, almost forget to include these mountainous areas.

7 F. Braudel, ‘L’Europe des Carnivores’, Civilisation matérielle, Économie et Capitalisme, XVe-XVIIIe siècle, vol. 1, Les Structures au Quotidien, Paris, A. Colin, 1979. M. Montanari, La faim et l’abondance : histoire de l’alimentation en Europe, Paris, Seuil, 1995, pp.101-109, p.165.

8 P. Flatrès, ‘Les structures rurales de la frange atlantique de l’Europe’, in Géographie et Structures Agraires (Colloque de Nancy), Annales de l’Est, 1959, pp.193-208.

9 K. Nicholls, Gaelic and Gaelicised Ireland in the Middle Ages, vol. 4, The Gill History of Ireland, Dublin, Gill and MacMillan, 1972, pp.3-10, 114-123.

10 Nicholls, ibid., Cullen, op.cit.,, 1981.

11 Editor’s note: Arthur Young, A Tour in Ireland, with general observations on the present state of that kingdom in 1776–78, London, 1780, notes in several places during his tour of Ireland the diet of the local people. In Ballycavan, Waterfood: “The poor people spin their own flax, but not more, and a few of them wool for themselves. Their food is potatoes and milk; but they have a considerable assistance from fish, particularly herrings; part of the year they have also barley, oaten, and rye bread. They are incomparably better off in every respect than twenty years ago. Their increase about Ballycanvan is very great, and tillage all over this neighbourhood is increased. The rent of a cabin 10s.; an acre with it 20s. The grass of a cow a few years ago 20s., now 25s. or 30s.”

In Shannon: “The state of the poor is something better than it was twenty years ago, particularly their clothing, cattle, and cabins. They live upon potatoes and milk; all have cows, and when they dry them, buy others. They also have butter, and most of them keep pigs, killing them for their own use. They have also herrings. They are in general in the cottar system, of paying for labour by assigning some land to each cabin. The country is greatly more populous than twenty years ago, and is now increasing; (…)” 

In Kerry: “The oppression is, the farmer valuing the labour of the poor at fourpence or fivepence a day, and paying that in land rated much above its value. Owing to this the poor are depressed; they live upon potatoes and sour milk, and the poorest of them only salt and water to them, with now and then a herring. Their milk is bought; for very few keep cows, scarce any pigs, but a few poultry. Their circumstances are incomparably worse than they were twenty years ago; for they had all cows, but then they wore no linen: all now have a little flax. To these evils have been owing emigrations, which have been considerable.”

12 Cullen, The Emergence of Modern Ireland, op.cit.,; Cullen, ‘Comparative Aspects of Irish Diet…’, op.cit.,, p.47.

13 See D. Dickson, New Foundation: Ireland 1660-1800, Dublin, Helicon History of Ireland, 1987. See also, R. N. Salaman, The History of the Social Influence of the Potato, (1st ed. 1949), Cambridge, CUP, 1985; L.M. Cullen ‘Irish History without the Potato’, Past and Present, vol. 40, July 1968, pp.72-83; J. Mokyr, ‘Irish History with the Potato’, Irish Economic and Social History, vol. VIII, 1981, pp.8-29.

14 Cullen, ‘Eighteenth-Century Flour Milling in Ireland’, op.cit.,

15 A. Young, A Tour in Ireland, with general observations on the present state of that kingdom in 1776–78, London, 1780, p. 345, (link to 1892 edition. Reprinted in The Monthly Review, vol. LXIII, September 1780, Young’s Irish Tour, p.165 (link).

16 Cullen, ‘Comparative Aspects of Irish Diet…’, op.cit.,

17 See M. Daly, The Famine in Ireland, Dublin, Dublin Historical Association, 1986.

18 Young, op.cit.,, p. 344.

19 C. O’Grada, Ireland : a New Economic History 1780-1939, Oxford, Clarendon, 1994; C. O’Grada, Black 47 and Beyond, The Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1995.

20 See L. Cullen, Anglo-Irish Trade 1660-1800, Manchester, MUP, 1968.

21 M. Morineau, ‘Croître sans savoir pourquoi : structures de production, démographie et rations alimentaires’, in J.-L. Flandrin, A. Montanari, Histoire de l’alimentation, op.cit.,, pp.577-595, p. 594.

22 See J. Mokyr, Why Ireland Starved. A Quantitative and Analytical History of the Irish Economy 1800-1945, London, Allen & Unwin, 1985, p.8.

23 Mokyr, ibid. p.9-10.

24 M. Daly, The Famine in Ireland, op.cit.,

25 See L. Cullen, ‘Comparative Aspects of Irish Diet’, op.cit., p. 46. See also : L.M. Cullen, T.C. Smout, ‘Economic Growth in Scotland and Ireland’, in L.M. Cullen, T.C. Smout, Comparative Aspects of Scottish and Irish Economic and Social History 1600-1900, Edinburgh, Donald, 1977, pp.3-18; J.D. Post, Food Shortage, Climatic Variability and Epidemic Diseases in PreIndustrial Europe : the Mortality Peak in the Early 1740s, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1985; D. Dickson, Arctic Ireland : the Extraordinary Story of the Great Frost and the Forgotten Famine of 1740-1741, Belfast, White Row Press, 1998.

26 A. de Tocqueville, Voyage en Angleterre et en Irlande de 1835, Paris, ed. 10/18, p.283-284. Journeys to England and Ireland, Transaction Publishers, 1958, p.163.

27 A. Young, A Tour in Ireland …, op.cit., p.345.

28 See L. Kennedy, ‘Why One Million Starved: an Open Verdict’, Irish Economic and Social History, vol. XI, 1984, pp.101-107.

29 P. Goubert, Beauvais et le Bauvaisis au XVIIe siècle, Paris, SEVPEN, 1960.

30 The situation should not be exaggerated. Irish society was much more diverse than is often believed. See L. Cullen, ‘The Hidden Ireland: Re-Assessment of a Concept’, Studia Hibernica, vol. 9, 1969, pp.7-47.

31 Cullen, ‘Comparative Aspects of Irish Diet’, op.cit., p.53.

32 See T.M. Devine, ‘Why the Highlands did not Starve : Ireland and Highlands Scotland during the Potato Famine’, in S.J. Connolly, R.A. Houston, R.J. Morris (ed.), Conflict, Identity and Economic Development in Ireland and Scotland 1600-1939, Preston, Carnegie, 1995, pp. 77-88; T.M. Devine, The Great Highland Famine : Hunger, Emigration and the Scottish Highland in the 19th Century, Edinburgh, Donald, 1988.

33 See A. Gibson, T.C. Smout, ‘Scottish Food and Scottish History 1500-1800’, in R.A Houston, I.D. Whyte, Scottish Society 1500-1800, Cambridge, CUP, 1989, pp.59-84.

34 S. Johnson, Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, 1775, Chapter 3, Skye. Republished in To the Hebrides. Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, and James Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, (ed.) Ronald Black, Birlinn, 2012. Editor’s note: He also mentions gamebirds, cattle & sheep as sources of meat, fish, eggs and milk, while the “native bread” in the Western Isles “is made of oats or barley. Of oatmeal, they spread very thin cakes, coarse and hard, to which unaccustomed palates are not easily reconciled. The barley cakes are thicker and softer.” He notes that tea, coffee, butter, honey and preserves also form part of the diet. Ibid.

35 See M.H Thévenot-Totems, La découverte de l’Écosse du XVIIIe siècle à travers les récits de voyageurs britanniques, Thèse de doctorat ès-Lettres, Université de Paris III, 1987, pp.378-381.

36 L.E. Cochran, ‘Scottish-Irish Trade in the Eighteenth Century’, in T.M. Devine, D. Dickson, Ireland and Scotland 1600-1800 : Parallels and Contrasts in Economic and Social Development, Edinburgh, Donald, 1983, pp.151-160.

37 See T. Donnachie, A History of the Brewing Industry in Scotland, Edinburgh, Donald, 1979; P. Mathias, The Brewing Industry in England 1700-1830, Cambridge, CUP, 1959.

38 Thévenot-Totems, La découverte de l’Écosse…, op.cit.,, p. 495.

39 J.-P. Poussou, La terre et les paysans en France et en Grande-Bretagne aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, Paris, SEDES, 1999, pp.255-270, pp.392-397.

40 See A.J. Gibson, T.C. Smout, Prices, Food and Wages in Scotland 1500-1780, Cambridge, CUP, 1995.

41 See A. Gibson, T.C. Smout, ‘Scottish Food and Scottish History…’ op.cit., pp.68-71.

42 T. Pennant, Thomas, A Tour in Scotland, 1769 (1771), introduced by Brian D. Osborne, Edinburgh, Birlinn, 2000; T. Pennant, A Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides, 1772 (1774), ed. Andrew Simmons, introduction by Charles W.J. Withers, Edinburgh, Birlinn, 1998.

43 Quoted by A. Gibson, T.C. Smout, ‘Scottish Food and Scottish History…’ op.cit., p.72.

44 L. Cullen, ‘Comparative Aspects…’ op.cit., pp.51-52.

45 L. Cullen, The Emergence of Modern Ireland, op.cit., pp.141-142.

46 For the agricultural development of Ireland after 1850 see B.K. Graham, L.J. Proudfoot (ed.), An Historical Geography of Ireland, London, Academic Press, 1993. C. O’Grada’s Ireland before and after the Famine: Exportations in Economic History 1800-1925, Manchester, MUP, 1988, shows better than any other work the breadth and depth of these changes.

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Légende A Potato Dinner, Carhirciveen, Pictorial Times, 28th February 1846, Unattributed, 12cmx14cm. Courtesy of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum, Quinnipiac University, Online Resource [licensed by Creative Commons]
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Jean-Pierre POUSSOU, « Changing eating habits in Ireland and the Scottish Highlands », Mémoire(s), identité(s), marginalité(s) dans le monde occidental contemporain [En ligne], 12 | 2015, mis en ligne le 16 avril 2015, consulté le 26 avril 2017. URL : http://mimmoc.revues.org/1733 ; DOI : 10.4000/mimmoc.1733

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Jean-Pierre POUSSOU

Emeritus Professor of History at the Sorbonne (Paris IV) of which he was Vice-Chancellor from 1993 to 1998 and founder member of the Institut géographique des populations. He has written extensively on modern French and British rural & urban history and has been the editor of two periodicals: Annales de démographie historique and Histoire, économie & société.

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