Comfort Food, Scottish Style

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We were fortunate over the spring and summer, here in the far north of Scotland.  By all accounts it was the longest period of great weather since the 1950s.  We took a few drives, had mostly clear weather for the friends who came to visit, and marveled at the long, dry, sunshine-filled days.  It was glorious!

Seasons change as they do, and our good run of weather is over for the year.  This afternoon it’s windy, with sleet, rain and hail rattling against the windows; in other words, your typical Highland autumn day.  The landscape is changing, and while I miss the brilliant foliage of my Pennsylvania roots, there are some places not too far from here which put on a decent show, at least until the gales blow the leaves from the trees.  That never takes long, and by now many of the trees are bare.

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In a few weeks we’ll only have full daylight from around 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., sometimes even less.  As always, this darkening time of year brings a feeling of drawing-in, of seeking warmth and stocking up.  For me, it also brings with it a desire for hearty, warm, sustaining comfort food.

It’ll be different foods for different people, of course, since comfort comes in many tasty forms.  I remember many years ago after a very sad breakup I phoned my mother and asked if I could come over for dinner.  “I don’t care what else you make,” I said, “as long as it involves mashed potatoes.”  I would have been happy with a huge plate of that and nothing more, to be honest.  But at a time when I was broken-hearted and didn’t think I had a laugh left in me, my Mama came through.  “I’m not going to comment on the breakup,” she said when I arrived, “but here’s dinner.”  Along with a warm, buttery, creamy mountain of mashed potatoes, she’d made “beer-can-up-the-butt chicken”, which was another favorite of mine – delicious, and with the added benefit of providing unspoken commentary on her opinion of the ex-boyfriend!

Here in Scotland I discovered new-to-me comfort foods which have become familiar over time.  Unfortunately they do not tend to photograph very well.  But I will describe some of them, at least.  The first one that comes to mind is something called “stovies,” a stick-to-the-ribs meal that warms you up like a glowing internal furnace.  I was going to add a link to a recipe but to paraphrase one website, “Fifty different Scots will give you fifty different recipes for stovies.”  The Scot I’m married to keeps his stovies simple: all he requires are beef sausages, onions and potatoes.  His instructions:  “Chop up an onion and fry it a little, chop the sausages into bite-sized pieces and grill them a little bit [in the US I would call that ‘put them under the broiler’, by the way], cut up a few tatties, throw it all together in a deep pan with some water and cook it down until it has turned into a wonderful slush.”  You can see how that would not make the prettiest of photographs!

Traditionally served with oatcakes (though we don’t bother; we just add a sprinkle of white pepper, and serve), stovies will burn your mouth off if you aren’t careful – this is a dish that really holds the heat!  But that’s why there’s nothing better on a chilly winter evening.  Stovies guarantee a full, warm belly.

Then there’s what seems to be everyone’s favorite in the Highlands:  mince ‘n’ tatties.  By mince I mean ground beef, and tatties are, of course, potatoes.  Mince and tatties are often served with “white pudding” which is neither white nor a pudding in the dessert sense.  Ingredients vary but white pudding is basically made of oatmeal and suet or fat, onions, and spices, all in a sort of sausage casing.  Not to be confused with black pudding, that similar dish not for the faint of heart (also known as blood pudding), white pudding is the perfect complement to mince and tatties.  It’s kind of a heart-stopper so we don’t have it often, but I do love it.

As with stovies, different people make mince in different ways, but Sem’s method is to combine ground beef with chopped onions (and sometimes chopped carrots if the mood strikes), add just enough water to cover, and let it simmer for a couple of hours.  It is thickened before serving, either with corn starch or Bisto (a flavored gravy-thickening powder).  So basically it’s ground beef and onions in gravy, served with boiled or mashed potatoes and white pudding.  It’s the basis for cottage pie, too – another comfort food, pretty much just mince with a mashed potato ‘lid’, minus the white pudding.

Mince & tatties.

The ratio of white pudding to potatoes is probably wrong, but I really am fond of white pudding, hence the giant serving!]

White pudding ingredients bring me to a real staple of the Scottish diet both past and present:  oatmeal.  Let’s side-track for a moment, because Sem and I just had a spirited discussion when I double-checked details of the oatmeal-based foods in this article.  Here’s the gist:

Me:  Which kind of oatmeal is used?

Sem:  What do you mean which kind?  Oatmeal is oatmeal.

Me:  No but I mean my version of oatmeal versus yours.

Sem (getting exasperated):  Oatmeal.  Is.  Oatmeal.

Me (flailing a bit):  But do you mean the bitsy oatmeal or the flaky oatmeal?  For example, I would call your version of oatmeal ‘pinhead oats’ and what I would call oatmeal, you would call porridge oats.

Sem (through gritted teeth):  We’re in Scotland.  Oatmeal is oatmeal.  Porridge oats are porridge oats.  Pinhead oats are something else entirely.

Me:  But most of the ANC readers are in the US, so they will think ‘porridge oats’ if I write ‘oatmeal’…

After another round or two and a few deep breaths we finally got there; the language barrier is still sometimes real, dear readers!

Not that long ago, no Scottish farm kitchen was without a ‘kist’ (a Scottish word for chest), which was a large box measuring about three feet long, two feet high, and a foot and a half wide.  The lid slid tightly into place to deter small critters and to help keep the hard-packed contents airtight.  Several months worth of oatmeal could be kept in a kist, and both people and animals were fed from the contents.  Sem’s mother had a green kist in her kitchen which he dearly wishes he still had.  Sadly, while Scotland once probably held thousands of them, kists are a rare find these days.

Here, by ‘oatmeal’ they mean something akin to pinhead oats, but more finely milled (which is why I called it the ‘bitsy’ kind), and that’s what was kept in kists.  What I grew up calling oatmeal in the US (think Quaker Oats) is what they would call porridge oats, here.  This difference in word usage once had me reaching for the wrong thing when I made my mom’s famous ‘oatmeal lace cookies’ – the recipe called for oatmeal, and I’d been here long enough that I reached for the finely milled kind, rather than the Quaker Oats kind.  I couldn’t figure out why it all looked so wrong, first in the batter-stage and then the finished product, until the ‘lightbulb moment’:  I smacked myself in the forehead and muttered, “not oatmeal – porridge oats!”  Not to worry; the lace cookies were still good.  Just not very lacy!

This brings me to another Scottish favorite:  porridge.  But it’s not what you’re thinking of, I’ll bet!  Here in Scotland, oatmeal/porridge is not sweetened at all.  When I first came to live here we often had porridge for breakfast, and Sem would look at me askance as I added brown sugar, nuts, and dried fruit to mine.  Porridge-blasphemy!  They do sell those little cups with flavored oatmeal/porridge here, too (just add boiling water), but the traditional Scottish way is one part porridge oats, two parts water, cooked slowly on the stove until it bubbles like thick lava, then served with milk (or cream if you’re fancy).  When I eventually realized that over just a few months I had consumed an entire half-pound bag of brown sugar all by myself, I stopped using it, but I still favored the addition of nuts and dried fruit.  In the end I got used to – and now prefer – the Scottish version.

Then there’s brose.  It’s one of Sem’s go-to snacks, especially good for when there’s nothing else in the house that he fancies.  Brose is made with oatmeal (not porridge oats) to which he adds a pinch of salt, mixing it together before adding boiling water and giving it a stir.  After it sits for a minute or two he adds a splash of milk, and enjoys. It’s filling and quick to make, always a good thing to look for in a snack.

I’ve got one more traditional oatmeal-based Scottish food for you.  I don’t know if it can be classified as a comfort food, though it certainly is one of my personal favorites and definitely belongs as a side dish to what I’d consider a comfort-meal (a roast chicken dinner).  It is called skirlie (also spelled ‘skirly’).  The humble oat, already bringing us porridge, oatcakes, brose and white pudding among other things, is elevated to new heights, in skirlie.  I don’t know why I love it so, but if I were a condemned woman I would want it as part of my last meal.  Seeing as how I am fortunately not a condemned woman (to my knowledge), I am suggesting it here with Thanksgiving in mind, either as an alternative to stuffing/dressing or as another side dish, because what’s a Thanksgiving meal without as many side dishes as the table can hold?

Part of the allure is that it’s so easy to make!  First, chop an onion and fry it in olive oil until translucent, going to slightly golden but not fully to brown.  You could, of course, go all in and fry it in butter, which is even nicer.  Real purists would probably use some beef dripping, but let’s not go wild!

Once the onions are softened and golden, chuck in a couple of handfuls of oatmeal – that’s oat*meal*, not porridge oats!  I measured it out in the interests of accuracy, so this is two cups of oatmeal.  It would probably serve four people, unless one of them was me, in which case you’d be wise to add another half-cup.  By the way, at this point some folks might add salt and pepper, but we don’t.

Stir thoroughly to get everything coated with oil/butter, then put the lid on the pan, turn the heat down and let it fry lightly, stirring occasionally, until the oatmeal is slightly browned.  It’ll take about 15-20 minutes.  Sometimes I have a little kitchen-panic and think it’s getting too dry so I drizzle a tiny bit more oil in and give it all a good stir.  Sem, who is a veteran skirlie-maker, just walks away from it and comes back once in a while to give it a stir without adding any more oil.

The good thing about skirlie is that you can make it ahead of time, then put it into a covered oven-proof dish to be re-heated when you’re ready to serve up dinner.  If I am invited, and am there early, you will have to hide it from me.

Skirlie is a little dry, so it needs gravy.  My preference is to only add salt and a small amount of gravy because I quite like it somewhat dry.  It has a nice toasty crunch and flavor.

I’m sure there are lots of other Scottish comfort foods which I haven’t thought of, but these seem to be the most popular, from what I’ve seen.  A lot of it is good ol’ stodge, nice and warm to keep the chill at bay.  There are lots of soups, too, of course; Scotch broth, lentil soup, pea soup, and cullen skink (best fish soup ever!) to name a few.  When the days are short and the nights are long, when it’s cold outside but snug indoors, when we need a little emotional boost and physical sustenance, comfort food is where it’s at.

What are your favorites?


Deb Segelitz
Deb Segelitz was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and is astounded to find herself living in the Scottish Highlands, sharing life with her husband, a Highlander she stumbled across purely by chance on a blog site. They own a small business restoring and selling vintage fountain pens, which allows Deb to set her own schedule and have time for photography, writing and spontaneous car rides in the countryside. She is grateful to the readers of ANC for accepting her into the North State fold.
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41 Responses

  1. Avatar erin friedman says:

    My all-time favorite comfort food is macaroni and cheese – preferably made with American cheese, whole milk, butter and love. Alas…since my husband is now on a dairy-free, gluten-free diet in an attempt to treat his Graves’ disease – and I’m along for the ride, in solidarity — it’s no longer on the menu. I AM intrigued by your recipe for skirlie. I’ve read through mountains of specialty recipe sites and have not seen that one. We will give it a try – sounds yummy. Thanks so much.

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      I looooooooooooooove macaroni and cheese. It is high up on my list of favorite comfort foods. I’m sorry that your husband has had to give up on dairy and gluten (I hope it helps with his Graves’ disease!), and I think you are very noble for being along for the ride in solidarity :-).

      I hope you’ll like the skirlie, if you try it. It’s such a simple thing, but something about the toasty crunch just hits the spot, for me.

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      If sometime your husband isn’t home and you’re pining for macaroni and cheese, Trader Joe’s frozen one isn’t bad. I do add extra cheese – shredded sharp cheddar – zap it in the microwave, and it’s more than just tolerable.

    • Avatar Linda Cooper says:

      I support my husband’s gluten-free diet as well. Just curious. Have you tried cooking with the brown rice noodles? I actually prefer them now.

      • Avatar erin friedman says:

        I cook a lot of Thai food and we enjoy the thai rice noodles, but we’ve not found a brown rice pasta that we liked, so we gave up trying.

  2. Barbara Rice Barbara Rice says:

    Many years ago I was on the Isle of Lewis/Harris. I rented a car and armed myself with provisions such as were available in Stornoway, which was oatcakes and apples. (It’s probably more well-stocked now.)

    There was really only one road to get to the Callanish Standing Stones. On my way there I came across a gang of sheep – yeah, they were a gang, a tough-looking lot – and I stopped and offered them an oatcake or two. They seemed reluctant but eventually accepted a bite or two.

    With only one road, I had to come back the way I came, and met the same gang of sheep. Again I stopped to offer them an oatcake, and this time they crowded as far as they could into my little car, pushing and shoving to get at the oatcakes. Somewhere I have a photo of sheep jamming into the car to have a snack. It was not easy to convince them that I was out of oatcakes – see, here’s the empty bag! No more! All gone! – and even harder to get them out of the car to shut the door.

    Probably a good thing I didn’t have any Scottish shortbread.

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      I love this story so much! Not much will deter a sheep with the munchies!

    • Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

      Good thing they weren’t goats. You’d have had them climbing on the bonnet, roof, and boot (as they say over there).

      My best friend in high school raised a ram named “Buckwheat” for 4H. First time he met Buckwheat, a mutual friend of ours made the mistake of dropping off the fence into his pen.

      I don’t remember the lesson, exactly. He either learned that they call a male sheep by the noun “ram” because it can ram (verb) you hard enough to leave a purple football-sized bruise on your thigh, or he learned that the verb “ram” is borrowed from the noun “ram” for a male sheep. I believe the noun came first, then the verb.

  3. Avatar Matthew Grigsby says:

    This article is further proof that my ancestors came from this region, as everything here sounds wonderful to me. I may have fancy meals with my fancy friends who can cook all fancy but I am also perfectly content with meat and potatoes, in any configuration. I’m a simple guy when it comes to food, and now I want to add some oatmeal to my menu!

    Which brings me to the vocabulary you use here. I’ve never heard of “pinhead oats” or “porridge oats” or “oat meal” except in nursery rhymes. I wasn’t even aware there were other kinds, other than “steel cut oats”, but that might be my California upbringing where we don’t really have much of a winter.

    Another wonderful bunch of writing here, and your photos always make me want to get on a plane!

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      A-ha! I just Googled ‘steel cut oats’ because I’ve heard that term before but didn’t know what it was, and lo and behold, that is exactly what Sem would call ‘oatmeal’. Whereas ‘rolled oats’ are what Sem would call ‘porridge oats’ (and what I think of as Quaker Oats, even though Quaker do steel-cut as well, I think?).

      ‘Pinhead oats’ are apparently like oatmeal/steel cut oats, but are in bigger, more coarsely-milled bits.

      As Sem said the other day, “You could make porridge out of either oatmeal or porridge oats, but you wouldn’t make skirlie out of porridge oats… just oatmeal.” Clear as mud! 🙂

      Sem just informed me that steel cut oats used to be called stone cut oats (I suppose until they switched to steel). His family used to make both kinds, for the animals: a ‘bruiser’ made the equivalent of steel cut oats only coarser, and a ‘kibbler’ made rolled oats.

      Also… get on that plane! Doooooooooo eeeeeeeeeeet! *mwah*

  4. AJ AJ says:

    And to date no one has mentioned my very favorite: OAT GROATS! They are chewy and delicious…. well, I think so anyway. An “Oat Groat” is the whole oat kernal with only the hull removed. The bran is still in tact.
    They need to be cooked at a very low simmer for about 45 minutes. 1 part oats to 2 parts water. I usually put them on the stove (or microwave) and bring them to a boil then turn off the heat, put a lid on and leave them sit overnight. I usually cook up enough to last a week or so. I keep them in the fridge and spoon out a helping every morning and heat in the microwave along with my rolled oats (slow cooked. None of this instant stuff!) . They give a chewy, nutty texture to whatever they are added.

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      That sounds interesting, AJ. I just mentioned it to my husband and he said they used to make groats for the babies :-). I don’t think he meant actual babies, since it sounds like oat groats need to be chewed. I am intrigued!

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      I cooked groats this morning according to the directions for my new Instant Pot. Way too much water. AJ, your method would be much better.

  5. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    Fascinating. Thank you, Deb.

  6. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    A tip of the hat to Moore’s Mill because we purchase all three types of oats there: rolled, steel cut, and groats.

    Comfort food puts me in mind of peanut butter. I like it on toast or sliced apples. My Canadian aunt had never heard of peanut butter until she married my uncle and never did warm up to it. When my sister and I were eight and 12 years old in the early 50’s, my parents allowed us to fly to Seattle from Bakersfield for a month-long visit with said aunt and uncle who were childless. Needless to say, peanut butter had to be stocked for us two youngsters. Fast forward 20 years when I told my mother-in-law about Canadians not eating peanut butter, and her comment was, “How could you raise kids without peanut butter?!” Recently we were visiting my sister-in-law, and the subject of peanut butter came up. I asked sis-in-law what she liked on her peanut butter sandwiches and expected something like honey or jam, but no, she likes butter on her peanut butter sandwiches. Sounds like Deb and her acquired taste for the Scottish way to eat porridge.

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      I love peanut butter on toast! So warm and gooey!

      I had a coworker once who made peanut butter sandwiches with mayo and lettuce. She actually was kind of grossed out by PB&J sandwiches but made them for her kids because that’s what they liked. Me being me, I had to try out her version, and it didn’t do that much for me. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t repeatable. I have done peanut butter and butter sandwiches though. But my favorite remains peanut butter on toast, plain and simple.

      • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

        I’m with you. Not being a pickle person – if they’re on a hamburger that’s all I can taste; I might as well order a pickle burger – the thought of sweet pickles on a peanut butter sandwich nearly gags me. However, one of my favorite authors, now deceased, was Sue Grafton, and her heroine, Kinsey Milhone, swooned for both peanut butter and sweet pickle sandwiches and McDonald’s Quarter Pounders, both of which I find completely unappealing. And my peanut butter HAS to be Skippy. I read a Consumer Reports review of peanut butters, and the winner was Jif. To me, Jif tastes like molasses. No thanks. Taste is completely subjective; so I don’t know why a consumer poll would be taken for food

        • AJ AJ says:

          The BEST way to eat peanut butter is with orange marmalade. . . . taste is truly subjective!
          BTW …oat groats are also available in the bulk food section at WinnCo.

  7. I love this column, Deb, and here in the U.S. lately, comfort food, and, as R.V. suggests, beer at any time, are exactly what we need.

    I’d never heard some of these terms before, and it was quite the education, so, thank you. And now, suddenly, I’m craving oatmeal (with brown sugar and a pat of butter … I’m a ways off from just straight oatmeal).

    My favorite comfort foods: Yes, like Erin, macaroni and cheese, made with sharp cheddar and cream. It think it’s been about 10 years since I’ve eaten that. And any kind of homemade bread (challah, cornbread, French bread, yeast rolls) with butter. And chicken and dumplings. I started to put a link here of the recipe that surely I’d published in these nearly 11 years, but alas, I can’t find it.

    Sounds like you’ve springboarded me to a future American comfort food column. Thank you!

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      Ohhhh homemade bread is a huge comfort food for me, too. Chunk of bread, knife, bring me the butter dish, annnnnnnnnnd yum!

      Matt brought clarity to some of the oatmeal terms in his comment which made me do a little Googling – I am indebted to him!

      Looking forward to your future American comfort food column!

      • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

        Fortunately or unfortunately, my husband loves to bake bread. I hope we never become gluten intolerant.

  8. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    “…..she’d made “beer-can-up-the-butt chicken”, which was another favorite of mine – delicious, and with the added benefit of providing unspoken commentary on her opinion of the ex-boyfriend!”


    I was in a hurry last night and made kielbasa, kale, and white bean soup, but soon it’ll be on to some of my heartier favorites, including coq au vin and beef bourguignon. When my wife wants to sooth my soul with comfort-food dinner, she makes a stroganoff. A couple nights ago a friend treated us to slow-braised short ribs over a cheesy polenta, with an amazing winter veggie & fruit wine reduction sauce spooned over the top.

    I need to hurry up and drop 20 pounds in anticipation of the 20 pounds I’m going to gain over the next three months.

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      I think we should celebrate ANC’s 11th birthday with a comfort food pot luck.

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      All of those sound really lovely and hearty, Steven! Especially the short ribs etc. – that is something that definitely piques my interest.

      My mother’s culinary commentary remains the very best thing about that breakup (besides shedding the very wrong guy!).

      Good luck with those 20lbs 🙂

  9. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    That pair of stone bridges reminds me of the bridge the English tossed Liam Neeson off of while trying to hang him in the movie “Rob Roy.” I imagine there are about 10,743 such bridges in the Highlands.

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      There probably are! These are at the ‘Big Burn Walk’ in the north of Scotland. It’s a lovely walk, though we have yet to reach the waterfall!

  10. Avatar Barbara Stone says:

    I buy Scottish Oats sometimes because I like the texture…now I know why it’s called Scottish Oats…thanks!

  11. I just have to say that reading all these comments, I’m smiling ear-to-ear.

    Here’s how it works on, like no other online site I’ve ever seen: First come the articles – stellar pieces of writing by smart, insightful people. Next comes our bonus prize; your comments. I just love you all, and learn so much from you.

    p.s. Did you know that only paid subscribers are allowed to comment on ANC? Because of that, have you noticed an uptick in the quality of the comments; and rarely a troll in sight? That’s why. Generally speaking, most online trolls don’t want to put their money where their ugly mouths are … especially if it means no longer being able to hide behind anonymity. 🙂

    OK, carry on. I’m starving and am going to rustle up something for lunch.

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      I love every part of this, too!

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      I was thinking recently of the couple of trolls who once wrote ceaselessly – remember tick, tick tick . . . ? – and how much more civilized “our” site is now. They were so boring and repetitious. Apparently even they decided that what they had to say wasn’t worth $5/month.

  12. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    Great article Deb. I was really shocked the first time I saw a map of Europe superimposed over a map of the U.S. but aligned by latitude. I had no idea that Scotland and many Eastern European countries were so far north of the U.S. Cold weather, lack of sunlight and comfort food go together. Thank you Deb.
    I’m with Beverly on the importance of peanut butter. It was a staple in college, and still has a special place in my pantry!

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      Thanks, Joanne! We are pretty far north, though luckily we don’t get quite as cold as the more inland locations, since we are right by the sea. Still gets pretty cold though. There’s a definite feeling of “I think it’s time to hibernate” with these short days and long nights.

      Peanut butter is always in my supplies, too!

    • AJ AJ says:

      Joanne . . . . Very few people realize that London is in the same latitude as the southern edge of Hudson Bay and almost as far north as Anchorage, AK. . . . which means that all of Scandinavia is about the same latitude as Alaska. Thanks to the gracious Gulf Stream that helps keep Europe quite livable.

  13. Avatar Janine Hall says:

    I loved reading about your comfort foods. Growing up with a German mother I have so many gravy sauces that are at the center of my comfort. With the cool weather coming I will be cooking a lot of gravy and noodles and mash potatoes. Anything is better with gravy on it.

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      My grandparents were Pennsylvania Dutch; so my grandmother did a lot of German-type cooking, and that carried on with her daughters. Chicken and noodles was a favorite at our house, and it was served in a bowl over mashed potatoes. Egg noodles and mashed potatoes together seem like an odd combination, but ummmm so good.

      • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

        Beverly that’s an interesting combination! My parents were from Germany, so I have loads of German favorites. We grew up near some Pennsylvania Dutch communities as well – love their food as well, lots of similarities.

    • Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Janine! My parents were from Germany so I have sooooo many German comfort foods, too. I wrote down a lot of my mother’s recipes long ago, and I still double-check with her if something doesn’t seem clear to me all these years later :).