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October 16, 2019

Actually, calling this project a recipe book doesn't really do it justice. It's more of a love letter to the food, landscapes and people of Scotland's islands.

A food writer, journalist, MasterChef winner and former President of the Guild of Food Writers, Sue is a leading authority on Scottish food.

She wears her knowledge lightly. Featuring over a hundred recipes from 20 islands in the Hebrides and Northern Isles, there is nothing cheffy about this book. All the recipes could be confidently tackled by a half decent home cook.

With the exception of island or coastal ingredients such as reestit (smoked and salted) mutton or fresh dulse, all the ingredients will be readily found in any supermarket. And perhaps in any island grocery store.

In fact, as you might expect from a book of recipes collected from what used to be some of the poorest parts of the country, most of the ingredients listed are very humble. Root veg, oats and local dairy products feature frequently.

And, like any cuisine of the poor, the skill is in elevating the flavour of these everyday items well above their roots.


Haggis, neeps 'n' tatties soup uses the simplest of ingredients but sounds irresistible. The recipe given in Sue's book comes from Kate MacDougall at the Harris Gin Distillery in Tarbert. Apparently, it is one of the customer favourites in the café there.

Not that every recipe is made from delicious but modest ingredients. Others, such as Donald MacLennan's lobster thermidor or venison steaks with beetroot and horseradish sauce, star rather more high end components.

Other recipes are perhaps included for curiosity value. There won't be many takers for the cormorant soup although I recently met a Stornoway woman who remembered eating crappit heid - cod's head stuffed with oatmeal and cod's liver.

Many of the recipes are proudly traditional but plenty of them move with the times. Mull haggis pastilla with its use of chopped apricots and ras el hanout spicing would be as at home in Shoreditch as it is Tobermory.

Author Sue Lawrence.

Author Sue Lawrence. Pic: Sally Anderson.

While the chapters have headings such as breakfast bakes, shellfish, meat, game and baking, it is the human stories behind many of the recipes that really bring the book back to life. There are the Oakes; a father and son who dive for scallops in churning water where visibility on the seabed is such that they have to use their hands to feel for the scallops. I also liked the fact that the children who live on Raasay learn to forecast the weather by watching whether the sheep are grazing on the top of the hill - good - or on the shore - bad.

Hungry Highlanders

Of course, it is packed with local colour. A recipe for Orcadian clapshot tells us that on Orkney they are rather particular about their turnips and prefer to eat them after a hard frost so they are sweeter. A section on black pudding begins with the sobering news that in the early 1700s it was not unheard of for hungry Highlanders to bleed their cattle, much like Masai tribesmen.

Put another way, this is a recipe book which you could happily read for hours without ever contemplating tackling a recipe. Although that would be a mistake. It is an evocation of island life, customs and flavours which made me want to visit. And if Shetland in winter doesn't appeal then you could simply make yourself some Shetland bannocks instead.

A Taste of Scotland's Islands by Sue Lawrence is published by Birlinn. It is out now in hardback and costs £20.

It would make a handsome Christmas present.

If you fancy a taste, try this autumnal recipe from the book:

Bramble, Apple and Blueberry Hazelnut Crumble

serves 6

This is a pudding to be made in late summer and early autumn after scouring the hedgerows for brambles. You can get ahead with this pudding by making the crumble mixture several days in advance, tipping into a freezer bag and freezing until the day you need to use it.


2 large cooking apples, peeled, chopped

Juice of half a lemon

50g caster sugar

450g brambles

200g blueberries

For the crumble:

125g plain flour

50g porridge oats

125g butter, chopped

50g chopped toasted hazelnuts

75g dark muscovado and caster sugars, mixed


First cook the apples for a few minutes in a saucepan with the lemon juice, sugar and a tbsp or so of water, until the apples are beginning to soften. Remove from the heat and tip everything into an ovenproof dish, then top with the brambles and berries.

For the crumble, mix the flour and oats and rub in the butter. Stir in the nuts and sugars. Tip over the fruit in the dish and pat down gently. Bake at 200C/400F/Gas 6 for 35 to 40 minutes until the topping is golden brown, the juices erupt up the sides of the dish and the smell is so enticing, you can wait no longer. Serve warm (not hot!) with crème fraiche, ice-cream or custard.