Nova Scotia

Scottish dietitian collecting stories of Highland emigrant food traditions

A dietitian from Highland Scotland has begun collecting food stories and traditions from the descendants of Highlanders who emigrated, voluntary or not, from Scotland in the last 200 years.

Jill MacRae wants to know what's survived and what's been lost

A Scottish dietitian is researching Highland food traditions that migrated with those who left the Highlands over the last 200 years. (CBC)

A dietitian from highland Scotland has begun collecting food stories and traditions from the descendants of Highlanders who emigrated — voluntarily or not — from Scotland in the last 300 years.

Jill MacRae from Alness, Ross-shire, has been reaching out through media outlets around the world to areas where it's known that large numbers of Highlanders settled between the mid-1700s and the 20th century.

She told CBC's Information Morning Cape Breton that her imagination has been sparked by the history of the highlands and the knowledge of the Highland Clearances and other mass migrations.

'What happened to those people?'

"Driving past some of the country churches where people scribbled their names on the stained glass windows before they were set off in ships to Canada and other parts of the world," she said. "Plus tiny little villages that were just abandoned almost overnight, I always wondered 'Wow! What happened to those people?'"

A Scottish dietitian hit gold when word reached the Cape Breton Highlands that she is looking for food stories and traditions from immigrants who left Scotland. (AP Photo/Glenn Adams)

MacRae said because, as a dietitian, she sees the world through the filter of food, she began to wonder what happened to the emigrants' food traditions too.

"How did the culture of the meals change, with a wider or a lesser diversity of ingredients. You know, did people starting making haggis or black pudding using moose or elk, you know, really fascinating things like that [that] I'd love to document."

Amazing response

MacRae has sent letters to newspapers across the country, asking for stories and remembrances of family food traditions.

She said the response from Cape Breton, where thousands of Highland Scots settled, has already been "amazing.

"Cape Breton has actually blown my socks off," she joked, "There are amazing emails coming in.

"And what is interesting is that some of the Gaelic names have become a little bit confused. You know, I don't have a great grasp of Gaelic, but I figured out what things were. People seem to have taken amazing pride in trying to keep it as authentic as possible." 

Traditions preserved

In fact, MacRae has discovered that some old Highland food traditions, now lost in Scotland, continue in some areas of Cape Breton.

"One tradition that really was so interesting was, in Cape Breton, a Halloween tradition that's gone on, while here in Scotland, we've dropped it," she explained.

"A dish called fuarag is a dish of oatmeal and cream that's mixed together and little trinkets are added. And it's a way of portenting the future. If you get a gold ring, then you're to be married.

"If you get a button, a coin or a thimble, it means other things like good fortune. Really, what a fantastic tradition but here, in Scotland, we don't do that anymore."

Anyone with an interest in sharing stories or traditions with MacRae can reach her by email at demeterdietetics@gmail.com.

With files from Yvonne LeBlanc-Smith, Information Morning Cape Breton

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