10th Apr 2020
How about a Scotch egg? Well, the origins of these picnic favourites have always been hotly contested.
Although most likely to have been inspired by the Indian dish Nargisi Kofta, one of the very first appearances of these snacks in print was in the Cook and Housewife's Manual written by Mrs Margaret (Meg) Dods, of the Cleikum Inn, St. Ronan's, and published in 1826. Apparently a batch of Scotch eggs are best served in a soup tureen, submerged in gravy sauce! How does that sound to you?
But there is a twist...
Meg Dods was actually a popular fictional character in Sir Walter Scott’s novel, St. Ronan's Well, and the real author of this important cookbook was the feminist and journalist Isobel Christian Johnston. She wrote the book from Meg Dods’ perspective both to make a statement about the significance of women and their domestic activities, as Meg is such a strong and independent character, and to gain a larger readership and ensure her book had the popular appeal of Scott’s novels. Scott himself wrote the introduction, focusing on the importance of food in Scotland’s past.
Perhaps we should call them Scott’s eggs?!
Before The King and I there was……The Egg and I!
This story by Colorado-born Betty Macdonald humorously documented her experiences of living off the land in rural Washington State and running a chicken farm with no previous experience, no electricity and no running water!
The book proved to a publishing sensation, selling over a million copies in 1945 and even inspiring a film. This early copy of the book in the Maxwell-Scott family library is inscribed ‘Abbotsford, 1947’ in the hand of the Major General Sir Walter Maxwell-Scott.
It’s Easter Sunday and some of you may be partaking in a chocolate treat today. If you are, spare a thought for Walter Maxwell-Scott, who in February 1900 was having a quite different experience of eating eggs. Here is one of his diary entries during his service in the Second Boer War with the 1st Battalion Gloucester Regiment:
Feb 28th – Relief of Ladysmith after 4 months siege. Had dysentery during it and lost 3 stone in weight. Managed latterly to get one egg per day.....! Once had blancmange made with violet powder.
Although a ration of one egg per day sounds extremely punishing, other soldiers recorded more desperate solutions, from dog biscuits to horse meat.
The study and collection of birds eggs is called oology.
Although we now know the damage that such activities can do to wild bird populations, in the 19th and early 20th century the hobby was practised widely by both adults and children alike and considered both healthy and educational.
If a person had a collection of specimens they wanted to preserve, they might lay them out in a table-top cabinet like this example from the Maxwell-Scott family collection. Made of stained pine, its four drawers contain compartments of various sizes. There are sixty-three bird species recorded on the hand-written labels (with a handful of duplicates) and each egg has been ‘blown’ to remove the contents and preserve the shell.
Although this practice became illegal in the UK from 1954, antique collections like this still have a scientific value, as well as showing us how our interaction with the natural world has changed over time.