Cheesemaking in Scotland - An Early History


ALTHOUGH Scotland has a pre-history of farming that extends back to around 4000 BC, it is unlikely that the skills of making cheese existed to any extent during that period. Certainly, the first settlers appear to have come from Central Europe, up through what is today Yorkshire and along the east coast of Scotland to the fertile areas in the Moray firth. Further settlers used the western seaways to settle in Argyllshire and the Outer Isles, moving on to northern Scotland, Orkney and Shetland.

They brought with them wheat and barley, bred cattle, sheep and goats, and had the ability to clear large tracts of woodland to establish grassland areas and for cereal growing. Nevertheless, the many hill forts and broch towers that remain today show that the communities were far from settled and reflect the uncertainty of the times in which they lived. In effect Scotland was very much on the periphery of things - geographically and culturally.

Cheesemaking as we know it in Scotland today is basically a European development of skills acquired from the 'Fertile Crescent', the area of land between the Euphrates and Tigris in Iraq.

Archaeologists have discovered that as far back as 6000 BC cheese had been made from cow's and goat's milk and stored in tall jars. Egyptian tomb murals of 2000 BC show butter and cheese being made, and other murals which show milk being stored in skin bags suspended from poles demonstrate a knowledge of dairy husbandry at that time.

It is likely that nomadic tribes of Central Asia found animal skin bags a useful way to carry milk on animal backs when on the move. Fermentation of the milk sugars would cause the milk to curdle and the swaying motion would break up the curd to provide a refreshing whey drink. The curds would then be removed, drained and lightly salted to provide a tasty and nourishing high protein food, i.e. a welcome supplement to meat protein.

Cheesemaking, thus, gradually evolved from two main streams. The first was the liquid fermented milks such as yoghurt, koumiss and kefir. The second through allowing the milk to acidify to form curds and whey. Whey could then be drained either through perforated earthenware bowls or through woven reed baskets or similar material.

A few miles from the author's home in Wiltshire,UK, perforated earthenware bowls dating back to 1800 BC have been unearthed on Windmill Hill, an enclosure built by the Neolithic 'beaker people'. These could well have been used for draining cheese curd. To this day woven baskets are still used in India for the making of Surati Panir and Dacca curds.

From Biblical sources we learn that when David escaped across the River Jordan he was fed with 'cheese of kine' (cows) (2 Samuel 17:29), and it is said that he presented ten cheeses to the captain of the army drawn up to do battle with Saul (1 Samuel 17:18). Indeed, records show that there was at one time a location near Jerusalem called 'The Valley of the Cheesemakers'. Clearly, skills had been developed to preserve milk either as an acid-curd based cheese or as a range of lactic cheeses, and fermented milks such as today's unsweetened natural yoghurt.

Roman Cheesemaking

Learning these techniques, the Romans with their characteristic efficiency were quick to develop cheesemaking to a fine art. Written evidence shows clearly how far the Romans had changed the art of cheesemaking:-

Homer, ca. 1184 BC, refers to cheese being made in the mountain caves of Greece from the milk of sheep and goats. Indeed one variety called 'Cynthos' was made and sold by the Greeks to the Romans at a price of about 1p per lb. This could well have been the Feta cheese of today.

Aristotle, 384 - 322 BC, commented on cheese made from the milk of mares and asses - the Russian 'koumiss' is in fact derived from mare's milk and is fermented to provide an alcoholic content of up to 3%.

Varro, ca. 127 BC, had noted the difference in cheeses made from a number of locations and commented on their digestibility. By this time the use of rennet had become commonplace, providing the cheesemaker with far greater control over the types of curd produced. Cheese had started to move from subsistence to commercial levels and could be marketed accordingly.

Columella, ca. AD 50, wrote about how to make cheese in considerable detail. Scottish cheesemakers today would be perfectly at home with many of the principles he set out so clearly some 1900 years ago.

By AD 300, cheese was being regularly exported to countries along the Mediterranean seaboard. Trade had developed to such an extent that the emperor Diocletian had to fix maximum prices for a range of cheeses including an apple-smoked cheese highly popular with Romans. Yet another cheese was stamped and sold under the brand name of 'La Luna', and is said to have been the precursor of today's Parmesan which was first reported as an individual make of cheese in AD 1579.

Thus, Roman expertise spread throughout Europe wherever their empire extended. While the skills remained at first with the landowners and Roman farmers, there is little doubt that in time they also percolated down to the local population. Roman soldiers, who had completed their military service and intermarried with the local populace, set up their 'coloniae' farms in retirement, and may well have passed on their skills in cheesemaking.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire around AD 410, cheesemaking spread slowly via the Mediterranean, Aegean and Adriatic seas to Southern and Central Europe. The river valleys provided easy access and methods adopted for production were adapted to suit the different terrain and climatic conditions. Cheesemakers in remote mountainous areas naturally used the milk of goats and sheep.

Tribes such as the Helvetica, who had settled in the Swiss Alps, developed their own distinctive types of cheese. They were in fact so successful in doing this that for a period all export of their Emmental cheese was banned. In Central and Eastern Europe the displacement of people through centuries of war and invasion inevitably slowed down developments in cheesemaking until the Middle Ages. Production was often restricted to the more remote mountainous areas where sensible cheesemakers simply kept their heads down and hoped for the best.

In the fertile lowlands of Europe dairy husbandry developed at a faster pace and cheesemaking from cows' milk became the norm. Hence, the particular development of cheeses such as Edam and Gouda in the Netherlands. This was much copied elsewhere under a variety of similar names such as Tybo and Fynbo. A hard-pressed cheese, relatively small in size, brine-salted and waxed to reduce moisture losses in storage, proved both marketable and easy to distribute.

France developed a wider range of cheeses from the rich agricultural areas in the south and west of that country. By and large,soft cheese production was preferred with a comparatively long making season. Hard-pressed cheese appeared to play a secondary role. To some extent this reflects the Latin culture of the nation, mirroring the cheese types produced in the Mediterranean areas as distinct from the hard-pressed cheese that were developed in the northern regions of Europe for storage and use in the long cold winter months that lay ahead.

However, throughout the Dark Ages little new progress was made in developing new cheese types (see Table 1.1).

Table 1.1: The Development of Some Cheese Varieties 

with the Date First Recorded

Cheese Variety		Year(AD)

--------------		--------

Gorgonzola		879

Roquefort		1070

Grana			1200

Cheddar			1500

Parmesan		1579

Gouda			1697

Gloucester		1697

Stilton			1785

Camembert		1791

Data compiled from Scott (1986).

While the Romans had an influence on cheesemaking in England (Palladius wrote in detail about Romano-British farming practice in his day in the south of England), thanks to the recalcitrant Picts and Scots any influence on cheesemaking in Scotland that might have taken place was foredoomed. As Burke (1990) puts it succinctly:-

"no Romanised townships sprang up; there were no farmstead villas of the type found in southern Britain; and the sheer cost in fortification, roadworks and supplies required to maintain a presence in such bleak and unrewarding country finally defeated even the most assiduous empire builders".

Some little authority by the Romans lingered on in south and west of Scotland, but by the end of the 4th century they had largely withdrawn from Scotland to face the ultimate demise of their once mighty empire.

The Introduction of Cheesemaking to Scotland

Relatively little is known about cheesemaking in Scotland before the 11th century. Based firmly on the need for a stable pastoral environment, cheesemaking could have had little place during the warring periods of the Picts and the early Celts. The Vikings, by imposing their culture in northern and western Scotland for over 500 years, provided a period of comparative stability. Their skills lay more in the mining and metalworking crafts together with cattle raising and fishing, where cheesemaking may have played only a small part. Progressively, however, the cheesemaking skills extended into the Western Isles and Hebrides, normally at little more than subsistence level.

It is certain that with the incursion of the Celtic tribes from Ireland and the spread of Christianity, initially, in south west Scotland, cheesemaking would also have been carried out, albeit on a relatively small scale, at monastic level. The role that the Church had in providing the seed corn of such activities has long been underestimated, lasting as it did for the best part of 1000 years in Britain. As self-contained communities sometimes farming large areas of land they kept large flocks of cattle and sheep. The products, including cheese, would be used by the community and sold where possible as a means of revenue.

The first step towards increasing the role of cheese at national level came when Kenneth I united the Scots and the Picts and formed a kingdom in central Scotland. This eventually expanded to include Strathclyde and Lothian, the latter originally a part of Northumbria. Malcolm III and his wife (who later became Saint Margaret) continued the development of what was to become a feudal state. Such development was carried to its ultimate when David I became king, and he was in many ways a man born before his time. He had been brought up in England for many years, and as a 'combined' Scotsman he was interested in trying to harmonise the workings of the two nations politically and economically. Having retained the ownership of extensive estates in Herefordshire he arranged for large herds of Highland cattle to be driven down, fattened up on his estates and then sold in the London market. This was in fact a precursor of a much larger trade in cattle-droving from the west Highlands to England. Developed throughout the 17th-19th centuries this may have led eventually to the progressive breeding of dairy cattle in the Cunningham district of Ayrshire. Furthermore, by extending the feudal system and having centralised the seat of Government in the Forfar area and later Stirling he provided the opportunity for accurate records to be kept of what went on in his kingdom.

Much new information has come to hand in investigations Dr. A. Simpson of the Royal Museum of Scotland. While researching for the History of Scottish Weights and Measures, he came across records which clearly show the extent to which cheese formed a vital part of the royal revenue. A charter from St. Andrews records the income of Culdee monks who lived at the priory of St. Serphs on Loch Leven. These monks had an annual grant of cheese which was measured in 'cudruns' of cheese. This term, which appears regularly in other charters and always refers to cheese, is one of many trade terms now lost for ever. Throughout the medieval years and until the early 17th century, Scotland and England had distinct and separate standards for weights measurement. Two basic standards existed: one for merchants often exporting overseas, and another for everyday commerce. The terms were often linked to a specific product, the classic case being the Woolsack. This contained an agreed volume of wool that was accepted in Britain and on the Continent by merchants for trading purposes. Sometimes a term was localised. In Forfar, for example, sea coal was sold by the 'net', though today we have no knowledge of just how much a 'net' of coal weighed. For everyday commerce in the home markets, the Scottish weight was known as the 'tron', and hence, the names we see today in certain Scottish burghs such as Trongate. This was the burgh location where goods passing through were weighed on an approved beam, and revenue for the King was extracted from the weight recorded. Interestingly, this standard was finally abolished in Scotland around 1618 without a word of explanation, and its relationship to today's measurements (i.e. lb or g) remains unclear.

So by examining burgh charters granted throughout the Celtic period to the mid 16th century we can get a useful indication where cheese was made, but not to date how much in weight terms. The records in fact show that for a period cheesemaking was carried out in Forfar and later Stirling on the King's estates. A very tight control was kept by his scribes where full debit and credit lists were maintained for a range of cheeses purchased. Ecclesiastic records include 'cudruns' of cheese as part of the tithes paid to the King. In Stirling some 30 cheese were awarded and later records from the same estates show that the price of cheese had dropped from 3 schillings to about 7 pence per 'cudrun'.

A similar situation existed in England, and according to Cheke (1959) it could be described as follows:-

"In England in AD 1256 cheese was sold by the 'pondus', a weight of 42 pounds (lb) and each 'pondus' contained six cloves, a clove being seven pounds. A 'pondus' cost 7 schillings in 1208 , 9s and 8d in 1213, 10s in 1223 and 12s 6d in 1247. By 1290 it was 9s and during the bad years of 1299-1300 it had risen to 13s 4d but by 1304 it was back to 9s again which shows that even in the days of concentric marketing, the general position had an effect on the consumer's price".

The types of cheese must have varied considerably. Cheese for the Royal household may have been made from full cream milk. The norm would possibly have been the harder type of skimmed milk cheese that could be stored and which travelled well. Later we shall see that cheese made from double cream for the MacDonalds, Lords of the Isles, has its counterpart today, but this was more the exception than the rule. Milk was far too valuable a commodity for every day use, and the normal route may well have been to skim off the cream and make butter. Possibly the buttermilk was drunk or added to the skimmed milk and cheese made therefrom, having the whey to drink as a useful bonus.

By the time that Robert the Bruce came to the throne in, the value of cheese as a supplement to the diet had been well established. Records show that cheese was supplied to some of his troops who fought at Bannockburn with results that are generally felt in Scotland to be highly commendable, though possibly not elsewhere.

Some years later he followed in the steps of Magnus Barefoot and circumnavigated the Kintyre peninsula, towing his boat across the isthmus between Tarbert and the West Loch, in the approved fashion. The King's clerk on this occasion recorded that the party was supplied by the Constable of Tarbert with provisions which included cheese valued at about 3s per 'cudrun'.

Cheese remained very much of interest to succeeding monarchies. Indeed, Fenton (1976) noted that:-

"the export of cheese was in fact forbidden by James VI in 1573; in 1661, Charles II required 2 oz of bullion to be brought to the mint for each 5 cwt of cheese exported. Under the reigns of William and Anne, the import or use of Irish, English or foreign butter was forbidden. The quantity of cheese paid as part of secular rents was such a regular feature, that the word 'kain',a payment in kind for rent, came to mean a certain quantity of cheese, about 60 cwt in Argyllshire, Dunbartonshire and Galloway, and the dairyman who paid his rent in cheese was a 'kainer'. Since butter, and especially cheese, are easily portable, they were particularly useful for trade. The twelfth century Assisa de Tollonies laid down tolls of a halfpenny for a load of butter or cheese on horseback, and a farthing for a load on a man's back. From Caithness, quantities of butter made up in the shape of globes were carried in open boats to Moray, up to 1800, and the "pastry of the baker's shops at Elgin and Forres were then enriched with their importation". At the same period Moray was also buying cheese from Banffshire, and the cheese was being imported by grocers from Cheshire and Gloucestershire. Supplies, therefore, were carried over very long distances to areas where dairy farming was not developed and possibly places like the cheese warehouse adjacent to Gray's Close in Edinburgh, marked on a plan dated 1790, were staging posts in this trade between England and the north of Scotland".

From the early 1600s, the pastoral Highlands, which had been supplying the Lowlands with cheese, increasingly turned to cattle rearing and droving to the Scottish Lowlands and England. Until the 16th century, in the Lowland areas outside the large estates the ferm-toun featured extensively, operating on the 'run-rig' system. An interesting account of life in a ferm-toun can be seen at Auchindrain, Argyllshire which had a continued existence of over 900 years. While cheese is not mentioned, we see that a supply of 'vells' was part of the tenancy clearly implying that cheese could have been made by the landlord in the 1740s.

The Changing Landscape of Scotland

By the beginning of the 18th century, developments such as the iron plough, threshing machine and underground tile drainage were to change for ever the farming landscape, especially in the south and west of Scotland. Individual farm holdings progressively enclosed the land, crop rotation was practised, a start was made on the selective breeding of cattle from which was to develop the Ayrshire cow.

The stage was being quietly set for the dairy farms of north Ayrshire which would start the pace of cheesemaking for the next 50 years. In Upper Clydesdale, sheep's milk cheese would continue to supply the Lothians and Edinburgh until the early 20th century when ease of transport by road and rail would confirm the dominance of Dunlop, then creamery based Cheddar. The traumatic period of Highland Clearances would see sheep and later forestry replace multiple small crofts. Crofting would be driven to the peripheral coastal areas and Outer Hebrides, and cheesemaking once again would revert in large measure to a subsistence activity, except perhaps on the mainland straths with good road access to the Lowland markets. The way to make cheese, which had been handed down on a traditional unquestioning 'word of mouth' basis, began to be challenged. Enterprising farmers were to ask, how they might service effectively the burgeoning markets in central Scotland.

An outpouring of written articles, letters, observations and demonstrations took place throughout the 19th century on milk and cheese production which laid the foundation for the dairy industry in Scotland as we know it at present.