A roller-coaster ride!
Like the rest of the UK, the cheese of Scotland has undergone an extraordinary, at times almost cataclysmic, roller-coaster ride. And in the last 100 years or so it has gone from obscure origins, to enforced conformity, then slowly back to become deliciously diverse, inventive, exciting, prosperous and award-winning.
The history of Scottish cheese is illuminating
In the first half of the 20th Century, Scottish cheese was nothing to write home about. In a book called Cheddar Gorge first published in 1937 (a rather eccentric collection of essays on the topic of British cheese) Moray McLaren states boldly that 'Dunlop is the only Scottish cheese. There are, it is true, stories about certain small local and individual cheeses having been made in the farmlands of Aberdeenshire and maybe in Orkney, but none of them have really emerged sufficiently into the light for the cheese lover to recognise them.'
There are, it is true, stories about certain small local and individual cheeses having been made in the farmlands of Aberdeenshire and maybe in Orkney, but none of them have really emerged sufficiently into the light for the cheese lover to recognise them.
He adds, rather disparagingly, 'There is of course, the substance known as 'crowdie' but while it is agreeable, one cannot count it as cheese.' Well, we will come back to that later...
It's all about the land
McLaren puts this lack of cheese down to the Scottish terrain, and rather basic farming methods. Dunlop, he says, was not even properly Scottish, but originated from cheeses made in the time of King Charles II by a Barbera Gilmour. She is said to have brought the recipe to Scotland when she lest Ireland to escape religious persecution, and was promptly accused of witchcraft because the locals couldn't understand how she could make cheese that tasted so good!
Farm to factory
By the 20th century, even this cheese was seen as under threat from 'the creameries and marketing boards'. McLaren reports that a Mr James Fergusson of Kilkerren told him that around the outset of the First World War there were a great many independent cheese makers in Scotland, making cheeses of all shapes and sizes. However, by 1937, 'Most of them alas! send their milk to factories for production of cheese that is by no means the same stuff.'
Around the outset of the First World War there were a great many independent cheese makers in Scotland, making cheeses of all shapes and sizes.
A losing battle?
Despite his attempts to encourage the reader to try Dunlop, even McLaren concedes that to sophisticated taste buds used to sexier French cheese or sharper, fruitier cheddars, Dunlop might seem 'merely a piece of dull solidified milk'!
So, if Scottish cheese was in trouble in 1937, by the 50s it was almost non-existent. After the Second World War, enter the Scottish Milk Marketing Board who - like it's English counterpart - virtually closed down farmhouse cheese making in favour of mass-produced basic cheddars. In fact, the only Scottish cheeses to weather this storm was the Crowdie and it's cousin Caboc, both made in Tain by the Stone family. But we will come to them a little later...
Change was afoot
With the demise of Milk Marketing Boards, the 70s and 80s were characterised by a slow but steady growth in the production of more distinctive, less conformist cheeses. Somewhat eccentric cheese maker Humphrey Errington battled it out with the EU and Westminster on subsidies and the use of raw milk to make his sheep's cheese Lanark Blue - and won. Other cheese makers looked to the past as well as continental styles to reinvigorate cheese making in Scotland.
Today Scottish cheese is going strong
The Stone family's Highland Fine Cheese company (remember them, the ones who kept making their Caboc and Crowdie through thick and thin) epitomises the modern Scottish cheese industry. They are modern and smart, making both traditional but innovative cheeses that win lots of awards, and are increasingly popular this side of the border.
Modern and smart, making both traditional but innovative cheeses that win lots of awards, and are increasingly popular this side of the border.
Rory Stone's parents established Highland Fine Cheese back in the 50s. Now turning over almost £2 million a year, their Fat Cow and Blue Murder cheeses recently won accolades at the International Cheese and Dairy Awards (ICDA) and the Global Cheese Awards (GCA). They also make the delicious Strathdon Blue, the glorious Morangie Brie, and the wonderfully-named Minger - as well as the traditional Caboc and Crowdie - the 'substance' that creates the link all the way back to the original Scottish cheese.
They also make the delicious Strathdon Blue, the glorious Morangie Brie, and the wonderfully-named Minger!
Discover Scottish cheese
Despite the efforts of clever marketing people and the engagement with larger national retailers, British cheese remains stubbornly local. Whenever I go anywhere I always pop into the local cheese shop and I am often greeted with at least half-a-dozen local specialities that I simply don't see elsewhere.
This is so true of Scotland - so it is always a pleasure to dip into a thriving cheese industry and try some of the amazing, traditional, innovative and downright tasty cheeses coming from those dedicated, clever cheese makers in Scotland!
Lush cheese pics thanks to Highland Fine Cheese www.hf-cheeses.com