The thread about Mrs Maciver, Edinburgh’s first cookery teacher and writer; who published the first known recipe for Haggis (and a little about the early history of that dish)

Today’s Auction House Artefact is this old cook book, an edition from 1777.

As taught and practiced by
Teacher of those Arts in Edinburgh.

But this is not just any old cook book, no. This is a very special cook book. In fact, if you were a member of Enlightenment Edinburgh’s genteel classes, this was the cookery book. Mrs Maciver (Or Mciver) was Susanna Maciver, born c. 1709. In her own words, “her situation in life hath led her to be very much conversant in Cookery, Pastry etc. and afforded her ample opportunity of knowing the most approved methods practiced by others“. She goes on, “Some years ago she opened a school in this city for instructing young Ladies in this necessary branch of female education, and she hath the satisfaction to find that success hath accompanied her labours“. Running a school for other women was one of the few business opportunities open to an enterprising lady in Georgian Edinburgh. And clearly she was both enterprising and successful in her chosen career path.

Her book was the guide to entertaining in Georgian Edinburgh, covering all the recipes you (or rather, your cook) may need and also detailing such important matters of etiquette as how to lay the table correctly. Wealthy people still dined service à la Française at this time, where a whole range of dishes were put on the table at the same time and would be replaced as they were finished. This is as opposed to the more modern style of service à la Russe where you are served in separate courses. So any hostess had to know where to place the Brown Soup, and when to remove it, where the Small Tarts went, how to Powder Rumps etc. The prospect of serving trifle alongside the pigeon pie may seem odd to us but it was the height of sophistication!

A diagram on how to arrange dishes on the table from Mrs Maciver's recipe book
A diagram on how to arrange dishes on the table from Mrs Maciver’s recipe book, from the 2nd edition

Helpful “general observations” were also included in the book, such as the correct order of serving your boiled, baked and roasted meats.

General Observations as to serving up Dishes.
General Observations as to serving up Dishes.

Mrs Maciver’s cookery school was in Steve/Stane/Stone-law’s Close off the High Street – #74 below on Edgar’s 1765 town plan. You can handily located for the city’s produce markets centred on the Tron Kirk (a Tron was at one time a public weigh beam for the markets).

Edgar's Town Plan of Edinburgh, 1765. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland
Edgar’s Town Plan of Edinburgh, 1765. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

The school had been established some time when her book was first printed in the 1770s, and is listed in Edinburgh’s first postal directory, that of the similarly enterprising “Indian Peter” Williamson in 1784.

Williamson’s Postal Directory of 1784.

One of Mrs Maciver’s recipes was “Robert Walpole Dumplings”, a stodgy, fatty, rotund pudding served soaked in alcohol. Whether or not this was a homage to, or a clever mocking of “Cock Robin” is a secret that only she will know. But her greatest contribution to Edinburgh and Scottish life in general was to publish the first ever “standard” Haggis recipe north of the border.

Susannah MacIver's first recipe for Scottish Haggis
Susannah MacIver’s first recipe for Scottish Haggis

But shockingly, Haggis has a rather longer record in English cuisine than Scottish; a dish very similar to haggis called Afronchemoyle is contained in the first known English cookbook, The Form of Cury, from way, way back in 1390 by the cooks of King Richard II of England. As a Scottish dish, it does not have quite such a long recorded history. The word itself is Old Scots, with a root from Middle English hagas, hagese etc., probably from the noun hag, to chop. The Gaelic for haggis, taigeis, is imported from the Scots. The earliest mention seems to be it used in an insult, in an early 16th century poem by William Dunbar

The gallows gapes after thy graceless gruntill,
As thou wouldst for a haggis, hungry

The Flyting of Dunbar and Kenndie, c. 1500-1520

The poet Alexander Pennecuik uses it as a pejorative (haggis-headed) in 1715, Alan Ramsay refers to it as haggies in 1725 in The Gentle Shepherd and surviving household ledgers from Ochtertyre House for instance record it as haggise, being served for the servants’ meal in 1737 (alongside puddings and mutton).

The Scottish food historian Florence Marian McNeill and the food writer Clarissa Dickson Wright both favour the theory that the practice of cooking the contents of an animal in its own stomach point to a Scandinavian origin of the dish. A haggis is fundamentally an offal sausage, and offal was an important source of food for the poorer classes; it spoils quickly and is not easy to transport without a modern cold chain, so it would be eaten quickly at the source; people could just not afford to waste it and it was also still perfectly nourishing. Chopping up the less palatable and digestible parts of the “pluck” of an animal and mixing it in with oatmeal as a binder and to make it go a bit further was a perfectly logical way to make a slaughtered animal feed more people for longer. At a time when many people would have possessed only a fire on which to cook and probably only a pot and a griddle to cook on or in, the boiled haggis again is just a logical dish. The cooked final product could then be smoked to preserve it.

“The Haggis Feast”, Alexander George Fraser, 1840, National Trust for Scotland

By this time, haggis had moved on from being purely a peasant and servants’ dish of necessity to something popular amongst the men of the letters of the enlightenment classes on their dinner and drinking tables; this is why it appears in Susanna Maciver’s book. Indeed, the earliest known illustration of haggis, from c. 1810, shows two enlightenment worthies of Glasgow supping on a giant haggis, washed down with copious quantities of claret.

"Dr Balfour of Glasgow having taken lodgings in a questionable house" a caricature by John Gibson Lockhart c. 1810, National Library of Scotland Acc.11480, f.5
“Dr Balfour of Glasgow having taken lodgings in a questionable house” a caricature by John Gibson Lockhart c. 1810, National Library of Scotland Acc.11480, f.5

In the 1826 book The Cook and Housewife’s Manual etc. by Margaret Dods, a recipe is given for a genuine Scotch haggis at the head of the chapter entitled Scotch National Dishes (introduced by quoting Burns). Margaret – Meg – Dods was actually a character from a Walter Scott novel and the book itself was by the writer Isobel Christian Johnston; Scott himself contributed the book’s introduction.

When Robert Burns immortalised the Haggis in Scottish culture as the “Great Chieftain o the puddin race” with his eponymous address of 1787, there is every chance he was referring to something made to Mrs Maciver’s recipe. And if it was served in the manner she prescribed, it may well have been on the same table as the blancmange, cheesecake and trifle! And speaking of trifles, it was her book that give us one of the earliest recipes for what we would recognise as a “modern” trifle.

Mrs Maciver published 2 editions of her book, the second of which was in 1788 and was published in Edinburgh and London, being advertised in the London Morning Post for sale at 2 shillings and sixpence. This elusive but important lady died on August 23rd 1790 at “Jamiesons” in the Canongate, aged 81 years old of “decay” (registrars’ speak for dying of old age of otherwise unknown specific reasons.)

Contemporary advert for the second volume of Mrs Maciver’s book

But that is not the end of this story – because Mrs Maciver had a protégé, Mrs Frazer, who took on the school and the book, updating and expanding it and issuing subsequent editions. She describer herself as the “sole teacher of these arts in Edinburgh“. Of Mrs Frazer (later rendered as Fraser), I can find nothing, the surname is much too common to get lucky on Scotland’s People and no forename is given anywhere.

Mrs Frazer's version of the cook book
Mrs Frazer’s version of the cook book

By 1806 she had moved the cook school, now described as a “pastry school”, to Milne’s Square; opposite the Tron Kirk, still handy for the markets. The school is listed in the post office directories under her name until 1831-32, after which it disappears for a few years then a school under Miss Fraser appears at 69 Northumberland Street. I have made the assumption this was a daughter perhaps.

You can read a digital version of Mrs Maciver’s cookbook for free online and it is still published in a modern facsmilie edition and if you want to get a bit closer to the wacky dining habits of Enlightenment Edinburgh, I recommend a trip to the National Trust for Scotland’s Georgian House, who have a great display and description of the eating, drinking and cooking habits in the 18th century New Town’s dining room and kitchens.

So if you want to pay homage to the great, great, great, great, grandmother of Scottish cuisine, why not do as the Georgians might have done and serve yourself up a tasty supper of haggis and trifle this weekend?

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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