The thread about the humble Scotch Pie; what makes it Scotch, what it is not, its history and a surprising aficionado

The humble Scotch Pie. Affordable. Digestible. Lukewarm. Greasy. Crunchy. Legendary.

A Scotch Pie, photo by Xabier Cid, PD on Wikimedia
A Scotch Pie, photo by Xabier Cid, PD on Wikimedia

So what is a Scotch Pie? You might know what one looks and tastes like, but what defines it and how did it come to be? Why does it need to be called Scotch to differentiate it from other species of pie?

If one flicks to their Statutory Instruments of UK Law, to The Meat Pie and Sausage Roll Regulations (1967), they will find a legal definition in Part I (Preliminary), under section 2 (Interpretation).

‘Scottish pie’ means a meat pie composed of a shallow cylindrical pastry case not exceeding 5 inches in diameter containing minced beef or minced mutton, (or a mixture), cereal, water, salt and seasonings, and not containing any jelly.

Scotch Pie definition per the Meat Pie and Sausage Roll Regulations (1967).

These regulations elaborate that the expression “Scottish Pie” refers to a “Scotch Pie”. The regulations account for a different pie tradition in Scotland vs. England or Wales. Scotch Pies are allowed different meat (lower) and fat (higher) ratio than non-Scottish pies. For a pre-cooked Scotch Pie, it has to be no less than 20% meat overall, and there is a specific Scotch Pie formula used to calculate it.

Formula for a Scotch pie. FM = weight of fat in meat, FP = weight of fat in pastry, CP = weight of carbohydrate (flour) in pastry. FM expressed as a percentage of overall pie weight, must be over 20% for a cooked Scotch pie, or 17% for uncooked.

Regulations don’t define the pastry, but it’s nearly always a thin, hot-water crust pastry made with lard. Seasonings are not specified, but is always heavy on white pepper and each baker or butcher will have their own specific mix, with nutmeg usually in there too.

Some pictures of so-called “Scotch Pies” that you will find in online recipes feature a very chunky minced meat filling, the sort supermarkets sell. These aren’t Scotch Pies – where the mince should be very finely chopped and mixed with a bit of rusk or flour so that it forms a sort of tasty, homogeneous meat blob when cooked – these other pies have the filling of what is called a “Mince Round”, a much wider, shallow pie, served in slices.

A small mince round, not a Scotch pie. The sides should also be parallel, not widening towards the top.
A small mince round, not a Scotch pie. The sides should also be parallel, not widening towards the top.

The regulations so say a Scotch pie must be cylindrical and how wide it is, but a few centuries of tradition says it is a very shallow pie and that the pastry should be *very* thin, and self supporting. This tall BBC / Paul Hollywood effort has been made with a thick pastry suitable for a pork pie, and raised tall in the same manner on a dolly, which as a result has to be cooked with a supporting wall of greaseproof paper tied with string and is absolutely not a Scotch Pie. Frankly both Paul and the BBC should know better and should pull the recipe as a national slander.

Paul Hollywood's Not-a-Scotch-Pie Pie
Paul Hollywood’s Not-a-Scotch-Pie Pie

The Scotch Pie pastry lid should be sunk lower than the edges, crimping of fluting is not traditional in many places, but some bakers will do it. That’s the thing about pies, much like morning rolls, they vary and are one of the few places were a Scottish baking tradition is still expressed with infinite regional variety. A hole in the lid is not obligatory, but again is done some places or it isn’t done in others. Some say it’s to pour gravy or sauce in. Dundee lore is that a 2 hole “Peh” also has onions in the mix (but legally – with onions in there – it ain’t a Scotch Peh!).

Scotch Pies with holes, sold by Tailford Meats, Broxburn
Scotch Pies with holes, sold by Tailford Meats, Broxburn

The Dundonian penchant for onions in their pies (or their Bridies, a totally different, hand-held, meat-filled baked good), gives rise to the shibboleth “Twa pehs, a plen ane an an ingin ane an a“, where the last 6 words are rolled into a single, rapid, tongue-twisting sound that goes “aningininanaw”.

Scotch Pies have usually avoided politics. However in 1991, Baroness Trumpington, then Agriculture Minister, pledged to “defend [this] British delicacy from Brussels bureaucrats“, in an argument with the EC over regulations around definition of uncooked mince content.

While always a popular staple of those attending football matches or with hangovers, it took a determined, post-BSE crisis effort in the late 90s to begin to rehabilitate the pie. The Langholm Pie Club formed in 1996, to “search for the perfect Scotch pie”. In 1999, Alan Stuart, a traditional butcher and baker in Buckhaven, formed the Scotch Pie Club, to raise the profile of the pie. The club was “modelled on the Sausage Appreciation Society” (Matron!). Stuart and the Club have been credited with successfully rehabilitating the Scotch Pie as not just a lowest common denominator product, but something that exemplifies the craft of traditional and regional Scottish butchery and bakery. The club’s slogan is Say Aye Tae a Pie and you can buy it on a pin badge from ebay. Their main event is the annual Scotch Pie World Championship, which was first run in 1999 when it was won by John Davies of Bo’ness, whose family bakery had been making and selling Scotch Pies for 20 years. Stuarts of Buckhaven themselves won it in 2007.

Norrie and Keith Stuart proudly hold the World Scotch Pie Championship Trophy backed up by Derek McMahon, Alan and Jan Stuart. Picture from @ScoCraftButcher
Norrie and Keith Stuart proudly hold the World Scotch Pie Championship Trophy backed up by Derek McMahon, Alan and Jan Stuart. Picture from Scottish Craft Butchers.

In 2000, Maurice Irvine from Ayrshire penned “Tae a Pie” in the best spirit of the other Ayrshire bard, to toast its immortal memory:

Whether yer naked or filled wi beans
The price is aye within a bodie’s means
Your crust is firm but not too hard
It’s just the right balance of flour, salt and lard
The meat in the middle is spicy and braw
There’s naithing tae beat it, naithin at ah!
You’re as Scottish as Bruce but you’ll never die
Lads and Lassies, I gie ye
The Pie

A Toast tae the Pie, by Maurice Irvine, from Ayrshire

You’ll note that I’ve been using the term “Scotch Pie” consistently – as that’s how it’s defined, but of course in Scotland it’s usually just “a” Pie (or a Peh if you’re Dundonian). Calling it “Scotch” stems from the post-war legal definitions and food labelling requirements and the introduction of many other sorts of pies into the Scottish marketplace. But if you go into a traditional baker or butcher and order yourself “a Pie”, you’ll get served a Scotch Pie.

Scotch Pie cross-section from Dalbeattie Fine Foods. By Delta-NC, PD on Wikimedia
Scotch Pie cross-section from Dalbeattie Fine Foods. By Delta-NC, PD on Wikimedia

The fact Scotch Pies are not referred to as such in any older sources makes it relatively hard to research – if you just search for “pie” it’s not specific enough. But with some perseverance it’s possible to trace our modern Scotch Pie as evolving from the traditional “Penny Mutton Pie” of the late 18th and early 19th century. These were small, individual pies sold warm by bakers or butchers, particularly on market days or holidays, at an affordable price. Note that at this time, such pies in Scotland were always mutton, the predominant day-to-day meat eaten by most people. Beef was always more of a luxury and didn’t begin creeping into the Scotch Pie mix until the middle of the 20th century, and didn’t really displace mutton until the 1950s and 60s as the former became cheaper and the latter’s staple position on the Scottish dinner plate waned.

The grand doyenne of Scottish culinary writing – F. Marian Mcneill – wrote of ” our most distinctive Scottish pie, the small mutton pie” in 1937 in a piece for the Scotsman. She describes a pie from the memoirs of James Stuart MP, who had schooled at Madras College in St. Andrews and gone to university there too, in the 1850s and 60s. It was of “mutton minced to the smallest consistency, and was made up in a standing crust, strong enough to contain the gravy… there were no lumps of fat or grease in them. They always arrived piping hot“. These pies, Stuart fondly recalled, were made and sold by “Mrs Gillespie, the pie-wife of St. Andrews” and still made his mouth water decades later just thinking about them.

"Hoxton Division", Stuart as caricatured by "Stuff" in Vanity Fair, October 1899
“Hoxton Division”, James Stuart MP as caricatured by “Stuff” in Vanity Fair, October 1899

McNeill gives us a definitive recipe I can find – writing for the Scotsman in 1937 – stating that small mutton pies were “as popular in 18th century Edinburgh as [they are] today” and that she did not know whether Glasgow’s claim to be “it’s true home” was correct. I don’t think any one place could ever claim to be the birthplace of the Scotch Pie – they were clearly a common and widespread product across the centre and east of the country in the late 18th century.

Recipe for a Scots Mutton Pie, Scotsman, Dec 1937 - F. Marian Mcneill, author of the Scots Kitchen
Recipe for a Scots Mutton Pie, Scotsman, Dec 1937 – F. Marian Mcneill, author of the Scots Kitchen

A story in the Brechin Advertiser in 1890 implies the existence of a Penny Mutton Pie shop run by baker Willie Smith, in the 1820s, to which local boys flocked as hawkers, being paid in pies; 1 pie given per dozen sold. The John O’ Groats Journal in 1840 mentions Penny Mutton Pies. On New Year’s Day 1850, the Barony Workhouse in Glasgow announced in the papers that inmates “old and young, sane and insane” would be “made happy with a hot mutton pie each“. In 1853 the occasion of the coming of age of William Kerr, 9th Marquess of Lothian, was celebrated in Newbattle by a parade of miners and mining bands, with children “regaled with mutton pies, the boys engaged in the collieries being provided with pies of larger size“. In 1865, I find what is the earliest overt advert for a Penny Mutton Pie that I have come across, with A. Reid at the “Top of the Murraygate and Seagate” in Dundee offering them at 1d or 2d each under the slogan “If you want a good Mutton Pie, try A. Reid’s“. In October 1892, Mr A. Gordon of Gordon St., Huntly, announced the start of the “Hot mutton pie supply for the season”, clearly suggesting that in some places they may have been a seasonal product.

Pie Season! Huntly Express - Saturday 01 October 1892
Pie Season! Huntly Express – 01 October 1892

Such mutton pies – be they called Small, Scots or Penny – would be recognisable to us today but probably offered much more variety of style and content than we are now used to. The first actual glimpse we get of one is in a Dundee Courier cartoon of 1889 for a column entitled “Impressions of Dundee“, which tells a humorous story of a homesick Dundonian coming across a man eating a Dundee mutton pie in the British Library in London.

The earliest picture of a Scotch Pie? Dundee Courier - Friday 14 June 1889
The earliest picture of a Scotch Pie? Dundee Courier – 14 June 1889

Pie Advertising is common in Scottish newspapers in the first half of the 20th century, but usually just a few lines of text in the classified pages. However in 1924, Hay’s of Murraygate, Dundee (legendary for its association with the genesis of the Macaroni Pie) took out a particularly fancy advert for “The Big Pie” at 1/6d as a “Sure Favourite for the Weekend“. From the image it appears to be a giant Scotch pie (which of course, modern definition wouldn’t allow to be called a Scotch Pie!)

The Big Pie, 1/6 advert.  Dundee Evening Telegraph - Friday 22 February 1924
The Big Pie, 1/6 advert. Dundee Evening Telegraph – 22 February 1924

It was around this time that a Mr Stoddart, a baker in the Ayrshire town of Cumnock, came up with the sweet-filled version of the Scotch pie – the appropriately named “Cumnock Tart” – which is a regular Scotch Pie case but with a stewed apple or rhubarb filling, and a glaze of the same fruit. Cumnock Tarts sold in actual Cumnock appear to have evolved into a more oval-shape, with a crimped edge, but the “fruit Scotch pie” form is the more common.

Rhubarb Cumnock Tart, Clark's Bakery of Dundee
Rhubarb Cumnock Tart, Clark’s Bakery of Dundee

Back to mutton pies though. Victor MacClure, writing in “Scotland’s Inner Man“, a 1935 food and cookery history, recorded that in Glasgow they were known as “Tupenny Struggles” and that hot gravy was poured in the hole in the pie lid when sold and served. Catherine Brown, writing in “Scottish Regional Recipes” in 1983, records an establishment of yore run by a character called Grannie Black in Glasgow’s Candleriggs that was renowned for its “Tupenny Mutton Pies“. A bar of that name existed from the 1820s until it was demolished relatively recently.

Aside from the sweetened version, the basic Scotch Pie case is infinitely flexible as a filling containment and delivery system. Clarks of Dundee for instance offer: Scotch, Scotch with Beans, Scotch with Onion, Steak & Gravy, Bean & Tattie (a Scotch Pie, but with the top lid replaced by a layer of mashed potato and baked beans, to give a whole meal in a pie), Bolognese, Chicken Curry, Korma, Tikka, Balti and Chicken and Ham. The lasagne pies of Argo’s in Kirkwall are legendary, and I’ve been advised that a Bovril pie is too. And of course, take off the lid and fill the pie with macaroni cheese, and you get the Macaroni pie, which as far as I can trace was first sold by Hays of Dundee in 1920 (click the link for the thread about that particular pie, and pasta in general in traditional Scottish cuisine).

Scotch Pies have travelled the world, put down roots and evolved into national pies of their own (or, at least some of it) and have a reasonable claim to explain why similar small, hand-held meat pies have a cult status in Australian and New Zealand cuisine. You see in the late 1850s, an “energetic young Scotchman with only a few pounds in the way of capital“, by the name of James Seves Hosie, opened a pie shop on Bourke Street in Melbourne, where he sold “thrupenny mutton pies”. James, a bootmaker to trade, was born in Fife in 1831 but grew up in Leith. He arrived in Melbourne in 1853 from the ship Koh-I-Noor.

A New Zealand "Macgregor's Mutton Pie", by Bernie's Bakery HQ of Timaru
A New Zealand “Macgregor’s Mutton Pie”, by Bernie’s Bakery HQ of Timaru

Hosie’s father started a bakery in Melbourne on Bourke Street, and after working as a bootmaker in the Australian gold fields, the young James settled down in an establishment of his own nearby and made a fortune from his pies. And what was the name of Hosie’s establishment? Why it was The Scotch Pie Shop! And it’s recorded in metal in the penny tokens he issued due to a shortage of small coinage in circulation. In later life,his financial success on the back of Scotch Pies allowed him to build “a pretty bijou theatre… a luxurious Turkish bathing establishment… a couple of gigantic hotels and attained the dignity of Mayor“. He died in 1889, leaving £10,000 to a Melbourne Hospital.

J. Hosie "Scotch Pie Shop" penny token of 1862. Businesses issued such tokens when there was a lack of circulating small coinage in a community, and carried the name of a prominent and respected businessman who could exchange the tokens for real money. © Museums Victoria / CC-BY 4.0
J. Hosie “Scotch Pie Shop” penny token of 1862. Businesses issued such tokens when there was a lack of circulating small coinage in a community, and carried the name of a prominent and respected businessman who could exchange the tokens for real money. See the thread on Scottish Conder Tokens for a similar practice in the 18th and early 19th century © Museums Victoria / CC-BY 4.0

While this is not the earliest use of the term “Scotch Pie” it is the first definitive use of it I can find to describe a small, penny, mutton pie of Scottish heritage: even if it was thousands of miles from Scotland.

There is a second type of pie referred to as “Scotch”. There was no common definition of what sort of pie this was, but its characteristic was it was some sort of “make do” pie to spin out what you had and it’s important to note that it was not specifically a Scottish thing. Rather, in this case “Scotch” was a reference to the perceived meanness and/or thriftiness of Scots.

A 1908 recipe by Olive Green in “How to Cook Fish” has a Scotch Pie being a mackerel pie with layers of sliced potato instead of pastry. In 1909 by Eleanor L. Jenkinson in “The Ocklye Cookery Book” it’s a pie of boiled calf’s head and eggs. In 1914 in the Huntly Express, it’s a fruit-less fruit pie made using a thin layer of jam. In the Sheffield Daily Telegraph in 1928 it’s a pie of grouse, mushroom and boiled eggs. In 1931’s Leicester Chronicle, it’s sheep’s heart, bacon and boiled eggs with mashed potato on top. In 1940’s “Cookery Corner” in the Daily Mirror, a Scotch Pie was a wartime economy recipe made of a tin of tomato soup, chopped onion and minced beef in pastry. In 1949, during the grim times of post-war austerity, the Sunday Mail in Glasgow gives a frugal and rather desperate recipe for “Scotch Pie” to serve 4 that is lentils, onions and carrots in a thin “gravy” made of dripping and the water in which the lentils were cooked, covered in a layer of mashed potato and swede and baked. Woolton pie, but worse! As late as 1954, a recipe in the “Kitchen Encyclopaedia” by the Anglo-American cookery writer Countess Morphy (her pen name, she wasn’t a countess or called Morphy!) gives an odd-sounding recipe of mutton suet, calf’s feet, apples, currants and various sweet flavourings!

Countess Morphy's terrible sounding 1954 apple and currant pie with suet and calf's feet
Countess Morphy’s terrible sounding 1954 apple and currant pie with suet and calf’s feet

But by the 1950s, the tide was turning in terms of the naming of a Scotch Pie, as an increasingly less localised and more mechanised baking industry found itself needing more specific definitions and machinery. In 1949 Waddell of Wishaw, bakers engineers, were advertising an electric pie machine for forming “Scotch Pie shells”. In 1969, Clyde-Enco Ltd advertised the “Clyde-Enco Clean Depositor” for “depositing Scotch Pie meat” in the case. Both of these were Scottish companies, serving the Scottish pie-baking industry, referring to them as Scotch Pies. A somewhat surprising fan of the Scotch Pie, and an early use (outwith Australia) calling a Scotch Pie a Scotch Pie is revealed in a September 1963 gossip column by Rex North in the Daily Mirror. None other than Alfred Hitchcock, who had told Rex he had “finally got a recipe” for such pies that was “to his satisfaction”, thus solving a “personal mystery”. One can only imagine Hitchcock picked up his pie habit filming The 39 Steps in Scotland in the 1930s and again in the 1950s.

There is a third broad grouping of “Scotch Pies” beyond the Penny Mutton and the Austerity Pies covered above. This type of Scotch Pie is a much older form with its own history and is an interesting tangent to our story. And these Scotch Pies were huge pies, defined both by their size and that they could be filled with anything and everything! Mention of such pies is made by Samuel Johnson, writing of his encounters with Scottish fayre in the 18th c. on his travels. He describes a “Scotch Pie” as a seasonal, celebratory pie:

Which contains a heterogeneous mass of fish, flesh and fowl, and almost every other species of edible substance, and so ample are its dimensions that more than one whole goose is frequently encrusted within its walls

Samuel Johnson, on the subject of “Scotch” Pies

This “everything pie” results in “Scotch Pie” being a derisory metaphor used in 1835 to describe the cabinet of the new Prime Minister, Viscount Melbourne, as a “Scotch Pie Cabinet” on account of its varied contents and (from the point of view of the author), distasteful contents. However the “Scotch Pie” that Johnson saw is more than likely what was called a Bride’s Pie or Bride Pie and was a vestige of an an ancient European wedding tradition going back to medieval times, but which had largely died out by the later Elizabethan era. These Bride Pies – also called Subtleties or Extraordinary Pies – were huge, multi-tiered pies, the origin of the multi-tiered wedding cake. Intricate moulds were used to bake the structural (and inedible) pie cases

A Bride Pie mould (right), from "The Accomplish't Cook" of 1660 by Robert May.
A Bride Pie mould (right), from “The Accomplish’t Cook” of 1660 by Robert May.

The pies were “flamboyantly inedible” and were filled with anything and everything – alive and dead. Edible parts included cockscombs, sweetbreads, testicles, kidneys, prawns, oysters, cockles, bats, frogs and blackbirds. Yes, these pies are where you get the nursery rhyme of “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie”. However such birds were often alive, placed inside a hollow pie shell, so that when they were cut open they would fly or jump out in a stunning (or disastrous) display.

Four and twenty black-birds, baked in a pie, from a 19th c. book of nursery rhymes illustrated by Walter Crane. Collection of New York Public Library, ID 1699266
“Four and twenty black-birds, baked in a pie”, from a 19th c. book of nursery rhymes illustrated by Walter Crane. Collection of New York Public Library, ID 1699266

Samuel Pepys, writing in the mid-late 17th century, refers to a bride pie at the wedding of Sir William Batten, 3 pies, nested one within the other, but they were falling out of fashion with the upper classes by this time. They persisted in rural Scotland into the early 19th century, particularly the lowlands, forming their own tradition of wedding pies related to the “Penny Wedding” or “Penny Bridal” custom, which is recorded in Scotland back into the 16th century. In the Scottish romantic revival of the 18th and early 19th century, the Penny Wedding was a frequent subject. Sir David Wilkie’s 1818 painting gives you an idea of what they were like.

"The Penny Wedding", David Wilkie, 1818. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2022
“The Penny Wedding”, David Wilkie, 1818. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2022

Guests paid a penny to attend, which covered any costs for the married couple and also provided a financial gift to help set the married couple up. A suitable barn or hall was the venue. Musicians and entertainment provided itself from amongst the community and it was the responsibility of the bridal family to provide the food: a Bride Pie. And what do we see in the background of Wilkie’s painting? Why, it’s a great, big bride pie!

Close up. "The Penny Wedding", David Wilkie, 1818. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2022
Close up. “The Penny Wedding”, David Wilkie, 1818. Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2022

And in David Allan’s “Scottish Penny Wedding” of 1795? Why if it isn’t a great big bride pie again…

“The Penny Wedding”. David Allan, 1795. CC-by-NC National Galleries Scotland

It was the custom that the whole community, were able, would provide what content for the pie that they could, which is why it came to contain everything and anything, from farm meat to game to fish to eggs to dairy. The laird or tacksman would (if they were on good terms) provide joints for it too. All guests expected to – and were obliged to – be served some of this giant pie. By the 1860s, “penny weddings” and pies were being written of in the past tense, but are recorded both in Borders and Aberdeenshire publications. By the 1890s they are described as being “vanished“.

We should note that the phrase “penny wedding” must be post-Union, as it refers to an amount equivalent to the English/British penny, historically the tradition was to pay a Scots shilling – which was of equivalent value. So while although these Bride’s Pies were not Scotch Pies, almost certainly they are what Johnson was referring to as his Scotch Pie. And what does the word Bride’s Pie give us? It gives us Bridie, the other Scottish baked good that’s filled with minced meat. The semi-circular shape of the Bridie is reputed to resemble a horse shoe, and there are certainly references to it originally being something prepared and served for holidays and separations. But Bridies will have to wait for another day for their own thread.

Bridies by Bell's of Edzell and Montrose
Bridies by Bell’s of Edzell and Montrose

There was no fixed recipe for a Bride’s Pie on account of its very “pot luck” nature, but one is given by Margaret Dods (pen name of Chirstian Johnston) in the 1826 Scottish cook book “The Cook and Housewife’s Manual”. It’s the very same recipe as the Countess Morphy gives us in 1954 that we saw earlier in this post! Johnston, who was sponsored by Walter Scott, gives us something much more important than a recipe here though, she provides us a definitive proof that at this time a Bride’s Pie and a Scotch Pie are one and the same. With it’s unashamed mixture of sweet, savoury, alcohol and spice, the Bride’s Pie Scotch Pie is undeniably of a much older cooking tradition, one that was rapidly dying out as the Victorian era approached.

A Bride's or Scotch Pie recipe. 1826. The cook and housewife's manual, containing the most approved modern receipts for making soups, gravies, sauces, ragouts, and all made-dishes, by Margaret Dods
A Bride’s or Scotch Pie recipe. 1826. The cook and housewife’s manual, containing the most approved modern receipts for making soups, gravies, sauces, ragouts, and all made-dishes, by Margaret Dods

Here ends the thread on Scotch Pies. I hope you’ve enjoyed it and learned something along the way: I absolutely did – it’s a subject about which I’ve been gathering factual titbits on for a long time and I promise you it’s the most in-depth read on Scotch Pies you’ll find on the internet. If you enjoyed this be sure to check out my other long-form threads on staple Scottish fayre such as Plain Breid, Morning Rolls and Creamola Foam.

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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