Above: The trinity of Haggis, neeps and tatties as produced by The University of Edinburgh's catering department.
Each year on the 25th of January the poetry and life of the 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns is celebrated by thousands of people around the world as a de facto Scottish National Day. Central to these celebrations is the Burns' Supper, where there is a recital of Burns' "Address To a Haggis" and the consumption of Haggis. By and large, the Haggis is always served with sides of Tatties (mashed potatoes) and Neeps (mashed swedish turnip/swede/rutabaga). Neither of these latter two items is mentioned by Burns in his poems, but the combination of these three items is now seen as essential, as they perfectly capture the essense of one aspect of the Scottish character, as described by Burns. Honest, uncomplicated, unfussy and egalitarian. Not that this has always been the case, earlier menus for Burns' Supper were rather more grand, with no mention of Haggis or neeps. In fact Haggis is only added to this very Scottish themed dinner menu in later editions of Meg Dods' "'The Cook's and Housewife's Manual". Given how central Haggis, Neeps and Tatties are to the modern Scottish national identity, how and when did this occur?
The Cook's and Housewife's Manual (1828)
The Cook's and Housewife's Manual (1847)
What is a "Neep"?
Most sources on the subject state that in Scotland there is a root vegetable known as a "Neep", which is the same vegetable as the English "Swede". The popular explanation of this difference in name is that "Swede" is a contraction of "Swedish turnip", which distinguishes it from other types of turnips grown in England, whereas in Scotland, only this one type of turnip is commonly grown, therefore the "Swedish" bit was dropped and turnip was contracted to "Neep". As it happens, this is not correct. "Neep" is not a contraction, it is actually quite the opposite. The Old English for turnip is "næp" from Latin "napus" (turnip). "Turnip" basically indicates the round rooted nature of the Neep, just as "Pasnip" indicates a carrot/parsnip like Neep ("Parsnip" is the combination of the Latin "pastinaca" (carrot/parsnip) and Neep/Nip). Simple. The Scots are not the only people in the UK to use the term Neep, until the begining of the 20th century it was a common term in much of England. Most Scots that I know don't tend to use the term Neep, more often the vegetable is called a "turnip". So how does a turnip different to a swedish turnip? Is it simply a matter of colour?
While it is true that most modern varieties of British turnip are white fleshed and Swedish turnips yellow, this is not definative. Some strains of turnip are yellow fleshed and there are also white fleshed swedish turnips. In 19th century Scotland it was the a yellow fleshed variety of turnip, not Swedish turnip that was especially prized.
"Of turnips there are many varieties. Choose the pale yellow, small, fine-grained, juicy sorts. Pare off all that would be woody and stringy when boiled. Boil in plenty of water for from three-quarters of an hour to nearly two hours, according to the age and size. Swedish, four hours. Drain and serve them whole, or, if too large, divided, or, best of all mashed. A bit of the green top-shoot is left on early white turnips, and melted butter or white sauce poured over them. Swedish turnip-tops are delicate greens when young. If boiled in their coats, and then pared, old Swedish turnips will be more juicy."
In fact while the two vegetables are very similar there are some very important differences.
As noted above, the turnip (Brassica rapa var. rapa) was cultivated since ancient times, however the Swedish Turnip ( Brassica napus var. napobrassica) was first documented in the 17th century. The Swedish turnip is not simply a variety of turnip, but a complicated hybrid of a turnip and cabbage. As determined experimentally by the Korean botanist Woo Jang-choon in the 1930's, as the number of chromosomes differs between these two species, in order to produce a fertile hybrid between a turnip and a cabbage the chromosome content in any fertile progeny must be doubled. So a cabbage has 18 chromosomes, the turnip has 20, but the Swedish turnip has 38 chromosomes. This also means that the new hybrid is unable to cross breed easily with its parents. Thus, the Swedish turnip is a turnipy cabbage or a cabbagey turnip, combining traits from both parents. While Woo delibrately created these hybrids, it seems that the Swedish turnip was created serendipitously, prehaps no earlier then the 16th century.
Introduction of the Swedish Turnip to Scotland
By the middle of the 18th century, the agricultural developments that had taken place in England began to be applied to Lowland Scotland. At the beginning of the 18th century, farming in Scotland was conducted in a manner that was essential the same as that of the Medieval period. Fields were cultivated using a three year cycle, in the first and second year crops were planted, in the third the land was allowed to go fallow. This practice placed limitations on the amount food that could be grown for human consumption and did not allow grazing of food animals. One outcome of this was that the raising of cattle in Scotland was servely limited. Without pasture grazing or winter foods cattle starved and so did the people, as can be seen in the following accounts:
General View of the Agriculture of the County of Ayr (1793)
".....the agriculture of Ayrshire was in a most wretched condition. There was scarcely a practicable road; the farmers' houses were mere hovels; the lands were overrun with weeds and rushes. The arable farms were small, for the tenants had not stock for larger occupations; the tenure was bad, and the tenant harassed by a multitude of vexutious services to the landlord. The land, divided into the croft or infield, and outfield, was either neglected or worn out by successive crops of oats, as long as they would pay for seed and labour, or by an ill-managed rotation of two or three successive crops of oats, one of bear (or four-rowed barley), followed by a year of rest. The wretched condition of the country may be judged of by the fact, that little butchers' meat was used by the farmers, except a portion salted at Martinmas for winter stock; porridge, oatmeal cakes, and some milk or cheese, constituted the chief of their diet. Even in the town of Ayr, containing from 4 000 to 5000 inhabitants, not more than fifty head of cattle were slaughtered annually. A succession of bad seasons, at the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries, obliged hundreds of families to fly for subsistence to the north of Ireland; and the poor were not unfrequently obliged to subsist by bleeding their cattle, and mixing the blood with any oatmeal they could procure."
"Although, therefore, the practice of draining, enclosing, the cultivation of artificial grasses, turnips, and potatoes had been introduced by the middle of the last century to a limited extent in the south-east part of the kingdom, on the estates of some of the land proprietors who paid attention to agriculture, their example was not followed by the tenantry generally, who laboured under a great deficiency of capital, and who were unwilling to adopt changes till they saw them succeed when tried by men in their own rank. Green crops being almost unknown, fresh animal food could not be obtained during one half of the year. Each family salted in October or November its supply of beef till Whitsunday. If the cattle were alive in the spring, and able to go to the pastures without assistance, it was thought sufficient."
"In the spring, their cattle were so weak, that when they lay down, they could not rise of themselves till they lifted them up. They fell into mosses and quagmires through weakness, and were drowned. In the spring season, it was a constant custom to gather their neighbours together, to assist in lifting their cows and horses, and to drag them out of moss holes."
Most cattle had to be slaughtered at the begining of Winter, and those that were kept only barely made it through until the new feed grew in late spring. So weak were they that that had to be carried out to pasture. Traditional farming is not automatically kinder to animals then more modern methods it seems.
Above: Turnips varieties; White, red topped, Swedish and green tankard types.
All this was to change with the introduction of a seemingly magical vegetable in the mid-18th century. That vegetable is obviously the turnip. By the mid-18th century the four year crop rotation method had been introduced into the England. This was one of the key events in the Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century. Rather then having two years of crops then a fallow year, the four year crop rotation (generally wheat, barley, turnips then clover) ment that fields could be kept in continous production, with the additional benefit of being able to support sheep and cattle. More sheep and cattle in turn ment more manure and thus an ability to futher improve the fertility of arable soils. When this system of agriculture was introduced in Scotland it had several major and immediate effects. With increased stock and the possibility of over-wintering cattle, peoples diets changed. Fresh meat became avaible throughout the winter:
The Farmer's Magazine (1837)
"....until the introduction of turnip husbandry, all fat stock was, of course, grass fed; and if they were kept on during the ensuing winter, their condition fell off and had again to be made up in the summer of the ensuing year. Meat markets were thus only supplied in summer, and people were then content to eat salt meat all winter. Turnips at length afforded fat meat fed in winter, all of which was readily consumed at home, but, by the extension of their cultivation, a portion of the fat stock was exported to England. The southern counties of Scotland first cultivated the turnip, and, of course, first enjoyed the benefits of feeding cattle in winter."
So turnip cultivation gave Scotland an oppertunity to increase the number of cattle farmed, however, Scotland is not England and has its own specific issues - even in farming. Problems were found with keeping turnips in good condition during the early spring, as they tended to either rot or sprout, which lowers their fodder quality. The solution to this was to trial other similar root vegetables - enter the Swedish Turnip:
Letters and papers on agriculture, planting, &c (1792)
"Extract of a letter from a Gentleman in Scotland concerning the Ruta-baga.
I Have introduced into this country the Ruta-Baga, or Swedish Turnip, conceiving that it might be of great use as an article of green food after the month of March, when usually our common turnips run all to seed, and we find ourselves at a loss for food until our grass grounds are ready; which they seldom are until the first week of May: hence my experience of this plant is mostly confined to the spring."
The Statistical Account of Scotland by Sir John Sinclair (1793)
"The Ruta baga or Swedish turnip, was introduced into this parish [Kilconquhar, Fife] about 4 years ago. Its leaves resemble the rib kail plants, the root resembles field turnip, not so large in general, but heavier in proportion to its size, and of much firmer texture. It is believed, that as great weight of this root may be raised on an acre, as of field turnip; this plant seems to be gaining ground here; it is proof against the most intense frost; the season for sowing it is from the 1st to the 20th May; it may either be transplanted as cabbage, or managed as field turnip."
But just as the Scots experimented with Swedish Turnips as an animal food, they also tried it themselves:
Letters and papers on agriculture, planting, &c (1792)
Extract of a letter from a Gentleman in Scotland concerning the Ruta-baga.
"In winter I began taking up a few for my table; they seemed in general smaller than our common turnips, and longer, mostly of the figure and size of a quart bottle ; but twice as heavy as a turnip of the fame size. For their use for the table, I can confidently recommend' them as of superior flavour, so much so indeed, that after eating them none of my family would taste the other turnips."
So not only did the Scots find the Swedish turnip edible, they found it delicious. In Edinburgh at least, the non-Swedish types of turnips had been part of the normal fair of high and low class Scots for centuries. Interesting, in addition to eating them cooked in various ways, they were also consumed raw - much to the amazment of the English.
The Songstresses of Scotland (1871)
"In a dearth of fruit for dessert at the dinner-tables of the principal men in Edinburgh, an English traveller remarked that dishes of small raw turnips — called " neeps " by the natives — were eaten with avidity."
"The Expedition of Humphry Clinker" by Tobias Smollett (1771)
"You know we used to vex poor Murray, of Baliol College, by asking', if there was really no fruit but turnips in Scotland. Sure enough, I have seen turnips make their appearance, not as a dessert, but by way of hors d'oeuvres, or whets, as radishes are served up betwixt more substantial dishes in France and Italy . But it must be observed, that the turnips of this country are as much superior in sweetness, delicacy, and flavour, to those of England, as a musk melon is to the stock of a common cabbage. They are small and conical, of a yellowish colour, with a very thin skin; and, over and above their agreeable taste, are valuable for their antiscorbutic quality."
Prehaps a taste for raw turnips is the inspiration for this 19th century Edinburgh market cry:
"Whae'll buy neeps? - neeps like sucre! whae'll buy neeps?"
So from a late 18th century agricultural innovation, the Swedish turnip gradually appeared on the Scottish plate throughout the 19th century, and by the end of the 19th century we first see mention of Neeps and Haggis together.
Robert Burns certainly would have known the "Neep", or turnip, but given that he died in 1796, only a few years after the Swedish Turnip had been cultivated in Scotland for the first time on a small scale experimental basis, it is very unlikely that he ever ate the modern dish of "bashed Neeps" (Swedish Turnips) that is now the staple of every dinner given in his honour. The introduction of turnip cultivation brought Scottish agriculture out of the Medieval and into the modern era and introduced a year round fresh meat and a new vegetable to the Scottish diet. However, there was another side to agricultural improvement in Scotland, that of the effect on the people that worked the land. Improved land that could support more animals for a small change in actual working practices resulted in a surplus of farm workers. While it doesn't have the historical glamour of the Highland Clearances, the Lowland Clearances resulted in the displacement of thousands of Lowland Scots and the enlargement and development of towns such as Glasgow. Turnips replaced people, during the period of the later Highland clearances, Elizabeth Gordon, 19th Countess of Sutherland was able to write of her husband that "he is seized as much as I am with the rage of improvements, and we both turn our attention with the greatest of energy to turnips". One has to wonder what Burns, the Lowland Ploughman Poet, would have thought about the Neep in light of the fact that it greatly contributed to so many of the great social changes in Scotland that he observed and commentated on? The humble turnip, the most unfussy and egalitarian of all vegetables, yet within a generation of its introduction "tradional" Scots live styles changed forever.