Servants’ diet good enough to make Dr Johnson eat his words

10th April 2021

Samuel Johnson’s withering critique of a nation’s diet might have been kinder had the great polymath leafed through records kept at a Scottish stately home.

An 18th century diet book from Leslie House in Fife confounds his notion that oats is a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

Now a team of volunteers led by OnFife is transcribing a diet book – kept by kitchen staff from 1721-23 – to form a fuller picture of what was on offer at the time.

Servants at the Earl of Rothes’ former home, which is close to the route of Johnson’s epic Scottish tour with James Boswell, dined daily on white fish and red meat.

Records written 50 years prior to Johnson’s 1773 journey also show domestic staff regularly tucking into salt beef, mutton and herrings too. Meals were often washed down with ale brewed in house.

Family and guests frequently enjoyed luxuries such as goose, veal, lobster and oysters. It’s easy to see why another great man of letters, Daniel Defoe, described Leslie House as the ‘Glory of Fife’ when he visited in 1720.

Had Defoe sampled the Leslie House menu, he surely wouldn’t have been disappointed. Fed up with red meat? Try some tongue, chicken or pork. Game for something more adventurous? Opt for rabbit, grouse or duck. Kale leaving you cold? Choose spinach, asparagus or artichokes.

Fish fatigue seems out of the question. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, if a man were tired of all the Leslie House fish options, he was probably tired of life. Trout, salmon, flounder, cod, haddock, perch, skate and wolf-fish are all listed.

As well as lists of ingredients, there are glimpses of dishes served. National bard Robert Burns might have taken a ‘sneering, scornful view’ of fricassee or French ragout, but not the Earl of Rothes. Both dishes appear in the book.

And there’s every chance they would have been followed by honey berry tart or tansy cake – a sweet, herbal pancake traditionally served at Easter.

The book also contains helpful hints. Pinned into the page for 28 December 1721, is advice on how to make ale keep longer.

OnFife Collections archivist Andrew Dowsey said: “The family, of course, enjoyed more variety than servants, but we’re keen to find out exactly how it was better.

“Another key focus will be how diet changed with the seasons. Volunteers have already spotted a proliferation of pigeon in January – a familiar Scottish trend.”

The Leslie House books reveal diets that are fairly typical of what the rich and their servants were eating at this time.

A flick through the Household Book of Lady Grisell Baillie, for instance - which covers from 1692 to 1746 – reveals a similar diet at Mellerstain House in the Borders. In some instances, there is a richer and more varied diet for the elite.

The texts suggest a very tightly controlled food regime and no luxury –better than that of the labouring poor, but similar to the diets of soldiers and sailors.

Leslie House, built from 1667-74, was designed by architect John Mylne Junior and his son, Robert. Its grandeur was greatly diminished when three of its wings were demolished following a fire in 1763.

It was again damaged by fire in 2009 and is now on the Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland but there are plans to restore it and create luxury flats

When the diet book was written, John Hamilton-Leslie was the 9th Earl of Rothes. He died in 1722 and was succeeded by John Leslie, the 10th Earl.


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