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Beginnings: Early times to 1560

Everyday Life


By Alistair L Goldsmith

Communities living on the banks of the Clyde depended for sustenance on what locally could be grown on the land, hunted in the surrounding countryside and caught in the river. For the medieval peasant, living in a feudal society in a one-roomed hut with a central hearth, eating was a question of availability, especially when harvests were poor, rather than complex decision-making on alternatives. A basic fare of oats made into porridge and bannocks, supplemented by root vegetables, mostly turnips although carrots and beets were not unknown, formed the basic fare. Pulses in the form of peas and broad beans, fresh and dried, supplemented the diet and cabbage and leeks were also available.

There was considerable knowledge of the huge variety of herbs and other wild plants for culinary and medical use. Fruits in season included apples, cherries, damsons, mulberry, plum, wild strawberry and other berries. Honey could be used as a sweetener. A wealthy peasant might own livestock such as a cow for dairy products. Hard cheeses kept well for winter sustenance, but fresh cream and milk were considered the food of the rich or luxuries for occasional indulgence. Pigs were salted and cured for bacon with the less choice cuts and offal made into sausages which were smoked to prolong keeping qualities. Rabbits were an important source of meat.

Times of plenty were used to increase stocks in anticipation of a long, hard winter or poor harvests in the coming year. Water was dangerous to drink making ale the common beverage. The alcoholic content was low and fermentation short, a few days in many cases. The end result was a liquid of questionable palatability, but sterlile as a result of the brewing process, bacterial action having been killed. Consequently it was "safe".

From the 11th century, crusaders brought back sugar, spices and exotic fruits, including oranges, figs, grapes and dates. Dried fruits made an appearance, but they were well beyond the reach of the majority financially and supply was uncertain. Markets had been held in Glasgow since medieval times, established as a result of common use, tradition and under authority of a Royal Charter from 1176 for trade in goods including meat, fish, salt, fruit, cheese and even dogs and birds. This suggests a wide variety of foodstuffs being available to the citizenry. By the middle of the 16th century, as the city grew, produce was in demand as never before.

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