This summer I discovered the joys of foraging – gathering food from the wild. Foraging bridges the gap between the wild and the domestic. It’s a reason to get out of doors and really pay attention to what is growing there so it can be part of a mindful walk and adds something to the daily pursuit of those 10,000 steps. On top of everything I get more variety in my diet.
It is amazing what grows around our town. In an hour last week walking round Tayport I found blackberries and raspberries to eat and rowan berries and elderberries to preserve as well as crab apple and rose hips; mint and rosemary to dry for winter; dandelion and fat hen (or lambs quarter) to add to salads and nettles for greens; medicinal plants like St Johns Wort and plants useful in the home – horsetail to make a kitchen scrubby and the seeds of rose bay willow herb to form part of a kindling ball. All of them growing in open public spaces. It helps of course to have a good guide. I use Scotland’s Wild Harvests, it’s an excellent book but Tayport Library can help members access lots of foraging resources.
As well as fresh air and exercise I like the idea that foraging is part of our heritage. Around 1800 when, as now, Tayport was known for its clean air and pure water, many people made their living by collecting “all kinds of country vivres” or wild food plants and taking them over to Dundee to sell, where there was “constant .. demand” according to the Old Statistical Account.
We can go further back too. In 1699 Sir Robert Sibbald, Keeper of the Edinburgh Botanical Garden (and descendant of the Sibbalds of Balgonie, just east of Glenrothes), published the first foragers’ guide. He included 80 plants as “Provision for the poor in time of dearth or scarcity, which there is an account of such food as may be easily gotten, when corns are scarse, or unfit for use and such meats as may be used, when provisions fail or are very dear (sic)”. Sibbald also listed all sorts of marine resources including seagulls and whales (they washed up on the east coast with some regularity), but oddly no mushrooms in his 24 pages of suggestions.
Sibbald wrote most of his other works (including “A history, ancient and modern, of the sheriffdom of Fife and Kinross”) in Latin but he obviously wanted this information to spread more widely and wrote in English and Scots. In the 17th century spelling was still a bit up for grabs and Sibbald uses lots of Scots names for the plants and animals he lists: bourtree for elderberry and dabberlocks for the seaweed that the Japanese know as wakame. Mukraig and blokan appear on his list of fishes though I’m not sure what he means. It’s brilliant to have this element of Scots, but some of the country names have completely eluded modern scientific identification, and a clear understanding of what you are gathering is vital for foragers.
Sibbald created his lists as a response to a 7-year famine in Scotland which killed thousands in the north and east. The climate had been thrown into chaos by volcanic eruptions on the other side of the world, and the situation was made worse by continental trade embargos. There is nothing new under the sun. The famine threatened to undermined the social fabric so there was an element of self interest in Sibbald’s work for, as he noted, “where there are so many poor, the rich cannot be secure in the possession of what they have”!
I’m new to foraging beyond picking blackberries with my Nan but I think there might be a future in it, there’s certainly a past.