Amsterdam was built on Scottish Herring Bones

Text: Orlando Addis

Crow-Stepped Gables - Jim Bain [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

What could a church in Rotterdam, and the rooftops in Fife, have anything to do with each other? More importantly, what on earth do either of these two things have to do with fishing? Well, quite a lot actually. The Scottish and the Dutch have had a long standing, albeit sometimes difficult and occasionally violent, relationship going back over 500 years, and it all started because of the humble herring. Scotland and the Netherlands of course traded more than just fish; wool and coal as well as ideas and learning all went back and forth. But the promise of a king-sized haul of the silver darlings from Scotland’s waters kept the Dutch coming back year on year.

The story goes that it was a Dutchman who first discovered the method for salting herrings so that they could be kept and transported without their going bad. What had previously been a local and mainly subsistence catch suddenly became big business in the North Atlantic. The Dutch quickly moved into action and established a monopoly which would last some 600 years. Unfortunately for us, the richest fishing grounds for the silver darlings were off Scotland, from the East Coast, up to Shetland and around to the Western Isles. However, even if we were unable to keep the Dutch from making off with the prime of Scottish herring, it did open the way for a profitable relationship to develop between us. Dutch fishermen would put in along the East Coast and Shetland isles to stock up on food and supplies before the season kicked off. They also provided a ready market for Scottish salmon and salt-fish which they would take back to the Netherlands to sell on. Having said that, the Dutch certainly got the better deal; and so the saying goes that ‘Amsterdam was built on Scottish herring bones’. It was not until the 19th Century, with the destruction of the Dutch fishing fleets in the Napoleonic Wars, that Scotland took over as the main producer and exporter of salt-herring.

But what about their influence on the food we ate and drank? Well, a quick glance through the early Scottish cookbooks reveals a much greater influence than we give them credit. We are quick to emphasise, or rather over-emphasise, the French influence on the Scottish kitchen. That’s fine. French food is still seen by many as the standard to adhere to. But while the Auld Alliance had an undeniable influence on Scottish food and eating, we often forget that the rest of our maritime neighbours also had a finger in the pie, so to speak. We also forget that the French influence would have been felt much more keenly in the kitchens of the wealthier classes than in those of working people.

Herring-packing in Amsterdam 17C (Creative commons)

Herring-packing in Amsterdam 17C (Creative commons)

Such dishes like ‘water souchet / souchy’ (from the Dutch water-zootje) or whipkull (a Shetland dish/drink similar to Dutch advocaat) have been adopted into the Scottish kitchen, while others are simply referred to as being ‘Dutch’ or done in ‘the Dutch way’. In any case, they certainly seem to hold more with the Scottish kitchen, being similarly simple and humble in their preparations, than the finery of upper-class French food. Indeed we inherited the most important recipe of all from the Dutch: the secret of salt-herring. Although herring is sadly not as widely eaten in Scotland as it once was, it remains thoroughly popular across the north of Europe.

Here then are a few examples of recipes that the Dutch left behind:

Lady Clark of Tillypronie’s recipe for water souchet:

“Take 4 small soles or flounders ; cover them with cold water, and a little pepper, salt, and chopped parsley and a slice of onion. Parsley roots sliced are used in Holland, and replaced by chopped parsley leaves when dishing. Stew all slowly for 10 minutes. Take out the onion and serve. Slices of fresh brown bread and butter should be handed round to eat with the fish.”

Whipkull, from Cookery for Northern Wives, Margaret Stout:

“One dozen yolks of eggs. One pound of castor sugar. One pint of Rum or Mead. One quart [1 litre] of sweet cream. Beat the yolks and sugar together till thick and creamy, add cream and rum or any spirit. Allow to stand for some time until ingredients are thoroughly blended; pour into glasses and serve.”

Salt Pickled ‘White’ Herring, Dutch improved method – 1300s, from Catherine Brown’s Scottish Seafood

“Make a incision in the throat to remove the gills and some of the viscera, including the long gut – the fish is now ‘gipped. Sprinkle with salt. Turn over and over in the salt, making the fish ‘roused’. Sort according to size and quality. Pack head to tail in barrel with salt sprinkled between the layers. The layers to be arranged alternately across each other. Leave to stand ten days, when the herring will have sunk a little. Fill up with herring from another barrel which was packed at the same time. Seal to make airtight. Brand with date of catch.”

Such salt herring might then have been used as is, or marinated in vinegar to draw out some of the salt, as in rollmops for example.

Meg Dods’ Dutch sauce for fish:

“Equal quantities of water and vinegar, boiled, seasoned, and thickened with beat yolk of egg, and sharpened with a good squeeze of lemon; do not beat it after the egg is added, or it will curdle. Stew it well, but it must not boil.”.


So, to answer the questions set out at the beginning of this article; the church in question is the Scots Kirk in Rotterdam, built in 1643 for the once sizeable Scottish population there. In Veere there is also the Scots House, the only place outside of Scotland where Scots Law was ever practiced. Meanwhile in Fife, the rooftops around the East Neuk are distinctive for their crow-stepped gables, also known as Dutch gables, and which are indeed a common feature of Dutch architecture. All of which are examples of the closeness of the Scottish-Dutch relationship which, for both good and bad, was founded on the silver darlings.