Text: Orlando Addis
“The natives salt the seals with the ashes of burnt sea-ware [seaweed] and say they are good food, the vulgar eat them commonly in the spring time with a long pointed stick instead of a fork to prevent the strong smell which their hands would otherwise have for several hours after. The flesh and broth of fresh young seals, is by experience known to be pectoral, the meat is astringent and used as an effectual remedy against the diarrhoea and dysentery; the liver of a seal being dry'd and pulverized and afterwards a little of it drunk with milk, aquavita, or red wine is also good against fluxes.”(1).
Where are we? Is this the frozen tundra of Greenland? Or the wilds of Patagonia? Who are these ‘natives’ who make broths from seal pups and medicinal remedies from the livers and who salt their meat with seaweed? Well, actually, we’re in Scotland. Haskeir to be precise (west of North Uist). This account comes from Martin Martin, a Gael himself from Skye who, at the close of the 17th century, set off around the Western Isles to document them.
What is more, this is not an isolated case and seal meat has definitely been forgotten (perhaps intentionally) within the wider history of the Scottish kitchen.
Remains found in the Oronsay shell middens tell us that both Common Seal and Grey Seal, as well as dolphin and whale, were once eaten by our Neolithic forebears (2). Fast forward to the 6th century and on Iona the seals were “carefully protected and encouraged to multiply as a reserve for supplying food, clothing and oil to the monks.”(3). It seems weird to us now but not so long ago, seal was considered a perfectly acceptable form of meat and a valuable source of protein in areas of Scotland which remain remote and hostile in their own right.
Moving forward to the 16th century and the Latin manuscript Descriptio Insularum Orchadarium contains a vivid description of a seal hunt on North Ronaldsay. What is important to remember is that this was not individual huntsmen knocking off a seal here and there, far from it, this was an organised and large-scale operation. Jo. Ben (the semi-anonymous author of the manuscript) says the he saw up to sixty seals being taken in one hunt (4). Martin Martin recounts how “I was told also that 320 seals, young and old, have been killed at one time in this place.”. Let us also be clear that this was not some wasteful and meaningless slaughter, everything of the seal was used, the blubber was rendered to make oil, the skin was made into rope, shoes, clothes, or traded on as pelts and even the guts were used in one way or another. Seal hunts were once an essential means of survival around Scotland.
With this many seals being killed at one time it is inconceivable that they would be able to consume all that fresh meat in one go. Looking back to the beginning of the article we can see that Martin’s seal hunters would cure the seal meat with the ashes of burnt seaweed.
Seaweed was commonly burnt in Scotland to make potash to use as fertiliser. The resulting ash is both salty, due to the high mineral content of the seaweed, but also alkali, both of which help prevent bacterial growth. The eating of bits of seal meat, cured in seaweed ash for six months, with a smell so strong as to require a long stick to eat it with, conjures up an image of something not unlike kaestur hákarl (the infamous Icelandic ‘rotten shark’) the fierce smell of which comes from the breaking down of nitrates into ammonia5. Similarly, the nitrate content of the seaweed ash would produce the same reaction and thus the same fierce smell in the fermented seal meat described by Martin.
Incredibly this was not the only way in which seal meat was preserved by our thrifty ancestors. The Rev. George Barry in his 1805 History of the Orkney Islands describes how “the flesh of the young seals is used fresh; and, both in that state and in that of hams, is said to be tolerable.” (6). Given that seals do not exactly have large rear legs so as to make something looking like a leg of Spanish or Italian cured ham, it seems more plausible to imagine something closer to bresaola, especially since seal meat is a darker meat, more akin to beef or venison. And since I don’t foresee seal-ham sandwiches being a big seller in Scotland, the more adventurous amongst you could keep an eye out for seal meat next time you find yourself in Greenland, Iceland, Norway or the Faroes.
Seal meat was not only for the crofters, but also for the well-to-do and nobles about the Isles. Martin Martin writes that although seal was “esteemed fit only for the vulgar, [it] is also eaten by persons of distinction, tho’ under a different name [...] hamm” (7). It would seem then that the nobles avoided fresh seal meat in favour of it in its cured or dried state. In Martin’s own words “we see that the generality of men are as much led by fancy as judgement in their palates.”. Basically they didn’t want to be caught eating the same stuff as the commoners.
So, after this brief jaunt into a rather obscure bit of Scotland’s culinary history it’s worth remembering that seals are protected under British law during their breeding season (and entirely in both Shetland and Haskeir) and, given the general lack of demand, seal meat is understandably hard to come by in Scotland. Marine mammals like whale and seal do have a gamey quality to them (in Iceland whale may be served with a game sauce) and so a venison bresaola would seem a modern approximation of a seal ham, although it would lack the fat, and unique ‘sea-taste’ that marine mammals and birds often have. In any case, such traditions remind us that here in Scotland that we are closer to our Nordic neighbours than we often think. Sometimes we’re even family.
1 Martin Martin, A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland (London: Andrew Bell, 1703), p. 64
2 James Ritchie, The Influence of Man on Animal Life in Scotland (Cambridge: University Press, 1920) pp. 19-20 3 Ibid., p. 223
4 Jo. Ben, Descriptio Insularum Orchadarium (1529)
5 Magnus Nilsson, The Noric Cookbook (London & New York: Phaidon, 2015) p. 240
6 George Barry, History of the Orkney Islands (Edinburgh: Archibald Constable & Co., 1805) p. 317
7 Martin (1703), p. 65