Tobar an Dualchais: The best fish, or not a fish at all? A history of sour skate

Men landing skate, Stornoway,c. 1906: Scran ID: 000-000-129-916-C/ Resource Rights Holder: National Museums Scotland 

Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart delves into the Tobar an Dualchais archives….

Sourdough or sauerkraut? Kimchi, kefir or kombucha? For many of us, 2020’s lockdown has been marked by friends and family sharing social media pictures of strange fermented concoctions they’ve been experimenting with – or maybe we’ve been trying our hand ourselves at creating some of these foods prized both for their taste and their beneficial effects.

It wasn’t just being confined to home, but a growing awareness of the shortcomings of corporatised food culture that led so many of us to explore the potential of fermented foods.

Recent scientific investigations into the complex world of the hundred trillion microbes inhabiting our guts reveal the harm that over-processed foods can do to the ecology of our bodies

In response, there’s been a revival of interest in traditional fermentation methods for preserving and processing simple ingredients; not just for their health benefits, but because the taste, texture and soul they bring.

But in looking to other countries’ food traditions to explore these ancient fermentation techniques, are we missing the opportunity to rediscover fermented foods from our own culinary heritage – dishes that were once as central to our food culture as kimchi is to Korea’s?

Among the riches preserved in Tobar an Dualchais are traditions, stories, and songs about one controversial fermented food, appreciated by some, loathed by others: sgait ghoirt, ‘sour skate’.

There is good reason to believe that the general sensory acceptance of aroma and taste was quite different in former times … The occurrence of rancid and putrid aroma was a much more natural part of the daily food, which can explain the occurrence of a number of dried and fermented fish products in the Nordic countries.”

These conclusions, from an article by Torstein Skåra and his Scandinavian colleagues on ‘Fermented and ripened fish products in the northern European countries’, are also true for the Scottish islands once held by the Norwegian crown.

In Shetland, Orkney, and the Hebrides, no aroma was more notorious than that of sgait ghoirt: ‘sour skate’ or, in Orkney, ‘guffin’ skate’.

Fermented skate, kæst skata, is still eaten in Iceland as a special feast on 23 December, though the younger generation increasingly turn away from a delicacy whose putrid smell ‘can sit in buildings until spring’.

Traditions about sour skate remind us that our Norse heritage embraces centuries-old foodways as well as traditional shipbuilding technologies.

They also take us into a world of disconcertingly different tastes, where ‘decomposed’ food such as bainne goirt or blàthaich (buttermilk), or ‘high’ meat such as braxy mutton or even well-hung venison, were prized for their sharp flavours and health-giving properties.

In northern Gaelic a large skate is sgait, while for southern Gaels it is sgat, closer to the original Norse skata.

The smaller thornback skate or thornie has given us the Gaelic sòrnan. The proverb Ma tha iasg a dhìth orm, chan iasg leam sgat (‘If I want fish, I don’t consider skate a fish’) shows that mainland Gaels had little time for skate.

For islanders, it was a different matter. In 1824 geologist John MacCulloch described a visit to Barra:

“After much toiling through sand and rocks, I arrived on the shores of Chisamil Bay, at a village ornamented with dried skate, having ‘a most ancient and fish-like smell,’ as this animal is preserved without salt, and is, in consequence, very delectable.”

Barra people seem to have been famous as skate connoisseurs. The fifteenth-century Mull folk hero the Gille Riabhach (Grizzly Lad) reproached Iain Garbh Maclean when he was reclaiming the Isle of Coll from the MacNeils of Barra who had seized it for themselves:

“Miapadh ort, a MhicGillEathainn, ’s leòir tha thu gabhail iomain roimh mhac bodach nan sgat’ (‘Shame on you, MacLean, it’s bad enough that you are being driven back by the son of the skate-eating bumpkin’)”

In the notoriously provocative waulking song Cha tèid Mòr a Bharraigh bhrònach (‘Marion won’t go to tragic Barra’), the prime insult among many that the Uist singer heaps on Barra is that it is ‘far am bi na sgait a’ fleòdradh’: ‘where the skates are floating around’ (Tobar an Dualchais track ID 18982: Annie Johnson and Mary Morrison).

But not only the Barraich were insulted for being skate-eaters. Around 1519, after inviting their enemy Duncan Stewart of Appin to Duart Castle in Mull, the Macleans killed his servant, jeering: “Wasn’t he a fat oaf? Look how much fat there was on him!”

 “Yes”, said Duncan, who had to look on, though white with rage, “He might well be fat. He didn’t eat skate, and he didn’t drink salt water out of limpet shells.”

Infuriated, the Mull men killed him too.

Skate can’t be salted because of the urea waste exuding from its skin. Traditionally, it was preserved in two ways, both involving its flesh being dried and fermented in a complex, dynamic, and somewhat mysterious bacterial process that converted urea to ammonia and thus increased its pH, resulting in a nutritious, protein-rich food that was ready to eat, and wouldn’t spoil.

In the first method, skate wings were hung up outside to dry. They would then be boiled, or else smoked and used as required.

There are several descriptions of the process accessible online at Tobar an Dualchais, by Christine Paterson from Berneray (13983); Duncan MacPherson from Gairloch (51326) (who said skate was ‘math airson losgadh-bràghad’, ‘good for heartburn’); and William MacDonald from Diabaig (14205).

Fittingly, the most complete and enthusiastic account of skate preparation comes from Barra.

Iagan MacNeill in Bruairnis (61095) explains that the longer skate was hung up, the better its taste and texture: “gabhaidh an crochadh ùine is ùine is ùine”, (“they can be hung up ages and ages and ages”), as long as a fortnight in wintertime when the flies weren’t so plentiful.

He had seen skate that had turned red, with: “àileadh fiadhaich a’ tighinn às, chan i àileadh grod” (“a wild smell coming from it, but not a rotten smell”).

Iagan had heard of the other, more notorious way of preparing sgait ghort: burying it in the ground for several days. For Iagan, this was done “mar gum biodh iad a’ dol anns a’ fridge againne an-diugh”, (like they go in the fridge today).

Many Free Press readers of an older vintage will be aware of the other traditional location where skates were cured: the sitig or dungheap.

For Iagan MacNeill, skate was a fish beyond compare.

A similar judgment is implied in the engaging story told by Donald Kenneth Maclean from Srannda in Harris in 1978 (73309).

A fisherman caught a great skate and put it in the thatch, to be smoked, and also to cover up a hole in the roof that was bothering his pregnant, poorly wife.

That night she gave birth to a son. The skate stayed in the roof, until twenty years later it was taken down to be the dish of honour on the son’s wedding day.

Perhaps it was meant to have the same effect as the skate on the menu in the South Uist poet Donald John MacDonald’s ‘Òran a’ Bhirthday Party’ (100231, sung by Norman MacMillan, Cille Pheadair): “pìos de sgait nach robh ro àraid/airson t’ fhàgail nad ghill’ òg” (‘a piece of skate that wasn’t out of the ordinary/to make you like a young man’).

A fine advertising slogan for the rejuvenating powers of good bacteria in fermented food!

The website contains some 50,000 oral recordings on songs, music, poetry and factual information made in Scotland and further afield.