Foraging for food in Scotland

Thousands of years ago, before farms and markets and supermarkets, humans had to forage for food. Now there’s a revival of the tradition in Scotland.

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Scotland

With his knife out, my escort carefully kneels down amongst the trees. He looks around quickly to survey the surrounds then focuses his attention on the ground.

The knife is raised, aimed and then goes straight in between some blades of grass. A quick battle with a pile of dirt ensues and then success. We have caught some food.

Don’t get too excited, though. This was not an epic struggle of animals in the wild.

The food we have managed to find is a small garlic-like onion buried just beneath the surface of the Scottish environment. But that’s the reality of having to forage for your own food.

Foraging in Scotland
Foraging in Scotland

Before supermarkets, restaurants and home-delivered pizza, this is how humans would find their daily meals. There was a time when man did not tend the fields or trade in markets. Humans were semi-nomadic, they hunted for meat and they foraged for fruit and vegetables.

They had to know what was edible and what was potentially fatal. They are skills which have been lost by most people over the generations… but now, in Scotland, foraging is making a comeback.

Foraging in Scotland

“I think it’s something that people are wanting to find out more about”, says Max Coleman from Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden.

“I think historically, if you go back in time, people did it because they had to to survive and then we’ve kind of lost the knowledge. But I think people are interested to learn about what is available near where they live and I think there’s a growing interest.”

Foraging in Scotland

Normally the closest I come to foraging is finding a café in a park so Max is showing me some tricks inside the Botanic Garden early in the morning before it opens to the public.

The most important thing is to know what you’re looking for because not everything that grows on trees or out of the ground is safe. He doesn’t like my idea of just grabbing whatever I can and cooking it up for breakfast.

“You can become very unstuck if you go down that route,” Max warns.

“Random picking of things and trying them is not a good idea at all. It’s a bit like playing Russian Roulette – you’re eventually going to eat something that is deadly poisonous.”

Foraging in Scotland

Thankfully there are some tricks that beginners like me can use. If you don’t have an expert like Max Coleman with you, the best things to start with are blackberries and nettles.

“The thing I like about nettles”, Max says, “is it’s the plant you can identify in the dark because you can feel it sting you and it’s not something you are going to muddle up.”

“There is nothing remotely like a nettle that is poisonous that you’ll find and in springtime, when we’re feeling like we need a lift, you can make a lovely soup out of that.”

Listen to more of Max Coleman talking about foraging in Scotland:
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Hunting for mushrooms

The Royal Botanic Garden here in Edinburgh runs courses on foraging but I decide to go a bit adventurous and try finding some food outside the sanctuary. It’s in the forests of Argyll that I discover a good source of mushrooms.

This can be dangerous territory for the uninitiated so luckily local expert Marlyn Turbitt is on hand to show me a few of her favourite places in the Fearnoch Forest.

Foraging in Scotland

As we walk through the forest, at times breaking through the brush, she points out mushrooms that her eagle eyes are spotting.

Not all are edible and she warns me away from a poisonous purple one and a hallucinogenic red one. But between the angel’s wings, the chanterelles and several other types we find, there’s enough for a decent meal.

Foraging in Scotland
Foraging in Scotland

It’s popular in this region of Scotland for locals to come with a basket and spend an hour collecting mushrooms for a meal. But recently, Marlyn tells me, someone has been coming and collecting more than his fair share to sell at markets. People round these parts aren’t pleased with that.

Still, I’ve collected enough for now and head for the evening to the Airdeny Chalets in the nearby town of Taynuilt.

I’m a guest of Embrace Scotland, the group representing self-catered accommodation in the country, and it seems like the perfect opportunity to use the kitchen provided to cook some of the foraged food.

Foraging in Scotland
Foraging in Scotland

Not all that’s needed for dinner is accessible in nearby forests, though. Some vegetables come from a nearby cooperative farm and still other items come from the supermarket.

I’m reminded of what Max Coleman told me at the Botanic Garden when I asked if we could survive on foraging these days.

“I think it’s often just a little addition of some interesting flavours”, is how he puts it.

“So, for instance, the elderberry you can make something out of that like a syrup or a juice that could go with some meat and it’s just an addition to the thing you’ve bought in the shops. I think living off foraged food is a challenge and you have to dedicate your life to it like the Stone Age people would have done.”

Foraging in Scotland

That does sound a little too difficult for my liking. It’s fun to spice up a meal a bit with something you’ve found yourself… and the mushrooms are delicious. So are the wild blackberries we found on the way back to the chalet.

But I don’t think I could survive if I couldn’t call for take-out from time to time.

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of Embrace Scotland, Momondo and Skyscanner but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

22 thoughts on “Foraging for food in Scotland”

  1. Great post! My wife went foraging near Stratford Ontario this past weekend. It’s truly amazing what you can find! What I liked most about how the guide taught her is that you can do it in a sustainable way. Foraging is starting to be a nice niche tourism market around here, which is great to see.

    • It’s the sustainability aspect that makes it so interesting. As well as being quite a fun thing to do, it is very ecofriendly (if done in moderation). I guess most people live in cities these days and couldn’t really make it part of their normal life, but I think I would try to if I lived in a more rural area.

  2. Jeez, the chanterelles are massive! Sadly, chanterelles are already one mushroom sort of the three I know in total (two of which are edible) which is a bit annoying when walking through the woods here in France, and there are masses and masses of mushrooms, but I can’t identify them. I saw a crazy pink one that was shaped like an octopus, no kidding! Pretty sure it was NOT edible, though. I love foraging, but I know so, so little. And the thing is, you kind of need someone to show you what’s edible and what’s not – books don’t cut it. How cool that they offer that in a Botanical garden!

    • I don’t know much about mushrooms but I’ve got a feeling that a huge pink one shaped like an octopus would not be very good for you. Although, it’s possibly you ate one of the red ones first and you just think the mushroom looks like a huge pink octopus. In that case you might be able to eat it. You probably have bigger problems to deal with…

  3. Looks like a fun way to get to know a few survival tips. Having said that, I lived in Edinburgh for four years and can recommend some great pubs to get a plate of warm mash or haggis with much less effort involved…!

    • Ha ha ha. I’ve got to admit, I would be there at the pub with you. I really love the idea of foraging and wish I could do it more often… but a nice hot meal cooked for me is always going to win! 🙂

  4. I learned a bit foraging for food on a press trip to Ohio last year. Interesting and gratifying but definitely a bit of work. As you said, I couldn’t survive without some occasional take-out 😉

    • It’s interesting to hear that people are experiencing this more and more as tourists and as locals. There must be a bit of a trend emerging around the world. Definitely in Scotland it’s on the rise – I wonder where else people are starting to do it more…

  5. Michael, I love your opening paragraph! It’s so suspenseful.

    And those mushrooms look delicious. I’d love to spend an hour or two collecting mushrooms, but as Vera above mentioned, you do need to know your stuff to forage. And I’m too lazy to invest a lot of time reading up on mushrooms just so I can forage once every few months.

  6. I have been reading about chef’s who specialize is foraged food menus which are wild, wonderful and certainly very eccentric! It’s a brilliant skill to have and your photos are proof positive that even if you aren’t successful, it will have given you the opportunity to spend hours or days in a gorgeous environment! and those mushrooms! So vibrant!

    • I think the environment helps a lot. If it was raining and miserable, or it was a dirty heap, then you might not be so inclined to go foraging. But it’s such a nice excuse to get out in the countryside and the fresh air – the food is just a bonus! 🙂

  7. I love this! We just moved to Scotland in August and have picked loads of blackberries, but I definitely need someone to teach me which mushrooms are edible. I see them all the time while hiking, but am a little scared to pick them with my limited knowledge. 🙂


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