It took me a couple of weeks of living in Scotland before I first went up Arthur’s Seat. For the uninitiated, Arthur’s Seat is the dormant volcano that dominates the centre of Edinburgh, “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design,” according to one of the city’s most decorated writers, Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s a decent walk, but doable, definitely doable, so before attempting it I did what anyone would do — I found lunch, and I found it in the form of one of Scotland’s truest, purest delicacies: the macaroni pie.
The macaroni pie is simple and it is odd. You can guess what it is, but I’m going to tell you anyway. It’s macaroni and cheese, in a hot-water crust pie shell — pastry made with lard and boiling water, which makes it stronger and firmer than a shortcrust, and ideal for raised pies. There’s no lid to the pie, but the filling sits deep enough inside the crust to confirm its status as a pie, rather than a tart. Also, a gratined top provides a fair approximation of a lid, and more importantly, acts as a vehicle for more cheese.
They’re not so small that you’d really want to eat more than one at a time, but not so big that you’d feel good about sharing one. Sometimes they’re dense and claggy, the kind of mac and cheese burger joints have readily taken to deep frying so they’re easily able to be sliced and shared, picnic style. Sometimes they’re loose and creamy, but not so loose that the filling would tumble down your shirt after you take the first bite.
You’ll find macaroni pies in most independent bakeries, some corner shops, and frozen or pre-packaged in supermarkets. The Piemaker on Edinburgh’s South Bridge, just off the Royal Mile which runs from Holyrood Palace to Edinburgh Castle, right in the center of town, sells over 2,500 each month, sometimes up to 10 times more during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August. The Piemaker only began selling the Macaroni Pie in 2014, to rival Greggs, the UK’s foremost high-street bakery (with 1,700 locations), who had their own version — Greggs are well known for incorporating regional pastries into their shops.
They didn’t take at first, leading to them being taken off the shelves. But the macaroni pie is a resilient dish, and six months later, the owners tried a new recipe, and the results were much different: “We decided to give macaroni another chance and tried once more,” manager Anna Grum said. “Soon after, macaroni pie became one most popular and still is.”
Ironically, in a decision that attracted the attention of the Scottish Parliament, Greggs announced it would discontinue selling the pies in 2015, citing bad sales. Over 1,000 people signed a petition to have the decision reversed, and Leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Kezia Dugdale MP, brokered an unprecedented accord (admittedly via Twitter) with her political rivals in support of it. The pie was not saved, but traditions run deep.
So deep, in fact, that the pie’s roots are hard to trace. This seems to be a running theme in terms of Scotland’s culinary history. The origins of haggis have been credited separately to Vikings, Romans, Scottish drovers, and Chieftains. Multiple chip shops claim to be the first to have had the genius idea to deep fry a Mars bar, though the Carron Fish Bar in Stonehaven certainly shouts the loudest about it. But with the macaroni pie, its origins are trickier to ascertain.
So let’s start with the filling, the mac and cheese. British food historian Dr. Annie Gray says the dish goes way back to the 18th century, with a recipe appearing in Elizabeth Raffald’s book The Experienced English Housekeeper, from 1769. An Italian version dates even further back, to the 15th century. But there’s no direct link between the dish and Scotland, let alone between the dish and pastry, though Gray does suggest “later in the 19th century, after [famous novelist] Walter Scott started to help invent Scottish traditions, there may have developed one.”
It was around this time that the first big wave of Italian migration to Scotland came, too, when many fled extreme poverty to find a new life abroad — this resulted in a large in flux of Italians in both Scotland and Wales, with the Italian population in Scotland rising from 750 in 1890 to around 4,500 by 1914. Annette Hope’s book A Caledonian Feast notes that almost all of the Italian immigrants to Scotland worked in food shops, specifically ice cream parlors and fish and chip shops. Even then, they were catering to a largely working-class clientele who favored “cheap, filling, ready-cooked food.” However, it’s unlikely the macaroni pie made its first appearance before World War II.
Another wave of Italian migration came in the post-war era, but this time, immigrants branched out from the ice cream parlors and chippers, and started setting up Italian delis, where they began to import food from Italy. According to author Catherine Brown’s book Feeding Scotland, Italian pasta was “unobtainable” in the country prior to this second wave of immigration. These new delis were not only intended to support the Italian immigrants and alleviate homesickness, they were also readily embraced by native Scots. Was it then that the Scots-Italian fusion of the macaroni pie was first forged? Again, hard to say, but Alexander Fenton’s The Food of the Scots notes that macaroni and cheese was a fairly common supper dish by the 1970s. Still, the book makes no mention of sticking it in a pie shell.
There are equivalents of the macaroni pie in Greece, in Barbados, in Trinidad & Tobago, but the hot-water crust? It would appear mostly in Scotland (and on occasion, in the American south). The Scotsman calls it “one of Scotland’s oldest and most filling delicacies.” Ian Nelson, head judge at the World Championship Scotch Pie Awards, calls it a “unique Scottish product.” Hell, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tabled a motion in Parliament in support of the aforementioned petition, because her father told her to. The macaroni pie is so influential, such a towering monument of Scottish cuisine, that seasoned and experienced politicians are rendered helpless, back to taking advice on strategy from their actual dads. And yet still, nobody seems to be able to point to Pie Zero.
Perhaps the answer to what makes the macaroni pie Scottish isn’t in its history, but is something altogether less tangible. Scotland is a beautiful country, but it’s a bracing one. “Come gather in my lungs, Scottish winds! Come fall upon my shoulders, Scottish rain!” sings one of the nation’s best current songwriters, Frightened Rabbit, in a song that suggests communion with this fierce, whipping weather will help you through tough times.
On that day, on top of Arthur’s Seat, vexed by a mild hangover, I struggled to stand upright, my nose stung from the cold air. The weather was beating me. But the pie! Sweet, salty, rich and comforting, like school dinners, it was medicine, and it cost less than a quid, and I ate it, and I was warm again. The macaroni pie: cheap, filling, ready-cooked, and sometimes, literally the only thing that will stop you getting blown off a dormant volcano, when perhaps you’ve misjudged quite how windy your new home is going to be. I’m certain I’ll be eating a lot more.