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Tea traditions of the Scottish islands

Tea traditions are something the UK does well. In Edinburgh, I grew up in a house where there was always tea in the pot. Both my parents are fueled by an almost constant supply of tea.

But, I think the tea traditions of the Scottish islands win hands down!

One of my earliest tea memories are cups of tea when we stayed with my Gran in Tiree… They were dark brown, with floaty bits I now know were limescale, and a good splash of UHT – the ever present standby. The smell of UHT makes me shudder these days.

When I moved back to Tiree, and started visiting I realised that a cup of tea and a biscuit were regulation no matter how big the meal you had just eaten was.

I wondered what other island tea traditions were out there… So I asked Twitter.

You’ll have your tea!

It became quickly apparent that almost every island has the rule which means if you so much as set foot in a house, the kettle will go on.

Anytime anyone walks in the door, any time of day, any person, any house – kettle on. Biscuits out! (Minnie Mo, Uist)

It’s considered rude not to also offer a spread of biscuits and cake. Bonus points for girdle scones or pancakes – homemade of course. My Gran did a great line in those! She did like to make sure the pancakes were “well fired” which is not my cup of tea but it was a great excuse for extra butter.

She would be horrified at me these days, rootling around in the cupboard for a stray biscuit and asking hopefully whether guests have “brought their own milk”?

I always felt sorry for visitors to my Granny and other Aunties and neighbours. They would cause great offence if they didn’t have tea and pancakes in every house. Best china cups too. (John, Lochbuie, Mull).

My father was adamant that you cannot have a cup of tea, or offer someone a cup, without there being something to eat with it. Usually a girdle scone for visitors. (Another Rhoda)

It should be noted that it is equally rude not to eat the cake and biscuits, and drink the tea you are offered. Someone noted that the first and second time the tray comes round, you should indulge, but refuse on the third occasion. Although apparently that also depends on what is on offer!

Anyway, Twitter did of course deliver a smorgasbord of additional tea traditions and related tidbits. Enjoy!

16 Tea Traditions of the Scottish islands

Hotter than the sun

“I always associate the smell of stewed tea with the house where my Granny’s siblings – lived. They’d have a huge pot bubbling away on the stove all day. It was served in china cups and hotter than the sun.” – Catrìona, Isle of Lewis

The constant teapot

“I was always wary of the constant tea pot. What I mean is tea is made in the morning , put on the stove and added to during the day. By 3 pm onwards you could stand a teaspoon up in it.” – Rona, Isle of Lewis

The secret cup

“My father says that when tea first came to Harris, it was drunk in secret. Women, especially, would not be seen taking it – almost as bad as openly consuming alcohol!” – Mòrag Anna, Isle of Harris

Sugar or sugarless?

“The practice of lashing out tea & fancies at the end of a dance or other community function. The hospitality of the home on a grand scale. The (much stronger than they look) ladies circulated with enormous double-handled aluminium teapots, crying “sugar or sugarless” – Martin, Orkney

Brùchd a’ Ghuga

This is exceedingly niche. To fully understand the implications of this one, you may need to read up on Guga.

“A cup of tea is critical after eating guga, to fend off the evil that is brùchd a ghuga.” – Sandra, Isle of Lewis

Loosely translated, brùchd a ghuga is “the salty belch as I digest the greasy gannet I have just eaten”. Where else but the lovely Isle of Lewis? Personally, I’d need a church tea urn’s worth of the good stuff for that affliction.

Drinking from the saucer

“My Mam was saying last week that her father always drank his tea from a saucer and not the cup. Hearach born and bred, passed away in the mid-50’s.” – NicIlleMhoire, Isle of Lewis

Not as daft as it sounds, this one. The tea will cool quicker and be drinkable faster.

The “all in one” and “the fear”

“Tea, milk, sugar and water all boiled in a milk pan on the stove together. Personally I can’t stand tea but if an old auntie said ‘you’ll have a cup of tea’ you had one! Always served with solid fruit cake.” – Ceitidh, Raasay

“As a child visiting older relatives in Ness (Lewis) always got v strong tea in a cup with pancakes, crowdie & marmalade – no orange squash kept for children in those days. Put me off strong tea for life! Also – share the fear of teapot boiled directly on the stove or gas ring!” – Rhona, Isle of Lewis

The “Fly”

“My Granny (from Carloway) spoke of a “fly cup”: a cup of tea consumed at any time, often on the hoof, a fortification before you disappear out the door. She consumed many and lived to 90. Following her teaching and consuming many, many fly cups myself.” – Angela, Isle of Lewis

The “Sly”

A cup of tea drunk in Lewis around the 4pm – 4.30pm mark. “What about a wee sly?” – Murdo

The “Proper biscuits”

“If you were a “visitor” you got tea in a china cup and the sandwich tray thingy, with “proper” (bought) biscuits… the day you got the pancake and crowdie and the mug like everyone else, ace.” – Ros, Bernera

The “Proper Cup”

“My grandmother (Bragar) always had strong tea on the go. And it had to be a china cup. She despaired of us wanting a mug.” – Christina, Lewis

“On the booze”

“I don’t know if I can speak for all of Shetland but I certainly like to have a cup of tea with breakfast and lunch and after dinner (even if I’ve been on the booze all day like a wedding – still got to be a cuppa to round off the meal) and between all meals as well.” – Hannah, Shetland

I have personally witnessed more than one occasion where an individual is happily holding a cup of tea in one hand, a whisky in the other, and alternating between them. They shall remain nameless.

The Minster’s cup

“After every meal, non optional. Must always be served with a biscuit, also non optional. Fancy cups reserved for the minister who also got cake as well as a plated plethora of biscuits.” – Louise, Isle of Skye

The Naked Cup

Forcing food on people with a cup of tea is so much part of of island tea traditions that we actually had to create a way of asking for a cup of tea WITHOUT an accompanying feast. And so the “bald”, “empty” or “naked” cup was coined. It has fallen out of use but I reckon it should be reinstated!

“Used to be much hilarity in our house when very ceart (proper) granny asked for ‘cupan teatha lomnochd’ (A naked cup of tea). Cupan teatha falamh (an empty cup of tea) is much less Benny Hill. Speaks volumes that Gaelic developed an entire lexicon for fending off scones & cakes from over-generous hostesses.” – Catriona, Lewis

“Ah yes, ‘cupan teatha falamh’. An empty cup of tea. Just the tea without the biscuits, cake, scones etc.” – Harris

The best cup of all?

The tea you had whilst at the peats.

“At the peats. Open fire rather than flask to keep the flies off. Ancient old kettle kept out on the bank. Nothing tastes as nice, or parches a thirst like it. Proper peaty water. Delicious.” – Sarah, Harris

“I still remember the wonderful taste of the tea brewed in the old tin kettle at Loch Langabhat – the water having been drawn from the burn!” – Catrìona, Harris

A slab of strong cheddar

And finally, the advice below would serve us all well today. If nothing else, a strong slab of something is often needed when listening to the news at the moment!

“Always at 8:45 the kettle went on for the 9 o’clock news. Served to visitors all day with pancakes, scones, and biscuits. Served at the news with digestive biscuits, butter, and a slab of strong cheddar.” – Sami


That was 16 Tea traditions of the Scottish islands. It would be remiss of me not to tell you at this juncture that many an old-timer and tea-jennie has said that Crofter Breakfast tea is a “proper cup of tea”. I’d be delighted if you tried it out!

Please enjoy the full Twitter thread here:

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