Last Updated on March 14, 2020
Visiting Arbroath – A Tale of Scottish Independence and Smoked Fish
Arbroath is a small Scottish fishing town on the coast just north of Dundee and about an hour and a half drive from Edinburgh. It has two main claims to fame – the Arbroath Smokie and an ancient Abbey where the Declaration of Arbroath was signed – one of the first formal statements of Scottish independence. Here’s a guide to explain more about why you should visit Arbroath and the two unique features of the town.
Table of Contents
The Arbroath Smokie:
What is a Smokie? I had a vague idea before I arrived in Arbroath and of course, I had already tasted Arbroath Smokies – though I suspect I’ve got them confused with kippers in the past and turned them down when offered for breakfast – something I won’t be doing again. I was lucky enough to be invited along to meet a second-generation Smokie Maker at Arbroath Harbour to learn more…
The Smokie is a European Union PGI food (protected geographical indication) so it can only be made in a small area, around 8km from the centre of Arbroath. Smokies are produced from small fresh haddock, sourced from Scotland and then prepared using a traditional method which dates back to the period when Scandinavian invaders settled in Scotland, about 1000 years ago. The method to produce a Smokie is a hot smoking technique commonly used in Scandinavia at that time and is thought to have been brought over with the Viking invaders to a village called Auchmithie. Five hundred or so years later, Arbroath started to encourage fishermen to move along the coast and settle in their town by providing land for the community. Bribed by the offer of their own land, many of the people of Auchmithie did settle in the harbour area of Arbroath. So, the Arbroath Smokie should perhaps be called the Auchmithie Smokie.
It was not until the late 19th Century when the fishermen and their wives started to sell their Smokies in Dundee that this sweet, tasty way of serving haddock became famous.
I went to meet Stuart, one of Arbroath’s Smokie producers, to learn how the delicacy is created and what makes it special. His tiny shop in Arbroath sells freshly smoked Smokies, which you can buy and take away to eat at the harbour, along with a whole selection of fresh and smoked Scottish fish. He runs a mail order service too, so you can order online if you are now craving a Smokie for supper.
He does produce a range of other smoked fish too – from traditional smoked haddock through to hot smoked salmon. But, it is the Smokie he, like his colleagues in Arbroath, is famous for.
The fresh haddock used for Smokies are de-headed, gutted and cleaned, then layered into containers of dry salt. They are paired and tied by the tail using jute string and, once the salting is complete, they are washed and hung to dry on rails.
The smoking pit or barrel is filled with hardwood beech or oak and lit. Once the initial blaze has subsided, the fish are hung on their rail over the barrel and covered with sacking to reduce the oxygen in the fire and get the flames to die down.
It takes less than an hour to cook a Smokie and once they are ready, the fish are removed from the barrel, still on the rail, and allowed to cool.
At that point they can be eaten, warm with a chunk of crusty bread. All you need to do is remove the main bones from each Smokie, something which is done by just opening the fish up and pulling out the backbone.
That’s it – the process is simple but the end result is quite delicious – a sweet, tender fish with a mild smokiness. In fact, although the original process was designed to preserve the fish, they don’t keep for long (3 days or so in the fridge) although they can be frozen.
I’m hooked – I know I’ll be looking out for Arbroath Smokies now whenever I’m in Scotland!
Apart from feasting on fish, Arbroath has a special place in the history of Scotland, thanks to Arbroath Abbey and the declaration of Arbroath.
Arbroath Abbey is a fascinating place to explore – parts of the Abbey are still standing almost as they would have been while other sections are in ruins. The Abbey was founded in 1178 (although not completed until 1233) by King William the Lion of Scotland as a memorial to Thomas Becket who had been his childhood friend and originally intended it as his own burial place. It was wealthy, thanks to royal endowments including the income from 24 parishes, a toft of land in every Royal Burgh, lands, fisheries, salt pans, ferries. The priviledged monks were given permission to set up a burgh, hold a market and build a harbour.
The Abbey housed monks from Kelso, part of the Tironesian order. They were vegetarians although they could eat fish on feast days and two-legged animals like chicken and other birds were also considered acceptable as vegetarian food. It’s the kind of vegetarianism some of my friends still practise today.
I was completely fascinated by the ‘Round O’ – a large circular window in the chapel which is believed to have been used as a navigation aid for sailors. Only in Scotland!
Because the construction spanned two architectural design periods, there is a mixture of round (Norman) and pointed arches (early Gothic style).
What would have been the Abbots House is the best-preserved part of the original monastery.
It now serves as a museum and living history display – for example, there’s a stunning undercroft with space where the kitchen would have been.
It is obvious just how luxurious the Abbot’s House would have been for this period, with fragments of the original carved wood panelling, stonework and a large number of windows flooding the upper floors with light.
The monks remained at the abbey until the Scottish Reformation in 1560. After this time parts of the abbey were dismantled and removed for use in building a new church and local houses. The ruins are still stunning though and it’s easy to imagine how spectacular the original abbey building must have been.
The Declaration of Arbroath – a formal statement of Scottish Independence:
Perhaps the event that Arbroath Abbey is most famous for is the Declaration of Arbroath and you’ll find a replica and more information on display in the Abbey.
On 6 April 1320, the Scottish Parliament met at Arbroath Abbey to form a response to the Pope over the excommunication of Robert the Bruce. Although Robert I had defeated Edward II of England at Bannockburn in 1314, the Wars of Independence carried on. Robert was excommunicated in 1306 after murdering his rival John Comyn on the altar steps of a Franciscan priory and seizing the crown of Scotland. He was absolved by Bishop Wishart of Glasgow. However, he went on to capture Berwick from the English in 1318 and it was that which caused the English to lobby Pope John to renew his ex-communication along with all the people of Scotland. The Declaration of Arbroath was the Scottish response.
A letter in Latin was sent from Bernard of Kilwinning, then Chancellor of Scotland and Abbot of Arbroath, signed by the Earls and Barons of Scotland at the time. This document detailed the services which their “lord and sovereign” Robert the Bruce had rendered to Scotland, and affirmed in eloquent terms the independence of the Scots Along with a letter from the then King of the Scots, Robert I and one from four Scottish bishops, these petitions, sent to Pope John XXII were intended to confirm Scotland’s independence.
An ‘Apologia’ or formal written defence, it sets out Scotland’s case as an independent sovereign kingdom. It has been given UNESCO “Memory of the World” status.
Its most famous lines are: “It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom – for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”
It’s said to have influenced the American Declaration of Independence as it sets out that the King could be driven out if he didn’t uphold the freedom of the country. Certainly, there were two Scottish signatories for the Declaration of Independence who may well have been influenced by the Declaration of Arbroath. But, only history knows whether it was the Declaration of Arbroath or the original Latin text by Sallust (the Conspiracy of Cataline) which was ultimately the inspiration for the American Declaration of Independence
In some ways, it was a closing of the circle that in 1950 inspired four students from Glasgow to drive from Scotland to London where they managed to remove the Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey. Along the way they managed to break the stone in two – but once the stone was back in Scotland they hired a stonemason to mend it. It is said that he placed a brass rod inside the Stone containing a piece of paper and to this day, nobody knows what was written on it. In April 1951 the police received a tip-off and the Stone was found on the site of the High Altar at Arbroath Abbey. The Stone was returned to Westminster Abbey in February 1952. In 1996, the Stone was finally restored to the people of Scotland and is to this day installed in Edinburgh Castle. Of course, there is a strong lobby to move the stone to Scone Palace where it originated. You can find out more about that in my earlier post.
Other Things to do in Arbroath:
Once you’ve enjoyed your Smokie down by the harbour or on the beach, you can visit the Arbroath Signal Tower Museum. It’s free to enter and provides a good insight into the history and heritage of the town. It’s also the shore station for the Bell Rock Lighthouse, which is Britain’s oldest surviving offshore lighthouse. Designed by Robert Stevenson, it came into service in 1811 and is called the Bell Rock because one of the Abbots of Arbroath set up a bell on the site to warn sailors of the danger.
Finally, if you are in Arbroath during the summer months why not treat your inner child and enjoy a trip on Kerr’s Miniature Railway. Constructed in 1935 it’s the oldest in Scotland.
Thinking of visiting Arbroath yourself? Why not pin this post for later so you have an easy to find Arbroath guide.
For more information about the Tay Country including Angus, Perth, Dundee and Fife visit https://taycountry.uk/
For more about visiting Arbroath Abbey
To order Smokies or arrange to visit Stuart’s Fresh Fish check online at www.arbroathsmokiesdirect.co.uk