At last, the Year of Natural Scotland, is upon us. We say at last, because any year that kicks off with Shetland ponies wearing Fair Isle wool cardigans is bound to be an excellent year. When 2013 arrived, it brought with it thoughts of all the classic and time-tested standards of Great Britain. Gorgeous Fair Isle sweaters made from Shetland wool and adorable ponies barely scratch the surface of great British exports. Shortbread cookies, Wellingtons, Mackintoshes and even your triumphant end-of-day ale all have a rich British history.
Here’s a look at some of Britain’s most enduring gifts to the world.
Each year at Christmastime, grocery stores and drugstores flood their aisles with goodies. And though most of the Christmas traditions we know and love hail from Queen Victoria, it is believed that Mary, Queen of Scots is the one to thank for shortbread.
The delicious cookie hails from Scotland and is traditionally made from only three ingredients: white sugar, butter and flour. Though it may be Scottish in heritage, all of the United Kingdom loves the cookie. In fact, in 2006 the modest shortbread was chosen to represent the whole of the UK for Café Europe (a European cultural day in 2006 organized by the president of the European Union).
Today, shortbread is common all over the English-speaking world, and you’d be hard pressed to find a grocery or drugstore in America that didn’t carry at least a pack or two of the hugely popular Walkers Shortbread year round. But in the 16th century, when it was evolving to become what it is now, shortbread was an expensive luxury reserved for special occasions such as Christmas, Hogmanay and weddings. It was even customary to crumble a shortbread cookie over the head of a bride as she crossed the threshold of her new home.
Mackintoshes and Wellingtons
As winter wears on, many of us are forced to don our biggest puffy coats and waterproof, fur-lined boots to match. But the shoulder seasons — spring and fall — are when the UK gets to showcase its two biggest marks on the world of fashion (aside from wool sweaters, of course).
The first: the Mackintosh. Created by Scottish chemist and inventor Charles Macintosh (the “k” was added in later and is now standard when talking about the coat), it was the first coat to be made of a rubberized material. Within a decade of its launch in 1824, Macintosh had merged with another coat maker, Thomas Hancock, and rubberized coats were popping everywhere and in every style. The style we most associate with the Mackintosh today, however, is the overcoat or trench coat. From Burberry — itself an iconic British brand — to Hermes and beyond (including the company which retains the namesake “Mackintosh”), this all-weather outerwear is a staple of the rainy season all over the world.
The Wellington boot is the UK’s second major fashion export. Not surprisingly, it, too, was created to survive rainy days. It all began when the Duke of Wellington asked his bootmaker to modify the popular Hessian boot of the day. He wanted it to be closer fitting, made of softer material and sitting a little lower on the leg, around mid-calf.
This was a boot that would be sturdy and long lasting for the trials of the day, but that looked and felt good enough to be worn through the evening. As gentlemen emulated their hero, the style of boot caught on. By the 1840s, the Wellington was a staple boot. From the original leather, the Wellington progressed to rubber in the 1850s and, slight alterations and variations on design notwithstanding, they haven’t really changed since.
The rise in popularity of the classic British Hunter brand in North America has once again brought Wellington boots to the forefront of fashion, proving that function and style are not mutually exclusive.
A British ale is a truly wonderful thing. If you ever get the chance to sit in a pub and get a pint of ale and a steak and kidney pie, you’ll know you’ve done something right with your life. Even more wonderful than the ale itself (okay, maybe not, but certainly a great thing regardless) is the history of it.
During medieval times, ale was a key nutritional component for many people. That meant that at most meals and at most tables, ale was a staple. Almost everyone would have a glass of the stuff at least once a day. Everyday ale was low in alcohol content but high in nutrition, so it was essential for most workaday people.
Even more interesting: During the Middle Ages, women were the primary ale brewers. Working at home, these “brewsters” would provide ale for their own families’ needs as well as for small-scale sale to supplement household incomes. An industry that is dominated by men today was once a cottage hobby of women!
Even today the Brits have a strong hold on ale culture. With the notable exception of Belgian ales, brewed by Trappist monks, most styles of ale derive from British origins. They range from bitter to mild, from light to brown and from mass-produced to boutique. North American favorites include Old Speckled Hen, Newcastle Brown Ale, Fuller’s and Samuel Smith. The culture of pub drinking can be traced back to jolly old England as well.
So next time you grab a pint, put on a Mackintosh, eat a biscuit or grab your rain boots, take a moment to reflect on the history behind what you’ve got and say a small thanks to the United Kingdom for giving us these small daily delights. And think fondly of ponies wearing Fair Isle sweaters.
by Leigh Bryant