Passions: Fingers, rounds and petticoat tails. Why I can't get enough of Scotland's sweet treat

Has there ever been a better biscuit than this buttery confection?
Scott Reid's biscuit tin is always well stocked with shortbread (Picture: Scott Reid)Scott Reid's biscuit tin is always well stocked with shortbread (Picture: Scott Reid)
Scott Reid's biscuit tin is always well stocked with shortbread (Picture: Scott Reid)

Shortbread. Alongside tartan, heather and the odd discarded bottle of Buckfast it’s the quintessential image of Scotland. And I can’t get enough of this sweet treat.

The shape doesn’t really concern me. Fingers, rounds, petticoat tails, they’re all equally edible. For such a simple product – one part white sugar, two parts butter and three to four parts plain wheat flour, I’m reliably informed – shortbread is big business. While not quite the revenue generators that are whisky and salmon – Scotland’s most famed food and drink exports – the shortie is a big moneyspinner.

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There are plenty of producers out there these days, often located on anonymous industrial estates, but the one brand most closely associated with this centuries-old crumbly delight has to be Walker’s. According to its latest accounts, published last month, this iconic family food business turned over a mouthwatering £164.6 million in 2022. Its top-line growth was fuelled by the key UK and US markets, the former benefiting from a strong post-pandemic festive season. Four times winner of the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement, the firm exports its famous bakery products to more than 100 countries.

Quite a Scottish success story, and one you can’t escape if you ever visit its home town of Charlestown of Aberlour, on Speyside. While many settlements in this neck of the woods hint at their production of Scotland’s national drink, thanks to the heady aroma emanating from the local distilleries, you arrive in Aberlour’s main drag with something much sweeter and buttery hanging in the air.

I was reminded of the village’s prominence on the shortbread-making map this summer on a walking/whisky sampling/biscuit consuming holiday to the region. The company’s life in Aberlour began when Joseph Walker set up his bakers shop on the High Street. Fast forward 125 years and the business has become a global byword for a Scottish delicacy that likely dates back to at least the 12th century.

I must confess to being more of a consumer of shortbread than an authority on its origins. However, a quick glance at Wikipedia suggests that the first printed recipe, in 1736, was from a Scotswoman named Mrs McLintock. If ever somebody was worthy of a statue…

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