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Issue 1 - Invented by...Janet Keiller

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 1
March 2002


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Invented by...Janet Keiller

This regular look at a famous Scots invention or innovation begins with a contentious issue - Janet Keiller and the 'invention' of marmalade. We explore the myth with a little help.

Perhaps it’s a little cheeky to start the series this way, but it was too tempting to resist when preliminary research indicated that, despite Keiller company history suggesting otherwise, Janet Keiller did NOT invent marmalade – no more than the average motorist invented the internal combustion engine, anyway. Further research has shown a couple of books and a number of newspaper and magazine features have covered this in some depth, thanks to the research of historian William Mathew.

What the company James Keiller of Dundee did do, is to change and market marmalade with unprecedented success. They took a product that was not even culturally Scottish and made both Keiller and Dundee synonymous with it throughout the British Empire.

The story goes that, at some time in the 18th century, James Keiller, a Dundee grocer, heard about a Spanish ship carrying a cargo of Seville sour oranges, that had entered the Tay seeking haven from the stormy North Sea. He allegedly purchased the ship’s cargo and handed the lot over to Janet, his wife. What do you give the woman who has everything? A cargo of inedible oranges, of course. Not wanting to let the oranges go to waste, Janet experimented with the fruit and subsequently invented marmalade.

Another embellishment on this story is the fruit being carried up from the beach by Janet’s son, who was sent back to get additional oranges with his mother urging ‘Mair, ma lad!’ According to this strain of the legend, this is where the product’s name originated.

According to Dr Mathew’s research and an application of common sense, a series of errors appear in this story. First, there was no couple in Dundee by the name James and Janet Keiller at the time this allegedly happened. James Keiller of the marmalade-producing company was still a bachelor at the close of the 18th century. Our Janet was his mother, not his wife. And a shipload of Seville oranges? Most likely if it happened, it was no more than a few boxes, as large cargoes of individual fruit were extremely unusual at this time. And as Seville oranges were no use as eating fruit, they were most likely intended for a ‘pre-Keiller Scottish processor’.

The Keillers cannot claim to be the inventors of a product that has absorbed the influences of several diverse cultures to become what it is known as today – but they did introduce ‘chip’ marmalade, the form we recognise instantly today. Marmalade, prior to the Keillers’ involvement, had been around in various forms for centuries. The name comes from the Portuguese marmelo, meaning quince, which was the original fruit ingredient of marmalade. From fruit producers in China and India to Arab physicians who used the bitter, unpalatable Seville oranges for medicinal purposes, the orange had its admirers. And from them, it made its way north to Scotland to become what the world knows as marmalade.

Now, many companies stake claims to making traditional marmalade, but as William Mathew found out through extensive research and experimentation, none of them can claim to be true. Today, the oranges are used whole in marmalade as pulp – this increases the bulk produced but, because of the fruit’s overall bitterness, more sugar has to be used to balance the flavour, and water is also added (along
with setting agents). Back when the Keillers first started producing the stuff, things were different. Due to the expense and scarcity of sugar, for example, only the juice and peel of the orange were used while much of the pith was removed and the skins finely sliced using special hand-worked equipment. Since less of the bitter fruit was taken, less of the highly-taxed sugar was required for a balancing flavour. Dr Mathew surmises that they may have boiled some of the pips and pectin in a small quantity of water to yield a gooey, pectin-rich paste which, if added to the mix, would have acted as a natural setting agent in the boiling. This would have been the only water used in the process. Marmalade produced in this way, using miniaturised versions of the original slicing machines, is quite different from modern products claiming to be based on traditional Keiller methods. It is every bit as sweet, but smoother and jammier, with the zingy, fruity undertone of Sevilles letting you know it is still very much marmalade. This is still the ‘chipped’ variety, but the fruit is so finely sliced it integrates with the marmalade completely.

Special thanks to Dr William Mathew of the University of East Anglia for his invaluable assistance and time – and his delicious marmalade. His small but informative book on the Keiller family is available to buy from the Abertay Historical Society, Dundee: Keiller’s of Dundee: The Rise of the Marmalade Dynasty, 1800 – 1879 (ISBN 0 900019 34 4). He has also written The Secret History of Guernsey Marmalade: James Keiller & Son Offshore (ISBN 0 9532547 0 4), a little book available from La Société Guernesiaise, St Peter Port, Guernsey.