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Issue 49 - Frying tonight

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 49
February 2010


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Frying tonight

James Carron meets the man who brought chips to Scotland.

Chips are a national obsession. We eat mountains of them every year.

Whether fried in oil, baked or microwaved, a quarter of Scotland’s potatoes end up being sliced into strips and served up as chips. Quick and easy to cook they are consumed on their own as a quick snack or as an accompaniment to just about any meal.

They are one of the most versatile and convenient foodstuffs known to man.

Although Scots may have invented many things, the nation cannot take credit for this culinary wonder. That accolade goes to the Belgians. Legend has it that villagers in the Meuse valley, between Dinant and Liège, created the first chips in 1680. Normally they served their meals with small fish caught from local rivers.

However, when the water froze and they were unable to catch anything, they sliced potatoes into strips and fried them instead.

The new dish quickly caught on and stalls selling these early fries popped up at fairs and on street corners. Rather aptly, it was a Belgian who brought chips to Scotland.

Born in Brussels in May 1847, Edward de Gernier arrived in Dundee in the early 1870s.

A shoemaker to trade, he left his native land after a period of military service, travelling first to France where he met and married his wife Julia in 1869. While there, he worked under John Saunders, a native of Blairgowrie, and, with his help, the couple moved to Scotland, taking jobs in jute mills in the Perthshire town.

It was but a brief stopover for in 1874 Edward and his wife made the short journey south to Dundee, leasing a house in the city’s bustling Greenmarket. At first, they found it difficult to find work, largely due to difficulties with language. However, they were soon taken under the wing of their new neighbours and after picking up some rudimentary ‘Scotch’, Edward resurrected his original trade as a shoemaker. He was, however, clearly an enterprising individual and, aware of the popularity of chips in his homeland, he spotted a lucrative opening in the fledgling fast food industry.

With initial capital of just three old pennies, he took a stall on the market, described by historians as a twice weekly gathering of ‘fiddlers, pickpockets, whores, auctioneers and preachers’. Amid this colourful chaos, he erected a canvas tent, laid wooden boards on crates for seats and set up a brazier and cooking pot. With the remaining money, he purchased a sack of spuds from a shop on the Greenmarket and set about washing, peeling and cutting them by hand.

The fire roaring below a bubbling pot of mutton fat, Edward’s stall opened for business on a busy Friday evening. It was an instant hit. On the first night, he and his wife sold over 460 portions of chips at a half penny a time, quickly recouping the meagre investment and giving them enough money to develop the business.

In time, the canvas tent was replaced by a more substantial wooden-framed stand clad in jute cloth and the makeshift seats gave way to proper benches. He developed his fare too, adding mushy peas to the pale flabby potato chips. Doused in vinegar, the dish became known as the pea-buster.

Encouraged by the hearty response, Edward advertised his business as the ‘first chip potatoes, peas and vinegar stall in Great Britain’ and the unique pea-buster, or Dundee Buster as it was nicknamed, drew customers from far and wide. On one occasion, two young men walked from Perth – 20 miles away – just to sample the new chips.

For many, a visit to the stall was the longawaited culmination of a day’s shopping.

Through the wide and welcoming doorway the appetising aroma of frying chips and the sharp tang of vinegar drew them in. Round the walls customers sat, savouring the warmth of the fire as they waited to be fed. It was the beating social heart of the market; a place where friends met or old acquaintances were renewed.

Despite invitations to establish buster stalls in other towns and cities, the de Gerniers were content to confine their activities to Dundee, leaving the way clear for an influx of largely Italian immigrants to open fish and chip shops across Scotland. They did, however, corner the city’s buster market, operating six stalls at the peak of the business. Over the years, their children and grandchildren carried on the proud family tradition.

Soon chips were not just part of the Scottish diet, they became inextricably linked with the nation’s culture. The country’s most famous family, the legendary Broons have always been huge chip fans. Many of their cartoon strips in the Sunday Post end with the clan gathered round the table, hungrily devouring the contents of newspaper wrapped packages. In one adventure Granpaw Broon tells the family he is off to look after a friend’s van in the country. Thinking it is a caravan and peeved the old man has not invited them up to stay, they arrive en mass only to discover the van he is minding is actually a chip van.

On a more contemporary note, the family watch a celebrity chef on TV prepare a seafood platter and decide to try it, only to discover that it all costs too much. So, sticking with what they know, they opt for a good old fish supper instead. What better seafood platter is there anyway?

Less flatteringly, chips are also part of the national identity. Phrases like ‘the Glasgow Salad’ poke fun at eating habits, suggesting chips are the closest Scots ever come to eating vegetables.

When Julia died in 1902, Edward retired from the buster business and opened a boot repair shop in the city’s Lochee district, a job he continued until his death, from bronchitis and heart failure at the age of 79, in 1926.

Today, thanks to the march of urban redevelopment, the old Greenmarket is no more and there is nothing in the city to mark Edward de Gernier’s place in the culinary history of Scotland. Buster stalls are long gone, but many of the city’s chip shops still offer a pea-buster, and chips, despite the growing trend towards healthy eating, remain just as popular today as they were when they first arrived on Scottish shores.