Foraging Scotland: A complete guide 2023

Written by Chris Thornton | 17th of May 2023
Foraging Scotland

Living in Scotland for most of my life, I've become accustomed to all of the wild foods available near my home at different times of the year. From wild raspberries and brambles to mushrooms and seaweed - even the common stinging nettle can be edible... after some preparation!

Let's investigate edible plants in Scotland and discover the rules behind foraging.

What is foraging?

Foraging, the ancient practice of gathering food from the wild is deeply woven into the fabric of human history. It's a skill that has been passed down through generations and continues to hold relevance even in our modern, industrialised world. This is particularly true in Scotland, a land renowned for its rich and varied natural larder.

Understanding the Scottish Landscape for Foraging

To appreciate the full potential of foraging in Scotland, it's essential to understand the remarkable diversity of its landscapes. Each region and terrain type offers a distinct palette of forageable foods influenced by a combination of climate, soil, and seasons.

  1. Highlands: The Scottish Highlands are a forager's paradise, with heather-clad mountains, deep glens, and vast lochs. The acidic soil here is perfect for various berries, such as blaeberries (also known as bilberries) and raspberries. Heather flowers, too, are a common sight and can be used to make honey, tea, and even ale.

  2. Lowlands: The Lowlands offer a stark contrast to the rugged Highlands. Their fertile soils yield a different variety of fruits, including wild strawberries and elderberries. The vast stretches of woodlands are also home to several mushroom species like chanterelles and Ceps.

  3. Coastline: Scotland's coastline, a mix of sandy beaches and rocky shores, is incredibly rich in edible marine life. Seaweeds like kelp, dulse, and sea lettuce are common and can be used in various dishes. Shellfish, such as mussels, cockles, and razor clams, can also be foraged at low tide.

  4. Forests and Woodlands: Scotland's forests are not just a haven for a variety of mushrooms but also for other edibles like wild garlic, nettles, and sorrel. The fruit and nut trees found in these woodlands, such as hazel and wild cherry, also provide a bounty for the knowledgeable forager.

Elderberries in Scotland.
Clusters of elderberries can be found all over Scotland.

Seasonal sustenance

The changing seasons bring with them a shift in the foraging calendar. Spring offers young nettles, wild garlic, and the first of the mushrooms. Summer is the season of berries and fruits, while autumn sees a second flush of mushrooms and the ripening of various nuts. Even winter, often perceived as a barren season, offers its own treasures, such as wintergreen and preserved fruits.

Understanding the landscapes and the seasonality of foraging not only helps to locate and identify edible species but also deepens our appreciation of Scotland's natural environment and its inherent cycles. Foraging is a way of tuning into these rhythms, something that has been lost in this modern world of fast food.

Brambles in Scotland.
Wild brambles near my home in Scotland.

What are the most popular forageable foods in Scotland?

Fruits and berries

Due to their sweetness and accessibility, fruits are Scotland's most popular forageable foods. I have two apple trees in my garden; one produces cooking apples and the other "eating" apples. The cooking variety, or "crab apples", are perfect for making into jams and pies, but should not be eaten directly as they aren't very sweet. The regular variety is sweeter and can be eaten straight from the tree when ripe.

Crab apples in Scotland
Big juicy crab apples, perfect for apple pies.

Other trees very common in my locality and around Scotland are plum, pear, and wild cherry trees, which develop small red cherries that look tasty but are actually very sour.

Pear tree fruit in Scotland.
Pear trees.
Plums in Scotland
Some delicious plumbs.

Short walks from my home can yield wild brambles (blackberries), often found around paths and roadsides. It's possible to find wild raspberries, strawberries, rosehips and elderberries.

In my locality, it's also possible to find juniper berries, rowan, sloe, cherry, hawthorn, bilberries, sweet chestnuts, and pine nuts.

Rosehips Scotland.
Parts of these rosehip fruits are edible.

Wild mushrooms

The damp climate and rich woodland soils of Scotland are ideal for mushrooms. Varieties like Chanterelles, known for their delicate flavour, and Ceps (also known as Porcini), famed for their robust, nutty taste, are abundant. Foraging for mushrooms requires particular care due to the risk of poisonous look-alikes.

Here are some of the edible varieties of mushrooms:

  1. Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius): Known for their delicate flavour and bright yellow colour, Chanterelles are a favourite among foragers (my mum loves them!).

  2. Porcini (Boletus edulis): Also known as Ceps, these mushrooms are renowned for their robust, nutty flavour.

  3. Penny Bun (Boletus badius): Similar to Porcini, these are also very flavourful and can be found in mixed woodlands.

  4. Hedgehog Mushroom (Hydnum repandum): Named for their unique, spine-like gills, these mushrooms have a sweet and nutty flavour.

  5. Amethyst Deceiver (Laccaria amethystina): These small, violet mushrooms are edible but should be cooked before eating.

  6. Field Mushroom (Agaricus campestris): Similar to the cultivated white button mushroom, these are common in grassy areas. This is the most commonly eaten mushroom.

  7. Wood Blewit (Lepista nuda): Known for its violet tint and intense flavour, these mushrooms are a great find in the autumn and winter.

  8. Shaggy Ink Cap (Coprinus comatus): These mushrooms are edible when young, and their gills are still white. It must be eaten while still young and fresh.

  9. Morel (Morchella esculenta): Highly prized for their honeycomb-like appearance and rich flavour, Morels are a forager's delight.

  10. Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea): These large, spherical mushrooms can be found in meadows and fields and are delicious when young and the inside is still white.

Remember, while foraging can be rewarding, it's crucial to be 100% certain of a mushroom's identity before consuming it. Some mushrooms can be very similar in appearance to toxic varieties, so always exercise caution. If you're new to foraging, consider joining a guided tour or workshop to gain knowledge from experienced foragers.

Chantrelles in Scotland.
A beautiful harvest of chantrelle mushrooms.
Mushroom harvest. Edible fungi. Oyster Mushrooms.
A general harvest of mushrooms.

Coastal foraging in Scotland

Scotland's vast and diverse coastline offers a wealth of foraging opportunities. Stretching over 10,000 miles, the coast encompasses everything from long, sandy beaches to rocky shores and tidal estuaries to remote islands, each with its unique abundance of edible marine life. Coastal foraging, or seashore foraging, is the practice of collecting these wild foods.

  1. Seaweeds: Seaweeds are among the most abundant and accessible coastal foods. Varieties like kelp, dulse, and sea lettuce are rich in nutrients, including iodine, iron, and vitamin C. They can be used in a range of dishes, from soups and salads to stir-fries and even as a seasoning. Seaweed foraging should always be done responsibly, taking care not to uproot the entire plant but to leave enough for it to continue growing.

  2. Shellfish: Scotland's clean waters are home to a variety of shellfish. Mussels, cockles, and razor clams can be collected at low tide. Remember, however, that shellfish can be susceptible to harmful algal blooms, so it's essential to check local notices for any warnings before collecting. Also, some specific areas may have restrictions on shellfish collection, so always ensure you're following local rules and regulations.

  3. Samphire and Sea Buckthorn: These coastal plants are both edible and nutritious. Samphire, also known as sea asparagus, has a crunchy texture and a salty flavour, while sea buckthorn berries are tart but high in vitamin C.

  4. Coastal Plants and Herbs: Many plants that grow along the coastline are edible. Sea beet, sea kale, and sea purslane are just a few examples. These can add unique flavours and textures to meals.

Coastal foraging also comes with its own safety considerations. Always be aware of the tides to avoid being cut off, and be cautious of slippery or unstable surfaces. Ensure you have suitable footwear and clothing, and it's always a good idea to let someone know where you're going if you're foraging alone.

Kelp seaweed. National Nature Reserve (NNR).
Kelp growing at Portsoy harbour.

Other wild foods/wild plants

While berries, seaweeds, and mushrooms may be the most recognised forageable foods in Scotland, the country's diverse landscapes are home to an array of other wild edibles. These often-overlooked gems offer unique flavours and nutritional benefits and can add a touch of the wild to a variety of dishes. Here are some notable examples:

  1. Wild Garlic (Allium ursinum): Wild garlic is a springtime favourite known as ramsons. Its pungent aroma and flavour are less harsh than its cultivated counterpart, and both the leaves and flowers are edible and can be used in soups, pestos, and salads.

  2. Nettles (Urtica dioica): Despite their sting, nettles are a nutritious and versatile wild food. They are often harvested in spring and can be used to make soup, tea, or a spinach-like side dish. Always wear gloves when picking!

  3. Sorrel (Rumex acetosa): Wood sorrel leaves add a tangy, lemony flavour to salads and soups. This perennial plant is commonly found in grasslands and woodlands.

  4. Hazel Nuts (Corylus avellana): Found in woodlands, hazel nuts ripen in the late summer and autumn. They are enjoyed by wildlife and foragers alike and can be eaten raw, roasted, or used in various dishes.

  5. Wild Cherries (Prunus avium): These small, sweet fruits ripen in the summer and can be found in woodlands and hedgerows. They can be eaten fresh or used in pies, jams, and liqueurs.

  6. Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides): This coastal plant produces bright orange berries that are tart in flavour and high in vitamin C. They can be used in sauces, juices, and jellies.

  7. Samphire (Crithmum maritimum): Also known as sea asparagus, samphire grows in salt marshes and on rocky coastlines, with a crunchy texture and a salty taste and is often served with fish or pickled.

  8. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale): Often dismissed as a weed, dandelion leaves can be used in salads or as a cooked green, and the flowers can be used to make wine.

  9. Gorse (Ulex europaeus): These spiky shrubs, often seen at the roadside or on coastal paths, are covered in bright yellow flowers, which can be used for a variety of different things. The petals smell lovely, giving off a coconut scent which can be turned into salad dressing, syrup, jam or brewed into a lovely herbal tea. Good luck harvesting some among all those spikes!

  10. Wild Leeks (Allium tricoccum): Also sometimes named "Ramp", wild leeks look a bit like scallions but are smaller and have flat, broad leaves. They have a similar onion taste to "proper" leeks, but they are stronger and have hints of garlic. Leave the bulbs in the ground for a more sustainable harvest.

Again, the golden rule of foraging is always to be sure of what you are picking. Some plants have poisonous look-alikes, so using a reliable guidebook or foraging with an experienced guide is essential. For example, wild cherry berries can look very similar to poisonous rowan berries.

Nettles in Scotland. Scotland's woodlands.
A large cluster of stinging nettles. They actually smell lovely and can be made into soup and tea.
Gorse bushes in full bloom.
These gorse flowers can be turned into tea and jam, it smells lovely.
Dandelions are edible and nice in salads. I like to leave them for the bees though.

Which foragable foods are poisonous in Scotland?

There are many plants, berries and fungi in Scotland that are harmful or even deadly to humans if consumed. Here is a list of just a few poisonous examples of plants, mushrooms and berries:

Poisonous Plants

  1. Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea): Although beautiful, foxgloves are highly toxic. All parts of the plant contain cardiac glycosides, which can disrupt heart function if ingested.

  2. Hemlock (Conium maculatum): Both water hemlock and poison hemlock are highly toxic. Even small amounts can cause respiratory failure and death.

  3. Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna): This plant is highly toxic, and its dark berries can be especially attractive to children. Ingestion can cause delirium, hallucinations, and other nervous system symptoms.

Poisonous Mushrooms

  1. Death Cap (Amanita phalloides): This is one of the most poisonous mushrooms in the world. Eating a single death cap can be deadly.

  2. Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa): Similar to the death cap, the destroying angel is highly toxic and can be fatal if consumed.

  3. Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria): Recognisable by its bright red cap with white spots, this mushroom is not deadly but can cause severe poisoning.

Poisonous Berries

  1. Yew Berries (Taxus baccata): The seeds inside yew berries are highly toxic, although the red flesh of the berry itself is not.

  2. Belladonna Berries: Also known as Deadly Nightshade, the berries are highly toxic and can be fatal if consumed.

  3. Holly Berries (Ilex aquifolium): These berries can cause vomiting, diarrhoea, and other symptoms if eaten.

This short list scratches the surface of harmful plants in Scotland, so be very careful when choosing what to eat.

Cotoneaster berries
Cotoneaster berries are not edible despite looking very attractive.
Rowan berries Scotland
Rowan berries cannot be eaten from the tree, but can be processed into jam, syrup and wine.

Beware of the Giant Hogweed

Something to be careful of while on your foraging adventures is the giant hogweed plant. If this plant is broken, it excretes a harmful sap that can cause severe burns or even blindness.

Giant hogweed in Scotland.
Giant hogweed: beware of this plant, and definitely don't eat it!

Legal Framework around Foraging in Scotland

Foraging in Scotland, as with any activity that interacts with the environment, is subject to certain rules and regulations. These are designed to protect the country's natural resources, ensure public safety, and maintain the rights of landowners.

Under the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, harvesting wild plants or fungi from areas designated as National Nature Reserves (NNRs) or Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) is prohibited by law.

Specifically, the Code states that foraging is generally permitted as long as it is for personal, non-commercial use. Foragers should only take as much as they need and no more than they will use. It is also emphasised that rare or protected species should not be picked, and habitats should not be damaged in the foraging process.

Foraging in Scotland is a legally accepted practice, but it must be carried out responsibly, respecting nature, landowners, and other people's interests.

History of foraging in Scotland

Long before the advent of agriculture, our ancestors relied on foraging as a primary means of subsistence. The land we now know as Scotland was no different, with its diverse ecosystems providing a wealth of wild foods to the people who lived there.

Around 10,000 to 4000 BC, Scotland was populated by hunter-gatherer communities in the Mesolithic period. Archaeological evidence from this period reveals a diet rich in wild resources. They would have followed the rhythms of the seasons, moving around the landscape to exploit different resources as they became available.

At ancient sites such as the settlement of Skara Brae in Orkney (3180 BC to about 2500 BC), middens or "ancient waste heaps" were discovered to contain many foraged items. These included mussels, cockles, oysters, fruits and nuts.

Foraging was an essential part of the food chain for thousands of years in Scotland, but the foods and skills are unfortunately mostly forgotten in modern times. This is perhaps one of the reasons why many people are overweight, as in modern times, we no longer live by the natural cycles of the seasons. So, for example, we can now access fruits and sugars at all times of the year.

Wild edible plants. Safely identify before consuming.
Just a few of the wild edible plants.

FAQs on foraging in Scotland

Here are a few frequently asked questions about foraging in Scotland.

Is it legal to forage in Scotland?

Yes, it is legal to forage in Scotland. The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 allows for public access to most land and inland water for recreational and other purposes, which includes foraging. However, foraging must be done responsibly and in accordance with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code.

What can I forage in Scotland?

Scotland's diverse landscapes offer a wide variety of wild foods to forage. This includes mushrooms, berries, nuts, wild greens, seaweeds, and shellfish. The types of food available for foraging will depend on the season and the specific location.

What are the benefits of wild food?

The main benefits are:

  • No artificial ingredients, pesticides, or genetic modifications are used in foraged food.

  • A higher nutritional value than cultivated food, packed with vitamins and minerals.

  • Wild food is full of antioxidants providing significant health benefits.

  • Unique flavours you may not normally experience.

St John's Wort Oil
Oil made from the flowers of St John's Wort.

Are foraged foods clean enough to eat?

Use your judgement, but generally, it's best to collect your foraged food, take it home, and give it a good wash in a colander to remove any insects (unless you want additional protein!). The cleanest foods will be away from busy roads and dog walking routes.

Do any local Scottish restaurants use foraged food?

Alvie Forest Food, just south of Aviemore, sources many of its ingredients from the local estate. Their food is absolutely lovely. Check it out at the Dalraddy Holiday Park.

Which books are recommended for wild foraging in Scotland?

When is the best time to go foraging in Scotland?

Foraging can be done throughout the year in Scotland, with different foods available in different seasons. Spring brings wild garlic and nettles, summer is the time for berries and seaweeds, autumn offers a bounty of mushrooms and nuts, and even winter has its offerings like gorse flowers. Watch out for midges in the spring and summer months.

How much can I forage?

The Scottish Outdoor Access Code states that foraging should be for personal, non-commercial use. You should only take as much as you need and no more than you will use. It's also essential not to over-harvest and leave enough for wildlife and plants to reproduce.

Can I sell the wild foods I forage?

According to the Scottish Outdoor Access Code, foraging should be for personal use, not commercial. Selling foraged foods could have legal implications and negative impacts on local ecosystems if it leads to over-harvesting.

Are there any restrictions on where I can forage?

While the right to roam allows for public access to most land in Scotland, some areas may restrict foraging. These include nature reserves, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), and private gardens. Always check local rules and signage; if in doubt, ask the landowner for permission.

Can I help myself to fruit on trees?

It depends. If the trees are within a garden, then it's not good manners to just help yourself without asking first. If you are in wild areas of Scotland, it should be fine to take some fruit but check the rules for the areas you visit.

Scottish pear
Another variety of pear available in Scotland.

Do you get "magic mushrooms" in Scotland?

Yes, magic mushrooms - Liberty Caps - grow in Scotland, but it has been illegal to pick, prepare, eat or sell since 2005 and are now classed as a class A drug. Consuming these mushrooms causes intense hallucinations due to the active ingredient of psilocybin and psilocin.

Despite the bad rap these mushrooms have received over the years, new research has shown positive applications in treating chronic depression and PTSD.

Are there any foraging courses available?

Yes, check out Galloway Wild Foods in Dumfries & Galloway for a coastal foraging course or Wildwood Bushcraft near Fort William. Backcountry Survival offers a one-day foraging course near Aviemore for only £80, which is excellent value.

Foraging with kid's

Introducing your children to the art of foraging can serve as a fascinating gateway to the natural world, offering them a hands-on education about the environment and their place within it. This engaging activity not only piques their curiosity but also broadens their understanding of their surroundings.

My daughter Lauren loved picking Brambles at Loch Na Bo last year. They were far too sour for me, but she loved them!

Loch Na Bo brambles
Lauren picking brambles at Loch Na Bo.

I got stung by a nettle; how can I make it feel better?

Look for a dock leaf, fold and squish it up, and apply the juice to the nettle sting for relief.

Key information on foraging in Scotland

  • Foraging is a popular activity in Scotland, with its rich biodiversity providing abundant wild foods to collect.

  • The Scottish landscape varies from forests and moorlands to coastal areas, each offering different forageable foods.

  • Popular forageable foods include berries, mushrooms, nuts, wild herbs, and greens.

  • Some notable edible mushrooms in Scotland are Chanterelles, Ceps, and Hedgehog Fungus.

  • Other wild foods include seaweed, shellfish, gorse flowers, and samphire.

  • The Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 generally allows foraging, but certain protected areas like National Nature Reserves or Sites of Special Scientific Interest have restrictions.

  • Foraging should always be done responsibly and sustainably, taking only what is needed and ensuring the species' survival and their habitats.

  • Coastal foraging is a unique activity in Scotland, with various edible resources like seaweeds, shellfish, samphire, and other coastal plants.

  • Wild foods offer numerous benefits, including high nutritional value, unique flavours, sustainability, and fostering a connection with nature.

  • Ancient foraging practices in Scotland involved the collection of seashore resources, fruits, nuts, wild greens, and roots, highlighting a deep-rooted tradition of living off the land.

  • It's crucial to ensure safety when foraging, being aware of poisonous species, and adhering to local laws and regulations.

Foraging basket. Collect wild plants.
A bountiful foraging basket.

Conclusion - Scotland's wild larder

Foraging in Scotland offers a unique and enjoyable way to connect with nature while discovering the diverse and delicious wild foods the landscape offers.

Plenty of foods are not mentioned in this article (I'm already at 3500 words!); you could honestly write an entire book on foraging. I hope you have a taste of what the Scottish landscape can offer you; why not try some of the fantastic wild food Scotland has to offer?

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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