A Fishy Tale from Crail

May 9, 2014

“Iain Spink from Arbroath Smokies will be at the festival, so could you include a smoked fish recipe? Oh, and do try to mention the Crail capon if you can.” So read my rather intriguing brief from Crail Food Festival this year, and I have to confess to not having the first clue at that point what the “Crail capon” was. So I set sail on a little online fishing expedition in search of some piscine enlightenment.

crail capon weathervane

Literature on the subject of the Crail capon, it has to be said, was only available in minnow-sized proportions. The website of the Golf Hotel mentioned Crail’s “16th Century Tollbooth, with its 1520 Dutch bell and the Crail Capon (smoked haddock) weathervane.” Another source revealed the weathervane to be gold in colour.

Meanwhile, the BBC’s European Lifeline site explained: “The Tolbooth in the centre of the town has a characteristic tower and a European style roof, similar to buildings in Holland. A fish makes up part of its quirky weathervane as a reference to an old local delicacy called ‘Crail Capon’, which was split, dried haddock.”

However, to add a pinch of controversy to this fishy tale, I found an entry from the online Dictionary of the Scots Language, which claimed that the capon was “A haddock dried, but not split” (1808). In this same repository of ancient local knowledge, I also came across an excerpt of a poem by W. Tennant called Anster Fair, dating back to 1812, which mentions the eponymous capon:

“While, to augment his drowth, each to his jaws
A good Crail’s capon holds, at which he rugs and gnaws.”

A further reference, dated 1896, from A. J. G. Mackay’s A History of Fife and Kinross proffered the following definition: “A Crail Capon was a haddock smoked in the chimney-lum, the most plentiful kind of food in that remote quarter.”

The verdict? Well, it seems that everyone agrees the capon was a smoked haddock which hailed from Crail, and that it was worth “gnawing”, but opinion is possibly “split” (sorry!) on its precise fishy format.

After immersing myself – metaphorically speaking – in a sea of smoked fish during my research, I was feeling a tad peckish, so I popped down to our local fish counter to see what I could find by way of ingredients for the requested smoked fish recipe. Happily, there were shoals of tempting possibilities on the shelves, but I restricted myself to just four: smoked haddock fillet; conventional smoked salmon; Arbroath smoked salmon with crust of pepper, mustard seeds and dill; and Scottish salmon fillets. I set my sights on creating a seriously smoky fish pie…

seriously smoky fish pie

Seriously Smoky Fish Pie

Ingredients: serves 4–6 (depending on appetite!)

  • 6 large Rooster potatoes (peeled, sliced, boiled and mashed until smooth with milk and pepper to taste, plus a spoonful of crème fraiche if desired)
  • 2 skinless/boneless smoked haddock fillets (approx. 335g)
  • 2 fresh salmon fillets (approx. 240g) (rinse all four fillets and place them in an ovenproof dish with about a cup of milk – cover dish with lid or foil and cook for around 15–20 mins at about 180⁰C till fish flakes apart easily)
  • Small pack of smoked salmon, chopped into short strips (approx.250g)
  • Small pack of Arbroath smoked salmon, with or without crust (approx.125g)
  • Cheesy roux sauce, made using 1 heaped tbsp. of plain flour (approx. 40g), 40g of butter, approx. one pint of milk (including any milk left after cooking the fish in oven) and 6–8oz of Scottish cheddar (grated). NB: You can also add half a teaspoon of mustard to the sauce if your family are mustard maestros.
  • For the topping: 6oz of red Leicester cheese, grated


I popped the potatoes on to boil at the same time as I put the raw fish in the pre-heated oven to cook, as both took around 15–20mins. Meanwhile, I sliced the conventional smoked salmon into short strips, broke the Arbroath smoked salmon into smaller pieces and made the cheesy roux sauce in a non-stick saucepan on the hob.

Once the other fish came out of the oven, I poured the residual milk/fish juice into a jug (and added it to the cheese sauce). I left the fillets of fish in the bottom of the dish, breaking them up into small pieces then pouring half the cheese sauce over the layer of fish, spreading it out evenly.

Next step was to scatter the smoked salmon (both types) on top of the sauce, before adding the remaining half of the cheese sauce and smoothing it out over the second layer of fish.

I dropped small dollops of potato lightly over the top of the sauce layer and smoothed them gently flat to create a layer of potato over the whole pie. Finally, I sprinkled the Red Leicester cheese on top of the potato, and returned the dish to the oven for 15 mins or so, till the cheese was bubbling and beginning to crisp up. If your family are tomato fans then you might want to place slices of tomato on top of the cheese before putting the pie in the oven.

Happily, HunterGatherer appeared very impressed with the outcome – in fact he had three helpings one after another. Just imagine how good that pie could have been if only I’d had a Crail capon to put in it…


Author: Karen Elwis
Blog: Square Sparrow
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Twitter: @SquareSparrow

Iain Spinks will be bringing his Arbroath Smokies to Crail Festival’s Harbour Lunch on Sunday 15 June 2014.

arbroath smokies