Class Double Act: The History of Pie and Bovril

Chris Marshall
8 min readMay 2, 2023

This article was commisioned to be first published in Issue 15 of Nutmeg Magazine: The Scottish Football Periodical. Published March 2020.

You can subscribe to Nutmeg here.

It’s just hit quarter to three on a Saturday afternoon and I’m hungry. I’m always hungry at this time on a Saturday. Years of conditioning have meant that my arrival on the terraces is almost immediately followed with me putting the questions “Pie? Bovril?” to those around me. They are after all, to quote one of the country’s best-known fans’ websites, the “staple diet of Scottish football”. I have seen the devastation should one, or even both, drop to the floor; the joy and disappointment of that first bite; and, on one occasion, seen them sent flying towards an official after a disagreement about an offside decision. For many, myself included, no matchday experience can be complete without this humble pair, but how did they come to be so intrinsically linked with our national game and what is it about them that has seen them endure?

Given how ubiquitous they are to each other it is perhaps no surprise to learn that references to both in the newspaper archives come from the same time over 120 years ago. In the Friday, September 23, 1892 edition of the Glasgow Evening Post, an advert for a “Grand Football Match” at Ibrox promised “Bovril Served Hot”, accompanied by the sub-heading, “Guard yourself against the possibilities of the chill or cold by drinking Bovril.” A description that seemed to suggest a cup of Bovril, taken either before or after the match, could have the same kind of health-boosting properties that would be much later attributed to a bottle of Lucozade and a punnet of grapes.

The Ibrox chiefs hadn’t stopped there, though. In the same week an article in Scottish Referee boldly announced the news of “An Innovation” as cups of Bovril were to be accompanied by hot pies with Rangers secretary Mr. McAndrew accredited with “looking after the football public by placing within their reach refreshments of the best kind.” The spread at Ibrox was again gaining praise in a 1902 edition of the Dundee Evening Post with Bovril Hot Chocolate now available, “vended by a small army of boys smartly dressed in chef’s uniforms”. The drink was so popular in Glasgow’s south side that for a while one of the stands at Ibrox would become affectionately known as the Bovril Stand thanks to the large advertising presence within it. Bovril, along with the increasingly present scotch pie, had been a hit, with a further article in The Perthshire Advertiser from the same year proclaiming that the beverage “crowns the enjoyment [of a football match], with thrill- ing, warming, sustaining and invigorating comfort”. The marketeers had struck gold.

i realise at this point that for some, knowing both what Bovril is and what constitutes a Scottish football pie cannot necessarily be taken for granted. For those in the know, of whom I am sure there will be many, then view this next paragraph as a quick history lesson to help provide some further context.

Bovril is, in simple terms, a beef tea. However, to simplify it would be to undermine the complexity of this highly salted beef extract. Originally developed as a paste by Scotsman John Lawson Johnston in the 1870s, his Johnston’s Fluid Beef was created as a solution to the task of having to supply Napoleon III’s French army with one million cans of beef without having the meat to do so. It would prove to be a huge success and in 1889 the Bovril company was formed. The name Bovril translating itself to mean “strength of an ox”, derived from the first two letters of the word “Bovine” and the “vril” taken from the electromagnetically charged “Vril-ya”, a superior being in the Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel The Coming Race.

With the brand now established, it was often used to substitute meat during the war years and in the 1960s a granular form would hit the shelves to challenge more traditional stock-starter products. A recipe change by current owners Unilever in 2004 means that Bovril is now vegetar- ian friendly; however, the taste remains the same and it’s that product that still hits the terraces to this day.

The history of pies is far longer but in some ways much easier to surmise as the concept of producing portable and durable meals dates back tens of thousands of years. Even if we focus solely on the scotch pie, the quintessential match-day pastry, the date of first conception still remains fairly vague, with a consensus that they first appeared around 500 years ago, although whether they were first conceived in Scotland or England is still up for debate, much like all good Anglo-Scots origin stories.

Scotch pies are traditionally shaped into a round hot-water crust shell and then filled with mutton and highly spiced with pepper, each butcher and baker in turn having their own variations on the theme. This variety led to the announce- ment of the first ever World Scotch Pie Championships in 1999, founded by the Scotch Pie Club, an organisation itself formed just three years previously. The competition has grown considerably since, with over 500 products entered at the 20th anniversary judging across 11 categories, including Best Football Pie, and I am very fortunate that for a number of years now I have been part of these judging days as a result of my own pie obsession. It is also a commercial boon for any category winner. During an interview I conducted at the 2019 Awards, 2018 World Scotch Pie Champion Alan Pirie, from the tiny village of Newtyle in Fife, told of how the day after he won the World Championship he received an order for 8,000 of his winning pastries.

it hasn’t always been plain sailing for the scotch pie though, as a recipe from a 1940 edition of the Daily Mirror showed. With meat supplies diminished during the Second World War, homemakers were encouraged to substitute mutton for beef and stretch their protein rations out even further with the addition of a can of tomato soup. A part soup/part beef pie would certainly raise a few eyebrows on the terraces these days but the scotch pie is not the only pastry vying for real estate on the tastebuds of Scottish football fans. Steak, haggis, curry, macaroni, vegan and novelty offerings such as The Breakfast Pie, a full Scottish breakfast wrapped in pastry, are just some of the variations that can be found in kiosks across the country. But it is the legend of the Killie Pie that perhaps most endures. Ask a question about pies in Scotland, and almost everyone will tell tales of the Killie Pie, a marriage of steak and gravy that transcends the terraces and has made its way into Scottish popular culture. When asking a fan the question, “Who does the best pies?” it will be often answered with a strong “Kilmarnock” despite the respondent having sampled a mere handful of its contemporaries, if any at all. Buyer beware though, as the Killie Pie of today is not the same pie as at Rugby Park on Saturdays past. A 2016 trademark dispute between Kilmarnock FC and suppliers Brownings the Bakers (who originally produced the two-time Best Football Pie award winner) over the use of the word Killie meant that the original is no longer available, with the Ayrshire side since changing supplier. The rebranded “Kilmarnock Pie” from Browning’s remains readily available outside of the KA1 postcode, however, and can even be bought in some supermarkets as well as popping up at a number of non-league venues in the region. Pies in Scotland mean business.

As does Bovril, especially in a country where football is usually viewed through a shivering lens, and there are more than a few idiosyncrasies that keep what constitutes a good and bad Bovril distinct in the eyes of the consumer. For some, it isn’t complete without a few shakes of the pepper pot, done to add that little extra kick. For others there’s a kind of mas- ochism in getting a really poorly mixed beverage; the paste or powder forming a ridiculously salty gloop at the bottom of the cup which you can’t help but stick your finger in before inevitably recoiling. Whilst big stadiums have high pressure water taps and scientifically costed measurements to do the mixing for you, the real joy of a Bovril comes from drink- ing it from an open polystyrene cup on a freezing cold day, with the aroma visibly wafting across your cheeks and up your nostrils as you take those first few sips.

You can’t talk about the traditions of pie and Bovril without acknowledging what the potential future may hold. The battle that clubs face in ensuring that their ground is where fans spend their free time has never been more contested, not just in a sporting context but also when competing with lower cost, family friendly alterna- tives. In the 2018/19 Scotland Supporters Network Survey, both cheaper catering and the sale of alcohol featured amongst the top five most suggested improvements to the matchday experience and the presence of chips, burgers and hot dogs has long beena consideration. Whilst traditional tastes will always have their place, it’s fair to say this diversification can only help to appease fans’ demands. The same survey revealed that only 18% of them believed that Scottish football was committed to a “high-quality fan experience” — and catering will be a significant consideration within that. For clubs to ignore this feedback would be at best careless and at worst ignorant.

I suspect though, that despite the com- petition, these items with over 120 years of history will continue to endure. In a 2012 interview with the Harvard Press, John Allen, author of The Omnivorous Mind, said: “The taste, smell, and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back memories not just of eating food itself but also of place and setting.” It’s a state- ment that resonated with me as I thought about my own experiences on the terrace.

The exchange of coins, followed by a squirt of sauce and that first joyous bite. The solidifying of the grease that has dribbled down your thumb on a freezing December afternoon. Taking a couple of blows on a piping hot Bovril before taking the tiniest of sips to condition your mouth and then the inevitable scalding that will ruin your tongue for the days that follow. Those disappointments when the sold-out signs go up and the excitement you feel when striding towards an away-day pie hut you have been waiting all season for. For this fan at least, those old familiar feelings will never be replaced.

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Chris Marshall

Writer | Piehopper | Scottish Women’s Football Hype Man.