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A History of Butchery and Butchers - National Butchers Week

It’s National Butchers Week! Which for us here at Campbells is like the Christmas of the butchery world. Except for actual Christmas, of course! To celebrate National Butchers Week we will be going through a short history of meat, the butchery trade, and also our own history as a family owned butcher and fishmonger dating back four generations and over 100 years. We are proud to have played a part in the history of butchery in Scotland, and also our range of Scottish Beef, Lamb, PorkPoultry, and Fish including highly prized Scotch Beef, Scotch Lamb, and Specially Selected Pork products.

So when did meat become part of our diets? When did butchery start? And how has butchery changed over time?

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When was meat first eaten?

This is a hard question, as the answer goes back much further before we kept historical records. However, we as people will have eaten meat long before cooking it which we can see today as our closest ape relative, the chimpanzee, regularly hunts for and eats raw meat. The archaeological evidence shows early humans began eating raw meat around 2.6 million years ago.

Eating meat actually played a very important role in early human development as meat is far more calorie dense than fruit, nuts, or root vegetables and takes a lot less time to chew. This in turn allowed for our brains to develop further due to a more nutrient rich diet. Another important aspect is that eating meat meant less chewing time, which in turn led to more spare time to focus on other activities that were not directly linked to hunting and gathering, which then resulted in cooking food. This ultimately meant that large teeth and jaws were no longer needed for chewing unprocessed food which may have led to other face and neck changes that allowed for the development of a much larger brain. It is around 1.9 million years ago that these changes began to be visible on the skeletons of early humans.

As for when these meat eating habits developed into what we know as butchery and meat eating today, the closest we can come to is what evidence there is of meat first being cooked as we know it, and how long ago this was.


When was meat first cooked?

Cooking is something that is shared across all diets and cultures. The act of cooking makes ingredients easier to digest, and kills off most harmful bacteria that can make people sick. For the first evidence of cooking it is worthwhile to find the first evidence of fires being controlled in some fashion. However, this is also a difficult topic as prehistoric evidence of fires is hard to come by and interpret. Evidence has been found in the Wonderwerk cave in South Africa of a fire from at least 1 million years ago that had burnt bone fragments around it which suggests an early form of cooking. However, the oldest remains of dedicated hearths only go as far back as 400,000 years ago.

The first evidence we have of cooking as we know it dates back to only 20,000 years ago in China. Pots were found with scorch and earth marks that showed these had been used for cooking. Ultimately, it is safe to say that eating meat has been a large part of human life for a very long time and has played an important part in the development of humans today.


When did butchery begin?

In the UK in 2003 during the development of the HS1 rail link a butchery site was found near Kent that dated back over 400,000 years ago. The skeleton of a prehistoric elephant, about twice the size of today’s African variety, was found with a variety of flint tools including some that were lodged in its ribcage. The flint tools were sharp and an ideal shape for cutting through flesh and hide, so it is accepted that this is a very early example of humans engaging in butchery for animal meat with specific tools.

The next stage of societal development from early human hunter-gatherer societies was the start of farming and animal husbandry taking over as food became scarcer. Rather than hunting for meat, humans found a way to keep animals in herds which saved time and energy from hunting. The domestication of animals was a long multi-generational process that began around 15,000 years ago and still continues to this day with animal farming and selective breeding. Some of the first animals to be domesticated were the wolf, whose descendants became the dogs we know today, and sheep. There is evidence of sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle having been kept as livestock around 10-11,000 years ago. During this time period butchery would have been part of the process of animal husbandry rather than a specific trade.


When did the first butchers start their trade?

Butchery in the Roman Era

During the Roman era, there is evidence of butchery existing as a specific trade. Before the Romans arrived in Britain the culling of domestic animals was still considered part of the process of individual families or small communities raising livestock for their own farming use as draft animals and food supply. As towns and villages began to grow that did not have the space for each household to keep livestock, so did the need for regular supplies of meat for larger populations.

Evidence of a Roman commercial farm and butchers dating back 1,700 years ago was recently found in Devon. The site included a pit filled with waste products which suggested only the prime cuts were sold, and archaeologists reckon if the animals had been butchered by local peasants every part would have been used. The evidence also showed that the animals had been culled at a much younger age than peasants would have as animals were often used for ploughing, which again suggested a commercial operation dedicated to selling prime meat. This is further backed up by the existence of a road nearby which would have been ideal for transporting goods to the local town.


Butchery in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages butchery became one of the oldest official trades and professions and one of the first to form professional guilds in Britain in 1272. There are also records of butchers forming organisations as far back as 975. It became increasingly important during this time period to maintain high levels of cleanliness to prevent outbreaks of disease, as well as perfecting the craft of both producing choice cuts of meat and also maximizing the amount of meat that could be processed. However, meat during this time period was generally reserved for the nobility and wealthy due to the cost. For the peasant class it was often illegal to hunt on land belonging to members of the aristocracy which led to frequent poaching, and larger animals kept as livestock were not practical to slaughter regularly except for special occasions. Punishments for mislabeled or poor quality meat sold by butchers were severe, in an early if albeit violent form of product regulation.


Butchery in the Victorian Era

Eating meat became popular across all sections of society during the Victorian era. Increased urbanisation meant that people as a whole became more dependent on butchers and butcher shops, and the cost of meat was relatively far lower than it had been in previous generations. A lot of the cuts and roasting joints still used today began to appear, and there were products that could be sold for all budgets. Salted fat and bones were popular among the poorer members of society to add flavour and much needed calories to soups and stews, as well as the cheapest cuts of meat available, while the wealthy often indulged in roasting joints, the larger the better. The lack of fridges meant that a trip to the butcher’s shop was a regular occurrence for most and combined with all of the above, butchers were busier than ever.


Modern Butchery

Modern butchery has also gone through multiple changes in a short space of time. The First and Second World War changed how butchers could operate due to rationing and changes in demand. In particular, the latter increased the output of pies and sausages that butchers produced as these required less meat to be used in making them. There was still a need for butchers and butcher shops however, as this was still the only place where meat could be sold. After the Second World War another period of industrialization occurred in order to reduce the need for foreign imports. Unfortunately, this also led to the closures of many butcher shops as meat became cheaper and readily available on supermarket shelves.
More recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in the trade and craft of butchery. A growing movement of people want to step away from products that have been mass produced by larger corporations in favour of a higher quality more bespoke product. Interest in developing sustainable food systems and reducing food miles, as well as the products that can be made in the U.K, has resulted in a new enthusiasm for local butchers.


The History of Campbells

The history of Campbells Prime Meat spans over 100 years and begins when a very young Thomas Campbell started his trade as a butcher on Castle Street in Edinburgh, 1910. He quickly became a master of his trade and after only a few short years the first Campbells butcher shop opened on Edinburgh’s Queen Street in 1915. In between this time one of his sons, John, developed the Campbell family haggis recipe in 1911 which is the same recipe we still use today and is a closely guarded secret.

In 1925 three of Thomas Campbell’s sons took over the business with plans to expand upon their father’s previous work while putting his dedication to quality, freshness and craftsmanship at the heart of Campbells as a business, something we still do today. Thirty five years later, in 1957, the business was passed on to Edward and Hector. In 1958 Hector created a new opportunity for Campbells. As well as providing excellent quality products for the general public to enjoy at home, Campbells gained a reputation for providing the highest quality ingredients to some of the best hotels and restaurants in Scotland. We still supply some of these establishments generations later, and continue to provide the finest ingredients for top hotels and restaurants in Scotland to this day including those with Michelin stars. In 1964 Hector passed away and the Campbells shop was sold to another company while Edward continued as Managing Director.

In 1972 Edward Campbell then began his own business under the banner of Campbells Prime Meat Ltd. Starting with only two vans and six men, this company continued to supply restaurants and hotels as this became the main focus of the business. After 10 years, and a few Michelin star clients along the way, Campbells moved to a bigger premises in the West of Edinburgh. This was not for long though, as after only another ten years the company moved again to a bigger site in 1992. At this point French, Italian, and Spanish delicatessen products were added to the Campbells product lines. Shortly after in 1994 the Campbells Gold range was created and officially approved by Scottish Food Quality Certification. Campbells Gold products are made from the finest Scotch Beef, from grass fed cattle that have been born, raised, and processed right here in Scotland. The meat is then dry hung for 21 days for a truly spectacular product that can be found on the menu of some of the top places to eat in Scotland.

In 2000, Campbells also became a fishmonger as well as a butcher and delicatessen. Supplying the finest quality fish landed in Scotland, this became one of the most important aspects of the business. 2003 marked the start of the online presence of Campbells with the launch of the first ever website. This allowed for the general public to purchase Campbells products for the first time in 40 years. In 2006 Edward retired and the business was passed on to our current Managing Director, Christopher. Under his leadership the company grew even further into the largest butchers in Scotland. Unfortunately a terrible fire in 2009 meant that the company had to move premises once more to where we are today in Linlithgow. This site was even bigger than the last one, and meant that Campbells could continue to grow as a business. To this day, the Campbells name represents the values of original master butcher, Thomas Campbell. With Scotland’s finest master butchers and fishmongers using only the highest quality produce, his legacy of expertise lives on not only in the homes of our customers, but in some of the country’s best restaurants.

At Campbells we want to provide the same quality that you would find in a craft butcher, fishmonger, and delicatessen but with the convenience of being able to order online for delivery to your door.
We are still family owned, and proud to bring four generations of expertise to your table.