Shepherd’s Pie: A Culinary Journey Through History and Origins

Keywords: shepherd’s pie, Irish dish, history, origin, Scotland, England, potato, cottage pie, lamb, mutton


Shepherd’s pie, a comforting and hearty dish, has captured the hearts and stomachs of people around the world. But have you ever wondered where this iconic dish originated? Is it truly an Irish creation, or does it have Scottish roots? This article delves into the fascinating history of shepherd’s pie, exploring its origins, evolution, and variations across different cultures.

The Origins of Shepherd’s Pie: A Culinary Mystery

The exact origin of shepherd’s pie remains shrouded in mystery. While both Ireland and Scotland lay claim to this culinary treasure, the truth likely lies in a combination of factors and influences.

The Role of the Potato:

The introduction of the potato to Ireland and Scotland in the 16th century played a pivotal role in the development of shepherd’s pie. This versatile and affordable vegetable provided the perfect base for a hearty and filling dish, especially for the working class.

The Humble Cottage Pie:

The earliest documented reference to a dish resembling shepherd’s pie appeared in England in 1791. This dish, known as “cottage pie,” consisted of a meat filling topped with mashed potatoes and was likely a resourceful way to utilize leftover meat.

The Rise of Shepherd’s Pie:

The term “shepherd’s pie” first surfaced in Scotland in 1849. Initially used interchangeably with cottage pie, it gradually became associated with the use of lamb or mutton, reflecting the traditional occupation of shepherds.

The Irish Connection:

While both Scotland and England have strong claims to shepherd’s pie’s origin, Ireland’s historical context strengthens its connection to the dish. The widespread poverty in Ireland during the 18th and 19th centuries made lamb and mutton more affordable than beef, making it a staple ingredient in Irish cuisine.

The Evolution of Shepherd’s Pie: A Culinary Tapestry

Over the centuries, shepherd’s pie has undergone numerous transformations, reflecting regional preferences and culinary creativity.

Variations in Meat:

While lamb and mutton remain the traditional choices for shepherd’s pie, variations using beef, pork, or even vegetarian alternatives have emerged.

The Crust Debate:

The traditional mashed potato topping has been challenged by other options, including pastry crusts and even a combination of both.

International Influences:

The basic concept of shepherd’s pie has inspired similar dishes worldwide, with variations incorporating local ingredients and flavors.

Shepherd’s Pie Today: A Global Comfort Food

Today, shepherd’s pie continues to be a beloved dish, enjoyed in homes and restaurants worldwide. Its versatility, affordability, and comforting flavors have made it a culinary staple, transcending borders and cultures.

Conclusion: A Culinary Legacy

Shepherd’s pie’s origins may remain a culinary mystery, but its legacy as a comforting and delicious dish is undeniable. From its humble beginnings as a resourceful meal to its global popularity, shepherd’s pie has woven its way into the fabric of culinary history, leaving a lasting mark on our taste buds and cultural traditions.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is shepherd’s pie Scottish or Irish?

Both Scotland and Ireland have strong claims to shepherd’s pie’s origin. While the earliest documented reference to a similar dish appeared in England as “cottage pie,” the term “shepherd’s pie” first emerged in Scotland. However, Ireland’s historical context and traditional use of lamb and mutton strengthen its connection to the dish.

What is the difference between shepherd’s pie and cottage pie?

Traditionally, shepherd’s pie is made with lamb or mutton, while cottage pie is made with beef. However, the terms are often used interchangeably, and variations using other meats or vegetarian alternatives are common.

What are some popular variations of shepherd’s pie?

Variations of shepherd’s pie include using different meats, such as beef, pork, or vegetarian alternatives, incorporating different vegetables, and using different crusts, such as pastry or a combination of mashed potato and pastry.

What are some international dishes similar to shepherd’s pie?

Dishes similar to shepherd’s pie can be found worldwide, including pastel de papas in Chile and Argentina, pâté chinois in Canada, and pastel tutup in Indonesia. These dishes share the basic concept of a meat filling topped with a mashed potato crust.


Shepherd’s pie is a culinary journey through history, reflecting the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and cultural influences that have shaped its evolution. From its humble origins as a resourceful meal to its global popularity, shepherd’s pie continues to be a beloved dish, reminding us of the power of simple ingredients and the enduring appeal of comfort food.

The Arrival of the Potato

is shepherds pie scottish or irish

It is impossible to pinpoint the exact creator of the baked dish that is now known as shepherd’s pie.

The English naturalist Sir Thomas Harriot returned from Sir Walter Raleigh’s colony in North Carolina in 1586, bringing with him one of the botanical treasures of the New World – potatoes. Cited in his A Briefe and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia as “Openavk,” they were described as being very good when “boiled or sodden.”

About three years later, Raleigh is credited with bringing potatoes to Ireland. Meanwhile, according to some other sources, potatoes were brought to Britain by Sir Francis Drake around the same time he returned from his circumnavigation of the world.

The British Isles’ soil and climate were ideal for cultivating the imported tuber. Consequently, as the 17th century approached in England and Ireland, the potato started to gain popularity. However, resistance to the new food imports persisted throughout Europe, and it would take until the 1700s for the potato to become a mainstay of the English diet.

READ MORE: The Irish Famine

is shepherds pie scottish or irish

People have always sought to maximize the nutritional value of their food, going all the way back to prehistoric times and our days as hunter-gatherers. To ensure that nothing went to waste and to prevent spoiling, food was packed in ice and snow, buried underground, sunk in icy streams, or wrapped in straw.

For the impoverished, knowing how to use leftover food is especially important. Making the most of what you have is crucial when your capacity to acquire more is limited.

So it was in the cottages of the British Isles. Later meals would be made with the leftover meat from the weekend roast, and the arrival of potatoes provided a particularly satisfying way to do it.

This leftover meat could be minced and used to make a pie, with mashed potatoes serving as the topping crust. To further improve the pie, any available vegetables, such as carrots, peas, or onions, could also be added in a layer beneath the potatoes.

The result was something affordable, simple, and hearty. It was the perfect dinner choice for the hardworking farmers and laborers of the British Isles; a pie for the impoverished in their cottages, which is how it got its name, “cottage pie.” ”.

is shepherds pie scottish or irish

It’s hard to say exactly when this particular dish was created or when it spread. It’s clear that it occurred after potatoes were brought over and planted, but we’re not sure how long it took for the notion of the comforting meat and potato pie to catch on.

We are aware that Reverend James Woodforde of Norfolk’s Diary of a Country Parson from 1791 contains the earliest mention of it. An invaluable look at the day-to-day activities of life in the late 18th century can be gained from Woodforde’s diary, a meticulous recorder of everyday details such as the weather, illnesses, meals, and other minutia from the community.

The Reverend had “Cottage-Pye and rost Beef” on August 29, 1791, according to Volume 13 of his diary. Although it is unlikely that Woodforde invented the term—given his meticulous writing style, he most likely would have mentioned doing so—this is the dish’s name as it has been documented.

However, it appears that the dish’s name wasn’t always consistent. Author Maria Rundell included a brief description of a recipe for something called “Sanders” in her 1806, A New System of Domestic Cookery: Formed Upon Principles of Economy; and Adapted to the Use of Private Families. The recipe called for mashed potatoes over minced beef or mutton, which sounds a lot like cottage pie.

Rundell had lived in Shropshire, in Western England near Wales, while Reverend Woodforde ate his “cottage-pye” in Norfolk, on the Eastern coast. Her cookbook was published when she was about 60 years old, meaning her introduction to the dish she knew as Sanders could have come years before the Reverend’s meal.

That suggests that Sanders may have been a local term for cottage pie or that it was an old term that was about to be replaced by the more modern name. In any case, it proves that the dish was being made throughout the British Isles and was discovered in several locations throughout England.

Cottage Pie vs Shepherd’s Pie

is shepherds pie scottish or irish

The Practice of Cookery and Pastry, an Edinburgh, Scotland cookbook published in 1849, is where the name “shepherd’s pie” first appeared. As previously mentioned, the terms “cottage pie” and “shepherd’s pie” have been used interchangeably throughout history, and it appears that this instance is no exception. It was specifically mentioned that any type of minced meat could be used.

Interestingly, a later English cookbook – Kettner’s Book of the Table, published in 1877 – also makes mention of shepherd’s pie and refers to it as a Scottish variation of Irish stew. While this is possible, this citation may refer to a specific variant that included a wheat-flour pastry crust on top of the mashed potatoes (something which the English cookbook denounced as too starchy).

Although lamb or mutton were the customary meats used in Irish stew, this reference did not specifically state that they were used in the shepherd’s pie. This leads one to believe that those particular meats were starting to set a shepherd’s pie apart from a cottage pie in the minds of people.

Additionally, traditionally, the potato topping for cottage pies was slices rather than mashed. However, this isn’t always the case; both shepherd’s pies and cottage pies have been made using either method.

However, a lot of sources still appear to use the terms synonymously. Shepherd’s pie is still frequently made today, but instead of the more traditional lamb, other meats like beef or pork are sometimes used.

is shepherds pie scottish or irish

The history, economies, and politics of the two nations provide the answer to why cottage pie is more strongly associated with England while shepherd’s pie is almost exclusively associated with Ireland, given the hazy histories of both dishes and their frequent interchangeability.

Following a century of turbulent political entanglements between the two nations, English King Henry VIII embarked on a national quest to retake Ireland. By the start of the 17th century, this would become a reality, and widespread colonization and land confiscation would follow.

Ireland would develop into a nation of tenant farmers during the 17th and 18th centuries, producing food for mainly absentee English landlords. Ireland would thus continue to live in abject poverty for many years to come.

As we’ve seen, the English and Scottish also relied on variations of the straightforward meat-and-potato pie, so the frugality this required wasn’t exclusive to Ireland, but the Irish had fewer resources.

Lamb and mutton were inexpensive meats, as compared to beef. It is for this reason that they were a staple in Irish stews and shepherd’s pies, while the British version—where people were more likely to be able to afford beef—became known more popularly as cottage pie.

This was not, of course, a sharp delineation. There was still room for interpretation regarding the distinction between the two dishes, and there were far more options than just selecting between lamb and beef. Nevertheless, due to the general economic circumstances of the two nations, shepherd’s pie (known as Pióg an aoire in Irish) was more common in Ireland than in other parts of the British Isles, with lamb cottage pie being a staple in those regions.

Classic Shepherd’s Pie | Gordon Ramsay


Where did shepherds pie originate from?

United Kingdom
While Shepherd’s Pie came out as one of the best ways to deal with the leftovers, the results were also delicious. After that, it became one of the most sought-after dishes in the two countries. Since Ireland and the United Kingdom had such a long union, both of them claim the origin of the Shepherd’s Pie.

What is the difference between Irish and British shepherd’s pie?

It’s called cottage pie in the U.K. because they use beef and in Ireland since the shepherds tend sheep, it’s shepherd’s pie. No doubt, the English put out an excellent cottage pie, but in Ireland it used to be a delicacy since the Irish couldn’t afford beef they repurposed any unused veggies and meat.

Is shepherds pie and cottage pie the same?

The main difference between Cottage Pie and Shepherd’s pie is cottage pie uses ground beef, and Shepherd’s pie uses ground lamb. Both pies are cooked with vegetables and gravy and baked under a layer of mashed potatoes.

What is British cottage pie?

Traditional in Britain, a Cottage Pie referred to a beef layer topped with slices of potato (recreating the tiles of a cottage) and a shepherds pie referred to a lamb layer with mash on top.

Is Shepherd’s Pie a traditional dish?

Shepherd’s Pie is a classic dish that has been enjoyed in both Ireland and England for centuries. However, there is a slight variation in how it is prepared in each of these regions. In Ireland, the dish is traditionally made with lamb, while in England, it is typically made with beef.

Where did Shepherd’s Pie come from?

A favorite comfort food in Irish pubs and homes, the humble shepherd’s pie – a savory baked dish traditionally consisting of mutton or lamb topped with mashed potatoes – was first documented in Scotland in 1849.

Is Shepherd’s pie Irish?

Shepherd’s pie has as much claim to Ireland as any other food. Unlike current variations of corned beef and cabbage, shepherd’s pie actually is an Irish delicacy. The problem is, there isn’t much to the history — at least not in a straightforward way.

Was a shepherd’s Pie a cottage pie?

While this reference did not specify that the shepherd’s pie used lamb or mutton, those were the traditional meats used in Irish stew. This makes it a reasonable assumption that those specific meats were at least beginning to distinguish a shepherd’s pie from a cottage pie in popular understanding.

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