Pounds, pence, meaty money and more

British coins from one pence to two pounds
British coins from one pence to two pounds

We’ve been traveling around the United Kingdom for just over two months now, and I have to say…

Thank God for the metric system!

And thank God for decimal-denominated money.

Luckily for us, we haven’t had to deal with guineas, crowns, shillings, farthings or any other extinct denominations of British money. The United Kingdom instituted decimalization in 1971, when the pound was made equivalent to 100 “new” pence.

Before that, the pound was divided into 20 shillings, each worth 12 pence. Other pre-decimal coins included the crown (worth five shillings), half-crown, florin (worth two shillings), sixpence, threepence, halfpenny and farthing. The farthing (worth ¼ penny) had been withdrawn in 1960.

Not that we haven’t had to make some small adjustments compared to our U.S. money denominations.

In Britain (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the Hebrides), the money is denominated in Pounds Sterling (no, it isn’t made of silver anymore) and pence. (Ireland uses the Euro, but that is also metric).

Current coinage includes one- and two-pence coins, 5 pence, 10 pence, 20 and 50 pence, as well as one- and two-pound coins (see the photo above). The 20- and 50-pence coins have seven rounded sides. The smaller denominations are round. Newer one-pound coins have 12 sides and are bi-metallic, as are the two-pound coins.

"Old" and new one-pound coins
“Old” and new one-pound coins

Some of the currently circulating one-pound coins are referred to as “old” pounds or “round” pounds, and they are slated to be retired later this fall (I’ll write more about that another time).

Currency comes in 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100-pound notes (though we haven’t seen anything larger than a 20, even when withdrawing several hundred pounds from a cash machine).

I must say, having so many different coin denominations has sometimes led me to have a very heavy pocket full of change. Especially since I’ve been trying to keep extra change on hand for paying bus fares as we travel around the country. I finally started keeping my one-and two-pound coins in one pocket, and all of the smaller denomination coins in the other pocket.

Just do the math(s)

Counting out change is a bit different when you have 20-pence coins instead of our U.S. quarters. Likewise, the two-pence coin (which is a bit larger than the quarter) seems a bit of an odd duck to my long-trained American brain. It all makes me think a little more (and do more math in my head) when paying for our groceries or bus fare.

20-pence coins showing the progression of the Queen's portrait over the years
20-pence coins showing the progression of the Queen’s portrait over the years

I do like the one- and two-pound coins, and I’m sure they have a much longer useful life than our American dollar bills (are you paying attention, Congress?).

Comparative sizes of British currency
Comparative sizes of British currency

Another thing I like is that the currency comes in different sizes, based on its value. The 20-pound note is the largest (slightly larger than U.S. currency), with the 10-pound note a bit smaller, and the five-pound note smaller still. The newest five-pound notes are actually made of a polymer plastic with lots of anti-counterfeiting measures built in (and a neat little transparent window through which you can see a holographic seal).

These polymer notes are the “meaty money” mentioned in the title above. Apparently one of the ingredients used in their production is beef tallow – yes, really!

This has caused an outcry from vegans and vegetarians, Hindus, Sikhs, animal rights groups and others who object to the use of animal products in the production of something everyone has no choice but to use.

Clear window in a plastic five-pound note
Clear window in a plastic five-pound note

According to a report by CNN, “one possible substitute, derived from palm oil, was rejected because of environmental and cost concerns.”

The report went on to say, “The bank said that tallow from roughly 50 cattle would be required to produce the 9.3 billion new £20, £10 and £5 notes that are needed over the next decade.”


Baked beans for breakfast… and other quirks of Scottish cuisine

The full Scottish breakfast
The “full Scottish” breakfast

SCOTLAND – One of my most curious first impressions of Scotland was the so-called “Full Scottish Breakfast.”

The ‘full Scottish’ includes such typical morning fare as smoked bacon (mostly meat, unlike American bacon where it’s mostly fat), a savory link sausage, a fried egg (just one) and toast (white or brown).

Uniquely Scottish additions to the menu include a wedge of potato scone (more like a potato pancake than the scone I’m familiar with in the States), a slice of black pudding (another type of sausage – very salty – made from pork fat or beef suet, pork blood and oatmeal or barley), sautéed mushrooms, a couple of grilled tomato halves, and finally…

Wait for it…

Baked beans are included with the "full Scottish" breakfast
Baked beans for breakfast

A dollop of baked beans.

Yes, those baked beans, the kind you eat along with your picnic hot dog at the summer cook-out. Right there with your breakfast. First thing in the morning.

And it’s all washed down with juice (orange, grapefruit, apple or something red), and your choice of coffee or tea, with milk if desired, and sweetened with a lump of sugar in white or brown.

“When I say a ‘lump’ of sugar, I’m not talking about a cube”

Now when I say a “lump” of sugar, I’m not talking about a sugar cube. A lump is roughly the size of a standard sugar cube, but it’s not a cube; it’s an actual lump (no right angles). But that’s a story for another time.

Here are some other differences in Scottish edibles versus their American counterparts:

a bag of potato crisps
In Scotland they’re called ‘crisps’ – not ‘chips’

Chips versus crisps: We all know about fish and chips. The chips are what we Americans call French fries. But in Scotland, those fries are always called “chips,” whether they come with a helping of fish or with a burger. If you go to the store looking for potato chips (you know, the crunchy salty ones that come in a bag), you have to ask for “crisps.”


Speaking of fish and chips, you can find a “chip shop” or “chippy” in almost every neighborhood. I must say we have had the best fish and chips we’ve ever eaten anywhere while we’ve been in Scotland. Delicious, flaky fresh-caught Haddock battered and fried in a light, crunchy batter. It always comes with more fries (Oops! I mean chips) than we can possibly eat. And so far, every order has also included a helping of peas – yes, the little round green vegetable. You’ll usually get “mushy peas” (just like it sounds – mushy pureed peas) unless you ask for whole garden peas!

Biscuits vs. crackers and cookies: If you’re shopping for crackers to enjoy with a bit of cheese, you’ll have to go to the “biscuit” aisle. Same thing for cookies. They’re all called “biscuits” – savory biscuits for the crackers, and sweet biscuits for cookies. Go figure.

As for cheese, you’ll find “mature” cheese rather than “aged.”

And if you’re looking for soda pop, such as Coke, Pepsi and other soft drinks, be sure to seek out the “fizzy drinks” section of the store.

Don’t look for eggs in the dairy cooler

Eggs: One of our grocery shopping adventures involved a quest for eggs. We had scoured every cooler in the store, dairy and otherwise, looking for familiar cartons of eggs. When we finally gave up and asked a clerk, he led us to a large display of un-refrigerated egg cartons (only in the U.S. do we insist on refrigerating our eggs from the farm to the consumer).

Most of the eggs were packaged in half-dozen cartons, and we had a choice of free-range, organic, mixed sizes, brown or white, even eggs with double-yolks!

Food ordered to go is called “takeaway.” Takeaway shops are everywhere – offering East Indian, Chinese and more. One Mexican food takeaway shop in Aberdeen advertised “burritos as big as your head.”

I just hope they were made with refried – rather than baked – beans.

Stone buildings are everywhere in Scotland

Stone buildings can be seen all over Scotland
Stone buildings can be seen all over Scotland

SCOTLAND – When we arrived in Edinburgh in June we were impressed by how many stone buildings there were all over the city. Not just the castles, but public buildings, private homes, storefronts, monuments and more.

Stone walls are everywhere in Scotland
Stone walls are everywhere around Scotland

You also see stone walls everywhere in Scotland… along every street and roadway, enclosing individual yards and gardens, and around every field and pasture. Stones, stones and more stones.

In Edinburgh, the building stone colors include every shade of tan and brown, with occasional reds and grays.

In Dundee, we saw beautifully carved embellishments on buildings crafted in brown sandstone.

A brown sandstone building in Dundee, Scotland
A brown sandstone building in Dundee

And in Aberdeen, the so-called “silver city,” the buildings were constructed of uniformly gray granite (our guidebook mentioned how the stone sparkled like silver on a sunny day – too bad it was cloudy and rainy for most of our stay).

Residents have been building with stone for 5,000 years

While these “modern” stone buildings date back “only” to around the 12th century (St. Margaret’s Chapel, built around 1130 at Edinburgh Castle, is recognized at Edinburgh’s oldest building), residents of Scotland and its Isles have been using stone as a building material for some 5,000 years or more.

A couple weeks ago we visited the Ness of Brodgar on Orkney Island, a prehistoric Neolithic site where an archaeological dig has been going on since the site’s accidental discovery in 2003. Experts date the site’s origins to around 3200 BC, and believe it was in use for more than 1,000 years.

Our weeklong visit to Orkney just happened to coincide with one of the dig’s two annual Open Days, when they invite the public to come out to the site and hear presentations by the archaeologists, see demonstrations of Neolithic stone-working and cooking techniques, and generally learn about the latest theories and discoveries at the site.

Researchers are only able to work at the site for two months out of the year (July and August) because of the extreme weather conditions the rest of the year. We had a beautiful sunny day for our visit, so we had a great closeup view of all the work that was going on.

It was still quite windy, with sustained 28-mile-an-hour winds and occasional higher gusts that would very nearly blow you over.

To date, more than two dozen stone structures have been discovered at the site, some of which are built upon the remains of earlier structures below. Some evidence of the structural use of wood has been found (post holes), but the primary building material used throughout the site is stone.

Neolithic stone structures at the Ness of Brodgar on Orkney Island
Neolithic stone structures at the Ness of Brodgar on Orkney Island

Diggers at the site have uncovered stone tools and other worked stone objects, and some of the stones used in the construction have carved images and incised runes on them.

Despite the years of research that have already been completed, the archaeologists on-site repeatedly told us, “We’ll never really know for sure what this site was used for; the current theory is… but that could change at any time as we unearth more of the structures.”

One thing is known for certain. Residents of the Scottish Isles have been building with stone for a very long time!

A Scottish hillside covered with rocks
A Scottish hillside covered with rocks