When Robert Burns described Scotland as “the land o’ cakes”, our national bard did not mean sweet fancies, but the flat, unleavened bannock or oatcake, baked on a girdle or bakestone.
“In Scotland, amongst the rural population generally,” writes F Marian McNeill in The Scots Kitchen, “the girdle until recent times took the place of the oven, and the bannock of the loaf.”
Oatcakes, bannocks and farls were staple fare for the Highlands and Celtic countries, rather than oven-baked, leavened loaves of bread: peat fires in a croft’s central hearth simmered pots of broth or porridge hanging by a chain from the roof, or baked thin, crisp oatcakes and thick bannocks on a flat suspended girdle.
Gradually in the 16th century, the advent of the oven popularised baked loaves, and most Scottish town had a bakehouse where bread dough was taken to be baked. “Baxter”, the old Scots word for baker, has given us the widespread surname.
Only the wealthiest Scots could afford to buy expensive wheaten bread. A pan loaf, baked in a tin, was also food for the rich: “speaking pan loafy” meant speaking in an affected manner, while “a pan loaf” was slang for someone acting posh.
Wheat was grown in Scotland’s fertile Lowlands, where four kinds of wheaten bread were munched: the finest white, light loaf called manche; cheat or trencher bread, which was used as plate; ravelled, baked just as it came from the mill, (flour, bran and all); and finally, the cheapest, mashloch, from which the flour was almost entirely sifted.
As wheat grew less expensive, and wheaten bread eventually became a staple for everyone outside the aristocracy, regional breads sprang up throughout Scotland, including many in the Borders. Sadly now, for all but a few, we’ve lost everything but their names.
A clod was once a popular flat loaf made of coarse wheat flour or pease-meal, and the most famous of its kind was Souter’s clod: a coarse, crusty, lumpish, brown wheaten bread made in Selkirk.
In Traditions of Edinburgh, R. Chambers records: “The Baijan Hole, a celebrated and very ancient baker’s shop … was famed for a species of rolls called Soutar’s clods, which were in great request among the boys of Edinburgh on account of their satisfactory dimensions.”
In Sir Walter Scott’s novel Redgauntlet (1824), a starving, poverty-stricken guest, “licking his parched and chopped lips as he saw the good Quaker [Joshua Geddes] masticate his bread and cheese”, implored the landlord “in a strong Scottish tone”:
“Ye will maybe have nae whey then, nor butter-milk, nor ye couldna exhibit a Souter’s clod?”
“Can’t tell what ye are talking about, master,” said Crackenthorpe.”
The corpulent landlord wasn’t the only ignorant Scot. In 1821, an article in Edinburgh’s Blackwood’s Magazine lamented: “Souter’s clods are now almost unknown among the bakers.”
Featuring alongside Souters’ clods on the Border breadboard was a Hawick bake: a small, soft, crumbly cake flavoured with allspice. Berwickshire had its todgie – a small round cake of any bread, given to children to keep them in good humour. Roxburgh, boasted two breads: the nacket, a small loaf eaten with wine, and the derrin, a broad, thick cake or loaf of oat or barley-meal, fired in the oven or on the hearth and covered with hot ashes. The name derrin is said to derive from the Teutonic word derren: “to dry or parch”.
It was left to our only surviving Border bread, the Selkirk Bannock, to join Scotland’s pantheon of bakery.
Aberdeen is still famous for its rowies or butteries, similar to the French croissant, but saltier and flatter.
Every Scottish baker worth their salt freshly bakes every morning the traditional Scots bap or morning roll, thickly coated in flour before baking to prevent a crust forming on the top.
A lesson from history warns bakers not to be stingy with their ingredients: the grandfather of Prime Minister William Gladstone once owned a bakery in Edinburgh, but the size of his rolls earned him the nickname: “Sma’ Baps”.
In recent years, Scotland has enjoyed a resurgence in real bread, and beside the Borders’ fine bakeries on every town high street, there are a few local individuals leading the charge.
The Breadshare Community Bakery at Whitmuir Organics near Lamancha, the project’s website www.breadshare.co.uk enthuses, is a group of volunteers “who love real bread and want it to be available to everybody”.
The team bake up to 600 organic loaves a week, including sourdough cobs, Border country batards, seeded and caraway rye breads, ciabatta, cheese farls with cumin and chilli, staple wholemeal and white tin loaves, and specials such as this month’s almond twists. They use wheat grown on Whitmuir’s fields: “the first using Scottish wheat since the repeal of the Corn Laws [in 1849]” claims the farm’s co-owner Heather Anderson.
The project’s aim, says one if its bakers, Andrew Whitley, is “to bring bread back home, and thereby take bread into our own hands – to have control over who makes it, and the quality of ingredients that go into it.”
The movement is a reaction against the “10 million industrialised, standardised supermarket loaves baked every day, laden with additives,” explains Breadshare manager Geoff Crowe, who is keen to spread the message that real bread is not only tastier and more nutritious, but also central to our daily life.
“Our idea is to unite and build connectiveness in communities through bread,” he says: “We’re a not-for-profit company, looking for volunteers to help us bake and distribute the bread, and to bring their ideas.
“Members can invest a ‘loaf loan’ of £50 in the bakery, and we’ll pay back interest of 7½ per cent a year in artisan bread.”
Breadshare is also promoting scheme, Bread Basket, where people are paid in bread to distribute Whitmuir loaves to friends and colleagues.
“All sorts of things go into supermarket bread that we don’t even know about, like preservatives, emulsifiers, improvers, enzymes,” says chef Ralph Brooks, owner of the Ednam House Hotel in Kelso: “In artisan bread, there’s water, salt, flour and fresh yeast – and that’s it.
“The wild yeast in sourdough is collected from the air, giving the bread its acidic tanginess,” he says. “Wild yeast is less vigorous, so you have to build up the ‘starter’ over time. Almost all good food takes time. What gives bread flavour is the slow fermention of the flour. Our bread takes at least 48 hours from start to finish.”
“We had problems sourcing good bread, so the only option was to bake it ourselves,” he says. “It’s addictive: once you’ve had good bread, you don’t want to go back. The smell when you’re baking is just wonderful. I’d encourage anyone to start baking at home. It’s easy.”
The hotel’s deli next door, Pharlanne, sells bread, freshly baked from 5am each weekday morning – brioche, beer and oatmeal, sourdough, and staple white and granary loaves.
Alternatively, the Great Northumberland Bread Company has a stall every month at Kelso and Hawick farmers’ markets.