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Old World Scotland
Chapter III. The Staff of Life


THE population of Old-world Scotland being thin and sparse, the means of sustenance were on the whole plentiful. That was an exceptional household which, in the Middle Ages, and later, could not boast

To haue guse, cok and hen,
Bread, drink and bedding to treat horse and men."

Starvation, or even the mordant misery of hunger, was probably almost unknown, or the result of years unwontedly calamitous. Even when seasons were exceptionally unfavourable dearth was not so universal and all-pervading as to be intolerable; and though a course of Southron rapine might cause a vast amount of temporary suffering, it could hardly ruin the food resources of an entire district. A partial failure of the harvest might occasion some scarcity of bread, but probably what was affected was quality rather than quantity. In any case the staple vegetable, kale, retained its normal and luxurious greenness through all the atrocities of winter weather. Also when whole tracts were beggared of sheep and kine restitution was not impossible by means of a foray across the border; and in any case there were the moorlands and the woods, which abounded in game of many kinds, while the rivers and estuaries teemed unfailingly with fish. By the beginning of the sixteenth century the whole nation was not more than half a million strong ; and although the science of agriculture was still in its infancy, it sufficed to meet such demands as were made on it. One dearth, serious in some Parts of Scotland, did occur in the fifteenth century, but it was not till the closing half of the sixteenth century that famine years recurred with any frequency. Even then much of the scarcity was due to the luxurious living of the nobles, or a result of the broils and civil wars at the time of the Reformation or in the reign of James VI The farmer in early times turned his attention chiefly to the raising of oats, his sheep and cattle being left almost wholly to their old ways and their own devices; but dairy produce— milk, butter, cheese—was in general use from times the most remote. Barley and wheaten bread were not uncommon at the tables of the lords and barons, but from time immemorial oats was the grain affected by the multitude; and even yet in Scotland a common synonym for it is the generic term "corn."

At first, when the pinch of poverty was not so sharp and flesh was cheaper and more abundant, the grain was of less importance in itself, and the forms in which it appeared were not so various; but oatcake was always the staple bread of Scotland, in the Lowlands and Highlands both. "Of otes," according to Bishop Lesley's "History of Scotland," "by the opinion of many is made very gude bread, nocht tasteless, but with great labour, quilke all the north part of England, and the greater part of Scotland use, and are sustained upon commonly." In the north of England the oaten cake was known as haver-bread, and the same name was also current in some parts of Scotland. "O whaur did ye get that haver-meal baunock?" asked the "silly auld body" of the ballad; and the answer was, "Between St. Johnstone's (Perth)" and "Bonnie Dundee." Writing towards the close of the sixteenth century, Fynes Moryson, as one illustration of the rudeness of Scottish cookery, states that the Scots "vulgarly" (commonly) ''eat hearth-cakes of oats." In Roman times the same hearth-cakes of oats were the bread of the savage natives, who baked them on stones round the fire. These stones the native Celts termed "greadeal." They formed a ring round the fire, and hence the peculiar significance of the word "girdle" in the Scots vocabulary. Froissart has a curious reference to this ancient and indispensable utensil of the Scottish housewife, and gives a picturesque illustration of its use by the Scottish soldiers. Amid all their wanderings and adventures they remained ever faithful to their native bread, and retained a tenderness almost pathetic not for aqua vitae, but for oatmeal. It was the one indispensable article of diet, and as they had no guarantee that they would be able to beg, borrow, or steal it, they had to carry with them a supply. According to Froissart, a man's acoutrements included a flat plate at his saddle and a wallet of meal at his back, ''the purpose whereof is this: Whereas a Scottish soldier hath eaten of flesh so long that he begins to loathe the same, he casteth this plate into the fire, he moisteneth a little of his meal in water, and when the plate is heated he layeth his paste thereon and maketh a little cake the which he eateth to comfort his stommach. Hence, our author infers with a notion somewhat loose and inexact of the principles of ethnological or physiological science, "it is no marvel that the Scots should be able to make longer marches than other men." All the same, if we are to believe the anonymous author of "Andrew and his Cutty Gun," oat-cakes might tend to bring about a physical condition not altogether conducive to the accomplishment of long marches. Says he of his heroine, ale-wife, or what-not :-

The canine brought her kebbuck ben
Wi' girdle-cakes well tosted broon.
Weel does the canny kimmer ken,
They gar the scuds gae glither doon."

And annotating these stanzas—probably for the information of benighted Southrons - Burns remarks that ''these oatmeal cakes are kneaded out with the knuckles and toasted over the red embers of wood on a gridiron. They are remarkably fine," he adds—presumably on the authority of frequent experience—"and a delicate relish when eaten warm with ale. On winter nights the landlady heats them and drops them into the quaigh to warm the ale." But if the muse of Allan Ramsay does not lie, the principle was absolute, for a pease scone might be substituted for the oaten cake

"Sae brawly did a pease-scon toast
Biz i' the queff and flie the frost,
There we got fou wi' little cost
And muckle speed."

It is possible that bannocks or scones— be they of wheat, or bere, or barley, or pease, or "mixed" meals—may point to the existence of a less primitive kitchen but they must nevertheless he reckoned as essentially Scottish. The differences in the methods of baking and firing are mere adaptations of old modes to the peculiarities of new materials. Pease bread was very anciently in use, but probably was only partaken of by the poorest, or from dire necessity. Thus in the "Lamentations of Lady Scotland," written in 1572 during the siege of the Castle of Edinburgh, the extremity of destitution is indicated in the line-

"And glaid to get Peis breid and watter caill."

Shortbread—"Scotch cake," as it is called in South Britain —is probably the triumph of Scottish baking on the old national lines. It may have been the invention of some professional Scotch cook or baker, but he must at least have been thoroughly imbued with the old Scots house-hold notions in regard to the "staff of life." It is probably entitled to the place of honour among the breads of Britain, if regard be had to the cheapness and simplicity of its materials, its pleasant sweetness, and its wholesomeness and digestibility in comparison to other sugared cates.

Among Scottish household breads neither the wheaten loaf nor any form of wheaten bread was ever included. These were (and still are) known as ''baker's bread," and were only to be had in the principal towns. It was enacted that sixteen ounces of fine bread (doubtless the wheaten loaf) should be supplied to Queen Mary's attendants for four pennies Scots during her visit to .Jedburgh in 1566; but even in cities, according to Fynes Moryson, wheaten bread was bought, at the close of the sixteenth century, chiefly by ''gentlemen, courtiers, and the best kind of citizens." The records of the burgh of Aberdeen contain a curious enactment made on the 8th of October, 1656, forbidding, probably in the interests of the professional baker, oat-cakes to be baked or sold within the burgh, but probably, in this instance at least, Aberdeen was in advance of other towns in Scotland. As regards the country districts, the wheaten loaf so late as 1750 was rarely seen on the tables even of the richer classes.

"Though wheaten bread," says Dr. Somerville, "was partly used, yet cakes or bannocks of barley and pease meal formed the principal household bread in gentlemen's families; and in those of the middle class on ordinary occasions no other kind of bread was ever thought of." And thus, when railways were unknown and means of communication difficult in Scotland through, there prevailed a curious difference between town and country in respect of the bread in general use. Not more than fifty years back ''loaf-bread" was still a luxury in certain districts, and the staple was as yet cakes or bannocks of oats or pease for the poorer classes, bannocks of barley-meal being used at the wealthier tables, and for special occasions at the tables of the poor. Thus a correspondent of Fergusson the poet promises to treat him, among other dainties "wi' bannocks o' gude barley-meal."

In the beginning the professional baker in the towns may possibly have borrowed his methods from the French. At any rate, being patronised chiefly by the nobles and the wealthier burghers, he was accustomed to use the very best materials, and he rejoiced in every encouragement to devote himself to the perfection of his methods. Edinburgh was doubtless the cradle of the craft; and if you want to beat the Edinburgh baker you must go—not to London, but—to Paris or Vienna. It is true that, with the accession of James VI. to the English throne, London was invaded by a host of bakers, among other tradesmen, from the north; but possibly the native shrewdness soon perceived that to catch the obtuse, uneducated English palate, it was as unnecessary to deal with the "finest of the wheat" as to seek to excel in the art of baking. At any rate their incursion has failed to raise the average standard of excellence of the London loaf, which is probably the worst of any capital in Europe.


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