Flour Power - A Scottish Perspective

by Aileen Hunter & Kate Mulvely
Project Co-ordinator - Val Bissland, Senior Studies Institute, University of Strathclyde.

We are delighted to make a contribution to the European Bread Project.

Like every land, Scotland's geography and climate have influenced the diet of her people. Situated on the Northwest periphery of Europe, nearly half the mainland is mountainous. The climate is wet and temperate, unfavourable to wheat growing, and from the earliest times the native cereal crops were barley or oats with wheat appearing comparatively recently.

The land was settled sometime in the neolithic era by people who came West across the North Sea from Europe. The earliest archaeological remains at Skara Brae in the northern Orkney Islands show that they cultivated a very robust form of barley which is still grown in these parts. Oats had made their appearance by Roman times and grains have been found from about a hundred years or so BC. Growth is slow in the cool climate and this gives a better flavour. Oats can be ground to a range of textures and so have great versatility, making it possible to produce a variety of sustaining food.

By the end of the 18th Century oats were the main grain used by all levels of the population. Students would arrive at University after the summer with a bag of oatmeal to live on during the term. The older Scottish Universities still call the autumn mid-term break "Meal Monday" when traditionally the students would return home to replenish their supplies.

Cooking was over an open fire, either on a flat round sheet of iron called a girdle, or in a deeper pot. Each had a hooped handle which was suspended from a hook over the heat. The grain would be mixed to different consistencies with water and some salt; the thinner porridge was cooked in the pot, and the coarser meal was shaped into a flat round cake or bannock and baked on the griddle, turned once using a bannock spade. It was also taken to the fields uncooked to save time during harvest, for instance. The diet was supplemented by milk, butter, and cream and of course fish, mainly herring.

With improvements in agriculture wheat was grown in the fertile lands of the Northeast and the Lowlands but oatmeal remained the staple of ordinary people. Ovens were introduced and bakers began to make bread for sale. By the 12th Century towns were being granted Burgh status which carried with it trading privileges. The different crafts formed Guilds to protect their interests and many of these still exist today, though mainly in an honorary capacity, dispensing funds to good causes.

The Incorporation of Baxters (Bakers) of Glasgow is typical of such organisations in Scottish towns. It was formed in the mid-sixteenth century to control the baking and selling of bread and the training of apprentices, who served seven years. The discipline was strict. They were not allowed to marry and they had to obey a curfew and observe the Sabbath, as well as being ordered to wear hats at funerals. They joined their Guild in the Processions on Feast Days and took part in the early Morality Plays presented on these occasions. Entry to the Guild was sternly controlled, and was either by the "Near Hand", that is husbands or sons of members' daughters, or by the "Far Hand" if unconnected, subject to the approval of members.

Heavy fines were imposed for any breach of the rules such as selling underweight loaves, and at one time an extra loaf was baked with every twelve to avoid this, giving rise to the expression "Baker's Dozen" meaning thirteen. Latterly, and right up to the present, the traditional Scottish loaf was batch baked. The loaves are individually shaped in a tin, turned out and pressed together for baking, giving each a hard top and base and soft sides. It is called a plain loaf, as distinct from a pan loaf which is baked in the tin and has a crust all round.

Batch Loaves in a trevelling plate oven

A Family Business - Batch Loaves loaded for delivery in a horse-drawn wagon

By 1906 there was a long -established and highly respected Technical College in Glasgow for training tradesmen and craftsmen. In that year the Scottish Master Bakers endowed a School of Bakery in the College. The College developed into the Royal Technical College, then the Royal College of Science and Technology. In the 1964 it became The University of Strathclyde, of which the Senior Studies Institute is a part. A pleasing link with our project.

As to our favourite breads:-

Kate Mulvey - I like any freshly baked bread, and sometimes bake my own. Making bread is a very satisfying and soothing pastime.

Aileen Hunter - My upbringing placed an emphasis on healthy eating, since my father was a nature cure practitioner. For instance, we ate bread different from that eaten by most people in Scotland. Our family always ate brown bread, never white. We were very health-conscious, using Allinson's flour for baking and bread making. Allinson's flour was developed over a hundred years ago by a Dr. Thomas Allinson, who had developed a strong interest in nutrition. The original loaf was 100% wholemeal, with none of the goodness removed, whereas many other so-called wholemeal loaves were simply made from white flour with bran added. The Allinson's bread we bought in the shops from 1930 to around 1960 was a very different loaf from the mass-produced ones bought in the supermarket today. The original loaf was firm, very satisfying and was sold with a paper band round it with the Allinson's logo. Today's loaves are soft, sliced and pre-packed.

Useful web sites with references to Scottish bread: