Oats: still supporting the people

Now, Samuel Johnson had it right about cats.  I think it was James Boswell who reported that Johnson did not send his servants out to buy oysters for his cat but went himself in case they resented the errand and so took against his beasties.  It was definitely Boswell who, when he saw Johnson stroking his cat Hodge, in an effort to ingratiate himself, praised the cat.  Johnson however remarked that he had had cats which he had liked better; then seeing Hodge “out of countenance” at this, he said that he “was a fine cat, a very fine cat indeed”.

However he was very wrong about oats, infamous for casting aspersions with the following definition: “Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”.   Though maybe he wasn’t being entirely serious, as Boswell noted that Johnson and he were both eating and enjoying dry oatmeal taken out of a barrel when they were sailing to Mull during their Tour to the Hebrides.  Certainly Boswell thought Johnson had just been having a joke with his previous remark.

Making stooks of corn on Skye (J Arthur Dixon postcard)

My crofter uncles grew oats but called it corn which confused me for years. Aunt Jessie said grandfather took his corn to the local mill to be ground into oatmeal.  There were only two spaces for passengers on his cart and she had to fight with her older brothers and sisters for the right to go with him.

oats growing
a field of ripe oats

The resulting barrels of oatmeal were used for brose or porridge and oatcakes, of course.  Here’s one of my favourite food descriptions from literature:

” ….. and the oatcakes, hard as flint, dry, tasteless, and white as a dusty road in a March east wind …. “.

Lucy Bethia Walford (1845 – 1915) did not care for the oatcakes she was served in a Scottish country inn any more than she had done for the scones at the same ‘meal’.  However, they did have hot whisky toddy to wash them down.

Dorothy Wordsworth fared better during a tour to Scotland in the very early 19th century:

“For breakfast … the cheese was set out as before, with plenty of butter and barley cakes, and fresh oaten cakes, which no doubt were made for us; they were kneaded with cream and were excellent”.

A story of Scottish hospitality I love to tell is of the one oatcake I got served with pate in a hotel, maybe 30 years ago when I was waiting for the Gigha ferry  –  it was one of those big triangular ones but it was singular; then when the waitress re-appeared, I asked for more and she brought me another one.  I thought this was a hilarious way to treat a poor hungry traveller.

My favourite oatcakes are Paterson’s triangle ones; they’re wheat-free and palm oil-free so are labelled as “orang-utan friendly!”  I’m not sure why they’ve got skimmed milk powder in them, deterring vegans, but they contain sunflower oil and have a most satisfactory Presbyterian taste and texture.

Nairns have recently brought out “ancient grain” ones with rye (8%), amaranth (3%) and quinoa (1.5%).  There’s “sustainable palm fruit oil” in them too, whatever that really means.  They’re baked in Scotland and that’s all well and good, but quinoa comes from South America and amaranth grows in the Americas, in India and China, and in Russia.

Why can’t they use bere?  If not “ancient”, it’s certainly very old as it may have been brought to Scotland by the Vikings.  It’s still being grown in the Northern and Western Isles, though I believe it’s only milled commercially at Birsay on Orkney.  Stockans use it in their beremeal oatcakes (69% oatmeal and 15% beremeal) which are sold in Sainsbury’s.  However, they do have “sustainable” palm oil and some sugar in them.

Oats are currently fashionable with their vitamins B and E, their iron and magnesium; their water-soluble fibre is reputed to help lower cholesterol and blood sugar and some folk claim they help concentration and promote sleep by helping melatonin to reach the brain.  I’m no scientist or nutritionist but that sounds ok to me.

Catherine Brown’s recipe for oatcakes makes four triangles: 4 oz medium oatmeal (1 cup); pinch of salt; 2-3 tablespoons of boiling water; 1 tablespoon of oil or fat.  She wants these ingredients mixed and rolled quickly as, if the mixture gets cold, it becomes hard to roll thinly without breaking up.  She cooks them on one side only on a hot girdle which has been sprinkled with oatmeal.  When the edges start to curl, she stands them on end in a toast rack in a dry hot place to dry off completely.

F. Marian MacNeill also uses 4 oz of oatmeal, but adds a pinch of baking soda to the salt; she wants a teaspoonful of fat – either butter or poultry fat; goose fat she says is “excellent” for oatcakes.  She recommends adding just enough hot water to make a stiff dough and then adding oatmeal to the surface as you’re rolling out to stop your dough from sticking or breaking at the edges.

In her The Scots Kitchen, one of MacNeill’s stories is of an old woman, living between Culloden and Croy in 1746.  When she heard of the defeat, she took herself to the roadside with a table, her girdle and a bag of oatmeal.  She lit a fire and “baked for all she was worth”; when the Jacobites came past heading for safety in the hills, they “siezed an oatcake from the pile.”

Oatmeal is not just for oatcakes, but can also be baked into a gingerbread.  Theodora Fitzgibbon has a recipe for an oatmeal gingerbread in her book  A Taste of Scotland in Food and in Pictures.  She calls it Broonie, from the Norse Bruni, meaning a thick bannock.

Maybe the most basic way of using oatmeal is making brose.  I used to watch fascinated, as Uncle Ken put a handful of oatmeal in a bowl, poured on boiling water and then covered it with a plate for just a couple of minutes.  He then forked it up and ate his quick breakfast with evident relish.  I don’t remember if he added salt and/or butter as the book recipes recommend.

Back to Catherine Brown who has a recipe for gooseberry and elderflower brose in her book Broths to Bannocks: Cooking in Scotland 1690 to the present day.  I’d love to try it in the coming year, if I can get hold of some gooseberries; frozen or tinned might have to do.  Cranachan is a form of brose and it pains me to see that she lists both whisky and honey as ingredients in her recipe in the same chapter.  However, I also fancy trying her blackcurrant and redcurrant brose which has a tablespoon of rose water in it!

A far cry from these farantoosh concoctions, Hugh Miller in My Schools and Schoolmasters (1854) writes about what stonemasons in the Highlands sometimes had to exist on: “I have known mason-parties engaged in the central Highlands in building bridges, not unfrequently reduced by a tract of wet weather, that soaked their only fuel the turf and rendered it incombustible, to the extremity of eating their oatmeal raw, and merely moistened by a little water, scooped by the hand from a neighbouring brook”.

Think on them next time you reach for the kettle.




5 thoughts on “Oats: still supporting the people

  1. mairi

    I eat my brose with dark brown sugar – you can either add a pinch to the meal before you stir in the water, or sprinkle it on top to melt afterwards, before you add the milk or, even more decadent, cream. I used to add a pinch of salt too but don’t bother any more.


    1. Decadent? Indeed – and verging on the sinful! Though I can’t claim the moral high ground for long as I’m planning a Sabbath breakfast tomorrow of strawberry, rose and redcurrant birchermuesli.


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