Bannocks are a traditional Scottish type of unleavened bread which was usually made of oats, barley, wheat or rye. The best known today are usually made from oatmeal, being the cereal of choice in the Highlands, where the wet climate has always been less suitable for the cultivation of wheat.
Bannocks were an essential part of everyday life, and especially to any Highland festivities particularly in the celebration of the Quarter Days. The bannocks were each given a special name according to the festival they were made for – the bonnach Brìde for Imbolc, bonnach Bealltain for Bealltainn, bonnach Lunastain for Lùnastal, and bonnach Samhthain for Samhainn.1 On St Michael’s day, a special bannock was made called struthan Mhìcheil (or struan Micheil), and other festivals and special occasions also had bannocks specially baked for them.
The festival bannocks were made to attract health and prosperity for the coming year and a complex body of lore is associated with the making and consumption of bannocks in general, as well as for the festival bannocks themselves. John Gregorson Campbell provides a wealth of information on the lore of everyday bannock-making, with F Marian McNeill and Alexander Carmichael being excellent sources for festival bannocks.
The following article will cover:
- Making the bannocks
- Festival bannocks
- The festival of Bride
- Fastern’s Eve (Shrove Tuesday)
- Yule/New Year’s
- Other occasions
Recipes for bannocks varied according to the region and the time they were made in. Originally they would have been fairly simple, being made with oats, bere (an early type of barley) or rye – or possibly a combination of all three2 – animal fat, salt, and milk or water, though McNeill says the original oatcakes would have simply been made from oatmeal and cold water, which were known as potag or ollag in the Hebrides. At sea, sailors would make bannocks from meal and sea water to make very basic, salty bannocks – hardly tasty, but a good supplement to their catch.3
Some recipes resulted in a fairly stodgy dough which was rolled out and then cooked; others resulted in a thick batter, which might be termed ‘drop’ bannocks.4 These bannocks might be thick or thin – depending on the recipe used, the area they were made in and even the occasion they were made for, and “the most luxurious kind,” says Isobel Grant, “were covered with a thin batter of eggs, milk and butter and then baked before the fire.”5 These more luxurious types were saved for special occasions like the festivals (Bealltainn and Lùnastal in particular), but Grant also mentions that on Lewis they were given to the herd lad when he came with news that a cow had calved.
A lot of the time the smaller festival bannocks, made for individuals, would be seasoned with things like caraway, various types of berries and honey.6 More modern versions tend to be sweeter variations of the traditional savoury recipe, which usually have dried fruit, sugar and spices added and tend to have more of a cake-like consistency than bread or biscuits. More often than not with these more modern recipes, wheat-flour is used as the main ingredient, rather than oatmeal, which is sometimes omitted altogether, reflecting the evolving tastes and farming practices as wheat became more widely available.
These sweeter oatcakes, such as the Selkirk bannock, became popular for special occasions such as Christmas and were made by bakers during these festive periods. Some types, like the Fife bannock, show how closely related the humble scone is to the oatmeal bannock, as is shortbread, which bears a striking resemblance to the Pitcaithly bannock (recipes for which are given here).
These days bannocks are usually baked in the oven, but originally, most bannocks were baked or toasted on a girdle over an open fire. In Skye and Barra, however, the preferred type of oatcake had cod’s liver and seasoning added to the basic ingredients, and were then steamed over a pot. These were known bannach gruan, or bannach donn.7
MacRury (1896) gives us an account of how the dough bannocks are formed:
“The fallaid is the meal that is pressed into the lump of dough as it is being flattened out i.e. thinned into a cake. When the dough has been well kneaded it is made into a lump. The lump is like a sugar-cone – round at the bottom and narrowing steadily up to a point. When the woman doing the baking starts to flatten the lump of dough she puts a fistful or two of the meal underneath it on the board. As she flattens it, she puts the meal on top of it now and again and presses it until the cake has as much meal on each side as it can take. Now, when the baking is ready, there is nearly as much meal on the baking-board as would make a cake….”8
The remaining meal, which by now was damp from the dough, was then used to make a smaller bannock called the bonnach fallaid, or siantachan a’ chlair – ‘the charmer of the board.’ It was said that if the bonnach fallaid was not made in a special way, the Gentry would enter the house and take away the prosperity of the household. In a similar vein, it was also said that without the bonnach fallaid being made correctly, the batch of cakes that had just been made would not last – an important consideration for any household. Likewise, counting the bannocks after they had been baked was also considered to result in the batch not lasting any time.
To make the bonnach fallaid, the leftover oats were rolled into shape in the palm of the hand rather than on a work surface as the other bannocks had been formed. No fallaid was added to this bonnach boise (’palm-bannock’) – another epithet for the cake – and so it was slightly thicker and less regular in shape than an ordinary bannock. The housewife would then usually have a child put a hole through the centre and it would be toasted on a stone leaning against the hearth fire, rather than using a grid-iron as the other bannocks would have been baked on. Instead of a hole being put through the bannock, a piece could be broken off it, or else a live coal could be put on top. The Gentry, it was said, had a call to the bonnach fallaid that had none of these things done to it:
Bonnach beag boise
Gun bhloigh gun bhearn,
Eirich’s leg sinne a-staigh!
Without gap or fissure,
Rise and let us in!9
The child who put the hole into the cake would usually be given it as a reward. However, the bannock might be kept to be put beside a woman in labour to prevent the faeries from coming to steal the baby away.
Another way to prevent the Good Folk from stealing the toradh of the bannocks was to sprinkle them, and all about them, with water collected from a holy well as the bannocks were baked. As the bannocks were baked, the heat would produce a bulge or copan on the first side that was cooked. This made the bulging side the beulaobh, or ‘front’, and it was forbidden (air a thoirmeasg) for the cakes to be placed onto a plate upside-down. Such an act was considered to be indicative of ill-will towards the person the cakes were intended for, and the only exception to the rule was if the housewife was trying to pass on an important warning to the person discreetly. Even then, the situation had to be very dire for the housewife to resort to such measures.10
If a breakfast oatcake happened to fall backwards, it was considered to be an omen that the person for whom it was intended should not be allowed to set out on a journey that day, as it was a sign that the journey would not be a good one. It was possible, however, to avert any bad omen by serving the cake with plenty of butter ‘without the asking.’11
Generally speaking the method of making the quarter cakes is thought to have been the same as the method outlined for the Struan Michael (see below),12 with some seasonal variations such as the addition of caudle at certain times – either applied directly to the bannock as a kind of glaze as it cooked, or served with the oatcakes as a hot drink, depending on the local traditions.
As a staple of the Scottish diet it’s no wonder they came to have such a complex body of lore associated with them, and at the festivals we can see that they were made with blessings to ensure the continued prosperity and well-being of the household. That their everyday making was associated with a means of protection against the fairies must have taken on added significance at the Quarter Days when the boundaries between worlds are stretched thin and there is an added sense of danger from attracting unwanted attention. It’s no wonder either, then, that the bannocks can also take on a protective role in certain circumstances as shall be seen.
Very little of the customs associated with bannocks survives for the feast of Brìde, but they do take a prominent role in more modern lore where St Bride is said to have been unable to give Mary and Joseph shelter as they were looking for somewhere to stay, right before Jesus’ birth. Before turning them away, however, she gave them some of her bannocks, and once they’d gone Brìde turned round to find that the bannocks had miraculously replenished themselves.13
On the eve of St Brìde’s day it was customary for mothers to give out gifts of bannocks, cheese or butter to the girls who visited each house in the area with the brideog, the Brìde’s doll. This bounty would then be taken to a house where the girls would make a feast of it all, with boys arriving shortly after and asking politely for admission, and naturally once they’d been allowed in much merriment and dancing would ensue.14
Unlike other bannocks, those cooked on Fastern’s E’en were made of a batter rather than a dough, like modern pancakes with oatmeal added. In addition to the oats, the ingredients generally included eggs, salt and milk or beef bree (since beef would not be allowed to be eaten during Lent and had to be used up)15 and had their own specific traditions associated with the cooking and eating of them.
In the north of Scotland they were generally called sauty bannocks, referring to the fact that they were both salted (as sauty refers to in Scots), and were tossed, as the word sauty can be related to the French word sauter ‘to toss.’16
In some households, one person would pour the batter onto the hot girdle, while another person would turn them and another person would hold the dish onto which the cooked bannocks were placed. For the most part the bannocks would be eaten by anyone present without any particular ceremony attached, except for the last bannock which was invariably used for divination in matters of love. This bannock was referred to as the dreaming-bannock or the dumb-cake (because it was supposed to be made in absolute silence, which made a great game for everyone else to try and make the cook speak out in some way; if they failed, someone else would have to take over the cooking).
The dreaming bannock was made of a thicker-consistency batter with charms thrown in that were meant to represent particular occupations of the recipients’ future spouse, or else would describe the type of person they might marry. Once cooked, the bannock was broken into pieces and placed into the housewife’s apron from which people might pick a piece out to see who they’d end up with, or else the housewife might be blindfolded and pick the pieces out herself so that the single people could claim them from her as the housewife asked ‘Wha owns this?’ Alternatively, the single people present might cook their own bannocks in silence and then place a piece of them under their pillow to induce dreams of their future husband or wife.17
At Bealltainn, the festival bannocks were served with caudle – which is either a type of custard-like drink (though often with the addition of alcohol), or else it might refer to a thick paste made with eggs, milk and a little oatmeal (or flour) that was either added as a glaze to the bannocks as they cooked. The shape, size and way in which they were made or cooked varied according to region, as McNeill writes:
‘These cakes or bannocks…’ says Frazer, ‘were oatcakes baked in the usual way, but washed over with a thin batter of whipped egg, milk and cream, and a little oatmeal.’ They were made thus at Kingussie (Inverness-shire), at Keith (Banffshire), at Logierait (Perthshire) and elsewhere. In some places, however, the batter or caudle appears to have been eaten separately. ‘In Glenorchy and Lorne,’ Ramsay of Ochtertyre tells us, ‘a large cake is made on that day (Beltane) which they consume in the house, an in Mull it has a large hole in the centre, through which the cows are milked. In Tiree it is of triangular form.’ In Logierait, as we have seen, it was scalloped round the edges, presumably to symbolise the rays of the sun. At Achterneed, near Strathpeffer, in Ross-shire, the Beltane bannocks were called dearnagan or hand-cakes, because they were kneaded by hand, and not on a board or table like common cakes; and after being caked, they might not be placed anywhere but in the hands of the children who were to eat them.”18
A large bannock for the family was usually made, followed by smaller bannocks for each member of the family. These individual bannocks were eaten outside, in the fields or glens and it was traditional for a piece to be thrown alternately over each shoulder as the person said: “Here to thee, wolf, spare my sheep; there to thee, fox, spare my lambs; here to thee, eagle, spare my goats; there to thee raven, spare my kids; here to thee, martin, spare my fowlsl there to thee, harrier, spare my chickens.”19 A similar practice that may have once been associated with Samhainn saw the bannocks being given to the ‘rascal’ (devil), to protect one’s family (see below).
The caudle (similar to egg nog) was often poured on the ground as a libation in order to ensure a plentiful supply of eggs from hens, an abundance of milk from cows, and a good yield from the fields – much in the same way that the bannocks themselves were given to ensure protection for the herds.20
In addition to the caudle, the Bealtainn bannocks were served with lots of butter and a special sheep’s cheese (made from the milk of shorn ewes or from milk taken from the ewes on the day their lambs were weaned). The gudewife would serve the bannocks with the cheese (collectively known as ceapaire, a caper),21 and in some parts of Scotland these were then supposed to be eaten before sunset. Writing in the sixteenth century, Alexander Scott notes: “In olden times the feast seems to have been partaken of by the family encircling a fire in the open air…the whole bearing the air of a religious service. The element of worship has long since disappeared.”22
In Callander (Perthshire), the bannocks were toasted on the embers at the Bealtainn fire, against a stone, with the caudle made and consumed first. The fire itself was situated in the middle of a round trench cut in the ground, the circumference of which was supposed to be big enough to hold everyone who was going to attend. Once toasted, the bannock was divided up into as many pieces as there were people present, and one piece was daubed black with charcoal. The pieces were then put into a basket and everyone would draw a piece out after being blindfolded.
Frazer viewed the person who picked out such a piece as having once been the one who would have been sacrificed to ensure the prosperity of the community, though at the time of Frazer’s recording the practice, the lucky person simply had to jump over the fire three times. Elsewhere, a similar practice saw the lucky recipient of the cailleach beal-tine, or the Bealltainn carline, being carried forcibly to the fire (though this was for show, and he would be rescued by others), or getting pelted with eggshells. It was generally believed that whoever picked the Bealltainn carline would not prosper in the year to come, and he would be stigmatised with the appellation for the year to come.23
These associations of bannocks being consumed with some ceremony around the fires would accord with traditions at other festivals, such as on the feast of St Mary, when the bannocks were consumed around the hearth fire as the family walked around it in procession.
The quarter cakes for the harvest festival of Lùnastal appear to have been adopted by the feast of St Mary (Là Feill Moire), which falls two days after the Old Style dating of Lùnastal on August 15.24
On this day, the plentiful supply of ripe corn in the fields was taken advantage of, and the corn – i.e. oats, barley or rye – were plucked from the field and dried in the sun (weather permitting, presumably) after being placed on a rock. Once dry, the grain was husked, winnowed, ground in a quern and then kneaded into a bannock on a sheepskin. This festival cake was called Moilean Moire, ‘the fatling of Mary’, and was served with any leftover sheep’s cheese that had been saved from the festivities of Bealltainn.
As with the other quarter cakes, the bannocks were then toasted before a fire made up of sacred woods such as rowan, oak or bramble. Once the bannocks had been eaten the fire would be extinguished and mixed in a pot with iron, then taken round the house, the fields and the outhouses while the household sang the praises of Mary. Before this, however, the head of the household would distribute the bannocks to the rest of his family, giving the first piece to his wife and then to the other members of the family according to age, down to the youngest child. The family would sing the Paean of Mary (which describes the process of making the Moilean Moire) whilst walking deiseil (sunwise) around the fire – the head of the household leading, followed by his wife and then the children according to age, down to the youngest. This was to ensure the protection of Mary until their death.25
The feast day of Mary
On the feast day of Mary the fragrant,
Mother of the Shepherd of the flocks,
I cut me a handful of the new corn,
I dried it gently in the sun,
I rubbed it sharply from the husk
With mine own palms.
I ground it in a quern on Friday,
I baked it on a fan of sheepskin,
I toasted it to a fire of rowan,
And I shared it round my people.
I went sunways round my dwelling,
In name of the Mary Mother,
Who promised to preserve me,
Who did preserve me, In peace in flocks,
In righteousness of heart,
In labour, in love,
In wisdom, in mercy,
For the sake of Thy Passion.
Thou Christ of grace
Who till the day of my death
Wilt never forsake me!
Oh, till the day of my death
Wilt never forsake me!
The Michaelmas struan was generally made of a variety of grains available to the farmer – namely barley, rye and oats. Bannocks made from a mixture of flours were known as mashlum or meslin bannocks, or else brash-bread.26 McNeill suggests that the Michaelmas traditions, including the struan replaced those of Samhainn, since the traditions tended to shift towards festivals that were not so associated with paganism.27
Alexander Carmichael describes the method of making the Struan Micheil at great length. In order to do this description justice, it is quoted in full:
“A cake called Struan Micheil is made of all the cereals grown on the farm during the year. It represents the fruits of the field, as the lamb represents the fruits of the flocks. Oats, bere and rye are the only cereals grown in the Isles. These are fanned on the floor, ground in the quern, and their meal in equal parts used in the struan. The struan should contain a peck of meal and should be baked on a lamb-skin. The meal is moistened with sheep’s milk, the sheep being deemed the most sacred animal. For this purpose the ewes are retained in milk till St Michael’s Eve, after which they are allowed to remain on the hill and to run dry. The struan is baked by the eldest daughter of the family, guided by her mother, and assisted by her eager sisters. As she moistens the meal with the milk the girl softly says:
Progeny and prosperity of family,
Mystery of Michael, protection of Trinity.
A leac struain (struan flag), brought by the young men of the family from the moorland during the day, is securely set on the edge before the fire, and the struan is set on the edge against it. The fire should be of crionach caon (sacred faggots) of the oak, the rowan, the bramble and others. The blackthorn, wild fig, trembling aspen, and other ‘crossed’ woods are avoided. As the struan gains consistency, three successive layers of a batter of cream, eggs and butter are laid on each side alternately. The batter ought to be put on with three tail feathers of a cockerel of the year, but in Uist this is generally done with a small bunch of bent-grass. This cake is called struan treo, family struan; struan mor, large struan and struan comachaidh, communal struan. Small struans are made for individual members of the family by mothers, daughters, sisters and trusted servants. These are known as struan beag, little struans, struan cloinne, children’s struan, and by the names of those for whom they are made. If a member of the family is absent or dead, a struan is made in his or her name. This struan is shared among the family and special friends of the absent one in his or her name, or given to the poor who have no corn of their own. In mixing the meal of the individual struan, the woman kneading it mentions the name of the person for whom it is being made:
Progeny and prosperity to Donald,
Mystery of Michael, shielding of the Lord.
The individual struans of a family are uniform in size but irregular in form, some being three-cornered, symbolic of the Trinity; some five, symbolic of the Trinity, with Mary and Joesph added; some seven, symbolic of the seven mysteries; some nine, symbolic of the nine archangels; and some round, symbolic of eternity. Various ingredients are introduced into the small struans, as cranberries, bilberries, brambleberries, caraway seed, and wild honey. Those who make them and those for whom they are made vie with their friends who shall have the best and most varied ingredients. Many cautions are given to her who is making the struan to take exceptional care of it. Should it break before being fixed, it betokens ill to the household. Were the struan flag to fall and the struan with it, the omen is full of evil augury to the family. A broken struan is not used. The dry meal remaining on the baking-board after a struan is made, is put into a mogan, a footless stocking, and dusted over the flocks on the following day – being the Day of Michael – to bring them progeny and plenty and prosperity, and to ward from evil-eye, mischance and murrain. Occasionally the meal is preserved for a year and a day before being used.”28
In Barra, however, the Struan Micheil was made only of bere (barley meal), and a caudle of eggs and milk was applied thickly to one side of the toasted bannock and placed in front of the fire again so the caudle could brown. A second layer was applied and then allowed to brown, followed by a third layer; then the bannock was turned and the caudle applied to that side in the same way. This was then reserved by the Barra housewives for any visitors who happened to come round on the day.29 Pennant also describes an oatcake that was “daubed with milk and eggs”, and comments, “The cake was so large as to consume two pecks of meal.”30
In more recent times, Isobel Grant has recorded that while such bannocks were made as savoury oatcakes with a mixture of all the cereals grown on the croft, they are now made with treacle, or with flour, currants and carraway seeds, coated in a batter of treacle, sugar, milk and flour.31 As a general trend, more recent bannocks tend to cater for a sweeter tooth.
Some folklore concerning the bonnach Samhuinn has survived, but particularly for the Hebrides McNeill has suggested that the tradition “was long since rededicated to Michael” – just over a month before Samhainn at Michaelmas on September 29.32
In Strathclyde, sour cakes were made for the fair of St Luke, which was held in October. These oatcakes were said to have been made only at this time of year, and were prepared eight to ten days before the fair was held:
“…a certain quantity of oatmeal is made into dough with warm water and laid up in a vessel to ferment. Being brought to a proper degree of fermentation and consistency, it is rolled up into balls, proportionable to the intended largeness of the cakes. With the dough there is commonly mixed a small quantity of sugar and a little aniseed or cinnamon. The baking is eecuted by women only, and they seldom began their work till after sunset, and a night or two before the fair. A large space of the house, chosen for the purpose, is marked out by a line drawn upon it. The area within it is considered as consecrated ground; and is not by any of the by-standers to be touched with impunity. A transgression incurs a small fine, which is always laid out on drink for the company.
This hallowed spot is occupied by six or eight women, all of whom, except the toaster, seat themselves on the ground in a circular figure having their feet turned towards the fire. (The fire was formerly in the middle of the floor.) Each of them is provided with a bake-board, about two feet square, which they hold on their knees. The woman who toasts the cakes, which is done on a girdle suspended over the fire, is called the Queen or Bride and the rest are styled her maidens. These are distinguished from one another by names given them for the occasion. She who sits next the fire, towards the east is called the Todler. Her companion on the left is called the Hodler; (these names are descriptive of the manner in which the women so called perform their part of the work. To todle, is to walk slowly like a child. To hodle is to move about more quickly), and the rest have arbitrary names given them by the Bride, as Mrs Baker, best and worst maids etc.
The operation is begun by the todler, who takes a ball of the dough, forms it into a small cake, and then casts it on the bakeboard of the hodler, who beats it out a little thinner. This being done, she, in her turn, throws it on the board of the neighbour; and thus it goes round from east to west, in the direction of the course of the sun, until it comes to the toaster, by which time it is as thin and smooth as a piece of paper. The first cake that is cast on the girdle is usually named as a gift to some well-known cuckold, from a superstitious opinion that thereby the rest will be preserved from mischance. Sometimes the cake is so thin as to be carried, by the current of air, up into the chimney.
As the baking is wholly performed by the hand, a great deal of noise is the consequence. The beats, however, are not irregular nor destitute of an agreeable harmony; especially when they are accompanied with vocal music, which is frequently the case. Great dexterity is necessary not only to beat out the cakes with no other instrument than the hand so that no part of them shall be thicker than another, but especially to cast them from one board to another without ruffling or breaking them.
The toasting requires considerable skill, for which reason the most experienced person in the company is chosen for that part of the work. One cake is sent round in quick succession, so that none of the company is suffered to remain idle. The whole is a scene of activity, mirth and diversion.”33
The similarities between the description here and other descriptions of how festival bannocks were made and consumed would suggest that despite the fact they were not made specifically at Samhainn, only near it, they may indeed originally have been associated with the festival. McNeill points out its original Samhainn associations may also be indicated by the fact that the woman who toasts the cakes is called the Queen or Bride, whose reign is supposed to end at this time as the Cailleach takes over.34
Another factor suggesting there was ’slippage’ of the bonnach Samthainn to an earlier time (or times) is the practice on Uist of placing a piece of bannock dough on the embers of the hearth until it was thoroughly burned, and then the person making the bannocks would throw behind it over her shoulder saying: “Here to thee, rascal (devil); stay behind me, stay from my kine.”35 The formula of this almost exactly echoes the practice of throwing pieces of bannock over the shoulder to the foxes, eagles and other predators at Bealltainn, to safeguard the livestock. If this practice originally took place at Samhainn, it would neatly mirror the Bealltainn tradition, giving a symmetry to it – one at the start of the light half of the year, and one at the start of the dark half of the year – both times of great supernatural danger.
The focus of making them communally around a fire, as at Bealltainn and the Moilean Moire (assuming that as evidence of the practice being transplanted from Lùnastal) supports the case, but also the designation of the toaster of the cakes as Bride, who is traditionally said to relinquish her reign to the Cailleach from the beginning of winter until her festival at spring lends further support to the theory.
With the rise of Calvinism in Scotland in the sixteenth century, the celebration associated with Christmas were banned – or at least, attempts were made to ban them, or anything that wasn’t expressly found in the Bible.36 The efforts by the church was never entirely successful, since in many parts the festivities of the Christmas period were simply transferred to New Year’s Day instead, or carried out regardless. This has resulted in a curious repetition of certain traditions over the festive period, in some places associated with Christmas, in other places associated with New Year’s.
At Yuletime (referring to the Christmas season which began on Christmas Eve), special thin bannocks were made that were quartered to symbolise the cross, before being baked. These were often served with the Yule Kebbuck, a special cheese that was flavoured with carraway,37 being reminiscent of the bannocks and cheese that were served at the birth of any newborn baby.
Christmas Eve in the Highlands was often called Oidhche nam Bonnagan, Bannock Night, in honour of the festival cakes that were made to herald the Nativity, and the practice is recorded in one of the traditional Christmas carols sung at this time in the Hebrides, the Duan Nollaig:
Hey the bannock, ho the bannock,
Hey the bannock, air a’ bheo,
Telling us that Christ is born,
King of Kings and Lord of Lords.38
However, on Lewis, Bannock Night referred to January 12, New Year’s Day Old Style, when young people would go out knocking on doors for donations of food. Traditionally, one of the youths would gain entrance to the house and circle the fire (usually situated in the middle of the room), and members of the household would try to hit him as he recited a traditional rhyme. Armed only with a calf or sheep skin to ward off the blows, if he succeeded in not being hit by anyone he would be rewarded with food such as bannocks, butter, scones, jam and the like, which would be put into the sack the group brought with them, and on they would go to the next house.39 As at Là Fhèill Brìghde, once the festive feast had been collected from the houses the youths would assemble at a house and enjoy the fare they had collected with much merriment and entertainment.
In South Uist, a similar rite was performed at Hogmanay, except the leader would carry a smouldering sheep skin that had been smeared in tallow. On arriving at a house the group would circle it three times in the sunwise direction, and upon being invited in the leader would go round the housewife three times sunwise. If the sheep skin stopped smouldering it was taken as a bad omen for the household, but regardless of the outcome the housewife would give the group of boys three bannocks, and in return they would give her one from the sack. Before leaving the boys would be given more food, and if the housewife had given generously the group would leave a blessing on the house, but if not they would build a cairn outside it (or go round the house widdershins).40
During first-footing, when the men would set out to visit houses just after midnight at Hogmanay, a specially made thick bannock would be made for the men to carry, along with a bottle of whisky in order to bring good wishes of prosperity upon the houses visited. It was unlucky for women to be the first visitor to a house in the New Year, and so any women present in a group would make sure they were not at the front of the group as they knocked on doors.41
Sour cakes (Soor Poos), instead of the more traditional oatmeal bannock, were made from oatmeal and the water poured off from sowens in some parts of Scotland, and were baked before dawn on Christmas morning, rather than on Christmas Eve itself. It was traditional to try and keep the bannock whole throughout the day, in order to ensure prosperity in the coming year; a broken bannock foretold terrible disaster.42
This belief was often associated with the Hogmanay bannock as well, and James Napier gives a description of the type of Hogmanay bannock that he grew up with as a child in Partick (then a village, but now subsumed into the west end of Glasgow):
On Hogmanay evening, children were washed before going to bed. An oat bannock was baked for each child: it was nipped round the edge, had a hole in the centre, and was flavoured with carvey (caraway) seed. Great care was taken that none of these bannocks should break in the firing, as such occurrence was regarded as a very unlucky omen for the child whose bannock was thus damaged. It denoted illness or death during the year…In the morning we children got our bannocks to breakfast. They were small, and it was unlucky to leave any portion of them, although this was frequently done.”43
McNeill notes that the Hogmanay bannock Napier describes is identical to the Yule-brunie baked in Shetland,44 and indeed the caraway flavouring seems to be a seasonal identifier as well.
Special types of bannocks were made for other occasions, not necessarily related to a specific fixed festival or Quarter Day, and could also form the focus of a charm to ensure healing, prosperity or protection.
The bonnach lurgainn, or ‘leg cake’ was given to the herd or dairymaid when they brought news of calving or foaling, since naturally a safe delivery would mean extra livestock and a fresh, abundant supply of milk in the case of cows.45 Horses seem to have been a sign of prestige, and of course, the more a family owned, the better off they were considered to be. In Highland Folk Ways, I F Grant remarks that such bannocks were often coated in a thin batter of eggs, milk and butter in later times, just like at certain festivals (presumably she is referring to those of Bealltainn and Lùnastal, for a start).
On a bride’s wedding day the bonnach bainnse (wedding bannock) was made by a ‘wise matron’ who then broke the bannock over the bride’s head as she came into the house upon her return from church to ensure a prosperous marriage and lots of children.46
One way to cure a cow that was believed to have been bewitched or was suffering from the effects of the Evil Eye was to milk her through the hole in a bannock specially made for the occasion. Bannocks (the oatcake variety) were also used to avert the Evil Eye in the home, and in this case it was supposed to be toasted until it was burnt and smoking (the smoke presumably clearing the house of evil spirits). Oatcakes made with caraway seed (carvy oatcakes) were sewn into women’s clothing – specifically the bodice – in order to ward off evil spirits as well.47
These banishing associations can also be seen in the practice of putting a bannock above the door to prevent a newborn baby from being taken away by the fairies and being replaced with a changeling, and they were also baked as an aid for teething. The teethin’ bannock (or teethin plaster) was given to the child at the first sign of teething, and, “It was baked of oatmeal and butter or cream, sometimes with the addition of a ring, in the presence of a few neighbours, and without a single word being spoken by the one baking it.”48 It was given to the child, who was allowed to play with it or chew it as it wished, until it was broken. A small piece was always put in the mouth of the baby if it hadn’t already done so itself, and then a piece of the bannock was then taken away by everyone present – presumably for each person to take a little of the pain and discomfort away with them.
The cryin’ bannock was made at the birth of a child, which was often a very social occasion. The cryin’ bannock was often made with cream and sugar added, and was served to the kimmers (gossips) who would arrive for the birth. This special bannock was often served with the cryin’ kebback. The feast to celebrate the safe arrival of a newborn was called the merry meht.49
1 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 1, 1957, p57.
2 The struan Micheal in particular was made from all the types of grain grown on the farm to represent the fruits of the field; see Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p590.
3 McNeill, The Scots Kitchen, 1993, p175.
4 McNeill details various recipes and types of bannocks in The Scots Kitchen, 1993, p169-185.
5 Grant, Highland Folk-Ways, 1961, p297-298.
6 McNeill, The Scots Kitchen, 1993, p172; Napier, Folk Lore or Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within This Century, 1879, p159-160.
7 Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p298.
8 Ronald Black quoting MacRury, 1896 in The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p384-385.
9 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p10.
10 MacKenzie, Scottish Folk-Lore and Folk Life, 1935, p270. Ronald Black quoting MacRury, 1896, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p384-385. Gregor expands on this, saying: “The cakes, when served up, had to be laid on the trencher with what was called ‘the right side’ uppermost. The right was the side that was uppermost when placed first on the ‘girdle’ to be baked. To have placed cakes with the wrong side uppermost before any one was accounted an insut. Tradition has it that it was only to the traitor who betrayed Wallace to the English and to his descendants that cakes were served up in this way. Hence the proverb:- ‘Turn the bannock wi a fauze Menteith.’ ” – Gregor, Notes on the Fol-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p31.
11 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p127.
12 McNeill quotes a Miss Goodrich-Freer, writing in reference to Uist in 1902, who said: “Father Allan…remembers seeing his grandmother make one about twenty-five years ago. (It) is smaller than that made a St Michael’s, but is made in the same way.” McNeill, The Silver Bough, Volume 2, 1959, p67.
13 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica,1992, p580-581.
14 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p582.
15 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p43.
16 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p43-44.
17 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p43-44.
18 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p67.
19 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p58-59.
20 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p58.
21 McNeill, The Scots Kitchen, 1993, p174.
22 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p68.
23 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p59-60; Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p553.
24 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p98.
25 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p98-99; Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p588.
26 McNeill, The Scots Kitchen, 1993.
27 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p102.
28 Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1992, p590-591.
29 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p107.
30 Pennant, A Tour in Scotland, 1772, p272; McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 2, 1959, p103.
31 Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p358.
32 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 3, 1961, p21.
33 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 3, 1961, p21-22.
34 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 3, 1961, p22.
35 Henderson, Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, 1911, p258.
36 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 3, 1961, p58.
37 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 3, 1961, p63.
38 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 3, 1961, p65.
39 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 3, 1961, p94.
40 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 3, 1961, p91.
41 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 3, 1961, p104ff.
42 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 3, 1961, p103.
43 Napier, Folk Lore or Superstitious Beliefs in the West of Scotland Within This Century, 1879, p159-160.
44 McNeill, The Silver Bough Volume 3, 1961, p103.
45 Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p128. Ronald Back explains the meaning of the odd name – that lurgann refers to a hind leg (in the case of a horse or cow) or the lower leg of a human, and it likely serves as ‘not a euphemism but a noa-term – for foaling or calving in the same way that glùn (‘knee’) serves for childbirth, e.g. bean-ghlùin ‘mid-wife’, p385.
46 Henderson, Survivals in Belief Among the Celts, 1911, p251.
47 Grant, Highland Folk Ways, 1961, p297; Fairweather, Highland Heritage, 1984, p40.
48 Gregor, Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, 1881, p9. See also Margaret Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, p27.
49 Bennett, Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave, 2004, p6; McNeill, The Scots Kitchen, 1993, p175.