10.4 Aittis an Bere

by Annie Matheson

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Atis, Aitis, Aittis, n. pl. Oats; Bere, Beir, n. Barley.

For generations, oats and barley have provided the Scots with their staples in both food and drink. Most people, if asked to name the five best known traditional Scottish foods or drinks would include whisky, haggis and porridge in their choice, all of which are produced from oats or barley.

Scotland’s climate is too cool and damp to produce large quantities of wheat, but barley and oats do well, especially in the east where rainfall is lighter and there are more hours of sunshine to ripen and dry the grain. Consequently, these crops, but particularly oats, featured prominently in the past and many gastronomic variations were produced with oatmeal as the main ingredient.

It was common, particularly in the north-east, to make a week’s supply of porridge and keep it in a drawer so that slices could easily be cut off for a snack. Sowans were also a well-known peasant food, made from fermented oat husks which were boiled and drained until they formed a kind of sour gelatinous mass. Robert Burns describes ‘buttered sowans wi fragrant lunt (vapour)’ as part of the feasting at Halloween. Bannocks, although sometimes made from peasemeal or flour, were usually thick cakes of oatmeal.

Activity 6

Follow this link [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] and look at the very large section on the combinations of food with oatmeal. Note down some of the foods that were added to oatmeal to produce another variation on the menu.

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Did you find a lot of different food items that were added to oats or oatmeals to create another variation on the menu? Some of the food items that you might have found are: salt, butter, stock, milk, kail, ale.

Have you tried any of these before?

The predominance of oatmeal made the Scottish indigenous diet a very healthy one as oatmeal not only provides protein and fibre, but helps to reduce cholesterol and is said to protect against cancer. Modern chefs add all kinds of things to porridge, from bananas and blueberries to courgettes and avocados. The popular porridge-courgette mix is known in North America as zoats (z for zucchini, the American name for courgette).

This image shows a transmogrified bowl of porridge, which might be a sign of the fact that oats have become a fashionable ingredient and even contribute to an ‘oat cuisine’.

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Porridge with banana and fresh berries

Froissier, a 14th century chronicler, describes how each soldier in Robert the Bruce’s army carried a little flat stone and some oatmeal. A paste of oatmeal and water placed on the heated stone made him a bannock when the stone was heated, like a primitive griddle, over a fire. The Scots word for such a piece of cooking equipment is different but still confusingly similar to the English term, it is girdle.

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Making oat flatbread on a metal girdle

This extract from The Scots Kitchen, by F. Marian McNeill gives you an insight into a well-known oats-related tradition at Scottish universities.

Many a ‘lad o pairts’* who ultimately rose to fame studied…by guttering candlelight in a garret in which one of the most conspicuous articles of furniture was a sack of oatmeal, and regular holidays were granted by the authorities to enable the poor student to tramp back to his native glen and replenish his stock.

*a very clever lad

(McNeill, 1971, p. 34)

Activity 7

Follow this link to find out more about Mealie Monday. Take note of the key information and write a brief description of the Mealie Monday tradition.

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This is a model answer, which contains key points about Mealie Monday. Your answer might be different.

Mealie Monday was a traditional Scottish University holiday to enable students to go home to replenish their oatmeal sack after the winter.As the students' country homes or farms were often some distance away from the city universities, an occasional long weekend was scheduled to permit them to replenish their supplies.

Originally, and until as recently as 1885, these Mealie Mondays would occur regularly; the University of Edinburgh, for example, had one on the first Monday of every month. However, by 1896 Edinburgh established just one official holiday, on the second Monday in February. This tradition continued and was widely observed in Scotland during the late 19th and 20th century, with Glasgow and Aberdeen Universities also having the academic holiday.

In 2006, Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith reported that "[it] was still celebrated some 30 years ago, when I was a student, although nobody used it to fetch oatmeal”

(McCall Smith, My life in a single bite, 2006)

10.3 Crops and food production

10.5 Mining in Scotland