Hear, Land o’ Cakes, and brither Scots,
Frae Maidenkirk to Johnie Groat’s
In his poem ‘the Late Captain Grose’s Peregrinations Thro’ Scotland’, Robert Burns referred to his homeland as the ‘Land o Cakes’. This phrase had previously been used to describe Scotland by Burns’ idol Robert Fergusson. Although today this phrase seems more like a Willy Wonka Swedger Scotland, the cakes referred to are not battenbergs, swiss rolls, or even fruitcakes, but rather oatcakes.
The rough or smooth, circular or triangular, porage-like biscuits might not seem particularly special to us, but oatcakes or ‘bannocks’ have been eaten by Scots on the move or at home since at least the middle ages. Oats were particularly popular in Scotland as they were one of few grains that was hardy enough to survive in the harsh climate we know, endure, and joke about.
At the same time as Robert was writing poetry for ‘the Land o Cakes’, Dr. Johnson was writing his famous (and not at all impartial) dictionary. In his dictionary Johnson described Oats as a grain which ‘…in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” In response to this lexicographical slur Lord Elibank is said to have retorted “Yes, and where else will you see such horses and such men?”
Once the staple food of the poor in Scotland, oatcakes are now more likely to accompany an expensive single malt whisky or appear alongside an array of continental cheeses. In fact, it may now be that the phrase ‘land o cakes’ no longer applies to Scotland. Perhaps ‘land o chips’ would be more accurate, or ‘country o pakora’.
The average Scottish citizen is undoubtedly better nourished than in the eighteenth century. However, the move from a low-meat diet of vegetables and oats, to one consisting of processed foods high in sugar and salt, has not been entirely positive.
So on this day when we use up our eggs, flour and milk to make a pancake feast, let’s spare a thought for the everyday meal-based meals of millions of Scots across the centuries, who lived in this land o cakes.