The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 7/Bread

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FORTY or fifty years ago not much wheaten bread was used by the common people in the North of Scotland. Oatmeal—and barley-meal cakes—formed the chief bread. When they were spoken of, they were not called "oatcake," or "oat-cakes," but "brehd,"[1] "ait-brehd," or "behr-brehd," or "ait-breed," "bere-breed," according to the pronunciation of the district, while wheaten bread went by the name of "fite brehd," or "fite breed," i.e. white bread, and a slice of such went by the name of "a sheeve o' loaf," or "a sheeve o' fite brehd."

Oaten cakes are baked on a round piece of iron hung over a bright red fire. This utensil is named a "girdle." The oat-meal is mixed with water in a wooden or earthenware dish called "the bossie," and well wrought in it. It is then turned out on a square board called the "bake-brod," or "baking-brod," dusted over with meal, and again well wrought, and kneaded. It is then rolled out to a convenient size and thickness by "the roller," or "rolling-pin." The dry meal is then swept off the upper surface, and the cake is turned, either by placing another board over it, and reversing the boards, or by tossing it. The upturned side is next brushed clean of any dry meal on it. The cake is then placed on the "girdle." When sufficiently baked on one side, it is divided into four pieces by drawing the "baking-knife" through the centre, first from one side, and then from the other. The four pieces are called "quarters," or "quorters," according to the pronunciation of the district.

Old people looked with much reverence on "bread," as well as meal. To abuse either the one or the other was regarded as profane. To trample it under foot or cast the smallest quantity into the fire was set down as nearly allied to crime. Every crumb had to be most carefully swept up, and thrown forth as food for some of God's creatures. It was believed that any one guilty of casting meal or bread into the fire, or in any way destroying either the one or the other, would assuredly sooner or later come to want. Children were trained by parents who were well-disposed, honest, and thrifty to avoid the abuse of meal and bread in every way, and to look upon them as God's gift.[2]

There were some who had very much the same respect for milk.


1. If a young woman is in the habit of burning bread when baking, or letting the meal fall on the floor or in the fire, she will not prove a thrifty wife, and the saying is :

"Never mairry the lass,
It (that) burns the bread or spills the meal,
She'll ne'er dee weel t' child nor chiel" (man).


Of one that spills the meal when baking the saying was : "She'll come to be glaid t' lick the mill-waas (mill-walls)." (Pitsligo.) Told by one to whom the words have been said.

2. If the leaven is not properly made, holes break in the cake when being rolled out, and the baker is reproved with the words that "she is bakin' oot the miller's ee," or "the miller's een." (Pitsligo.) Told by one to whom the words have been said.

3. Before Christmas, as much bread was baked as sufficed for the whole period of it. It was called "the Yeel brehd." (Keith.) In Strathdon the cakes for the Christmas season had all to be baked before daybreak. The usual practice is to begin to bake by two or three o'clock in the morning, so as to have the work completed in proper time. In Pitsligo the baking of it began after all the household was settled up for the night, and finished before morning. Told by one who was in the habit of doing it.

4. A woman should not sing during the time she is baking. As long as she sings during the time she is baking she will greet (shed tears) before the bread is eaten. (Pitsligo.) The notion in Corgarff is that if a woman sings during the time of baking she will lose a near relative by death. The same notion is held with regard to the washing of clothes and the making up of a bed.

5. If the bread breaks in the act of being baked, strangers will share in the eating of it. (Corgarff, Pitsligo.)

6. A woman when baking should not allow the "girdle" to hang empty over the fire. As long as it hangs empty, so long will she have to sit on the "bride-steel" (bride-stool, i.e. the seat on which the bride sat before the marriage ceremony began) waiting the coming of the bridegroom. (Pitsligo, Peterhead.)

7. A cake should not be turned twice on the girdle, and the baker is always most careful in lifting a corner of it and examining whether it is sufficiently "fired" (baked) before she cuts and turns it. (Pitsligo.) If an unmarried woman did so, she would become the mother of an illegitimate child. (Pitsligo.) If a woman great with child did so, her child would become "cake-grown," i.e. the child would become bent up, and the belly would rest on the thighs. (Aberdour.) Told by an old woman who, when a girl, has heard her mother and others speaking of it.

8. If the cakes are burnt in the baking, the baker will shed tears before they are eaten. (Peterhead.) In Pitsligo, burnt cakes mean that the baker will get something to cause anger before they are all used.

9. To break off "the croon (crown, i.e. top) o' the quarter," when first beginning to eat bread, was set down as a breach of good manners. One must begin with the broad end. (Keith, personal.) In other parts of the country (Inverurie, Corgarff) it was accounted unlucky to do so. The feeling still lingers in many places and with many I have spoken to on the subject, and I confess I have it strong myself.

10. In baking, the baker has to take carefully out of the "bossie" all the leaven of each cake. Unless this is done the leaven accumulates round its sides and contracts its size. Hence the saying, "Ye're baken' oot o' the bossie," which is applied in various ways, e.g. to one who leaves too little room to work in, commonly to one who has little skill and energy, or to one who surrounds himself or herself with so many things as to hinder free play for work.

11. When children were putting aside the small pieces of bread on the trencher, the reproof was, "Broken brehd (or breed) macks hale bairns."

12. The trencher on which the bread was placed was made of wood and called "the man," or "the breed man." (Pitsligo.)

  1. Eh=eh, in German sehr.
  2. See Volkskunde (Gent), vol. ii. pp. 9-12.