Cereal terms in the DOST record
Author(s): Iseabail Macleod
Copyright holder(s): Iseabail Macleod: Reproduced with the kind permission of Edinburgh University Press
What does the terminology of cereal crops and their products in the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue tell us about the language and diet of Lowland Scotland in the period? Evidence suggests that up until the middle of the sixteenth century, cereals played a secondary role to meat and dairy products in the Scottish diet, especially in the pastoral areas of the Highlands and the Southern Uplands. Fish was also important, especially on 'fish days' (in accordance with the fast days of the Church). Cereals were always important and after 1550 became dominant, as the most economic way to feed a growing population. The earliest staple crops were oats and bere, the former with greater emphasis in the Lowlands and the latter in the Highlands. Bere is a hardy four- or six-row variety of barley (the usual barley being two-row in more recent times). It had been a vital crop since prehistoric times and is still grown in a few places. Bere bannocks from the Boardhouse Mill near Birsay in Orkney are on sale there at the present time, and also furth of Orkney. With the agricultural improvements of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, oats gradually became the main staple crop. Wheat appears early in the record, but in the medieval period it was clearly the food of the privileged, a cash crop and not normally consumed by ordinary people. Rye bread is now found mainly in delicatessens, but rye did have a role in medieval times, partly, but by no means only, as fodder for livestock. In any discussion of the ingredients of bread and cakes, there should also be mention of legumes, as flour was also made from pease and beans, sometimes grown and ground together and along with grains.
DOST is rich in sources for these terms in all their variety. General histories of course make some mention of crops, but the best sources are administrative documents, including court and burgh records, and the Treasurer's Accounts. Literary works also produce instances, as in Robert Henryson's Fable, 'The taill of the paddok and the mous' (a. 1500):
'Seis thow', quod scho, 'off corne ȝone ioly flat,
Off ryip aitis, off barlie, peis, and quheit?'
There are a few specialist sources, such as "The Baxter Books of St Andrews" (Macadam 1903), the records of the incorporation of baxters there from 1548 to 1861. University records include diet lists and accounts for food and though some are in Latin, others are in the vernacular. Later in the period personal records such as letters, diaries and estate account books contribute.
The vocabulary of cereal varieties
'Corn' in modern usage tends to refer to the staple crop of a country: maize in the USA, wheat in England, oats in Scotland and Ulster; SND notes it as referring to bere in Orkney, and this usage is recorded in the rentals of the bishopric of Orkney c.1500: 'In Sanday etc., malt scat was paid in barley, and called "bere scat, beir scat, bere scat, scat ordeir, and corne scat"' (quoted in "Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland" 1884: 265). Formerly the word had a more general meaning, often referring to a variety of cereal crops, as in Barbour's "Brus" (1375): 'Syndri cornys ... Wox rype to wyn to mannys fude', or in the Aberdeen burgh records of 1689: 'The corns and other grouth … eaten and destroyed by … Major Mackay and his forses'. (This refers to the government army of Hugh Mackay of Scourie marching against the rebel army of Viscount Dundee, eating its way across the countryside and destroying as much as possible to prevent its use by the rebels.)
'Bere' appears widely in DOST in several forms, including 'beir', 'bear', and 'bair'. Does the last indicate pronunciation? In modern Scots the /e/ pronunciation is found north of the Tay, but some of the DOST citations appear to be more southerly. 'Bere' often appears in citations along with other cereals, especially 'aitis': 'The Ile called Leuiss ... [has] plentie of beir and aites' (Dalrymple  in Cody 1885-95:I, 57/27). The form 'big(g)' for six-or four-rowed barley (from Old Norse 'bygg') occurs in SND, but does not seem to be in the DOST record, though it occurs in Northern English. 'Barlie'/'barley' forms are rare in the DOST period, though they appear quite early: see the Henryson citation above. 'The five barlie laaues and ij fisches' in Murdoch Nisbet's Gospel of St John of c. 1520 (Chapter vi, verse 9), may be an example of his known tendency to anglicise. 'Barley' also seems to be used to distinguish different kinds of 'bere': "Edinburgh Burgh Records" in 1600 mention 'barlie beir cum in at Leyth', and in 'An account of Buchan and what is remarkable therein', c1680: 'Sometimes they sow bear and reap oats, but it is not every kind of bear that does this, but a peculiar sort which is called barley oats' (Robertson and Grub 1843-69: 95).
Any consideration of 'bere'/'barlie' as a food crop must of course take account of its use in the production of ale and whisky. Since ale was the standard beverage until it was replaced by tea in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a large proportion of the crop would have gone into its production.
'Ait'/'ate' appears in the earliest records and indeed the Scots forms are found throughout the entire DOST and SND record. 'Ote'/'oat' forms begin to creep in during the sixteenth century and by the late seventeenth seem to be taking over in formal writing. In the Glasgow University accounts of the provision for the common table, 1639-46 (Glasgow University Archives 2763), 'oat bread' appears in 1639 and 'ait breid' in 1645, presumably noted by a different and less anglicised officer of the university. 'Eit'/'eat' forms appear from the late sixteenth century (but do not seem to survive into the modern period): 'Eit bread, ill ail, and all things are ane eik' from a sonnet by Alexander Montgomerie in the 1590s. And in 1608 the "Baxter Books of St Andrews" have: 'Quhatsumewir brother ... sall baik eat bread heireftir, except it be of cleane eat meill, ... sall pay iiii li. money'. 'Ait caikis' appear in the Exchequer Rolls for 1588: 'For broun breid and ait caikes, spendit in his majesties hous'. 'Ate brede' is in fact better documented: 'The quhitt breid and aitt breid to be sauld ... as the prices of quhitt and meill stands for the tyme', from the "Annals of Banff" (1549), and see the Montgomerie citation above. The record may be amplified by a quotation from the diary of Johnston of Warriston for 2 June 1649, quoting the orders for the Covenanting army: '... to everie souldier two pund weght of aite bread in the day and twenty eight ounce of wheat bread and ane pynt of aile in the day, ...' ("Scottish History Society" xxvi 1896: 55). Here the Scots is thinning out, but is still quite strong.
There are rare occurrences in the seventeenth century of 'haver' meaning oats, specifically noted as 'bearded wild oats' by Robert Sibbald in his "Scotia Illustrata" (Sibbald 1684: II 24). From Old Norse or Middle Dutch, the word occurs only in Scots and Northern English dialects. Compare modern Dutch 'haver' and German 'Hafer' (whence English 'haversack', originally a bag to carry oats for horses). The term continues in Scots into the modern period, as in Thomas Carlyle's "Frederick the Great" (XII, x): 'The hay, straw, barley and haver, were eaten away'. A Dumfriesshire correspondent for SND noted in 1925: 'In Canonbie …the people always referred to oatmeal as "heffer or hever meal"'.
'Mele'/'meil', as with 'corn' referring to oats, usually refers in Scots to oatmeal, unless qualified by another cereal ('bere-mele', 'ry-mele'). This is quite clear in some citations: 'xxxij bollis of wittell be yeir that is to say twa pairt mele and third pairt beir' from the Boyd Family Papers (1548); 'A boll of oates ... will give a boll of meal, and a boll of wheat … will give a boll of flowr' from the MSS of John Skene of Hallyards in the 1690s. The modern English spelling 'meal' (the commonest in modern Scots) appears in 1550 (in the "Breadalbane Collection"): 'Fourtene bollis gud and sufficient meale ... halfe qhuite meile weill schillit', with clear evidence of the lack of spelling rules in Older Scots. Other forms include 'meel', 'meyl', 'mill(e', 'male'/'mail'. The /e/ pronunciation in modern Scots is recorded mainly north of the Forth (and many of the DOST citations are easily identifiable to these areas), but SND also records it for Wigtownshire.
'Grotis'/'grottis'/'groats', meaning hulled oats or barley, occurs from the late fifteenth century. Henryson's Fable 'The Two Mice' has: 'And sekkis full of grotis, meill and malt'. In the "Glasgow Burgh Records" we find in 1649: 'It is thoght they wald have kaill, and so for this must have twa peckis of grottis in the monethe ...'. This is on the setting up of 'Hutchesones Hospitall', an orphanage funded by the brothers George and Thomas Hutcheson (whose trust later also set up the Hutcheson's Grammar Schools in Glasgow). Fergusson's "Scottish Proverbs" in the 1590s has 'Of Weillie persons ... He kens his groats among other folks kail'; this is repeated in Kelly's "Proverbs" (1721), and in (more) modern Scots: 'There's nae dout he kent his groats in ither folk's kail', found in "Inwick" by J. P. Hunter (Hunter 1894: 9).
'Quhete' appears early in the record, with many variant forms including 'quheit', 'quheet', 'qwheyt': 'Off wyne and wax, oyle and qwheyt .. sho had copy greyt' from Wyntoun's Chronicle (c. 1420). 'Quhite'/'quit(t)' forms seem to be mainly central and north-eastern, coming in during the sixteenth century, and they can in some citations be confused with 'quhite' meaning 'white' (especially as white bread is likely to be made from wheat). In some citations however wheat is clearly the meaning: 'Alsweill quhyt breid as aitt breid' in the "Kirkcudbright Burgh Records" in 1657. 'Wheat'/'wheit'/'white' forms appear in the late sixteenth century. Among the earliest are three from the first two known pieces of lexicography in Scots, Andrew Duncan's "Apologia Etymologiae" of 1595: 'Ador, far, fine wheat', and 'Siligo, fine white', and John Skene's "De Verborum Significatione" (1597): 'The last of wheate' in a list of commodities and their export dues in the entry for 'bullion'. In the records of the Perth Presbytery of 1605, we find 'Meal, bear and whyt ' (Laing MSS I, 103). 'White' forms continue into the modern period and are recorded by SND for North-East Scotland c. 1930. The word also appears in the form 'fayte' in 1585, a rare early spelling occurrence of the f- for wh- of north-east dialect: 'The thrid of the fayte of the abbasie of Arbrothe', from a list of the payments in kind due to the superintendent of Angus and Mearns.
'Ry' seems to have been a common enough grain, often listed with others, as in the 1513 "Treasurer's Accounts": 'Sour breid furneist be the comptrollar, half qhueit half ry', or in the 1659 "Irvine Muniments": 'Corne [presumably oats] beir wheit peis ry and uthir stuff grindable'. 'For certane quheit and ry breid' appears in the "Canongate Court Book" in 1569. "Ruggam breid" meaning 'rye bread', in the "Buccleuch Household Book" in 1631, is from Middle Dutch 'rogge(n)-', 'ruggenbroot'; the Dutch influence is explained by the fact that at the time Lord Buccleuch was 'at the leaguer of Bergen op zoom'. Compare modern Dutch 'roggebrood', modern German 'Roggenbrot'. Dutch is probably also the origin of the forms 'ryne', 'riens', 'ryens', occcuring for example in the "Edinburgh Burgh Records" in 1548: '... the statutes be kepit in all poynts anent ryne breid oattes hay candill and pultre ...' and 'Of ryens 2 boll 2 firl left standing in the barne' in the "Diurnals of Sir James Nicholson of Cockburnspath" for 16 March 1666. 'Brashloche' appears once in DOST in 1638, meaning 'a mixture of rye with oats and barley': 'The sawing of ane boll brashloche estimat to the third corne, extending to thrie bollis brashloche' ("Dumfries Testaments").
'Pese', collective term for peas, was used in various farinaceous products, as is clear from some of its citations, for instance in 1572 (in a poem in the Bannatyne MS, 'The Lamentatioun of Lady Scotland'): 'And glaid to get Peis breid and watter Caill'. Beans were also used, usually mixed with pease and grains: 'Sum vset breid of ry, sum of qhueit, sum of peise or beanes' (Dalrymple  in Cody 1885-95: I, 89/20). Sir John Foulis of Ravelston notes 'Peasbonocks and turkie eggs' in his accounts for March 1690.
Mastillion and mashloch
'Mastillion' and 'mashloch' refer to a mixture of grains or to bread made from their flour. The first form is shared with Middle English, deriving from Old French 'mesteillon' etc., probably meaning wheat mixed with rye; the latter is an altered Scots form, first appearing, as 'maschlache', in the "Aberdeen Burgh Records" in 1445. It is not possible to tell from the DOST quotations what the mixture was, but in the modern period 'masloch', or more commonly 'mashlum', means a mixture of grains or grains and legumes, such as oats and barley, peas and beans, grown together and ground into meal or flour, used to make a coarse bread, and to feed livestock.
'Rice', an upper-class food in the medieval period, imported from southern Europe, appears early in the record, with a vernacular mention in the Latin of the "Exchequer Rolls" for 1343: 'Pro … decem libris de ryse'. In 1597 the "Household Books of James VI and Anne" have 'Ane pund ryise' and in 1631 the "Buccleuch Household Book" has the more anglicised 'A pound of ryst'.
Rice apart, what is striking is the wide range of cereals being grown, and the fact that they were sometimes grown together, as part of a farming strategy which encompassed cash as well as subsistence crops. Variety in the latter was of course a partial insurance against the failure of any one cereal crop.
Forms of consumption: bread and cakes
The processing of the grain by the miller and the intricate patterns of astriction to the mill have a technical and legal vocabulary which is beyond the scope of this article. But the forms assumed by the processed cereal after baking or other cooking are an essential further chapter in any study of the vocabulary of cereals. Here too the DOST record reveals a wide variety of terms in use at the time, many of them surviving to the present.
'Brede'/'breid' in its modern meaning appears in various forms from the fifteenth century, sometimes qualified by the cereal it is made from: 'ait breid', 'bere brede', 'quheit breid'. It also means a loaf or roll, as in: 'For ane galloun off aill and twa braid tane vp to the stepill to the … wrychtis' from the "Edinburgh Dean of Guild Court Revenue Account" of 1590. This usage is noted in Jamieson's "Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language" (1825): 'The term is still vulgarly used by bakers in this sense'. In modern, especially North-East, Scots 'breid' also means oatcake. While there is no sign of this usage in DOST, one or two citations might suggest something other than a yeast-risen dough: 'Thai hed na breyd bot ry caikis and fustean skonnis maid of flour' in "The Complaynte of Scotland" (1549).
'Laf'/'laif' appears in its modern English meaning throughout the DOST record, with various forms, including 'leif'/'leaf' as well the more anglicised 'lofe'/'loaf', etc. In modern Scots it has the additional meaning of 'bread', especially wheat bread, to distinguish it from 'breid' meaning 'oatcakes', also in the form 'laif bred'/'loaf bread'. Not so very long ago an elderly (Gaelic-speaking) relative of mine, requesting bread with his soup, said 'Hae ye a bittie loaf?' Again this seems to be a modern development.
'Cake'/'caik' however appears early in its modern Scots meaning of 'oatcake': 'The French men ... learned to eatt ... caikes, which at thare entrie thei skorned' appears in John Knox's "History of the Reformation in Scotland" in the 1560s. This meaning is the origin of the expression 'land o cakes' to designate Scotland. It first appears (in the "Blairs Papers") in 1659: 'I am in the land of cayks where all miseryes doe sheem to me mirth and giofulnes'.
'Bake'/'baik' meaning a biscuit is recorded in Scots from the early sixteenth century. "Edinburgh Burgh Records" for 1523 have: 'Anent the flour baiks and fadges that cumes fra landwart into this toune to sell'. 'Ane pynt of aill and ane baick' in the "Irvine Muniments" of 1686 is echoed in "Maybole Past and Present" by R Lawson (1885): 'with a glass of spirits and a bake' (p. 22). Not recorded in English, the usage survives to the present day in Scotland.
'Bannok'/'bonnok', meaning a round flattish cake, seems to have been used in Scotland and Northern England for items with various ingredients over the centuries and still has a somewhat vague reference. It usually refers to an unleavened dough, but one of its modern manifestations, the Selkirk bannock, is a yeasted, fairly rich fruit loaf. The Pitcaithly bannock on the other hand is an embellished form of shortbread, with chopped almond and peel. But most of the evidence, old and new, is of a fairly plain cake, baked on a girdle, as with the bere bannocks noted in the Introduction to this chapter. The earliest DOST citation, of about 1568, is 'Beir bonnokkis with thame thay tak', from a poem about pedlar rogues in the Bannatyne MS. Two quotations from Pitcairn's "Criminal Trials" suggest different ingredients: 'Quha the samin nycht, buik the meill in bannokis [and] eit thairof' (1596) and 'Scho …tuk the blude of it [sc. a red cock], and scho buke a bannok thairof with floure' (1597). Scottish Gaelic 'bonnach' has similar meanings and both DOST and SND derive it as probably from Scots. OED however suggests the reverse. There are other theories; Alexander MacBain's "Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language" (1911) suggests a common origin in Latin 'pānicum', 'pānis', 'bread'.
'Bap' in modern usage usually refers to a softish floury roll, of different shapes, and this may well have been the meaning in the DOST period: 'xj vnce of qhueit bread gaif 8 d, and bappis of nyne for xij d' in the "Diurnal of remarkable occurrents", dating from the 1570s (Thomson 1833), and 'in beakinge of bunnes … oat lowes, kaikis and bappis to the tawernis' in the "Burgh Laws of Dundee" in 1643. In recent decades the bap has reached English bakeries.
'Fage'/'fadge' is defined by DOST simply as 'A flat thick loaf', with the earliest recording in the "Aberdeen Burgh Records" in 1442: 'At the baxtares baake na faiges'. "The Baxter Book of St Andrews" for 1598 has: 'To baike baikes, or faiges, or bread leawes to gang to the sea'. The word, as 'fadge', is recorded in SND in south-east Scotland in 1950, and, in the modern period at least, seems to have often meant a loaf of barley meal. In Ulster it means a kind of potato scone.
'Fardel(l)' is defined by SND as 'A three-cornered cake, usu. oatcake, gen. the fourth part of a round'; as the word means a quarter, it presumably meant much the same from the start. The "Edinburgh Burgh Records" for 1601 includes it in a list of bread commodities: 'becaus the mayneschottis of flour, fadges, fowattis, fardellis, reid bapis, … and siclyke breid keipis na pais or wecht'. The reduced form 'farl', much commoner in the modern period, is recorded in the late seventeenth century, for example in the poem 'The Blythsome Bridal' attributed to Francis Semple of Beltrees (Paterson 1849: viii):
There will be good lapper'd-milk kebucks,
And sowens, and farles and baps'.
The poem has splendid descriptions of the food at the wedding, giving a vivid picture of the diet of ordinary people at the time. 'Farl' now refers to different types of baking, including scones and shortbread; Irish soda farls can be bought in some supermarkets, probably an Ulster Scots usage. The "Concise Ulster Dictionary" (1996) lists soda, wheaten and potato farls.
DOST's unhelpful definition: 'A cake or bun differing from a fadge' presumably derives from the quotation for 'fardel' in the paragraph above and the following (for 1529) from the same source 'At na hukstar sell nor top ony of the saidis fagis nor fowattis within thar housis'. Indeed the "Edinburgh Burgh Records" are the only source of this word. There is little help from the modern record, except for one reference for Roxburghshire in "Jamieson's Dictionary" (1825): 'FOUAT … A cake baked with butter and currants, something like the Scottish 'bun' [that is, what we would now call Scotch bun or black bun]'. DOST and SND derive the word from Old French 'fouac(h)e', 'a cake baked in the ashes on the hearth, erroneously taken as a plural'.
'Scone', a keynote of modern Scottish baking, is but sparsely recorded in DOST. 'The flowr sconnys war set in … with othir mesis' appears in Gavin Douglas's translation of Virgil's "Aeneid". "The Complaynt of Scotland" (1549), quoted above under 'breid', mentions 'fustean skonnis'. John Leyden's edition of 1801 notes that 'The phrase [fustian scone] is still current in Angus, and the east coast of Scotland'. It is recorded in SND for Angus as 'foustie', meaning a thick floury morning roll. 'Fustian' is thought to indicate the inclusion of oatmeal in the dough, giving a coarse appearance.
A basic way to eat cereals is of course in boiled form, as in the modern porridge. In medieval times barley or oats were commonly cooked along with meat and/or vegetables to form a kind of thickened hotpot. Such dishes were standard fare for all classes, but they leave little trace in the records since they were domestic and not subject to sales regulations and so on.
'Potage'/'pottage' from French, literally meaning 'something in a pot', is recorded from the fifteenth century on, and originally seems to have meant some kind of soup or vegetable dish, sometimes with meat, and often with cereal added as a thickener. Subsequently however it begins to refer to something like its later altered form 'porridge'/'parritch': 'The good-wife one morning making pottage for the children's break-fast, had the tree-plate wherein the meal lay, snatched from her quickly'(in George Sinclair's "Satan's Invisible World Discovered" of 1685). Interestingly the earliest quotation in SND for 'parridge', in 1761, is figurative, suggesting its everyday use was much earlier: 'It's as plain as parridge, that he was baith a Romin, and Socinian' (Haliburton & Hepburn 1761: 45). 'Porridge' in English began with the same meanings as pottage, but in the seventeenth century it was also used for cereal boiled in water or milk. A quotation in OED for 1707, 'Having his belly filled, and his head bedulled, with Scotch porridge', suggests an early association of the dish, if not also the word, with Scotland.
'Brose', oatmeal (or peasemeal) mixed with boiling water or milk, is, or was, one of the most popular ways of eating meal in Scotland. This method of preparation has clearly been used for a very long time but, given its casual nature, it is perhaps not surprising that the word is absent from the DOST record. It may well have had many names over the centuries. SND's etymological note still seems to hold: 'Both meaning and form make a connection with DOST 'bruis(e)', broth, doubtful'.
'Sowans', from Gaelic 'súghan' (itself from 'súgh' 'juice, sap'), is a more complex preparation. Oat husks and fine meal are steeped for several days in water, then strained; the remaining liquid is left to ferment and then usually boiled like porridge. This was a popular dish until comparatively recently and the word is recorded as far back as 1551 in the "Dundee Burgh and Head Court Books": 'The said schip ladine with fiftyfoure [lastis] sowyndis beir'. See also the quotation under 'fardel(l)' above.
A clear picture of the enormous importance of cereals in medieval Scotland emerges from the DOST record, even if it is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the foodlore of ordinary people. Inevitably their eating habits emerge mainly in formal documents indicating quantities. Even for the upper classes we really only get glimpses, though household accounts, from the royal household to those of lairds, do give some information. The problem for the lexicographer is that many of these sources remain in manuscript form and the resources of even the best-funded projects do not allow for the use of other than published, or at least transcribed, material. Some, such as "The Account Book of Sir John Foulis of Ravelston 1671-1707", have already been published by the Scottish History Society, but there must be a great deal more in the collections of Scottish country houses which could shed further light.
The same applies to recipe collections. The earliest known published recipe book appeared in 1736 ("Mrs. McLintock's Receipts for Cookery and Pastry-Work") and an earlier MS collection from 1712 was published in 1976 as "Lady Castlehill's Receipt Book". Are there earlier collections lurking somewhere, waiting to be edited? More collaboration between the historian and the lexicographer could help to expand the record in this way.
Unless otherwise stated, quotations are from DOST.
This work is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
The SCOTS Project and the University of Glasgow do not necessarily endorse, support or recommend the views expressed in this document.
Cite this Document
Cereal terms in the DOST record. 2021. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved August 2021, from http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=840.
"Cereal terms in the DOST record." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2021. Web. August 2021. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=840.
The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech, s.v., "Cereal terms in the DOST record," accessed August 2021, http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk/document/?documentid=840.
If your style guide prefers a single bibliography entry for this resource, we recommend:
The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. 2021. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. http://www.scottishcorpus.ac.uk.