History of Oatcake Making in Rutherglen

Researched by Colin Findlay

© Rutherglen Heritage Society

In Scotland, oatcakes are made on a girdle (or griddle, in other forms of English) or by baking rounds of oatmeal on a tray. If the rounds are large, they are sliced into farls before baking. Oats are one of the few grains that grow well in the north of Scotland and were, until the 20th century, the staple grain used.

Scottish soldiers in the 14th century carried a metal plate and a sack of oatmeal. According to contemporary accounts, a soldier would heat the plate over fire, moisten a bit of oatmeal and make a cake to "comfort his stomach. Hence it is no marvel that the Scots should be able to make longer marches than other men."

Samuel Johnson referred, disparagingly, to this staple diet in his dictionary definition for oats:

A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

Lord Elibank was said by Sir Walter Scott to have retorted 'Yes, and where else will you see such horses and such men?'

The texture may vary from rough to fine depending on how the oats are ground. Oatcakes may be slightly chewy or hard, depending on the water content and for how long they are cooked. Oatcakes were traditionally eaten with every meal as a major source of carbohydrate in the diet. From the 19th century onward, they were commonly served to accompany soups, meat, and fish dishes. Today, they are sometimes eaten as an alternative to bread or toast at breakfast.

Nowadays, many brands of oatcakes are commercially available, such as Nairn's, Stockan's, Paterson's, and Walkers. Apart from those larger commercial manufacturers of oatcakes, there are many local bakers providing variations on the basic recipe.

Source: Wikipedia

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Antique-NAIRNS-OAT-CAKES-Biscuit-Tin-Rut

Above, oatcake tins from Paterson's and Nairn's bakeries, Rutherglen.    Image credit: pickclick.co.uk/collectables

Ruglonian sentiment is sometimes credited with an
excessive fondness for doting on its antiquity, and the
derisive reference to " Thermopylae " in another part of
this book, even when spoken by a Lord, falls as short of its
mark as does the frequently-quoted epithet, the "Oatcake
burgh."

W R Shearer Scotlands War RR.jpg

From Rutherglen Lore

William Ross Shearer, 1922

Patersons Bakery

In 1895, John & Isabella Paterson founded their bakery in the Royal Burgh of Rutherglen, Scotland, where they sold their home baked goods from a horse-drawn van. John Paterson won the premier silver medal for his oatcakes at each successive Scottish Food Exhibition from 1908 to 1911. So concerned were the organisers that Paterson would frighten away the competition that they struck a special gold medallion, awarded to the oatcake king as a way of persuading him to give others a chance. Other staple Paterson products were shortbread and Abernethy biscuits. The business moved to Livingston in 1971. Paterson Oatcakes is now a brand of Burton’s Biscuit Co.

Source: Herald article 3rd. February 1990

One in seven households in the UK currently purchase Paterson’s products. The brand is now worth over £12.7m.

Source: Scottish Grocer & Convenience Retailer April 2020 

Patersons Bakery 1953 map.jpg

My mother was an oatcake baker at the Paterson Factory on Greenhill Road. I passed it everyday on my way from our house in Reid Street to my school on Fairie Street. We seemed to have a regular supply of shortbread rounds. She was paid 3 ha’pence for every 52 oatcakes baked and had to build the fire under the griddle. 

Clare McGrath

Left, 1953 map showing Patersons bakery in Greenhill Road

Map reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

https://maps.nls.uk/index.html

Nairns Bakery

Nairn's Oatcakes started business in 1896 when John and Sarah Nairn opened their first bakery in Strathaven, The business moved to Rutherglen, setting up the Cathkin Bakery in Cathcart Road. The firm grew over the years, with son Robert taking over the running, and in turn his son Ian assumed control.

 

The Cathkin Bakery closed in 1978 and, like Paterson's a few years earlier, production moved to Livingston, under the ownership of Simmers.

Nairns Bakery 1953 map.jpg

Left, 1953 map showing John Nairn's Cathkin bakery in Cathcart Road

Map reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland

https://maps.nls.uk/index.html

To-day the aroma of oat-cakes alone

dominates the atmosphere at all seasons of the year; but

it is an appetising fragrance, and the industry employs

a large army of workers. Hence, from a commercial

point of view, the town gains considerably by these enterprising

firms, whose popularity is spread throughout the

length and breadth of Scotland.

From Rutherglen Lore

William Ross Shearer, 1922

W R Shearer Scotlands War RR.jpg

Audio clip of David Jackson recorded in 2018. David recalls passing Nairns, McMurdos and Patersons bakeries on his way to school in the 1950s.

Passing bakeries on way to school 1950sDavid Jackson
00:00 / 02:40

The ancient tradition of baking sour cakes in Rutherglen at St. Luke's Fair

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The Rev. David Ure, in his History of East Kilbride and Rutherglen published in 1793 (extract above), tells us of the tradition of baking sour cakes for St. Luke’s Day in Rutherglen. This tradition, said to predate Christianity, required the services of six or eight elderly ladies who sat in a semi-circle, kneading the cakes from fermented dough, passing them from one to another until they had the right consistency. The cakes were then baked by another woman known as ‘the Queen’. The finished cakes were generally given to strangers visiting St. Luke’s Fair.

 

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Left, photograph of sour cake bakers, reproduced from Rutherglen Lore by W. Ross Shearer, 1922

A full description of this tradition begins on page 94 of Ure's History.

In his Rambles Round Glasgow, (page 92) Hugh MacDonald speaks of having personally witnessed this ancient practice of sour-cake baking in the Thistle Inn (Fulton's Hall) at Rutherglen in 1854.

 

The Thistle Inn, now the Picture House pub, previously the Linn O' Dee, housed Rutherglen's first Post Office in 1824.

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"In his Book of Common Order published in 1564, John Knox lists what he called the ‘Fairies of Scotland’ i.e. Fairs of Scotland.  St. Luke’s Fair is listed as being held on October 18th in ‘Ruglane’.  October 18th is St. Luke’s Day and the Kirk Session has for some years decided to have a service of Communion on the Sunday nearest to that date to mark St. Luke’s Day and so maintain a link with this tradition of the past."

Hugh Millar, Session Clerk, Rutherglen Old Parish Church

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Links

The Glasgow Story: A short article by Ian Donnachie about the food, drink and tobbacco industries in Gasgow 1914-1950s, mentioning Paterson's and Nairn's.

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Full Herald article 3rd. February 1990 following the progress of Paterson's business since leaving Rutherglen in 1971.

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Rutherglen Reformer article 11 April 2018 about the closure of Coull's the bakers.

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