Faytherless Kale and Sowens – December 1894

“Wi’ sweet milk cheese in monie a whang,
An farls baked wi’butter
Fu crump that day.”


Our diet is at all times of infinite importance, for do not we work chiefly that we may eat; and do not Governments exist, for one reason at least, that each man may be able to work for his bread and allowed to eat that bread in peace?

In Ireland, injustice brought famine and famine led to rebellion. In France, 25 millions lived in chronic semi-starvation, striving to satisfy their appetites on an insufficiency of black bread, chestnuts, even boiled grass in their desperate hunger — whereby came that terrible social earthquake which caused to totter on their thrones, all the rulers of the civilised world. In England, the people, full of fat with beef and beer, learned the stern lesson that, though our barns may be full while our neighbour’s are empty we may not take our ease.

We all know of Dr Johnson’s famous visit to Scotland and how, in spite of the hospitality he met there, he never overcame his prejudice to the people. We are all familiar, too, with his sarcastic definition of oats as,“Food for horses and in Scotland for men.”

We often hear it alluded to after the manner of Carlyle’s description of Macaulay as “an honest good sort of fellow, fed on oatmeal.” It is wonderful, indeed, how our fathers never tired of it. Porridge to breakfast and porridge to supper all the year round, with scone or “breed” and milk afterwards. The “breed” was oat-bread, of course. “Loaf breed” was a rare luxury to the common farmer 50 years ago. When he went out with his scythe at five in the morning, he got a “flaudge o’ bree and cheese” to ward off hunger till the breakfast hour.

How the women prided themselves on the number of huge cakes they could turn out in an hour, and how they boasted to each other of their skill! I have heard an ancient farmer say that when he got a new lass, he gave her a lade of meal to bake. “If she couldna dae it in a day, she was no’ for me.”

Nor were their dinners behind in substance. A sheep was killed and salted before haytime and a cow was cured for winter use. Thus, there was broth and salt beef every day with bread and milk for a third course. I fancy there would be no variety for weeks at a time and withal a healthy lack of complaint — a relief to the house mother, who did not need to spend much thought on her dinner preparations.

Did you ever hear of ”faytherless kale?” It was this — when the beef went done towards the end of winter, the kale had to be made of barley and vegetables alone — a little lacking in flavour but thick with barley and peas. Sometimes this would be replaced by pease brose, and another day by milk broth — barley boiled in milk and yet another day by “sowens.” All these dishes were very suitable for warm weather and yet strong enough to repair the muscles of the labourer.

“Sowens” were made from the refuse of oat meal, covered with water and allowed to ferment, then seived to keep back the seeds and finally boiled into a mess somewhat resembling in appearance blanc mange or the oatflour porridge used now for invalids and children. This seems to have been an especial treat for Burns describes a “Hallowe’en supper” thus:

“An buttered so’ns wi’ fragrant lunt
Set a’ their gabs asteerin.’”

Our forefathers knew nothing of scientific hygiene, and yet they silently teach us a lesson in wholesome simplicity of fare. It is certain that :

Buirdly chiels and clever hizzies
Were bred in sic a way as this is.”

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