Why Our Scottish Ancestors Didn’t Eat Rolled Oats

Oats have an almost mythological connection with the Scottish. Maybe, as you stand in the kitchen making your breakfast oatmeal – pouring in rolled oats, adding water/milk and stirring – you imagine that you are doing just what your Scottish ancestors have done for centuries.

You’d be wrong.

Yes, the Scottish have been eating porridge for over a thousand years. But no, they didn’t use rolled oats.

Why didn’t the Scottish use rolled oats for their porridge?

Rolled oats are a modern invention. They’ve only been around since 1877. That was the year a machine that rolled oat grains into flakes was invented. This machine very quickly fell into the hands of what would become the Quaker oat company. Back then, Americans didn’t eat oats and in addition, breakfast cereals weren’t a ‘thing’.

The technique of rolling made the oats both more visually appealing and easier to cook and the Quaker company saw an opportunity. They registered the first trademark for a breakfast cereal (which they called oatmeal). The trademark included the name Quaker (chosen as a symbol of good quality and honest value) and the traditionally-dressed figure that we still see on Quaker oat packets today.

Quaker then went on, in 1882, to launch a ground-breaking marketing campaign that included running the first ever national magazine adverts for a breakfast cereal and delivering free trial-size samples of Quaker oats door-to-door.

It was a hit. Rolled oats were taken to heart by the US population and have been a staple at breakfast tables ever since. Quaker were (and still are) the leading manufacturer of oats (and their oat marketing campaign obviously paid off economically as they were bought by Pepsi in 2001 for $14 billion!)

But back to the Scots: If they’ve been eating porridge for over a thousand years, but rolled oats have only been around one hundred and fifty years, what did they do before?

To understand this, we need to dive briefly into oat history.

When our ancestors first discovered that oats were good to eat, they would have ground the grains between two stones to make a rudimentary flour. Later, in the Neolithic era (4,500-2,500 BCE) this technology was developed into the rotary quern. Two people, generally women, would work the quern, turning the handle manually. It was hard work (so much so that a recent study by Cambridge University has shown that Neolithic women had arm muscles 16% stronger than current Olympic rowers). The concentrated carbohydrate provided by the grain was obviously worth the effort!

Later still, stone mills were developed, and in oat-growing areas of Scotland (and England), these were often built alongside kilns so that the oats could be both toasted and ground efficiently.

The Scots ate these stone-ground oats – oat groats transformed into meal by manual grinding. In the UK, this type of oats is called oatmeal. Oatmeal was used to make porridge and oaten breads (plus all the other oat goodies that I hope to highlight in my forthcoming book).

Oatmeal comes in three grades: fine, medium and coarse. Traditionally, different dishes call for different types.

Here is fine oatmeal:

Here is medium oatmeal:

Differing definitions of the word oatmeal

I am from the UK and four years ago I started a podcast with an American. Pretty soon it became clear to me that the word oatmeal means one thing to people from the UK and another thing to Americans. Let’s clear that up.

In the US:

Oatmeal = oats (usually rolled) cooked with water/milk into a thick, soupy, warm dish.

In the UK:

Oatmeal = whole oats that have been stone-ground into a meal. These come in fine, medium and coarse grades. When oatmeal is (or in fact rolled oats are) cooked with water/milk into a thick, soupy, warm dish, it’s called porridge.

These days, even in areas where once whole communities only survived because of oatmeal, it is very hard to buy it on an English shopping street. Quaker has done such a good job of marketing rolled oats to the world that one might be mistaken in thinking that, along with oat-eating, rolled oats have been around for thousands of years.

But as Mornflake, a miller of oats in Cheshire, UK, since 1675 says on their website “Any serious porridge traditionalist will tell you that [porridge] should always be made with oatmeal. At the World Porridge-Making Championship you’d be turned away at the door with rolled oats!”

How will my porridge/oatmeal differ if I use oatmeal instead of porridge oats?

I’ve made porridge with both medium-grade oatmeal and rolled oats. The oatmeal version takes longer to cook, absorbs more water and has a more gritty texture than the rolled oats version. I like to make and serve it as the Scots did – cooked with plain water, a little salt added just before it’s done and then eaten with a small bowl of cream on the side to dip each spoonful into!

Scottish porridge: medium oatmeal cooked with water and salt, served with a bowl of cream on the side. Originally this would have been eaten with wooden utensils.

Want to try making your oatmeal/porridge the traditional Scottish way? With stone-ground oatmeal instead of rolled oats?

I’d suggest trying medium grade oatmeal.

If you are in the UK, you can find oatmeal through online suppliers relatively easily.

If you’re in the US, it takes a little more online work but, when I tried, a brief search threw up at least one supplier.

If you give it a go, next time you’re stirring the porridge pot ready for breakfast you’ll know that you’re truly stepping into the shoes of your Scottish ancestors and extending a tradition that’s been around for thousands of years, not one created one hundred and fifty years ago.

P.s If you love oats, you might like my course on the traditional Scottish oat ferment, sowans. Have a look by clicking on the picture below:

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