Land o' Cakes: the bannocks, black buns and butteries that satisfy Scotland's sweet tooth

Selkirk Bannock

Selkirk Bannock

Robert Burns described Scotland as a ‘Land o’ Cakes’. Nicki Holmyard discovers whether there’s still a heritage of regional speciality cakes beyond the high-street bakery chains.


Scotch pancakes, made from a simple sweet batter poured, or dropped, onto a girdle, are one of Scotland’s distinctive and fondly-regarded foods, an icon of the nation’s affinity with baking. They’re best, of course, warm from the girdle (Scots term for flat iron baking plate or griddle), their taste always compromised the moment time or packaging are involved. As far back as 1599, Culross in Fife was granted a Royal Charter for making girdles.


Girdles were used to make everything from oatcakes to bannocks and have survived the passage of time in Scots cookery. Original bannocks were loaves made from barley flour or oatmeal, but over time the recipe changed to use wheat flour and yeast, enriched with butter and dried fruit, and cooked in an oven. Selkirk Bannock, first made by a baker in the town, was initially made for festive occasions but tends to be a year-round fixture these days.


Edinburgh Tart also has a link to Mary, Queen of Scots, and was supposedly developed in honour of her visit to the city. It is a traditional Scottish butter tart, similar in basic recipe to Ecclefechan and Border tarts, and uses butter, sugar, eggs, candied peel and dried fruit. Butter tart recipes were taken by Scots migrants all over the world and are popular in Canada and the US. The American Pecan Pie takes its influence from the same route.

Orkney & Shetland

Orcadians used oatmeal in their broonie, which is a type of gingerbread. The term comes from brüni – Norse for a thick bannock. In Shetland, a Bride’s Bonn or Bun was traditionally broken over the head of a bride as she entered her new marital home. The bonn was historically knows as infar-cake and the tradition has links back to Roman times, when the eating of a consecrated cake in the rite of confarratio, solemnised a marriage.

Dundee Cake

While legend tells that the first Dundee cake recipe was developed for Mary, Queen of Scots, who wanted a fruit cake without cherries, it was first made commercially at the beginning of the nineteenth century by marmalade makers, the Keillers, using left-over peel. Similar fruit cake recipes were widely in use, but the Keillers decorated theirs with blanched almonds and branded them with the name of their home town.

Black Bun

A dark spicy fruit cake full of fruit encased in shortcrust pastry case, Black Bun is a pretty solid piece of baking, and was referred to by Robert Louis Stevenson in his Notes on Edinburgh Life (1879) as a ‘dense, black substance, inimical to life’. It is one of three gifts carried by New Year first footers, along with whisky and a lump of coal, the three representing food, drink and warmth for the year ahead.


Aberdeenshire butteries, also known as rowies, are a savoury, flattened, flakey roll, high in fat and salt. Dating to the 1880s, they were created for the growing population of fishermen to take to sea, as they kept longer than traditional bread. They were immortalised in a street cry, ‘bawbee baps and buttery rowies,’ and remain the strongest of regional baking traditions today.


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