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The Tradition and Trivia of Scottish Porridge


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Do you make these mistakes when cooking porridge?

  • Adding the salt too early - this hardens the grain, preventing it from swelling, and results in a less creamy bowl of porridge.

  • Stirring widdershins - this is said to invoke the devil or bring bad luck. Always stir deiseal (sunwise / clockwise) with your right hand.

  • Stirring with a spoon - 'they' (the traditional Scottish way to refer to porridge) should be stirred with a spurtle.

  • Eat it at the table - 'they' should be eaten standing up. This I think originates from when oats were eaten as brose, which must have weighed heavy on the stomach.

Scottish origins

The spurtle, or porridge stick, was used before the advent of rolled oats. The oatmeal had to soften and become edible, so it had to be cooked for a long time. The spurtle was used to stir it frequently to prevent the formation of large lumps.

In Shetland, porridge is called milgruel, and is sometimes made with bere-meal which is a kind of barley. The Gaelic name is brochan.

I have always assumed that spurtles were probably first made by taking a thin branch of a tree and whittling the bark off, but in Buchan Words and Ways,  Alexander Fenton tells us that a spurtle could be made from a worn sweeping brush handle.

Spurtle or Spatula?

In his book 'Treen and other Wooden Bygones', Edward Pinto tells us that "both spatulas and spurtles have their origins in Scotland. There is some confusion in terminology, but generally the drum-stick-like porridge stirrer is called a spurtle and a flat sided stirrer is a spatula. Both types of implement have a long history."

The Oxford English Dictionary records both uses of the word, dating back to 1572. The flat ones were used for turning oatcakes.

A glossary of words used in the wapentakes of Manley and Corringham, Lincolnshire, 1877, records: Spurtle, N. a thin piece of wood used for turning cakes on a girdle ; an implement used in thatching.

More recently two other factors have added to the confusion. First is the use by brewers of a long handled paddle which they call a Brewers Spurtle. Second is the popularization of a flat stirrer by Graham Kerr which he called a spurtle. He tells how he got the name: "Ten years ago an elderly gentleman from New Zealand sent me a Spurtle. He claimed that the name came from the Scottish stirring stick, made of hard, close-grained wood, used to whip porridge."

The Broughton Spurtle is a community newspaper for Broughton in North Edinburgh. They say they like to stir things up a bit, and remind us that "A Scots spurtle is a wooden rod for stirring porridge. Some readers may be 'spurtle-leggit' – have thin, spindly legs."

And if 'Spurtle' isn't a strange enough name... some areas it is spirtle or spurkle.

And an alternative name is theevil, though there are even more alternative spellings for this word: thivel, thible, thyvelle, thyvil, thyvel, thieval, thibel, thibble, thybel, thavel, thaivel, thabble and theedle.

The origins of the word are obscure, but those spelled with v are probably oldest and was used in Scotland and Northern England. Those spelled with b are used only in Northern England and appeared two centuries later.

A few quotes:

Alexander Ross, Helenore, 1768, "The thivel on the pottage pan, Shall strick my hour to rise."

Elizabeth Moxon, English Housewifry, c1750's, "With a paste-pin or thible stir in your flour to the butter".

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights, 1847, "The quicker the thible ran round..the faster the handfuls of meal fell into the water."

Oxford English Dictionary.

I bequeath my Porridge Pot

While searching the internet for information about porridge, the most bizarre thing I found was the Last Will and Testament of Edward Major of Stowe Parva in England. When he died in 1694, he left no less than three porridge pots to his nearest and dearest.

His 'best brass porridge pot' went to his granddaughter Ellen Major, and the 'last brass porridge pot' to his grandson Edward Major. I believe that the 'middle most brass porridge pot' was left to a Mary Spatcher, though I find the preamble a little confusing.

To learn what happened to his sheep and other worldly possessions, you can read the whole will.

From A dictionary of Lowland Scotch, 1888:

Spurtle or parritch spurtle, a rounded stick or bar of hard wood, used in preference to a spoon or ladle for stirring oatmeal porridge in the process of cooking. Jamieson—who seldom dives deeper than the Teutonic—derives the word from spryten, the Latin assula. The Gaelic has sparr or sparran, a little wooden bar or bolt; and the Flemish has sport, with the same meaning; and also that of the rung of a ladder (a bar of wood which a Scottish house-wife, in default of any better spurtle, might conveniently use for the purpose). Good bairns in the olden times when oatmeal porridge was the customary food of the peasantry, were often rewarded by having the spurtle to lick in addition to their share of the breakfast.

Our gudeman came hame at e'en.

Our gudeman came hame at e'en,
 And hame came he,
And there he saw a shining sword
 Where nae sword should be:
What's this now, gudewife,
 And what's this I see ?
O how came this sword here
 Without the leave o' me ?
A sword! quo' she,—aye, a sword! quo' he.
 Shame fa' yere cuckold face,
  And waur may ye see,
 It's but a porridge spurtle
  My mither sent to me.
A spurtle! quo' he,—aye, a spurtle ! quo' she.
 Far hae I ridden, love,
  And meikle hae I seen,
 But silver hiked spurtles
  Saw I never nane.

This is one verse of a song collected by David Herd in 1776. You can see the whole song in The songs of Scotland, ancient and modern.

More resources:

Oatmeal & Porridge




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