Black Bun (Scotch Bun) Part 1: History

Before we begin: a big thank you to Scots chef and food writer Sue Lawrence for helping me out with the research for this post.

It has become a Christmas tradition of mine to ask my Twitter followers to select by Christmas post for me by way of a poll. I like to include both obvious and obscure options and was very pleased this year to see roast turkey receive no votes all (though I suppose I’ll have to write about it at some point!), and the most obscure on the list – the black bun – win out with 46% of the votes.[1]

The black bun – sometimes called a Scotch bun – is a Scottish speciality that has changed in shape and constitution through the years, but is today a type of fruit cake baked in a loaf tin lined with shortcrust pastry. It is then covered with more pastry, egg washed and baked. The cake was often made black with the addition of black treacle; Sue Lawrence says of these very rich black buns, ‘the malevolent appearance of the black inner of its shiny golden pastry case might be off-putting to some black bun virgins.’ It might come as no surprise that the bun ‘is almost invariably served with a dram of whiskey.’[2]

Black buns today are fruit cakes wrapped in pastry (pic: BBC)

It is traditional to eat black buns at Hogmanay, the Scots new year festival. Food writer and chef and Sue Lawrence writes evocatively of childhood experiences of the Hogmanay celebration:

‘As I grew up, Hogmanay…was always a time for friends and fun. Friends and neighbours would get together to have a drink and the traditional shortbread (often eaten with cheese), sultana cake, black bun and such delights as ginger and blackcurrant cordial.’[3]

For many Scots Hogmanay, was – and is – more important than Christmas Day is the Christmastide calendar. The black bun is actually the Scots’ Twelfth Cake, but the food and the party was, according to F. Marion McNeill, ‘transferred to Hogmanay after the banning of Christmas and its subsidiary festival, Uphaelieday or Twelfth Night, by the Reformers.’ Christmas Day saw a similar treatment, hence the importance of Hogmanay over other days.[4]

It’s worth mentioning that the black bun wasn’t eaten throughout Scotland: in the Highlands and islands the clootie dumpling was eaten instead.[5] I talk about the clootie dumpling and other Hogmanay foods and traditions with Ulster-Scots chef Paula McIntyre in a new episode of The British Food History Podcast published on 28 December 2022:

You may be wondering why it is called a bun. Well. If you look at older recipes, you’ll see that it was using an enriched white bread dough, a proportion of which is mixed with all of those ingredients one  might expect in a Twelfth/Christmas cake: currants, raisins (sultanas are avoided because of their paler colour), candied peel, etc. The mixture was then wrapped in the remaining dough, proved and baked. They were huge and ‘graced many a festive table in the big houses of Scotland over the centuries’, one recipe, provided by Sue Lawrence, used 15 pounds (6.8 kilos) of flour!

I first heard of the black bun, not in a Scottish cookery book as one might expect but in Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery.[6] She described it as ‘a remarkable confection’, and it is one of the few British, but not English, recipes included in the volume. Indeed, as I found out whilst researching this post, black buns were sold by Edinburgh bakers and sent as gifts all across the British Isles; so it was, at a time, well-known outside of Scotland. Because her book is on yeast cookery, Elizabeth only includes older recipes that use yeast as a leavening agent. She provides several recipes from several sources, and it is interesting to see how the bun became richer and fruitier as time went on. Black buns grew to be so enriched that it became almost impossible to leaven them using yeast, luckily this happened around the same time chemical raising agents were commercially available. At first the chemically-leavened buns were made with bicarbonate of soda and buttermilk – just like a soda bread – but over time, it became more like a regular fruit cake.[7] The pastry initially used was a huff paste – a pastry somewhere between a hot water pastry and a shortcrust. At first it wasn’t eaten, the paste simply protecting the interior, however as time went on, the pastry was swapped for a richer, more buttery shortcrust.[8]

The black bun also gets a special mention in another classic book of English food, Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England,[9] where it is described as a pastry-lined cake. Interestingly, in this book, there is a rare illustration showing the variety of shapes in which the black buns were made:

There are many fantastic recipes for the cake/pastry sort of black bun; Sue Lawrence has one in her forthcoming Scottish Baking Book, and there is one is F. Marion McNeill’s wonderful The Scot’s Kitchen[10] too, so I thought I’d give the yeast-leavened one a go.

I read through a few recipes and based mine on a recipe by Florence Jack, provided by Ms. David in her book. What I liked about it was that it seemed very black: loads of currants and raisins as well as added treacle. I did tone some of the ingredients down because it seemed to me that it enriched it simply wouldn’t rise.

I’ll let you know how I got on in the next post….


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Notes:

[1] The other two options were Brussels sprouts and buche de Noel which attained 21% and 33% of the votes respectively.

[2] Mason, L. and Brown, C. (1999) The Taste of Britain. Devon: Harper Press.

[3] Lawrence, S. (2003) Sue Lawrence’s Scottish Kitchen. Headline.

[4] McNeill, F. M. (1968) The Scots Kitchen: Its Lore & Recipes. 2nd edn. Blackie & Son Limited.

[5] Mason, L. and Brown, C. (1999)

[6] David, E. (1977) English Bread and Yeast Cookery. Grub Street.

[7] Hartley, D. (1954) Food in England. Little, Brown & Company.

[8] McNeill, F. M. (1968)

[9] Hartley, D. (1954)

[10] McNeill, F. M. (1968)

1 Comment

Filed under baking, bread, Britain, Christmas, Festivals, food, General, history, Recipes, Scotland

One response to “Black Bun (Scotch Bun) Part 1: History

  1. Pingback: Black bun (Scotch Bun) Part 2: Recipe | British Food: A History

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