The Wey Hid Wis


SOWANS (pronounced sooans) - Johina Leith

There is a husk that is sifted out of the oatmeal when grinding and there is a small amount of meal left in it. In former days, when everything eatable was precious, this could not be lost. Who found out the idea of sowans is lost in the mists of time. Later a little extra oatmeal was added to make more of the finished article, sowans

The suids, or more modern sids, were put into a kirn, probably the brewing kirn, and covered with water, a little warm water added to make it "ripen" quicker. About ten days, or maybe a fortnight, later it should be ready. This would look revolting and horrid on top and look unusable but the top had sealed what was underneath and when the top was carefully lifted up and thrown away, the lovely fresh sowany smell would be underneath. A syer or strainer with a long handle out from either side would be laid over a tub, a little warm water could be added to the sowans. When I was younger, such a thing as warm water was unheard of. We must have been hardier then for nowadays I make sure that the kettle is hot before I start.

Anyhow, let us get back to the sying of the sowans. A bowl or something was used for lifting the sowans into the syer and the suids had to be squeezed and put into another tub or clean bucket. When this was finished the suids had to be washed a second time as everything good had to be extracted. This time the suids were put out for the hens to scratch in. Now everything had to be washed to get clear of any odd scrubs and the whole liquid strained back into the original kirn. The cleaning up was sometimes a worse job than the work itself as white or creamy spots would be everywhere. After settling overnight the bulk of the water could be emptied off and after a day or two the real sowans would be ready. The water on top had to be changed daily. Very often at this point the sowans were changed over into a big jar as, by now, there was less bulk.

Sowan scones are lovely when newly baked but the ones I remember in my youth were substantial mouthfuls, not like the lace doylies that one gets nowadays. There is certainly a knack in making them and I don't have it. The making of sowan scones was generally an evening's job as then a good fire was available. Also every one else could enjoy the good of the fire.

Sowans and sugar or syrup are also good. Sowany dough was often carried by labourers as their dinner. A strong diet, no wonder the weaker stomachs needed it boiled.

Sowany dough was sowans and oatmeal mixed up in a dough. This was sometimes called a "aet mael rolly". I still know of a family who used to have that sometimes as their school piece and I knew friends of that family who used to want to exchange a piece of their bread for a piece of their dough.

A man was out ploughing one day when his wife came to him with some boiled sowans in a pint pail. He wanted to finish what he was doing so he hung the pail on the plough stilt with the result that it had shaken thin. The man was angry. He said that it was a lot of "Congealed water, driven together by the force o' fire and the wit o' wife, tae beguile the gut o' man."

One time I syed sowans and emptied out the spent suids for the hens to scrape on. That night snow came, lots of it. Of course the hens never saw the suids but what a feast the sparrows had. One or two of them found it and then what a crowd of them worked through it and were about two thirds through the pile when the thaw came. We enjoyed watching them through the shed window.

Burstin' was another favourite but I never liked it. This was best taken with sour milk. It was bere with the husks blown off in the open air. It was then put in a pot and scorched over the fire. In fact browned till the seeds burst. This was then ground on the quern and later sifted. The finished result would be a brownish, beremeally looking substance. This was supposed to be delicious with thick kirn milk or lappered milk. Burstin' was like most good things, "Not got for nothing".

In The Scots Kitchen 1929, Marian MacNeill wrote about sowans.

"In the days of local mills, when the oats that had been winnowed and threshed were returned as meal, the miller always sent with it a bag of 'sids' - the inner husks of the oat grain - to which adheres some of the finest and most nutritive substance of the meal. This was made into a kind of smooth pudding or gruel called sowans (Gael. sughan, pronounced soo-an), an ancient dish of Celtic origin. It has a slightly sour taste which some find unpalatable at first, but which usually 'grows on' one. It is a very wholesome and sustaining food and is said to be an ideal diet for invalids, especially dyspeptics."

Mrs C Mowatt provided the recipe for the Stenness SWRI cookery book


Put a quantity of sids (the inner husks of the oat grain) into a small wooden tub or jar and pour on to them twice their bulk of lukewarm water. The sids rise to the surface, and must be pressed down with a spatula or wooden spoon till all are wet, leave them for at least three or four days in a warm place till they are sour. The preparation, before the fermentation begins, is called the "serf". When ready turn out on a fine sieve placed over a wide-mouthed jar and let all the liquor run through. Squeeze the sids to get all the goodness out of them, adding a little more cold water in the process. Throw away the sids and let the liquor stand for a day or more till the starchy matter sinks to the bottom. The more solid part is SOWANS; the liquid part is SWATS. When required for use the clear liquor is poured off and some of the sediment is put into a pan with as much water as will thin it. Add a little salt and boil for 10 minutes or more. Stirring briskly till it thickens. Pour into a bowl and serve with milk separately.

Sowans can also be made into scones

Surprisingly, Stenness doesn't provide a recipe for Sowan Scones but F Marian MacNeil does

Sowan Scones (Orkney)

Flour, sugar, salt, bicarbonate of soda, the liquid poured off sowans, caraways (optional)

Mix together a pound of flour, a pinch of salt, a teaspoonful of sugar, another of bicarbonate of soda, and a few caraways, if liked. Make this into a thinnish batter with the liquid poured off sowans, adding a little of the sediment. (The amount is a matter of taste: some like it strongly, some mildly flavoured.) Rub a hot girdle with a piece of suet and drop on the batter in spoonfuls, as for Scots crumpets. When ready on one side, turn quickly with a knife and brown the other. Serve hot with butter.

Dad and other Orcadians of his generation say that more of the solid sowans and less of the liquid swats was used.

John Firth, in Reminiscences of an Orkney Parish 1922, said that sowans could be kept for months by pouring off the swats and adding fresh water.

"Sowens was also made into "scones" or pancakes. There being neither sugar nor flour to make up the batter, as has been done in later days, oatmeal was used and no sweetening whatever. After sowens had stood for a few days, the sediment stiffened like putty. A lump of this "soweny daigh" (dough), rolled in oatmeal to make it dry enough to carry in the pocket, was quite a usual "skule piece".

It will be remembered with what surprise and doubt the public in general received the news during the Boer War that a hardy Scotsman kept the starving garrison of Mafeking alive on a dish made from the contents of the horses' feed box. After everything eatable had been consumed, he taught his desponding companions how, from bruised oats, an appetising and sustaining dish could be prepared."