An Ancient Michaelmas Tradition by Mary Bauld

Posted by True Highlands in Scottish Recipes | 1 comments

The Eve of St Michael is the eve of bringing in the carrots, of baking the ‘struan, of stealing the horses.

I first heard of a Bonnach Strùthan as a child.  There are those in South Uist who still prepare the traditional Michalemas cake although perhaps don’t follow all the associated traditions!  If you visit the museum in Kildonan you can see a picture of one that is perhaps more authentic than mine.

Michaelmas takes place at the end of September and marks the end of the harvest.  As legend has it, when Lucifer was expelled from Heaven he fell in a blackberry bush at Old Michaelmas, so you are not supposed to pick brambles beyond this date incase Satan has spat on them!

The Sunday before Michaelmas the women would lift carrots whilst saying a rhyme.

Torcan torrach, torrach, torrach,
Sonas curran corr orm,
Michael mil a bhi dha m’chonuil,
Bride gheal dha m’chonradh.
Piseach linn gach piseach,
Piseach dha mo bhroinn,
Piseach linn gach piseach,
Piseach dha mo chloinn.’

Cleft fruitful, fruitful, fruitful,

Joy of carrots surpassing upon me,
Michael the brave endowing me,

Bride the fair be aiding me.
Progeny pre-eminent over every progeny,
Progeny on my womb,
Progeny pre-eminent over every progeny,

Progeny on my progeny.

It was considered particularly lucky to pull up a two pronged carrot.

Should a woman find a forked carrot, she breaks out into further rhyme and invites her neighbours round to see and to admire her luck.

Fhorca shona, shona, shona,
Fhorca churran mot orm,
Conuil curran corr orm
Sonas curran mor dhomh.’

Fork joyful, joyful, joyful,
Fork of great carrot to me,
Endowment of carrot surpassing upon me,
Joy of great carrot to me.

My favourite tradition is that on the eve of Michealmas, the men would stay up at night guarding their horses, or plotting to steal another, for on this night alone it was legal to take your neighbour’s horse, as long as it was safely returned by the next evening.  Traditionally horse races took place on the beach that day, so everyone wanted to put themselves at the best advantage!  Apparently my Grandfather and his friends still kept this tradition going in their youth, perhaps the last time being a race in Contin around 1940.

Whilst the men watched the horses, the women would be tasked with the making of the Michaelmas cake, either one large one to share between the household or individual cakes.  Cakes would also be made in remembrance of recently departed family and eaten in their memory or gifted to the poor.

Strùthan or struan is traditionally made of a mixture of meal from cereals grown on the land, such as oats barley and rye, and moistened with ewes milk.  The struan is baked by the eldest daughter under close supervision of her mother. However, this is a position of great responsibility.  If the cake broke in the turning it was a token of bad luck.  A broken struan is never eaten.

A struan is a versatile cake with no exact recipe It is essentially a hybrid between a girdle scone and a pancake and especially delicious served warm out of the oven.  Some are flavoured with caraway seed or dried fruit.  One of my children likes it with treacle spiced scone in the middle and plain on the outside.  Essentially what you are making is a girdle scone encased in a pancake type batter.  Traditionally the batter was to be basted with a cockerel feather, coated and turned three times to give you three layers, failing that a brush of bent grass would do the trick!

This is the recipe from Margaret Fay Shaw’s Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist.  I made the bannock with buttermilk and added fresh raspberries and blueberries and some dried dates.  I didn’t have caraway seeds or a cockerel feather to hand but son no.1 loved it!


Ingredients – for the bannock

  • 1lb flour
  • 1tsp baking (bicarbonate of) soda
  • Sour milk – enough to make a dough
  • 1tsp carraway seeds,
  • for flavour
Dried currants, sultanas/raisins, and/or candied peel

Ingredients – for the coating

  • 3tbsp treacle
2tbsp milk
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • Plain flour – enough to make a dough


  1. Heat the oven to around 150C, or a low-medium heat.
  2. Prepare a baking sheet for the struan(s) to go on when ready to bake.
  3. Sift the flour and baking soda into a bowl and make a well in the middle of it.
  4. Gradually add in the milk, until you have a workable dough. As you do this, say: Progeny and prosperity of family, Mystery of An Dagda, protection of Bride
  5. Add in the carraway and dried fruit, or whatever flavourings you like (as much as you like and will keep the dough workable – about a handful or two of the dried fruit is enough).
  6. Shape the dough into a struan – either a large, thin, round one, or smaller ones intended for individual family members or participants. As they cool they will become hard, so try to make them as thin as you can.
  7. As you shape the struan, say: Progeny and prosperity to ________ (whoever it’s for – person or family name)
Mystery of An Dagda, shielding of Bride
  8. Each struan can be decorated with patterns to distinguish who it’s for, if necessary, or else bless the bannock for the family as a whole again. Given the coating that needs to be added, lumps, bumps and depressions are better, to make sure they stay distinguishable once they’re coated.
  9. Make sure you set aside a small piece of dough for offering. This can be baked with the rest of the struans or burnt in a fire for the purpose.
  10. Bake in the oven on a baking tray at 150C, or a low heat, until they are about to start turning golden (about ten minutes or so for the individual struans).
  11. While in the oven, mix together the ingredients for the caudle coating, adding enough flour to make a dough.
  12. Coat the struan(s) with the dough and return to the oven until the caudle coating is cooked.
  13. Any struans that break should not be used.

Or, if you want the recipe my children like, it would go something like this. You can just make out on this picture the three layers of pancake as I cooked and turned on a girdle in the traditional manner.   I have tried it with part rye flour but white flour gives a lighter scone.


Scone Mix

  • 8 oz flour
  • ½ oz butter
  • 1 tbs melted treacle
  • ½ tbsp. ground ginger
  • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • pinch salt
  • milk

Rub the butter into the flour then mix in rest of ingredients.

Pancake topping

  • 6oz self raising flour
  • ½ mug sugar
  • ½ mug milk
  • 1 oz butter, melted
  • 1 tbsp syrup
  • 2 eggs

Beat sugar, eggs and milk, add melted butter and treacle, mix in flour.

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Comments (1)
  1. Genny Clark says:

    Thank You !

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