In 2021, Coinneach MacLeod came very close to winning the Golden Spurtle, the world’s premier porridge-making championship. The competition—which, the Scottish baker and author explains, “probably isn’t as well known as the Super Bowl, but it’s a pretty big deal”—takes place every autumn in the Scottish village of Carrbridge.
It’s not just for culinary wizards, either. Past champions have included an astrophysicist and a renal specialist, as well as one honest-to-god cereal celebrity: Bob Moore, aka the Bob’s Red Mill guy. The crowded field, combined with the idyllic setting of the Scottish Highlands in autumn, only contributed to MacLeod’s distress.
“I was pipped to the post,” he says–second place. “I sort of wish I was, like, 2,000th.” Plus, the winner wasn’t even from Scotland, which only twisted the knife further. “Oats and Scotland are synonymous,” MacLeod says. “And I was the only Scottish person in the top 10. So all of the Scottish newspapers were like, ‘How have we lost our way with oats? It’s the end of porridge as we know it!’ Very dramatic.”
The Golden Spurtle was launched in 1994 to promote tourism to Carrbridge and spread the word on an essential Scottish dish. Participants enter in one of two categories. “Specialty” involves a unique recipe inspired by porridge and made with oats. MacLeod made baked oat Alaska, oat sponge cake and oat-vanilla ice cream surrounded by a mound of meringue. In the “Traditional” category, contestants are allowed only three ingredients—oats, water, salt—and judged on the quality of their porridge.
MacLeod knows what makes a good bowl. “It’s about texture,” he says. “The right heat, so you break up the oat but not too much that it becomes just a starch. You want that natural kind of nutty sweetness that comes from the porridge oat, but that subtle saltiness that complements it so well.” Such a thoughtful description gets to the centrality of porridge and, really, Scotland’s national identity.
“For every day I’ve been in Scotland, my whole life, I’ve had porridge for breakfast,” he says. As the Hebridean Baker—a TikTok sensation who’s just published his second cookbook, The Hebridean Baker: My Scottish Island Kitchen—MacLeod has done as much as anybody to spread the word on the humble oat, which appears in Scottish dishes sweet and savory, boiled and baked.
There are historical explanations for Scotland’s love affair with oats, of course. Easier to grow in a cool climate than, say, wheat, oats have been cultivated in the country for thousands of years. But as a child, MacLeod had his own reasons for starting the day with a bowl: “There’s a brand called Scott’s Porage Oats, and on the front of the box has always been this rugged, kilted man throwing a kind of stone,” he says. “Every Scottish kid wants to be the Porage Oats guy. He nearly was like Santa Claus for Scottish people.”
MacLeod started baking as a way to preserve the recipes and the stories of what he grew up eating in the Hebrides, an archipelago off the west coast of Scotland. And not so coincidentally, on the cover of his first cookbook, The Hebridean Baker: Recipes and Wee Stories from the Scottish Islands, he’s wearing a similar outfit as the guy on the Porage Oats box: a kilt with a white top. Only MacLeod isn’t throwing a rock—he’s standing, grinning, next to a little Scottish terrier.
That first book contains the fruits of MacLeod’s research into the pastries and lore of his homeland. “You can imagine, when you do a Scottish cookbook, you need the best shortbread recipe,” MacLeod says. He found a favorite from Shetland, an archipelago northeast of the Scottish mainland, containing wheat flour, oats, and caraway.
The traditional recipe is called bride’s bonn, MacLeod explains, made by the mother of the bride on the day of her wedding and subsequently smashed over the bride’s head. Wedding guests scramble for a piece before it hits the ground. “You put it under your pillow. It’s supposed to make you dream of your future husband or wife,” MacLeod says. “And even if it doesn’t, you’ve got a nice piece of shortbread to eat when you wake up.”
Bride's Bonn (Courtesy of Coinneach MacLeod)
Another Scottish custom in which MacLeod takes a keen interest: Burns Night. The annual January celebration of Scottish poet Robert Burns features a traditional menu in which oats make a prominent appearance. First and most (in)famously is haggis, made by combining various minced parts of a sheep (what’s known as the pluck: heart, liver, lungs) with spices, onions, and oats, then boiling the mixture inside a sheep’s stomach. “It doesn’t matter how many friends come over from the U.S. and try haggis, they’re petrified—like literally shaking their fork, picking it up, and then going, ‘Oh, it’s delicious,’” MacLeod says. (More modern versions have come onto the scene, too, like haggis pakoras and MacLeod’s recipe for vegetarian haggis bonbons.)
At a Burns supper, “you always have your haggis, neeps and tatties for your main meal, and cranachan for dessert,” MacLeod says. A lot of people outside Scotland have heard of haggis—if not, they certainly have now—and neeps and tatties (mashed potatoes and rutabaga) may ring a bell. More people should know about cranachan, featuring a harmony of ingredients—whipped cream, Scotch, honey, raspberries, and oats—layered into a bowl (kind of like a trifle).
Give or take one or two elements, that same cranachan combination appears across Scottish cuisine. It’s a star in Atholl brose, for instance—a boozy drink made from whisky, oats, honey, and cream—which MacLeod describes as “a 15th-century precursor to Baileys.” The ingredients have also been remixed into flamboyant creations in the “Specialty” category at the Golden Spurtle. Last year a competitor created a recipe for cranachan sundaes that featured oat-milk ice cream with a raspberry swirl.
Atholl Brose (Courtesy of Coinneach MacLeod)
Though he didn’t make it to the Golden Spurtle this year, MacLeod vows to return: “I 100 percent will be back. I pretty much wake up every night thinking about it.” In the meantime, he should be delighted that Scotland was able to “bring the crown back” in 2022, with a fellow countryman claiming first prize in the “Specialty” category.
All competitions aside, good porridge is so much more than just a matter of national pride. Shortly before her death in 2015 at the age 109, Jessie Gallan—then Scotland’s oldest woman—was asked by a newspaper the secrets of her longevity. She had two suggestions. One was a bowl of porridge every morning. The other? Staying away from men.
But...that’s just one opinion. MacLeod sums up his feelings on oats, Scotland, and Scotland’s infatuation with oats this way: “The story line of oats is the versatility, of it being a breakfast dish, bakes and cakes, biscuits, dinners, desserts—everything,” he says, then pauses. “And more than anything else, I want to make sure that you talk about the Porage Oats man on the front of the box.”