What Adam Smith Ate: Hogmanay and The Black Bun

what adam smith ate hogmanay new years eve

Renee Wilmeth for AdamSmithWorks

Before the Reformation, the Black Bun was the Scottish version of a King Cake celebrating Epiphany or the day the three Kings arrived in Bethlehem.  After the Reformation, it took on a more secular role as the cake served on New Year’s Day, especially for celebration of “first footing.”
The study of history can cause our sense of time to warp, especially when it comes to the amorphous “then” of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. When we look at the 1500s and the Scottish Reformation, it makes the 1700s of Adam Smith’s time almost feel modern even though 200 years separated the Reformation in Scotland and the Enlightenment. 

Many scholars today note that the educational advancements of the Enlightenment in science, medicine, philosophy, economics, and literature would not have been possible without throwing out the old church in favor of the new. In Scotland, the reformation movement gained steam based on what was happening with the European Protestant Reformation. The threat of French oversight was also a factor especially after the death of James V in 1542. His wife was appointed regent for his French infant daughter who was now next in line to the throne and named Mary, Queen of Scots.  

By 1559, Calvinist John Knox (and a few battles between Scottish Protestants and the French) paved the way for the Scottish Reformation, passed by Parliament in 1560. The new law established the Church of Scotland, or simply the Kirk, a largely stoic and Calvinist denomination which has taken various forms over the years. The Kirk initially banned showy celebrations of religious holidays like Christmas and eliminated music in services. 

As an important result of the Reformation, the Kirk invested strongly in education. There was a new English translation of the Bible and the Kirk wanted the nation’s population to be educated to read it.  By the 1700s, Scotland boasted a reported 75 percent literacy rates. By many accounts, the Scots were the most educated people in the western world at the time. 

In schools, students were encouraged to read and debate the Bible and other religious texts which some say set a tone for the advancement of new ideas during the Reformation. Children were educated together regardless of station and the child of a baker might have ideas as valid as the child of a merchant.  Or the child of a customs agent.

By the 18th Century, Christmas was still a subdued holiday in the Scottish Kirk. Churches would have been decorated modestly with evergreen branches and candles. And because of this subdued celebration, the Scots turned to seasonal holidays like Hogmanay, a rowdy celebration of the New Year for a great feasts and social holidays. Today, Hogmanay is a two-day celebration including many toasts on New Year’s Eve and visiting friends and family on New Year’s Day.

We only have record of Smith traveling to London in 1776 just after Christmas, so it’s reasonable to say he missed Scottish traditions that year. However, he was home both in Kirkaldy and later Edinburgh for many other Hogmanay holidays and most likely took part in an early version of today’s tradition. 

Before the Reformation, the Black Bun was the Scottish version of a King Cake celebrating Epiphany or the day the three Kings arrived in Bethlehem.  After the Reformation, it took on a more secular role as the cake served on New Year’s Day, especially for celebration of “first footing.” The First Foot is the first person through a home’s door in the New Year and can bring prosperity or bad luck depending on the gifts they bring.

Black bun is a rich and spicy fruit cake in a pastry crust perfect for winter celebrations and served any time after midnight on December 31. It symbolizes prosperity for the new year ensuring the house will never be hungry. These traditional pastries can be found at bakeries but are just as easy to make at home from dried fruits soaked in brandy. 

Throughout the years, black buns became incredibly large and elaborate often made into centerpieces for First Foot parties or after-midnight visitors. Even today, they can take on a variety of shapes and sizes. For our version, we’re going to stick with a shape and size you can make in a standard loaf pan. (The color comes from the dark fruit and brown sugar. Some recipes even call for a little bit of treacle.)

We can imagine Adam Smith’s mother or cousin making their own family recipe to serve to friends visiting each other in the new year.  You’ll want to have one on hand for visitors – and serve it with, what else, whisky or traditional Christmas Punch.

Scottish Black Bun

For the pastry crust:

·         2 cups flour
·         ½ cup plus 2 tbsp cold butter
·         ¼ tsp salt
·         ½ tsp baking powder
·         4 tbsp cold water
·         1 egg, beaten, for brushing on the pastry

For the filling:

·         1 ½ cups flour
·         ½ tsp baking soda
·         2 cups dark raisins
·         2 cups dried currants
·         1 tsp cinnamon
·         ¾ ground allspice
·         ½ tsp ground ginger
·         ½ tsp ground nutmeg
·         ½ tsp salt
·         ¼ tsp ground black pepper
·         ½ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
·         2 tbsp brandy or Scotch whisky
·         1 egg, beaten
·         3 tbsp buttermilk

1.       In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, cold butter (cut into pieces), salt and baking powder until the mixture is crumbly. With the motor running, add the water, 1 tbsp at a time until the dough comes together in a ball.  Turn the ball out onto a floured surface and shape it into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30-60 minutes.
2.       Preheat the oven to 350F. Spray a large loaf tin with cooking spray, then line the inside with a piece of parchment paper, leaving 2-3 inches overhanging the sides. 
3.       In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, dried fruits, spices, brown sugar, brandy, egg and buttermilk. Mix until spices are combined, and fruit is well coated.  
4.       Remove the crust from the refrigerator and separate out into one-third and two-thirds amounts.  On a floured surface, roll out the larger portion of pastry crust to 1/8 inch thick. Then transfer the crust to the loaf pan letting it fall into place. Gently press it into the sides and bottom of the pan. Trim the edges even with the edges of the pan with a sharp knife. (Set the scraps aside for decoration.)
5.       Fill the loaf pan with the filling (it will be full!) and smooth the top.
6.       Roll the remaining 1/3 portion of the pastry out onto a floured surface to 1/8th inch thick. Transfer to the top of the loaf pan and pinch the edges close. (Use a little cold water to seal it shut if it’s not coming together.)  You can crimp the edges with a fork or pinch them up into an edge. Use the scraps of dough to form holly leaves, berries, fall leaves, or other seasonal décor.  Place the decorative pieces on top of the crust, and brush on the beaten egg. (This will give the pastry a nice dark, glossy sheen.)
7.       Bake for 2 hours or until the crust is golden brown. (Turn the pan if one side seems to be browning unevenly.) Cool on a cooling rack. When the loaf is cool, pull it out of the pan using the parchment paper overhangs. 
8.       Slice and serve to visitors in the new year.

Hungry (or thirsty) for more?
Renee Wilmeth's What Adam Smith Ate: Christmas Punch
James Hartley's Adam Smith Wants you to ENJOY the Holidays
Paul Mueller's Scottish Christianity Before the 18th Century

Image from Wikipedia Commons: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Black_bun_cut_open.jpg