The quest for black bun

OW 21 Dec 1899 p 57
Recipe from the Otago Witness, 21 December 1899, p.57, from Papers Past, courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.

Will you be eating black bun this New Year? I’ll be trying this Scottish delicacy for the first time, having just done a little research on its history in New Zealand. It all started when somebody asked me if I’d be mentioning black bun in a talk I’m giving soon about seasonal festivities in nineteenth-century Dunedin. Michael mentioned that his grandmother and aunts made it as ‘the proper thing to eat at New Year’. I hadn’t come across it previously, so this got me curious and I set out on my quest for black bun.

A straw poll at work revealed that New Zealanders under 60 haven’t heard of black bun. When I checked with my mother, she couldn’t recall it ever being made in our family, but remembered a Scottish migrant friend, Flora, making it and commenting that most New Zealanders didn’t like its peppery taste! I ventured to Wikipedia, which informed me that black bun only acquired that name in 1898 – it was more often known as Scotch bun until more recent times. I’m happy to say that the Oxford English Dictionary confirmed Wikipedia’s date, defining black bun as ‘a rich fruit cake in a pastry case, eaten esp. in Scotland at New Year’.

Armed with this alternative name, I found plenty of references in old New Zealand newspapers. The earliest advertising I’ve found so far is from 1868, when Dunedin pastry cook and confectioner J. Proud included Scotch bun and shortbread among the items he offered for sale for Christmas and New Year. Five years later a Scotch Bun featured as third prize in a ‘Christmas gift enterprise’ draw, run by Parnell confectioner Charles Burton (in case you’re wondering, first prize was a wedding cake, with a gold wedding ring inserted, and second was an iced cake). Advertising was often directed at Scottish migrants, as when William Hogg of Whanganui, a district with a significant Scottish population, had on view for his ‘Brither Scots … several samples of their favourite dish’ in time for New Year 1897.

Scotch/black bun sometimes appeared among food items entered into competitions at A & P shows, or as an item for sale in Scottish-themed stalls at fundraising events. At a ‘pageant fair’ in Palmerston North in 1912 the Scottish stall was ‘filled with many fascinating wares such as snowy table linen, Scotch woollen goods, shortbread and most dainty sweetmeats. Also Scotch bun which sold very readily, owing to its novelty’. In the same year Scotch bun featured at a Burns supper in Glenham, Southland: ‘Oat cake, Scotch bun, and haggis were among the national viands prepared for the guests’ delectation’. Evidently in New Zealand it featured when a distinctly Scottish dish was required, and not only at New Year.

Ellesmere Guardian 19 Oct 1937 p5
The account of a Women’s Institute meeting in Brookside, Canterbury, shows how Scotch bun sometimes appeared at Scottish-themed events in New Zealand. From the Ellesmere Guardian, 19 October 1937, p.5, on Papers Past, courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand.

New Zealand newspapers published recipes for Scotch bun. The recipe at the top of this post appeared in the Otago Witness several times in the 1890s. It was for an older version of the bun, where fruit and spices were added to three-quarters of a buttery bread dough mix, which was then wrapped in the remaining plain dough. Later recipes called for a rich fruit cake mix to be cooked in a pastry case. Four such recipes appeared in the ‘information exchanged’ section of the New Zealand Herald women’s page in 1935, in response to a request from Mrs D.M. of Epsom. The readers who responded were Mrs D. Robb of Bay of Plenty, Mrs Kelly of Epsom, Mrs R.H.S. of Opotiki and ‘Interested’ of East Tamaki, ‘who has been married to a Scot for 11 years’. The latter confessed that she usually omitted the pepper, one of the distinctive features in the traditional recipe, and two of the other recipes made no mention of pepper.

Hutt News 13 Dec 1928 p2
Recipe from the Hutt News, 13 December 1928, p.2. From Papers Past, courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand

Some might suggest that only Scotland, home of the deep-fried Mars bar, could create a recipe combining a rich cake with pastry! It is, however, a very old dish, and it is likely that the pastry was once discarded. A 1904 article in the Mataura Ensign, on ‘a quaint New Year custom’ in the ‘Land o’ Cakes’, noted that Scotch bun was ‘ensconced in a crust which is not eaten’. In medieval times many foods were cooked in pastry (or ‘paste’) that wasn’t intended for consumption – in the absence of fire-proof containers, it was simply a case in which to cook things. That may well explain this recipe. The pastry case of course helped retain moisture and made the cake longer-lasting. Like Christmas cake it improved with keeping and in 1939 Wellington’s Evening Post included a recipe for Scotch bun among those recommended as ‘transportable fare for soldiers’.

Scottish folklorist Marian McNeill suggested black bun had originally been ‘the Scottish Twelfth Cake’, eaten on Twelfth Night, the last of the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ (6 January). As Otago anthropologist Helen Leach and her co-authors explain in their wonderful book on the history of Christmas cakes, this modern Christmas delicacy evolved out of an older twelfth cake tradition. Sadly they make no mention of black/Scotch bun in this book (I can, however, personally recommend its recipe for Howick Christmas cake, with its ‘secret’ ingredient of blackcurrant jam!). In Scotland, where the religious holiday of Christmas fell out of favour after the reformation, many of the festive aspects of the season shifted to New Year, and Scotch bun seems to have been one of them.

On Hogmanay – New Year’s Eve – food treats were often associated with first footing. There’s a great description of first footing in the Catlins district in the diary of Charles Hayward. He was an English ship’s captain who settled in the south and married a Scottish migrant; he commented in his diary on the goings-on of this largely Scottish community. At New Year 1866 Hayward wrote:

Robt & I were out early this morning, to take the round of the Flat to wish them all a happy New Year, this though not practised in England, is the regular custom in Scotland, and is called the first footing. The person calling must manage to be at the house or houses at which he intends to call as early as possible to prevent being forestalled by anyone else, and he is also supposed to take with him a bottle of spirits and a piece of cake, and to help everyone in the house to the same.

In their history of the Scots in New Zealand, Brad Patterson, Tom Brooking and Jim McAloon note seed-cakes, buns and shortbread as traditional foods served on the traditional occasion of Hogmanay. They were part of a fondness for baking among the Scots, whose major contribution to New Zealand cuisine may have been ‘an overdeveloped fondness for sweet things and baked good of all kinds’, suggest Patterson and co. The ‘Land o’ cakes’ has a lot to answer for!

First footing probably didn’t survive much past the first generation or two of Scottish migrants in most parts of New Zealand, though it lasted longer in some families and a few communities. I suspect the same applies to Scotch/black bun, which became a curiosity to most New Zealanders.

Black bun mixture in the tin, waiting for its pastry lid.

In the interests of thorough research, I decided to have a go at making black bun myself. I selected a recipe in the cookbook put out by the Gaelic Society of New Zealand (now defunct, sadly) in 1998. Betty Ferguson contributed this recipe and it appealed to me as it had metric measurements and a good measure of whisky! It has all the classic ingredients, among them raisins, currants, peel, almonds, cinnamon, allspice and black pepper. The result looks and smells good. Now I’m waiting for it to mature so I can have my first taste of black bun, and inflict it on my family.

The finished product looks quite edible and smells good. I’m waiting for it to mature before the big taste test.

A big thank you to Michael Wallace who set me off on this quest. Do you have a black bun tradition in your family? If so, I’d love to hear about it!



Charles Hayward diary, AB-023, Toitū Otago Settlers Museum.

Old New Zealand newspapers on Papers Past.

Celtic cookbook (Dunedin: Gaelic Society of New Zealand, 1998).

Helen Leach, Mary Browne and Raelene Inglis, The twelve cakes of Christmas: an evolutionary history, with recipes (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2011).

F. Marian McNeill, The Scots kitchen: its traditions and lore with old-time recipes (London & Glasgow: Blackie and Son, 1929)

F. Marian McNeill, The silver bough: a calendar of Scottish national festivals Hallowe’en to Yule (Glasgow, William Maclellan, 1961).

Laura Mason and Catherine Brown, From petticoat tails to Arbroath smokies: traditional foods of Scotland (London: HarperPress, 2007).

Brad Patterson, Tom Brooking and Jim McAloon, Unpacking the kists: the Scots in New Zealand (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2013).

William Sitwell, A history of food in 100 recipes (London: Collins, 2012).