SOWANS, soured oat starch eaten in porridge or scones or drunk a beverage, was once a common sight, particularly in the Highlands.

For centuries, crofters would mill oats locally, and would reserve the hulls. These hulls, called “sids”, still had a bit of starch clinging to them, and by fermenting them with water in a sowans bowie (similar to a small barrel), our forebears could capture every bit of precious nutrition from the grains, with deliciously sour results.

This process created several useful foodstuffs: sowans (the soured starch paste), swats (the now-sour and starchy water, which makes a refreshing cold beverage), and the remaining hulls, which would be used as livestock feed. It’s a wonderful example of our ancestors’ creativity in turning a “waste” by-product into another food resource to guard against scarcity and malnutrition.

A bit of history OATS were introduced to Scotland by the ancient Romans, as one of the few introduced crops that thrived in the cool, wet climate.

As oats adapted to the Scottish climate, so too did Scots adapt to the oat, and they appear across hundreds of sweet and savoury dishes.

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We do not know when sowans were first made, but according to researcher Scott Richardson-Read of Cailleach’s Herbarium, the first known written record of sowans is in in George Ridpath’s An Answer To The Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence in the late 1600s. A century later, they were listed as one of the foods given to patients at the Dundee Royal Infirmary in 1798.

Author Judith Holder also notes that sowans (spelled sowins here) appear in the 1812 Healthful Cookery Book, and F Marian McNeill’s 1929 The Scots Kitchen mentions them too, as do many other authors.

Sowans were connected to holidays as well as daily living: Robert Burns mentions them as part of Halloween festivities, for example. And Read notes that in Aberdeen, Christmas Eve is also called “Sowans Nicht” (or Sowans Night) in anticipation of the holiday treat.

Sowans were consumed both on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, when sowans were consumed by the household for breakfast. It was common in the Highlands to be served sowans in bed before starting the day’s festivities.

Unfortunately, there seems to be less and less mention of them as the 20th century opened and rolled on, perhaps in part because industrial agriculture moved many away from relying on neighboring farms and locally grown oats.

Less small-scale local agriculture also meant less local milling, and thus less access to starchy oat hulls. Sowans can still be found, though, and are remarkably easy to make and a joy to bake into scones or enjoy on their own. Sowans and Family Ties GROWING up in the US, I had never heard of sowans, my family having left the Scottish Highlands many generations before. Though many of our Appalachian mountain traditions still have Scottish roots, I’ve rarely felt a connection to tradition through my lived experience.

That is, at least, until I tried sowans.

I learned about sowans and swats while researching my newest book, Our Fermented Lives, and the act of making and eating it ended up being an incredibly powerful experience: each step, from grinding the grain to fermenting the hulls, felt incredibly intuitive, as though my hands were performing a task learned and set aside long ago, but never entirely forgotten.

Suddenly, I was connected with a food my ancestors used for both sustenance and celebration, which took the “waste” from a harvest that we today would overlook, and turned it into something so special and celebrated that it has its own holiday.

As I harvested and processed the oats, and later drank (and ate) the fermented starch, it gave me an insight into the world of my ancestors I otherwise would have lacked.

The flavour, too, felt as familiar as the process, like a favourite childhood food tried before one has a name to describe it, rediscovered by happenstance by your adult palate decades later.

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I’ve had many conversations over the years with fellow cooks who’ve had similar experiences. A friend who sings and hums as he cooks, not knowing where the songs came from, or perhaps even what the words mean. A friend who started blending together spices on a whim, only to later discover that the medley she created was very similar to the blends her ancestors made in northern India. And a friend who started making akara after learning of his West African lineage, who found a familiar flavour in his first taste of a new food.

Reconnecting with these traditional foods not only grounds us in our communities and keeps our food heritage alive, they help remind us that we’re a bridge between past and future, and we can enjoy that experience on our plates.

Even in situations where you do not know your ancestors’ exact story, you may be able to make foods from a region where they likely came from. Millet and sorghum porridges, for example, are found in many places in West Africa and elsewhere on the continent, and offer an opportunity for African descendants to reconnect to their culinary roots.

Wherever you or your ancestors are from in the world, learning about and making traditional foods is a powerful way to connect with the people whose stories are written in your very cells and bones.

Every time I make sowans now, I remember that first taste, and the deep feeling of connection, belonging, and love passed down through the centuries with this food tradition until it made its way to me.

It was as though in that moment, I felt my ancestors speaking to me through the food, saying “look here, this is a gift we’ve passed down but our family has forgotten. But it has sustained us for millennia, and now it can sustain you too”.

Julia Skinner, PhD is the author of Our Fermented Lives, and the founder of Root, Atlanta’s fermentation and food history company where she offers online classes and worldwide consulting for creative projects and researchers.

Follow her work at or on social media at @bookishjulia or @rootkitchens