By Tom Chidwick in the Scottish Review
In March 1971, the recently created British Tourist Authority (BTA) – established in 1969 to give the industry what the Wilson Government called a ‘single voice’ – issued the latest in a series of promotional booklets designed to lure ‘Americans and others’ to the United Kingdom. A Taste of Britain, 71 presented 10 seven-day regional tours which recommended where to ‘eat well and sleep sound’ and, as The Press and Journal suggested, was aimed at those who did ‘not look at both sides of a new penny’.
While the 1970s saw the country’s 15 health boards make an increasingly concerted effort to improve Scots’ nutrition – trying to ‘nudge’ Scots towards an ‘increase of acceptance of responsibility for the maintenance of his own health’ to lessen the prevalence of ischaemic heart disease (the biggest single killer in this period) – the BTA attempted to portray Scotland as a ‘paradise for visiting gastronomes and lovers of luxuries’. Emerging from a four-day visit by 60 food critics from 15 countries, A Taste of Britain, 71 concluded, somewhat under-whelmingly, that ‘our standards of food (and hotels) are far higher than some suppose’.
A roll ‘n’ square sliced sausage is a big favourite with Scots.
Although processed food was becoming increasingly prevalent in this period (as the rise of Findus Crispy Pancakes and Angel Delight attest), it has been observed that it did little to weaken traditional Scottish fare. One of the greatest survivors was the country’s multitude of long-established, independent bakeries, which were sustained by the fact that Sir Kenneth Blaxter (the long-time director of the Rowett Institute) estimated that Scots ate 47% more bread than those in the south and south-east of England.
The collapse and revival of Mortons Rolls over the past fortnight has demonstrated the continued importance of these bakeries to our national palate. Founded in Temple in north-west Glasgow in 1965, Morton’s Rolls – when and why the company dropped the apostrophe escapes this particular aficionado – sought to supply the city’s homes and snack bars with ‘a handmade, full-flavoured bread roll, using Scottish milled flour’. As their iconic orange delivery vans depicting some of Glasgow’s most recognisable landmarks (including the Finnieston Crane which became operational over three decades before the company was founded) proclaimed: ‘We built this city on… Mortons Rolls’.
The news at the beginning of this month that Mortons had ceased production and appointed a provisional liquidator was met with a flurry of tributes to the company and morning rolls more generally.
While the outgoing First Minister, pictured right, described Mortons as an ‘iconic brand’ and promised to provide Scottish Government support to save some of the 230 jobs at its factory in Drumchapel, one signatory of a petition to nationalise Mortons compared the company’s demise to the inspirational direct action of the 1970s, proclaiming that ‘this is a UCS moment’.
While Peter Gilchrist (an ambassador for Scotland Food and Drink) argues that morning rolls are ‘part of our working-class story’ and help many Scots find ‘a sort of identity as a family’, Andy Arthur (who runs the Threadinburgh Twitter account) explained that morning rolls retain a ‘degree of regional identity’ but are not particularly Scottish ‘in heritage’. However, Arthur highlights that the baking process that created such widely loved bread rolls is a Scottish idiosyncrasy, noting that bakers north of the border typically used a longer fermentation (leaving a large, wet ‘sponge’ of dough overnight) and used lard (or butter in Aberdeenshire) to keep the roll soft after baking in hot ovens.
After finally succumbing to a pernicious combination of the pandemic, energy prices and a wrong-headed effort to supply supermarkets, Mortons Rolls resumed production this weekend thanks to a consortium of Glasgow business people headed by John McIlvogue, an earthy businessman and rare whisky seller.
At Holyrood, the effort was tirelessly championed by Labour MSP Paul Sweeney, pictured left, who tweeted on Sunday that his local, Café Circa, had his ‘Glasgow favourite’ back on the menu after a two-week absence.
As Sweeney and McIlvogue told numerous outlets over the weekend, PVL (Mortons’ new owners) still intend to reappoint the 120 people whose jobs are yet to be saved and are applying to the Scottish Government for additional funding to undertake a ‘serious overhaul’ of its antiquated factory in Drumchapel. While Mortons’ previous managing director, Alastair Sherry, told the Daily Record in February that it was an ‘honour’ to supply Lidl’s ‘Alba Bakeries’ range, McIlvogue stressed that the new management are abandoning the supermarket contracts which look ‘very lucrative on paper’ but are not profitable.
In this era of hyper commercialism, I think it is encouraging that Mortons is going ‘back to basics’, focusing on its ‘world-class’ crispy and soft rolls as well as potato scones, sold once again through local independent retailers. As McIlvogue told STV’s Caitlyn Dewar last week: ‘Glasgow doesn’t need to worry about having nae rolls anymore – Mortons is back’.
Tom Chidwick is a contemporary historian, who splits his time between London and Edinburgh