Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

He Could Eat His Mess – The Scottish Banner

October 31st, 2012

P1030626“You’ll never be rich”, his father told him, “but you’ll always feed your family”.

Sandy Robertson has just retired as Edzell’s resident baker and, without a buyer, his bakery has closed for good. No longer can his neighbours in this Angus village open their doors in the morning to the comforting smell of fresh baked bread or slip round to the shop for their breakfast rolls still warm from the oven.

Edzell sits by the waters of the River North Esk on the boundary of the counties of Angus and Kincardine. It is the gateway to Glenesk the most easterly, and some say the most beautiful, of the Angus glens. Cross the Gannochy Bridge a mile or so upriver and the road leads on through Fettercairn and over Cairn o’ Mount, one of the historic drove roads connecting Royal Deeside and the coastal markets.

Today, Edzell is probably best known for its James Braid heathland golf course and mediaeval, red sandstone Castle and Pleasaunce or Garden of the Senses. But there had been a bakery on the site in Church Street at least since 1845 and its closure is symptomatic of the changes in lifestyle and shopping habits that have affected every village in Scotland.

When Sandy’s father, Alexander senior, bought the business at the end of the Second World War it was known as Belford’s Bakery. He was not long married and working and living five miles away, in Fettercairn. In order to pay for his new investment he worked a shift in Fettercairn with his old boss, and travelled to Edzell and worked another shift in his own bakery until he was well enough established to move his family to the house in Church Street adjoining the bakery. It’s clear that Sandy grew up in an atmosphere of strong work ethic.

It was a foregone conclusion that Sandy followed his father into the business. Before he was old enough to go to school he was most likely to be found in the bakehouse, covered in baking flour, watching the men going about their table work preparing bread and rolls and softies (sweet rolls), and all the traditional cakes and sweet biscuits.

He couldn’t wait to turn fourteen and leave school to join his father as an apprentice baker. Business had grown rapidly and his father employed four bakers, and there was still sufficient demand in the village to support another bakery.

The whole concept of apprenticeships had broadened by this time and in addition to practical hands-on experience in the bakery, Sandy attended day-release classes at Kingsway Technical College in Dundee for five years. His day was long – starting work at 5am and finishing at 4pm – but Sandy wanted no other life.

In 1970 Sandy married Margaret who helped with the day-to-day running of the business as well as bringing up their two young daughters, Melissa and Dawn, and running the home. Changes in shopping habits meant that by the time they took over the bakery from his father in 1983 there was just himself and one other baker.

However it was a time of mobile shops which served the outlying country districts with groceries as well as bakery products and Sandy and Margaret put a BMC van on the road which supplied the neighbouring parishes of Glenesk, Glen Lethnot, Menmuir, Fern, even travelling as far as Brechin.

Increased mechanisation of farms and the rise in car ownership gave country folk more independence to travel; but it was the unstoppable growth of supermarkets with their range of choice that eventually made it uneconomical to keep the van on the road.

Sandy nearly left Edzell when he was offered a managerial post with a national baker, and was tempted to accept. It was Margaret who prevailed on him to stay.

The workforce dwindled till there was just himself. His working day never got shorter and for thirty years Sandy rose to start work at 2am, working through till 12noon, six days a week – one of the privileges of being self-employed. The two girls helped in the bakery at various stages but they had school work as well as their own interests, and neither saw a future as a village baker.

A. Robertson, Baker & Licensed Grocer, was a mainstay of Edzell village life and the specialities of the bakery were bread, oatcakes, handmade biscuits and Christmas puddings.

Oatcakes became such a specialist part of the business that Sandy took on Fiona as a part-time assistant. The traditional shape for oatcakes is triangular but they found that the round ones became the most popular. Square oatcakes, the same size as Kraft individual cheese slices, were produced in response to a demand from customers to have something tasty for their lunchboxes.

In the best traditions of country thrift the cellophane bags in which the oatcakes were packaged were heat-sealed with a Vidal Sassoon hair straightener which was a fraction of the cost of a custom-made bakery sealer.

To meet customers’ varied requirements Sandy worked through the night baking Scotch pies, sausage rolls and bridies. Exotic breads and Aberdeen butteries were on sale in the shop first thing in the morning, and Sandy claims the invention of the Chuttery, a buttery (like a flat croissant) with a liberal topping of cheese – an Edzell first.

Out of the oven came scones and pancakes for tea, and Dundee cake as well. And a range of sweet biscuits – cinnamon biscuits and rice biscuits, perkins, shortbread and coconut biscuits, heckles (plain, unsweetened biscuits) and butter biscuits. But perhaps most memorable of all was his Sally Lunn cake, or Lardie Bun, which as its name hints was a delicious, sweet bread smothered in icing. More of a cholesterol fix really!

Edzell will miss its only baker – his house is full of farewell and good luck cards. Sandy Robertson saw out a way of life and he’s satisfied to have done what he did. Life as a baker was physically demanding but he looks back on that life without regret.

There were compensations. Sandy and the local joiner were discussing the problems of making amends when they made a mess of things. “You can eat your mess”, said the joiner. “I canna.”

Before there was universal car ownership country villages were self-sufficient communities. Edzell had fifteen shops at one time – grocers, blacksmith, newsagent, cobbler, betting shop, tailor, saddler, chemist, garage, billiard hall, hotels. The village still supports two hotels and a fish and chip shop, Post Office, butcher, gift shop, chemist, grocer, general store, a garage and two hairdressers.

But Sandy Robertson’s, the baker, has gone and what was a piece of Edzell’s social fabric is social history now.

Written on Wednesday, October 31st, 2012 at 4:50 pm for Claivers.