Whenever a recipe for some 'Manx' foodstuff is required, Bonnag is usually offered. Originally I think this was just a large flat unleavened loaf cooked on the griddle (rather like oatcake) but over the years it appears to have become a much richer cake-like fruit bread or in later recipes a fairly rich fruit cake. The word does not occur in Cregeen's Manx dictionary of 1835 - in Clague's Manx Reminiscences (1911) it is given as the 'English' for Soddag Verreen (defined by Cregeen as a thick clapped cake ; generally understood as the last of a baking and left longer on the griddle to harden (ref to 1 Kings xvii. 13) which ties in with its colloquial use in Anglo Manx - "He's like barley bonnag — hard in the cruss"). Though Kelly's dictionary (Manx Soc vol 13) gives 'bonnag' as a translation of cake, the word is not included in the Manx-English section. Roeder quotes O’Reilly’s Irish Dictionary simply giving bonnag as "cake"; the Scotch 'bannock' is probably from the same root. Elizabeth David in her section on Bakestone Cakes or Breads indicates that the words 'Bread' and 'Cake' could be used interchangeably in this context and that cake did not have today's meaning of something sweet - Marie Antoinette's misquote 'Let them eat cake' likewise refers to the use of a different grain than wheat.

Hall Caine describes his Manx Grandmother in the 1860's, as laying out on the kitchen table "a crock of fresh water, with perhaps a bowl of new milk, and a plate of 'bonnag,' which was barley bread. - no mention of dried fruit etc. in the bonnag.

Bonnag made to a late 19th century recipe originating from an isolated farm, produces a breakfast plate sized, about an inch or slightly more tall, bonnag. It has some fruit in it, but it needs to be spread with butter.

Wheat was not the common grain on the Island - these were usually Oats and Barley. Oats do not contain gluten which is needed to give bread, especially leavened bread, its characteristic texture - oatcakes were long noted as the staple diet of the Manx and probably differed little from the surrounding lands where a wide variety of such cakes were also made. Elizabeth David quotes a 1629 recipe for paper thin Kendal Oatcakes as well as the more common Scots variety which add a little fat to what is basically a flour and water mix. Skim (or whey) milk could be used instead of water. Roeder who spent much time with the older families in the south of the Island in the 1890's pines for the loss of "the crisp, thin-leaved, tasty bonnags—where are they ? Banished, too, from the Isle?".

Barley contains gluten though not as much as wheat - it could be used in place of the oats - as Elizabeth David says Oats and Barley produce the tastiest cakes but because of the gluten it can produce breads with a lighter aerated texture.

She dates the introduction of bicarbonate of soda and tartaric acid (cream of tartar) to the late 1840's and 1850's though only reaching popularity in the 1860's. This mixture of an acid acting on a the alkali liberates carbon dioxide, CO2 which aerates the bread during its baking - the gluten allowing the trapped bubbles to expand and then, as baking alters the gluten, to lock in the texture - a ratio of 3:2 soda:acid is recommended by Ms. David (Self-raising flour already contains these ingredients - baking power is also the same but with the addition of rice-flour to absorb moisture during storage). Buttermilk (soured milk) can replace the tartaric acid as well as adding extra taste. One key requirement is to evenly distribute the soda throughout the mixture otherwise a bitter taste can result.

It is possible that buttermilk on its own can provide a wild yeast that can effectively leaven the bread - when used as an acid to liberate the CO2 it must be added immediately before baking - as a source of yeast it of course needs considerable 'proving' time to allow the yeast to grow.

The ready availability of dried fruit again dates from the mid 19th century, Kelly's dictionary gives the 'englished' Manx for currant as 'french berry', the adjective French usually meaning exotic, unusual or outlandish. Thus all the 'classic' Manx Bonnag' recipes are probably no more than 150 years old (and probably younger) though the use of flat griddle cakes probably dates back millennia.

In all the modern Bonnag recipes white wheat flour is used.


Elizabeth David English Bread and Yeast Cookery London: Allen Lane 1977 (ISBN 0-7139-1026-7)


For all these recipes I am thankful to Suzanne Daugherty for extracting them from her collection.

Measures or equivalents

'Basic' Bonnag

Dissolve soda in sour milk Then mix and bake in moderate oven.

'Fruit' Bonnag

Rub butter into flour. Add other dry ingredients. When will mixed, mix with buttermilk.

Bake about 1 hour in moderate oven.

A common recipe is

Bake in moderate oven 3/4 hour

A much richer cake-like recipe is 'Mrs. Kerruish's Manx Bunloaf' - note the addition of eggs which is not mentioned in any earlier recipe.

No method given but judging from the ingredients rather like a rich fruit cake :beat fats and sugar, add eggs; sift flour spice and raising ingredients, then add with fruit and cook in a slow oven (150C - probably around 2 hours but needs experimentation). Alternatively possibly rub fats into sifted flour/spice mix and then add eggs, fruit and buttermilk to produce the required dropping consistency


Method: Sieve dry ingredients, rub fat into flour, add fruit, mix treacle with milk, mix to a soft consistency. Turn into greased tin, bake in moderate oven.

Other variations are

Bunloaf (Special)

mix with sour milk or buttermilk (dissolve bicarbonate of soda in milk and add to dry ingredients)

Bake 2 hours in slow oven

These last two have a different method, and are good and moist. They were attributed to May Green, who used to demonstrate cookery, and s connected to Creer and Creer Ltd.,the Grocers of Buck's Road, Douglas.

Bunloaf (I)

Put in pan and boil for 3 minutes. Allow to go cold and add:

Dissolve bicarbonate in the vinegar . Stir together

Bake at 300 deg F for 10 minutes then reduce to 275 deg F for 50 minutes.

Variation: As I, but add 2 tsp treacle and 2 tsp mixed spice in flour mixture.

BONAG (The Sunrise Way)

Method. Rub fat into flour, add the sugar, then the fruit, add some of the milk in which the Bi-Carbonate of Soda has been mixed. Then add the rest until required consistency is obtained. Put in greased Baking tin and sprinkle sugar on top. Bake in a moderate oven about 45 minutes.

 Rich bonnag

Here is a recipe for Manx Bunloaf, which incidentally came from the 1971 Kathie Webber's International Star Cook Book (TV Times Extra) 1971. It measures up to the hand-down recipes which I have.

Method: Sift the flour, salt, mixed spice, nutmeg and bicarbonate of soda into a bowl. Rub in the butter until mixture looks like fine bread crumbs. Stir in the sugar, fruit and peel. Add the treacle and mix to a fairly stiff dropping consistency with buttermilk or milk.

Turn mixture into a well greased 1 lb loaf tin and bake for 2 1/2 hours in centre of oven, pre-heated to 325 deg.F or Mark 3. Test with a skewer to see if cooked.

 Manx Note Book   [History Index]


See Manx Cookery Book, 1908

Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
© F.Coakley , 2000