A Scone Milestone – 500 Years

What is a scone without jam? Or “scon,” as my mother used to say. –British gentleman ordering scones in Bourton-on-the-Water

This quote originally struck me as little more than cute commentary from a distinguished-looking British gentleman visiting a tea room for take-out scones. As I waited behind him to order not even a scone but an ice cream cone, I had no idea that his words would send me on an unexpected journey in search of more than just the pronunciation, but also the history of a word that turned out to be full of surprises, at least for me, a relative novice when it comes to tea and scones.

Photo by Dorene

As I wrote about in the Side Hop section of my previous post, my curiosity about how to pronounce “scone” led me from the venerable OED to a divisive poll about pronunciation and then to the absurdity of Monty Python’s Lumberjack Song. And there’s more.

When consulting the OED regarding the pronunciation, I learned that “scone” was of Scottish origin and made its first appearance in Eneados, the 1513 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid by Gavin Douglas, the future Bishop of Dunkeld and a member of the powerful Douglas family.

From Wikipedia
Statue of Bishop Gavin Douglas at St Giles Cathedral. From Wikipedia.

Writing in the vernacular of his own language, Middle Scots, Gavin Douglas was the first to successfully translate the Aeneid into any Anglic language. The translation, which is considered generally faithful to Virgil’s 1st-century BC epic poem, includes Prologues written by Gavin Douglas for each of the 13 books (the 13th book is a 15th-century sequel by Italian poet Maffeo Vegio). Scholars continue to study Gavin Douglas, and this year there have even been celebrations for Eneados.

Why celebrate a book from 1513? Because 2013 is the 500th anniversary! And while scholars in England and Scotland celebrate Gavin Douglas for his influential literary achievement, there’s another reason to honor the Bishop: He introduced scones to the world of literature!

Copy of 1553 edition of Eneados. Courtesy of Special Collections, LSU Libraries, Louisiana State University.
Copy of 1553 edition of Eneados. Courtesy of Special Collections, LSU Libraries, Louisiana State University.

With a blog dedicated in part to the pursuit of scones, I felt that I must celebrate this literary debut by finding the original text. Trying to read Middle Scots is challenging, but at least the scene featuring the scones contains familiar words, although with different spellings. The scones are in the second to last line, and, yes, those double Ns seem to favor the argument for using the “scon” pronunciation. (The OED cites 1744 for the modern spelling.)

Eneas, and wther chiftanis glorious,
And the fresche lusty springald Ascanius,
Vndir the branchis of a semely tre
Gan lenyng dovn, and rest thair bodeys fre;
And to thair dyneyr dyd thame all addres
On grene herbis and sonkis of soft gres.
The flour sconnis war sett in, by and by,
Wyth wthir mesis, sic as was reddy; (Book VII, Chapter 3, lines 9-16)

Very, very basically, these lines describe Aeneas as he was resting under a tree with his generals and his son, “the fresche lusty springald Ascanius” (no translation needed!). They were having dinner, which was served on scones. So the scones were acting as plates and played a surprisingly important role in the story, which I’ll explain in a moment. The scones that Douglas wrote about would have been flatter and harder than those that we enjoy today, and modern translations tend to use “cakes” here. Since Douglas was translating the Latin text into the vernacular of his language, perhaps he chose “sconnis” because it was already a familiar word in Scotland.

Photo by Dorene

So then where does the word itself come from? The OED lists a couple of possible sources, and I had no plans to look further into the word’s origins. Had I taken the most basic step of checking Wikipedia, I would have discovered that there was more to the story. But that’s not what happened.

  • Here’s the etymology from the OED: “Perhaps a shortened adoption of Middle Dutch schoonbrot, Middle Low German schonbrot ‘fine bread’.”
  • Then I received from my friend, Beth, the delightful book in Sharon O’Connor’s Menus and Music series, Afternoon Tea Serenade (1997). O’Connor lists the Dutch origin as a possibility and also mentions a Gaelic word, sgonn, which means “to gulp or eat in large mouthfuls.” Scones? Eating in large mouthfuls? Well, there was no afternoon tea in medieval Scotland, and since we already know that the scones were different too, this Gaelic influence seemed possible. So I was satisfied with the theories about the word evolving from Dutch, German, and/or Gaelic. That is, until a grocery store flyer arrived in my mailbox.
  • It was the October edition of Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer. Instead of listing sale items, this creative and quirky booklet tells a story about the products being highlighted for the month. When I reached page 14, I could hardly believe the first sentence for the story about Pumpkin Cranberry Scone Mix:

According to lore, the crumbly quick bread known as the scone is said to have taken its name from the Stone of Destiny (aka Scone) where Scottish kings were crowned in days of yore.

Trader Joe's-pumpkin-cranberry-scone-mixWhat could be more fitting for a journey that started with an overheard conversation than to have it almost derailed by the menial task of reading my mail. Why derailed? Because I did visit Wikipedia’s “scone” entry after reading the Fearless Flyer, and, while mentioning the possible connection, Wikipedia omits any explanation of the relationship between the Stone of Scone and our afternoon tea treat. Did I have to seek out yet another path on this journey into the world of scones? Yes, but I feared I would never get back again if I pursued this further, especially since I would need to confront a third pronunciation for “Scone.” So my history of the word will have to remain incomplete. I will look into this in the near future, but for now, let’s finish the story about the scone’s literary debut.

In the scene quoted earlier, Aeneas had just arrived in a foreign land, Italy. I won’t include the subsequent lines, which are far more difficult to read, but essentially the men were still hungry after dinner and decided to eat their plates (the scones). “Obviously,” some of us may think, but not these men. Ascanius made a joke about being so hungry that they were eating their tables, which reminded Aeneas that his father, Anchises, had prophesied that Aeneas would know he had arrived in the land where he would settle when he was so hungry that he was eating tables. So according to Gavin Douglas’s take on Virgil’s mythology, eating scones helped Aeneas realize that this was where he would eventually build his city (Rome).

If only there had been tea! Even with no tea and with scones that differ from today’s treats, what a wonderful beginning to the literary life of the scone.

Photo by Dorene

As for Gavin Douglas, his life as a poet and translator ended with Eneados. Following the Battle of Flodden and his nephew’s marriage to the widowed Queen Margaret, Henry VIII’s sister, Bishop Douglas chose politics over poetry. Success was short-lived. He died of the plague in London in 1522. Click here for his Wikipedia entry.

Remarkably, 2013 is nearing its end, so there’s not much time left to celebrate this 500th anniversary. If you are ambitious and want to check out Eneados, there are a couple of online options. An 1874 edition is available on the Internet Archive. Look for Volume 3 of this edition to find Book VII. Also, the Scots Language Centre has an edition available to download with modern spellings, but it is still difficult to read. If you would like just a sampling of Eneados, a small group of writers put together a contemporary version of a brief excerpt from one of the Prologues. The original text is also provided. Visit Ken Cockburn’s Blog for the results.

Of course we need to celebrate the scone as well! I’m still growing in my appreciation for scones, so before 2013 ends, I’m determined to make my first ever batch of scones from scratch. I’ll probably use one of the recipes in Afternoon Tea Serenade, although I’ll take other suggestions as well.

And I may even try Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cranberry Scone Mix to acknowledge its role in this journey.


2 thoughts on “A Scone Milestone – 500 Years

    1. Ken – Thanks for commenting. I was surprised to have the scone lead me to Gavin Douglas, and I enjoyed the contemporary version of his poetry. Many words have Eneados listed as the source, but I obviously think scones should have received special recognition this year as well!


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