JFK Birthplace and a Teapot

Like any year, 2013 saw a number of milestone anniversaries, a few of which involved books (Pride and Prejudice – 200 years), speeches (I Have a Dream – 50 years, Gettysburg Address – 150 years), poetry/translation (Eneados – 500 years), and the anniversary that only I seem to be celebrating: the literary debut of the scone in Eneados.

Then there was the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, which revisited the shock of that day, stirred memories, and touched many people, even those of us who were not alive on November 22, 1963. The front page of the Boston Globe this past Friday reproduced the original front page from 50 years ago, with a headline that still resonates today.

Boston Globe 11-22-13

Among the places that honored the anniversary was JFK’s birthplace at 83 Beals Street in Brookline. Normally closed for the winter, the JFK birthplace reopened for the weekend to also commemorate the National Day of Mourning on November 25, 1963, when thousands of people gathered outside the house, a private residence at the time, to pay tribute to JFK. In 1966 JFK’s mother, Rose Kennedy, repurchased the house, and in 1967 it was established as a National Historic Site, opening to the public in 1969 as the John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site.

Just outside Boston near Coolidge Corner, the house is located in a tree-lined, residential neighborhood. There is a sign at the end of the street pointing towards the house, but for the next quarter of a mile, there are no other indications that a presidential birthplace is nearby. Then the flag pole comes into view.

JFK Birthplace

The house was restored by Rose Kennedy, who lived there after her 1914 marriage to Joseph P. Kennedy. In 1920, the family moved to a larger house a few blocks away. JFK was born on the afternoon of May 29, 1917, and the clocks within the house are all set to 3:00, the time of his birth.

Only about 19% of the objects inside were originally used by the Kennedy family when they lived here, so the house is not really a museum of Kennedy artifacts but instead reproduces what family life would have been like in the home during the first three years of JFK’s life. Both Joe and Rose Kennedy came from well-known political families, and life in this house reflected their status as upper middle class. With the images of Kennedy wealth and privilege that we know today, seeing that JFK’s early years were defined by comfort rather than opulence can be surprising.

The house has three floors and a basement. The two servants lived on the top floor, which today holds staff offices and is not open to the public. The basement has been converted to a gift shop with some additional photographs on display. A tour of the house visits the first and second floors, and the rooms themselves are gated off and can be viewed only from the hallways. Especially on the second floor, being limited to the narrow hallway leaves an impression that the house is small, and since there were four children by 1920, it is understandable why the family had to move to a larger house. I had visited the house a couple of times over the years and decided to see it again Saturday morning.

Most tours are led by a National Park Service ranger. The knowledgeable rangers describe the origins of the house as a historic site, share stories about life for the Kennedy’s during JFK’s first three years, and talk about the significance of many of the objects in the house.

Among the objects which would have been in the house when JFK lived there, highlights include the bed where Rose Kennedy gave birth (closest to the window), the children’s bassinet, and Rose Kennedy’s piano. (Dorene was not with me, so I had to take photos.)

The dining room is on the first floor immediately on the left when you enter the house. Of all the rooms, it holds the most original objects. Several pieces of furniture, china, and silver would have been used in the house. The china and some of the silver pieces were wedding presents, including the teapot displayed on the buffet/sideboard in the photo at the bottom. Not surprisingly, Rose Kennedy was a tea drinker. The small table in the photo on the left was where JFK and his older brother Joe sat, with JFK’s original porringer on the left. Here is the view from left to right of the dining room.

Buffet with silver, including teapot

The house is now closed for the winter and will not reopen until May. Visit their website for more information.  While there is an opportunity to view a film in the basement about JFK, this is not the primary site for learning about the president’s life. The house instead is a simple, quiet place that offers a glimpse into JFK’s early years and the origins of his legacy.


Celebrating Gavin Douglas

As I wrote about in my previous post, 2013 is the 500th anniversary of Eneados, Gavin Douglas’s 1513 translation of the Aeneid. Because the OED cites Eneados for the first appearance of the word “scone,” I decided that the scone’s literary debut was a milestone worth celebrating.

Scone at Bath Bun

Of course, beyond the single appearance of scones in the book, the most important reason to celebrate this 500th anniversary is to honor Gavin Douglas, his Middle Scots poetry, and his great translation. Even though 2013 is nearing its end, there is still time to celebrate. Several Eneados 500 events have already occurred, including a celebration in Edinburgh at St. Giles’ Cathedral (aka High Kirk of St. Giles) on July 21st, just before the actual date when Gavin Douglas finished his poem 500 years ago (July 22nd, the feast of St. Mary Magdalene). Jamie Reid Baxter, who had organized the July event, is also the organizer of a full day of Gavin Douglas celebrations taking place on Friday, November 15th, and he was kind enough to send me details of the upcoming events.

The day will include the unveiling of a commemorative flagstone honoring Gavin Douglas, readings from Eneados, a Gavin Douglas conference, and a sung Mass. The Duke of Hamilton, who is descended from Gavin Douglas’s father, will unveil the flagstone.

A day with poetry, history, music, and a duke — if there weren’t 3,000 miles in the way, I would definitely be in Edinburgh on November 15th!

Here is the flyer for the celebration. The text within the flyer is provided below so that you can read it more easily. I have also included details for the Gavin Douglas conference, which takes place from 2-5 pm.

“Scotland’s Glory, 1513”:

 three events celebrating Gavin Douglas and his “Eneados”

On the Feast of St Mary Magdalene, 1513, six weeks before the catastrophe of Flodden, the poet Gavin Douglas completed his “Eneados”, a magnificent Scots-language translation of the Roman poet Virgil’s epic “Aeneid”. In 1513, Douglas was provost of the High Kirk of St Giles in Edinburgh.

Friday 15th November sees three events in the heart of Edinburgh’s historic Old Town, celebrating Douglas and his great poem.

11 am. – Makars’ Court, outside the Writers’ Museum in the Lawnmarket, off the High Street:  a commemorative inscribed flagstone honouring Gavin Douglas will be unveiled by Alexander Douglas-Hamilton, 16th Duke of Hamilton, a descendant of Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Angus, the poet’s father. There will be a short reading from the “Eneados”.

2 pm. – 5 pm.  Augustine United Church, 41 George IV Bridge:  conference “Gavin Douglas, Makar and Translatour”, with the participation of poet and academic J.Derrick McClure on Douglas as translator; scholar Dr Emily Wingfield on Douglas and Flodden; historian Dr Jenny Wormald on the culture of James IV’s Scotland; and award-winning poet Rab Wilson on Douglas as a poet.  Rab Wilson will also perform five excerpts from “Eneados” introduced and put in context by Jamie Reid-Baxter, the organiser of the Gavin Douglas celebrations. Tickets £5 (concessions £3) at the door.  There will be a short interval, tea and biscuits provided.

7.30 pm. – 9 pm.  High Kirk of St Giles: Sang Scule, directed by James Hutchinson, sing Robert Carver’s thrilling Mass for Six Voices, framed in a concert reconstruction of Procession and High Mass for St Mary Magdalene as it would have been celebrated by Gavin Douglas as provost of St Giles.  After the end of the mass, the singers will perform “The Flowers of the Forest: an Elegy on Flodden Field” (2004), by Sheena Phillips, an eight-minute piece juxtaposing the famous ballad with a Latin poem from 1512, praising the Scotland of James IV. Among the ten thousand Scots who fell at Flodden alongside their king were Gavin Douglas’s elder brothers.  – Full texts and translations provided. Tickets at the door, £10 (concessions £5).

Presented under the aegis of the Scots Language Centre/Centre for the Scots Leid, as part of Previously… Scotland’s History Festival: http://www.historyfest.co.uk/


Gavin Douglas, Makar and Translatour

A Conference at Augustine United Church, 2-5 pm. Friday 15th November 2013

Rab Wilson : Eneados Prologue 1, part one.

Jamie Reid Baxter (chair): welcome and link

Rab Wilson:  Eneados Prologue 1, part two.

Jenny Wormald on James IV and culture

Questions from floor

– interval (tea and biscuits)

Rab Wilson on Douglas as poet, followed by recitation of ‘Euryalus and Nisus’ from Eneados

Emily Wingfield on Douglas and Flodden

Rab Wilson:  Eneados ‘June Morning’ (Prologue XIII)

Jamie Reid Baxter on Douglas’s broader achievement

Rab Wilson : Eneados ‘Conclusioun’.


These impressive events speak to the importance of Gavin Douglas and Eneados, and Jamie Reid Baxter and all of the participants should be commended for their efforts in offering these events to the public.

Dr. Reid Baxter also shared with me that St Giles, where Gavin Douglas served as provost, has a crypt cafe with superb scones. How appropriate! I was pleased to learn that when he was at St. Giles for the July 21st celebration, he was able to enjoy a scone at the cafe. Though perhaps unwittingly, at least scones played a small role in the celebration that day!

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.