Mrs. Macnab’s Scones

This recipe was collected by Scottish folklorist F. Marian McNeill and published in her 1929 book, The Scots Kitchen. She writes, “Mrs. Macnab was the wife of a farmer who lived near Ballater. Such was her reputation as a baker that King Frederick of Prussia and other distinguished guests at Balmoral used frequently to go over and have tea with her. It is not possible to impart Mrs. Macnab’s lightness of touch, nor the wine-like air of these regions, which doubtless contributed to her visitors’ enjoyment; but here, at least, is the recipe for her celebrated scones.”

I wasn’t able to find any more information about Mrs. Macnab, but if the story about King Frederick of Prussia is true, she must have lived near Ballater sometime in the second half of the 19th century. Frederick first visited Balmoral Castle in 1855, where he became engaged to Princess Victoria, Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter. As Queen Victoria’s son-in-law, Frederick most likely stayed at Balmoral several times before his death in 1888.

A little boy and a man, both wearing kilts, pose in front of an ivy-covered wall.
Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia and his son, Prince William, Balmoral, Oct. 1863, photo by George Washington Wilson. Royal Collection Trust.

A woman wearing a dress with a hoop skirt holds a toddler and poses in front of a window.
Crown Princess Victoria of Prussia (Princess Royal of England) and Prince Henry, Oct. 1863, photo by George Washington Wilson. Royal Collection Trust.

Fun fact: In the photo above on the left, the little unhappy-looking boy holding Frederick’s hand is his son, William. On his father’s death in 1888, William would succeed him and become Kaiser Wilhelm II. Eventually, he led Germany during World War I; George V, the king of England at the time, was his first cousin. I wonder what Queen Victoria would have thought, if she had lived to see her grandchildren fighting wars against each other?

Anyway…back to the “celebrated scones”.

F. Marian McNeill's original recipe for scones.

Mrs. Macnab’s scones:

  • 1 lb flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp cream of tartar
  • 2 oz butter
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  1. Mix the flour, salt, baking soda, and cream of tartar in a bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces and rub it into the flour mixture.
  2. Gradually stir in the beaten egg and the buttermilk.
  3. Turn out on a floured surface and knead very lightly, just enough that the dough holds together.
  4. Divide the dough into four pieces and shape into rough circles about an inch thick.
  5. Cut each circle into four pieces, and prick the tops with a fork.
  6. Bake at 425 degrees for 10-15 minutes.
16 unbaked scones on a tray.

Tasting notes:

I did my best to follow McNeill’s instructions to handle the dough as little as possible, even though it meant my scones were a little uneven-looking. I’m sure that Mrs. Macnab, with her years of experience, was probably able to shape perfect scones while barely touching them – I’m not quite there yet!

Even if mine do look a little lumpy, these scones taste perfect. They are incredibly light and fluffy on the inside. Since they have no added flavoring, they are the perfect vehicles for some delicious jam or marmalade. While they’re still pretty good the next day, they are definitely at their best when fresh! They are probably even better when eaten at the end of a nice long walk through the Scottish countryside…hopefully I’ll get the chance to test that some day. These definitely deserve the name of “celebrated scones.”

2 scones on a blue and white plate.

References:

McNeill, F. M. (2004). The Scots kitchen. Edinburgh: Mercat Press. (Original work published 1929).

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