KitchenScraps: Mum’s Legendary Scones by Mairi Neil

by Matilda Butler on February 18, 2010

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #27 – Women’s Memoirs, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

By Mairi Neil, Victoria, Australia

My daughters, Anne and Mary Jane, after baking scones with Nana, 1994

My daughters, Anne and Mary Jane, after baking scones with Nana, 1994

Mum’s preparation and production of scones is a family legend. Her namesake, my daughter Anne, even proposed videotaping her baking for posterity. Regretfully, Mum passed away on 23rd October 2009 at the age of 88 before the video could be made.

When I baked a batch of scones for the first time since Mum’s death, Anne came home from work and plopped onto a kitchen chair to ask, “What are you cooking?”

Mairi-Neil-2-Scones“I’m trying to bake Nana’s scones,” I said, beating an egg furiously while holding back tears from moist eyes.

“No one can make scones like Nana — not even a good cook like you Mum.”

I managed a smile at the backhanded compliment. Anne’s honesty dispelled the awkward rush of sadness threatening to overwhelm me and I recalled a conversation I had with Mum the last time she stayed with us.


“You know Mum, Anne thinks your scone-making deserves to be filmed.”

Mum laughed, shaking her snowy white head in disbelief. “I couldn’t cook a boiled egg when I married your father in 1948. Had never been taught to cook or allowed in the kitchen by old Maggie, my stepmother.”

It was my turn to show surprise. Mum seemed such an expert and not just at cooking plain meals. Yet, I had never seen her consult a recipe. Her forte included scones, the specialty clootie (cloth) dumpling at Hogmanay, pancakes, soda bread, tattie (potato) scones and my favourite, treacle (molasses) scones. Many of the treats cooked on the traditional griddle atop the stove as well as in the oven. She combined her Irish heritage with recipes loved by my Scottish father and constantly adapted. In her first attempt cooking pasta, she produced a delicious lasagne but couldn’t remember the name, calling it “Los Angeles.” That’s what we still call it today.

Mum was also a dab hand at small cupcakes, which she iced with homemade blackberry jam sprinkled with coconut. With six children under ten, that innovation saved her precious hours of icing time and meant we could devour them straight away.

Curious about her cooking skill, I asked, “How did you become so good at baking, Mum?”

“Your dad taught me a lot. His mother had a heart condition most of his childhood and he had to help her.”

“I never saw Dad bake scones or cakes.”

“Oh, he didn’t teach me how to do everything but he gave me the confidence to experiment. He even ate my failures! A cook needs to be appreciated.”

I remember the Sunday mornings of my childhood. All of us in the double bed beside Mum and Dad, singing raucously:

There were eight in the bed and the little one said, roll over, roll over. So they all rolled over and one fell out…

Mum was always the first one out of bed to hurry downstairs to cook breakfast. She left the rest of us jockeying around dad. The baby had the privilege of yelling ‘roll over’ and much to our envy was always the last out of the bed, swung high on Dad’s shoulders and taken downstairs for breakfast.

There would be a large pot of porridge made from oats soaked overnight, and a loaf of toast buttered by the time we assembled in the dinette with olfactory glands and taste buds working overtime. Mum would be adding the finishing touch to Dad’s plate of bacon and eggs — either leftover boiled potatoes sliced and fried, or freshly made tattie scones from leftover mashed potatoes.

Did we show enough appreciation? I doubt it. I remember that Mum catered to all our whims: some wanted boiled eggs mashed in cups and others insisted on fried eggs flipped (or not), some asked for bread with crusts cut off while others thought the crusts were just fine, some thought soup should be strained of vegetables yet others wanted the vegetables in the bowl, some relished crispy bacon yet others thought the ham should be barely fried, some requested toast dry but others loved the butter, some drank tea so weak that it could have been warmed milk while others drank it so strong you could stand on it. Perhaps the oddest request of all that showed Mum’s love was to eat marmalade with the peel picked out.

Mairi Neil and Mum

Mairi Neil and Mum

On her last visit, I placed a breakfast tray in Mum’s lap and she murmured, “I’m sorry for putting you to all this bother.”

“Don’t apologize. How many times did you put yourself out for us?”

“That was nothing, part of my job as a mother.”

“And this is nothing, part of my job as a daughter.”

Grinning she continued to explain her cooking prowess. “I learned from recipes in the Women’s Weekly and The People’s Friend and I remembered watching Aunt Martha on the farm.” Mum’s milky eyes stared into the distance. Bony fingers that had been fussing with buttons on her cardigan suddenly stilled. Legally blind and struggling to see in the present, she was back on the farm of her childhood…

My maternal grandmother died in 1927, leaving Mum motherless at six years old. My grief-stricken grandfather, with a pawnbroking business to manage, plus two young children, accepted the offer of Grandmother’s family to take Mum and her three-year-old brother Tom, to their farm at Carricknaveigh, eighteen miles from Belfast. The same day she lost her mother, Mum effectively separated from her father apart from a visit on Sundays.

Six-year-old hands now fed hens and collected eggs in a wicker basket, patted the smooth flesh of horses released from yoke and plough, filled a trough with warm meal for the pigs and learnt to form letters in a tiny country school. She thrived on freshly picked vegetables, milk straight from the cow and meat from animals bred and killed on the farm.

“Those five years on the farm until my dad remarried and took Tom and I back to Belfast were the best years of my childhood,” she said.

From the first week of her arrival at the farm, Mum helped care for her dead mother’s older sister, Annie, who was her godmother. Annie suffered from a debilitating muscular disease that sounds similar to motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis. She lay in bed 26 years, unable to do anything unaided while her muscles gradually seized. The last time she used words was the day she heard of her younger sister Mary’s death. Looking at Mum she murmured through twisted lips, ‘Poor bairns.’ After that she communicated with eye signals – one blink for yes, two blinks for no.

Annie’s hands were massaged with oil and Mum placed cotton wool between her fingers and in her claw hands to prevent sores and calluses. A woman from the village came daily to attend to Annie’s toilet needs and feed her, clean her room, help with general housework and supervise the children. She would read the Bible and any newspaper or pamphlet that came into the house to the poor woman lying trapped in her twisted body upstairs in the farmhouse. The children had to listen too although Mum confessed to sneaking away to hide in the barn to read comics or whatever novel she could find.

She remembered a day when Annie made the most horrible gurgling sounds trying to speak. Eyes blinking furiously, she stared in terror at the open window. Her pale skin blanched with sheen of perspiration. Had an intruder entered the room? Or perhaps ‘the shadow of death’ talked about in church? Mum’s blue eyes examined the open window, turned again to the moaning patient. She let out a blood-curdling scream that had adults running up the stairs two at a time.

Hovering above bedridden Annie was a giant wasp attracted by a vase of freshly picked Bluebells. The thought of its venomous sting had both Annies in a lather of fear.

Hands as soft as rose petals nurtured an ailing aunt from a very young age, and later nursed a father, who died in 1939, a few weeks after war was declared. “I returned to Belfast at eleven years of age, when dad remarried,” said Mum, unconsciously fingering her own wedding ring, “but life with Maggie was never happy. Dad died in my arms while I recited his favourite Bible passage, Psalm 23.”

Mum holding her large print Bible

Mum holding her large print Bible

I squeezed her arm, took both her hands in mine and thought of the many times these hands have been clasped in prayer and how her faith sustained her through life’s hurdles, gave her the courage to migrate to Australia at 40 years of age with a young family and start a new life – but that’s another story.

I think of you baking scones
Your floral apron streaked with flour.
Ingredients never measured but
swirled together by experienced hands
used to work and gifting love.
The soft splat of dough against Formica,
the thump of rolling pin and
scrape of metal cutter and then the
leftover scraps patted to shape a tiny scone
“For you – this special one,” you said.
© 2009 by Mairi Neil


Mairi Neil coordinates the Mordialloc Writers’ Group, in Victoria Australia. She teaches creative writing at the Mordialloc Neighbourhood House and is currently studying for her Masters in Writing – a steep learning curve returning to study in her 50s. A widow, she lives with her daughters Anne and Mary Jane who enjoying eating but are yet to show an interest in cooking!

© 2010 Mairi Neil

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