Bannock or Scone? It’s all Scots to Me.

What is the difference between a scone and a bannock? Strange though it may seem, that question has been niggling at the back of my mind for some time. A minor – rather silly – query, but nonetheless, a persistent one.

Both words are Scottish, although the Scots seemed to have borrowed scone from the Dutch schoonbrood meaning “fine bread”. Bannock is Gaelic – bannach meaning “cake” (borrowed from Old English and probably of prehistoric origin). My iPad dictionary App defines scone as a “thin flat quick bread made of oatmeal, wheat flour, barley meal, or the like” and bannock as a “thick flat quick bread made of oatmeal, wheat flour, barley meal, or the like”. The only difference is in the words thin and thick. None of our other dictionaries, of which we have many (a hazard of academic life), could expand on these meanings.

Since those definitions were not entirely satisfactory and I was convinced that there had to be more to it than that, I finally succumbed to that last resort of professional researchers – Wikipedia. Et voila! I had an answer embedded in the entry for scone. The Wikipedia article cited an old – now out of print – cookbook I unfortunately do not own, The Highlander’s Cookbook by Sheila MacNiven Cameron. According to Cameron, a bannock was the whole circular quick bread or cake, while a scone was the individual piece cut, like a pie slice, from a bannock. It dawned on me that this old distinction is reflected in the way my Scottish mother-in-law made her cheese scones.


Cheese Scones
From my mother-in-law’s recipe collection. Quick, easy and delicious.

Makes 8

  • 4 Tablespoons butter
  • 1-1/2 cups flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 cup rolled oats
  • 1-1/2 cup finely grated Cheddar cheese
  • 1 egg
  • 1/3 cup milk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. In a mixing bowl, cut the butter into small pieces. Add the dry ingredients – flour, white pepper, baking powder, oats, and 1 cup of the Cheddar cheese (reserving 1/2 cup). Rub the butter into the other ingredients with your hands, or a pastry cutter. This is the same procedure as making a crumble.

Beat the egg with the milk and gradually add to the butter and flour mixture. You may need more milk if the dough is still crumbly. When the liquid has been incorporated, tip the dough out onto a floured surface. Shape into a flattened circle, about 3/4 inch thick (much like a bannock). With a sharp knife, cut into quarters and then into eighths.


Separate each triangle and brush the surface with a little more milk. Sprinkle on the reserved cheese and place on a baking tray lined with baking parchment. Bake for 10-15 minutes until golden brown.


Cool on a rack. Cut in half, butter and serve.

Postscript: I’m still not entirely convinced I’ve got to the bottom of the bannock / scone definition. Seems that meanings have changed both through time and through a diffusion across the globe.


    • I’m still not entirely convinced by these descriptions. My mother-in-law’s tattie scones (which are like thin potato pancakes) are not segments from a larger unit (that is, a bannock) – so it fits the thin/thick definition. And, bannocks, particularly in North America, are confused with native griddle breads/cakes – the term applied by Scottish traders and settlers – and subsequently taken on slightly different meanings. However, based on etymology alone, it is fairly certain the term bannock is the older of the two – applied to flat breads or cakes originally cooked on the griddle, but later applied to leavened breads/cakes griddled or baked. No black and white answers!


    • You’re absolutely correct – scones are very similar to American biscuits. (In British English, a biscuit is a cookie. πŸ˜„ I’ve run into translation problems there!) We love these cheesy scones, too.


Comments are closed.