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Scots word of the month archive


‘Ah’ll tell ye whit’s wrang wi the young anes the day’ opined ma neebor, sclimin up her soap box. ‘They ging oot drinkin oan a tuim wame.  Nae wunner the maut gets abune the meal,’ an wi that she gies me wi the ae haun a gless o whisky that wad hae floatit the Queen Mary and wi the ither haun she offers me an olive. Jist as weel Ah’d haed a slice o black bun that wad hae sunk a battleship, afore Ah cam oot. It’s ane o the staples o ma Hogmanay preparations, alang wi the sausage rolls an the shortie.

F M McNeill describes it in her Scots Kitchen (1929) as ‘A Festive Cake at Hogmanay. Big blue raisins, currants, sweet almonds; orange, lemon, and citron peel; flour, Demerara sugar, ground cloves or cinnamon, ground ginger, Jamaica pepper, black pepper, baking soda, buttermilk or eggs, brandy; crust: flour, butter, water’.  Noo that’s whit ye need tae pit a linin on yer stomach! Mrs Dalgairns in her Practice of Cookery (1850) gies a similar receipt unner the name o Scotch bun.  Afore that we read in Jamieson’s An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808) o ‘a sweet cake or loaf, generally one of that kind which is used at the new year, baked with fruit and spiceries; sometimes for this reason called a sweetie-scone’. Sae, gin ye tak a wee gift o black bun wi ye for first-fittin, yer cairryin a wee bit o history wi ye.

Hae happy an upricht New Year!


Wi mindins aboot haingles jags (influenza vaccinations) back on television, this is a guid time o year to hae some Scots wirds tae descrive winter ailments, afore that nigglin keuch or kicher (tickly cough) develops intil a fu kirkyaird hoast (the cough that carries you off). Thon Scots velar soond, spelt ch, fair comes intil its ain at this time o the year. Jist as onomatopoeic as keuch and kicher is clorach, which means tae clear the thrapple noisily and a blocher, peuch or pyocher is a loose, productive hoast. There are mony dialectal variants and the same wirds micht vary fae place tae place in jist the quality o the cough they denote. For example, a kink hoast micht mean whoopin cough or simply a convulsive coughin fit.

There’s jist aboot as mony local remedies as there is wirds for coughs. Maist like ye dinna consult a dictionary for medical advice, but the Dictionary of the Scots Language offers a puckle suggestions. Accordin tae Robert Henryson (about 1500), ‘Bayth the bellox of ane brok … Is gud for the host’. Hooivver, if a badger’s testicles isna available, you coud pree ‘Corriandir, that is gude for ane ald hoste’, as Sir David Lindsay recommends in The Complaynte of Scotland (1549). Gin that fails, then hostin girse or Iceland moss (Cetraria islandica) taen as an infusion micht wirk.

Gin yer neb (nose) is rinnin an ye’re sneeshin intae yer snochterdicter (handkerchief), it micht cheer ye up tae ken that the wird neese (sneeze) derives fae the splendid Auld Norse word hnjosa. Jist sayin it redds oot the nasal passages. But if yer cald turns feverish, Sir Robert Moray (1658) suggests that ye ‘Put a great spider into a box made of 2 wallnut shells and hang it about the neck’. Or ye coud jist tak twa aspirin an awa tae yer bed.


In November, we can expect windy days and Scots is no short o wirds to descrive cauld souchs. The variations in Scots wirds translating English ‘blow’ alloo us tae identify the afflicted area. While blaw is usual in west and central Scotland, blaa will be heard mair in the east. The north-east is aften the hame o distinctive forms and there you micht hear or read blyave or blyauve as in the Aberdeen Weekly Journal (14 March 1929): 'Tho’ we hid some bits o’ storms an’ some blyauvin’, we hinna hid a storm’ at lay as lang as that did'.

A gandaguster or gandiegow is a strang, sudden gust or a storm o short duration. You can jist aboot feel the wind buffet and swirl in the wird.

Flaw, a blast or squall o wind, is used by Walter Scott in The Antiquary (1816): 'Skirling like an auld skart [cormorant] before a flaw o’ weather'.

Raither mair specialised is flan, descrivin a doon-draucht tae scunner hoosewives, sailors and gardeners alike. The Banffshire Journal (25 February 1879) reportit that 'A flan cam doon the lum an’ blew The ase a’ ben the fleer.' J Brand in Description of the Countrey of Zetland (1701) warns 'tho the Wind be not so strong, there will come Flans and Blasts off the Land as to their swiftness and surprisal something like to Hurricane.' As every gardener, including J. Justice, author o The Scots Gardiners Director (1754), kens 'A Flann of rancid Dung steam will destroy a whole crop of those early Cucumber plants'.

A bluister is a violent, squally wind and R. Wanlock in Moorland Rhymes (1874) gies a pessimistic view o Scottish weather, statin, 'There’s three months o’ bluister tae ilk’ ane o’ sun'.

CAPERCAILZIE (woodgrouse)

Whither ye pronoonce the first syllable as ‘cap’ or ‘cape’ is up tae yersel, but dinnae pronoonce that ‘z’. It represents the letter ‘yogh’ pronoonced like the first sound in ‘yestreen’, but usually silent in capercailzie, as the spellins in thir quotations suggests. It’s nae jist the spellin that is interestin -capercailzie haes an interestin derivation an aa, fae the Gaelic capull coille meanin ‘horse o the wuid' in reference tae its considerable size. The male bird measures 33 inches. James Dalrymple, in his translation o Leslie’s Historie of Scotland (1596) scrieves ‘A certane foul and verie rare called the capercalзe to name with the vulgar peple, the horse of the forrest’.

In 1746, T Oliphant’s The Jacobite Lairds of Gask claims, ‘Caperkellies are frequently sold in mercat’ but, by 1760, Robert Popcocke in Tours in Scotland notes: ‘In the Mountain towards Fort Augustus they have found the Caper Keily (Cock of the Wood). They are now very rare. I saw the skin of one stuffed, they are about the size of a Turkey, the head like a Grouse or Moor Fowl, entirely black, except that the Belly is spotted with White, and it is white under the Wings.’ The 1795 Statistical Account laments: ‘The caper coille, or wild turkey, was seen in Glenmoriston, and in the neighbouring district of Strathglass, about 40 years ago, and it is not known that this bird has appeared since, or that it now exists in Britain.'

It was reintroduced fae Sweden in the late 1830s and aince mair ‘The capercailzie up the glen Was churkin' loodly to his hen’ (A Rea, The Divot Dyke, 1898). This quotation disnae dae justice tae the call which sterts as a rattle and then soonds disconcertinly like the poppin o a cork and poorin o liquid, endin wi a coorse grindin noise.


‘Chop’ and ‘chap’ baith appear in Aulder Scots wi the senses of ‘tae cut wi a sherp straik’ and ‘tae skelp or dunt’. In Scots, hooivver, ‘o’ regularly chynges til ‘a’ afore ‘p’ (drap, tap, crap, etc) and sae the ‘chap’ form sterts tae predominate. The meanin seems tae narra sae that it refers jist aboot exclusively tae innocuous forms o contack. Een getting chappit wi a sword coud be painless, as an entry for 1633 in The Douglas Book records: ‘His Maiestie … did dubbe and knight thame, … be chapping thame with the sword of honour’.

An early transference o meanin tae the chime o a knock appears in the records o Perth Kirk Session (1594), whan fowk wha skailt fae the kirk early are chokit aff: ‘Sundry … in the forenoon rise up at the chap of eleven hours, and depart away without the blessing’.

Anither non-violent usage refers tae a handshake, as evidenced by the Register o the Privy Cooncil (1629): ‘Whairupoun they chapped hands and were reconciled’.

Chappin on doors has produced a wheen o dictionary quotations sic as that fae the Scotsman o 16 Mairch 1991: ‘Quick as a flash she slips on her baffies skites up the close stairs to her neighbour’s and chaps at the door.’

Onybody wha haes played dominoes in Scotland will be familiar wi the despondent call, A’m chappin!’, accompanied by a rap on the table.

There are rare quotation that imply a degree o damage sic as ane fae the Diary o Alexander Brodie (1676) ‘We ar as an earthen vessel, … the least chapp dashes and breaks us’, but een here, the emphasis is on the lichtness o the dunt tae shaw the brukillness o man.

In fact, the maist violent chappin is usually confined tae the kitchen whaur tatties and neeps are chappit.


In Scots, reid, or red gies rise tae a wheen o interestin compounds. As early as the fifteenth century, criminals in Scotland were bein ‘apprehendit  with the redhand’. It is not until the nineteenth century that the form ‘red-handed’ is yaised by Sir Walter Scott and is taen up sooth o the Border. Redshanks can be funnd on a wadin bird but the redness o legs caused by exposure tae the elements micht hae been the rationale ahint ‘redshanks’ as a name for a highlander.

In the The Bannatyne Miscellany, a highlander tells us ‘We ... goynge alwaies bair leggide and bair footide, ... the tendir delicatt gentillmen of Scotland call ws Reddshankes (1542). Red lichties, as every football enthusiast kens, is natives o Arbroath, a nickname derived fae an unfortunate incident in which a harbour licht wis paintit reid, thereby renderin the licht invisible fae the sea. Although it arose as a term o ridicule, it has since been adoptit wi affection by the Red-lichties theirselves.

Movin on tae the animal kingdom, reid-ersies, red-doups or reid-belties is species of bee wi red on the abdomen; the red-nebbit pussy is anither name for the tammie-norrie or puffin; the reid-gibbie is the stickleback; the reid-back is the ladybird and a reid-sodger is a variety o reid spider.

Red-biddy wis a mixture o cheap red wine and methylatit spirits, the drinkin o which wis likely to render the habitué red-nebbit if not reid-wud. The meanin o this last compound is made very clear in A Hislop’s The Proverbs of Scotland: ‘Some are only daft, but ye're red-wud raving’ (1870).

Unadulterated red wine, however, is recommended by Gilbert of the Haye (1456): ‘Ay the mare that the wyne have of redenes in samekle is it of mare vertu till engender blude naturale.’ A’m nae like tae suffer fae anaemia, then.


This wird for a donkey cairries an astonishin burden o meanin. It micht also be yaised o a sma, strang horse as a Banff speaker illustrates: 'I bocht a fine cud o’ a horse in Marnan Fair'. 

The meaning transfers tae objects sic as the cuddy defined by JL Waugh in Robbie Doo (1912)  'a stalk o’ broad planks leanin’ on their edges on a cross beam of fir aboot, mebbe, twal feet frae the grun’. This was, and is yet, caa’d a joiner’s cuddy'. Miners kent it as the loaded bogie used to counterbalance a hutch on a cuddy-brae. Gymnasts yaised tae refer til a vaulting-horse as a cuddy.

In a mistaken belief that cuddies is unintelligent, we hae sic proverbs as 'A cuddie should never handle tocher', a Scots version of 'A fool and his money are soon parted'.  Peerie-heidit fowk wha rush at things are nae like to sustain their momentum as, proverbially, 'A cuddy’s gallop is sune done'.

The term Scotch cuddy, however, G Douglas tells us in The House with the Green Shutters (1901), is so called because he is a beast of burden, and not from the nature of his wits. He is a travelling packman'.

The animal has lent its name tae playground games sic as cuddy-lowp-the-dyke (leapfrog). Its name yaised tae be heard in the playground in the warnin cry 'nae halfers, nae quarters, nae cuddy bites', which wis said on findin something.  Unless this was said, onybodie could claim pairt o the find.

Still popular wi bairns is the riddle – 'Hey up ma cuddy, Ma cuddy’s ower the dyke, And if ye meddle ma cuddy, Ma cuddy’ll gie ye a bite'. Whit is ower the wa and will hurt if ye touch it? A jaggy nettle, of course!

Ken yer spring ingans

Spring onions or syboes, add flavour tae the Dictionary of the Scots Language in a surprisingly mummer o literal and figurative quotations.

Wi regaird til their monetary value in 1552, The Dundee Burgh Court Records itemises the purchase of 'xv dussane of beddis of sybowis for xij s. the dussane'.  They were weel valued by consumers as the Journals of Sir John Lauder (1665-7) shaws: 'Some likes (leeks) some sibows, beets or such like things and this is their delicates'. 

Mair recently (1 June 1997), the Sunday Times gart mous watter wi the description o 'a really good roast quail, for example, which had been marinaded in sesame oil and soy sauce then roasted before receiving a garnish of intensely grilled syboes'.

Less happily, Glasgow Burgh Records (1575) describes a wifie’s misfortune, which resultit 'In castyng of hir doune ... and skailing of hir sybois' and Northern Notes and Queries (1889) records that in 1653 'pulling sybous on the Lord's day' wis a maitter for reproach.

In figurative use, there seems tae hae been frequent comparison atween bitin the end aff a syboe and beheadin: 'I have beheaded your duke like a sybow' exemplifies this vivid simile in W. Crammond’s The Castle and the Lords of Balveny (1675). The crispness o the ingan stem is apparent in 'This day the head is as clean taken off the house of Cowthally, as you cowld strike off the head of a sybba', as James Somerville scrieved in the Memorie of the Somervilles (1679).

Oweraa, syboes are weel recommendit. A. S. Robertson, in The Provost of Glendookie (1894), tells us 'If mair sybies were eaten there would be fewer doctors' and Syboe is een yaised affectionately as a nickname for an inhabitant o Girvan in Ayrshire whar growein spring ingans wiss a speciality.


Mochy is pronounced with the 'ch' representing the Scots velar sound as in 'loch'. Like Scotland’s favourite 'ch' weather word 'dreich', this word can have a range of meanings. Dreich can mean dust dry (as in a 'dreich sermon') and anything from just overcast to distinctly damp. Mochy always implies a high level of humidity.

It is perhaps most often used to capture in a single word the feeling of damp, close, muggy, misty and oppressive weather. An Argyllshire quotation from the English Dialect Dictionary seems to suggest an early date for the word: 'I’ the time o’ the Flood the deil gaed sailin’ by the Ark on a barn-door, an’ said, “It’s a mochy mornin, mester Noah."' However, the earliest use that I have been able to substantiate comes from Gavin Douglas in his Aeneid of 1513 where he refers to 'moich hailsum stovys' (damp health-giving vapours).

The early Scottish lexicographer, Jamieson (1825) observes 'that mochy is not applied to mist indiscriminately; but to that only which is produced by great heat, or an accompaniment of it, when the air is so close as to affect the organs of respiration'. However, 'great heat' is relative and can refer both to the thundery heat of summer or to an unseasonal warmth in winter, accompanied by mist.

Mochy can also used to describe the condition of corn or other foodstuffs which have been spoilt by damp and heat and, as a quotation from the Aberdeen Evening Express (8 Oct 1998) about a stench in a block of flats shows, it can also refer to smell: 'It’s a vile, mochy smell like something is rotting.'

So, the next mochy, dreepin day that comes along, when your oxters feel or smell a bit mochy, you have just the word you need.

Mad maukin and begoyt Betty, brain-wode bawd, peerie-heidit pussie

There’s a wheen o wirds for Mad March hares in Scots.

‘Malkin’ is a form o Matilda or Maud, recordit in mid-sixteenth century English as a quasi-proper name for a cat.  Shakespeare yaises it this wey in Macbeth: ‘I come grey malkin’, says ane o the wutches tae her familiar.  In Scots, the wird (athoot ‘l’) is mair like tae be applied til a hare.

Likewise, we finnd ‘puss’, or ‘pussie’, meanin a hare in Scots.  In Wilson’s Noctes Ambrosianae (1834) a diner is asked ‘I howp poosie's tasty, sir?’.  He replies, ‘I have rarely ate a sweeter and richer leveret’.  Burns yaises this wird for hare in Tam o Shanter: ‘As open pussie's mortal foes, When, pop! she starts before their nose’.

Bawd, or baud, is een mair confusin. It can mean a rabbit or hare and its yis is extendit til cats, aften in the form ‘baudrons’.  It appears as ‘bawtie’ as weel, maistly yaised tae refer tae a rabbit, but ‘Bawtie’ does occur as name for a dog, notably in a poem by Sir David Lyndsay ‘Complaint ... directit to Bawte, the Kingis best belouit Dog’ and it is yaised generically in David Fergusson’s collection o proverbs (1598): ‘Bourd (jest) not with bawtie’.  Sheena Blackhall, however, in Lament for the Raj (1995), clearly means ‘hare’ in her list of jumpin beasts: ‘Lowpity lowp comes the teenie flech, The puddock, the taed, the bawd’.

Interestinly, bawd and maukin, like pussie are also yaised in a quite different anatomical sense.  To add to the gyteness, in spite o the female associations o thir wirds for hare, the hares’ March madness is exhibitit by males o the species. 


I recently heard an old Scots speaker recall an incident from his youth when a friend described to him the strange speech of an inabootcomer: 'He caas girse “gress”!' the North-East chiel exclaimed in amazement. 

That 'r' was hopping over the vowel as far back as Old English to give us these two Scots forms today, and grass also appears in Scots:  'Ilk man … Quhilk is bot gras' as the Wedderburns remind us in the Guid and Godlie Ballatis (1567). These forms are also found in relation to a particular types of  'grass'; so we have bowel-hive grass (lady’s mantle) for the alleviation of inflammation of the large intestine and worm grass (stone crop) for curing worms.

Yule-girse, also known as blackin girse, is meadowsweet, formerly used to produce a black dye. Other combinations include the painful girsegaws or hacks between the toes, complained of in Helen Beaton’s At the Back o’ Benachie (1915): 'I hiv girssgaws atween maist o’ ma taes, an’ a corn or twa, an’ they are like tae sen’ me fair daft'. 

Girse and gress also mean hay or a single blade of grass; the Stonehaven Journal (14 February 1889) describes a great crowd: 'Ye wadna hae seen a girse on the Bervie Braes for fowk'.

As if these words were not enough, Scots has other words for grass including 'bent', which it shares with English, for rush-like grasses which grow on sandy soil. We extend the meaning to refer to the places where these grasses grow. A windlestrae is a tall, thin, withered piece of grass. It is often used figuratively to suggest fragility as in this vivid example from A. Ross’s Helenore or the Fortunate Shepherdess (1768): 'Bit an’ bit the sickness wears awa’, But she’s as dweble as a windle-stra'.


This word, borrowed from the Old Norse 'handsal', denotes a good-luck gift, especially one given at the beginning of the New Year.  An early recorded use of it in 'A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue' comes from William Dunbar: ‘God gif to thé ane blissed chance… In hansill of this guid new yeir’.

Hansel Monday was the first Monday of the year, on which the New Year’s handsel was often given.  The Buccleuch Muniments of 1635 contain the request: ‘Send some moneyes heir to me again Hansel Monday that I may gratifie my master and other seruants’. 

The  Journals of Sir John Lauder, Lord Fountainhall 1665–76, record: ‘Then on the 2nd of January 1671, being hansell Monday, I gave my wife to give out to people who expected handsel, 4 dollars’.

Scottish Language Dictionaries wad walcum a hansel fae ye on Hansel Monday 2007, or ony ither day, gin ye wad like tae keep up the tradition.  A guid New Year tae ane an aw fae the the staff at SLD!


Although Yule is now commonly understood as referring to Christmas, up to the beginning of the nineteenth century for many Scots Yule meant New Year.

This explains the tradition related by Jamieson (1808), the first part of which are observed by my own family at New Year: ‘He, who first opens the door on Yule-day, expects to prosper more than any other member of the family during the future year, because, as the vulgar express it, “he lets in Yule.”  The door being opened, it is customary with some to place a table or chair in it, covering it with a clean cloth, and, according to their own language, to “set on it bread and cheese to Yule.” Early in the morning, as soon as any one of the family gets out of bed, a new broom besom is set at the back of the outer door.'

H Haliburton in Furth in Field (1894) tells us at that date: ‘It was no uncommon practice some sixty years ago to invite a person to his ‘Yule’ on the last day of December. It was the usual practice...for the farmer to give his servants their ‘Yule’ or ‘Hogmanay’ on the closing night of the old year. This consisted at least of a dram of whisky, with "cheese and bread". The same entertainment was repeated on the first Monday morning on the New Year.'

According to Country Folklore (1901) ‘Yule was not one festival, but a series of them, and that period is still named by the Shetlanders "the Yules"’.

Whenever you celebrate it, all the staff at Scottish Language Dictionaries wish you a guid Yule.


This is the kind of word that divides Scots speakers in to a ‘pro-neologism’ faction and a ‘leave-it-like-Burns’ faction, but why should a living language not use an old and tested means of word formation when a new invention comes along. Scots speakers can chose for themselves whether they will actually use cauldpress instead of refrigerator, stoor-sooker for vacuum cleaner and wabsteid for website.

The first element of the compound wabsteid is documented in Scots as early as 1587 when the Correspondence of Sir Patrick Waus of Barnbarrock makes reference to ‘ane wab of blankatene’ (cloth for making blankets) and the fortunate Jean Haliday was left ‘ane wab of plaiding and piece of stuffe’ according the Kirkcudbright Testaments of 1685. Proverbially, you should not cawk yer claith ere the wab be in the loom.

The second element appears in the earliest long poem n Scots, Barbour’s Bruce (1375): ‘Scho schawyt a sted To the king in a wode glen, And said Schir her I saw the men’. (She showed a place to the king in a woody glen and said, ‘Sir, here I saw the men’.)

So whatever you think of the new word, at least its parts have an excellent pedigree.

Scottish Language Dictionaries wad like tae congratulate the Scots Resource Centre on the launch of their braw new wabsteid and we recommend that ye hae a guid moose roond it.


The eve o All Saints’ Day (31 October) in the auld Celtic calendar the last day o the year and the first o winter, when witches and the pooers o darkness were supposed tae hauld revels; subsequently the nicht whan bonfires and various traditional rites o divination were held as described in Burns’s poem Halloween.

Gin onie bairns come tae yer hoose on the 31 o October cryin ‘Trick or treat!’, be suir ye dinna gie them onything. Here in Scotland, ye speir for ‘A penny for the guisers!’ and it haes tae be earned wi a poem, a sang, a joke or a riddle.

If ye’re haein a Halloween pairty, aince ye’re scunnert wi dookin for aipples, whit aboot trying this ploy: hing treacle scones dippit in black treacle (or gowden syrup) on bits o string fae yer whirly claes-line in the gairden. Then, by the licht o yer howked oot tumshie lanterns, let the bairns eat the scones – wi their hauns ahint their backs. Gin they’re ower guid at it, gie the claes line a bit birl. This is jist the game tae play afore they dook for sweeties in a bowlie o flour.

For a bit o Halloween divination, peel an aipple. turn roon three times widdershins and drap the peel ower yer left shooder. It will land in the shape o the initial letter o yer true love’s name.


HAAR 1. a cold, easterly wind; 2. a gentle easterly breeze; 3. a sea mist

In the months of April and May, easterly winds, commonly called Haars, usually blow with great violence, especially in the afternoons
 - 1777 W. Nimmo A General History of Sirilingshire

The easterly har, a sea breeze so called by fishermen, which in the Moray Firth during the summer months and first month of autumn, commonly comes on after ten o’clock a.m. and fails at four o’clock p.m. had now set in.    -  1829 H. Miller Herring Fishing

But it’s just your ain vile, vapoury, thick, dull, yellow, brown, . . . easterly haur o’ Embro’ that gies me the rheumatics.
 - 1827 Wilson Noctes Ambrosianae (1863)

The reek o the coal fires that gied Edinburgh its byname o ‘Auld Reekie’ made an ill combination wi the damp, mochy haar aff the Firth of Forth, but haar is mair poetically described by G. Rae:

 Within a martyr’s grave, Ower whilk the white haur dreeps.
- 1919 G. Rae Clyde and Tweed

A PARTAN-HAAR is guid weather for catchin crabs


Wi the hettest pairt o the simmer still tae come, birsle is a word that micht come in handy. Gey onomatopoeic, with a hint o the crack and reeshle o owercookit skin, it means tae scorch, tae warm weel or tae toast. Applyit tae humans, it micht refer til the effects o the sun, as the poet Robert Fergusson screivit in 1773 in his collection o Scots poems: ‘Now whan the Dog-day heats begin to birsel and to peel the skin’. It is associatit wi the condition of ‘tinker’s tartan’ or ‘corned beef legs’ brocht on by sittin ower near the fire and birstlin yer shins til a mottled reidness.  The Banffshire writer W. Gregor (1866) maks the followin recommendation for defrostin a jeelt wean: ‘The bairn’s caul’; sit doon afore the fire, and gee’t a gueede birsle’.

Ither examples o the wird capture the extreme heat o simmer that can, occasionally, be experienced in Scotland. R. Ford in Tayside Songs complains that ‘the sun-birsled street, giein’ pain to the feet, Is a’ that we ken o’ the simmer’. James Colville of Fife evokes that cracklin heat o a simmer pine wuid wi ‘The fir-cones . . . turned out their recesses to the birsling sun’.

It is jist the verra wird  tae yaise at barbecues. Birselt tatties roastit in the embers are a feast in theirsels. The intimmers o sausages can only be guaranteed weil-duin gin the sausages are alliteratively birselt black on the ootside. The Sunday Mail (30th May 2004) gied the following gourmet recipe: ‘Take one slab finest Lorne saucisse. Fry till almost burnt on one side. Slice well-fired petit pain. Spread with Lurpak and insert saucisse. Garnish with coulis de ketchup. Serve with chilled can of vintage Irn-Bru.’ Braw!


This is whit linguists cry a fause freen. Fowk that disnae speak Scots micht think they ken whit it means, but they wad be wrang. As Scots, familiar wi the stert o Burns’ Tam o Shanter,  ken weel, it mean a road or street:

‘As market days are wearin late, and folk begin tae tak the gate.’

Although provision was made for cleanin the streets o Edinburgh as the Edinburgh Burgh record for 1527 suggests (‘The gaitt … to be dicht and clengeit’) war clarty eneuch in the time o the poet William Dunbar for him tae lament:
‘May nane pas throw our principall gaittis For stink of haddockis and of scaittis’.

Tak a daunner thou the city the day and see aw the street names endin in –gate.

Gate comes fae Old Norse gata. The Scots wird for the English ‘gate’ is yett.


This is a topical wird for the early simmer in Scotland, whan the cleg or horsefly is at its maist ferocious.

Alang wi midgies, they are ane o the few conters tae a day oot in the country. They micht no gang aboot in hoards but, as J Nicholson tells us in Idylls o’ Hame (1870),

   ‘ Whaur the midges mazy dance, Clegs dart oot the fiery lance’.

Thae bluid-sookin craturs pierce the skin, e’en throu yer claes, their ‘fiery lances’ bein lang eneuch tae piece the skin o horses. They inject anticoagulant, and hing oan until they’re stappit fu wi bluid. Sae, gin a broon fleein beastie wi a hungert glint in its ee comes near ye, gie it a skelp gey quick or ye’ll be skartin for days at the kittlie bit it leaves on yer skin.

The wird itsel gangs back tae Auld Norse kleggi whilk is related tae wirds wi a sense o hingin oan – reflectin the wey that ye can see clegs attached tae coos, horses or yersel.


The sang thrush and the blackbird hae been singin their wey throu Scots poetry sen the time o Sir Richard Holland’s Book o the Howlat (c. 1450):

'The mavis and the merle syngis'

Mair recently (1996)  Sheena Blackhall taks a whimsical luik at the mavis in Wittgenstein’s Web:

'Takk ae wird — a birdie wird: the mavis. Noo, doon on the page, the v luiks like the birdie’s beak. The m is the wings, booed in flicht, an the s is the marra o the wirm that the mavis etts fur brakkfast.'


We’re awa tae AMERICKY for Tartan Week

The languages and leiterature o Scotland will be representit in AMERICKY durin Tartan week by

Edinburgh International Book Festival  
Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature
Faclair na Gaidhlig
Publishing Scotland 
Scottish Book Trust
Scottish Language Dictionaries
Scottish Poetry Library 
Scottish Storytelling Centre 
The website for Tartan Week is  http://www.tartanweekny.com
We’ll nae hae ony bather wi the language ower there. A wheen o wirds that we hae in Scots are yaised in Americky, wirds like pinkie, gotten, dove (past tense o dive), galluses, thole and clout.


Mairch is the month that bawds gang GYTE lowpin ower the parks an fechtin wi ane anithir, jiggin roon, playin whid and makkin an exhibeetion o thirsels.

GYTE is a general wird for mad (alang wi wuid, begoyt, deleerit, radge and, in the North-East, feel), but it can be yaised tae refer specifically tae the daftness o coortin and maitters o the hairt.

In ane o  A. Gray’s Sangs fae 1920, he scrieves:
'Love will drive you gite, and send you
Ower the muir amang the heather.'

And Burns, ay the observer o naitur wrate tae W. Simpson in 1785:

'Jinkin hares, in amorous whids,
Their loves enjoy.'


This wird stertit aff as uncouth, meaning ‘unknown’.  Like puckle o ithir wirds, it has lost the final –th. We see the same in mou, wi, etc.

Wi hae a braw simile for onybody that is disorientatit. Ye can jist see the puir bodie stottin and stacherin aboot:

like a coo in an unco loan.

And there is guid advice in the auld proverb:

It’s no safe wadin in unco waters.

Fae this sense, the meanin driftit a bittie, tae become ‘strange, ootside normal experience’, as in the Burns’ phrase fae Tam o Shanter:  ‘Tam saw an unco sicht’.  It appears as a degree adverb wi its meanin weakened tae ‘very’ as in ‘gettin fou and unco happy’, anither quotation fae the the same poem.

It occurs rarely in Scots in the sense o  ‘coorse and ignorant’ but this wird gies us a guid example o the wey Auld English wirds that stert aff the same in baith Scots and English can growe apairt, no just in the pronunciation and spellin but in the meanin as weel. The wey it is maist commonly yaised in Scots bides mair wi the aulder senses o the wird.


As the nichts stert drawin in, ye’ll ken the wither is aboot tae tak a turn for the waur gin ye ye see a broch aboot the muin. In Caithness or Banff ye micht ca it by the descriptive name o a cock’s ee, while in Ayrshire ye wad maybe luik for a fauld. Whitiivvir ye cry it, it a sign o stormy wither, and the further oot it is fae the muin, the closer the storm:

The further the broch, the nearer the rauch.

Its the same wird that is yaised for a circular Pictish dwelling and can describe ony circle or halo as in

Wi draps o drink on Saturdays, there’s some gets roarin fou
There’s quarrelin, an crakit croons, an een wi brochs o blue.
J. Stewart (1857)

It can refer tae a circle aroon the tee in a curlin rink (a brocher is a stane atween the rings) or a ring drawn on the grund for a bairns’ game o bools.


The emmerteen is kent in some pairts o Scotland as the eemock or pismire, and in English as the ant.  Regional names for Creepy-crawlies is reveals a fouth o variants. Names for earwigs include horny gollach, clipshears, forkie-taillie, twitchiebell, switchpool, collieglean, gullack, gavelack and a fair puckle mair.

Gresshopper played aw simmer lang,
Lowped aboot and strummed his sang.
Whan winter cam he sang nae mair;
His wame wis toom, his cupboard bare.

He prigged the emmerteen, whase store
Wis spillin ower wi treats galore.
Says ‘Spare me just a bite eneuch.
I’m findin life a wee bit teuch.’

Says she, ‘Whit did ye in thae days
Whan food wis free in parks and braes?’
I sang the newest sangs frae France.’
‘Weel,’ says the ant, ‘Awa and dance!’
(C Robinson efter Aesop and La Fontaine)


CORBIE is anither wird for craw. Noah sent a CORBIE oot frae his ark and it wis a gey lang whilie comin back, sae a CORBIE MESSENGER as nae a reliable messenger.

CORBIE STANES or CRAW STEPS are the stanes like steps that ye see on the gables o some hooses.

The twa maist famous CORBIES are the anes in the auld song aboot a gey suspicious daith:

The Twa Corbies

As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies makkin mane,
The tane until the tither say,
‘Whaur sal we gang and dine the day?’

‘In ahint yon auld fail dyke,
I wat there lies a new slain knicht.
Naebody kens that he lies there,
But his hawk his hoond and his lady fair.

His hoond is tae the huntin gane,
His hawk tae fetch the wild fowl hame,
His lady’s tane anither mate,
So we may mak oor denner sweet.

Ye’ll sit on his white hausebane
And I’ll pick oot his bonny blue een.
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair,
We’ll theek oor nest whan it growes bare.

There’s mony an ane for him maks mane,
But nane sal ken whaur he is gane.
Ower his white banes when they are bare,
The wind sal blaw for evermair.

This word cam intae Scots frae Auld French.


CLOOT means a claith or a rag, a dishclaith, a duster or a bandage. It can mean a bairn’s nappy, or hippens, and it can mean claes. The weel-kent saw Neer cast a cloot till mey be oot means dinnae tak aff ony claes (no even yer winter simmit) until the hawthorn, or mey, is in flooer. It’s cried the mey blossom because it aye comes oot at the end o Mey.

A bodie wi a richt shairp tongue, shairp eneuch tae cut claith, wad be cried a CLIPCLOOTS.

A CLOOTIE DUMPLING is a birthday treat, made wi a spicy fruitcake mixture and biled in a CLOOT. Gin ye dinnae eat it aw up at aince, it’s braw  fried for yer breakfast.

CLOOT can also be yaised as a verb meanin tae patch claes or tae mend pots and pans or even shuin wi a daud o metal. 

The word CLOOT gangs a the wey back tae Auld English.


Huntiegowk means tae gang on a fuil’s errand. It is the game ye play on the first o Aprile as weel. Gin ye manage tae play an Aprile trick on a bodie, ye cry them HUNTIEGOWK.

A GOWK is a cuckoo. Fowk say gin ye hear a gowk, ye’ll live for anither year.
If ye’re nae wiselike, ye cud be cried a daft gowk.

The Gowk  
I met a gowk frae Penicuik
Wha thocht he was a bird
The wey he flaffed and cried ‘Cuckoo’
He lookit fair absurd.

Whit wey he thinks he is a bird
I haena got a clue
But tho he’s no a feathered gowk
There’s nae dout he’s cuckoo.

J. K. Annand    

 GOWK is ane o the wirds that comes frae Auld Norse.


The Mairch wind cud caw ye heelstergowdie if ye dinnae tak tent.  It means heid-ower-heels,  heeliegoleerie, tapsalteerie, heels-ower-hurdies, base-ower-apex, cowpit.

Gymnasts gang heelstergowdie whan they tummle their wulkies or, tae pit it anither wey, whan they cowp their creels (dae somersaults).

Gin yer nae swack eneuch tae dae siclike gymnastics, Mairch is a guid month for makkin and fleein draigons.  Pit a lang tail on yer draigon tae stap it gaein heelstergowdie.


Forfochtin or forfochen means fair tired oot, originally wi fechtin but noo its yaised tae mean puggelt wi ony kind o effort. (The ch in the middle is pronoonced like the ch in loch.)

The for- at the beginnin is an intensifyin prefix sae if ye're forfochtin ye're no jist tired, ye're awfae tired. Ither wirds wi this prefix are

Forflutten meanin weel and truly telt aff, gien a richt flytin
Forlaithie meanin an excess, an owerabundance
Forleet meanin negleckit or forgotten.

There are mair for- wirds meanin tired like Forfauchelt, Forjeskit and Forjidget. Forgane means tired oot wi traivellin, the wey ye can feel efter yer simmer holidays.
Scots fowk maun be fair ower-warked - we hae that mony wirds for weary, wabbit and dirt duin. Ye'd be caaed done and fair forfochtin jist tryin tae mind them aw


Scots micht be surprised tae ken that this word isnae yaised in English. In Scotland the Jannie means the maist important person in the scuil (neist tae the heidie).

A Janitor is a doorkeeper and the wird comes frae the Latin wird for yett (ianua).

Noo ye micht think there is a link atween Janitor an Januar, abd ye was be richt. The name o the Roman God Janus comes frae the same word, ianua an he is assocated wi beginnins, sae he gied his name tae the first month o the year. Anither link is that Janus has twa heids, so that he luiks back as weel as forrit, and awbody kens that the Jannie has eyes in the back o his heid


1. 31st December, the last day of the year. 
2.  a New Year’s gift. [Hogmanay comes frae the northern French dialect word 'hoguinane' meanin a New Year's gift, or the wird shoutit tae ask for ane.]

On the last day o the year, ye maun see that yer hoose is cleaned frae tap tae bottom and nae wark is left unfeenisht. 
Jist afore twal o'clock, we open the door tae let the auld year oot and the New Year in. When the kirk bell strikes midnicht, we aw gie each ither a wee cuddle and wish each ither a Happy New Year! Maybe we'll hae a wee dram o whisky afore we gang first-fittin. Yer first-fit (the first person ower yer threshhold ) maun be tall, dark and handsome. He shouldnae come empty-haundit. Traditionally, he would gie ye saut and a bit o coal tae bring ye prosperity for the comin year. Ye maun gie him a dram. 

A guid New Year tae ane and aw,
And mony may see see,
And durin aw the years tae come
Happy may ye be.


n. hoar-frost.  [The second element has been identified with Gael. reotha, reòdhadh, frost; the first may be Gael. crann, to shrink, shrivel. The etymology, however, remains uncertain.]

Burns, Jolly Beggars 1799:

When hailstanes drive wi bitter skyte,
And infant frosts begin to bite,
In hoary cranreuch drest.

Edinburgh Magazine April 1821:

Whar’s leefu-hairted Caledonian wha wad be dreich in drawing to gar the wallot skaud o our mither-tounge shyne like the rouky gleemoch in a craunrochie morning.


If it winna be a gude shoe we’ll mak a bauchel o’t.

1. An old shoe; a shoe worn down at the heel so that the wearer is made to shamble; a loose slipper.   gen.Sc.
    *Sc. 1832–1847 J. Nicholson in J. D. Carrick Whistle-Binkie (1890) II. 121:
    Hushions on her bare legs, Bauchels on her feet, Seekin’ waukrife bairnies Up an’ doun the street. 
2. The lumps of snow which collect on the shoes in walking over fresh snow. 
3. An old, useless, worn-out person or thing.    Bachle, slipper, hence transferred to mean old people — e.g. an auld bachle, an old man.

R. Ford Tayside Songs 258:
    Yestreen I cam’ hame frae the trauchle, My brain in a fever wi’ fyke, Fell clyte in a chair like a bauchle, An’ growl’d at a’ roun’ like a tyke.  [Origin obscure]


[skart] verb 1. scratch with the nails; 2. scrape the ground in search of food; 3. scrape (a plate) with a spoon; 4. gather together in a niggardly way; 5. strike (a match); 6. mark (a surface or paper) with a scratch; 7. make a scraping noise.

[related to scrat from Middle English scratte]

To scart someone’s buttons - to run one’s fingers down another’s jacket buttons - is a challenge to fight.

A17th century teacher’s job decription required that the pupils
be taught to abandon all unciveill gesturs, as skarting of heid, arms etc.

Ramsay Proverbs (1776):
Biting and scarting is Scots fowk’s wooing.

J Kelly Proverbs (1721)
I’ll gar you scart where you youk not.


DOOK [duk] verb 1. duck; 2. bathe; 3. baptise; 4. of the day or the sun, frequently dook doon draw to a close, set.
noun 1. ducking; 2. swim; 3. soaking; 4. liquid into which something is dipped; 5. mining an inclined roadway.
[from OE *ducan. O.Sc. has douk, dowk, to dive under water, to plunge (a person, etc.) under water, c.1470-80, but there is a great upsurge in the use of the word in sense 2. in the late nineteenth century when sea bathing became popular]

The sun wis that het
Ah wis stertin tae cook
Ah picked up ma dookers (swimwear)
And gaed for a dook.

For mair wirds tak a luik at the Dictionary of Scots Language website. If ye wad like tae comment on this page please email Scottish Language Dictionaries.

Related links
* Scottish Language Dictionaries
* Dictionary of the Scots Language
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