Book review: Cauld Blasts and Clishmaclavers, by Robin A. Crawford

My limited knowledge of Scots and Scottish English when I was young was based on caricatures in comics, particularly ‘Hot-Shot Hamish’. It was not until later that visits to Scotland, friendships with Scottish people, and books by the likes of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh gave me a proper flavour of the richness of Scots vocabulary and grammar.

Scots is a language with Germanic roots and a complicated political history. Linguistically it has been described as a continuum spanning Broad Scots and Standard Scottish English, with considerable variety in between. A common misconception is dispatched on the Spellin an Grammar page of Scots Wikipedia: ‘Scots isna juist Inglis written wi orra wirds an spellins. It haes its ain grammar an aw.’

It is wirds that are showcased in Cauld Blasts and Clishmaclavers, a new book by Robin A. Crawford, whose publisher, Elliott & Thompson, sent me a copy. The book is a marvellous compendium of a thousand Scottish words, from a’ (aa, aw) ‘all’ to yowe trummle ‘unseasonably cold weather in early summer’ – cold enough to make a yowe (ewe) trummle (tremble).

Cover of the book is white, with gold serif text for the title, subtitle ('A treasuty of 1,000 Scottish words'), and author's name. In the middle, below the title, is an illustration of a thistle, with two-tone green leaves and three flowering purple buds.Many of the words are evocative of time, place, or culture. To smoor is ‘to draw in the ashes of a fire to keep it lit but burning low, especially overnight’ – traditionally a job for the matriarch of a house. A covin tree is ‘a meeting place under a tree where welcomes would be made, farewells taken and agreements struck’. The roaring game is curling, named for ‘the sound the stone makes as it rumbles over the ice’.

Nature and weather are recurring themes, offering such delights as blaws snell (‘a biting, chastening wind’), fyre-flaught ‘flash of lightning’, hairy woobit ‘woolly bear caterpillar’, jags ‘thistle’, loch-lubbertie ‘jellyfish’, mavis or throstle ‘song thrush’, rushyroo ‘shrew’, smirr ‘a fine misty rain’, whaup ‘curlew’, and simmer dim ‘Shetland term for long summer evenings where due to the northern latitude it never really gets dark at night’.

Food is another frequent source: blithemeat is ‘food or meal given to celebrate the birth of a child’, finnan haddie ‘smoked haddock’, and sair heidie ‘a sponge cake from Aberdeenshire sold in a paper wrapper; looks like a bandaged head’. There are fun reduplicatives, including easy-oasy, feery-farry, heedrum-hodrum, inkie-pinkie, kiggle-kaggle, and peely-wally, which means white or pale. There are several words for supernatural phenomena, and quite a few for one’s arse.

In his introduction, Crawford, a Glasgow-born writer based in Fife, mentions the ‘sustained assault on the remaining use of Scots’ in the 20th century. Recent efforts towards its preservation and revival include translations of The Gruffalo into multiple Scots dialects, the differences between them showing there is no single Scots standard:

North-East Doric: ‘A gruffalo! Foo, dae ye nae ken?’
Dundonian: ‘A gruffalo! Yi mean yi dinnae ken?’
Orcadian: ‘A gruffalo! Beuy, dae ye no ken?’
Shetlandic: ‘A gruffalo! Oh, does du no keen?’
Glaswegian: ‘A gruffalo! How, dae ye no know?’

While most entries are brief glosses, some are longer and serve as primers on Scottish cultural markers such as bagpipes, Burns Night (Robert Burns looms large throughout), haggis, Irn Bru, and tartan. Many are supported by well-chosen quotations from a diverse array of sources, as befits an author who is also a bookseller:

hackit ugly.
‘”In the name o’ the wee man!” bawled the faither, gawpin intae the wee mirror. “Whit’s happened tae me! Ah look hackit! Ah look jist like you but aw wrang!”‘
Roald Dahl, Matilda in Scots, translated by Anne Donovan, 2019

haver/haiver ramble, talk nonsense. The Proclaimers were happy to haver for 500 miles.
‘Dinna deave [bother] the gentleman w’ your havers.’
Sir Walter Scott, Redgauntlet, 1824

puddock frog (Anura).
A puddock sat by the lochan’s brim,
An’ he thocht there was never a puddock like him.
John M. Caie, ‘The Puddock’, 1934

Crawford’s treasury is full of words and phrases you feel compelled to say aloud – to yourself or anyone within earshot: airt o’ the clicky is a method by which an uncertain traveller can determine their route ‘by the direction a balanced stick falls when let go’. Figmagairies are ‘whims, idiosyncrasies’, rovies ‘slippers’, shoogly ‘wobbly’, the very topical sitooterie ‘dining premises with al fresco facilities’, and tattie bogle ‘scarecrow’ or ‘unkempt person’ – literally ‘potato ghost’.

Illustration of 'N' by Liz Myhill. In the top left quarter is a large serif N. In the bottom let corner is a small word 'neuk'. Beside it, filling the bottom half of the page, is an illustration of a hearth: a fire burns in the grate, with a kettle on a stove beside it. Clothes hang on a line above it, and there is a zigzag stripey rug in front of it, with a wooden chair and cushion on the rug, to the right of the fireplace.I’d have liked more phonetic and etymological detail, but that’s a personal preference; there is some, and most readers will be satisfied with the level provided. All readers will enjoy browsing this vibrant, fondly made repository, and will appreciate too the beautiful illustrations by Liz Myhill that introduce each chapter.

Cauld Blasts and Clishmaclavers is a constant pleasure, thrang (‘densely packed’) with a muckle (‘large amount’) of words from old and new Scots usage. It is an enlightening, often amusing tour of a unique lexis and serves also as a celebration of their life and that of the culture they signify. It’s available from August 2020, and you can pre-order it via the publisher or from your local bookshop.


9 Responses to Book review: Cauld Blasts and Clishmaclavers, by Robin A. Crawford

  1. John Cowan says:

    Shetlandic and Orcadian are genuinely outside the range of ordinary written Scots, but I refuse to believe that Glezga folk would be bewildered by the word ken, even if they wouldn’t say it themselves. One written form for mainland Scots (outside the usual uses of dialect spelling such as poems) should be more than sufficient. It’s just that publishers want to sell more titles and most of the people interested in the question are in fact poets and other litterateurs who speak English anyway. So those who believe in the desirability of a standard written form (historically a necessary part of establishing a language in full modern use), like Vulcans and Romulans interested in reunification, have had their hopes dashed.

    For a modern piece of Shetlandic prose, see “Sheltie Prattle” by John M. Tait, which is the story of Cinderella with a sociolinguistic subtext. (Tait speaks and writes three languages: English, Scots, and Shaetlan.) It takes a little getting used to, but there are helpful notes and a glossary at the end.

    This debate-in-the-comments may also be helpful, as reading practice in various kinds of Scots if nothing else.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Naturally Glaswegians would be familiar with ken. I figured that know was used in that line because it’s the more common form in Glasgow, or maybe it could have gone either way, or there was some other factor to consider. No doubt there’s a commercial impulse behind these book variations – but I’m sure it’s not the only motivation: there are matters of identity, politics, and aesthetics too. I don’t think it’s just ‘poets and litterateurs’ who are interested in seeing their local dialect in print.

      Thanks for the links. I’ll take a look at these today.

  2. astraya says:

    ‘no know’ sounds awkward to me.

    I’m reminded of a Fozzie Bear one-liner: “There was ‘yes yes’ in her eyes, but no nose on her face”

    • Stan Carey says:

      Classic Fozzie. ‘No know’ sounds fine to me. Are no nose and no-no awkward for you as well, or is it a question of familiarity?

      • astraya says:

        Sorry for the late reply: it’s simply unfamiliarity. I have no problem with no-no and no nose.

        The statement “Scots isna juist Inglis written wi orra wirds an spellins. It haes its ain grammar an aw” would be more convincing if those two sentences had their own grammar and all.

  3. Kate Bunting says:

    I thought a sitooterie was a place for sitting out of doors at home? (I’m not Scottish, but was charmed to learn the word on a visit north of the border some years ago.)

    • Stan Carey says:

      I imagine the word can have either sense.

      Slightly related (but non-Scottish) is the case of the staycation, given a new lease of life in the pandemic. A few people have recently asked me, or debated in my presence, whether it means ‘holiday somewhere in your home country’ or ‘stay at home on your holidays, but visit places from there’. It can mean either.

  4. Ultan says:

    Hi Stan. My attention was caught by figmagairies. In my own home a figairy was a whimsical notion or crazy idea.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Hi Ultan. That’s a good connection. I’ve heard figairy now and then in the midwest too. Seems it’s from an old dialect word, fegary, which is a variant of vagary, from Latin vagārī ‘to wander’. So it has followed the familiar path from concrete to more figurative reference.

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