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).
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:
‘”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’.
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.