Cauld Blasts and Clishmaclavers

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a new treasury of 1,000 Scottish words from Robin A. Crawford

A clishmaclaver is a Scottish word meaning ‘the passing on of idle gossip, sometimes in a book’. A collieshangle denotes a row or fight in which two people bark at each other. Red Biddy is a term for the nasty cocktail of red wine and methylated spirits drunk by the most impoverished of alcoholics. A tatterdemalion is an ill-clad person dressed in rags.

These are just four of the words to be found in Robin A. Crawford’s Cauld Blasts and Clishmaclavers: A Treasury of 1,000 Scottish Words, a new book from Elliott & Thomson (to whom I am grateful for a review copy). I had heard clishmaclaver and tatterdemalion before, but the other two listed above were completely new to me – as were many of the other 996 found between the pages of this informative, beautifully produced book which offers a window onto the colourful terms found north of Berwick over the centuries.

Crawford makes the point that Scots is best described as a half-language or Halbsprache, with Germanic roots and many similarities with Middle English. But it is Robert Burns, rather than Geoffrey Chaucer, who frequently springs to mind when reading such words as beastie (a small creature: Burns famously used this word to describe a mouse). Sometimes the origins of the words are as fascinating as the words themselves: tattie bogle, for instance, a term for a scarecrow, but whose literal meaning is ‘potato ghost’. For obvious reasons, tattie bogle has also been used to describe ‘a person of dishevelled and unkempt appearance’.

Others are even more intriguing. The phrase merry-begotten has often been used to describe an illegitimate child; presumably because the child was the product of ‘merry’ behaviour or love (lust?) rather than marital duty, although the word ‘merry’ raises all sorts of questions here. And while we’re on that subject, one wonders about the origin of houghmagandie, a slang term for sexual intercourse. It appears in a Burns poem, ‘The Court of Equity’, from 1786: ‘In ither words, you, Jock and Sandy, / Hae been at warks o’ houghmagandie’. Crawford doesn’t include the etymologies of these words, because that’s presumably beyond the scope of the book, but I’m keen to know more. (Having done a quick Google search, I learn from the Dictionary of the Scots Language that the word is from ‘hoch’, referring to the thighs, and ‘canty’, meaning ‘lively’ or ‘playful’.)

From reading Cauld Blasts and Clishmaclavers: A Treasury of 1,000 Scottish Words I’ve picked up a ton of useful and colourful expressions: an Airdrie hanky is a sleeve used as a handkerchief, for instance, although Crawford notes that the ‘location varies according to one’s prejudices’. A bubblyjock is another word for a turkey. Of course, some are more colourful than others, but with 1,000 words listed you’re bound to find some that raise a smile or warrant filing away for future use, even in jest. (And unless you’re Scottish, that’s the only time you’ll probably consider using them.)

Crawford’s book also includes one of the few bona fide rhyming words for ‘purple’ (it’s sometimes claimed that ‘nothing rhymes with purple’): hirple, meaning to walk with a limp. Other words have more everyday application: forefochen is a delightful but rare term for being ‘exhausted’ or ‘knackered’. William Craig Brownlee used it in his 1824 work A Careful and Free Inquiry Into the True Nature and Tendency of the Society of Friends: ‘The best champion amang us haes been sairly forefochen; not by spritely raisons, but by blauds.’

It was also edifying to learn that ‘Arbroath smokies’ – smoked haddock – actually originates from Auchmithie, a village to the north of Arbroath, where the practice of smoking haddock began. And I liked the portmanteau word Balmorality, which refers to ‘a show of Scottishness by those in positions of power, unaccompanied by any understanding of the needs or concerns of the Scottish people’.

But to end this review on a literary note, who knew that the expression bell the cat (meaning to take the danger of a shared enterprise upon oneself) originated as the nickname for the father of the poet William Douglas, namely Earl Archibald Douglas? In 1482, when none of the other Scots lords would take action against James III’s commoner favourites, Earl Douglas is reputed to have said, ‘I’ll bell the cat’, and promptly hanged his low-born rivals from a bridge. You live and learn …

Cauld Blasts and Clishmaclavers: A Treasury of 1,000 Scottish Words is out from Elliott & Thompson on 20 August.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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