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Scots glossary

There is a short scene in Chapter Four of The Lion Wakes which is designed to show how the broadest of Scots is virtually incomprehensible even to other Scots – and certainly to French-speaking nobles.

Delivered from one Fergus, a man from the north of Scotland, it runs:

"Atweill than," Fergus declared to the haughty rider, "this wul dae brawlie. Gin ye haed spoke The Tongue at the verra stert, ye wad hae spared the baith o us aw this hatter. Tak tent ti whit Ah hae ti say an lippen ti me weill – ye maun bide ther until I lowse ye."

The rider, mailled and coiffed, flung up his hands, so that wet drops flew up from his green-gloved fingers, and cursed pungently in French.

"I am Sir Gervaise de la Mare. Do you understand no language at all?"

"Ah prigg the blissin o the blue heivins on ye," Fergus scowled back. "There are ower mony skirrivaigin awhaurs, so bide doucelyke or, b'Goad's ane Wounds, Ah wul …"

"Fergus," Hal said and the dark man fell back and turned, his black-browed face breaking into a wary grin.

"Yersel," he greeted with about as much deference as he ever gave and then jerked his head contemptuously at the rider.

"This yin an' his muckle freends came sklimming the heich brae, aw grand an' skerlet and purpie. Luikin to spier you somewhiles."

For those who haven't worked it out, here's what Fergus was really saying:

"Well then. This will be fine. If you had tried to be understood from the start you would have spared us both a deal of trouble. Pay attention now and listen to me closely – ye have to remain here until I permit you to pass."
The rider, mailled and coiffed, flung up his hands, so that wet drops flew up from his green-gloved fingers, and cursed pungently in French.

"I am Sir Gervaise de la Mare. Do you understand no language at all?"

"I beseech the blessing of the blue Heaven from you. There are too many people wandering everywhere, so stay here quietly, or by God's Own Wounds, I will …"

"Fergus."

"Yourself. This one and his great friends came gliding over the high hills, all grand and garishly dressed. They are searching for you in particular."

So now you know – and the glossary below may further assist your understanding of the Scots language.


ALAUNT: Large, short-coated hunting dog of the mastiff type, used for bringing down large game.

AVENTAIL: Neck guard on a helmet, usually made from MAILLE.

BABERY: Term for any ape, but applied to the carvings on the eaves of churches, which were wonderful confections of people, beasts and mythology – apes featured prominently, frequently wearing the garb of bishops and priests as a sly joke by masons

BACHLE: Untidy, shabby or clumsy. Can be used to describe bad workmanship, a slouching walk, or simply to insult someone as 'useless' and more. Still in use, though more usually spelled 'bauchle'

BARBETTE: Women's clothing - a cloth chin strap to hide the neck and chin, to which was attached a variety of headgear, most commonly the little round hat known then as a 'turret' and nowadays as a 'pillbox'. Compulsory for married women in public and still seen on nuns today.

BASCINET: Open-faced steel helm, sometimes covering down to the ears. The medieval knight or man-at-arms usually wore, in order from inside out – a padded arming cap, a COIF of MAILLE, a bascinet and, finally, the full-faced metal helmet, or HEAUME.

BATTUE: A hunt organised as if it was a melee at a TOURNEY, usually involving indiscriminate slaughter of beasts driven into an ambush.

BLACK-AFFRONTED: Ashamed, a Scots term still in use today and probably derived from the act of covering your heraldic shield (affronty is a heraldic term) in order not to be recognised. Scots knights did this as they fled from Methven, in order not to be subsequently accused of being supporters of Bruce.

BLIAUT: An overtunic worn by noble women and men from the 11th to the 13th century notable for the excessively long drape of sleeve from the elbow in women, from mid forearm on the male version.

BRAIES: Linen, knee-length drawers, as worn by every male in the Middle Ages. Women had no true undergarments, though 'small clothes' were sometimes worn by gentlewomen.

CAMILIS: The – usually white – flowing overtunic worn by some knights. Despite military sense dictating the use of tight-fitting clothing in close-combat, the urge for display frequently led to extravagant and impractical garments and headgear.

CATERAN: Originally a term to denote any fighting man from the Highlands, it became synonymous with any maurauders or cattle thieves. See also KERN

CHAUSSE: Legging, originally made like stockings until eventually joined in the middle to become trousers. Maille chausse were ring-metal leggings including the foot and with a leather sole.

CHARE: A narrow, twisting medieval alleyway. See also VENNEL.

CHIEL: Scottish term for a man. See also QUINE

CHIRMYNG: Charming – most commonly used (as here) as the collective noun for finches or goldfinches.

CHITTERING:Scots for chattering.

CLOOTS: Scots word for clothing and still used today for any old rags. The term 'auld cloots and gruel' used in the story means 'of no account/everyday'

COIF: Any hood which covered the head and shoulders. Usually refers to one made of ring-metal and worn like a modern balaclava.

COMMUNITY OF THE REALM: Medieval Scotland being enlightened, this referred to the rule of law by all the kingdom, not just the king. However, it WAS the Middle Ages, so the Community referred to was one either with land and title, or rich merchant burghers from the towns. The commonality – peasants – of the realm still had no say.

COTE/SURCOTE: Old English and French for men's and women's outergarment. The male cote was a tunic varying in length half-way between waist and knee, sometimes slit for riding if the wearer was noble and almost always 'deviced' (ie bearing the wearer's heraldry) if your someone of account. The TABARD was a sleeveless version. King John Balliol, whose ceremonial tabard was ritually stripped of the heraldic device, became known as 'Toom Tabard' (Empty Cote) forever after.

COWPED: Scots word for 'tumbled'

CROCKARD: The stability of Edward I's coinage had the unfortunate side-effect of allowing merchants to take the silver penny abroad as currency. This enabled unscrupulous Low Country lords to mint a debased version, which became known as a 'crockard'. See also POLLARD

CROTEY: The dung of hare or coney (rabbit). See FIANTS.

COZEN: To trick or deceive.

DRIECH: Scots term to describe a dull, grey day where it never actually rains but you still get wet from an unseen drizzle.

DESTRIER: Not a breed, but a type - the warhorse of the Middle Ages was powerful, trained and cosseted to the point where it was to be used, at which point, depending on the importance of the affray, it was considered expendable. Destrier is from the Vulgar Latin dextarius, meaning 'right-handed', either from the horse's gait, or that it was mounted from the right side. Not as large, or heavy-footed as usually portrayed they were about the size of a good riding horse of today, though more muscled in the rear. They were all stallions and each one, in 1297, cost as much as seven ordinary riding horses.

EECHIE-OCHIE: Neither one thing nor another.

FASH: To worry. The phrase 'never fash' means 'don't worry'.

FOOTERING: Fumbling.

FIANTS: The dung of the fox, wolf, boar or badger.

GAMBESON: Knee-length tunic, sewn with quilted flutes stuffed with wool if you could afford it or straw if you could not. Designed to be worn over or under MAILLE to negate blunt trauma but frequently worn as the sole armour protection of the less well-off. A lighter version, brought back from the Crusades, was known as an aketon, from the Arabic al qutn, or cotton, with which it was stuffed.

GARRON: Small, hardy Highland pony used widely by the HOBILARS of both sides, though more favoured by Scottish foot. It enabled them to move fast, raid like cavalry and yet dismount to fight on foot if faced by the knight on his heavy horse – and no archers to hand.

GARDECORPS: A cape-like overtunic with a slit under the armpit so that you could wear it sleeveless, its shapelessness appealed to those of a larger size. As if to compensate, many such garments were given BLIAUT style sleeves, sometimes with long tippets, or dagged hems, while the collar and cuffs were trimmed with expensive fur.

GLAUR: Scots word for sticky mud.

GRALLOCH: The contents of a stag's stomach which has been 'unmade' after a kill. The gralloch, in medieval times, went to the hounds as a reward.

GUDDLE: As a verb it means to grope blindly. As a noun it means mix-up or confusion.

HAAR: One of the many Scots words for rain – this refers to a wet mist.

HERSCHIP: From 'hardship', a Scots term for vicious raids designed to lay waste and plunder a region to the detriment of the enemy.

HEAUME: Another name for the large medieval helmet. More properly, it was given to the later Tourney helmet, which reached and was supported on the shoulders.

HOBILAR: English word for light cavalry, recruited to counter the Scots raiders and so called because they were mounted on large ponies called 'hobyn'. This gives us the modern child's toy, the hobby horse, as well as the generic name for horses everywhere – Dobbin.

HOOR: Scots pronunciation of 'whore'.

HUMFY-BACKIT: Scots term for 'hunchback'.

JACK: Origin of our word 'jacket', this was a variation on the aketon or gambeson and usually involved the addition of small metal plates sewn to the outside. Also known as 'jazerant'.

JACOB'S PILLOW: The Stone of Scone was popularly believed in Scotland to be the same one consecrated to God by Jacob in the Book of Genesis, following a vision while he slept.

JALOUSE: The original Scots meaning was 'surmise'. Some time in the 19th century, the English adopted it but, mysteriously, used it as 'jealous'. It is used here in its original sense.

JEDDART STAFF: More properly known by this name in the 16th and 17th century Border country (the Jeddart refers to Jedburgh), the weapon was essentially the same – a reinforced spear which also incorporated a thin cutting blade on one side and a hook on the other.

JUPON: A short, closely-tailored 'arming cote' worn over MAILLE in action, to display your heraldry.

JURROCKS: Lowlife servant.

JUSTICIAR: An official appointed by the monarch, from the time of William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, to ease the burden on overworked SHERIFFS.

KERN: Irish/Scots soldiery. Later, it came to refer to the Gallowglass warriors of Ireland.

KINE:Scots word for 'cattle'.

KIST OF WHISTLES: Scots term for a covered, boiling cauldron or kettle, kist being any kind of container, from clothes chest to tomb.

LIMMER: A low, base fellow – also a prostitute.

LATCHBOW: Originally, a light crossbow with a simple latch release, it came to be a common term for all crossbows and arbalests.

LAW OF DEUTERONOMY: Specifically Deuteronomy 20, which states: And when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee. Used by medieval Christian commanders to justify the sack and slaughter of any city which did not yield before a siege ram/ladder touched the walls.

MAILLE: The correct spelling of 'mail', which is also incorrectly referred to a 'chainmail' and should be properly termed 'ring maille'. The linked metal-ringed tunic worn by warriors since the early Roman period. By the 13th/14th century, these had evolved – for those who could afford it - into complete suits, with sleeves, mittens and integral coif, or hood.

MAK' SICCAR: 'Make certain', a famous phrase uttered by Bruce's loyal follower Sir Roger Kirkpatrick of Closeburn shortly before he returned to Greyfriars church to ensure the death of Bruce's rival, the Red Comyn. It became the motto of the Kirkpatrick family, under the crest of a bloody hand holding a dagger.

MESNIE: Can refer, loosely, to a medieval household, but more usually to the trusted group of knights who accompanied their lord to war and tourney.

MILLINAR: Any knight or SERJEANT appointed to command a band of foot.

MOUDIEWART: Literally, a mole, but frequently used as an insult.

NEB: Scots word for 'nose'.

NOTARY: Nowadays a person with legal training licensed by the state to perform certain legal acts, particularly witnessing signatures on legal documents. In the Middle Ages it was a man who could read, write, take notes and acted as clerk to a JUSTICIAR.

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OS: From the Latin, a mouth or opening – usually applied the female parts, whether human or animal. In some cases, the os of hind was considered a delicacy.

ORB: Scots word for young bird. See also SPEUGH.

PACHYDERM: Medieval classification usually applied to elephants, but which also included pigs and wild boar.

PAPINGO: The popinjay or parrot – any brightly coloured bird, or person who resembles one in dress or manner. Can also refer to an archery competition, where such a live bird was placed on a pole and used as a target. It still pertains to the present – there is an annual Papingo Shoot at Kilwinning Abbey – but the papingo target is no longer a bird, live or otherwise.

PAYNIM: Medieval term for 'heathen', particularly Muslims.

PLENARY INDULGENCE: The remittance of sins, granted by the Catholic church after confession and absolution. However, these could also be sold as a sort of cheque drawn on the Treasure House of Merit, an abuse which was widespread in the Middle Ages.

PLOOTERING: Scots word meaning 'to walk carelessly', with the added connotation of splashing, as through puddles or into marsh or mud.

POLLARD: A fake silver penny of Edward 1's reign, so called either because of the miscast head (poll) of the monarch or because it had been clipped (pollarded) of some of its metal, making it smaller.

POW: Scots word which can either refer to the head (as in 'curly pow') or an expanse of water meadow cut up with small pools.

POWRIE: Scots Fairies which, as you might expect, are not ethereally-pretty winged creatures. They are short and wiry, with ragged pointed teeth and sharp claws like steel. They wear a red bonnet on their heads, and are generally bearded with wrinkled aged faces, kill by rolling boulders or tearing at people with their sharp claws. They then proceed to drink the blood of their victims and dip their hats in it, giving rise to their other name of Red Caps. In particular they haunt castles with a reputation for evil events in the past. Also known as Dunters.

PRIGG: Scots word meaning to beseech or plead.

QUINE: Scots word for a woman or a young girl. See CHIEL.

RIGG: A strip of ploughed field.

SCAPULAR: Large length of cloth suspended from the shoulders - monastic scapulars originated as aprons worn by medieval monks, and were later extended to habits.

SCULLION: Servant performing menial kitchen tasks.

SCRIVENER: Medieval term for anyone who could read and write.

SCRIEVING: Moving swiftly and smoothly.

SCHILTRON: The first mention of the schiltron as a specific formation of spearmen appears to be at the Battle of Falkirk in 1297. There is, however, no reason to believe this is the first time such a formation was used and there are references to the Picts using blocks of spearmen in such a fashion. The name is thought to derive from the Middle English for 'shield troop'.

SERK: Scots word – originally Norse – for a shirt or undertunic.

SERJEANT: The armed 'middle class' of medieval England, only differing from a knight in that they had not been recognised as such. Equipment, training and skill were all more or less the same.

SHERIFF: A contraction of the term 'shire reeve', he is the highest law officer in a county, a term and idea which has spread from England to many parts of the world, including the US and Canada. In Scotland, English sheriffs were particularly hated, none more so than Heselrigg, Sheriff of Lanark and the man Wallace killed to begin his part in the rebellion.

SKITE: To slip or skate.

SLAISTER: A dirty mess, or slovenly work.

SLEEKIT: Crafty or sly.

SLORACH: A wet and disgusting mess of anything.

SNECK: Scots word for a bolt or latch on a door. Still in use today in the Borders and north of England in the term 'sneck lifter' – the last coin in a man's pocket, enough to let him open a pub door and buy a drink.

SONSIE: A woman with a generous, hour-glass figure.

SPIER: To inquire after, to question.

SPITAL: Short form of 'hospital', which was any place – usually in a monastery or abbey – which cared for the sick.

SPEUGH: Baby sparrow.

STAPPIT: Stuffed full.

STOOKS: Sheaves.

STRAVAIG: to wander aimlessly.

STUSHIE: A state of excitement. Also a shouting argument.

STRAMASH: Aa noisy disturbance.

SWEF: Medieval bastardised French for 'gently' or 'softly'.

TABARD: Medieval short tunic, sleeveless, or with shoulder pieces, designed to show a noble's heraldic device or 'arms' - hence the term 'cote of arms. Still seen today on ceremonial heralds.

TAIT: Scots word for a little item or a small portion.

THOLE: Scots word meaning 'to suffer' or 'to bear'.

THRAWN: Scots word for a twisted or misshapen, which can be applied equally to a tree, a face or a disposition.

TOLT: Medieval word for a tax, usually on wool.

TOURNEY: Simply put, this was the premier entertainment and sporting pursuit of the medieval gentleman. It involved, usually, the Melee, a mass of knights fighting each other. A Grand Melee could involve several hundred and be fought over a large distance – it was not a spectator sport. The object of the Melee was to unhorse your opponent and take him for ransom – as was expected in a real war – though the weapons were blunted for the Tourney and no-one was expected to die or get hurt (though, of course, some did). Latterly, the one-on-one joust became more and more popular, simply because it WAS a spectator sport and everyone could see your skill.

TRAILBASTON: Medieval term for the itinerant judicial commission ordered by Edward I to combat outlaws and brigands, it became the name for the perpetrators themselves.

VENNEL: Alleyway.

WHEEN: Scots word for 'many', 'a lot'.

YETT: Scots word for a door, originally applied to the grilled inner gate of a fortress.

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