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Monday, May 11, 2009

Scottish Glossary for Novelists

By Jennifer Hudson Taylor

In writing a Scottish novel, whether it be medieval or a later time period, the author must portray a Scottish dialect and a Scottish tone must be present in the narrative. While accomplishing this, the author must achieve it in a way that isn't overbearing, annoying, and hard to read. The best way to do this is to use a few Scottish words, blended in the text. You'll find other Scottish glossaries online that are much more in-depth than this one, but they tempt you to overdo it, with all the extra, unnecessary information. 

Below is a list of words that will give a Scottish novel the tone it needs without being overbearing.

1) Clan - Consists of families claiming a common ancestor and following the same hereditary chieftain, specifically in Scotland, but some clan systems exist in other Celtic countries such as Ireland and Wales. The word clan means children.

2) Clan Chief or Chieftain - Ruler of a specific clan, traditionally the heir would have to be elected. In the present-day system, the chief must be approved by The Court of the Lord Lyon (Lyon Court). Chieftains can be rulers of a branch of a clan, while a Clan Chief can be ruler of all the clan branches and ruling Chieftains. These rulers led their clans in battle, made decisions regarding disputes among clan members, etc.

3) Laird - A member of the gentry and a heritable title in Scotland, very similar to the titled, landholding lords in England. The title is granted to the owner of an estate and may hold certain local or feudal rightss, as well as voting rights in Scotland's Parliament.

4) Lass or Lassie - A young girl

5) Lad - A young man

6) Aye - Yes

7) Nay - No

8) Ken - To know. Many American southerners use a similar expression such as, I reckon it's time to retire for the night.

9) Mayhap - Perhaps

10) Yer - Your

11) Ye're - You are or you're

12) Mither - Mother

13) Da - Father

14) Tartan - A plaid design of Scottish or Irish origin consisting of stripes of varying width and color usually patterned to designate a distinctive clan.

15) Plaid - A twilled woolen or cloth fabric with a tartan pattern worn by various Scottish clans.

16) Kilt - A knee-length skirt (although many Scots hate this term) with deep pleats, usually of a tartan wool, worn as part of the dress for men in the Scottish Highlands. Only available after the mid-1700's. 

17) Great Kilt - Clothing made from wool, often grown on one's own sheep. The yarn would be taken to a local weaver for cloth, 27" wide and up to 30" wide. The first known reference to the Great Kilt was in 1594. One description is quoted as, "their exterior dress was mottled cloaks of many colours with a fringe to their shins and calves, their belts were over their loins outside their cloaks."

18) Aft - Often

19) Bairne - Baby

20) Loch - Lake

21) Claymore - Large sword

22) Daft - Mad or crazy

23) Glen - Valley

24) Kirk - Church

25) Wee - Small

26) Auld - Old

27) Tarry - Take one's time


I read this to my two Scottish terriers and they heartily agree!

As a writer who's emigrated to Scotland and has been living here for a while, I feel the need to warn writers that many of the things we associate with Scotland (such as, my apologies, many things on this list) are just not part of contemporary Scottish life.

What's more, Scots are very canny when it comes to detecting "cod-Scots", or attempts by outsiders to put on an accent, sell anything that's covered in plaid, or romanticise some part of what, in reality, was a very difficult history.

This includes scenes of soft-voiced lassies striding across the glen with pails of milk, cradling her [baby term] in her arm to meet her [husband term] and return to their [dwelling term].

Oh, and terms for everyday things vary a lot from one part of Scotland to another, so you'll want to make sure you're not transposing Highland terminology to Edinburgh, say, or even thinking that people in Edinburgh and Glasgow speak the same way.

I've been here eight years, and every day I'm learning some new, different word for something that I would have got wrong. It's a lot of work.

Happily, if you meet a Scot, you'll find that they tend to have an interest in what makes them unique, including their language, and will be keen to discuss it.

There are also lots of online resources about the Scots language -- which some argue is not just a dialect, but a separate language from English, so you'd no more pretend to speak Scots than you would French or German, just because they're related.

Here are some starting points:

BBC VoicesScots language poemsThe Wikipedia in ScotsScots Online: Pittin the mither tongue on the WabScots translatorLang may yer lum reek, fellow writers!


I write Scottish historicals, not contemporaries, so my list is more for historical writers. Perhaps I should have put that in the title.

It's also why I condensed the list from other glossary lists. I tried to limit it to words that are more widely known throughout Scotland.

Even in the USA we have varying cultures between the north, south and west that affect language.

Thanks for your insight and the link for more information. Hope you have a blessed day!

Jennifer, thanks for the wonderful glossary. And thank you for the comment you left on my blog the 20th of April. I'm sorry I haven't been able to respond before this; I've been out of the country! Keep up the great work! I'm excited to have discovered your blogs. Have a wonderful day!