Martyn McLaughlin: Why Scots words like ‘splorrach’ can’t be allowed to die

A watergaw ' or rainbow ' seems to bathe a ship in the Firth of Forth in its brightly coloured lights (Picture: Bill Runciman)
A watergaw ' or rainbow ' seems to bathe a ship in the Firth of Forth in its brightly coloured lights (Picture: Bill Runciman)
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The reemergence of lost words – like splorrach, clawscrunt and gralloch – would have delighted Scotland’s lexicographical pioneers, writes Martyn McLaughlin.

Given that the codification of the Scots language has been a studious and unheralded pursuit embarked upon by generations of scholars over the past two centuries, it would be reasonable to assume that Scotland’s lexicographical well has long run dry, and that waiting for the publication of a new Scots dictionary is a little like chasing the end of a watergaw.

The latter word may be familiar only to readers of Hugh McDiarmid, who gazed skywards and captured a spectrum of colour in all its “chitterin’ licht”. But as of next week, that glorious evocation of a rainbow will receive a wider audience.

More than two centuries after John Jamieson published the first edition of his pioneering Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language, a new chapter in the story of how we Scots tell our own stories has been written.

A Scots Dictionary of Nature is an unashamedly niche enterprise, focusing on the words which capture the interplay between man and nature. But in resurrecting a host of long-forgotten phrases, it deserves as wide a readership as possible given the significance of its cultural contribution.

This publishing anomaly is equal parts happy accident and the legacy of its compiler’s keen ear. Dr Amanda Thomson, a visual artist, writer, and lecturer at the Glasgow School of Art, was researching a PhD about landscape and was in the Cairngorms speaking with foresters and ecologists working in Abernethy Forest.

It was during those meetings that Dr Thomson noticed unfamiliar words creeping into the conversations, not least the distinctively throaty term, gralloch, used to describe the process of gutting a slain deer of its intestines.

Such terms, she learned, had been uttered for centuries in the region, but had either failed to translate further afield, or had fallen so far out of favour that they became mere quirks.

READ MORE: A guide to the dialects and words of Scotland’s regions

That, at least, would have been their fate were it not for Dr Thomson’s intervention. She began to collate some of the words she had heard and, around the same time, discovered a neglected 19th century dictionary of Scots in an Edinburgh bookshop. Leafing through its pages, she was seduced by some of the more the evocative entries, and resolved to follow in Jamieson’s footsteps.

The result is an elegantly illustrated 256-page tome which gathers together words uttered to Dr Thomson as well as those cherry-picked from unappreciated dictionaries of yesteryear.

Uttering them aloud after so many years not only brings them back to life, it liberates them from the confines of the page. These are words intended to spoken, and giving them voice reveals their precision as well as their beauty.

Take, for example, splorroch, a verb invented to capture the awkward, cloying gait of someone walking through wet mud. Or clawscrunt, a newsreader’s nightmare, which describes an aged tree used by cattle to satisfyingly scratch an itch on their hides.

Then there is the smooth, hushed use of huam to capture the moaning sound of an owl of a warm summer evening.

What delights about these words is not their onomatopoeia, but the observant nature of their originators, who assiduously watched and listened to the world around them before trying to articulate the experience. Do owls emit a different sound during the chill sunsets of winter? The inference is that some diligent soul has gone to the bother of finding out.

As Dr Thomson, from Kilsyth, points out: “These words reveal so much about our history, natural history, and our changing ways of life. They are indicative of the depth, richness, and variety of the Scots language and its unique relationship to nature.”

READ MORE: ‘Dreich’ tops poll of favourite Scots words

In rustling up lost gems from the undergrowth of language, Dr Thomson is continuing a fine tradition. As well as Jamieson and James Boswell, Scots have played a leading role in articulating the world around us in the form of dictionaries.

James Murray, from Denholm in the Scottish borders, was the primary editor of the Oxford English Dictionary from its inaugural edition in 1879 through to his death in 1915. At one point, the volume of correspondence being exchanged by Murray proved so great, the Royal Mail installed a postbox outside his home.

Next year, meanwhile, will mark the arrival of two important bicentenaries, each of which hark back to Scotland’s vital role in organising modern ways of thinking.

In 1819, two brothers by the name of William and Robert Chambers set up their own publishing company in Edinburgh. After enjoying considerable success with their first print run – The Songs of Robert Burns – they went on to publish a serialised encyclopedia, an etymological dictionary, and ultimately, the English dictionary for which the company remains best known.

That same year, a millworker callled William Collins set up a firm in the Candleriggs area of Glasgow to publish hymn and prayer books. But within five years, the inaugural Collins dictionary emerged.

Those anniversaries are likely to be celebrated modestly, if at all, but though the likes of Collins, Murray, and the Chambers brothers occupy a mere footnote in history, you suspect that Dr Thomson’s endeavour will have more than made up for it.

The language lives on.