The nights between October and November have always been considered special – the Celts associated this time with the spirit world and death, and it is thought the night was celebrated to recognise what the early Scots perceived as the years end. The festival Samhain, as it was known among Celts, or Samhuinn among the Scots, also has roots in common with the name given to the month we know as November (Mì na Samhna in Scottish Gaelic).
Halfway between summer and winter, it is a time when nature is literally dying, proclaiming the winter season when fertility and growth would halt. The present name – Hallowe’en – is a contraction of “All Hallows Evening” or “All Hallows Eve” – the day before All Saints’ Day celebrated in Western Christianity. People around the world seem to share a strong conviction that the “veil” between worlds of the living and the dead is thinner than usual at this time, and that it enables the exchange of some information. This kind of festival is common to almost all peoples in the northern hemisphere, and variants are observed from Mexico to Europe. Although customs differ, the idea is pretty much the same; that supernatural forces are present in the world during this time, and should be respected. This motif is also recorded in poetry – the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns (also known as Scotland’s Bard or Scotland’s Favourite Son) wrote a piece known simply as “Halloween” in 1785 and described some of the folk traditions and customs linked with the festival.
The whole idea of Halloween is considered to be pagan, and there is strong evidence to support that belief. However, one of the most widespread mistakes related to this, is that Samhain was a Celtic deity of the dead – no such god was ever worshipped, and this tale is probably an 18th century invention or mistake made in ethnography. Nevertheless, there are some stories about a character named Samhain or Sawan – but he is presented rather as a hero than a deity, and it is likely that he was named after the festival, rather than the other way round. The whole thing may have originated from an attempt by Col. Charles Vallency, who tried to prove the fictitious Armenian origin of the Irish people, or from a book by Godfrey Higgins, who believed the druids to be descendants of the Vedic tradition. The very first mention of the “god” Samhain might have been traced to the beginning of the 18th century, but this has not yet been definitively proven. Regardless it can be recognised that the name Samhain should be taken as a reference to the festival itself, and not as an allusion to any mortal or divine beings.
The modern celebrations of Samhain became controversial because of many factors, primary among them being the early Catholic Church, which associated the festival with the cult of satanic forces and condemned the traditional elements of Hallowe’en that they considered to be evil, such as divination or communication with spirits. Paradoxically, All Saints Day, which is believed to also have its origins in pagan customs, was defended as purely Christian tradition that has nothing in common with heathenism.
Nevertheless, the whole contemporary image of Hallowe’en has led to the common belief that it is somehow connected with occult practices. The black cats, witches and ghosts which are so popular as decorations and toys, can be perceived as a way of mocking the fear of death – but also as a way of secretly worshipping them. Things have become even more confusingly problematic in recent years due to a rise in the popularity of neo-paganism and Wicca, whose adherents consider themselves as heirs or at least followers of ancient Celtic (or generally pagan) traditions. Modern witches, wizards and heathens, whose spirituality has nothing to do with any kind of devil or death worship, sometimes feel ostracised because of the popular misconceptions about their activities, and the media tend to focus on them a great deal around Hallowe’en as opposed to any other time of year. Covens (Wiccan gatherings for the purpose of performing rituals) and divination practices look impressive and controversial, as they use popular symbols in the context of witchcraft. But what tends to be omitted is the fact that these symbols have a different context or even meaning – taken from the heathen past and now forgotten, or created anew.
Many Scottish traditions that have survive to the present day have also been modified – pumpkin jack-o-lanterns were originally turnips, a shandy Dan (a dummy of an old woman representing a witch) burnt in a bonfire is replaced by Guy Fawkes on November 5th, “dookin for apples” is only a funny game when we no longer remember that apples used to be considered a sacred fruit, and dressing up to scare the evil spirits away has become a joyful festival for children to pretend to be their favourite cute or funny cartoon characters! Even though the meaning of customs, beliefs, and the whole ambiance around Hallowe’en has changed; tracking down the elements of ancient Scottish cultural heritage may be a fascinating way of discovering one’s own identity as a Scot. Know your roots!
It’s not only the Scottish accent which sets us apart from other parts of the United Kingdom – for as any true Scot knows, Scotland actually has many accents; from the lilting burr of the Highlands to the famously difficult to understand twang of young Glaswegians! For such a small country, we do have a huge amount of regional variance in accent, but our spoken dialect is broader still – offering a shared experience of the English language which differs in sometimes small but always significant ways from British Standard English. Our dialect, Scottish English, is further enhanced by borrowed words from the two languages of Scotland. Gaelic is the ancient tongue of the Highlands, but the language of the Lowlands, simply known as Scots, is recognised here too. Although it is closely linked to Standard English, it is not always mutually intelligible (think along the lines of the links between Norwegian and Danish!), and though it used to be considered simply an extreme dialect of Standard English, it is more and more being recognised as a separate language nowadays.
Most Scottish native’s speech will exist on a continuum, with the Scottish Standard English of most schools and businesses at one end and the broad Scots of relaxed conversation at the other. Although an individual may err more to one end or the other, in practice most people will switch between various forms of dialect or even between languages depending on the situation they find themselves in. This is common across the world, but we of course feel that Scotland has some of the greatest and most interesting quirks when it comes to casual and idiomatic language!
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Newcomers or visitors to our shores might at first be confused by some Scottish utterances. Everyone has heard of the old standards “Och aye the noo” or even “It’s a braw bricht moonlicht nicht the nicht” but unsurprisingly these aren’t actually commonly heard and might only be pronounced by a Scot for the amusement of new visitors. Today we intend to show you some of the phrases and idioms you are likely to hear in Scotland, for your instruction and delight, and to ensure you can keep up with the locals wherever you end up!
One of the best known dialects of Scots is the Doric. This is commonly spoken in the Northeast of Scotland (in areas such as Aberdeen and Moray) and is often joked about even by other Scots because it sounds very much like the international stereotype of a Scottish person. Many of the phrases and words used in this region have entered the common lexicon of Scotland, though the pronunciation does vary of course. The term “furry boots” does not actually refer to warm winter footwear, but is a play on the Aberdonian pronunciation of the common Scots phrase “whaur aboots” meaning “where about (is it)”! Other common words or phrases include “Whit’s fur ye’ll no go past ye” (“Whatever is meant to happen to you, will happen to you”), “Ah’m stappit fu’” (“I’m very full” – often heard after a good meal) and the very expressive exclamation; “Yir aywis at the coo’s tail!” (“You’re always running late!”).
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Other words and phrases the Doric is well-known for that are rarely heard elsewhere. These include the term “loon” for “boy, “mineer” for “hullabaloo”, and “nickum” for “mischievous” (especially a child). So, if you hear the phrase “That nickum loon caused a richt mineer, the wee scunner.” you will now know that an adventurous young boy has been making a nuisance of himself!
Often to Scottish people, it can be difficult to realise that not everyone can understand what we are saying at all times. The Doric examples above are fairly extreme–they might be used naturally in conversation with another Doric speaker but presumably not with someone obviously unfamiliar with the dialect, but for many Scots it isn’t so clear-cut. Residents of Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scotland’s capital and biggest cities respectively, are so used to being around tourists we can sometimes forget ourselves and find sentences like “I got into an awfie rammy wi’ ‘at nippy sweetie fi doonstairs” (“I got into an awful argument with that bad tempered woman who lives in the flat below mine”) spilling out to completely the complete bemusement of non-natives. That example is Glaswegian, but Edinburgh residents have the same problem, with requests such as “Gies a deek o’ yir paper?” (“Can I have a quick look at your newspaper”) or “That radge is totally reekin’”(“That strange person seems to be very drunk.”) often being misunderstood.
Glaswegian is particularly well known for its speakers talking very fast and slurring their words together, as well as using colourful double negatives or contradictions such as “Come oan, get aff!” (literally, “Come on, get off” but really meaning “Please stop, get off me”) or “Gonnae no dae that!” (“Please don’t do that!”), which can add to the confusion but also makes the speech pattern instantly recognisable, and it is regarded fondly as the dialect heard in television shows such as Rab C. Nesbitt and Chewin’ the Fat.
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A region of Scotland which differs greatly from the rest in terms on speech is the Orkney and Shetland Isles. These lie off the extreme Northern coast, and Shetland is in fact closer to Norway than to most Scottish centres of population! As a result, the Scottish English spoken here has many words and grammatical structures which are remnants of Norn, the Scandinavian language originally spoken in this region, and can be difficult for even other Scots to understand. This excerpt is from a poem by Christine de Luca, a well-known Scottish poet who often writes in Shetlandic;
Santy cam in trowe da lambie-hoose door Santa came in through the lamb shed door
whaar Magnus wis neebin his lane. Where Magnus was nodding off to sleep alone
‘A’m needin dy help, fur een o my deer ‘I’m needing your help, for one of my deer
is snappered an med himsel lame.’ Has stumbled and made himself lame.’
I hope this short primer on the Scots language and common dialects has been useful. Of course no single blog post could possibly cover the breadth and depth of Scottish language – with a strong history of poetry and literature as well as a reputation for our sense of humour, language is a rich and vital part of the Scottish culture. We’d love to hear from you in the comments about your favourite Scottish words or sayings, but for now, goodbye and we’ll “see ye efter”!