STARN: Scots Teaching and Resource Network

Back to contents page

Gaelic and Scots in Harmony

The Scots Element in the Gaelic Vocabulary of Domestic Furnishings and Utensils

Ian Quick

This small corner of the topic of Scots loanwords in Scottish Gaelic illustrates quite well some of the problems of interpretation that loanwords present concerning the relationships between the speakers of Gaelic and the speakers of Scots. The present paper merely brings out some of the problems; it does not claim to solve them.

Table I below gives us a fair idea of the range of relevant loanwords. The phonetic transcriptions are narrow, and most are based on pronunciations found in the islands of North Uist and Barra although occasionally pronunciations from other areas are used. In no instance though is the provenance of a pronunciation indicated in the table. For eight words my sources have not yielded a reliable traditional pronunciation, and in these cases the phonetic transcriptions given are theoretical and are marked by an asterisk.


The problem of dating the time of borrowing of the etymon of each of the Gaelic words will be dealt with briefly later. First, it is interesting to note the geographical distribution of some of the words. It must be emphasised that the relevant information set forth here is derived mainly from the files of The Historical Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic and from native Gaelic-speaking colleagues from Lewis, North Uist, Barra and Wester Ross. 1 It is not to be regarded as a definitive statement.

Three words seem to be attested only for Argyll, or Argyll and Arran. ceatal (section 2), for example, is attested for Arran, Kintyre, Islay and Mull; the general word in the north of the Gaelic area is coire, which originally meant 'cauldron'.* fleat 'plate' (3) is attested for Kintyre and Arran, but truinnseir (3) is general elsewhere and is indeed attested for Kintyre. The usual Gaelic word for 'clock' is cloc (10), but noc (10) is attested for Arran and west Argyll. A very few words seem to be restricted, or virtually so, to the mainland: pleanaisean (10) is attested just once, probably from Strathspey; tairleas (5) is attested only for Perthshire; amraidh (5) is listed in a dictionary compiled by a native of Islay, 2 but is otherwise attested only for south Argyll, Lochaber, probably Strathspey, and in a vocabulary compiled by a native of Moidart 3; bacaid (1) seems not to be a Hebridean word but is certainly attested for Perthshire. On the other hand, pàm (7) seems to be a Hebridean word, and a Lewis one at that. The usual Hebridean word for 'washing-up water' or 'water for washing clothes' seems to be saplas (8), or one of its variant forms, but great (8) is the only word attested for the mainland. fleat 'saucer' (3), or the form flat, is found in west Argyll, in Lewis, and in east Sutherland, but is unattested elsewhere; sàsair (3) is probably the commoner Gaelic word. breas (1) too seems to have a peculiarly sporadic distribution, being attested for Arran, Jura and Perthshire only, although Professor Thomson tells me that his grand-father in Lewis, formerly an apprentice in Glasgow, used the word. Finally, the general word for 'chair' in the Hebrides is seuthar (6), but in Argyll (or its southern parts anyway) cathair, the reflex of an Early Gaelic form, seems to be usual.

In Table II below the Gaelic words are arranged according to the half-century in which each is first attested, e indicating 'early or first half' and l 'late or second half'. Variant forms have been taken into account when placing each word in the table. The probable etymon of each Gaelic word is given too, and when no information to the contrary follows later it may be understood that its sense matches closely that of the Gaelic word.

  • 116 lanntairean < lantern, lantren.
  • 117 amraidh < aumry, amery; tubhailt < tou(a)l.
  • e18 branndair (1) < brander, grèata < grate, pana < pan; praidhea-pan < fry-pan, racaise < rax (plur.); bobhla < bowl, truinnseir < truncher, forca fork, lodar laddle; bucaid < bucket, pùlas < boulls (plur.), muga (4) < mug; preas < press; being < benk, furm < furme, seuthar < chair, cuisean < cuschen; babhstair < bowster, plangaid < blanket; searbhadair < servitor; buad < bowat, lampa < lamp; pleanaisean < plenishing, filear < filler, siosar < scissor.
  • 118 bruis < brush; carpad < carpet.
  • e19 bacaid < backet.
  • 119 breas < brace; sgileid < skillet, stòbh< stove, lud < lid; tumalair< tummler; basaidh < bassie, peidheal < pail, canastair < canister; dreasair dresser, tairleas tirless; clabhda < clout,great < graith; cloc < clock.
  • e/l2O pòcar < poker; ceatal < kettle; aisead < ashet, fleat 'saucer' < flet,fleat 'plate' < flet; muga (3) < mug, sàsair < saucer; madhlpot < milkpot, siuga joug; branndair (5) brander; cripidh < creepie; pàm pawn, pand, tolt tuolt; saplas < sappies; noc < nok.

It will be noted that some of the proposed etymons are not peculiar to Scots; the view taken here is that they may have been part of the active vocabulary of speakers of Scots; but the present writer has not corroborated this. One or two words do nag a little though. just one example now: the nature of the stressed vowel of clabhda makes an origin in an English diphthong more likely than an origin in the Scots /u/ in cloot, which seems to be the usual form in Scots.

As regards the time at which each Scots word was borrowed, little definite can be said now. There seems to be little in the phonetics of the Scots and Gaelic words to enable us to place the time of borrowing of any word earlier than the time of first attestation, or to prevent us from doing so. Considering the words purely from a phonological point of view bucaid, for example, could have been borrowed in the thirteenth century, when its proposed etymon is first attested; forca in the fourteenth century; pùlas in the fifteenth century; and many other words could be juggled with in this way. Gaelic words that seem to have retained Scots alveolar /d, t, 1, n/ and not to have substituted dental consonants are not particularly helpful. cuisean for example is attested in the very early eighteenth century at the latest; the final n in the word seems always to be alveolar now. Does that necessarily mean that it had an alveolar n in the early eighteenth century? The modern Gaelic forms could represent a reborrowing. tumalair seems to have alveolar t and l now, but how would Alexander Robertson of Faskally in Perthshire have referred in Gaelic to the "Two Tumblers" mentioned in his testament registered in 1732? 4 Would he have had dental or alveolar consonants? The question arises in the same document concerning the ashets and milkpots mentioned. James Ross pointed out some time ago that the "alveolar plosives t, d have been in the vernacular for a considerable time and seem to have survived a predominantly monoglot phase." 5 Of course there are words like tubhailt that seem to have no alveolar consonants where the etymons may have had them; perhaps some of these are earlier borrowings, seventeenth century or earlier, that have not been supplanted by later less thoroughly assimilated reborrowings.

The mention of ashets and milkpots in the Faskally testament 4 is a good example of course of how the probable time of borrowing of a Scots word into Gaelic can be pushed back from the time of first attestation. But clearly there are problems when English or Scots is the language used in such documents. The same source mentions "Three Delft Saucers" and "ten Cups and Saucers China". 4 Would Robertson have used sàsair to refer in Gaelic to one of these saucers, or fleat?

The etymologies of a few of the Gaelic words are unclear. For example, although Freying-pan is attested for Argyllshire at the very beginning of the eighteenth century, at the latest, the modern Outer Hebridean forms seem not to have kept the foreign -ing. But there seems to be no frypan in the usual Scots and English dictionaries, so perhaps Gaelic speakers have made up their own word using the Scots verb fry, the f- being subsequently back-mutated in some areas.

tubhailt means 'table-cloth' in some places, a sense for which there seems to be no exact equivalent in Scots or English; perhaps it is a development from Gaelic tubhailte-bùird 'table-cloth', literally 'towel of a table', found in some areas. The meaning 'towel' for searbhadair seems to be a Gaelic development too, from 'napkin', the meaning of Scots servitor. babhstair is a tricky one. It means 'mattress' and 'long pillow' in Gaelic but the former sense seems not to be clearly attested for the probable etymon. Gaelic tairleas must derive from Scots tirless, but the latter means 'lattice, grill', not 'cupboard'. Perhaps the tairleas had wicker sides giving a lattice-work effect, similar to the 'larders' drawn and described by Isobel Grant 6 , although the geographical distribution of these 'larders' does not correspond to that of the tairleas, at least not as far as our meagre evidence seems to indicate. branndair 'shelf' seems not to have its sense attested for Scots brander but its development from the basic sense 'a framework' is natural enough. fleat is a bit of a puzzle because its 'plate' sense seems not to be matched by Scots flat, other than in the sense of 'Any flat plate for placing beneath some other dish'. Perhaps Scots plat 'a household plate; a shallow dish' is involved here; or Gaelic speakers may simply have extended the meaning of Scots flet/flat.

As for the dialects of Scots involved with the borrowing of any given word into Gaelic probably little can be said other than in the most general terms, although a good knowledge of trading and other relevant contacts may prompt tentative suggestions here and there. One group of two words illustrates the problem: saplas and great, both meaning 'soapy water'. The broad distribution of each of these has been given above. A glance at a map of the distribution of Scots words for 'soapsuds' 7 shows that sapples is predominantly a western word and graith predominantly an eastern word. Thus perhaps saplas and its variant forms are usual in the Outer Hebrides, as they do seem to be, because more women from those islands went into domestic service in Glasgow, Bute and Ayr than went to Inverness or Edinburgh. And perhaps great was used in Badenoch because more women from there worked in houses in Perthshire, Edinburgh and Inverness than worked in the west. On the other hand the two Scots words are found in parts of Lanarkshire and Stirlingshire, and in West Lothian. Scots creepie is found in some concentration in many areas from Shetland to the Lothians and Kirkcudbrightshire 8, although the exact meaning seems to vary slightly, but we may suppose that Islay Gaelic cripidh was borrowed from the Scots of the west, which has concentrations of creepie in parts of Stirlingshire, Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and Ayrshire. On the other hand creepie is attested too in parts of the north of Ireland. Could contacts between Islay and Ulster have led to the borrowing of the Ulster Scots word?



1 . I am grateful to Professor D. S. Thomson, Mr I. MacDonald, Mrs C. M. Maclnnes and Mr K. D. MacDonald for their patient help. If I have misinterpreted their information it is of course I who am at fault.

2. M'Alpine, Neil (1832): A Pronouncing Gaelic Dictionary ... etc., Edinburgh.

3. M'.Donald, Alexander (I 74 1): A Galick and English Vocabulary ...etc., Edinburgh.

4. Leneman, Leah (1986): Living in Atholl: A Social History of the Estates 1685-1785, Edinburgh University Press, 72.

5. Ross, James (1962): 'Bilingualism and Folk life: some aspects of the vernacular speech of a crofting community', in Scottish Studies, vol.6 pt. 1, Oliver and Boyd Ltd. 1962, 67.

6. Grant, I.F. (1975): Highland Folk Ways, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 174-176.

7. Mather, J. Y. and Speitel, H. H. eds.: The Linguistic Atlas of Scotland: Scots Section, vol. 1, Croom Helm 1975, 47.

8. Ibid., 46.

* Subsequent to my submitting this paper I found that I had overlooked a West Perthshire attestation of this word, given by Máirtín Ó. Murchú in Ériu xxxvi (1985), 198.