I recently read “The Yellow on the Broom” and “Red Rowans and Wild Honey” by Betsy Whyte. (Bonnie wee Scottish lassie, isn’t she?)
Bessie, as she answered to when she was a wean, writes her memoir of her childhood in the 1930s as part of a family of Scottish “traveller” people. Tinkers. Mist People. Gypsies. (Although they would disapprove of the ‘Tinker’ designation.) The book is wonderfully written and attempts to describe the life and philosophy of travellers. Why they live in tents and move from place to place most of the year, only settling down when they have to in winter. Working on farms, pearl fishing, making willow baskets and many other odd jobs. How they view the country hantle.
And here we are. “Hantle?” Yup. That’s cant for “people.” Her book is rife with strange words. So much so, that I became intrigued. Was this different than Scots? Yes. Was there anywhere online with a good glossary? Not really. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a thorough one at the end of Mrs. Whyte’s book. I don’t think she’d mind if I shared some of my favorite words with you, as she lamented that it was dying out within her lifetime.
The cant that Bessie spoke was unique to the Highland travellers. Irish Tinker cant, often called Shelta, or Gammon, would be completely unintelligible to her. Regardless of which group of tinkers were speaking, the purpose of cant was secret communication, often right under the noses of the country hantle or hornies (police). Two travellers could be asking a cottar if they could boil some water for tea, but if one of them notices something is amiss, they could alert the other one in the midst of speaking to the cottage resident.
What follows is a list of my favorite cant words. This is by no means comprehensive, as I have left out many other words that are included in Betsy Whyte’s books which are published by Birlinn publishing out of Edinburgh, Scotland. (This is reproduced with their permission.) As always, please comment with any thoughts or questions.
agley- in the wrong direction
anonst- unknown (to somebody) going hunting in the field anonst to the landowner.
bagle- a lazy fellow, one who breaks sexual taboos
bang- a crowd, especially domineering and overpowering people.
barming- flighty, foolish
besom- a sweeping brush, an unpleasant woman
birse- to bristle, feel annoyed or angry
bogy roll- a twist or roll of tobacco
breenge- a lunge, an attack
broonie- supposedly a very helpful spirit creature: manshaped, ugly, covered with brown hair, with long feet and red eyes. He usually attached himself to a family, nearly always millers or farmers, and did the work of ten men.
buck- a person who as taken to the travelling life, or with only one real Traveller parent.
bullyrag- to order somebody about, to demand a lot
bung- taken, jailed
burker- an intruder. Originating from William Burke who murdered people and sold their bodies for medical research at the universities. Travellers were often his target.
caber- a heavy log for tossing at the Highland Games, slang for (you guessed it) penis.
chuckie stane- a small smooth pebble
cleek- to walk arm in arm
conyeeched- spoiled, petted
coorie- to crouch or snuggle down
cottar- a farmworker in a rented cottage
country hantle- the settled, house-dwelling country people
Cruelty- ‘A Cruelty’ was an Inspector of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, or any official of a local authority
dander- a stroll or leisurely walk. to take a dander might mean a short walk away from camp to relieve oneself
dreich- dull, wearisome
drookit- drenched or soaked
drumly- applied to stream water, this means disturbed, muddy, unsettled. Applied to a person, it means they are confused, mixed up.
dwam- a faint or swoon
ettling- being eager or impatient to do something
fang- the venomous side to one’s nature. to go off the fang was to lose one’s temper.
forfochen- worn out
ganch, ganch- to talk too much. to bore someone by talking in too much detail
gaswork cinders- coke (soda)
gie- to give. gie us a crack- give me some conversation, let’s have a chat. gie him his tatties- give him what he deserves
glaikit- silly, senseless
glaggen- the sheen over a field of grain, hay, or over a moor
glaur- mud, ooze
gloaming- dusk, twilight
granny sooker- a pan drop, a peppermint sweet
guffie- a boorish, unfeeling, cruel person
gurly- applied to water, the weather, this means cloudy, rough. So, applied to a person, it means they are grumpy, in a bad mood.
hap- to dress a child; to tuck up in bed
haver- to talk nonsense
hornies- the police
hurl- a lift on the road
in-aboot- to enter into an encampment from any direction and move about greeting people at their various occupations
John Barleycorn- wiskey
jugal- a dog
keek- to peep
knickit- made pregnant
lee-lang – whole
limmer- a rascal or rogue, a loose girl
moich- foolish, mad
mootyay- a rabbit
nash avree!- get moving!
oxter- armpit, to lead by the arm
paggering- a beating
peekit- sickly looking
ploops- the police
plouter- to potter about on trifling tasks
plukie- faced – pimple-faced
polis- the police
puckle- a small quantity
raise the wind- to earn enough to survive
rax- to stretch, overstrain
reenge- a pot scrubber made from tying heather together
scaldified- behaving like scaldies, town dwellers of the lowest class.
scalpions- roguish young men, eager to work off high spirits by tormenting others
scouff- freedom, sufficient space to romp and play
screich- the first light of dawn
shan- bad. really objectionable, unsavory, causing shame
shaness!- an exclamation meaning ‘bad word’ , ‘bad deed’ or ‘bad situation’ but it can be used in many different ways
shuch- the private part of a woman
sleekit- sly, cunning
smeeked- smelling of, and cheery with, drink
snooled- made to feel low or downtrodden
souch, sough- a murmur: of the sea, a river, the wind, distant voices, birds wings…
thrang- crowded, close together
thraw- to argue, to contradict
toll- a cant word for skirlie, the dish made from oatmeal and dripping
trauchled- overburdened, overworked
troosh- to humble or frighten someone
tuggery- fine clothes
walsh- dried up and bad tasting
want- When we say that a person has a want, we mean that they are otherwise quite normal, but has an obsession or distorted view about some thing (or things). Such a person is usually very touchy about the subject and the ability to recognize such a ‘want’ helps one to humor the person.
whammel- to turn upside down
wheesht!- hush! be quiet!
yirdy- a toad
younker- youngster, child