Home» Publications» SLD Newsletter» Newsletter October 2007» Scots word: Fleg

Scots word


This word, of obscure etymology, means 'to frighten'. It makes its earliest appearance in A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue with a quotation from James Melvill's Autobiography and Diary (1600): 'When courtlie wolffes from Chrystes flok be flegged'. (When courtly wolves are frightened away from Christ's flock.). Another early, religious example of the word comes from the comforting assertion in Pitcairn's Criminal Trials (1662) that 'The Lord fleigged the Feind with his holy candles'.

As we move into the post-1700 period covered by the Scottish National Dictionary, the word really comes into its own both as a verb and as a noun and it is even used to form the adjective 'flegsome' and the agent noun 'flegger'.

Not surprisingly, a number of the scary quotations relate to hauntings, past, present and yet to come. J. Duff, in A Collection of Poems (1816,) warns 'Some think his ghaist still haunts Glendevon, To fleig the wives wha gae to Methven' (Some think his ghost still haunts Glendevon to frighten women who go to Methven). On a misty day, Glendevon is full of atmosphere and the village of Methven, its castle and surroundings are steeped in history.

In George Macdonald's Sir Gibbie (1879) the threat is made: 'I'll wrastle frae my grave an' fleg ye oot o' the sma' wuts ye hae, my man'.

Some other quotations, however, show the word in a more positive, figurative light, in the sense of chasing away such unwanted things as a sore, husky throat. The poet Robert Fergusson (whom Robert Burns called his 'elder brother in the muse') suggests a cure: 'To fleg frae a' your craigs (throats) the roup (throat infection), Wi' reeking (steaming) het and crieshy (greasy) soup' (1773). For extremes of cold, Charles Murray advises in In the Country Places (1920): 'Haud on the peats an' fleg the cauld'. He is suggesting that plenty of peat be put on the fire. Even the smell of a peat fire warms the heart.

Still, fleg for the most part retains a sense of a sudden terror with the attendant symptoms described by Matthew Fitt in But n Ben A-Go-Go (2000): 'His legs wis shooglie (shaky), his hert duntin (thumping) faster than wis healthy. The Dane had gien him a real fleg'. This is how I know it best. While I was out with some motorcycling friends, I overtook a truck on a really silly place, unaware that there was a blind dip in the road. When I saw the oncoming car, I had do some dramatic braking along the white line. Afterwards, a friend, who had been riding behind me, remarked 'Ye gied yersel a richt fleg there, quine [girl].' I had to admit that I was still suffering from the shoogly legs and duntin hert! I never made that mistake again.

Be sure to visit the Dictionary of the Scots Language website for more information on fleg and any of the other Scots words used in this article.