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Scottish Traditions

The World of Work


Scots words and phrases used in the context of work can make a really interesting study. Names for materials, for specialist equipment and for the people who use them vary from region to region.

The most ordinary of terms in the world of work can prove fascinating. An orraman is a 'Jack of all trades' or jobber and you might have come across an orra billie, orra laddie, orra lassie or orra loon. In the Elgin Courant of 6th November 1953 there is an explanation of the role of a tractor orra-man:

A tractorman is expected to drive and to maintain his machine — or at least to keep it clean and serviced. A tractor orra-man . . . is only expected to drive the tractor and can be called upon to do orra work as the rest of his job.

Do you remember hearing your teacher reading out a class register and did you ever think about what some of the names might mean? The class list might have included Dempsters, Cordiners, Lorimers, Baxters and Websters. A dempster was a judge, a cordiner was a shoemaker and a lorimer made metal parts to the horse's harness.

The specialist equipment used by different trades is interesting too. You might overhear a jiner ask his colleague to pass him a haimmer and a risp or you might use these words yourself. Other names for tools might be less familiar. In shoemaking, there are specialist tools such as the yickie-yawkie which was wooden and used to polish the soles of shoes. A priest and devil was a shoemaker's last. This was used in Ulster Scots as well as in Perthshire. You will know that a tacket was a small nail, especially a hob nail, used in tackety boots. The Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL) lets us know how popular these nails were in 1884 in Aberdeen. According to D. Grant in his work Chronicles of Kecklton (1883):

The tackit mackers, workin' nicht an' day, can barely supply the deman' for tackits.

Some traditional skills and the words associated with these can be lost as the industry changes. A shuttler was a boy who filled carriages and bobbins in a lace factory. Now only one lace factory in Newmilns remains of the many lace making firms that the Irvine valley was once famous for. The 1795 Statistical Account for Aberdeen indicates that change is happening:

Since the introduction of loom-stockings, the knitting or netting of stockings with wires, has been in the decline.

However, the word wires is still used today to refer to knitting needles. The word cleek was used all over to mean a kind of crochet hook which was used in the making of gloves and rugs. In the Banff area, a quotation from R. Sim shows how the use of word was extended to a particular type of clothes:

It [a crochet hook] is only a showy improvement on the primitive and simple brass instrument with which herd boys and girls and other youngsters in former days to manufacture the comfortable piece of dress which they called very appropriately "Cleeky mittans".

Even familiar words can have a particular application to work. The Scots word handsel often means 'gift' but in business it can mean the first instalment or payment for a job. Most people look forward to the end of the working day but the start is important too. The expression yokin time has a general sense of commencement of a spell of work and you can look at examples in the DSL which illustrate that the term is used in all sorts of industries including mining, not just rural ones. The end of a shift of work might generally be referred to as lousin time. The DSL has an interesting entry from 1897 in Kirkcudbright describing the term the prentice lowsan. This marks the end of the apprenticeship and would involve a celebration with a feast such as a 'high tea' and a little whisky. When an apprentice blacksmith finished his apprenticeship, his companions and friends sometimes gave a ball to him, called the 'lousin ball'. We would love to hear more about this tradition or of other similar traditions.

The Scots Thesaurus (Edinburgh: Polygon 1999) has a section entitled Trades, Building(s) and Architecture. You might also want to consult A Dictionary of Scottish Building (1996) which was the result of collaboration with the Scottish Civic Trust, the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland and Historic Scotland. Some of our editors worked with Glen L. Pride to produce a new and enlarged edition of his earlier Glossary of Scottish Building, using their lexicographical expertise and information.

Studying Scots words and phrases connected with the world of work can give us insight into how the work was tackled and attitudes to work as well as the etymologies and senses of the words themselves.