Scottish Phrases The World Should Be Using

If you thought the Scottish accent was the only stumbling block in the northern land of rolling hills and misty mountains, think again! Scotland has a rich vocabulary of its own, including many wonderful phrases waiting to be spread across the globe.
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Illustrations by Chaim Garcia

It might be a small country known primarily for its gale-force winds, rain, whisky, misty glens and sheep, but Scotland has a wealth of expressive phrases and words derived from the Gaelic language and from various English dialects. From the city of Glasgow, where our dialect is known as “patter” and the locals are used to giein it laldy (pronounced like ghee-in it laldy, meaning to do things enthusiastically), to Tayside in the east, where they keep their feet toasty with their baffies (slippers), and to the Highlands and Islands in the north, where a ferry-louper (an incomer to the islands, or literally “ferry-jumper”) might have the locals gossiping.

We’ll explore some of the more colorful Scottish phrases, which you can hopefully adopt, bringing a touch of tartan and bagpipes (minus the ear-ringing sound) to wherever you are in the world.

“What dreich weather!”

Meaning: What bleak and dreary weather.

Pronunciation tip: dreich sounds like “dreech” (“ch” as in “loch,” not “church”)

Ah, the weather. Every Brit’s small-talk topic of choice. Since four seasons in one day are almost to be expected in Scotland, it won’t come as a surprise that we have some rather poetic words to describe the intricate changes in grey cloud cover and rain.

On a normal day in Scotland, you wake up, draw back the curtains, and notice a severe lack of vitamin D pouring into the room. You are faced with low-lying grey clouds, perhaps a drizzle of rain running down the window pane, and you remark to yourself, “Ach, another dreich day!” before retreating under your duvet.

“Mony a mickle maks a muckle!”

Meaning: Many a small thing amounts to something large

Pronunciation tip: mony sounds like “mawnee”

This Scottish phrase doesn’t do much for the unfortunate stereotype plastered all over the Scots — namely that we’re a miserly bunch. And although reminiscent of the joke that copper wire was invented by two Scots fighting over a one penny coin, the logic isn’t flawed. Saving a small amount soon builds up to a large amount, so go on, pop that one euro coin into your piggy bank and dream of the riches to come.

Ironically, the phrase is linguistically redundant since both “mickle” and “muckle” refer to something large in size, evident in some Scottish place names such as Muckle Flugga in Shetland, defined as a large, steep sided island, and Mickleover in Derbyshire, referenced in the Domesday Book as Magna Oufra, or the “large village on the hill.”

“Peely wally”

Meaning: Pale and sickly in appearance

Certainly not aided by our dreich weather and northern latitude, the Scots are known for their pale complexions. However, if someone is looking a wee bit peely wally, there might be more cause for concern than simple sun deficiency. A case of the flu or the after-effects of too much alcohol (something the Scots know all about) might induce a peely wally state.

“Lang may yer lum reek.”

Meaning: Live long and healthy. Literally: “Long may your chimney smoke.”

New Year whirls around — or Hogmanay, as we call it in Scotland (sometimes we use normal words, honest!) — and it’s a time filled with traditions in my home. Whether I’m spending the evening with friends or family, the all-important “First Footing” custom is to be upheld. I am the chosen one to put, quite literally, the first foot over the door on January 1st of the new year. With me, I am carrying a lump of coal for warmth and prosperity, and a bottle of whisky for… well, because it’s whisky. Both items have come from inside the house and I have to go outside, ring the bell, and bring them back inside, often then announcing, “Lang may yer lum reek!” (live a long and healthy life). It’s the Scottish equivalent to Mr. Spock’s “Live long and prosper,” minus the Vulcans.

“He’ll slap it intae ye!”

Meaning: It’s your own fault. Literally, “He’ll slap it into you.”

Pronunciation tip: intae sounds like “intay”

It sounds a little violent, although it is far less violent than the “Glasgow kiss” — you’ll realize just how unromantic a gesture this is when an angry Glaswegian is head-butting you. No, slapping it intae ye is a Scottish term to tell someone that it is their fault. For example:

  • “The government have promised rainbows and unicorns for us all, but I don’t think this will happen.”
  • “Well, he’ll slap it intae ye at the next election.”

In other words, the government will take a hit at the next elections and not do well. It will be their own fault for promising the earth and not delivering on that promise.

“Is yer cat deid?”

Meaning: Your trousers are flying at “half-mast.” Literally: “Is your cat dead?”

Pronunciation tip: deid sounds like “deed.”

This phrase has very little to do with cats and death, but is one of my personal favorites. Use it to tell someone that their trousers don’t fit them, specifically that they are too short for them and appear to be flying at half mast, as a sign of respect for your dead cat. It should be noted that it is irrelevant whether the person has a cat or not.

With turn-ups, three-quarter lengths and trousers that hover above the ankles all the rage nowadays, there should be no lack of opportunities to whip this one out and confuse fashion-conscious folk.

So, don’t be afraid to “Gie it laldy” — to go forth with gusto — and expand your vocabulary with a peppering of colorful Scottish phrases.

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