Bonnie mots

April 7, 1995

Olga Wojtas reports on the task to digitise Auld Scots. The impact of technology has now reached medieval Scots. For almost 80 years, editors of the monumental Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST) have been using a meticulous and painstaking system of handwritten dockets to underpin their work. But an electronic inputting system is now being introduced, and the dictionary, which defines every word in written Scots until 1700, is due to be completed by the end of the year 2000.

DOST was begun in the 1920s in Chicago by Sir William Craigie. The raw material for the dictionary is 1.5 million slips of paper covering some 200 million words, amassed by skilled volunteers who scoured ancient Scottish texts. But each slip contains a quotation which could include several words for potential use in the dictionary, and may therefore have to be used over and over again. They have become progressively dog-eared over the years, some displaying stains and blotches which could be the remnants of 1930s lunches.

"Sometimes they're in a woeful state,'' admits senior editor Harry Watson, who is based, with the other editors, in Edinburgh University's School of Scottish Studies. But now the quotations on the slips are to be computerised in the Philippines, allowing the editors simply to call up any word on-screen, although the slips will be retained as an archive.

Around Pounds 150,000 will have to be raised for DOST this year, says Victor Skretkowicz, senior lecturer in English at Dundee University and convener of the joint council which largely funds the project - council representatives are drawn from Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews and Stirling universities, and the Carnegie Trust. But he believes the dictionary's future is assured.

Part one of the dictionary was published in 1931, and part 43, which has reached S, will appear this year. Paper-bound fascicles or sections, five of which form a volume, are published as they are completed. The latest fascicle covers Sanct (saint) to S(c)hake, a tiny fraction of the whole which nonetheless presents an intriguing, if alarming, slant on life in medieval and renaissance Scotland. The largest entry, seven pages, is for "scathe'' (harm, damage, hurt suffered, threatened or perpetrated), while the next largest, six pages, is for "sare'' (physical pain or suffering, severe, sorrowful, to wound or injure).

Religious references abound, and the supposed grimness of Calvinism compared to laid-back Catholicism seems to be supported by the reference for "satisfactioune": pre-Reformation, this meant a penitent performing "penal and meritorious acts as part of the sacrament of penance'', while the post-Reformation definition is public penance for offences against church discipline.

The apparently innocuous "sand-ele'' ("small eel-like fish found on sandy shores") includes this stern reference from 1616: "That quhaso evir (whosoever) vpon the Sabboth day salbe fund raiking sandelis or gathering enie other sort of baite . . . they sall pay."

Ecumenism was not apparently a feature of 17th-century Aberdeen: "Papists and quakers have their frequent meetings within this brughe, to the great scandall of the gospell, and of all trew Christians within this brughe.' The dastardly English, "our ald ennemys cummyn of Saxonys blud'', produce some telling references: "The Inglismen . . . of Scottis blude quhilk (which) micht not satiat be"; "I a maid, and standis in mony stour (struggle), Fra Inglismen to saiff my womanheid''.

But, cleanliness being next to godliness, the English could have their uses. According to the 1554 Edinburgh burgh records, "the counsale grantis licence to Johnne Gaittis, Inglisman, to brew saip (soap)" And by 1693, the tone was one of chagrin rather than confrontation: "Our neighbour nation will say of us, Poor Scotland, beggarly Scotland, scabbed Scotland, lousie Scotland''.

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