Ninny-niawing, nip-necks, blorts and snorks

Despite the many new opportunities for storing and reading books electronically, there are still plenty of traditional bibliophiles about. I’m one of them. I’ve always had a lot of books, and I’ve always collected them, as far back as I can remember. Most are horse or history related. If there’s one question that annoys a bibliophile more than any other, it’s: “What a lot of books – have you read them all?”

I used to get asked this so often when I was a child that I developed a standard answer – “Yes, all except the Bible and the dictionary.” Well, I read all of the Bible for research purposes when I was working on an Egyptology database some years ago, so I can now tick that one off. And, in a way, I can also say I’ve read the dictionary, or at least one of the dictionaries, because that’s what I’ve done for this blog.

The dictionary in question is “The Scots Dialect Dictionary” compiled by Alexander Warrack MA, and a magnificent work it is too. A few years ago, I wrote about Robert Burns and his horses, and I decided it would be interesting to do a follow-up that would introduce some traditional Scottish words relating to horses. Many of these words are in Warrack’s dictionary, although some of them are sadly redundant now that there are no longer packmen and their “pownies”, and working horses have all but vanished from our cities and the land. Scots is such a magnificent language that I made many a happy detour along the way.

Shanks’s naggis

First of all, of course, you have to acquire a horse, otherwise you’ll be on Shanks’s pony, if you live in England, that’s to say on foot. But in Scotland, you’d be on Shanks’s nag, mare, naigie, naggis, noddy or pair. It’s more likely though, that you’d be on Tamson’s mear – Thomson’s mare.

So what kind of horse do you want? Obviously you don’t want one that’s sag-backit, or seg-backit, since it would have a sunken back, nor do you want one that’s suffering from cords, a disease of the muscles of the neck, or bats, the disease of the bot fly.

Perhaps you prefer a chastain (chestnut) or a grissel (grey), or one that’s snippy or snippet (has a white stripe on its face). It might be bausand (having white marks on its face and limbs) or a bawsie, which means it either has a white face or is old. Check out its boos (shoulders) and barrel (body), because you don’t want one that’s barrel-gird (its ribs are showing) or scrab (undergrown and scrawny).

Next, you go to the smiddy (smithy) to see the burnewin or brookie-face (the smith) and his chapper (the man who wields the hammer). If he’s good, you might pay him in smiddy boll, a payment of grain, but if he’s no good, you’d call him a smith-body quite contemptuously.

What noise does your horse make? He might sneer, which is a special type of snort as he chucks mucous from his nose all over you when he’s a bit snotty. In that case, he’s probably suffering from a gerse-cold. Or he might sneg,  which is a neigh or a snort. In that case, he’s a snegger, which is just another name for a horse. He can blort, too, another snorty noise. Or snork, which means he’s afraid – a snork is the snort of a fearful horse.

At the horse-tailor

You get your saddle-gear (tack) from a horse-tailor (saddler), where you’ll find bridle renzies (reins), britchin, and braichums (horse collars). If you want a collar made of straw, it’s a bass. You can buy selles, too, that’s your standard saddle, and a saddle-tae-side or saddle-tae-sidlins for riding side-legs (side-saddle).

As you might expect from a country that gave the world many leading agricultural developments, including the Clydesdale horse, there are lots of Scottish words relating to ploughing, with very specific terms relating to the position of horses themselves within a plough team. The “fur-beast” or “fur-horse” is the horse that walks in the furrow. The “fittie-lan'” is the near side horse of the last pair in a plough, which walks on the unploughed land,. And the “fur-ahin” is the hindmost right hand horse in a plough. On Orkney, however, where four-abreast plough teams were traditional, the “fur-scam” was the second horse from the right hand.

A “hanbeast” was a  horse a ploughman guided by the left hand, the “hand-afore” the forehorse on the left hand, and the “hand-ahin” the last horse on the left hand. Most ploughing items, like the horses, were distinguished by whether they were on the furrow side or the land side, with a “fur-side” being the iron plate in a plough for turning over the furrow, while the “fur-sin” was the cord to which the hook of a plough was attached.

Ploughmen, pleughmen or pleuchmen had several helpers, one of whom was the gundyman who used a long pole fastened to the plough beam to aid the ploughman by pushing off or up to him as required. The gadboy or gadman goaded the horses along. It was tough team work.

Hap! Hie-wo! Heck!

Potentially, the most confusing linguistic element came in verbally directing the horses, and this varied from district to district and undoubtedly from farmtoun to farmtoun. To move or turn to the left, “heck”, “heik”, “hie-here”, “come-ather”, “come-ether”, “hie-woe”, “maader”, “maether”, “hy” and “hie-wo” (the last, also, confusingly, could mean turn right) were used.

To go or turn right, “hup”, “hap”, “haap”, and “re” were used, along with several more. “Shug” was what you might use to bring your horses to your hand.

.In the stable, you’d feed your horse a mash of oats (what else, in Scotland!) and that would be his “bait”, fed to him or her in a bait-troch (trough). If it was the last meal of the day it would be the horse-supperin’, the horse’s evening meal. There’d be a fusschle, or small untidy bundle of hay, stuffed into the haik, the hay rack, taken from the hodlack, or hay rick.

In the days of the packmen, pedlars or pack-merchants, pack loads were “packalds” and they carried wallets, or puddills. Definitely not to be confused with the “peckmen”, who smuggled spirits in a special vessel similar to a peck measure. The “anker” was a liquid measure of four gallons used by the smugglers because that was a good load for a pony. Masses of clouds were often called “packies” after packmen, presumably because of the way they arrived suddenly in a group, and a particular type of cumulus cloud often visible in otherwise fine weather along the north east coast came to be called “Coldingham Packmen.”

Ca’ for the midwife

There are so many other horse-related words and phrases in this rich, rich language that it’s impossible to share them all. However, I will share a few of my favourites. “Ninny-niawing” is whinnying, and “nip-necks” is the scratching of one another’s necks that horses love to do. If you need to get somewhere at top speed, you ride at a “midwife-gallop”, which speaks for itself. A “meldrop” is foam or moisture dripping from the mouth or bit. “Sonk-pocks” were bags carried on the back of an ass in which a tinker family stowed all their bits and pieces, including, sometimes, children. “Shoe-the-auld-mare” was a dangerous game in which acrobatics were performed on a beam slung between two ropes.

And finally, the best, the very best of all. A horse with swollen pasterns was said to be “haggis-fitted” – it had its feet swelled up like a haggis.