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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid




MIDDEN n dunghill, refuse heap


This word comes from Old Norse. We can reconstruct the probable form ‘myki-dyngja’. Quotations in the Dictionary of the Scots Language show contrasting pictures of rural and urban middens. Allan Ramsay in The Gentle Shepherd (1725) paints an idyllic scene:


“A snug Thack-house, before the Door a Green; Hens on the Midding, Ducks in Dubs are seen”.


Frequent references to middens in burgh statutes and ordinances, however, usually involve clearing of middens from the streets. With layers of earth or turf, the midden could be used to enrich the land. Samuel Hibbert’s Description of the Shetland Islands (1822) provides a local variation:


“The a midden, consisting of dung, of heather that has been cut for litter, of sea-weed, and of earth, or dry decomposed moss, named Duff-mould”.


Reflecting modern methods of garbage collection (on midden-day), Cliff Hanley tells us in Dancing in the Streets (1958):


“What we called middens, upper-class people described as dustbins”.


These, in affluent areas, were scavenged in the hope of finding items of value. Such bins were known as ‘lucky middens’.  The Herald (3 Dec 1998) provides an instance of a particularly lucky midden:


“When the various Allies were rolling across Germany in 1945, falling over themselves to pick up whatever disregarded trifles might be lying around before some other Allies should get there first, one of the most serendipitous finds in the Third Reich’s lucky middens was the materiel and personnel of the Nazis’ rocket weapons project”.


The midden of Annacker’s, a Glasgow pork butcher from 1853 to 1942, was regularly raked through and this has given rise to the expression ‘Anniker’s midden’ used to describe a dreadful mess. An impractical dreamer is said


“Tae look at the mune and fa in the midden”.


We can even use it affectionately of a dirty wee midden, or clarty child.


This article was written by Chris Robinson of Scots Language Dictionaries.

This week's word is read by Avril Nicoll of the Scots Language Centre.

First published 31st January 2010.