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HOWK v To dig


We find this word in its earlier form ‘holk’ in Northern Middle English from the late fourteenth century.

The first occurrences in Scots are from Gavin Douglas’s translation of the Aeneid (1513), where ordinary digging activities appear and he also uses it to refer to undermining a crumbling turret to fall upon the attacking Greeks:

“We holk and mynd the corneris”.

Similar picking away at stone prompts the Edinburgh Burgh Records (1583) to record:

“The … occupearis of the goldsmythis chopis … hes howkit and brokin the wallis of the kirk”.

Howk, in the sense of dig up, is often used of the potato harvest or tattie-howkin. An early recorded sense of digging up a vegetable is from the Journals of Sir John Lauder, Lord Fountainhall (1665):

“He may go doune to the yard and houck out carrots”.

John Galt uses it most unpleasantly in Sir Andrew Wylie (1822):

“To howk out a rotten tooth”.

Many of the quotations in the dictionary refer to the mining industry such as this from the Children in Mines Report (1842):

“Father houks the coal below”.

Another comes from the Hamilton Advertiser (1922):

“Here lies an auld collier, Saft seams he could howk”.

Quarrying was also howking as this quotation from James Maclaren’s History of Dundee (1874) shows:

“The quarry, which was derisively named the ‘howkeries’, had to be filled up”.

Slate quarrying gets a mention in the Scots Magazine (1951):

“In one of the quarries on the island men still howked slates, and fishermen still go in search of lobsters”.

Easier work is encouraged by D. David Rorie in The Auld Doctor (1920):

“Ye can howk i’ the kebbuck (cheese) an’ howk again As lang as there’s kebbuck to pree”,

and David Thomson provides a charming figurative example in Musings Among the Heather (1881):

“When mem’ry houks auld stories up, Our lives begin anew”.

Scots Word of the Week is written by Chris Robinson of Scottish Language Dictionaries.
First published 22nd September 2014.