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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

HOULET n owl

This bird was the subject of a humorous allegorical poem, The Buke of the Howlat, written by Sir Richard Holland in the middle of the fifteenth century. It is an interesting poem, not only for the story it tells but also because of its form. It is one of the first Scots poems in the ornate, alliterative, thirteen-line stanzas which remained popular until the late sixteenth century. The houlet, unhappy with his appearance is given a feather by all the other birds so that he is “Flour of all fowlis throw fedderis so fair”, but he gets “So pompos, impertinat and reprovable” that the birds strip him again. Houlets are regarded with distaste. We find the word used insultingly in flytings; Dunbar (a1508) uses it in a simile drawn from nature: “Than fleis thow, lyk ane howlat chest with crawis”, and Montgomery (a1605) attacks Polwart: “Hurkland howlat, have at the!” An entry in the Register of the Privy Council (1663) records some non-poetic but still eloquent flyting: “Calling her ill-faced houlett, lyk that catt, thy sister”. They are creatures of the dark; James Dalrymple in his Historie of Scotland (1596) writes: “Thir traytouris, like howlets, culd nocht suffir to sie the bricht lycht of sa meruellous vertue”. By contrast, we have this character reference from the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch (1891): “There’s a new ane come to the Free Kirk — a douce lad wi’ a daylicht face, they say, an’ nane o’ the hoolit aboot him”. Betsy Whyte uses the houlet as a symbol of stupidity in Red Rowans and Wild Honey (1991): “I scanned his face, then relaxed a bit. His howlet eyes and sticking-out ears, the general look of his face, had told me that his intelligence was rather limited”. ” Odd how one person’s wise old owl is another person’s daft houlet.
Scots Word of the Week is written by Chris Robinson of Scottish Language Dictionaries 25 Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh EH8 9LN