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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

SCAFFIE n. a street sweeper, a refuse collector

The origin of ‘scaffie’ is given in The Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL) as ‘…a diminutive of English scavenger’ and is defined as ‘a street sweeper’. 


Scaffies first appear in the second half of the nineteenth century, presumably as a result of town councils taking control of street cleaning and the general cleanliness of the urban landscape. The first mention of them in the DSL is from Angus in William Blair’s Chronicles of Aberbrothock (1853): “Hecklers [flax dressers], an’ wabsters [weavers], an’ baxters [bakers], an’ scaffies, an’ wives, an’ bairns, dowgs an’ cats.” In the twentieth century the first example is a compound ‘scaffy bucket’ from the Kelso Chronicle number 8 from 1918: “She was too late for the scaffy bucket”; other compounds include ‘scaffy cairt’ from the Buchan Observer of 7th February 1967: “Not up in the morning early enough to catch scaffy cairt.”


In Dundee David A MacMurchie recalls in his memoir I Remember another Princes Street! (1986): “Once upon a time, all employees of the cleansing department except office staff were termed ‘scaffies’.” In the twenty first century we have a quote from the Daily Mail of 7th April 2003: “On the pedestrian overpass, a startled scaffie has surrendered his broom.” And that scaffies are still around today is illustrated by the following from The Herald of 25th June 2014: “My latest purchase from an online tax evader is a pair of 32-inch long and strong litter pickers. For these I paid the princely sum, including postage, of £10.73. Thus, for just over a fiver, I have acquired the wherewithal to become a bona fide scaffie.”


Scaffie has also extended its meaning to become an adjective meaning something shabby or disreputable: “Fit’s the deal with that [the chancellor’s briefcase] onywye? It ayewis minds me on Paddington Bear. It’s a gye scaffie looking thing, though, is it?” from the Aberdeen Press and Journal of 24th March 2014. 



Scots Word of the Week is written by Pauline Cairns Speitel of Scottish Language Dictionaries