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CARLIN, CARLINE noun a disparaging term for an old woman; a witch

Carlin or carline is another very old Scots contemptuous term for a woman. In the Dictionary of the Scots Language ( the first example comes from the Legends of the Saints (1380): “Fra he herde the karling mak Sa fare hicht, he can confort tak”. 


From the late fourteenth century it continued its journey into the ‘modern’ language with this example from the DSL taken from J Arbuthnot’s John Bull published in 1712: “Then there’s no living with that old carline his mother; she rails at Jack, and Jack’s an honester man than any of her kin.” One can only feel sorry for the poor, scolded Jack but perhaps he hadn’t tidied his room. J M Barrie in his Farewell Miss Julie Logan first published in the Times of 24th December 1931 seems only to mean that a woman is elderly: “It was eerie to reflect that to those two carlines, as we call ancient women, my study must still be more his than mine.”


However, carlin is familiar to us today because of a poet from Ayrshire called Robert Burns. In his epic poem Tam o Shanter, which he penned in 1791, Burns beautifully captures a picture of a witch with the following description of witches partying: “They reel’d, they set, they cross’d, they cleekit, Till ilka carlin swat and reekit.”


Finally, the following is from a poem by entitled My Granny from S4 pupil Allanna Barron published in the Herald of 25th April 1995: “Oor Granny’s a carline my sister says.”


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