GOWAN n. a daisy
Nowadays gowan refers to the common daisy of lawns and daisy-chains, but the Dictionary of the Scots Language (www.dsl.ac.uk) tells us that gowan was formerly a general name for various wild flowers: either yellow, or white with yellow centres, as shown by this quotation from John Brand’s A Brief Description of Orkney… (1701) “We saw the pleasantest mixture of Gowans so commonly called or Daisies white and yellow on every side of the way growing very thick”. Gowan was usually prefixed by either ‘yellow’ – for example for buttercups, celandines, dandelions, and marsh marigolds – or ‘white’, such as the ox-eye daisy.
There are many compounds of gowan as names for various flowers, e.g. horse-gowan, which generally referred to the ox-eye daisy, but was used for a range of other flowers as well; ewe-gowan (the common daisy); and lucken-gowan (globeflower), whose petals form a closed, compact head. This quote from Allan Ramsay’s poem The Young Laird and Edinburgh Katy (1744) makes it clear that lucken-gowans were different from ‘dazies’: “We’ll pou the Dazies on the Green, The lucken Gowans frae the Bog”.
In later examples, gowans unqualified by a colour seem to refer only to daisies with white petals. So we find this: “The gowans whiten Struie brae, The Chapel haughs are green”, from Hugh Haliburton’s Ochil Idylls (1891), and this from John Buchan’s Poems, Scots and English (1917): “And lambs as thick on ilka green As simmer gowans”. It is clear in both these examples that the flowers are white. A later quote (Scots Magazine, 1944) refers to “bold yellow gowans” which perhaps shows that yellow daisies have to be described as such.
Phrases include ‘not to care a gowan’ (not to care in the least), and to ‘have the gowan under one’s feet’ , which means to be (safe) in the open.
Scots Word of the Week is written by Ann Ferguson of Scottish Language Dictionaries www.scotsdictionaries.org.uk, 9 Coates Crescent, Edinburgh EH3 7AL, firstname.lastname@example.org. For £20 you can sponsor a Scots word.