In my family this meant specifically a wax crayon but the Dictionary of the Scots Language defines it as “a lead pencil, a crayon or coloured pencil” and also in the compound “keelievine pen”.
The earliest examples are indeed for ‘keelievine pen’ as in the following from The Monthly Magazine of December 1798: “Mr Montgomery, when lord advocat and member for Peeblesshire made a speech…in the house of commons, where he mentioned his having made a not of some thing or other with a keeliveyne pen.” Keelyvine pen is also used by Walter Scott in his Old Mortality (1816): “I think we can carry the greatest part of it in our heads without a keelyvine pen and a pair of tablets.”
In Dundee it was a lead pencil and the Dundee Advertiser of 11th July 1910 even gives us an alternative spelling: “In Dundee a lead-pencil is a ‘calavine’ or ‘keelavine’”.
And, going back in time again, the term was clearly widespread as this example from the Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald of 19th April 1879 shows: “…and expressed his resolve tae mak a thorough investigation intae his tradesmen’s accounts but I left him sittin’ doon again wi’ his keelivine in haun, vera likely tae work oot some wonnerfu’ calculation anent [concerning] the clearin’ o’ the national debt aff paupers’ allooances…”
Sadly, the word seems to have gone out of fashion as the latest example we have in the DSL is 1955 and from Aberdeen writer W P Milne in Eppie Elrick: “Bit ye’re geyan handy wi the keelyvine . . . div ye niver sen yer aal folk a bit o’ a scart.”
The origin is uncertain but may be derived from ‘killow’ a Cumberland word for black lead.
Scots Word of the Week is written by Pauline Cairns Speitel of Scottish Language Dictionaries 9 Coates Crescent, Edinburgh EH3 7AL (0131) 220 1294, www.scotsdictionaries.org.uk, firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com.