The fine town of Linlithgow is well-known for its splendid palace, one of the principal residences of Scottish monarchs before the Union of the Crowns in 1603. It always catches my eye when I’m on the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh. But in past years Linlithgow was also particularly well-known for its tanneries and associated industries.
One such industry was the long-closed Gowan Stank Glue Works, which was situated between the railway line and the Clyde-Forth Canal. Glue-making based on the boiling of animal connective tissue (bones, hides etc) was a pretty smelly business, and the word ‘stank’ might therefore at first sight seem appropriate. Yet the word does not, in Scots, mean quite what it seems.
The word actually derives from the Old French word estanc, present-day French étang ‘pond, lake’. The word was once common in English dialects as well as in Scots, but ‘stank’ in English seems from the sixteenth century onwards to be largely restricted to a technical term meaning ‘dam’ or ‘weir’. The earliest records for the word in the Dictionary of the Scots Language date from the thirteenth century, and a reference to a ‘vatter [i.e. ‘water’] stank’ actually appears in the records of the Linlithgow Sheriff Court from 1563. Later in its history the word’s meaning was extended to refer to a gutter or drain, and DSL has a rather distressing Glasgow reference from 1950: ‘A whole pound note down the stank’.
Stank is a common element in place-names, as we might expect, and it also appears in compounds, e.g. stank-hen ‘moorhen’, sometimes abbreviated to stankie.
So, next time you are walking through lovely Stank Glen by Loch Lubnaig in the Trossachs, please don’t worry about any nasty smells. But you might just get to see a stankie.