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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid


Thrawn adj. twisted, crooked, distorted; (of people) obstinate, intractable, etc.

Thrawn is frequently used with reference to stubbornness and absolute conviction. A recent article in Scotland on Sunday described the Scottish Borders as having a "thrawn sense of self". Another, in the Scotsman, proclaimed Calum's Road on Raasay a symbol of "thrawn determination". Given the example of Calum MacLeod, who built his two-mile road single-handed, thrawnness clearly may be an admirable characteristic. But as with so many things, perception is the key.

When Irvine's famous son John Galt described the "set of thrawn-natured tenants" in his novel, The Entail (1822), no admiration was implied. The word is derived from the Scots verb thraw, and shares its Old English ancestry with modern English "throw". One of the early senses of "throw" was to twist, entwine or turn, and this meaning survived in Scots although falling out of use in English. In the late fourteenth century account of The Bruce, by John Barbour, we find an early Scots usage:


"And gif it fall that fortoune thraw The quheill (wheel) about"


and in Walter Kennedy's early sixteenth-century work, The Passioun of Christ, it implies cruel treatment:


"Apoun his heid the crowne of thorn thai threw"


Robert Louis Stevenson's Thrawn Janet (1881) also conjures disturbing, twisted images:


"there was Janet, comin' doun the clachan - her or her likeness, nane could tell - wi' her neck thrawn, and her heid on ae side, like a body that has been hangit, and a girn on her face like an unstreakit corp".


An echo of the title appears in a recent Scottish novel, Suhayl Saadi's Psychoraag (2004), which uses Scots and Urdu vocabulary, with occasional additions from other languages. When Zafar visits Glasgow's Botanic Gardens, the narrative follows his stream of consciousness through the Farsi, Persian and Arabic words for "paradise" and back into Scots:


"Intae the gairdens, folks. Firdaus. Paridaeza. Jannat. Thrawn. Glais hooses. Ghost hooses."  


This week's Scots word was written by Dr Maggie Scott.


First published 12th October 2006