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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid


kist n. a trunk, chest, large box; a coffin; etc

Kist, like many everyday Scots words, has a long history in literature stretching back to the late fourteenth century. An early example is found in the Legends of the Saints (c1380):

"In a kyste mad of clay Men ma costlyke thyngis lay".

Kist is derived from Old Norse kista, while chest derives from Old English cest. This "k" versus "ch" distinction, seen also in pairs such as "kirk" and "church", is often indicative of parallel derivations from Old Norse and Old English.

The Medieval Scottish records which provide the illustrative quotations in the Dictionary of the Scots Language mention many kists. Some of these are clearly large trunks, including "ane greit kist of aik of carvit wark" and "ane kyst of esche tymmer (ash wood)". But a kist could also be a case used for storing merchandise or dry goods, as in the following extract from the Account Book of Sir John Foulis (1680):

"I have this day put in the corne kist 2 bolls oats and a boll peas".

Charter kists contained charters, clathe kists contained claes, and mort-kists contained the dead. Kisting, as a term for the laying of a dead body in its coffin, is still current and appears in modern Scottish literature including Anna Blair's short story, The Goose Girl of Eriska (1989):

"Will had stood at the graveside of his parents, both dead of a smit that had raked their glen, that they were buried without dignity, sharing a pauper's grave and that young Will had made a fierce vow that day to be kisted and laid decently to rest when his own time came".

On a more uplifting note, kists can also hold treasures. An excellent modern example is the Tobar an Dualchais / Kist o Riches project, based at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on Skye. In its initial phase, 12,000 hours of Gaelic and Scots recordings will be digitised and made available to the public.

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


First published 27th November 2006