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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid



agley  adv., adj.  awry, off the straight, oblique(ly), wrong, etc.


Agley is probably best known from the now world-famous Robert Burns quotation,


"The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men gang aft agley",


from his poem To a Mouse (1786).


In modern use it is often this proverbial expression that is being recalled, as for example in the following quotation from a Herald article from 1998 that discussed the fate of churches that were no longer in use as places of worship:


"Plans often go agley: the A-listed Old Roskeen Church, near Invergordon, did not reach its new incarnation as an aromatherapy centre".


Nevertheless, the word does not always relate to the unintended stravaigin of schemes and plans. Alistair Gray's Unlikely Stories (1984) provides an example:


"Though the bear in the picture was a disguised man he appeared so naturally calm, so benignly strong, that beside him Pete ... looked comparatively shifty and agley".


Objects too can suffer the fate of going agley, as this quotation from Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song (1932) illustrates:


"the place began to moulder away, soon the roof went all agley and half fell in, it was fit for neither man nor beast".


Agley is derived from the verb glee or gley 'to squint, to look with one eye', recorded in Scots from the seventeenth century and borrowed from medieval English. Some uses of the word still hark back to this idea of sidelong glancing or squinting. In Robert Louis Stevenson's poem, A Lowden Sabbath Morn (1887), lads


'tak a keek a-glee At sonsie lasses'.


A more modern example occurs in Sheena Blackhall's short story The Steeler (1996), when a young loun is dumfoonert by the discovery of a marble with the power of speech:


"'Ye spakk!' skirled he, clean bumbazed. Syne, seein Molly McKenzie frae Primary Six luikin agley at him, he fuspered insteid. 'Ye spakk,' quo he, in a sma voice".


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

First published 1st June 2005