Back in spring 2020, my wife and I were delighted to discover, pretty well on our doorstep, a small wood with an astonishing display of bluebells. The masses of flowers, with their delicate scent, were just the tonic we needed as lockdown began to bite.
The word “bluebell” is used for a variety of flowers across the British Isles. Scientists commonly distinguish Scottish and English bluebells – the former is what in England is known as the harebell – while there are also well-known non-natives, such as the Spanish bluebell. Languages reflect what linguists call folk taxonomy, traditional naming-systems that change over time. Scots has many recorded words for these flowers, including blaver, lady’s thimbles and craw-taes. Gowk’s taes and gowk’s hose probably reflect the correlation between the appearance of the flowers and that of cuckoos (gowks).
One such word is blawort. The first citations recorded in the Dictionaries of the Scots Language (www.dsl.ac.uk) are from the nineteenth century. However, there are earlier examples -- Allan Ramsay refers to the “Blawart Blue” in his Chameleon (1722) – and the word’s etymology (Old Norse bla “blue”, Old English wort “plant”) suggests that it was commonly used in speech long before that date. Blawort can refer not only to Scottish bluebells but also cornflowers and the speedwell. However, the great early nineteenth-century lexicographer John Jamieson was clear that it referred to the “Round-leaved Bellflower”. Clearly it was this meaning referred to in Whistle-Binkie, a repository of Scottish rural verse published by Glasgow bookseller David Robertson between 1832 and 1846:
“The song of nature’s happiness is heard o’er meadows green, And opening to the fresh’ning breeze The blawart’s bell is seen”.
This Scots Word of the Week was written by Jeremy Smith, Professor of English Philology in the University of Glasgow.