CLARTY, adj. filthy, muddy
Clarty is one of the many words that we generally associate with speech more than writing, and for this reason there are many gaps in our knowledge of its history and transmission. A related verb, biclarten, meaning 'defile, soil' occurs once in a thirteenth century Middle English text, but the first examples of clarty in Scots do not appear until the late-sixteenth century. In one case, the word was incorporated into the name of a river, mentioned in a Glasgow charter of 1587:
'The west pairt of the toun of Northberwick ... lyand vpone the west syd of the burne callit the Clairtie Burne'.
Later overcrowding in the cities caused eighteenth-century poet Robert Fergusson to remark of Auld Reekie:
'Now wha in Albion could expect O' Cleanliness sic great Neglect? Nae Hottentot that daily lairs 'Mang Tripe, or ither clarty Wares, Hath ever yet conceiv'd, or seen Beyond the Line, sic Scenes unclean'.
There are some variations in the spelling of the word, and the vowel changes in J. M. Caie's poem, Kindly North (1934):
'On ferm an' craft the fowk gaed daft, The peats grew clorty, weet an' saft'.
In the script of Cecilia Grainger's play, Bruised Blue, available via the Scottish Corpus of Texts and Speech at Glasgow, we find another possible spelling and a more figurative sense:
'This whiles back Tess yiv been diggin an gouging: clawin up a wheeng o clert fi the past'.
Another modern Scots word of similar sound and sense is clatty, derived from the Old Scots word 'clat', a clod, a lump of something soft. Over time, its meanings diversified to include things which are muddy, dirty, or as the Concise Scots Dictionary rather euphemistically puts it, 'disagreeable'. Thanks to these aspects of semantic evolution, and no doubt on account of the near-rhyme, Glasgow's former West End nightclub Cleopatra's was known to the local populace as Clatty Pat's.
This week's Scots word was written by Dr Maggie Scott. This week's word is spoken by Dave Thompson. MSP for the Highlands and Islands from 2007-2011, and Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch from 2011-2016. Dave grew up in Lossiemouth.
First published 26th March 2007.