A leerie is a lamplighter. The effect of reliable street lighting on our ancestors must have been life changing. But it was not until the coming of gas lighting (in 1819 in Edinburgh) that streetlights became commonplace.
Leerie is first cited in the Dictionaries of the Scots Language (DSL) as early as 1812 in an example from The Scotchman:
“That the Scotsman may lang be the leery o his countramen's min’s”.
(The use here seems to mean light or lamp. In 1812, a leerie’s light was probably candle-lit.) Poets still use it this way, for example (from Liz Niven’s Comet, 2009):
“in fact whit is herd tae imagine/ isnae daurkness bit dawn/ hoo lang will the leerie licht last…”
The word is probably best known from a children’s rhyme, “Leerie, leerie, licht the lamps”, recorded by Robert Chambers in Popular Rhymes (1826):
“Leerie, leerie, light the lamps, Lang legs and short shanks. Tak’ a stick and break his back, And send him through the Nor'gate!”.
In 1953 the People’s Friend recorded:
“It’s only about 20 years since most “leeries” disappeared”.
The term lives on though (Falkirk Herald, August 2018):
“This was the Falkirk Joint Stock Gas Company which opened works on the canal at Bainsford Bridge in 1846. The competition forced prices down and by 1859 there were 56 lamps in Falkirk town centre and many more premises were being supplied. From then on the ‘leerie’ or lamplighter became a familiar sight in the town and remained so until well into the 20th century”.
This Scots Word of the Week was written by Pauline Cairns Speitel. Visit DSL Online at https://dsl.ac.uk.