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A Burker is defined by the Dictionaries of the Scots Language (DSL) simply as “a murderer”. It “comes from Burke, the notorious criminal” William Burke (1792-1829), a body-snatcher supplying murdered corpses for dissection to the anatomist Robert Knox. The word is now applied to any killer.


An example appeared as a headline in the Inverness Courier of December 1831:


“Execution of the Burkers”.


The article goes on to describe


“... the conviction of Bishop, Williams and May, for the murder of the Italian boy”.



George Cunningham used it later in Verse, Maistly in the Doric (1912):


“Boot robbers and Burkers, and lifting the deid”.


One group living in particular terror of the Burkers, or resurrection men, was Travellers. John Kerr’s Reminiscences of a Wanderer (1890) gives us the following:


“Twa famed swine-dealing burkers these, The Babbler and the Boar”.



The term was still used and understood by Travellers in relatively modern times. Stanley Robertson, writing in Fish Hooses in 1992, notes


“Noo it wis at a time whin there were many Burkers gan aboot, and it wis no safe for Travellers tae be on their toads [travelling alone]”.


Stanley Robertson was a Traveller who took a settled job working in the fish gutting and packing industry, hence the book’s title.


Despite being the victims of Burkers, in Timothy Neat’s The Summer Walkers (1996), Alec John Williamson recalled all the supposed practices that Travellers got up to:


“First it was sacrifices, then it was witches, then it was the Burkers – but I’m not going into all that!”.


Hopefully, we now live in more enlightened times.


This Scots Word of the Week was written by Pauline Cairns Speitel. Visit DSL Online at