According to the Dictionaries of the Scots Language (DSL), the corbie (or raven) is “often regarded as a bird of ill omen”.
However, a corbie messenger is “a messenger who fails to return, or returns too late”. John Row used the phrase in his History of the Kirk of Scotland (c.1650):
“He proved Corbie messenger … to his master the Pope, for he himselfe… was converted to the trueth; and … became one of the Reformers.”
It also appears in Walter Scott’s St Ronan’s Well (1824):
“The male emissary proved, in Scottish phrase, a ‘corbie messenger’; for either he did not find the doctor, or he found him better engaged than to attend the sick-bed of a pauper”.
And in The Abbott (1820):
“I will be no corbie-messenger … your message to your son shall be done as truly by me as if it concerned another man’s neck.”
A later reference in the Aberdeen Press and Journal (1925) gives the Old Testament derivation of:
“a corbie messenger’, the reference being the raven which flew from Noah’s ark and did not come back”.
Although corbies (and the corvid family) are clever by reputation, another meaning of this phrase relates to April Fool’s Day.
“In Scotland the persons sent on [April-fool] errands were called, corbie messengers.”
(J Brand, Popular Antiquities, 1777).
Later, the Sheffield Daily Telegraph (March 1872) also recorded that
“In Scotland April Fools are called corbies messengers, and in the North of England persons thus imposed upon have the name of April gowk, which properly means a cuckoo.”
This Scots Word of the Week was written by Pauline Cairns Speitel. Visit DSL Online at https://dsl.ac.uk.