Prose & SongCorrespondence & Poetry

Burns and Language: Skirl

With Burns Night fast approaching I thought it high time to have a good Scots word as the Burns Word of the Week. And you have no doubt heard the skirl of the bagpipes around this time of year, so I thought it would be interesting to look at that word skirl.

We think of skirl as a Scots word, probably because of its onomatopoeic quality, which is common among a variety of Scots words, and also its association with the bagpipe. The OED even contains an entire entry for skirl meaning “A shrill sound, esp. that characteristic of the bagpipe”. But looking at this entry for the word in the OED, we find something interesting.

The earliest meaning of skirl was “a shrill cry” (OED) recorded in 1513, and this and every other entry for this particular meaning was written by someone who was Scottish (Douglas, Ramsay, Wilson, Scott etc.). So, far so ordinary for a Scots word!

Interestingly, Burns only ever used the word three times, in ‘The Jolly Beggars’, ‘Halloween’ and ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ and at least two of these entries are to mean ‘a shriek of excitement’. So the use of skirl by Burns is similar to the early uses of the word, with the added development that it is a specific type of shriek – one of excitement (as opposed to pain or fear).

However, the use of the word by Burns in ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ is in reference to the bagpipes (specifically, the devil playing the bagpipes), which, as touched on above, would seem a commonplace usage. The OED, however, only lists two entries for this usage of the word, both from the 19th century. What’s more, both entries are by Irishmen (W. H. Russell My Diary in India (1860) and J. Barlow, Irish Idylls from 1892).

So, what are the Irish links to the word skirl and its association to the bagpipes? Has the OED just missed out Burns’s use of the word a century before its recorded entries? Or is it trying to suggest a deeper Irish influence? Was Burns using what might have been seen as an Irish word in ‘Tam o’ Shanter’? Answers on a postcard (by that I mean in the comments below!).

I don’t know the answer to this one, and I’m genuinely interested. But I think I may have uncovered just enough to make you think a bit when the haggis gets skirled in at your Burns Supper.

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2 Responses

  1. David Stenton says:

    The danger into which Tam’s folly places him is a threat connected to the otherworld, so I don’t see any point in Burns’ opting for an Irish word here. If there is an Irish connection, it may simply be one of common heritage, since the word may derive from a Scandinavian source. That source may also have given rise to the Gaelic “sgal”, which interestingly has the same range of meaning (according to Dwelly), from a yell/shriek to the sound of the bagpipes. (I don’t know if a similar word exists in Irish.)

  2. Jonathan Henderson says:

    Thanks for your comment David, that is interesting!

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