The Herald - - OPINION -


WORDS can change their mean­ing. They can be­come spe­cialised, eg the English word “fowl” used to mean any kind of bird, not just those that live in barn­yards, while other forms can de­velop neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions, as “silly”, which used to mean “blessed, holy”. Braw “fine, splen­did”, is one such word.

Braw de­rives from brave, it­self a loan­word into English and Scots from French, and ul­ti­mately from Latin bar­barus “bar­barous”. In English, its pri­mary mean­ing is “coura­geous” – al­ready a long way from “bar­barous”! – but in the 16th and 17th cen­turies it seems also to have meant “fine” or “splen­did”.

In English this sec­ondary mean­ing has largely dis­ap­peared. In Scots, how­ever, as in­di­cated in the Dic­tionary of the Scots Lan­guage (, it is now the prin­ci­pal mean­ing of the word, with many ci­ta­tions rang­ing from the 16th cen­tury to the present. The most re­cent is from the Ed­in­burgh Evening News in 2004, re­fer­ring to a “braw tro­phy” for a sport­ing oc­ca­sion.

Robert Burns seems to have liked the word, us­ing it in Tam Lin and The Cot­tar’s Satur­day Night, and twice in the song Galla Wa­ter. Read­ers will know of the an­nual Galashiels fes­ti­val known as the Braw Lads’ Gath­er­ing, mak­ing events in the town’s his­tory, in­clud­ing the de­feat of an English raid­ing party in 1337. How­ever, the fes­ti­val dates from 1930, and Burns’s song seems to have been the source of its ti­tle: a fas­ci­nat­ing “in­ven­tion” of cul­tural tra­di­tion.

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