Thursday, 25 April 2013

Scots and Gaelic: words and their meanings: steamships, 'steaming', drunkenness and 'smuid' in Gaelic


Donald E. Meek


Speakers of Scottish Gaelic are well used to the compound noun bàta-smùide (‘boat of steam, steamship’) and its noun-phrase variants, such as bàta na smùid(e), which are employed fairly regularly in day-to-day Gaelic.  The term, especially in its second form, is particularly common in song and verse.  The Skye poetess, Màiri Mhòr nan Oran (Mary MacPherson) (c. 1821-98), is one among many Gaelic songsters who travelled on steamships, and who saw the physical outline of their native island through the smoke generously supplied by the furnaces of David MacBrayne’s coal-burning vessels in the second half of the nineteenth century.  Her verse contains several references to bàta na smùid(e), as in the following quatrain (Meek 1998: 205):

’S iomadh rosg a nì mùthadh
Tighinn air bàta na smùide,
’S iad a’ sealltainn len dùrachd
Air bruthaichean Beinn Lì.

(‘Many an eye will change [to moistness],
when coming on the ship of steam,
and observing with hearty goodwill
the slopes of Ben Lee.’)

When teaching Gaelic at first level in a Scottish university back in the 1970s, the writer had the pleasure of taking a class on Màiri Mhòr’s verse, and conducting students through her spirited song in praise of Ben Lee, the hill at the centre of the dispute which precipitated the Battle of the Braes (1882).  Each student was asked to translate one verse, and when the verse cited above was reached, the translator greatly – and unforgettably – entertained both the teacher and his classmates by rendering Màiri’s bàta na smùide as ‘the ship of drunkenness’.  Clearly, the student, true to form, was no stranger to an alternative meaning of smùid in Scottish Gaelic, namely ‘intoxication’, commonly used in the phrase a’ gabhail smùid (‘becoming [happily] intoxicated [on a specific occasion]’).


West Highland steamships

The daring translator of Màiri’s verse was conceivably aware of more than semantics when he offered this revealing insight into the meaning of smùid.  Unknown to him, however, he left his teacher with an interesting and enduring puzzle, to be tackled in this article, about the etymological relationship between the two types of smùid.  The student was obviously well familiar with maritime revelry on board late twentieth-century mail-boats which served the Hebrides.  He may have been less familiar with the earlier role of the Hebridean steamship as a floating bar, and indeed as licensed premises in a sea-girt part of Scotland which, while well surrounded by liquid of one kind, could be so deprived of ready access to another that the inhabitants had to resort to domestic stills or to the regular arrivals of bàta na smùide in the days before licences were granted to hotel-owners.  Under such constricting circumstances, voyages to and from the islands were heaven-sent opportunities to slake thirst with liquor that was to be tasted and savoured and enjoyed at every level – including the horizontal – before the ship reached port.  In her song ,‘Oran do Dhail-na-Cluaidh’, on the Hutcheson/MacBrayne steamship Clydesdale (built in 1862), Màiri Mhòr nan Oran seems to have commemorated her transfer in 1889 from the Glasgow-Skye-Stornoway run to Oban.  She commented not only on the smoke from the funnel, but also on the other kind of smùid, which offered a solution to a variety of inhibitions.  With an audible chuckle, she employed the idiom a’ gabhail smùid (ibid.: 33):
Nuair a ghabhadh cuid an smùid
Dhen stuth a bh’ agad anns a’ chùil,
Cha tigeadh fàilinn air do ghlùin,
Ged bheirte sùrd air danns’ ort.

(‘When some would contract a tipsy haze
from the stuff you had in the cubby,
your knee would not fail in any way
though you would be put in a mood for dancing.’)

Dancing and singing, by passengers well lubricated by choice blends, helped to cut time on long voyages.  Lubricants were, in fact, such effective palliatives that passengers often arrived at their destinations with remarkable speed, having lost days on the way, and they were sometimes unconscious of – and, of course, on – their arrival.  As John MacLean, a Tiree bard from Balephuil and latterly (1878) resident in Manitoba, expressed it in his humorous song on his neighbour, Calum MacArthur, who evidently sailed to Glasgow on Martin Orme’s Dunara Castle, the first steamship to provide a regular service to Tiree from 1875 (Cameron 1932: 231-33):

Nuair thàinig an oidhche, cha robh suim do na dh’fhàg sinn;
Chuir an dram às ar cuimhn’ iad is sinn cruinn anns a’ chàbin.
Cò nach òladh na fhuair e, ’s daoin’-uaisle ga phàigheadh?
Nuair a dh’iarradh a-suas sinn, bha is’ an Cluaidh aig a h-àite
Gar cur a-mach.

(‘When night came, we did not give a hoot for those we had left behind;
the dram erased them from our memory when we were gathered in the cabin.
Who would not drink what he had received, when gentlemen were paying it?
When we were summoned on deck, she was in the Clyde at her place,
disembarking us.’)

Later MacArthur allegedly sought refuge from the Glasgow hordes through the good offices of his friends, who took him to a heavenly ‘snug’ on board another ship:

Thug iad mi chàbin a’ Chlansman, ’s shuidh mo shamhladh ceart làimh rium:
’S math gum fòghnadh e dhaoine an dèidh an saoghal seo fhàgail,
Mar àite math.

(‘They took me to the cabin of the Clansman, and my very double sat beside me;
it would well suffice people after they had left this world
as a good place.’)

It was not necessary, of course, to go as far as Glasgow to savour such delights.  The steamship brought them to Tiree.  John T. Reid, who travelled to the island on the new McCallum steamship, St Clair, in 1876, observed at Scarinish Harbour (Cooper 2002: 161)

‘…the Temperance Hotel – the only hotel in the island, and but seldom patronized; so those who want spirits find in the steamboat a house “licensed to retail spirits, porter and all”, and drouthy customers have thus a special interest in the steamboat sailings.’

When Ada Goodrich Freer visited Tiree in 1894, the ‘drouthy customers’ were much in evidence as soon as the MacBrayne vessel, Fingal, arrived at the same harbour.  Noting that two ferry-boats which were already ‘apparently quite full of people were boarding our little vessel’, she wrote (ibid.: 217-18):

‘Later we learnt that there were other reasons besides the desire to meet friends, to get the mails, to fetch the cargo, why some of the islanders greet MacBrayne with such eagerness….’

Going ashore from the Fingal, she shared a ferry-boat with ‘the men who had so mysteriously come on board and who now came out of the deck-cabin wiping their mouths and smelling of whisky.’

The patterns of the late nineteenth century were not exactly novel.  From their earliest appearance in West Highland waters, steamships were associated with thick smoke and happy inebriation. In addition to both kinds of smùid, they offered inspiring subjects for poetic ardour. Ailean Dall MacDougall, bard to MacDonell of Glengarry, was so fired up by the spirit of the new-fangled ships, their captains and their crews, that he immortalised them in a eulogistic series of songs. He paid tribute to the saloons of the Ben Nevis on her arrival in Lochaber waters in 1824:

Seòmraichean geala gu h-ìosal
Far an òlar fìon na Spàinte

(‘White-coloured saloons are below,where one can drink the wine of Spain’)

and he also described her smoke:

’S àrd sna speuraibh chìthear smùid dhith,
’G èirigh suas bhon fhùirneis ghàbhaidh

(‘Smoke from her will be seen high in the skies,rising from the awesome furnace’).

Interestingly, Ailean Dall refrained from mentioning the smùid which might have affected passengers overcome by the potency of the Ben Nevis’s wines, although it is evident that he welcomed refreshing developments of this kind.

Serious English travellers, intent on finding the spirit of Ossian, rather than any other sort, took a less accommodating view of floating bars. They resented the unromantic mayhem which they sometimes discovered on their first encounter with this unsteady, and unsteadying, generation of steam-driven vessels.  Thus, when travelling on the west coast in 1825, J. E. Bowman (1986: 125) was scandalised by the goings-on on the self-same Ben Nevis, which he wished to board at Oban for the journey to Fort William:

‘It was nearly four o’ clock when the Ben Nevis steamer appeared within the Sound of Kerrera, and when she stood under the pier at Oban, her deck was such a scene of tumult and disorder that we were at a loss to assign a cause.  She was altogether so unsteady, that her wheels were lifted alternately out of the water. We, however, got on board, and with some difficulty made our way to the stern; where we learned she had a double complement of passengers (280 were on board) in consequence of the Comet being under repair at Glasgow.  The captain was also extremely drunk; the heat and crowd both on deck and below, were intense, and some of the passengers were so  much alarmed at their critical situation, that they got ashore and remained at Oban.  They gave such an account of their voyage from Lochgilphead, that we determined, though reluctantly, not to go, and with some difficulty got again ashore.’

Clearly the good ship’s facilities were somewhat over-subscribed, and Bowman was not amused, despite the technical circumstances.  Vessels in dock for repair, causing ‘double tasking’ of ships still operational, and imposing unwanted strain on a company with little spare capacity, is apparently no new thing, nor is maritime over-indulgence.   Close on two centuries after Bowman, these worthy and time-honoured traditions of short tonnage and ready supplies of liquor continue unabated with the modern car-ferries of Caledonian MacBrayne, to the delight of contemporary newspapers.  A very recent report in the Oban Times (9 December 2004) bears wry testimony to the sweet allure of the liquors available on the present-day Lord of the Isles:


Ferry pair refused to budge

THE WARM welcome of ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne is well known, so much so that on Tuesday two passengers did not want to leave when Lord of the Isles berthed in Oban at the end of the Coll run.

The man and woman, described as ‘the worse for drink’, would not budge.

After 20 minutes the lady left, with the help of the crew, but the gentleman was staying put and so the police had to be called.

As a result Lord of the Isles sailed 35 minutes late; her delay meant that the single linkspan in Oban was blocked and Clansman was unable to berth and she, too, sailed 25 minutes late.

Oban Police confirmed that a man and woman were apprehended and a report would go to the procurator fiscal; the pair enjoyed the hospitality of Oban Police Station until sober enough to leave.


Excursion steamers on the Clyde

Despite the generosity of David MacBrayne and his successors, it should not be thought that Gaels had a monopoly of, or a special propensity for, over-indulgence on steamships.  In this respect they shared much with Scots- and English-speaking Lowlanders, especially in Glasgow, where trips ‘doon the watter’ were opportunities to partake of strong liquor supplied in considerable abundance by the ship-owners.  From their beginning as ‘society boats’ patronised by the well-to-do in the first half of the nineteenth century, the ‘fast boats’ (bàtaichean luatha) of the Clyde had broadened their appeal by the 1870s, partly by offering the prospect of some gentle lubrication. As a result, a sail on the river was greatly favoured by the ‘working class’, and the excursion steamers became little more than floating public-houses.  Ian McCrorie (1986: 24; cf. Paterson 2001: 197-202) notes that:

‘With the cheap fares on offer for a sail “doon the watter” in the [eighteen] seventies, the all-the-way steamers were ideal vehicles of drunken excesses.  By now the Sunday steamers were purveyors of spirits also, and the worst excesses were to be found on the Sabbath where the veteran ill-kept craft which ended up in the trade were merely havens for chronic drunks.  This behaviour tended to put others off travelling all the way from Glasgow and in fact encouraged the defection of more and more of the public to the railways.’

Sensing that matters had gone too far, a group of businessmen formed a company which built and maintained a ‘teetotal’ steamship, the Ivanhoe, launched in 1879, and skippered by Captain James Williamson. ‘His discipline was strict,’ says McCrorie, ‘and he kept a clean and immaculate ship’. No rowdyism was tolerated on board, and the steamer often carried a band which played on the promenade deck.  The strongest drink on board was water, and those who wished a dram purchased what was called an ‘Ivanhoe flask’ before embarking.

The Ivanhoe’s good example notwithstanding, most Clyde steamers continued to provide bars.  A stealthy visit to this strategic part of the vessel was often euphemistically disguised by the phrase, ‘going to see the engines’, since the mechanical miracle of the steam engine, with the engineer on his platform responding to the bridge  telegraph, pulling the levers and opening and closing valves, was a spectacle well worth viewing – and no doubt well worth celebrating with a quick nip.  Both traditions are maintained to the present on the paddle-steamer Waverley.

The role of alcohol in attracting passengers was acknowledged on the east coast of Scotland as well as on the west, on the Firth of Forth as well as the Firth of Clyde.  The concept of the ‘booze cruise’ emerged as British cruise-liners cashed in on  American Prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s.  Its basic principles had reached Scotland by at least 1934-36, when the Redcliffe Shipping Company operated services on the Forth with such vessels as the ex-MacBrayne paddler Fusilier and the Highland Queen.  Their excursions, writes Brian Patton (1996: 111),

‘seemed to be planned to attract those who found the Scottish licensing laws somewhat restrictive; this applied particularly to the late Saturday cruise which left at 10 pm!  Apart from Kirkcaldy, the Redcliffe ships did not call anywhere and often did not go anywhere in particular, but perhaps patrons did not mind about that.  It is recorded that on one occasion Highland Queen was berthed by the master and a boy, the rest of the crew being quite incapable of action by the time she returned to base.’


Ireland, England and Wales

Despite its strong attestation in Scotland, it would be wrong to conclude that maritime over-indulgence is a purely Scottish phenomenon.  One of the earliest accounts of the influence of alcohol on steamship passengers derives from a letter by the Rev. Dr John Kirk, a Scottish Congregational minister, who travelled to Campbeltown on the Glasgow-Belfast steamer in the autumn of 1837 – a voyage which he did not anticipate with any joy (Kirk 1888: 109-10):

‘Passing down the Clyde, my gloomy apprehensions were increased by a strong head-wind.  But after leaving Greenock the night was dark.  I went down to the cabin, and found a strong smell of whisky, which caused me to take the deck as soon as I got my hat exchanged for a travelling cap.  This abominable effluvium caused me to dread its presence, so that I kept upon deck for a considerable time.  But the intense cold compelled me to venture down again.  I got stretched upon a sofa, and, in spite of the smell and din of drink, fell asleep….

‘You have seen an Irish steamer about the end of harvest?  In one part were a number of what appeared to be tradesmen drinking and singing at a most stentorian rate.  In a small place round the funnel were squeezed several others, who sang loudly.  I know not how they could breathe in such a place….Behind them lay stretched a brawny Highlander and his dog.  I went forward and took a look at the steerage.  It was crowded with people talking and singing in complete confusion.  They seemed to be chasing both peace and comfort from the place.’  

Excursion steamers elsewhere Britain were, and still are, just as liable as ‘service ships’ to experience their share of on-board inebriation.  The Bristol-based company, P. & A. Campbell, which owned a small fleet of white-funnelled steamers until the 1960s, was no stranger to excesses of this kind, particularly on its services between South Wales and Weston, and the North Devon ports.  Welsh day-trippers were particularly prone to such practices on board ship, especially on Sundays, when public houses in Wales were closed.   A strong police presence was frequently required at those ports where passengers disembarked. As one of Campbell’s former masters, Captain George Gunn, recalls (1997: 61):

‘Rowdy passages were not uncommon. The master of a ship was legally the licensee of the bars, and when problems looked likely we kept them closed.  The miners from the valleys, who frequently came in large numbers, took to this kind of thing in good spirit and resorted to singing.’ 

The tradition is maintained to the present by the motor vessel Balmoral, now consort to the Waverley.  When the Balmoral visited Ilfracombe (North Devon) in August 2004, her inebriated and boisterous Welsh passengers had to be restrained by police, whose numbers had been increased in anticipation of trouble for local shopkeepers  (Cruising Monthly 41: 290-91).  

In the English Channel, similar adventures were associated with the ships of the General Steam Navigation Company, to the extent that the French government made representations to the Foreign Office about the behaviour of passengers from the Royal Daffodil, who, having savoured the vessel’s liquors while in transit across the channel, were inclined to descend rudely upon the genteel drinking-spots of northern France.   When the sailings of the Royal Daffodil from London to Boulogne and Calais ceased in 1965, that in itself became a cause of restrained celebration by harassed diplomats in the British Embassy in Paris (Robins 2003: 52).  



It is of considerable interest to our investigation of bibulous descriptors that, in Glasgow parlance and also more widely in Scotland, a person who has over-indulged in strong drink, and who displays the symptoms, is often said to be ‘steamin’’ (with the qualifier ‘wi drink’ sometimes added for good measure).  This idiom offers a direct parallel to Gaelic phrases employing smùid, a word whose basic meaning appears to be ‘haze, smoke, steam’.  The similarity in terminology suggests, prima facie, that Gaelic may have borrowed the idiom from Scots, or vice versa, or that both Scots and Gaelic are drawing on vocabulary associated with key referents in particular contexts, and extending it in ‘associative’ terms – the key referents in this case being steamships, associated with easy access to strong drink and thus drunkenness.  It is, of course, also feasible that the two languages developed their similar idioms independently, or, more probably, interactively.  To consider the possibilities, we must turn first to available dictionaries or lexicographical archives which set out the usages of Sc.G. smùid and Scots steam/stim on historical principles.


Scottish Gaelic evidence for the uses of smùid

The Archive of the Historical Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic (HDSG-A), housed in the University of Glasgow, provides a useful, but incomplete, body of material in the form of paper slips.  It is very evident that the citations for the word smùid reflect  serious gaps in the coverage of relevant texts.  For example, there is no record in HDSG-A of Màiri Mhòr’s or Ailean Dall’s usages of the word (cited above).  As we shall see, these are important to the argument of this paper.  It is no less apparent that such citations as there are are often too short to provide a reliable context for the deduction of meaning.  What we have in HDSG-A is a very helpful index rather than the basis of an historical dictionary.  In the following analysis, the reliable and useful parts of the evidence of HDSG-A are given, supplemented when necessary by material (*) drawn from the writer’s knowledge of Gaelic literary sources.

1. Vapour, haze

1.1 from plants (in sunny weather)


B’ fhìor chùbhrai ’s go ’m b’ èibhinn
An smùid so dh’ èiridh far chùirnein gach bil   Ais-eiridh 1751

(Truly fragrant and delightful was
this vapour which would rise from the cup of every plant)


Chì thu ’n ròs a’ fàs fo’n driùchd
’S a’ mhil ag èirigh suas ’n a smùid        MacLeòid 1975 [c.
                                                                 1880]: 54

(You will see the rose growing beneath the dew
and the honey rising up as a vapour)        


1.2 from the sea (in rough weather), spray, spume


Dfhas an fharraige cho dumhale
Le chabhadh ’s le smuide [read smùideadh?]      Campbell
                                                                             1798: 38

(The sea grew so thick [with mist]
from its spindrift and spume)


A’ falbh le sùrd air bhàrr gach sùigh
’S i togail smùid de’n fhairge          
                                                                  MacDonald 1966

(Travelling spiritedly on the crest of every billow,
and she [sc. the boat] raising spray from the sea


1.3 in the atmosphere, mist, haze



…agus a mach air an cùl gu léir, ann an iomall na rìoghachd, an t-Eilean-Fada mar mhìle sgeir, ag éiridh air aghaidh a’ chuain, smùid ghàirdeachais ag éiridh o gach aon diubh, ’nuair a bha ’ghrian a’ siubhal seachad os an ceann, ’gam fàgail mìle do mhìltibh ’na déigh.

                                                     *MacLeòid 1834: 93


(…and out behind them all, on the fringe of the kingdom, the Long Island like a thousand skerries, rising on the surface of the ocean, a haze of joyful celebration rising from each one of them, when the sun was passing over their summits, leaving them a thousand miles behind her)


2. Smoke, haze from fire, smog, steam


2.1 from guns


Iad go sùrdoil losgadh fùdar,

Toit a’s smùid o lasraichin                                          E 1776: 80

(They [were] spiritedly blasting powder,

smoke and haze from flames)


Luchd nan gunnaichean dubhghorm

Chuireadh smùid air feadh sléibhe                              G.S.N.S. 1964: 191

(The bearers of dark-blue guns

who would spread smoke throughout an upland)


2.2 from fuel-burning


Tha do chodal tigh duinte

’S e gun smuid dheth gun cheo                                   Cameron 1785: 59

(The house of your repose is closed,

giving off no smoke or mist)


’S ann an sin a bha ’choimhearsnachd chàirdeil, ged nach ’eil an diugh ach an aon smùid o thigh a’ bhuachaille Ghallda, far an robh roimhe so dà theaghlach dheug a chòmhnaidh. 


                                                                                 *Clerk (MacLeòid) 1867: 319


(‘That was where there was a truly friendly community, although today there is only one plume of smoke rising from the house of the Lowland shepherd, where twelve families used to live before now.’)



bu truime buileach an tòrr aodaichean a dh’fhàs salach orm ann an smùid a’ bhaile mhòir                         

                                                                                          Gairm 78 (1970): 15

(but even heavier was the pile of clothes that, in my experience, became dirty in the smog of the city)


2.3 from steam engines and steamships, and thus coming to mean predominantly ‘steam’ in ‘steamship compounds’ with bàta, pacaid, soitheach etc. 

’S àrd sna speuraibh chìthear smùid dhith,’G èirigh suas bhon fhùirneis ghàbhaidh 
                                              *MacDougall 1829: 194

(Smoke from her [sc. the steamshipBen Nevis] will be seen high in the skies,rising from the awesome furnace)


A mach ghabh sinn ’an coinneamh soitheach na smùide, a Mhaigdeann-Mhorairneach, mar their iad rithe.  Bha i teannadh oirnn o Mhuile, a’ cur nan smùid di.                          

                                                    *MacLeòid 1829: 106


(Out we went to meet the ship of steam, the Maid of Morven, as they call her.  She was approaching us from Mull, going as hard as she could [lit. putting the hazes/steams off her].)


Luingis na smùide a’ falbh agus a’ teachd làn sluaigh, mar gu’m biodh an saoghal a’ dol do Ghlaschu, agus an saoghal a’ teicheadh as.

                                                                                          *Ibid: 108


(The fleet of steam going and coming full of people, as if the world were going to Glasgow, and the world escaping from it.)


Nach robh mi ann am Paisley air carbad na smùide; ach c’ ar son a bhithinn a’ gearan; ’s ann agam tha’n t-aobhar taingealachd gu-m bheil mi beò, ’s nach do shéideadh a suas mi ’am bhloighdean anns na speuraibh. 

                              *Clerk 1867 [MacLeòid]: 153


(‘Wasn’t I in Paisley on the carriage of steam [i.e the train] and why should I complain; I have reason to be thankful that I am alive, and that I was not blown up in smithereens in the skies.’)


…agus an sin éiridh an t-uisge suas ’n a aon steall, sè fichead troidh, cho dìreach ri saighead anns na speuraibh, agus ’n uair a sguireas an t-uisge dh’éiridh, tòisichidh an sin an deathach gheal, mar mhìle soitheach-smùid’ air feasgar ciùin, a’ leigeil as na toite.

                                                                                                            *Ibid: 171


(…and then the water [sc. from a hot Icelandic spring] will rise up in one spout, one hundred and twenty feet, as straight as an arrow in the skies, and when the water stops rising, the white spray will then begin, like a thousand steamships on a calm evening, letting off steam.)


Eachdraidh na Smùid-shoitheach                               *MacGilleBhàin 1872: 143

(The History of the Steamship)


Shaoileadh duine nach bitheadh e doirbh ’fhaotainn a mach co ’rinn a cheud smùid-shoitheach, a tha cho eadar-dhealaichte o gach soitheach eile, ach cha ’n ann mar sin a tha.  
                                                                 *ibid.: 144

(One would think that it would not be difficult to find out who made the first steamship, which is so different from every other ship, but that is not how it is.)


Ghabh mi Bàta na smùide

’Mach gu dùthaich nan Gallach                                   *N. MacLeòid 1877: 171

(I took the ship of steam
out to the land of the Lowlanders)


’S iomadh rosg a nì mùthadh
Tigh’nn air bàta-na-smùide,
’S iad a’ sealltainn le’n dùrachd
Air bruth’chean Beinn-Lì.                                       
                                                    *Nic-a-Phearsoin 1891: 112

(Many an eye will change [to moistness],
when coming on the ship of steam,
and observing with hearty goodwill
the slopes of Ben Lee.)


’Nuair chuir mi cùl ris an eilean chùbhraidh,
’S a ghabh mi iùbhrach na smùid gun seòl,
’Nuair shéid i ’n dùdach ’s a shìn an ùspairt,
’S a thog i ’cùrsa o Thìr a’ Cheò      

                                                                    *Ibid.: 30

(When I turned my back on the fragrant island,
and took the vessel of smoke / steam which has no sail,
when she sounded her hooter and the commotion started,
and she set her course from the Land of Mist)


Sheòl am bàta-smùid ‘The Forfarshire’ à Hull                  Whyte 1905: 64

(The steamship, ‘The Forfarshire’, sailed from Hull)


Bha so mu ’n robh soitheach smùide riamh ’s a’ cheàrna sin     

                                                           Grant 1911: 280

(This was before a steamship was ever in that part)


’Nuair dh’fhàg mi an cala
Ann am pacaid na smùididh    
                                                                      BL 1916: 167

(When I left the harbour
in the packet of steam)

Is bàta na smùide ’ga m’ ghiùlan gu dian 

                                                                Mackay 1938: 1

(And the steamship carrying me away vigorously)


2.4 from the torching of districts, in idiom cuir/thèid smùid ri


a chuireadh smùid ris an Appuin        
                                                     Duncan Ban 1768: 92

(who would apply smoke [i.e. set fire] to Appin)


Chaidh smùid ri Gleann-lùis                                   

                                                        Munro 1840: 11

(Glenluce was sent up in smoke)


2.5  from destruction, in sense of ‘fragments, shreds’


Ged robh ’n saogh’l so le chùram
’Dol ’na smùid leis a’ ghaoith                               

                                                      MacColl CB2 1839: 137

(Though this world with all its care
should be going in smithereens with the wind)


Ach thoir na cearcail-earraich dhiù,
A’s théid na clàir nan smùidean       

                                                        MacIntyre 1853: 3

(But take the bottom hoops [ sc. of barrels] off them,
and the staves will go to pieces)


2.6 fig., from anger or other emotions

Cha chaomhain an Tighearn e, ach ’an sin cuiridh fearg an Tighearna, agus eud, smùid diubh ’an aghaidh an duine sin         
                                                   Deuternomi 1783: 29 v. 20

(The Lord will not spare him, but then the Lord’s anger, and his jealousy, will emit smoke against that man)


2.7 fig., in the context of generosity or excessive spending


Gheibhte ad bhaile ma fheasgar
Smuid mhor ’s cha b’ e ’n greadan             E 1776: 77

(There would be found in your homestead around evening
a great smoke and it was no mere sheaf-burning) 


Fear a carnadh òir ’s ga mhùchadh
’S fear ’cuir smùid ris ’s an tigh-leanna               PB 1906: 160

(One man piling up gold and concealing it,
and another burning it in the ale-house)

3. Intoxication

’N uair a ghabhadh cuid an smùid
Dhe ’n stubh a bh’ agad anns a’ chùil,
Cha tigeadh fàiling air do ghlùn,
Ged bheirteadh sùrd air danns’ ort.       

                                          *Nic-a-Phearsoin 1891: 60

(When some would contract a tipsy haze
from the stuff you [sc. the steamship Clydesdale] had in the cubby,
your knee would not fail in any way
though you would be put in a mood for dancing.)


An oidhche fhuair an Rudhach an guga bha smùid mhath air   
                                                          Taintean 1963: 7

(The night the Point man got the solan goose he was well inebriated)


…nochd cailleach mhór a staigh, agus bha smùid mhath do dheoch oirre, agus bacagan a’ dol oirre a null ’s a nall 

                                                 MacLellan 1972 (1960): 21

(…a large old wifie came in, and she had a good bucket of drink on her, and she was taking staggers from side to side)


Bha smùid air      Murdo MacLeod, Uig (Lewis), MS 1967: 32

He was happily drunk

This carries the note: ‘Fo bhuaidh an uisge-bheatha.  An cumantas ’s ann toilichte bhios duine nuair a chanas sinn gu bheil smùid air’ (‘Under the influence of whisky.  Generally a man is “merry” when we say that there is a smùid on him.)

Bha e air smùid mhór a ghabhail.             A.A. Smith 1973: 13

(He had taken a big binge.)


4. Energetic blow or force


‘Ach ciod a thàinig ris an fhear a bhuail Coinneach le a leithid de smùid,’ arsa h-aon de na gilllean. 

MacFadyen 1902: 79

(‘But what happened to the man who struck Kenneth with such force,’ said one of the lads.)


O’n a thachair gu’n robh smuid mhath air a’ ghaoith, cha robh sinn fada ’ruighinn na h-acarsaid    
                                                    Arabian Nights 1899, 2: 75

(Since it happened that the wind was blowing strongly, we were not long reaching the harbour)


5. Idioms with smùid, in the sense of ‘perspiring with effort, doing something energetically, going hard at it’, often with connotations of accompanying noise or music


5.1 with prep. de

a’ cur na(n) smùid de ( lit. ? ‘causing haze(s)/ perspiration to come from someone/ something’)

Bha smeòrach cur na smùid dhith,
Air baccan cùil lea fèin              Ais-eiridh 1751: 83

(The lark was singing as hard as she could,
on her own on a twig at the back of the bush)


an dreathan … ’s a riobhaid chiuil aige
a’ cur nan smuid deth gu lùthar binn     

                                                          Duncan Ban 1768: 31

(the wren …with its reed of music
singing with gusto energetically and sweetly)


Na fir luthor an deigh an rùsgaidh,
A’ cur smùid dheth an àlaichin         E 1776: 124                    

(The energetic men, after the shearing [?],
going flat out at their banks of oars [and singing an iorram?])


A mach ghabh sinn ’an coinneamh soitheach na smùide, a Mhaigdeann-Mhorairneach, mar their iad rithe.  Bha i teannadh oirnn o Mhuile, a’ cur nan smùid di.    
                                                          *MacLeòid 1829: 106


(Out we went to meet the ship of steam, the Maid of Morven, as they call her.  She was approaching us from Mull, going as hard as she could [lit. putting the hazes/steams off her (with hissing and puffing?)].)


Duine truagh shìos a’ measg na h-acfhuinn, a’ cur na smùid deth, far nach saoile tu am b’ urrainn do luch dol gun a milleadh
                                                                   *Ibid.: 107 


(A poor man down among the machinery, giving off perspiration, where you would not think that a mouse could go without being injured)


Chuthag cur na smùid dhith           An R II (1918): 207

(The cuckoo giving it all she had [in singing])


5. 2  with preps aig (of agent) and air (of indirect object)


Smuid aig air oran                  Gairm 36 (1961): 301

(He was giving a hearty rendering of a song)


… gun robh smùid aige air bruidhinn ris fhéin   
                                                 MacLean, L.G. 1970: 92

(… he was going great guns talking to himself)


smùid aig na fir air ‘Mary had a little lamb’ 

                                               Ross, Aitealan, 1972: 13

(the men belting out ‘Mary had a little lamb’)


5.3 with prep. air (of agent)

’Nuair dh’fhàgas i ’n acair bi’ smùid air na balaich
Ri hoiseadh na halliard ’s an adan ri ’n taobh    BL 1916: 198

(When she leaves the anchor the lads will be hard at it [and singing shanties?],
hoisting the halyard with their hats by their side)


6. Lark

Nara seinnear dha’n smùid os cinn do bhùith.    
                                       Carmina Gadelica V [c.1900]: 364

(May the lark not sing above your tent.)

The above citations show that smùid is used in a variety of maritime contexts, most conspicuously in the sense of ‘smoke’, but shading predominantly towards ‘steam’, in a compound with bàta, soitheach and pacaid from 1824 (2.3). 

Smùid is used regularly in a range of meanings and idioms in the prose writings of Dr Norman MacLeod (‘Caraid nan Gàidheal’).  MacLeod had a particular concern to introduce rural Gaels to the novelties and challenges of the industrialising Lowlands of Scotland.  In 1829 MacLeod wrote the first Gaelic prose account of a steamship, Maid of Morven, on a voyage from Morvern to Glasgow (Meek, forthcoming a, b).  Because of its relatively detailed description of the ship, her machinery, passengers, and performance, this is a very important historical piece, and all the more valuable for having been written in Gaelic.   MacLeod seems to have had a special interest in steam power, which was certainly one of the novelties of the early nineteenth century.  His essays show that he employed three Gaelic words in the sense of ‘steam’, namely deathach (mainly steam for the propulsion of static machinery, such as cotton mills – ‘na muillean mòra sin a tha ’falbh le cumhachd na deathaich’ [‘those large mills that are driven by the power of steam’] (Clerk 1867: 83)), smùid (steam which drives mobile vehicles, such as trains and ships) and toit (‘smoke’, used much less frequently, and noticeably less comfortably).  In a citation in 2.3 above (‘…an sin éiridh an t-uisge suas…’), he uses all three words to represent ‘steam’, largely for stylistic variety. 

Beyond MacLeod’s writings, deathach was seldom used of ships, although occasional examples can be found:

Cha robh bàtaichean-deathaich no slighean iaruinn ann, mar sin ghabh sinn a mach am Monadh-Meadhonach ’g a choiseachd.

                                                          Grant 1911: 164

(There were no steamships or railways in existence; so we set out across the Middle Moor on foot.)


Toit was employed somewhat more frequently in compounds with bàta.  Bàta-toite is found first in print in 1829, having been chosen by Allan MacDougall (Ailean Dall), or his editor, as the favoured term for ‘steamship’ in the titles of songs, e.g Oran don bhàta-thoite den goirear Ceann-cinnidh (‘Song on the steamship which is called Chieftain’).  Ailean Dall himself employs it of the Stirling [Castle], the paddle-steamer which was responsible for the drowning of his chief, MacDonell of Glengarry, in 1828.  His phrase – am bàta dubh toite (‘the black boat of smoke’) –  exudes darkness, danger and death in that context (MacDougall 1829: 204):

Do ghnùis àlainn ga dochann
Leis a’ bhàta dhubh thoite,
Dan robh dàn a’ mhì-fhortain,
’S am fear a dhealbh air an stoc i,
B’fheàrr nach beirt’ e bho thoiseach le mhàthair.

(Your beautiful face being disfigured
by the black boat of smoke,
which was destined for misfortune,
and the man who designed her on the stocks,
it were better had he never been given birth by his mother.)

A more neutral use of the term is found in Duncan Black Blair’s poem Eas Niagara (‘Niagara Falls’), composed about 1848 (Meek 2003:  90-1):

An uair shealladh tu fada air astar
Air an ioghnadh,
Is e theireadh tu gur bàta-toite
A bh’ ann le smùidrich.

(When you would look from a distance
at the wonder,
you would say it was a steamship
with all its smoking.)  

Dr Norman MacLeod clearly had a liking for smùid as a flexible, humorous and multi-faceted word, since it occurs frequently in his writings, but as far as can be traced, he does not use smùid of ‘inebriation, intoxication’.  It is noteworthy that the first recorded example of smùid in this sense (printed in 1891, but probably to be dated to 1889) is indeed that cited at the outset from Màiri Mhòr’s verse, and – significantly – it also concerns a ship (see 3 above).  If we are not misled by lack of earlier citational evidence in HDSG, this usage emerges only in the second half – or more specifically the last quarter – of the nineteenth century.  It seems to be conspicuous by it is absence in the first flush of the steamship era (before c. 1850), when steamship services to the islands were still relatively restricted, and not yet generally accessible to the working classes.  Services expanded rapidly after 1850, and especially after 1870, with the building of larger ships, like Martin Orme’s Dunara Castle of 1875 (Robins and Meek, forthcoming).

Smùid in this sense also appears to be largely unattested in ScG dictionaries compiled before 1900.  Only in dictionaries of the later twentieth century is this meaning given a prominent place, as gabhail smùid becomes an ‘acceptable’ (or at least a humorously mentionable) pastime. It is significant that Dwelly’s magisterial turn-of-the-century dictionary does not give this sense for the word, although it appears fairly regularly in modern (post-1950) ScG dictionaries (e.g. Watson). Initially, therefore, smùid as ‘intoxication’ may well have been a ScG colloquialism which made its way into ‘respectable’ use, and particularly into print, at a comparatively late stage.  

Apart from its basic meaning as ‘haze, mist’, and broader contexts involving the sea and ships, there is no obvious ScG starting-point for the extension of smùid to ‘intoxication’.  It is, in fact, difficult to relate the sense of ‘haze’ or ‘smoke’ to ‘intoxication’ without postulating an underlying figure of speech, such as ‘alcoholic vapour exhaled, like haze or steam, by a person in a state of inebriation’.  This could have been the meaning behind the application of smùid to ‘inebriation, drunkenness’, and it may have predated our present range of citations, but we have no evidence (to date) to support this earlier meaning.

Development via a figure of speech is certainly possible.  In Standard English and Scottish English, ‘slang’ descriptors of drunken states (‘sloshed’, ‘smashed’, ‘stoned’, ‘tanked’ and such like) constitute ‘picture language’ of an indecorous kind, and smùid would fit that category.  As the ‘Historical Thesaurus of English’, currently being compiled at the University of Glasgow, amply demonstrates, various states and stages of inebriation have produced an almost inexhaustible profusion of figurative, and often naughtily humorous, descriptive phrases across the centuries.  Some of these derive from ships and the sea, among them ‘whole seas’, ‘top heavy’, half-seas over’, ‘half-channelled over’, and ‘three sheets in the wind’.

The case for figurative extension of smùid would be reinforced if we could invoke the existence of an intermediate, specific context which may have determined the ‘new’ meaning, like ‘becoming drunk in close proximity to a steam-powered means of providing drink’. If there were no earlier precedent, some such catalytic and pictorial context, which ‘fixed’ the ‘new’ meaning, may have facilitated the understanding of smùid as ‘intoxication’ (and not merely as a ‘daze’), particularly when employed directly in the idiom bha smùid air, which appears to have co-existed alongside an identical idiom with a different meaning (see the last citation in 5.3). 

We may note further that the idiomatic use of smùid + aig + air as ‘doing something energetically’ (5.2) frequently refers to, and implies, song and music, and thus merriment, which could be associated with ‘intoxication’ of various kinds.  There is, however, no evidence in the citations to support a direct connection, or the development of the sense of ‘intoxication’ from this context, but it is clear that a pliable and sympathetic range of idioms with smùid existed, and that the sense of ‘intoxication’, once created, could be fitted neatly within it.

It is important that we now consider possible starting-points and stimuli in contexts other than, or in addition too, ScG for the use of smùid in the sense of ‘intoxication’.

Irish: the diverging frontier

We may turn first of all to the evidence for the use of smúit in Irish.  The most significant discovery in this context is that the same word in Scottish Gaelic and Irish, while sharing basic meanings in both the major Goedelic dialects, is applied quite differently within the ranges of idioms which employ it.  As the Dictionary of the Irish Language demonstrates, the principal meaning of the word in the early medieval period is ‘vapour, smoke’  (DIL cols 291-2).   In Modern Irish, the semantic and idiomatic ranges are given by Dinneen (1069) as:

‘mist, dust, soot, dirt; defect, stain, sorrow, sleep; gan s., unclouded; dubh-s., depression of spirits; báta smúide, a steamboat (Antr.); bainim s. as, I work vigorously, speed up; is fada Phoebus fá s., long has Phoebus been hidden in mist; ag caitheamh grin agus smúide uaidh, sending the gravel and dust flying (as a horse at a gallop)…’


In compounds with other nouns, smúid- conveys the sense of ‘befogged, dull, obscured’ (ibid.).      


These ranges are confirmed by Ó Dónaill (1120).  To underline the difference between Scottish Gaelic and Irish usages, we need cite only one idiom given by Ó Dónaill:

Chuir sé smúit orainn uile, he depressed us all.

In Scottish Gaelic the same idiom would mean the exact opposite, namely ‘It/He caused us all to become (happily) intoxicated.’ 

The fundamental difference between Scottish Gaelic and Irish usages would therefore  appear to be that, whereas in Scottish Gaelic the predominant understanding of smùid is ‘vapour or haze which rises from something’ (thus generally embracing positive activity), in Irish the word seems to mean mainly (though not exclusively) ‘vapour or haze which settles on something’ (thus generally embracing negative activity).  Scottish Gaelic and Irish appear to coincide only in the phrase bàta smùide (found, significantly, in Antrim Irish, with its links with Scottish Gaelic) and in idioms relating to the raising of dust from activity, such as working energetically or travelling on the road (as in Scottish Gaelic, dh’fhalbh e le smùid sìos an rathad, ‘he went down the road at full pelt (lit. with dust, haze [rising]’).  Ó Dónaill also gives one further idiom which corresponds (in sense, though not in prepositions) to Scottish Gaelic usage (2.7):

Bhain sé smúit as a chuid airgid, he spent his money freely.

Clearly, Scottish Gaelic and Irish (and especially their speakers) do share some general characteristics (and social habits), though not precise idioms.  In this case there is nothing that would suggest a fundamental parallel in the use of smúit in the sense of  ‘intoxication’.   This meaning is attested only in Scottish Gaelic.


English and Scots: the interactive frontiers

Although there is no significant correspondence between Scottish Gaelic and Irish in this use of smùid /-t, Scottish Gaelic and Scots appear to share similar ‘idioms of intoxication’ relating to smùid/steam.  Given the absence of comparable idioms in Irish, this raises the question of whether Scots has borrowed from Gaelic or vice versa.   We also need to consider possible influences from English, as certain usages of steam (noun and verb) given in OED have meanings relating to intoxication. 

OED defines the basic meaning of steam as ‘A vapour or fume given out by a substance when heated or burned’ (1.1 a) or specifically ‘An odourous exhalation or fume’ (1.1 b).   It further defines it as ‘A noxious vapour generated in the digestive system; the “fume” supposed to ascend to the brain as a result of drinking alcoholic liquor’, as in a citation from Marston 1602, Antonio’s Rev. V. iii, ‘Pieros lips reake steame of wine’ (2 b).   Although OED provides no examples later than 1605, and classifies this usage as Obs[olete], it will be evident immediately that we do have in 2b a definition of steam which is remarkably close to that posited tentatively above for ScG smùid, by way of explaining its transition to ‘drunkenness’, namely ‘alcoholic vapour exhaled, like haze or steam, by a person in a state of inebriation’.

We must note, however, that, whatever the semantic parallels between ScG smùid and English steam, they are two completely different words, from very different roots.  OED gives Old Teutonic *staumo-z, ‘of obscure origin’, as a starting-point for steam.  Gaelic smùid, on the other hand, appears to be the cognate of English smut and German schmutz, with a possible root *smuddi (MacBain 331), although both of the latter imply ‘dirty spots’ rather than ‘vapour or steam’.

OED also demonstrates that the English verb steam, generally when accompanied by  the preposition up, can sometimes be used in slang to mean ‘drunk, intoxicated’, and it gives two citations, dated 1929 and 1950 respectively (2 b).  However, in one of these citations this preposition does not appear.  This occurs in J. Terrell, Bunkhouse Papers xii. 156, and is a very recent attestation, dating to 1971: ‘A cowman sat next to the houseman, and he was steamed with liquor so that he slumped a little to one side.’

Similarly, for modern Scots, SND (s.v. steam) offers only one example of steamin’, in the phrase steamin’ wi’ drink. The evidence, which (frustratingly for an historical dictionary) lacks a corroborative citation, is taken from D. Rorie, Mining Folk, of 1912.  SND notes that the phrase is known in this sense in Fife and Orkney, and more generally in northern and mid-Scotland.   No less interestingly for our purposes, SND defines stim, n., as ‘A haze, a mist, e.g. on the sea, on a cold surface like glass, etc. (Ork. 1929 Marw.)…stim(m)is, n., fig. of a state of uncertainty or doubt, a daze, stupefaction’, with a citation from an Orkney source c. 1880.  SND suggests that stim may be a borrowing from steam.  If this is so, it supplies a possible further dimension to the sense of steam, as (conceivably) ‘daze, stupefaction [from excessive consumption of alcohol]’.  However, it must be noted that SND’s citations show this to be a word known predominantly, if not solely, in Orkney and Shetland.  

If we set aside OED’s citation from the seventeenth century of ‘obsolete’ usages of steam as ‘alcoholic fume’, the literary evidence would seem to indicate that Scottish Gaelic has the earliest and most consistently attested body of usages in which a word signifying ‘vapour, steam’ as its principal meaning is also used of ‘inebriation’, beginning c. 1889.  This would lead naturally to the prima facie conclusion that Scots and English, with chronologically later citations, may have borrowed the idiom from Scottish Gaelic, as may have happened with words such as sgaoil (Meek 2005).

At this point, however, we need to exercise the greatest possible caution, and pay close attention to the nature of the evidence presented by our written sources.  What dictionaries like OED and SND do not record to any significant degree is the oral interaction between two (or more) languages in a country such as Scotland with its long-standing linguistic diversity.  It is quite possible that, in an oral and bilingual context, exchanges of various kinds may have begun at a date much earlier than the first attested lexicographical example of a phrase used in a particular sense.  It may even be possible that the formative exchanges moved in the opposite direction to that implied by the surviving literary evidence, based solely on citations from texts.  Thus, despite the earlier literary attestion of ScG usages of smùid as ‘inebriation’, the Scots phrase steamin’ wi’ drink, or some such figurative use of steam, may have precipitated the semantic extension of the ScG word so as to embrace the effects of alcohol.  The absence of this sense for Irish smúit suggests strongly that it was not a root meaning for the word, and that Scottish Gaelic may have adjusted the semantic range of smùid in response to external, non-Gaelic precedent. 

In fact, when the writer was growing up in the island of Tiree in the 1950s and 1960s, he was very well aware of (and often chuckled at) humorous and colloquial ScG idioms which used the Scots (or English) word steam – the consequence of a bilingual interface – in precisely the same position and with exactly the same meaning as ScG smùid, ‘intoxication, inebriation’.  These bilingual idioms were regularly of the following kinds:

Chaidh e don Lean-to, agus thog e / ghabh e steam uamhasach.

(He went to the Lean-to [sc. a popular Tiree public house, which was ‘appended’ to Scarinish Hotel, formerly the Temperance Hotel!], and he raised / took a tremendous steam [sc. intoxication].)    

Bha steam mhòr air a-raoir.

(He was steaming greatly [with drink] last night.)

Ghabh e steam gel a-raoir.

(He took a steam[ing] gale [sc. a particularly bad bout of intoxication] last night.)

In all but the last of these examples, where the Scots origin of the phrase is doubly apparent, ScG smùid could be substituted directly for Scots steam.  An interactive Scottish Gaelic and Scots oral dimension to smùid / steam is therefore more than evident, even in the later twentieth century.  At such a bilingual interface semantic exchanges could occur easily, effortlessly and with a minimum of literary attestation, perhaps reinforcing or bringing to prominence commonly shared idioms which lived furtively and darkly on the periphery of ‘good conversation’ (in both senses).

This leads to a further, essential caveat when handling the evidence of existing literary sources for the uses of smùid and steam.   The ‘slang’ and ‘indecorous’ nature of the many popular, idiomatic descriptors of humanity’s abject ‘inebriated condition’ has been noted.  It is likely that such ‘vulgarities’ (which, even now, are likely to be somewhat repulsive to well-mannered folk) were excluded from ‘polite company’, and not allowed to emerge in publishable literary records and narratives, including dictionaries, until standards of literary acceptablity began to change after the close of the Victorian era. 

Full steam ahead?  Concluding overview

In Scottish Gaelic, it would seem likely that it was only with the growing prominence of the vernacular language in a literary context that smùid meaning ‘intoxication’ began to show its face, as in the late nineteenth-century verse of Mary MacPherson, Màiri Mhòr nan Oran, whose immensely rich command of Skye Gaelic gives a large part of their power to her more spirited songs, and provides (hitherto) our first recorded examples of smùid as ‘inebriation’.  At the same time, social class and social habits (including the consumption of alcohol and its public availability) were undergoing a gradual transformation. Steamships, and eventually steam trains, threw Gaels and Lowlanders into closer association with one another, sometimes quite literally as they responded with an unsteady, on-board dram to the waves and shocks, the challenges and vicissitudes, of the mechanical wonders of the industrial era.   As ancient practices were challenged or re-routed by modern technology, old words could discover new meanings, or gain new pulses of semantic life in unexpected ways.

The arrival of the steamship in Highland and Hebridean waters from at least 1819 must have been a potent factor in linguistic, as well as technical and social, interaction and stimulation (Meek, forthcoming a; Robins and Meek, forthcoming).  The rising pressure exerted by steam, as a means of conveyance and cultural exchange, particularly after 1870, probably had implications for the lexis of Scottish Gaelic, as much as it had for that of English, in which a range of idioms based on ‘steam’ developed prominently.  In Scottish Gaelic, smùid, rather than deat(h)ach (which lives largely in the dictionaries), became the regular word for ‘steam’ in a maritime context.  Like steam, it is a neat monosyllable with an initial, onomatopoeic s-.  Consequently it was press-ganged happily into service as the perfect, one-word equivalent ScG descriptor for the noisy haze that feathered from the tall, smoky funnels of new-fangled, Clyde-built steamships. In this context it far outstripped the use of toit (‘smoke’), which was much less frequently used in the compound bàta-toite (‘ship of smoke’), as toit had a darker hue, and, lacking the sense of ‘vapour’, could not be extended so readily to ‘steam’.   In addition, by the nineteenth century smùid already possessed a range of activity-related, idiomatic uses which were likely to make it receptive to further creativity.   Linked to external sources by new connecting-rods, it could engage in triple-expansion of its semantic energy by interacting subtly with the steam-driven idioms of Scots and Scottish English.

Even if conclusive evidence emerges to demonstrate that smùid had a connection with ‘alcoholic fume’ before 1850, it seems highly likely that its common application in the sense of ‘drunkenness, intoxication’ – a usage distinctive of Scottish Gaelic, and not found in Irish – was in large measure a consequence of the steam-based industrial developments of the nineteenth century, and that this meaning gained prominence after 1850.   The body of evidence currently available suggests that it was apparently not a matter of straightforward borrowing, or the resuscitation of a ‘dormant’ meaning of smùid which was biding its time until the Industrial Revolution brought it to the fore.  Rather, it was in all probability part of a more complex process of Sprachkontakt, involving ‘idiomatic exchange’ and ‘semantic nudging’ between Scottish Gaelic, Scots and/or Scottish English, and the speakers of these languages.  This process is likely to have begun in the context of ‘taking a steam’ (i.e. going for a sail on a steamship: cf. OED 9) and becoming ‘the worse for wear’ or ‘steaming’ as a consequence of what was all too readily available on board a steamship.   Scots and Scots English may have been the vehicles of semantic reinstatement of an earlier, submerged meaning of steam, which was subsequently grafted on to ScG smùid, as smùid became the regular ScG word for ‘steam’ from ships and trains.

‘The ship of drunkenness’, which so entertained class and teacher back in the 1970s, may thus have been more than a ghost-ship emerging from post-prandial haze in a misty student mind.  To a skilful poet like Mary MacPherson, who had a well-honed awareness of verbal nuances of various kinds in her native language, together with a warm appreciation of human nature, the humour of homophones, as well as their ambiguous consequences, was doubtless very evident.  She may not have paused to think about semantic relationships, but the correspondence is probably more than coincidental or merely phonological.  Bàta na smùide was indeed capable of carrying a well-stocked cùil (‘corner cupboard’) – and it was one which could produce as much of a smùid as her boiler and engine, when the passengers themselves began to emulate the good ship and let off steam.





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MacIlleBhàin, Iain, ‘Eachdraidh na Smùid-shoitheach’, An Gàidheal, I, Ceud Mìos an Fhogharaidh, 1872, tdd. 143-6.  Toronto.

MacIntyre, Duncan, Poem on Temperance.  Glasgow 1853.

Mackay, Roderick, Oiteagan o Tìr nan Og.  Glasgow 1938.

MacLellan, Angus, Saoghal an Treobhaiche.  Norwegian Journal of Linguistics.  Oslo 1972.

MacLeòid, Niall, Clàrsach an Doire.  Gairm.  Glasgow 1975.

MacLeòid, Niall, ‘Turus Sheòrais do Ghlaschu’, An Gàidheal, VI, Air. 66 (Dara mìos an t-Samhraidh, 1877), tdd. 171-3.  Nicolson & Co. Glasgow.

MacLeòid, Tormod, An Teachdaire Gaelach.  W. R. MacPhun.  Glasgow 1829-30.

MacLeòid, Tormod, Leabhar nan Cnoc.  Neill and Fraser.  Greenock 1834.

McCrorie, Ian C., Clyde Pleasure Steamers: An Illustrated History. Orr, Pollock & Co., Ltd.  Greenock 1986.

Meek, Dòmhnall Eachann (deas.), Màiri Mhòr nan Oran.  Dàrna deasachadh.  Comann Litreachas Gàidhlig na h-Alba.  Dùn Eideann 1998.

Meek, Donald E. (ed.), Caran an t-Saoghail: Anthology of Nineteenth-century Scottish Gaelic Verse.  Birlinn.  Edinburgh 2003.

Meek, Donald E., ‘The Spread of a Word: Scail in Scots and Sgaoil in Gaelic’, in Christian J. Kay and Margaret A. Mackay (eds), Perspectives on the Older Scottish Tongue: A Celebration of DOST, pp. 84-11. Edinburgh University Press. Edinburgh 2005.  

Meek, Donald E., ‘Am Bàta Dubh Toite (“The Black Boat of Smoke”): Nineteenth-century Steamships in Gaelic Prose and Verse’.    Forthcoming a.

Meek, Donald E., ‘Gaelic Literature in the Nineteenth Century’, in T. Brown, T. Clancy and S. Manning (eds), Encyclopedia of Scottish Literature. Forthcoming b.

Munro, James, The Minstrel: Am Filidh.  Edinburgh 1840.

Nic-a-Phearsoin, Màiri,  Dàin agus Orain Ghàidhlig.  A. agus U. Mac-Coinnich.  Inbhirnis 1891.  

Ó Dónaill, Niall, Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla.  Oifig an tSoláthair.  Dublin 1977.

Paterson, Alan J. S., The Victorian Summer of the Clyde Steamers 1864-1888.  John Donald.  Edinburgh 2001.

Patton, Brian, Scottish Coastal Steamers 1918-1975.   Silver Link Publishing Ltd.   Peterborough 1996.

Robins, Nick, Ferry Powerful: A history of the modern diesel ferry.  Bernard McCall.   Portishead 2003.

Robins, Nick S., and Meek, Donald E., The Kingdom of MacBrayne: From Steamships to Car-Ferries in the West Highlands and Hebrides, 1820-2005.   Birlinn. Edinburgh (forthcoming, 2006).

Ross, Kenneth, Aitealan Dlùth is Cian. Gairm.  Glasgow 1972.

SGS: Scottish Gaelic Studies, 1- . Aberdeen, 1926-.

Sinton, Thomas (ed.), The Poetry of Badenoch.  Inverness. 1906.

Smith, A. A.  1902.  Not yet traced.

Taintean.  Magazine of Lionel J. S. School, Lewis.  1959-

Watson, Angus, The Essential Gaelic-English Dictionary.  Birlinn.  Edinburgh 2001.

Whyte, Henry (‘Fionn’), Naigheachdan Fìrinneach.   Vol. 1.  Paisley, 1905.



I am most grateful to the Department of Celtic, University of Glasgow, for allowing me access to, and use of, relevant word-slips held in HDSG-A, on which I laboured during the 1970s.   As is usual in a lexicographical voyage of this kind, I have been expertly piloted through the shoals by Ms Lorna Pike, Co-ordinator of Faclair na Gàidhlig, in matters pertaining to Scots and English dictionary sources and to general method.   However, I alone am responsible for the marshalling of the Gaelic evidence and for the conclusions reached on the basis of that evidence.  

Dr Nick Robins, author of several important books on the development of British shipping, read the first draft and supplied helpful information on maritime indulgence south of the Border.   The Rev. Dr William McNaughton kindly drew my attention to the maritime adventure of the Rev. Dr John Kirk.

I am deeply indebted to Professor Christian J. Kay and Professor Rob Ó Maolalaigh, both of the University of Glasgow, for reading the first draft of this article.  Professor Kay provided very useful citations from the ‘Historical Thesaurus of English’, and Professor Ó Maolalaigh furnished valuable references to further Gaelic material.


  1. Gle-intinneach a Dhomhnaill. Bha am facal sin 'steamin'' gu math cumanta ann an Tir Chonaill anns m'oige - an fheadhainn a thigeadh anns t-samhradh bho Ghlaschu air laithean saora a chuireadh gu feum e agus thog sluagh an aite bhuapa e. A reir sin, chluinte 'Tá/Bhí sé steamáilte' gu math tric.

    1. Tapadh leat, a charaid uasail, airson freagairt cho grinn agus cho feumail a chur thugam. Tha sin a' dearbhadh na h-argamaid, saoilidh mi. Tha thu cuideachd a' cur do chorraig air an 'taigh-seinnse' mar aite far am biodh iomlaid-fhacal a' tachairt eadar na 'duthchasaich' agus na 'coigrich' no 'eoin an t-samhraidh'. Is docha gun do thachair an aon rud ann an Tiriodh agus anns na h-eileanan eile. Bhiodh sgiobachan nam bataichean-carago agus nam pufairean, agus na coigrich a bha a' lorg an fhior dhualchais (agus ga thruailleadh le am facail fhein!), a' tional anns an 'Lean To' ann an Sgairinis. Tha fianais Thir Chonaill air leth luachmhor. Tapadh leat. Chan eil an saoghal buileach balbh! Labhrann se!

  2. Dh’ fhaoidte gum bi e na chuideachadh dhuibh anns an t-seadh seo gun abairte Smutje [smùide] ri còcair-bàta ann an dualchas-mara na Gearmailte riamh, is e sin stèidhte air smut = Plattdütsch / Gearmailtis Thuathach air “salchar”, cuiribh an coimeas ri smut anns a’ Bheurla, f.c. Dietmar Bartz, Seemannssprache: Von Tampen, Pütz und Wanten (Bielefeld: Delius Klasing, 2007), td. 234: “Moin, Smutje, wie geiht dat denn?” – Latha math dhuit, a Chòcair, ciod e do chor?

    Acsail Òg

  3. Donald, I added our conversation from a social networking site to my blog with its URL here, - - crediting the photo+ above to you. In looking at your blog (e.g., I wonder if the use of blogspot 'labels' (e.g. 'shipping,' 'ships,' 'Scots,' or 'Gaelic,' or some such) would help thematize, etc., but especially make your blog more easily accessible. See the labels I use as an example above. Your 'shipaldry' (a heraldry neologism :) is fantastic, Donald.