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Scottish National Dictionary (1700–)

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First published 1934 (SND Vol. I). Includes material from the 1976 and 2005 supplements.
This entry has not been updated since then but may contain minor corrections and revisions.

BIRL(E), Birrel, Burl, Burrle, v.1 and n. [bɪ̢̈rl, bʌrl]

1. v., tr. and intr.  Also fig. Also ppl.adj. birlin.

(1) To revolve rapidly, whirl round, dance; to make a rattling or whirring noise.Sc. 1924 Glasgow Herald (13 Sept.) 4/8:
In rantin' reel or blythe strathspey That set the dresser dishes birlin'.
Sc. 1933 W. Soutar Seeds in the Wind 16:
Roun' wi' a thoum, an' roun' wi' a thoum; Here's wee Wullie Wabster birlin' at his loom.
Sc. 1991 Scotsman (16 Apr) 10:
That a thanksgiving service should be held at all, and in a Scottish church is bad enough; that an Archbishop of York of all places, should preach the sermon is almost beyond credibility. Bishop Wishart must indeed be birling in his grave.
Cai. 1992 James Miller A Fine White Stoor 215:
Ye love this place as much as I do myself. It's in your blood, the very stoor o the place thumps in your veins and birls in your brain.
ne.Sc. 1979 Alastair Mackie in Joy Hendry Chapman 23-4 (1985) 64:
The sun reidens the bairns, the lovers, the elderly.
Unheard, the transistor birls its guitars.
Mry. 1865 W. H. L. Tester Poems 156; Sh.4 1934:
The kettle birlin' ower the heat.
Abd.(D) 1928 J. Baxter A' Ae 'Oo' 20:
Hark the skip, “Soop up! Soop up! Birl, ye beauty! nail the cup!”
Ags. 1790 D. Morison Poems 6:
The temper pin she gi'es a tirl, An' spins but slow, yet seems to birl.
Ags. 1988 Raymond Vettese The Richt Noise 42:
The lads f'ae the Mairt
wi sharn on their feet
birl aboot the howff sawins,
(Tam on the moothie
Peem on the spoons),
heechin, skirlin, lowpin, fleein,
faain doon,
stotterin hame....
Dundee 1996 Matthew Fitt Pure Radge 8:
straucht an smert
the ba is lowsed
sherp as a skelf
burlin aa weys
a buhlitt
em.Sc. 1997 Ian Rankin Black & Blue (1999) 253:
Rebus's head birled. The Dancing Pigs were playing that gig. Mitchison was a big fan of theirs.
Fif. 1991 William Hershaw in Tom Hubbard The New Makars 169:
It birls the newsagent's sign aroond,
It blaws like a wild Blake picter
On this mirkfu januar efternin
Hdg. 1876 J. Teenan Song and Satire 5:
He birled me roond like Nannie's wheel.
wm.Sc. 1980 Anna Blair The Rowan on the Ridge 30:
"Dinnae scold him Bryce, he's wantin' Hugh. You ken Hugh could aye birl his peerie-top for him and make him reed-whistles. The bairn's jist lost,"
 wm.Sc. 1989 Scotsman (15 Jul) 3:
... we rescued a female kestrel from the high-tension cable where she was snagged by her jesses, sitting upright one minute then birling to hang upside down.
wm.Sc. 1991 Carol Galbraith in Tom Hubbard The New Makars 72:
a waaflooer's stannin
mindin the time
blethers neist her een
owreluikin the birlin scene
Gsw. 1993 Margaret Sinclair Soor Plooms and Candy Balls 19:
Wan month ye wid get peeries, birlin' roon the back,
Countin' as they birled until ye lost aw track.
Gsw. 1999 Jimmy Boyle Hero of the Underworld 11:
His eye is birling with joy, popping with ecstasy and I can just imagine him masturbating behind the door.
Gsw. 2000 Herald (14 Aug) 32:
"Here Boab, did ye see the wy the boy birled roon' there and sold us aw a dummy? Whit a loup that wiz, eh?" "Ay Jimmy, and whit a lovely pirouette an' aw. Just like wee Erchie in Argentina. Well done big man."
Lnk. 1923 G. Rae 'Mang Lowland Hills 59:
He birlet roond, an' aye the soond Was “Waes me, waes me, hell's deep pit.”
Uls.(D) 1879 W. G. Lyttle Readings by Robin 21:
Sumbuddy tippit me on the shou'der. I birled roon, and there wuz the very boy I had haen the row wae.

ppl.adj. birlan, whirring, revolving.Cai. 1930 John o' Groat Jnl. (21 Feb.) 2/2:
Then cam' 'e happy years til Willie's mill, 'E birlan peenyans dronan a' 'e day.

Comb. birlin-note, a note in the music for a reel which indicates when the dancers are to whirl.Abd. 1935 Music Festival Syllabus footnote 27:
If preferred, pianists may play two - accenting the second - instead of the three "birlin' notes" in reels.

vbl.n. birlin, a rattling noise.Bnff. 1884 C. Neill in Bnffsh. Jnl. (11 Nov.) 2:
It broke the birlin in his throat.

(2) To move rapidly, hurry along.Sc. 1932 G. Rae in Border Mag. (Feb.) 23:
I maun be steppin' for the sun's gan birlin' doon.
Sc. 1989 Scotsman (27 Jan) 10:
In cases of zero snow, or very little, the dog teams are simply hitched up to wheeled trolleys and go birling along the forest trails like it was Friday night at Safeways.
Sc. 1999 Herald (4 Sep) 14:
They stand behind a chain-mail security fence at Gd Ref: 566465. Birl on from the windmills, bearing south-east for half-a-mile to the top of Crook Hill (329m) on the edge of the continuation of Whitelee...
Sc. 2000 Herald (24 May) 19:
About 40 minutes later, there's a huge cheer and Mary is birling through the finish in her chair, her Boy Scout "pushers" in her wake. The elation on their shining faces says it all.
ne.Sc. 1979 Alastair Mackie in Joy Hendry Chapman 23-4 (1985) 65:
The day birls to tea-time
and the dander hame. The sun has foonert
and grey like naethingness airches the lyft.
m.Sc. 1989 James Meek McFarlane Boils the Sea 209:
A nurse's cap is torn from her head, bounces off the top of the wall and goes birling away across the grass.
Ags. 1824 Literary Olio (20 March) 81/1:
Ye'll soon birl inby, into that machine, and it's a braw nicht, sae I winna hae a nasay.
Kcb. 1789 D. Davidson Seasons 67:
Fast to the Kirk the callan birl'd, An' the door snack he quickly twirl'd.
Rxb.(D) 1925 E. C. Smith Mang Howes and Knowes 24:
It was nae teime owregane or oo war birlin owre the Trow Burn leike five ell o wund.

ppl.adj. birlin, bustling.Edb. 1915 T. W. Paterson Auld Saws 82:
Cast aff yer coat, an' buckle to the darg; Fauld up yer sleeves, an' till't wi' birlin speed.

(3) To toss a coin to decide as to who should begin a game or pay a score; to club money for drink; hence in gen. to spend money, esp. in phrases like birl the bawbee.Sc. 1721 Ramsay Poems, Gloss.:
Birle, to drink. Common people joining their farthings for purchasing liquor, they call it birling a bawbie.
Sc. 1818 Scott Rob Roy xxviii.:
I'll pay for another [tass of brandy] . . . and then we'll birl our bawbees a' round about, like brethren.
Sc. 1921 “K.O.S.B.” in Scotsman (18 May):
As a boy (only 25 years ago) I used the word “birl,” . . . as meaning to toss or spin a coin. . . . “Let's birl for sides,” [was] quite common.
Abd. 1770–1780 A. Watson The Wee Wifeikie (1921) 8:
I met wi' kindly companie, I birl'd my bawbie.
Fif. 1841 C. Gray Lays and Lyrics 178:
When I've a bawbee in my pouch, I aften birl it frank and free.
Edb. 1721 A. Pennecuik Streams from Helicon 79:
But the Farmers coming in to birle their Placks, We left the drunken Carles to their awn Cracks.
Lth., Rxb. 1825 Jam.2:
Children put half-pence on their fingers to birl them, as they express it, in the low game of Pitch-and-toss.

Hence birling, vbl.n., carousal; a drinking-match in which the drink is clubbed for. [Cf. Birl, v.2, 2.]Sc. 1824 Scott Redgauntlet, Letter xi.:
We are no ganging to the Laird's, but to a blithe birling at the Brokenburn-foot.

(4) To whistle.w.Sc. 1932 A. H. Charteris When the Scot Smiles 275:
“Birling” fiercely . . . at an imaginary Corporation tram that blocked the way.
Lnk. 1923 J. S. Martin Scottish Earth 39:
The bark comes aff, it's [whistle] hallowed oot, And birlin' like a train.
Ags. 1887 A. D. Willock Rosetty Ends 44:
Piped an alaurm on a birlin' whistle.

2. n.

(1) A turn, twist.Sc. 1994 Independent (16 Dec) 23:
Och weel, here's a birl of my mini-kilt to the King over the Water. Manufactured heritage: Ralph Lauren's mauve tartan jacket.
 Ayr. 1852 M. Lochhead Poems and Songs 95:
I'll hae a birrel at “Jenny's bee” [bawbee].
Uls.1 c.1920:
Birl, a quick turn.

(2) A rattling, ringing noise.Edb. 1895 J. Tweeddale Moff 18:
She exclaimed “Bang goes a guinea wi' a birl!”
Dmf. 1823 J. Kennedy Poems 88:
I've likewise got uncannie hotches Frae thoughtless Jehus driving coaches, Wha past me o'er wi' sic a birrel That made my vera back to dirrel.

(3) A brisk dance, a circular movement in dance.Sc. 1993 Herald (26 Aug) 12:
Mr Diggle, it transpired, was no better than he should be, whatever that means. Just another sex pest who thought loads of dosh could buy more than a birl round the ballroom.
Ags. 1879 J. Guthrie Poems 48:
The lassies noo wad like a dance — They're aye keen for a birl.
Uls. 2002 Belfast News Letter (13 May) 18:
Since the Minister for the Arts in question is Sil de Valera, descendant of Eamon who's constantly quoted (slightly incorrectly, revisionist historians now tell us) that his ideal Ireland would be one with "comely maidens dancing at the crossroads", perhaps the media will catch a glimpse of a birl.
 Dwn.(D) 1886 W. G. Lyttle Sons of the Sod i.:
There's a lass hasnae had a birl yet; that chesnut yin wi' the white face.

(4) “A policeman's whistle” (Gsw. 1914 F.P. in T.S.D.C. I. 21; Ags.1 1934; Ayr.4 1928), also, a whistle used to attract attention.Slg. 1932 W. D. Cocker Poems 138:
Then a big, feckless polisman birl't on his birl.
Gsw. 1985 Stanley Baxter and Alex Mitchell Stanley Baxter's Suburban Shockers 98:
It happened after Caroline McCloot had flung her final dumpling. She lay back on the grass and intimated that she was utterly wabbit. The time had now came for me to fling for the Golden Dumpling Medal. Great was the tension as I bent down to pick up the steaming brown globe. The starter blew his burrle and I flung with all my might.

(5) A drive in a conveyance; syn. “hurl.”Sc. 1921 J. B. Thomson in Scotsman (25 May):
While enjoying the drive in the horse-brake from Colinton to Craiglockhart car terminus, the driver revived a boyhood's word by remarking, “Oh, aye, it's a fine wee birl!”
Sc. 1994 Daily Record (3 May) 15:
Customers snapping up Hoovers at the Wee Second-Hand Shop in Glasgow's Possilpark, are given a birl in Frank's beat-up Volvo.
Sc. 2000 Daily Record (16 Jun) 7:
One bike salesman who isn't normally into retro V-twin mode had to admit a sneaky wee smile crossed his face when he took a Drifter out for a birl [drive]
Sc. 2001 Mail on Sunday (15 Apr) 31:
Then a holiday treat was a chicken supper with tea, bread and butter in a pre-Armani Italian chipper, a good ride was a birl on the Ghost Train at a seaside fairground, ...

(6) A thrust (in words).Dwn. 1912 F. E. S. Crichton The Precepts of Andy Saul (1913) 26:
A'm not wishin' ill till anny Catholic hereabouts, but A'd thravel miles till hear the Rev. Northey takin' a birl at the Pope.

(7) A try; a 'go' (Cai., Bnff., Ags., Edb., Gsw., Ayr. 2003).Sc. 2004 Press and Journal (5 Feb) 3:
Arg. 1993:
It [letter for posting] might be too late, but we can gie it a birl onyway.

(8) In pipe-music: a grace-note in which while the A note (the lowest but one) is sounding, the little finger of the lower hand is drawn across its hole, striking it twice in rapid succession thus sounding the lowest note. The effect is a rattling sound like a strongly pronounced r.

[Prob. onomat. in origin. O.Sc. has birl-quheil, a spinning-wheel, 1612 (D.O.S.T.).]

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"Birl v.1, n.". Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. Accessed 20 Jun 2024 <>



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