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Scottish National Dictionary (1700–)

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

BIRN, Bern, n.2 [bɪ̢̈rn, bʌrn, bɛrn]

1. The scorched stem of heather which remains after the smaller twigs are burnt.Sc. 1725 Ramsay Gentle Shep. ii. iv.:
Nae Birns, or Briers, or Whins e'er troubled me.
Abd. 1768 A. Ross Helenore (S.T.S.) 82:
The lasses bidding do, an' o'er they gaes, An' of bleech'd birns pat on a canty bleeze.
Abd. 1790 A. Shirrefs Gloss. 3; Rxb. 1923 Watson W.-B.:
Birns, roots of burnt heath; or rather, the stronger stems of the heath that remain after the smaller twigs are gone.
em.Sc. 1920 J. Black Airtin' Hame 141:
Meal and water were well stirred with some handy heather “birn,” and partaken of with keen relish by the thankful wayfarer.
Lth. 1819 J. Thomson Poems 37:
Threescore o' bobbins, ten o' pirns, An auld blunt ax for hackin' birns.
Gall.(D) 1901 Trotter Gall. Gossip 192:
The next time he saw her she was . . . tryin tae roast a half herrin on the heather birns amang the asse.
Dmf. 1899 J. Shaw Country Schoolmaster 344:
It is said of a niggardly frugal person, “It's a queer brae that he couldna get a bern off.”

2. A burnt mark, a brand on parts of the bodies of animals for identification of ownership.Sc. 1725 Ramsay Gentle Shepherd Act III. Sc. ii. in Poems (1728) II.:
Fourscore of breeding Ews of my ain Birn, Five Ky that at ae Milkin fills a Kirn, I'll gi'e to Peggy that Day she's a Bride.
Sc. 1820 Scott Monastery ix.:
I have left him [a fat bullock] in the upper cleugh as . . . he is marked both with cut and birn.
Rxb. 1923 Watson W.-B. 56:
Birn. An identification mark on sheep, made by burning.

Hence the phr. skin and birn to express completeness or totality.Sc. 1718 Ramsay Chr. Kirke iii. xv. in Poems (1721):
The Smith's Wife her black Deary sought And fand him Skin and Birn.
Sc. 1818 Scott H. Midlothian xxiv.:
Do ye think our auld enemies of England . . . cares a boddle whether we didna kill ane anither, skin and birn, . . . all and sindry.?

[O.Sc. birn(e), byrn, a brand of ownership on an animal or thing, from birn, to burn; O.E. beornan, biernan; O.N. brinna.]

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"Birn n.2". Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. Accessed 1 Mar 2024 <>



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