Scottish National Dictionary (1700–)

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KIRN, n.1, v. Also kern. Gen.Sc. forms and usages of Eng. churn. Also in n.Eng. dial.

I. n. ‡1. A churn. Also a churnful. Gen.Sc. Sc. 1721 J. Kelly Proverbs 191:
It is eith to learn the Cat to the Kirn. [An ill custom is soon learn'd, but not so soon forgotten. — Ib. (1818) 58.]
Edb. 1773 Fergusson Poems (S.T.S.) II. 87:
She seenil lays her hand upon a turn, Neglects the kebbuck, and forgets the kirn.
Ayr. 1786 Burns Address to the Deil x.:
Countra wives, wi' toil an' pain, May plunge an' plunge the kirn in vain.
Sc. 1820 Scott Monastery xxxv.:
I see it is ill done to teach the cat the way to the kirn.
Bwk. 1847 R. Chambers Pop. Rhymes 11:
The hooks and crooks of Lambden Burn, Fill the bowie and fill the kirn.
Abd. 1873 P. Buchan Inglismill 30:
There's the kirn to ca', chessels to fill.
w.Sc. 1879 J. Napier Folk Lore 81:
A farmer's wife . . . wrought at the kirn, but . . . no butter would appear.
Sh. 1916 J. Burgess Rasmie's Smaa Murr (Aagust 10):
A kirn o blaand is wirt mair dan a kig o braandy.
Ork. 1929 E. Linklater White-Maa's Saga ii.:
Woman, thoo'll strip to thee skin afore thoo touches the kern.

Combs.: (1) cream kirn, a small churn for cream (Ork. 1960); (2) milk kirn, a churn for milk (Bnff. 1706 Sc. N. & Q. (Ser. 2) II. 75; I.Sc. 1960); (3) plowt kirn, plout-, an upright churn, worked by a plunger on the end of a long pole (Ork. 1922 J. Firth Reminisc. 104; Ork., Per., Fif., m.Lth., Dmf. 1960). Cf. Plowt, Plump; (4) sowen kirn, a churn in which sowens were steeped or kept (Ork. 1960). See Sowens; (5) stannin kirn, = (3) (Kcd., Fif., Kcb. 1960). (3) Ork. 1907 Old-Lore Misc. I. ii. 63:
Dey . . . even lifted the lud o' the ald plowt kirn.
(4) Mry. 1708 E. D. Dunbar Social Life (1865) 212:
A sowen kirn, and a sowen sive.

2. Some natural feature resembling a churn in noise, motion or shape, gen. as a place-name (I.Sc. 1883 J. R. Tudor Ork. and Sh. 657; Ork. 1960). Cf. Kill, n.1, 3. (ii). Sc. 1750 Scots Mag. (March) 113:
And the kirn-burnie rinning by our feet, Will gar us think our e'ening-walk right sweet. . . . A small village near Edinburgh that has a rivulet running by it, a deep pool of which is called the kirn.
Sh. 1899 Evans and Buckley Fauna Shet. 23:
A most wonderful “lum” or shaft called the “Kirn of Slettans”, 170 feet deep, reaching down to the sea.

3. From meanings of the v.: (1) milk in the process of being churned; buttermilk (Sh. 1908 Jak. (1928); Abd., Fif. 1960). Also kirnie, -ey (Rxb. 1919 T.S.D.C., 1923 Watson W.-B.; Ags., Per., Rxb. 1960), which may be a reduced form of 4. (4); curd (Sh. 1908 Jak. (1928), Sh. 1960). Phr.: the kirn's brok(k)en, an expression in churning to indicate the stage when the milk breaks up and forms butter particles (Sh., Cai., Kcd., Ags., Fif., Lth., Ayr. 1960). See Break, Suppl. (1) Sh. 1845 Stat. Acc.2 XV. 125:
Into the butter-milk, or “bleddick,” is poured a quantity of boiling water, by which means the curd is separated from the serum. The former, called “kirn,” is supped with sweet milk; the latter, called “bland,” is used as a drink.
Lnl. 1880 T. Orrock Fortha's Lyrics 91:
A drink frae the burn, or at maist a drap kirn.
Ags. 1895 Caledonia (Lowson) I. 323:
I am partial to a drink of kirney, especially new ca'd.
Sh. 1899 Shetland News (13 May):
“Is da kirn no brokken yit?” “No shü, mam, I tell'd dee 'at da mylk wisna runn.”
Ags.17 1941:
“That nose wisna pentit wi' kirnie”, said to a red-nosed man who refused a drink on the grounds of being a teetotaller.
Sh. 1959 Shetland News (21 April) 3:
Bowls of fresh milk and kirn with a dusting of oatmeal on top.

(2) A churning motion, a confused stirring (Sh., ne.Sc., Ags., Fif., Lnk., s.Sc. 1960). Ags. 1896 Arbroath Guide (14 March) 3:
I gae a kirn aboot wi' my spune amang't.

(3) A sloppy mess, as of mud; an unpleasant or distasteful mixture of food, liquid, etc. (Sh., Abd., Fif. 1960). Sc. 1808 Jam.:
The ground's a mere kirn.
Abd.6 1910:
In a rainy time, when there is a lot of mud or “dubs” about the doors, we say “Sic a kirn.”
Abd. 1958 People's Jnl. (6 Sept.):
Ah dinna think Ah ever saw the grun in sic a saft kirn.

(4) A muddle, jumble, confusion (Sh., ne.Sc., Ags., Fif., Kcb. 1960). Also kirn up, id. (Abd. 1960); a confused stir or uproar, a throng, a melee (ne.Sc., Ags. 1960); work done in a lazy, careless, slovenly, or disgusting fashion (Bnff. 1866 Gregor D. Bnff. 95; ne.Sc. 1960). Bnff. 1927 E. S. Rae Hansel fae Hame 24:
Fae the sicht o' the fauchie fite-faced croods An' the kirn o' the toon's mineer.
Abd. 1957 People's Jnl. (24 Aug.):
The auldest residenter tells ma he canna min' o' the countraside ever bein' in sic a kirn up's it's in this August.

(5) A rummaging, pottering, an aimless trifling or dallying, a fussy or excessive attentiveness (to a person) (Bnff. 1866 Gregor D. Bnff. 95; ne.Sc., Ags. 1960). Often followed by wi. Abd. 1934 D. Scott Stories 11:
A gang t' the seaside for a day . . . an' ha'e a kirn amon' the rocks.
A gey billie yon for haddin a kirn amon' (or wi') 'e quines.

4. Combs.: (1) kirn cap, -kap, a wooden bowl used for lifting buttermilk out of a churn (Ork. 1929 Marw.). Cf. Cap, n., 1.; (2) kirn-korses, the plunger of an upright churn, consisting of a long pole fixed at the centre of a wooden wheel with cross-shaped spokes (Sh. 1914 Angus Gl., Sh. 1960); (3) kirn-licker, a nickname for an inhabitant of Stenness in Orkney (Ork. 1960); (4) kirn-mil(c)k, buttermilk, curds made from buttermilk (Sh. a.1838 Jam. MSS. XII. 125, 1914 Old-Lore Misc. VII. ii. 70; I. and ne.Sc., em.Sc.(a), Edb., Dmb., Dmf., s.Sc. 1960). See 3. above. Also fig.; (5) kirn-staff, (a) (the handle of) the plunger of an upright churn (Sc. 1734 J. Spotiswood Hope's Practicks 542; Gall.1824 MacTaggart Gallov. Encycl. 305; Sh. 1914 Angus Gl.; I.Sc., Abd. 1960); (b) the sun-spurge, Tithymalus helioscopia (Gall. 1905 E.D.D. Suppl.). Cf. n.Eng. dial. churn-staff, id., and deil's kirnstaff s.v. Deil, n., VII. A. (14); (6) kirn-stick, = (5) (a) (Bnff. 1960). Also fig.; †(7) kirn-swee, “an instrument for facilitating the churning of milk. It is composed of an axis moving between two joists — into which axis are mortised two sticks at right angles, the one a great deal longer than the other. The churn-staff is attached to the shorter one, and the larger one is held in the hand, and pushed backwards and forwards” (Sc. 1825 Jam.). Cf. Glaiks. (1) Ork. 1915 Old-Lore Misc. VIII. i. 42:
Sheu set tae wark bae whit dey caa'd da airt o the kirn cap.
(4) Sh. 1815 Shet. Advert. (6 Jan. 1862):
Maybe a drop o' kirnmilck at da aige o a time.
Slk. 1827 Hogg Shepherd's Cal. (1874) vii.:
'Complished gentleman! 'Complished kirn-milk!
Ags. 1892 Brechin Advertiser (6 Dec.) 3:
[They] were never sweer to gie a beggar man or wifie a piece or a drink o' kirn milk.
m.Sc. 1927 J. Buchan Witch Wood xii.:
Drink off this wersh brew, sir — it was my mither's way to caller the blood — just kirn--milk boiled wi' soorocks.
Sh. 1959:
There were three ways of preparing kirn-milk depending on how hot water and cold were added. In one case a very firm white cheese floated on top, to a previous generation I think strubba. In another case small particles floated but did not adhere, gyola. In another case these particles sank, druttle.
(5) (a) Edb. 1773 Fergusson Poems (S.T.S.) II. 87:
My kirnstaff now stands gizzand at the door.
Sc. 1837 Chambers's Jnl. (28 Oct.) 319:
The kirn, which stood on the kitchen floor, with a kirn staff in the middle.
Ayr. 1845 Ayrshire Wreath 133:
He wore a kind o' pepper-and-saut breeks . . . owr a pair o shanks as lean as kirn-staffs.
Bwk. 1856 G. Henderson Pop. Rhymes 84:
Peggy Little, the gill-wife, has broken some charm wi' her rowantree beetle or kirn-staff!
Ork. 1922 J. Firth Reminisc. 104:
The housewife, as she plunged the kirn staff in the deep “plout-kirn”, made a circuit at regular intervals round the kirn, occasionally waving one hand in an outward direction to keep these mischievous spirits away.
Sh. 1951 Sh. Folk-Book II. 3:
Sibbie made fir her wi de dreepin' kirn staff an' de lass tøk de door ower her head.
(6) Sc. 1909 Colville 134:
For the be-fogged bungler were reserved the choice epithets, “kirn-stick”, or dunderhead.
Abd.2 1942:
Dinna coup aboot the kirn that wye, lassie, or ye'll brak the kirn-stick.

II. v. 1. tr. To churn. Gen.Sc. Ppl.adj. kirn(e)d, kirnt, vbl.n. kirnin(g), -an, -(e)en, one complete act of churning, the quantity of milk required for this (Sh. 1914 Angus Gl.; Sh., Ork., Cai., ne.Sc., Ags., Fif., Lth., Ayr., Slk., Rxb. 1960), the quantity of butter so produced (ne.Sc., Fif., Lth., Ayr., Kcb., Rxb. 1960); deriv. Kirner, a nickname for an inhabitant of Burness in Orkney (Ork.1 1941), or of Clumlie in Dunrossness, Shetland (Sh. 1960 New Shetlander No. 53. 27). Edb. 1773 Fergusson Poems (S.T.S.) II. 213:
For you nae mair the thrifty gudewife sees Her lasses kirn, or birze the dainty cheese.
Kcb. 1806 J. Train Poetical Reveries 29:
An' there the raukle carlin stood Kirning the Witch o' Endor's blood.
Ayr. 1822 H. Ainslie Pilgrimage 50:
Be it [milk] cream'd, be it kirn'd, Be it lappert, be it yearned.
Abd. 1827 J. Imlah May Flowers 20:
She bauks an' she brews — milks my Hawkie an' Hornie, Kirns butter — croods kebbucks — cloots claise now an' then.
Slk. a.1835 Hogg Katie Cheyne (1874) iii.:
She's as sweet as a handful of unpressed curd, and as new to the world as fresh kirned butter.
Sh. 1899 J. Spence Folk-Lore 239:
I'll creep me up an' kirn da tip o' milk.
Lnk. 1910 C. Fraser Glengonnar 47:
His mother nearly gaed oot hersel' wi' temper when she saw her fine kirnin o' cream on the floor.

Combs. and Phr.: (1) kirnin(g) day, the day on which churning was done (Abd.1 1929; I.Sc., Abd., Ags., Kcb. 1960); (2) kirnan-rung, the plunger of a churn (w.Sc. 1825 Jam.). Cf. I. 4. (4); †(3) kirnin' stane, a red-hot stone used for heating the churn; (4) kirnin'-water, hot water used to mix the buttermilk in a churn (Sh. 1960); (5) to kirn water, to do something useless or futile. (1) Fif. 1898 S. Tytler Mrs Carmichael's Goddesses v.:
She was in the habit of carrying round the Westbyres butter and eggs to Mrs Meldrum's customers on her kirning-day.
(2) Rnf. 1790 A. Wilson Poems 59:
Gin ye please our John an' me, Ye'se get the kirnan rung To lick, this day.
w.Dmf. 1921 J. L. Waugh Heroes 51:
“Shankie” we ca'd him, because he was strecht up an' doon like a kirnan rung.
(3) Sh. 1899 Shetland News (13 May):
Pit da kirnin' stane i da hert hole o' da fire, an' com' an' pick apo' da kirn.
(4) Sh. 1898 Ib. (23 July):
Shü ows'd da kirnin'-watter apo' da kirn wi' a shappin kan.
(5) Sc. 1721 J. Kelly Proverbs 89:
Daffen and want of Wit makes old Wives kirn Water. Spoken when we alledge that nothing but egregious Folly could tempt a Man to do such a Thing.

2. (1) To stir, mix up or together with a churning motion (Sh., ne.Sc., Ags. 1960). Ayr. 1822 Galt Sir A. Wylie xxxiv.:
O doctor! it would hae been mair to the purpose, had ye been kirning drogs with the pistle and mortar in your ain shop.
Abd. 1928 J. Baxter A' Ae 'Oo' 2:
She kirns the bannocks roon' the caup.

(2) To cause to turn or rotate; to wind up, (a piece of machinery) (Rxb. 1923 Watson W.-B. 192; Wgt., Kcb. 1960); to bore with a drill or circular chisel (Sc. 1886 J. Barrowman Mining Terms 40; Edb.6 1944; Fif. 1960). Hence kirner, a hand boring-chisel, jumper (Ib.); of a stringed musical instrument: to screw up, to tune (Watson). Rxb. 1925 E. C. Smith Mang Howes 23:
The motor dreiver . . . beguid o kirneen an caain eis injin.

(3) intr. To rummage (in), search, hunt or poke about (Sh., ne.Sc., Ags., Per. 1960); to wallow, to turn this way and that, esp. in something soft or messy (Sh. 1960); to work with one's hands in a sloppy, purposeless or disgusting manner (Sc. 1808 Jam.; Bnff. 1866 Gregor D. Bnff. 95; Sh., ne.Sc., Ags., Fif. 1960). Ppl.adj. kirnin, footling, inefficient (ne.Sc., Ags. 1960). Ags. 1897 in A. Reid Bards of Ags. 70:
But whunstone cairns, wi' richt guid-will, We kirned aboot, and searched for rabbits.
Abd. 1906 J. Christie Drachlaw Revisited 4:
A bonnie wimplin' burn, Where aft the chaps for troots did kirn.
Abd. c.1910 G. Greig Folk-Song (1914) cxxxvi.:
He wis lyin' kirnin', Amon' saft soap, piz-meal, corn floor an' yirnin'.
Ags. 1922 J. B. Salmond B. Bowden viii.:
He was tearin' an' kirnin' ower the leaves o' the Bible as gin he was to rug them a' fae the brods.
Bnff.2 1942:
She canna work; she's an eeseless kirnin' craitur. The quine can hardly wash the dishes; she kirns amo' them a hale foreneen.
Ags. 1948 J. C. Rodger Mary Ann 6:
Fin my nose-gay wiz feenished, I cudna find a weise-like bit o' ribbon tae pet roond it, so I kirns aboot ee rag-poke.

(4) Of a crowd: to swarm, to “mill” about (Sh., ne.Sc., Ags., Fif., Ayr., Wgt. 1960). Abd. 1921 R. L. Cassie Doric Ditties 27:
Bonnie lassie will ye gang Frae the kirnin' o' the thrang.

(5) Of the soil cut in a furrow: to break or crumble before turning over properly in the course of ploughing (Ayr.9 1952), the earth being, as it were, churned up.

(6) Fig., mostly with wi: to fuss over, to be constantly and demonstratively affectionate towards or concerned about, to mollycoddle, to amuse oneself frivolously, to dally, to flirt (ne.Sc. 1960). Vbl.n. kirnin, mutual sport, dalliance, fun together. Abd. 1754 R. Forbes Jnl. From London 29:
The third [quean] wis . . . as wanton as a spenin lamb. I believe she was a leel maiden, an' I canna say bat I had a kirnen wi' her, an' a kine o' a harlin favour for her.
Abd. 1824 G. Smith Douglas 112:
For, sin' we were bairnies, we aye had a kirning, And mony a gowan and rash did we pu'.
Bnff.2 1942:
Ye sid see him kirnin' wi' the deemie a' the forenicht.

[O.Sc. has kyrn, 1478, kirne-milk, 1549, - staff, 1636.]

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"Kirn n.1, v.". Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. Accessed 6 Dec 2021 <>



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