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Scottish National Dictionary (1700–)

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First published 1952 (SND Vol. III).
This entry has not been updated since then but may contain minor corrections and revisions.

ELF, n. Sc. usage in combs.: 1. elf-arrow(-head), flint arrow-head (Abd.9 1943); cf. Eng. elf-bolt, and Sc. fairy arrow, -dart, id. (s.v. Fairy); 2. elf-bore, a knot-hole in wood, thought to have been caused by the fairies (Sc. 1825 Jam.2); 3. elf-candle, a spark or flash of light thought to be of supernatural origin; 4. elf-cup, a small stone, “perforated by friction at a waterfall, and believed to be the workmanship of the elves” (Dmf. 1825 Jam.2; Rxb.4 1950); 5. elf-door, see quot. under 12; 6. elf-furrow, (see quots.); 7. elf-girse, a kind of grass given to a cow thought to be elf-shot (Gall. 1824 MacTaggart Gallov. Encycl. 195, 210); 8. elf-hill, a fairy knoll (Uls.4 1950); 9. elf-knot, a ribbon knot thought to have been tied by the elves, which could not be loosed (see Fairy, 10); 10. elf-mill, (1) the death-watch beetle, an insect of the species Anobium (n.Sc. 1808 Jam.; Abd.9 1943); see also Chackie-mill, id.; (2) the sound made by the death-watch (n.Sc. 1808 Jam.); (3) (see quot.); 11. elf-pipe, a name given to old tobacco pipes sometimes dug up in fields; 12. elf-ring, a fairy ring (Abd.9 1943, Uls.4 1950); 13. elf-sho(o)t, see Elf-shoot, v. comb.; 14, elf(er)-stone, = 1. (Cai. 1900 E.D.D., elfer-); 15. elf-switch, a tangled mass of hair, cf. Eng. elf-lock.1. Sc. 1700 R. Wodrow Early Letters (S.H.S. 1937) 68:
To procure me some elf arroues if you can, . . . also a peice of quhat is called in Irish leag.
Abd. 1768 A. Ross Helenore 19:
And for a while shot out baith hand an' foot, As she had been wi' the elf arrow shot.
Ork. 1774 G. Low Tour (1879) 7–8:
A similar notion . . . is the belief of fairies, and their power of killing their cattle, which they are said to perform with those flint weapons called commonly Elfshots or Elfarrows.
Gall. 1824 MacTaggart Gallov. Encycl. 195:
There are sometimes found in Galloway, as they are all over Scotland, and being of stone, not of steel, are found as perfect as when used in war, for flint rusts not. They are called “elf-arrow-heads”, because it was long thought they were the workmanship of elves, and used by them when shooting children, cows, what not.
2. Sc. 1814 Illustr. North. Antiq. 404:
If at such a time, you were to look through an elf-bore in wood, where a thorter knot . . . has been taken out . . . you may see the elf-bull haiging [butting] with the strongest bull . . . in the herd.
3. Ayr. 1787 Burns Letters (ed. Ferguson) No. 125:
She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, . . . kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths . . . and other trumpery.
Sc. 1823 Scots Mag. (Sept.) 313:
Some ill-deedy smatchet brought me sic a wallop wi' a sna'-ba', as gart the fire flee out o' my een, bruinding like elf candle.
Slk. 1829 Hogg Tales, etc. (1837) II. 351:
D' ye think I dinna ken a corse light from an elf candle, an elf candle from a will-o'-wisp, and a will-o'-wisp from all other lights of this wide world.
4. Dmf. 1810 R. H. Cromek Remains 290:
The most approved charm against cantrips and spells was a branch of rowan tree plaited, and placed over the byre door. . . . Elfcups were placed over stable-doors for the like purpose.
6. Fif. 1876 A. Laing Lindores Abbey 4:
Where there are patches of soil of that rich dry kind to be found on the shelves of the trap formation, are still to be seen several short, narrow, high-raised ridges, evidently the remains of primitive agriculture. . . .This elevated tillage is known, in many parts of the country, as elf furrows.
Ayr. 1895 J. Smith Prehistoric Man in Ayr. 77:
On the hills there are marks of ancient cultivation known as “elf furrows,” a name indicative of their antiquity, and perhaps showing that the climate was at one time much milder than it is now, as no land is at present cultivated in this quarter.
8. Abd. 1853 W. Cadenhead Flights 144:
Set watchers on your tapmost hight — Nigg's auld elf-hill, or Girdle licht.
9. Highl. 1801 Edb. Mag. (Aug.) 103:
The elf-shots are supposed to kill cattle, the elf-knots to entangle the hair.
10. (3) Cai. 1900 E.D.D.:
At a few places, on listening at a hole in the ground a sound is heard which imagination thinks that of the clapper of a mill. I have often listened to the most celebrated of the elf-mills, and the sound is that of running water.
11. Lnk. 1880 W. Grossart Par. of Shotts 112:
Pipes for smoking have long been known under the name of Elf-pipes, and are frequently dug up.
12. Gall. 1824 MacTaggart Gallov. Encycl. 196:
Elfrings. On old pasture land, that slopes about at right angles to the rays of the Midsummer sun, circles, of all diameters, from three to thirty feet are to be seen; and these circles are beautifully defined by a kind of white mushroom growing thickly all round the circumference, except about a foot or two in some. These spaces unstudded with fungi, are called the “elf-doors”, the openings by which the elves go into their circle or ring to hold the lightsome dance.
14. Bwk. 1795 Stat. Acc.1 I. 73:
Arrow points of flint, commonly called elf or fairy stones, are to be seen here.
15. Slk. 1829 Hogg Shepherd's Cal. II. 85:
Her hairs were hanging in elf-switches.

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"Elf n.". Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. Accessed 16 Jun 2024 <>



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