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Scottish National Dictionary (1700–)

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First published 1965 (SND Vol. VI). Includes material from the 2005 supplement.
This entry has not been updated since then but may contain minor corrections and revisions.

LETTER, n. Sc. usages:

1. As in Eng., a written missive, in Sc. combs. and phr.: (1) burial letter, a written intimation of a funeral sent round a neighbourhood, a Funeral letter (Cai., Kcb. 1960); ¶(2) letter-boat, a small boat-shaped wooden float containing a letter which is launched with a favourable wind and tide from remote islands and allowed to drift to the mainland to be picked up by the finder and posted in the ordinary way; (3) letterflee, a moth, popularly supposed to herald the arrival of a letter; (4) fig. to get or gie somebody a letter, to get or give someone a sharp reprimand or telling-off (Ags.19 1960).(1) Ork. 1772 P. Fea Diary (3 Feb.):
Sent Geo. Dinnison to Westra with burial Letters.
(2) Sh. 1938 M. Powell 200,000 Feet on Foula 165:
She makes a desperate attempt to send him word by “letter-boat”, but a wayward current brings it back to the island.
(3) Sh. 1960 New Shetlander No. 5112:
Clocks, toosan-feet, moratoogs, letterflees.

2. In pl. in Sc. Law: a writ or warrant issued by the Court of Session under the Signet, containing a narrative of facts and a will or command that certain things be done by the addressee; “our ancient deeds were in the form of letters addressed to all and sundry, or to certain descriptions of persons, according to the nature of the subject; and more formal deeds, as the charter and judicial writs under the Signet, bear still the form of letters” (Sc. 1838 W. Bell Dict. Sc. Law 590). Most freq. found in combs. and phrs.: (1) criminal letters, a form of criminal charge, almost obs., in which the accused is summoned by the sovereign in letter form to answer the charge (see quots.); (2) letters of advocation, a writ obtained from the Court of Session by a party who wishes to appeal against the decision of an inferior court, “now incompetent in civil cases; competent but rare in criminal cases” (Sc. 1946 A. D. Gibb Legal Terms 7). See Advocation; (3) letters of arrestment, a writ in the form of letters to arrest or attach property for debt. See quots. and Arreistment; (4) letters of caption, a warrant in the form of letters to a messenger-at-arms to arrest a person for debt. See Caption; (5) letters conform, letters issued by the Supreme Court to render effective the decrees and judgments of inferior courts, gen. in cases of diligence against the person of a debtor (Sc. 1838 W. Bell Dict. Law Scot. 590); (6) letters of cursing, letters issued by a decree of the church courts excommunicating a contumacious offender. Now only hist.; (7) letters of ejection, see Ejection and (9) below; (8) letters of exculpation, a warrant granted to an accused person to cite witnesses in his defence (Sc. 1754 Erskine Principles iv. iv. § 53, 1838 W. Bell Dict. Law Scot. 392); (9) letters of fire and sword, a warrant from the Privy Council to enforce Court decrees of removing and ejection, obs. since 1707; (10) letters of four forms, the warrant issued as the first step in a process of diligence against a person for debt, obs. since 1613; (11) letters of horning, a warrant from a court directing officers of the law to charge a debtor to pay under penalty of outlawry. See also Horn, II., 4. Now obsol., but see 1931 quot. ib.; (12) letters of inhibition, a warrant prohibiting a debtor from burdening or alienating his heritage to the prejudice of his creditor (Sc. 1773 Erskine Institute ii. xi. § 3., 1946 A. D. Gibb Legal Terms 43). See also Inhibit; (13) letters of intercommuning, see Intercommune; (14) letters of or for intimation, letters issued by a judge to the prosecutor that he is to bring a prisoner to trial under the procedure of (21); (15) letters of lawburrows, see quots. and Lawburrows. Obs. since 1882; (16) letter of marque, Sc. usage: see quot.; (17) letters of open doors, a warrant authorising the forcing open of lockfast places containing goods to be poinded, now almost obs. See also Door, n.1, 5. (2); (18) letters of relaxation, a warrant removing the outlawry on one who has been put to the horn; (19) letters of slains, a writ subscribed by the relatives of someone slain in a private feud acknowledging the payment of compensation, abjuring all further claims or revenge and requesting the sovereign to grant a remission. Only hist. See Slains [For etym. see DOST slanis.]; (20) letters of supplement, “a warrant issued by the Court of Session to enable an inferior judge to summon a defender to appear when he did not live in the jurisdiction” (Sc. 1754 Erskine Principles i. ii. § 10, 1837 W. Bell Dict. Law Scot. 958, 1946 A. D. Gibb Legal Terms 87); (21) to run one's letters, to await trial. When a person detained in custody on a criminal charge wished to expedite his trial, he applied to a judge to call on the prosecutor to fix within sixty days the hearing of the case on a date not later than thirty days thereafter. During this period the prisoner was said to be running his letters. If the prosecutor failed to bring his case within the stipulated time the prisoner was then liberated. Obs. since 1887. See quots., (1) and (14).(1) Sc. 1711 R. Wodrow Analecta (M.C.) I. 329:
Criminal letters wer raising, which putt the gentlemen concerned in some fear.
Sc. 1754 Erskine Principles iv. iv. § 50:
The trial of crimes proceeds, either upon indictment, which is sometimes used, when the person to be tried is in prison; or by criminal letters, issuing from the signet of the justiciary.
Sc. 1770 Weekly Mag. (17 May) 223:
The criminal letters at the instance of his majesty's advocate, against Robert Nicol, was called.
Sc. 1801 Edb. Weekly Jnl. (25 March) 93:
James Hamilton … was served with criminal letters to stand trial for said crime before the Sheriff of Berwickshire.
Sc. 1838 W. Bell Dict. Law Scot. 489:
Where the private party is the principal prosecutor, although he has the concurrence of the Lord Advocate, it is not in the form of an indictment that he brings his action, but in the form of criminal letters. … addressed to messengers-at-arms, stating the crime, and containing a command … to summon the person accused, to appear and underlie the law.
Sc. 1904 A. M. Anderson Criminal Law 245, 252:
If no libel was served within the sixty days, the accused had to be liberated, and could only be reincarcerated on Last Criminal letters. … The Act of 1887 does away with criminal letters, and enacts that all prosecutions … shall proceed on indictment in the name of His Majesty's Advocate.
Sc. 1961 Gsw. Herald (21 Jan.) 1:
The common law still provides for the situation in which a private prosecution may be taken where the Lord Advocate has refused to prosecute. … The first step was the lodging with the Justiciary Office in Edinburgh of a bill for criminal letters.
(2) Sc. 1754 Erskine Principles i. ii. § 19:
A party who has either properly declined the jurisdiction of the judge before whom he had been cited, or who thinks himself aggrieved by any proceedings in the cause, may, before decree, apply to the court of Session to issue letters of advocation for calling the action from before the inferior court to themselves.
(3) Sc. 1722 W. Forbes Institute I. iii. 28:
Arrestment may be used … upon unregistered Bonds by virtue of Letters of Arrestment.
Sc. 1896 W. K. Morton Manual 339:
If the creditor's claim is liquid, that is, definitely ascertained and constituted, as by a bond or bill, he may, on production of the ground of debt, obtain Letters of Arrestment passing under the Signet, upon which arrestments may be used.
(4) Sc. 1722 W. Forbes Institute I. iii 24:
Caption or Letters of Caption, is a Warrant in the King's Name, under the Signet, for seizing the Debtor's Person, and committing him to prison.
Sc. 1773 Erskine Institute iv. iii. § 12:
If a debtor who is charged on letters of horning fail to make payment within the days of the charge, the charger, after getting him denounced rebel, … may apply for letters of caption.
(6) Sc. 1838 W. Bell Dict. Law Scot. 248:
At the Reformation, letters of cursing were abolished, along with the ecclesiastical system, of which they formed a part.
Sc. 1880 J. Skelton Crookit Meg xviii.:
Letters of cursing, says he, being the exclusive privelege o' the Kirk.
(9) Sc. 1773 Erskine Institute iv. iii. § 17:
If a party was so obstinate as to oppose by force the execution of these letters of ejection, and still to continue his possession in despite of law, the Scots Privy Council, while that court subsisted, granted letters of fire and sword, authorizing the sheriff to call for the assistance of the county, and dispossess him by all the methods of force.
Arg. 1898 N. Munro J. Splendid ii.:
I could long syne have got letters of fire and sword that made Badenoch and Nether Lochaber mine if I had the notion.
Sc. 1911 P. H. Brown Hist. Scot. III. 16:
Previous to the Revolution there probably was not a single Scottish statesman who would not heartily have approved of letters of fire and sword as the most satisfactory method of dealing with a nest of disaffected subjects.
Sc. 1935 Juridical Rev. LXVII. 123:
The last Commission of Fire and Sword was issued on 27th September 1703, at the instance of Lady Emila, Dowager of Lovat, against “Captain Simion Fraser of Beaufort.”
(10) Sc. 1754 Erskine Principles iv. iii. § 8:
The first step of personal execution was anciently by letters passing the signet, which were called letters of four forms, because the debtor was thereby charged to make payment, four times successively, each charge upon three days.
(11) Sc. 1722 W. Forbes Institute I. iii. 22:
General Letters of Horning are those obtained upon a Bill to the Lords of Session, against Persons without a previous Citation. Special or particular Letters of Horning are raised upon Decreets or Obligations registered in order to Execution.
Slk. 1820 Hogg Tales (1874) 275:
My father received letters of horning on bills to a large amount.
Sc. 1896 W. K. Morton Manual 481:
As a preliminary to either of these remedies [of enforcement of a decree for debt] the pursuer required to go through a cumbrous procedure of obtaining letters of Horning, putting the defender to the horn, and denouncing him a rebel to the Crown's authority.
(12) Sc. 1896 W. K. Morton Manual 166:
By old law, inhibition could be effected only by letters of inhibition, a writ passing under Her Majesty's signet, upon production of a liquid ground of debt, or of a depending summons.
(14) Sc. 1904 A. M. Anderson Criminal Law 245:
The judge, within twenty-four hours, had to issue letters for intimation.
(15) Sc. 1720 W. Forbes Institute I. ii. 198:
When any Person dreads bodily Harm, Injury or Oppression from another, he may obtain Letters of Lawburrows under the Signet, directed to Messengers at Arms, commanding them to take his Oath, that he dreads such Harm, and then to charge the Person of whom he dreads it, to find Caution.
Sc. 1778 Morison Decisions 8042:
James Sellars and his brother and sister were all apprehended on letters of lawburrows, obtained from the Sheriff, by Ninian Anderson.
(16) Lth. 1866 J. Colquhoun Sporting Days 16:
The eastern rocks are a favourite stance of the great cormorant, or “Scart,” called by fishermen at the breeding season, “Letter-o'-marques,” from the white patches on the top of each thigh.
(17) Sc. 1720 W. Forbes Institute I. iii. 32:
The Creditor … with the Messenger or Officer's Execution, bearing that Access was denied, will get Letters of open Doors.
Sc. 1770 Session Papers, Petition More and Irvine (17 July ) 8:
He returned on the 28th of June last to the house of the said William Duncan, with letters of open-doors, in order to poind the said furniture.
Sc. 1823 Session Cases (1823–4) 197:
The privilege of royal palace does not protect against poinding and letters of open doors within the precincts of Holyrood.
(18) Sc. 1720 W. Forbes Institute I. iii. 24:
The Effect of Denunciation is taken off by Letters of Relaxation under the Signet.
Sc. 1838 W. Bell Dict. Law Scot. 844:
The necessity of letters of relaxation is superseded, as to civil debts, by the act 20 Geo. II. c.50. In criminal prosecutions, one who has been outlawed may apply to the Court of Justiciary for letters of relaxation, reponing him against the sentence.
(19) Sc. 1704 Discourse of Present Importance 11:
This is the Reason and Occasion of the Custom of procuring Letters of Slains, wherein the nearest Friend of the Slaughtered Person declares himself satisfied.
Sc. 1779 G. Stuart Obs. Law Scot. 248:
On receiving it [assythment], the persons or family injured were to grant Letters of Slanes, which contained a remission of their malice, revenge, and resentment.
(21) Sc. 1752 Scots Mag. (Nov.) 556:
The court of justiciary … issued a precept, Nov. 29, for liberating Allan Stewart, James's son, he having run his letters.
Sc. 1773 Dmf. Weekly Mag. (30 March) 96:
Brown had been running his letters for the first mentioned crime, and the term prescribed for that form of law was very near expired, when the warrant of detainer was granted.
Sc. 1780 D. Hume Trial for Crimes (1800) I. 164:
The woman, having run her letters, as it is called, had been released on the 11th February 1715.
Sc. 1857 Tait's Mag. (Aug.) 496:
The trial [of Madeleine Smith] was removed to the High Court of Justiciary, and yet the prisoner was obliged in Scotch phraseology “to run her letters.” which, being translated into our modern language, means to avail herself of an old Scotch law, whereby if the crown do not proceed to the trial of an accused person within the time allowed by the law after the accused has given notice of the wish to be tried, the proceedings terminate.
Abd. 1880 G. Webster Crim. Officer 34:
He ran's letters, an' was triet at Edinburgh i' the Justiciary Coort.

3. A spark on the wick of a burning candle, “so denominated by the superstitious, who believe that the person to whom the spark is opposite will soon receive some intelligence. by letter” (n.Sc. 1825 Jam.). Also in n.Eng. dial.

4. As in Eng., a letter of the alphabet, in comb. letters bodle, appar. a synonym for the Doit, n.1, q.v., which had usually the name of the Dutch province in which it was issued inscribed in large letters on the reverse. Also lettered bodle, id.Bnff. 1707 Annals Bnff. (S.C.) II. 77:
An Act was drawn against Hollands copper or lettered bodles to be given in offering. [1731 Ib. 158.]
Slg. 1722 Burgh Rec. Slg. (1889) 174:
Considerable quantities of Dutch doitts or letters bodles which are not current coin.

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"Letter n.". Dictionary of the Scots Language. 2004. Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd. Accessed 15 Jun 2024 <>



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