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Scottish National Dictionary (1700–)

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First published 1971 (SND Vol. VIII). Includes material from the 1976 and 2005 supplements.
This entry has not been updated since then but may contain minor corrections and revisions.

SOWANS,, v. Also sowens, sowin(g)s; so'ns, soans (Uls. 1880 Patterson Gl.), sones; sewens (Abd. 1929 Sc. Readings (Paterson) 79); souans (Sh. 1937 J. Nicolson Yarns 38), souens (s.Sc. 1802 J. Sibbald Chron. Sc. Poetry Gl., s.v. sowce), souins; sooens (Sc. 1827 Wilson Noctes Amb. (1855) I. 334; Mry. 1887 J. Thomson Speyside Par. 77), sooins (Sc. 1778 Philosoph. Trans. LXVIII. 632; Ork. 1971), soo(w)ans; suans (Sc. 1831 J. Logan Sc. Gael (1876) II. 124), suins (Ayr. 1790 A. Tait Poems 292); sweens (Edb. 1791 J. Learmont Poems 168, Lnk. 1893 J. Crawford Sc. Verses 72); swins (Edb. 1801 J. Thomson Poems 52); in sing. also sown, sowine, soon (Sh. 1904 E.D.D.) in sense 3. and Combs. Also fig. Deriv. sowany, soweny, -ie, sowny, -ie, sooney, -ie. [em.Sc. ′suinz; sm.Sc. ′sʌuɪnz; ne.Sc. ′soɪnz; Lnk. swinz]

I. n. ‡1. (1) A kind of flummery; husks or Seeds of oats, together with some fine meal, steeped in water for about a week until the mixture turns sour, then strained and the husks thoroughly squeezed to extract all the meal, when the jelly-like liquor is left for a further period to ferment and separate, the solid glutinous matter which sinks to the bottom being sowans, and the liquid, swats (Sc. 1782 J. Sinclair Ob. Sc. Dial. 146; s.Sc. 1802 J. Sibbald Chron. Sc. Poetry Gl.; Sc. 1808 Jam.; Per., Fif., Lth., Ayr. 1915–26 Wilson; Cai. 1934; Uls. 1953 Traynor). Gen. (but now chiefly I. and n.) Sc., obsol. Sowans are usu. prepared by boiling with water and salt, and are eaten like porridge. See also boiling-, drinkingsowans below. Also fig.Sc. 1715 Major Fraser's MS. (Fergusson 1889) II. 165:
Prepared slabs of Butter'd ale and Souins for myself.
Sc. 1727 A. Buchan Descr. St. Kilda 22:
These Sowens produce a good Yest, which makes good Ale.
Sc. 1764 Boswell Grand Tour, Germany, etc. (Pottle 1953) 82:
We supped on sowens hearty for we were canty chields.
Ayr. 1785 Burns Halloween xxviii.:
Butter'd So'ns, wi' fragrant lunt, Set a' their gabs a steerin.
Abd. 1795 Stat. Acc.1 XXI. 142:
The ordinary diet of farmer and servant may be described by the questions asked, viz. Have you got your pottage? i.e. your breakfast; Have you got your sowans? i.e. your dinner; Have you got your brose? i.e. your supper.
Peb. 1802 C. Findlater Agric. Peb. 44:
These shells thus separated, and having the finer particles of the meal adhering to them, called mill seeds, are preserved for sowins.
Mry. 1813 W. Leslie Agric. Mry. 185:
In this country sowins are prepraed at short intervals of about a week. In Caithness more art is displayed, the whole stock for half a year or more being made up at once; and similar to starch, is preserved, instead of the bran, in the form of dry paste; in which state it is sent to families resident in Edinburgh.
Sc. 1818 Scott H. Midlothian xlii.:
The parish were hungering for spiritual manna, having been fed but upon sour Hieland sowens by Mr Duncan MacDonought, the last minister.
Bnff. 1847 A. Cumming Tales 44:
Some o' the folks had been langin' for a drink o' sowens.
Abd. 1851 W. Anderson Rhymes 127:
On Christmas nicht, frae the Shiprow to Shore, He claikit wi' sowens ilka shutter and door.
Bnff. 1881 W. M. Philip K. MacIntosh's Scholars xi.:
I thocht that I wud be squeezed to sowins.
Sh. 1899 J. Spence Folk-Lore 174:
When sifted, the meal fell into three divisions — meal, groats and ootsiftins, from the last of which that delicious food called sooans are made.
em.Sc. 1909 J. Black Melodies 133:
Sowens, as an article of food, was a good deal used, being made from the coarser particles of oatmeal, which were returned to farmers by millers, along with their “melder” or milling of meal.
Ork. 1910 Old-Lore Misc. III. i. 28:
For syan sooans whin dey trist da suds.
Arg. 1937:
Sooans an' drummock an pease brose.
Abd. 1955 W. P. Milne Eppie Elrick viii.:
A gweed caapfu o' sowens ur a bilin o' raains.
sm.Sc. 1979 Alan Temperley Tales of Galloway (1986) 146:
Soon the grinwan was finished and the boy went into the house to beg a measure of 'sowens' - steeped and boiled oat siftings - for scattering in the water to attract the trout.
Hebr 1995 Angus Duncan Hebridean Island: Memories of Scarp 94:
As a change from porridge a housewife sometimes made sowans for supper. This dish was made by boiling oat husks for several hours. My recollections of sowans are that it was greyish in colour, with the consistency of thin porridge without any grains, and that it had a pungent taste.

(2) In prov. and colloq. phrs., many based on the fact that sowans was one of the staple dishes in Scotland, along with porridge and brose.Sc. 1721 J. Kelly Proverbs 274:
Our Sowins are ill sowr'd, ill seil'd, ill salted, ill soden, thin, and few o' them . . . a Proverb, which we repeat when we think our Friend does not entertain us heartily.
Wgt. 1880 G. Fraser Lowland Lore 158:
A meagre supply of anything, more particularly any eatable, is said to be “like the sowens o' Wigg,” which were — warm eneuch, an' caul' eneuch; fresh eneuch, an' saut eneuch; thick eneuch, an' thin eneuch; an' yet they had a fault, viz., there was owre little o' them.
Abd. 1882 G. Macdonald Castle Warlock iv.:
Grizzie made use of a terrible threat. “As sure's sowens!” she said.
Kcb. 1894 Crockett Raiders xxxvi .:
“Ye hae a gran' view,” he says . . . “It's a fine nicht for sowans,” says I. “Your back gaun doon the loaning wad be a far finer view. Tramp, my lad.”
m.Sc. 1927 J. Buchan Witch Wood xi.:
As dacent a body as ever boiled sowens.
Kcd., Ags. 1929 Montrose Standard (4 Jan., 19 April):
A'll be sowens an' a'll be suppit. . . . It's ill suppin' sowens wi' an elshon.

2. Combs. and deriv.: (1) bleared sowens, sowans that are made too thin (Rxb. 1825 Jam.); (2) boiling sowens, = 1.; (3) brown-plate sowans, sowans cooked like porridge (Cai. 1907 County Cai. (Horne) 134, Cai. 1971); (4) drinking-sowans, Skrine, the thin jelly-like liquor obtained after straining and before fermentation, which is usu. prepared by heating (but not boiling) until it thickens a little (ne.Sc. 1971). It is of a much thinner consistency than (3), and is drunk rather than eaten with a spoon; (5) gaun-'e-gither sowans, = (4) (Cai. 1907 County Cai. (Horne) 134, Cai. 1971); (6) knottie-sowans, knottin(g)-, knottit-, id. (Abd., Kcd. 1971). For quots. see Knot, v., 1. (1) Combs. (a), Knottie, 3.; (7) raw sooans, id. (Ork. 1971). See also Raw, adj., 1. (6); (8) sey-sones, seisons, sye-sowens, the strainer used to sieve the sowans after the initial steeping (Sc. 1897 J. Colville Byways 39, seisons). See (25) and (28) and Sye; (9) sirpa-sooens, = (1) (Sh. 1908 Jak. (1928), s.v. sirpa); (10) sowen-boat, a wooden barrel or tub used for steeping and fermenting sowans (Sc. 1825 Jam.). See Boat, n.1; (11) sowan bowie, id. (Ags. 1825 Jam.). See Bowie, n.1 Transf. in comb. deil's sowen-bowie, a children's game (Ib.); (12) sowan(s) breakfast, breakfast consisting of sowans (Uls. 1953 Traynor); (13) sowan(s) co(u)g, = (10) (Cai. 1971). See Cog, n.1; (14) sowan(s) kirn, id.; (15) sowan kit, id. (Sc. 1825 Jam.; Traynor). See Kit, n.1; (16) sowin-morning, see quot. and cf. (26); (17) sowen mug, an earthenware dish for holding sowans; (18) sowan-pail, = (10); (19) sowin-pig, id. See Pig, n.2; (20) sowen(s) porridge, a dish of porridge made by boiling meal with raw sowans (q.v.) (Ags. 1808 Jam.; Traynor); (21) sowan(s) pot, the dish in which sowans is cooked; (22) sowan pron, the rough husks of oats used for making sowans; (23) sowan scone, a kind of pancake made with sowan swats in place of milk (Ork., Cai. 1971); (24) sowan-seeds, -sids, = (22) (Sc. 1825 Jam., s.v. seidis; Cai. 1904 E.D.D.; Traynor; Cai., ne.Sc. 1971). See Sid; (25) sowan-si(e)ve, -seive, = (8) (Sc. 1746 Scots Mag. (July 1818) 43, souin). See also (28); (26) sowans nicht, Christmas Eve, Old Style (see quots.) (ne.Sc. 1971); (27) sowans pan, = (21); (28) sowens say, = (8); (29) sowan supper, a supper of sowans; (30) sowan-swats, sooan-, the liquid poured off sowans (Nai. 1896 Gregor MSS.; Ork. 1929 Marw., s.v. swets; I.Sc., Cai. 1971). See 1.; (31) sowen-tub, = (10) (wm.Sc. 1825 Jam.); (32) sow(a)ny, soweny, soonie, -ey, (i) made of sowans. Combs.: sowany-daigh (Ork. 1971); -rollies, uncooked sowans rolled in oatmeal and eaten as a snack; sowany scones, = (23) (ii) like sowans or mixed with sowans, and hence soft and slobbery; (33) suppin sowans, = (2) (Abd. 1971); (34) Yeel sones, sowans specially prepared for the festivities of Christmas. See (26).(2) Sc. 1897 J. Colville Byways 40:
Boiling sownes lay in the sowen bowie or barrel till it fermented and soured, then it was boiled to a thin porridge, and taken with milk.
(4) Sc. 1897 J. Colville Byways 40:
The former [drinking-sowens], when newly made, is like thin pea-soup, and is put on the fire at once, but never allowed to boil. When it rises and is thickened, it is taken off and poured out. In olden times it was then drunk off, but, in later, sweetened with treacle first.
Abd. 1922 Banffshire Jnl. (24 Oct.) 2:
“Drinkin sowens” — weel “syed” with oat cakes — the curled kind — and carry seeds in them.
(6) Abd. 1845 Stat. Acc.2 XII. 198:
Welcoming Christmas morn by liberal libations of drinking-sowins, or as they are called by the old people, knotting-sowins.
(7) Ork. 1920 J. Firth Reminisc. 91:
Nothing to assuage his thirst but “a drink o blathoo” or “a speunfu' o' raw soowans”
Kcd. 1952 People's Friend (31 May) 17:
Sowens was taken with milk. If this were not available, the dish was termed raw sowens, and in the Mearns this was referred to as “eatin' sowens wi' sowens”
Abd. 1954 Huntly Express (1 Oct.):
After a few days in steep the whole mass is put through what farm folk call a search to remove or separate the husks from the flummery mass of fine oatmeal and water, which is called raw sowens.
(10) Sc. 1776 D. Herd Sc. Songs II. 214:
She has dung the hen aff her eggs; And she's drown'd in the sowin-boat.
(11) Abd. 1785 A. Forbes Forbes of Forbesfield (1905) 47:
1 Sown Bowie.
Abd. 1902 Weekly Free Press (18 Jan.):
A huge sowen bowie that stood by the edge of the wall.
Sc. 1929 F. M. McNeill Scots Kitchen 202:
A special tub called a sowan-bowie, like a small barrel with an open end, was formerly used for this purpose [steeping the sids].
(12) Fif. 1846 W. Tennant Muckomachy 18:
Till up his stomach hastily The sowens-breakfast threw again.
(13) Sc. 1722 Ramsay Poems (S.T.S.) III. 14:
The Supper Sowin-Cogs and Bannocks Stood cooling on the Soles of Winnocks.
Cai. 1907 County Cai. (Horne) 134:
[The sids] were mixed with water in the “sowans coug” and left for two or three weeks to steep.
(14) Bnff. 1706 Sc. N. & Q. (Ser. 2) II. 75:
A sowing kirn and a milk kirne.
Mry. 1914 Northern Scot:
Gettin haud o' a kitlin and liftin the lid o' the sooans kirn an' pittin't in.
(15) Rs. 1703 W. MacGill Old Ross-shire (1909) 128:
Timber plate, sowen kitt.
Sc. 1776 D. Herd Sc. Songs II. 139:
'Tis fa'en in the sowen-kit.
(16) Abd. 1869 G. Gall MS. Diary (4 Jan.):
Tomorrow will be our Sowin morning, as many people delights in running about from Town to Town and drinking sowins and getting fun, and making a noise.
(17) Sc. 1733 W. Thomson Orpheus Caled. II. 99:
A Spurtle and a Sowen Mug.
(18) Sc. 1726 Ramsay T.-T. Misc. (1876) II. 11:
A Milsie, and a sowine Pale.
(19) Sc. c.1730 R. Chambers Sc. Songs (1829) I. 147:
A sowin-pig, a 'tatoe-bittle.
(21) Sc. 1750 A. Pennecuik Poems 19:
Altho' the Sown-Pat should cool.
Ags. 1822 Scots Mag. (Dec.) 659:
The copper-boiler is succeeded by the sowens pot, sowens being the regular supper of the family.
Mry. 1840 W. Gordon Poet. Traveller 215:
To cheer the Christmas mornin', The sowans pot was then set on.
Uls. 1880 Patterson Gl.:
A wud nae gi'e scrapin's o' a sowan pot for it.
(22) Mry. 1851 D. Paul Poems 67:
What heaps o' dust an' sowan pron.
(23) Cai. 1907 County Cai. (Horne) 124:
From the creamy deposit pancakes were made: and these were “sowan scones”.
Ork. 1911 J. Omond 80 Years Ago 12:
All the invited guests contributed to the entertainment, the men supplying a bottle of whisky or wine, and the women hens, cheese, butter, oatcakes, sowan scones, etc. This was called a penny wedding.
Ork. 1929 F. M. McNeill Sc. Kitchen 176:
Sowen Scones: Flour, sugar, salt, bicarbonate of soda, the liquid poured off sowens, caraways (optional).
Ork. 1952 R. T. Johnston Stenwick Days (1984) 30:
"Me sooan scones is the best in the pairish," she said, "if I dae say id mesel, an' me bere bannocks is next tae Chessie Clouston's."
(24) Gsw. 1754 Gsw. Courant (28 Jan.):
A peck of good bran, or new sowan seeds.
Sc. 1780 J. Burnett Crim. Law (1811) 546:
Throwing a quantity of arsenic into a kit or barrel where the sowen-seeds were kept.
Abd. 1946 J. C. Milne Orra Loon 43:
Geordie weet as sowen-sids.
(25) Sc. 1747 R. Maxwell Bee-Master 81:
Sives larger and wider in the Holes, than those commonly called Sowen Sives.
Edb. 1788 J. Macaulay Poems 122:
The carlin at first gird Drew mony an unco score upo' the yird, Syne turn'd about, an' mumbled o'er her grace, An' held a sowen sieve afore her face.
ne.Sc. 1884 D. Grant Lays 3:
Skeps o' bees, an' sowen-sieves.
Abd. 1926 Abd. Univ. Rev. (March) 113:
Like a muckle sowen-sieve, wi' twa lang han'l's or shafts at ilka side o' the box.
(26) Abd. 1903 W. Watson Auld Lang Syne 95:
Christmas or Auld Yule was then held on the fifth day of January, and the night preceding was “Yule Even” or “Sowens Nicht”. “Sowens Nicht”, however, was fixed by arrangement, so that we had the young people of two or three families to share our sowens, bread, cheese, and ale, and we in turn went and shared theirs.
Abd. 1922 Weekly Free Press (7 Jan.) 1:
Jean an' me's made up wir min' t' haud a richt aul'-fashiont “Sowans Nicht” at Yeel.
Abd. 1933 Scotsman (22 Dec.):
In Aberdeenshire Yule E'en was known as “Sowans Nicht,” friends and neighbours being wont to foregather round a great bowl of creamy sowans, which was washed down with a draught of Yule-ale from the bowie that reamed briskly in a corner of the kitchen.
(27) Dmf. 1841 S. Hawkins Poems V. 26:
[She] put it into the sowens' pan, An' stirr'd them weel.
(28) Abd. 1825 Jam. s.v. Say:
The sowens-say is supported by two bars laid across the tub, or permanently attached to the say itself.
(29) Ayr. a.1811 Burns's Poems (Morison) II. 259:
In one of my visits to Lochlea, in time of a sowen supper.
(31) Ayr. 1811 W. Aiton Agric. Ayr. 114:
The spense, in which were stored the meal chest, sowen-tub, some beds.
(32) (i) Ork. 1920 J. Firth Reminisc. 100:
After sowans had stood for a few days, the sediment stiffened like putty. A lump of this “sowany daigh”, rolled in oatmeal to make it dry enough to carry in the pocket, was quite a usual “skule piece.”
Ork. 1924 P. Ork. A. S. II. 78:
I recollect very clearly getting “soweny rollies” for a “twal-piece” to school when a very little boy.
Ork. 1934 Scotsman (12 May) 15:
The sowens is mixed to the proper consistency, and baked on a girdle into pancakes, which are called “sooney scones.”
(ii) Abd. 1817 Broadside:
That saucy rascal wha cabb'd The wives that sowny butter brought to Town.
(33) Abd. 1955 W. P. Milne Eppie Elrick xxi.:
Wull ye hae suppin ur drinkin sowens?
(34) ne.Sc. 1881 W. Gregor Folk-Lore 157:
The first part of the festival consisted of “Yeel sones.” This dish was prepared any time between Christmas Eve and an early hour on Christmas morning. Companies of the young friends of the household were invited to attend, and it was common practice for some of them, after partaking of the dish in one house, to proceed to another, and then another.

3. Usu. in sing.: a size made of flour and water used by weavers and applied to the warp threads (Sc. 1808 Jam.; Mry. 1813 W. Leslie Agric. Mry. 466; Ags. 1971). Also in n.Eng. dial. Cf. dressing, s.v. Dress, I. 2.Sc. 1737 J. Dunbar Industrious Country-Man 35:
All the Filth and Stuff, which the Weavers put on the Cloth when weaving, to wit, Sowen and Oil.
Ags. 1945 S. A. Duncan Chronicles Mary Ann 22:
We tears noospapers intae bittocks an' dabs them on wi' sowan.

Combs. and deriv.: (1) sowan-cog, a bowl or pot holding weavers' paste; (2) sowan crock, id.; (3) sowenie, -y, in combs.: sownie mug, id., transf. a weaver (Ags. 1808 Jam.); soweny crew, weavers; (4) sowen suds, weavers' paste.(1) Ayr. 1822 Galt Sir A. Wylie xciv.:
Something about a sowan-cog or a sugar-hoggit.
(2) m.Sc. 1838 A. Rodger Poems 308:
Their sowan crocks — their trantlum gear — Their trash o' pirns she couldna bear.
(3) Ayr. 1809 W. Craw Poet. Epistles 36:
This soweny crew I bid you lash Wi' a' your power o' rhyming trash.
Ags. 1911 Rymour Club Misc. 223:
Spuggie Young the weiver, Gaed up to see the mune, A' the treadles on his back, His sownie mug abune.
(4) Sc. 1819 Jacob. Relics (Hogg) 122:
Wha cares for a' their creeshy duds, And a' Kilmarnock sowen suds?

4. Transf., a stupid worthless person.Sc. 1867 N. Macleod Starling ii.:
Mair than ye wad believe are a set o fushionless sooans, when it comes to the grip atween life and death!

II. v. tr. To smear with sowans. Vbl.n. sowening, see quot. and cf. 1851 quot. under I. 1. (1).Abd. 1903 W. Watson Auld Lang Syne 96:
It was then quite a common practice to go with a pailful of sowens, and with a white-washing brush “sklaich” the doors and windows of dwelling-houses after the inmates had retired to their beds. The houses selected for “sowening” in this way were usually those of the “near-b'gyaun” and unsociable folks, who never gave nor accepted of invitations for “Yule sowens.” As a boy I once accompanied my sister, who was several years my senior, to “sowens” the door of an old maid in the vicinity.

[O.Sc. sowanis, = I. 1., 1582, sowing tube, 1569, sowne sids, 1686, Gael. Sùghan, = I. 1., Ir. súgh(án), sap, juice.]

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