The Misses Maitland and Why they Matter

Sometime around 1923, in the Scottish seaside town of North Berwick, one of the Maitland sisters wrote this note on the colourful Scots term croochie proochles (‘discomfort from sitting in a cramped position’):

My sister knows of its use in North-east Kincardine, and has heard it in Aberdeen. A friend describes the sensation of return to the office stool after holiday in the open thus: “I am suffering from an attack of croochie-proochles, and it will be some time before I get over it.”

This charming example is one of thousands of pieces of amateur linguistic fieldwork that underpinned the compilation of the Scottish National Dictionary (SND). It is a tiny glimpse into the lives and observations of the clanjamfrie of contributors that Willam Grant, the SND’s first Editor, managed to assemble in the 1920s and 1930s. Many of them were women. It would take decades for women to feature higher up the editorial hierarchy of the SND; acknowledging these early contributors is vital to appreciate the wider role of women in the history of the dictionary. 

We know very little about the Misses Maitland. What were their first names? How long had they lived in North Berwick, and what was their connection to Aberdeen? We do, however, know that they contributed the words croochie proochles, poshie-pot (‘porridge-pot’) and ruddie (‘death-rattle’) to the SND, because William Grant bothered to record their names for posterity, in the list of Contributors that was published in the first volume. The Misses Maitland are listed as ‘Aberdeen 12’. They also feature in the list of Patrons, as having donated ‘£5 and over’ to support the work of the dictionary. Not being wealthy enough to be Subscribers, they would not have received a copy of the published work. We can only hope they were able to see their names in a copy in their local library.

Grant never forgot what the SND owed to the likes of the Misses Maitland. In radio interviews that he gave during the early days of the SND, he referred to the project as ‘Oor Dictionar’ – not ‘oor’ in a proprietary sense of belonging to the Scottish National Dictionary Association, but in an inclusive sense of a cultural endeavour that belonged to those whose language it represented.

The list of SND Contributors included some weel-kent names, too, such as William Craigie, one of the Editors of the OED, who is listed simply as ‘Angus 6’, and George Watson, also of the OED, listed as ‘Roxburgh 2’. By means of these identifying numbers, it is possible to trace their specific contributions to the SND. Craigie, for example contributed the following evidence for the word averin (‘cloudberry’) that he had heard from an elderly man in Angus:

Efter the aivrins are ripe they gae wuth (bad) in a day (said by a Glenisla man, aged about sixty).

Until recently, all these names also appeared in the digital SND that forms part of the online Dictionary of the Scots Language (DSL). But no more. For inexplicably, the list was removed as part of the upgrade to the DSL in 2014, and hasn’t been seen since. Gone too are key parts of William Grant’s original Introduction; and although his scholarly ‘Phonetic Description of Scots’ is still on the DSL website, he is not credited as the author. 

Some years ago, I mentioned to a parent at my daughter’s school that I was a lexicographer. Oh, she said, her great-uncle from Orkney had contributed some words to ‘the Scottish Dictionary’; she wished she knew more. The next day, I was able to show her his name in the list of Contributors and tell her how to search for ‘his words’ in the DSL. This is no longer possible, and it is hard to fathom why. The list is already in digital form, and online dictionaries do not face the space constraints of their forebears. The reason must therefore be that the current publishers of the DSL – Scottish Language Dictionaries in partnership with the University of Glasgow –  regard it as unimportant. Perhaps they think that only dictionary historians will bother about these details; or that anyone who cares to try can find the list in a print copy. But it is becoming increasingly hard to access the printed SND. Many public libraries have dispensed with their bulky copies, believing that the online version supersedes them. Soon, the identity of the Misses Maitland will only be available to those who can access a copy in one of the legal deposit libraries. 

Fortunately, this attitude is not widespread in historical lexicography. In fact, it is downright peculiar. The OED website carefully lists all those who have contributed to its long history, print and digital – including my own, very minor role as an ‘integration assistant’ on OED2. That first job was one of my happiest in lexicography. On the first day, we were given a crash course in the history of the OED, to give a sense of our roles in the project. I fell in love with dictionaries there and then. Years later, I was lucky enough to attend the launch of the online Middle English Dictionary, and was impressed that the organisers had invited all those who had formerly worked on the MED, even for a short time as students; their fond memories of working on the dictionary were the most uplifting part of the event. 

Yet in the comparable resource for Scots, The Dictionary of the Scots Language, it is not only the Misses Maitland who have been discarded. The names of the entire research team who planned and carried out the Herculean task of digitising all 22 volumes of the source dictionaries have been removed, along with the original Introduction to the DSL, which is an integral part of the first digital edition. As there is no print version of the DSL, this historical Introduction, as well as the names of those who contributed to the first DSL project now risk being lost forever. 

The role of the Misses Maitland and their ilk is all too easy to overlook, in these days when dictionaries are seen increasingly as ‘data’. Yet making an online dictionary accessible and relevant is not incompatible with careful digital curation. Update and upgrade by all means, but not at the cost of losing the most human element of the content: the names of those who helped to collect and preserve its words. James Murray once described successive dictionary projects as adding ‘stones to the lexicographic cairn’. Each of these individual contributions, however small, is also a stone in the cairn of the SND. The Misses Maitland are not Big Data, and their story may not be glamorous enough to interest funders; but they are at the heart of the SND. By discounting them as no longer relevant, we obscure the social and human history of this vital cultural resource.

Susan Rennie

Dr Susan Rennie is a lexicographer and former Senior Editor at the Scottish National Dictionary Association. She was Editor of the first Dictionary of the Scots Language, from 2001 to 2004, and is currently Editor of the Historical Thesaurus of Scots project.

[Photograph: Milsey Bay Beach, North Berwick, February 2020]

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