Useful Scots word: braw

The Braw Lads’ Gathering in Galashiels <em>Picture: Walter Baxter</em>
The Braw Lads’ Gathering in Galashiels Picture: Walter Baxter
By Betty Kirkpatrick

One of the most useful Scots words is braw. It is particularly productive because it can be used to indicate approval of just about anything or anyone. If you want to praise someone or something, or pay them a compliment, then braw is the word for you.

In this respect it is a bit like the English word nice, except that braw is a notch or two higher on the complimentary scale than nice and sounds considerably more pleasant. The English word great is probably nearer the mark.

The word braw can be applied to the weather. If the sun is shining, the air is warmish and the sky is blue then it is a braw day. Of course, we do not get all that many such days in these climes, but, when we do, at least we have a word for them.

People can also be described as braw. This compliment often refers to their looks and nowadays it is more often used of women or children, as in a braw lass or a braw bairn.

Formerly, braw as applied in admiration to physical appearance was more used of men, as in braw lad. The expression Braw Lad is used in Galashiels to refer to the young man chosen annually by the people to represent the burgh at the Braw Lads’ Gathering on 29 June. His companion for the day is the Braw Lass, also elected by the townspeople.

Braw when referring to the male of the species meant handsome or of fine physique, the kind of physique that was necessary to do well in warfare. The ballad The Bonny Earl of Murray describes the earl as being a braw gallant.

It is fitting that braw had associations with warfare, because the word has connections with the word brave which indicates courage. Indeed, the word brave in English, like braw in Scots, once meant splendid or admirable as well as courageous, but these meanings are now archaic in English. Both brave and braw are derived from French.

Braw can also be used to indicate that someone is particularly well dressed on the day in question. Also, it can be used of a particularly impressive article of clothing, perhaps a brightly coloured summer dress suitable for a braw day. If you are dressed in your braws then you are attired in your very best clothes, the Scots equivalent of your Sunday best.

Braw can be used to describe anyone or anything that is particularly fine or excellent. So someone can be a braw piper, fiddler or singer. A particularly appetising meal can be braw, a musical performance can be braw and an especially picturesque view can be braw.

Occasionally, there can be a touch of irony in this use of braw, as when you comment that someone has got into a braw mess.

Money is something else that is often associated with braw. In this connection, braw usually means considerable or a lot and so a purchase such as a house or a flash car can be said to have cost you a braw penny. Sometimes there is an underlying suggestion that the purchase was not a good idea.

Time, too, has a braw connection. If you arrive somewhere in braw time you are in good time and can congratulate yourself on your punctuality.

Useful a word though braw is, there are those who never use it, even when expressing approval or admiration. They find braw far too fulsome and stick to no bad for their most extravagant form of praise.

Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.

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  • Gerard Kirabo Antvelink

    Perhaps a good English equivalent would be ‘fine’. Fine lad, fine mess, etc… Perhaps a little old fashioned but I don’t think such usage quiet qualifies as archaic in English just yet.