Useful Scots word: kale/kail

Kale salad <em>Picture: Salim Virji</em>
Kale salad Picture: Salim Virji
By Betty Kirkpatrick

I have just returned from a short trip to London where I happened to eat in various so-called gastropubs – I have some very upmarket friends. When browsing through the menus, I was surprised to see how many were offering dishes featuring kale. Of these, kale mash was the most popular, but kale also appeared as a common accompanying vegetable – perhaps it is the new peas – and even as the main ingredient of a savoury tart.

Clearly kale is now regarded as posh nosh. This seems odd to me as I am sure that I regarded it as being mainly animal fodder when I was a child. You must remember that I am stricken in years.

Those of you who have not undergone the kale culinary experience may not even know what it is. Kale is, in fact, a kind of cabbage with dark green curly leaves. According to one dictionary, it is distinguishable from some other cabbages by having no heart – shades of the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz.

Kale, better known in Scots as kail and the equivalent of English cole, derived from Old English, was once a staple of the Scots diet. After all, we were a poor country and it did not face much competition. So central to the Scots diet was kail that at one point in the 19th century it came to mean also a meal in itself, often the main meal of the day.

Kail also came to be used of soup, originally one made with kail leaves, but later extended to soup made from any vegetables or even meat. That is my main childhood memory of kail, a generic word for soup. If you wanted to specify the kind of soup you could always prefix the word kail with the main ingredient, as leek kail.

Kail also appeared in a dish known as kail-kenny or kail-kennin, which consisted of potatoes and kail or cabbage mashed together. It is the equivalent of the Irish dish colcannon. Could it be the origin of the kale mash of gastropub fame?

The stalk of the kail plant is known either as a kail-stock or a kail-runt. These stocks or runts were the subject of an old Halloween tradition. A group of young people, sometimes blindfolded, were taken to a field after dark where they would pull kail- runts.

The shape of the runt they pulled was supposed to be an indication of the stature of their future spouse. Presumably everyone was hoping for a long and straight runt rather than a short and shrivelled one. Incidentally, a kail-runt can also be an insulting name for an old woman, an example of both sexism and ageism in one go.

A kailyard was originally used to refer to a place where kail was grown, then coming to mean a kitchen garden. The expression is, however, better known for its literary connection. The Kailyard school of writing was coined to refer to a group of Scottish writers, such as J M Barrie, who wrote about rural domestic life in Scotland at the end of the 19th century. Unfortunately, it was rather too sentimental for many tastes, certainly modern tastes, and it is often used as a distinctly unflattering designation.

Kail features in a number of rather vivid sayings. Of these, the most common is cauld kail het again, literally meaning cold soup or food reheated, and used to refer to something that you have heard over and over again until you are absolutely sick of it. The ramblings of politicians are often a case in point.

Hot soup or food is featured in get yir kail het, to get a severe scolding. Another hot kail expression is scaud yir lips in ither folk’s kail, meaning literally to scald your lips in other people’s soup and figuratively to interfere or meddle in the affairs of others.

Idiomatically, mak saut to yir kail is something that is getting more and more difficult to do in modern times. Saut is Scots for salt, but the expression means make a living. See what I mean?

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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  • oldwatcher

    The stem of the kail was often treated after the actual kail had been used for food. Spent a long time hardening off over many months and treated (I believe with Vinegar). And then varnished and cut to use as a walking stick by our Scottish ancesters