Useful Scots word: Messages

Humphing your messages. Picture: Ralph Aichinger
Humphing your messages. Picture: Ralph Aichinger

The average high street has changed enormously over recent decades. Now high streets tend to be a sea of charity shops interspersed with a series of take-aways and a few empty shops. Occasionally the odd small shop will remain to remind us what high streets used to be like in their glory days.

For example, most high streets used to have small grocery shops, butchers, fish shops and so on. These were the places that people used to go the messages. This Scottish expression is not as common as it once was, but then the shopping experience which it describes has practically disappeared.

To go the messages is to go and shop for everyday goods, such as foodstuffs. In the days when the expression was popular people, mostly women because these were sexist times, often did their food shopping either literally every day or, at least, very frequently. There were no giant freezers or fridges in the kitchen and storage space was often at a premium. Then there was the fact that food tended to go off more rapidly in the days before we introduced so many additives and preservatives to the food we eat and enhanced the growth of allergies.

Using a verb of motion, go, was obviously appropriate since shopping for the family involved moving from shop to shop, grocers to butchers, butchers to bakers and so on. Clearly this could take quite a lot of time, especially since the shoppers almost certainly lingered for a good old gossip in each shop. How unlike today’s weekly or monthly frenzied race round the supermarket spent throwing into the trolley things that might well end up unused a few weeks later.

Going the messages, or, alternatively, doing the messages, usually involved the use of a sturdy shopping bag, known, not surprisingly, as a message bag, This was often literally a bag for life, even sometimes spanning more than one generation.  Nowadays, this would be hailed as a great contribution to the conservation of the environment, since, of course, it was not made of plastic and could be readily disposed of, if you so chose. There again, the environment was not under such a threat in those days.

Those who were too frail or too lazy to humph the messages themselves could always rely on the message boy, known in English as an errand boy, to deliver the goods. The message boy, whistling along merrily on what was sometimes called, not very imaginatively, a message bike was the forerunner of online shopping.

Again, he was environmentally-friendly and perhaps we should consider bringing him back. Not only would this help to save the environment, but it would provide some well-needed youth employment. I doubt if being a message boy paid very much, but it would have been more lucrative than work experience and I am sure there were a few tips to be had.

Message is not always associated in Scots with shopping. If you are asked to go a message for someone you have been selected to perform a task for someone that involves going from point A to point B, or even further. The purpose varies. You might have to deliver an invitation, pick up a prescription from the chemist, put on a bet at the bookies and so on.

The English equivalent of go a message is run an errand. The element of motion remains, but the speed of the motion is faster. For example, someone might ask a neighbour’s child to run a few errands for them, hopefully giving the said child a suitable reward. It seems to me that running errands is more common in American English these days than it is in British English. However, Americans often seem to drop the idea of motion and talk of taking care of a few errands instead. Perhaps all this running has worn them out.

Scots shares with English the sense of message meaning a piece of communication, usually quite brief, for a person who is absent or out of contact. In both languages message is ultimately derived from Latin missus, past participle of the verb mittere, to send.

Of course, message in the communication sense has moved with the times. Nowadays it is very likely to be electronic in nature. If we are doing our messages today we are more likely to be checking and sending emails than we are to be out shopping for food.

  • Ged Mitchell

    When I was 14 in Dundee (quite a few years ago) I got a job at the local shop as a ‘message boy’. I should have had a bike with the metal basket at the front but their bike was broken at the time. Promising to fix it they forced me to walk with the boxes of ‘messages’. I lasted 4 weeks in that job then ‘packed it in’ because I thought they were ‘extracting the urine’.
    I also remember my mother’s ‘message bag’, when I was even younger, which was a sturdy leather bag, when I had to help my mother, on a Saturday, to go to the ‘sosh’ (sorry about the spelling), more properly called the co-op.

    • Jim Braid

      Another Dundee message boy here.  I was more fortunate in that I had a bike that worked though doubt it could ever be called roadworthy.  Worked on this for a few years in my teens around 50 years ago.  Apart from folk coming in the shop to order messages the shop owner (W W Ferguson in Albert Street) would cycle out to some customers and take their orders which I would then deliver.

      As far as pay goes I recall it being fifteen shillings a week for 5 days after school and Saturday morning.  There were certainly tips to be had and I learned a very early lesson that the amount of the tip in no way related to the effort involved nor to the wealth or poverty of the tipper.  Some of the biggest tips came from those who could least afford it and vice versa.

      The sosh.  That’s a word I haven’t heard in a long time.  I occasionally worked for the sosh standing in for one of my friends.  I had to go round sosh customers in the morning before school and collect their soshie books containing their order for messages.  I would then hand the books in to the sosh who would make up the orders for the customers.

      Stewart I’ve said before this is a great series and it certainly triggers rambling reminscences from my youth.

      • caledonianmercury

        Thanks, Jim. It’s great that we have a platform to celebrate these words and keep them alive.

  • JeanW

    I remember being totally confused by this when I first came to Scotland.  Living in University halls of residence, when my friend said she was going for some messages I thought she was going to collect her post from the pigeonholes in the lobby!

  • Gayl

    I disagree that this is going out of usage. Everyone I know (including myself) still goes fur the messages at least once a week.