Useful Scots word: Midden

A midden. Picture: Chiara Marra
A midden. Picture: Chiara Marra

This week I am staying with last week’s theme of waste (see keech). The subject is midden which originally in both Scots and English meant a pile of animal keech as found in a farmyard, otherwise known as a dunghill. The word originated in Old Norse and came to us from Middle English myddyng.

In both Scots and English midden then came to mean a pile of rubbish generally. The word still exists in English, but it is generally regarded either as rather old-fashioned or archaic or dialectal. This did not happen in Scotland where midden has gone from strength to strength.

From being a rubbish tip, a compost heap or a domestic ash-pit, midden came to mean a bin for refuse, or dustbin, and its contents. In some places it was used to refer to the area at the back of tenements where communal dustbins were kept. Midden kept pace with developments in sanitation and came to be used to describe the domestic rubbish put out for collection by the relevant local authority.

What is often now known as bin day, the day on which refuse is collected, was frequently known as midden day. Of course, in these days of recycling there are often several midden days in the week, one for cardboard, one for glass and so on.

The bin lorry (I am not sure what the current politically correct official term for that is) in some parts of Scotland was known as the midden motor. Another name for this was midgie motor and this was manned by midgie men.

A midden raker, also midgie raker, was someone who went through other people’s rubbish in the hope of finding something that they found useful or valuable. If the raker was female she was known as a midden mavis. The modern equivalent of midden rakers are to be found driving round skips. Middens where the most valuable discarded items were likely to be found, mostly in areas where the rich lived, were known as lucky middens.

Midden can be used figuratively of either a place or a person. A kitchen that is in need of a good clean can rightly be described as a midden, as can a car that is full of assorted sweet wrappings, crisp packets, juice cartons, decaying banana skins and less savoury objects. A knacker’s midden is an extreme example of either of these. A person dubbed a midden is also often in need of a good clean or at least a rigorous tidy up. Alternatively, a midden can be a particularly greedy person or animal.

The midden heid literally refers to the top of a dunghill, but figuratively it can be used to indicate a person’s home territory or environment. A middenstead is the site of a midden or, figuratively, a person’s usual haunt or stamping ground.

Midden has brought us some expressive idioms. If you are described as either in the moon or the midden you fluctuate between two extremes of mood. Should you look at the moon till you fall in the midden you have let yourself be carried away by your dreams and ambitions until you are brought back to earth with a bump to face harsh reality. To marry a midden for its muck has nothing to do with hitching yourself to an unhygienic person, but means to marry someone for their money and disregard any other considerations.

I said above that midden in English is generally regarded as being archaic or dialectal. However, there is one notable exception. Midden has a specific archaeological sense which is still current. Often known as kitchen midden, this midden refers to the site of an old tip or dump for domestic waste, such as bone, fragments of pottery, shells, artefacts and so on, discarded by our ancestors of long ago at their settlements. Apparently, there is much to be learned about their lives, habits and diets from kitchen middens. I wonder what future archaeologists will make of landfill sites.

  • Very interesting.  I remember a railway clerk at the station where my father was stationmaster who used to greet my friend and me with a cheerful, “Hallo fair middens!”  We never took offence!

  • Jode

    In Dundee a midden is also a person with disgusting personal habits  – “Ooh you dirty midden!”

    Refuse collectors are ‘scaffies’ who cruise around town on the ‘scaffie larry’.

  • Man Grangeburn

    In Glasgow were they not known as midgies because of the fact that they attracted midgies themselves? Hence the refuse collectors were known as midgie men; and their vehicles as midgie motors.

  • ColinMidlem1

    Love it!