Learn the difference in meaning between Scottish, Scotch and Scots – and whatever you do make sure you use them correctly!
According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, the three adjectives Scots, Scotch and Scottish “all mean belonging to, native of, or characteristic of Scotland”.
The caveat, however, is that “their application varies”. Because these words are steeped in history, their meaning is nuanced, and in some cases, even protected by law.
The Latin word Scotti originally referred to the Gaels, then raiding western Britain, but at some point now lost in the Scotch mists of time, it came to describe all inhabitants of Scotland and was anglicised to Scots.
Visitors new to Scotland soon learn that to refer to a local as Scotch is tantamount to an insult (although to buy them one is the friendliest of gestures).
Like Russian caviar or Cuban cigars, Scotch whisky is a national treasure and the word Scotch is considered so intrinsic to its identity that it has been written into law as part of the Scotch Whisky Regulations (2009).
To maintain the quality and status of this most venerable aqua vitae, the regulations also cover every aspect of its production.
When only the word Scotch will do
Scotch Beef is another example of a highly prized commodity from Scotland where use of the word “Scotch” is legally protected and subject to tough regulation.
Like Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese or Cornish sardines, Scotch Beef has legal status under European law. It has a PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) mark that offers the consumer unparalleled quality assurance.
Since 1996, only the finest, naturally reared and well-cared for beef from Scotland can be called Scotch Beef. Scotch Beef PGI is sourced from approved Scottish farms that meet stringent criteria regarding animal welfare and natural means of production. These in turn lead to the best possible, most tender and succulent, traditional-tasting beef.
If meat is billed simply as Scottish Beef it’s a whole different “kettle of fish”. It can be from any cattle born, reared and processed in Scotland, irrespective of any quality guarantees. It holds no PGI status.
There are, of course, other instances, dictated more by tradition than law, when only the word Scotch will do. Most of us are familiar with the thick barley soup known as Scotch broth or the picnic favourite, Scotch egg, boiled and encased in breaded sausage meat.
We may be less familiar with a Scotch pancake (a type of drop scone) or Scotch woodcock – not a bird but a slice of toast and anchovies topped with scrambled eggs.
These notable exceptions aside, it is safe to describe all other icons of Scotland as Scottish. Or is it? Take the national dress. While the tartan kilt and sporran are Scottish, the traditional national headwear is the Scotch cap and definitely not a Scotch bonnet, which is not headwear at all but a red hot Caribbean chili pepper.
The Great Highland Bagpipe is Scottish, as are the traditional dances it accompanies, such as reels, jigs, and strathspeys, although curiously the strathsprey is denoted by its syncopated rhythm, the Scotch snap.
What about Scots?
Use of these adjectives is clearly a conundrum made more confusing by a third variable, Scots. According to Wikipedia, the Scots language is one quite distinct from Scottish English or Scottish Gaelic.
The term applies to the variety spoken in Lowland Scotland and parts of Ulster. As an adjective, Scots is also used to describe the only pine native to northern Europe, Pinus sylvestris or Scots pine.
Scotland’s adjectival puzzle is widespread. Twelve thousand miles away in Australia, Melbourne’s leading independent Presbyterian school is called Scotch College. There is one in Perth, Adelaide and Launceston, too, yet Sydney-siders of Gaelic ancestry, or perhaps mere persuasion, send their daughters to The Scots College.
In case you are wondering, the much rarer adjective “Scottian” also has Scottish connections, in that it describes something of or related to the Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott.
You may have no beef with any of these adjectives one way or the other but just remember two important points – a Scot is never Scotch but if you care about the quality of meat on your plate, your beef should always be so.