Week thirty-three: SHEUGH (probability 21052), by David Sutton

A SHEUGH or SHEUCH is a Scots word for a ditch or drain; it can also be used as a verb, to plant temporarily. It is not to be confused with HEUGH or HEUCH, which is a crag or steep-sided valley.

I first came across SHEUGH in the magnificent Child ballad 'The Wife of Usher's Well'. The story concerns a wise woman whose three sons are drowned at sea; in her grief and anger she puts a spell on the elements that sea shall never be at rest till her three sons come home to her 'in earthly flesh and blood'. And one night she gets her wish...

'It fell about the Martinmas,
When nights are lang and mirk,
The carline wife's three sons came hame,
And their hats were o' the birk.

It neither grew in syke nor ditch,
Nor yet in ony sheugh;
But at the gates o' Paradise
That birk grew fair eneugh.'

CARLINE is a Scots word for an old woman or witch; SYKE is a small rill; MIRK means dark, murky and BIRK is Scottish for birch.

I cannot recommend enough the Child ballads; apart from their superb literary qualities they are about the only place you will now meet in the wild, as it were, many of the older words in our lexicon. Fortunately many of the best have been adopted by folk-singers as part of their repertoire — for example, Steeleye Span have done rousing versions of 'The Wife of Usher's Well' and 'Tam Lin' — but less fortunately there is a tendency to replace the more unusual words with modern substitutes for the benefit of less Scrabble-orientated audiences.


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