Fancy a swallie?

Fancy a swallie?


Scotland’s fondness for a wee nip has given us a colourful liquid vocabulary such as swallie.

The language we use reflects both the lives we live and our environment. Hence the oft repeated fact that Inuits have dozens of words for snow. In Scotland, we also have lots of different words for various aspects of the weather. But I suspect we have many more which are connected with alcohol, one of these being Swallie.

Scotland has a long and complex relationship with alcohol. We are known around the world for our beloved Scotch whisky. Less happily, our above average consumption figures indicate that there is at least a grain of truth in the caricature of the drunken Scot.

I’m not by any means suggesting that every Scot likes nothing better than a Macallan in their breakfast porridge. But, for many of us, alcohol plays a significant part in our social lives. And this is reflected in our language.

Liquid lexicon

From draff to feints, the whisky making process has its own technical lexicon. But even just ordering a whisky in a bar can involve vocabulary which overseas visitors may not be familiar with. A measure of whisky is often referred to as a dram or a nip. If someone asks if ‘You fancy a nip?’, they aren’t asking if you want them to pinch you.

More general terms for drink include bevvy and swallie. While the list of synonyms used to describe drunkenness runs into the dozens. Drink too much and you might be blootered, buckled or bladdered. Explore the bar’s whisky collection too enthusiastically and you might be howlin’, reekin’ or hammered. In Glasgow, a big weekend might include getting mad wi it, trousered or even trollied.

Of course, as in the rest of the UK, too much bevvy can result in one being p*ssed. Except in Scotland, you would be p*shed. With the additional ‘h’ giving the word an appropriate slurring sound.


This writer likes the story behind the expressions ‘steaming’, ‘steamer’ and ‘steamboats’. They all date from Scotland in the 1850s when the sale of alcohol was banned on Sundays by the Forbes-Mackenzie Act of 1853.

Hotels were exempt from the ban – and so were boats [unless close to land]. Enterprising publicans were quick to set up floating pubs which would sail or rather steam doon the watter. Down the water – to seaside resorts such as Dunoon, Rothesay and Largs. In effect, Glasgow invented the booze cruise.

Many customers made full use of the relaxed licensing and got drunk. They were said to be steaming or steamboats.

Guests on an Eat Walk Tour in Glasgow, Edinburgh or St Andrews can enjoy a wee swallie, such as whisky or gin but these are civilised affairs. No-one gets steaming although you may be merry wi it.


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