Clan Carruthers, Origins, Scotland History

CLAN CARRUTHERS: Teuchter or Sassanach

From wiki and augments: the Teuchter (Highland)-Sassanach (Lowland) divide. (although not exact as the line can be blurred, this remains a reasonable conceptual indicator)

Well known Scot’s words have been used to define where a Scot actually comes from, sometimes used disparagingly by the other group and for many generations. These terms split Scotland across linguistic and historical lines, but thankfully they are used with far less offensive intent these days. The map above clearely defines the split between Highland and Lowland and also the usage of the terms Teuchter and Sassanach (we have added where Carruthers originate from to allow for a better understanding for those who may not be familiar with the infiormation.

NB the definition of Highland is above the ‘Highland Line” and includes the Islands, the definition of the Lowlands to include the Borders, lies below the ‘Highland Line’. The line itselfe and in reality linquistically would have been blurred to a degree.

The Terms

SASSANACH (Light Green)

Def: n. A Scottish Gaelic word for Saxon, used on occasions disparagingly to define those who did not speak Gaelic ie Lowlanders, Borderers and English folks.

These days it is more commonly used by Scots to describe English people in general.

TEUCHTER (Dark Green)

Def: n. A word taken from the Scots language, used to describe a Highlander, especially a Gaelic speaker. Originating in the Lowlands it was a term sometimes used offensively.

These days it is used simply to describe anyone from the Highlands of Scotland.

Scottish Dialects

Highlanders were often seen as being far less civilised than us, running around in kilts, stealing cattle and fighting and therefore a bit more uncouth than lowlanders. Yet history tells another story of course.

However and even to this day, to some in the Lowlands the concept of their families being classed as clans remains a historical enigma and in some cases is still seen as being an offensive collective name. There is of course a strong argument that ‘Clans’, being a Gaelic concept are defining Highland family groups and do not describe Lowland families, but is it that simple?

In our own family, the feeling is definately mixed. Some see us very much as a border riding family especially in south west Scotland, some see us as a clan, some really don’t care either way, but interestingly we are entitled to use both.

As Border Reivers we are very much a riding family/surname, who historically have always had a chief/heidsman. As one of the 17 border names along with 33 from the Islands and highlands, were mentioned in the 1587 Act of Unruly Clans as ‘clannis’. As such we, like many others can be defined as a clan if we so choose.

Further the term was interchangeable in both legal and common language, at least as far back as the 16th century. However as a Society, given the task of representing Carruthers worldwide, we see ourselves proudly as being both a riding family and a border clan.

Accepting this, what we definitely are by virtue of the definition, is true ‘Sassanachs’. We come from the borders of Scotland and were never part of the Gaelic speaker mainstream and are definitely not Irish in origin.

The language of our ancestral homelands was originally the Cumbric dialect of the Brythonic Celts through the Selgovae tribe who inhabited the lands that were to become known as Annandale, sitting north of Hadrian’s wall.

As even today, language is a dynamic thing, over time and through the impact of others, the language of our own ancestors became greatly influenced by Anglo-Saxon, Old and Middle English, Latin and French. This became the make up of what was to become Lallans or the language of the Lowland Scots. It was not Gaelic but rather progressively became recognised in its own right as a dialect of the Scottish tongue called Southern Scots.

As such the use of the term Sassanach is truly apt in its description of us.

It is also interesting to note that even to this day, the terms are used to define either a Highlander or a Lowlander by the ‘opposing’ group, but in far less a derogatory manner.

Here is a piece written by the journalist Mark Smith and published in the The Guardian Newspaper in October of 2014, which with some humour, further describes and defines Sassanach and Teuchter .

There is an old Scottish joke, no doubt baffling to the majority of English speakers, that goes something like this: what do you call a pigeon that goes to Aviemore for its holidays? A skean dhu.

If you’re not laughing, don’t feel too bad, as the joke neatly illustrates how comprehension of language is intrinsically linked with considerations of geography, pronunciation and dialect. Throw in a punchline that borrows from Scottish Gaelic, and the joke becomes incomprehensible to all but most Scots.

To decipher it, you need to know three things: that Aviemore is Scotland’s most popular skiing resort; that the Gaelic sgian-dubh, which is the ceremonial dagger worn in your sock if you’re in full Highland dress (it means, literally, black dagger), is pronounced similar to “skiing doo”; and that the word dhu/doo is regional slang for a dove or pigeon. OK, the joke won’t win any prizes, but I’ve had worse from Christmas crackers.

A note about the terminology. Scots, used predominantly in the Lowlands, Grampian, and populous central belt of Scotland, is commonly considered to be a language in its own right, sharing the same Old English ancestry as modern standard English, though having developed separately. It even has its own dictionary.

Scottish Gaelic developed out of Middle Irish, and is a separate language entirely, spoken predominately in the coastal Highlands and Western Isles. It is pronounced GAH-lick, rather than the common GAY-lick pronunciation of its Irish linguistic cousin.

Scots has its own esteemed body of literature, most notably the poems of Robert Burns, and is peppered with words that leave most other English speakers scratching their heids (another Scots dialectal form): shuggle for shake, niffle-naffle for wasting time, the exuberantly satisfying gontrum niddles for a cry of joy, and countless others. Swithering, for hesitating, may have become more familiar during the independence referendum campaign as applied, not entirely flatteringly, to undecided voters.

I have something of a fascination with Scots, and particularly the influence of Scottish Gaelic upon it. Though I am Cheshire-born and raised, my dad is from Inverness in the Scottish Highlands; my grandparents grew up in the community of Ness on Lewis – the northernmost of the Western Isles, now officially known by their Gaelic name, Eilean Siar.

During our family’s regular visits up to Inverness (the amenities on offer at every service station on the M6, M74 and A9 remain burned in my mind) I remember sitting quietly outside the kitchen door just listening to my grandparents talk. Their native tongue was all rolling, melodic vowels and exotic, throaty consonants. I was engrossed. If they caught me lurking, Granny would pinch my cheek and call me gràidh (darling). At family weddings when seanair (Grandad) made slightly ponderous speeches, I had to remind myself to give him a break, as English was not his first language.

Gaelic remains the first language of many people in the Hebrides, and the more remote parts of the coastal Highlands. My aunt, from the island of North Uist, spoke Gaelic exclusively at home with her five sisters and two brothers, and was only forced to speak English when starting school aged five. Though now the matriarch of a growing English-speaking family, she still admits to thinking – and very occasionally swearing – in Gaelic. The word donas, which equates to little devil or imp, was a particular favourite.

What had never occurred to me, until I thought to ask my aunt about it, was that many of these generations of Gaelic speakers never learned to read or write in the language – or even stick to consistent spellings, which is why you’ll often find three or four different versions of a given name depending on which part of the Highlands or islands you are concerned with. For example, the Gaelic equivalent of Kirsty can be variously spelled Ciorstaidh, Ciorstag or, closest to its pronunciation (to English eyes), Curstag.

Written Gaelic is, however, undergoing something of a revival – at least in metropolitan areas. In 2005, the Scottish parliament passed the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act, seeking to secure Gaelic’s status as an official language of Scotland, equal with English. The number of pupils beginning their primary education in Gaelic has risen by 13% in the past year, according to the latest figures. But the language continues to struggle in rural areas and the Western Isles, mirroring the population decline as young people leave their communities for jobs in the cities.

As Bill Bryson notes in ‘Mother Tongue’, his examination of modern English usage, speakers of Scots, particularly in the Highlands, have developed certain speech patterns clearly influenced by Gaelic phrasings, saying “take that here” rather than “bring that here” and “I’m seeing you” in preference to “I see you”. And many Gaelic words have become accepted part of Scots vocabulary: slàinte, ceilidh, bothy, caber.

These words – and the many others not of Gaelic origin that make up the bulk of Scots vocabulary – enrich the language inordinately. In chip shops, for example, who can deny that adding the word supper is a far classier way to say “and chips”? That “red pudding” is a more appetising prospect than sausage in batter? (Just remember to say you want a carryout, and not a takeaway, unless you want to sound like a sassenach (see below).

A few more of my favourite Scots words and expressions follow. Feel free to add your own in the comments below. And slàinte!


Thirsty, although more along the lines of wanting a strong drink. In the Burns poem Tam o’ Shanter, the drouthy neibors (neighbours) may well be alcoholic.


Derogatory Highlands word for an English person; literally means Saxon.


What a Lowland Scot might term a Highlander in an argument.


If at least three of the following types of weather are happening simultaneously, it’s dreich: overcast, wet, cold, misty, gloomy. Was last year voted Scots’ favourite word.


What my aunt does on the phone to her sisters. Gossip, talk at length without pause.


What you might say to someone who is blethering too much; Shush!

We hope you enjoyed this wee lesson regarding the well known Scots words used to define and separate whole groups of people. This was historically based on the language of their forebears, but is far more geographically defined these days.

As a society, accepting the many misconceptions that exist, we try to offer snippets to allow a better understanding of the facts and the true nature of Scottish history and culture and the divides that existed, and to a degree, still exist to this day.

Regarding words in the Scots language and considering some of the nonsense that gets published regarding our own family name, here is a very descriptive Scottish phrase for you: ‘Havering Gowks‘.

But we will let you research the meaning for yourselves.


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