Quidditch — a game of subliminal Scottishness?

Anne Smyth


Readers will not have been oblivious to the craze in recent years, mostly among the younger generation, for the Harry Potter books, written by J K Rowling. Their literary merit and compatibility with Christian beliefs alike have been hotly debated, but their influence is indisputable.

J K Rowling’s official website tells us that her mother and father, both Londoners, first met on the train to Arbroath. Her Scottish connections, however, go much deeper than that. Her much-loved mother Anne, whose maiden name was Volant, was half Scottish and half French. Anne’s maternal grandfather was Dr Dugald Campbell, who was born in Lamlash, on the Isle of Arran. On her father’s side, her grandfather, Louis Volant, was awarded the Croix de Guerre for exceptional bravery in defending the village of Courcelles-le-Comte during the First World War. The Auld Alliance seems to be exemplified in J K Rowling’s own family.

Although Joanne (or ‘Jo’) Rowling was born and educated in England, family ties and shared sorrow subsequently drew her to Scotland. Her mother had died in December 1990, at the relatively young age of 45, after a ten-year struggle with Multiple Sclerosis. Deeply affected by her loss, Jo Rowling moved to Portugal to teach English, and while there met and married a Portugese journalist. However, after the failure of the marriage, she went to live in Edinburgh in 1993, with her new baby daughter, to be near her sister Di.

Today, after the success of the Harry Potter books, J K Rowling is remarried, to a Scottish anaesthetist, and lives in Aberfeldy. She also has a home in Edinburgh and maintains a house in Kensington, West London.

No one would pretend that the Harry Potter books use the Scots language in the narrative. The names in the books, however — and not just the proper names — display much imagination and ingenuity. Rowling is a widely-read individual who attributes the influences in her work to a very eclectic range of literature. This includes such diverse books as Homer’s Iliad, the Bible, the Canterbury Tales, and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, extending also to an unusual mixture of other literature, which takes in not only the writings of Jessica Mitford but also those of C S Lewis and Dorothy L Sayers.

What, the reader may well ask, does this have to do with the word quidditch? For the uninitiated, quidditch in the Harry Potter books is basically a fictional sport engaged in by witches and wizards. Matches are played between two teams of seven players riding flying broomsticks, using four balls and six elevated ring-shaped goals, three on each side of the Quidditch Pitch (field).

The Harry Potter books have attracted a following similar to that of the ‘Star Trek’ series over the years. Afficionados become obsessed with analysing the nomenclature used in the stories, and the word quidditch has not escaped their notice. One fan pointed out that the name quidditch comprises the letters in the names of the balls used: one quaffle, two bludgers (so two of the letter d), and the golden snitch. Not surprisingly, this rather tortuous explanation remains unsupported by the author herself. Just as relevant is the Standard English word quiddity, which means ‘the essence or real nature of a thing’, first attested in literature in 1569; but the resemblance of the word to the name of the game is similarly a matter of happy coincidence.

Quidditch Through the Ages is a book by J K Rowling, under a pseudonym, published in 2001. It is devised so as to read like a reference book from the library at Hogwarts school (attended by the eponymous Harry Potter), and provides all sorts of information about the game. Sales of this book, and another companion volume, have raised £15.7 million for charity. In the text of the 2001 book, J K Rowling gives one explanation for the origin of the game’s name: it is said to be named after the place where it was first played, Queerditch Marsh. The witch Gerde Keddle, according to the text, lived next to the marsh around 1050 and noted down how the game worked.

This, of course, is the ‘explanation’ given within a work of fiction, and the name itself confirms that it has no basis in fact. To take the word Queerditch, the first element, queer, did not enter the English language until 1508, with the primary meaning ‘strange’ or ‘odd’. As for the second element, ditch, it should be noted that the Old English word for ‘ditch’ was dïc, from which both ‘ditch’ and the Scots/Ulster-Scots word dyke are derived. This points up a seeming anomaly, because in Ulster dialect a ditch is a dyke (a wall or bank of earth or stone, usually separating fields), whereas what is now called a ‘ditch’ in Standard English is a trench — which we would call a sheugh. The use of ditch to refer to a bank rather than a trench is also found in some parts of England, where it would presumably have survived from Old English. Finally, the word marsh in Old English (the appropriate language for the 1050 date) would have been mer(i)sc, which was West Germanic in origin.

So Quidditch Through the Ages is not of much help to us. In an interview, Rowling stated that she had created the word quidditch by writing five pages of words starting with the letter q until she found one she liked. This raises the possibility that, at some subconscious level, she had actually come across the word, or something very like it, in the past. In common with the rest of us, many of the triggers which initiate her creative processes will be attributable to her background — and that will include her Scots background.

As a not too serious suggestion, I’d propose the following. It is an entry from the Scottish National Dictionary, which reads:

QUIGRICH, n. Also -iche, quegrich, coygerach. Gael. … The name, “the Stranger”, given to the pastoral staff of St. Fillan (8th c.), of which the chased silver-gilt head enclosing an earlier copper head survives and is preserved in the National Museum of Antiquities. Its history and description are fully recorded in J. Anderson Scotland in Early Christian Times (1881) 216 ff.

The earliest reference to this artefact in literature is dated 1785. In the 1939 source, Μ. M. Banks Cal. Customs II. 131, we find that: ‘In the Quigrich is a piece of rock crystal, held to have curative powers; it also gave protection to its bearer, and victory in battle’. The Anderson book mentioned in the definition also states that the staff itself was ‘held a sufficient warrant, wherever produced, for the recovery of cattle or goods stolen from its girth’. So basically we are speaking of a staff invested with supernatural power and authority.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility, and I put it no higher than that, that somewhere in the mind of J K Rowling was the knowledge of this staff, which travelled via the broomsticks used in the quidditch sport to the sport itself.

My theory is borne out by the fact that during a Quidditch training session in the third of the Harry Potter books, it is ‘Madam Hooch’ (played in the film by Zoë Wannamaker) who mentions that she learned to fly on a Silver Arrow, and that it was a fine broom. Well, if the rest of the world can base hypotheses on the most insubstantial of foundations, so can I!



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A new edition of Michael Montgomery’s From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English recounts the lasting impact that at least 150,000 settlers from Ulster in the 18th century made on the development of the English language of the United States. This new edition published by the Ulster-Scots Language Society documents over 500 ‘shared’ vocabulary items which are authenticated by quotations from both sides of the Atlantic. A searchable online version of this dictionary is now also available here.


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