Document 1391

A lock o hellery

Author(s): Laureen Johnson

Copyright holder(s): Laureen Johnson


‘Hellery’ is, without a doubt, a useful word. It can be used to sum up the content of anything from a dresser drawer to a Ten-Year Plan, the main point being that it indicates the speaker’s low opinion of whatever may be under discussion. And it flows off the tongue in a very satisfying way, much more melodiously than ‘bruck’.

‘Hellery’ has been around all my life, and is in John Graham’s Shetland Dictionary. I had never given the word a thought. Until, faced with interested questions, I began to wonder.

‘It’s a coammon Shetlan wird,’ I said authoritatively, ‘widely used, not antique. It means “rubbish”. No, it’s no swearin, definitely no swearin. I wid say it wis mair laek slang.’

Every word comes from somewhere. Most Shetlan words come from Scots, and a fair proportion have roots in Norn. If you are flexible about spelling, and keep in mind that a word may have changed its ending or its vowel over the years, you can usually redd up its kin, and attach it to a word family tree, or at least the appropriate side of the North Sea. If you can’t, there will be an authority who can: the language equivalent of ‘Brother’s keeper’, or Auntie Maggie in her heyday.

I referred to the Concise Scots Dictionary. There was no sign of ‘hellery’. I tried ‘heelery’, ‘halery’, ‘hiellery’, and various other things. No luck. It must be a Norn word. I went to Jakobsen.

Jakobsen’s spelling variants are at least as diverse as the Scots. I hunted through possible routes for a while, with increasing surprise. ‘Hellery’ did not seem to be in the book, in any form. Surely it couldn’t possibly be an English word?

The Concise Oxford Dictionary denied all knowledge of ‘hellery’.

I looked at the word with growing respect.

I wondered if it had been made up by somebody, a word misheard, misused and gleefully quoted forever after in fireside yarns: ‘Yea, min, I doot hit’s juist, as Aald Peter o da Quoys wis wint ta say, “a lock o hellery!”’ Such things can happen, I suppose. But even if that were the case, what word was Aald Peter misusing, or where did he get the idea to produce his new word?

‘Hell’ has no connection with ‘rubbish’. The word ‘hale’, which we pronounce as ‘hell’, means ‘whole’. ‘Helly’ means ‘weekend’ and ‘helli-’ (as in ‘helli-möld’) means ‘holy’. None of them seemed likely to have either confused or inspired Aald Peter.

How long, I wondered, have we been using this word in Shetland?

Usually it is possible to find a dialect word in old books, old poems, old wordlists. But not this time. You will find plenty of hellery, but not the word itself - at least, I haven’t so far. We don’t consider it a swear word now, but it seems to have been classed as such in the past, or at best, thought less than polite, and no doubt in the old days no-one would have dreamt of writing it in anything for publication.

By this time, I had remembered another meaning of ‘hellery’. It seems sometimes to mean a very large, perhaps excessive, number. Examples: ‘We could hardly fin onywye ta park, dey wir such a hellery o cars.’ ‘We catched twartree haddocks an a hellery o piltocks.’

It was time to call for help.

Axin aroond

The question ‘Tell me, ir you always kent da wird “hellery”?’ caused a lot of amusement, and a fair bit of interest. The answer was always yes. I was assured that the word was used by the grandfather of an eighty-five year-old, a grandfather who might have been fifty or so in 1920. We have no way of finding out if he knew the word all his life.

It was suggested to me that the second meaning of ‘hellery’, i.e. a large quantity, also had an implication that the speaker didn’t think much of the situation: ‘A hellery o sma piltocks’, for example, or ‘dey wir such a hellery o fokk at you could see naething’. I think this is often correct, but not always so.

Much bigger dictionaries, online and off, were now consulted by intrigued and helpful folk.

There is an interesting reference to ‘hellery’ in the Scottish National Dictionary. The old Scots word ‘Hailware’ means ‘the whole of something, especially of a company or of a number of things’. Numerous examples appear. A derivative, ‘helverie’, is given as meaning ‘a rabble, a mass of people’. Then, in a kind of P.S., we have this:

‘Add variant hellery and quot.:
*Sh.1974 New Shetlander No 109.20:
Whan du borrowed da money ta buy aa yun hellery’.

This is a quote from a story, ‘Da brucks o da roup’, by Johnnie Wullie. Ertie o Collaster is pointing out to his neighbour, Willie, the error of his decision to invest heavily in artificial fertilisers and the like: ‘Du didna ken whan du borrowed da money ta buy aa yon hellery, du didna ken whitna Godless price hit wid geng til, forbye da cost o freight!’

The SND researchers seem to have misunderstood Ertie o Collaster. They must have thought he meant ‘the whole amount’, and was commenting on the quantity of fertiliser. Ertie was of course commenting on its effectiveness!

I looked more closely at ‘helverie’, which meant ‘a mass of people’. Might this word have turned into ‘hellery’ in its second meaning, ‘a mass, a large quantity’ of anything? I made a note of ‘helverie’ as a possible relation of ‘hellery’. It was the only Scots connection that I could see, and I wouldn’t rule it out, yet.

The Oxford English Dictionary, full-size version, did not include ‘hellery’. That seemed to be that.

Meantime, a look-alike ‘heleri’ had been located in a modern Norwegian dictionary, and something similar in Dutch, German, Swedish and Danish, with spelling variations. In all these languages it means the same thing: ‘receiving stolen property’. If it had meant the stolen property itself, the meaning ‘rubbish’ might have evolved from there – but it does not.

A suggested lead appeared in Ivar Aasen’s Norsk Ordbok of 1918: the west Norwegian dialect word ‘helora’, meaning ‘to speak stupidly or confusedly’. The noun is ‘helorar’ meaning ‘confusion’. ‘Han snakket helt i heloro’ means ‘he spoke confusedly’. Did we turn this into ‘he spak hellery’?

I went back to Jakobsen’s dictionary, which was first published, in Danish, by 1921. Jakobsen refers to the 1873 edition of Aasen’s Norsk Ordbok, and also to work by Hans Ross in 1895 and 1902 which extensively supplemented Aasen. Jakobsen gives ‘helorar’ as meaning ‘confusion (partly from sleepiness); senselessness; state of stupor’. It appears in his dictionary as a root of the old Shetland word ‘helur’, as found in a local expression ‘to be i de helur’, meaning ‘to be fretful, peevish’, or ‘indisposed and depressed’. He obviously made no connection with ‘hellery’, however spelt. I don’t think we can make one now.

Widenin da net

The story then took a transatlantic twist, courtesy of the Internet. ‘Hellery’, it seems, is a surname across the Atlantic (and a nickname for a certain eart-kent US lady senator). But, not only that, it is an old Canadian slang word, meaning ‘wild or mischievous behaviour’. Example: ‘He could devise more hellery in a minute than the average boy would think of in a year.’ (William Peden, British Columbia).

Well, well. “Hellery” was a word from the land of lumberjacks, gold miners, and the Great Lakes. Used in the hell-raising Wild West, Canadian style. In “Bulldog Carney” by W.A. Fraser, for example, published in Toronto in 1919, we find the following bar scene. Carney, six-gun in hand, has just stopped a lynch mob in its tracks. ‘Now tell me boys, what started this hellery?’

Good question.

Canadian dictionaries give their word as being derived from ‘heller’, which means a rough or rowdy person, a mischief-maker, or someone who is unusually daring or aggressive. ‘Heller’ does appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, given as US slang, late nineteenth century. It also appears in American dictionaries with the same meanings. The word ‘hellery’ seems to have evolved only in Canada, where it had appeared in print by 1910.

So efter aa yon ...

It now seems very likely to me that ‘hellery’ was not born here, didn’t evolve here out of any existing old word; it arrived ready-made from outside Shetland – Canada, it would seem – at some (comparatively) recent time, say about a hundred years ago, and was adopted. I think this not only because of the dictionaries we have all ransacked, and the discussion we have had. I go back to the fact that it was previously considered to be a swear word.

Why was ‘helly’ not considered a swear word? Or ‘hellier’(sea-cave), or ‘hellisom’ (pleasant, amiable)? Because everyone knew their meaning had nothing to do with ‘hell’; because they had been around much longer and were traditional words. ‘Hellery’ had no such comforting tradition. It arrived (perhaps dramatically!), most likely brought home from deep sea like fo’c’sle English. It would probably have been automatically classed along with ‘hellish’, which in the old days here was also a doubtful word, and not used lightly, because of its close association with ‘hell’.

Once it got here, its meaning widened. This often happens with words. The meaning was never written down and was passed on verbally, with no explanations. What was understood was the speaker’s attitude, and this is still the case. We may now say the word means ‘rubbish’ of any kind, but it can still apply to behaviour, e.g. ‘Dey wrought a lock o hellery efter da dance wis feenished’. Bulldog Carney would recognise that easily, though he might blink if I spoke about the hellery in my loft.

I am still, I have to say, uncertain about the meaning as ‘a large quantity’. Did this just evolve from the same source, implying that the quantity was a bit too big for the speaker’s liking? Or did N.E. Scots arriving in Shetland use a phrase like ‘a helverie o folk’ for a ‘mass of people’? (The SND gives an example of this use of ‘helverie’ from 1932 Aberdeen: ‘helverie o craturs’). This phrase would have been easily understood, but the word itself, in repetition in Shetland, could perhaps have become ‘hellery’ also. It seems at least a possibility. But that is just a sideline to the story.

I think that my first idea was not far off the mark after all: ‘hellery’ in Shetland very likely did start with Aald Peter o da Quoys. You see, when he was a younger man, he sailed second mate on a cargo vessel running between Vancouver and Japan. When he came home, he brought a Japanese teaset and some interesting new B.C. vocabulary. The teaset was much admired, and never used. ‘Hellery’ was disapproved of, but used forever after.

Note: My thanks to Brian Smith, and Judy Thompson at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation, for all their help with this article. Thanks also to Derick Herning and John M. Tait for their information, and to all the other people who made comments and answered queries, both in and outwith Shetland.

‘Aald Peter o da Quoys’ is a fictional character, though lots of us knew somebody like him, once.

This work is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

The SCOTS Project and the University of Glasgow do not necessarily endorse, support or recommend the views expressed in this document.


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A lock o hellery. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 2 March 2024, from

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Information about Document 1391

A lock o hellery


Text audience

Adults (18+)
General public
Audience size 1000+

Text details

Method of composition Wordprocessed
Year of composition 2005
Word count 1933

Text medium

Magazine (e-zine)

Text publication details

Publication year 2005
Place of publication Shetland
Part of larger text
Contained in The New Shetlander, No 233, 2005
Editor Laureen Johnson and Brian Smith
Page numbers 37-39

Text setting


Text type



Author details

Author id 969
Forenames Laureen
Surname Johnson
Gender Female
Decade of birth 1940
Educational attainment University
Age left school 17
Upbringing/religious beliefs Protestantism
Occupation Retired teacher
Place of birth Lerwick
Region of birth Shetland
Birthplace CSD dialect area Sh
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Voe
Region of residence Shetland
Residence CSD dialect area Sh
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Clerk / crofter
Father's place of birth Voe
Father's region of birth Shetland
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Sh
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Machine knitter / housewife
Mother's place of birth lunnasting
Mother's region of birth Shetland
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area Sh
Mother's country of birth Scotland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes In formal situations, or wherever required
French Yes Yes Yes Yes As appropriate
Scots Yes Yes Yes Yes Incl. Shetland dialect. At home and elsewhere