Secret Scotland

If it's secret, and in Scotland…

A world without outwith

For my sins, I’ve been an author of sorts for most of my working life. Not a fiction or story writing author (so the world is spared the horror of at least one further Rowling), but a technical author, doomed to work through facts and figures, opinions and comments, and massage them into some sort of simplified imitation of the original that technophobes could grasp, and sign a purchase order for.

Most of this was completed without the benefit of a spell-checker, but not without a word-processor. The first arrived when I had to go and buy a WP program for myself, to run on a twin floppy PC the company acquired to run some automated laser testing equipment. This occupied it for a whole 5 minutes per day, and yours truly could see that the new ‘toy’ had a lot more potential than as the door-stop it became when packed away.

Back to the present-day, and I was writing up some notes that had to refer to military installations, and the buildings and facilities that lay both inside, and outside, its perimeter. As this proceeded, I found there were numerous occasions where I referred to subjects outwith the perimeter, and became increasingly irritated as the spell-checker kep flagging outwith as a misspelt, (or is that misspelled, mis-spelt or mis-spelled) word.

I was intrigued, as the basic dictionary informed me that outwith wasn’t a word. Having used it for years, and shared it with colleagues without comment or criticism, I decided it was time to do a little hunting, and the result was a bit of a surprise.

Having come to use the word as part of reports and presentations that were largely prepared for and together with colleagues who were very English, and relished their occasional visits north of the border, I would have expected the word to be English, as we generally used it to refer to subject items we were not able to consider in our reports or analyses – typically we would drop in a standard “Outwith the scope of this report…” when we needed to refer something which others may have considered relevant, but we did not, but still needed to show we had considered its existence.

Reading up on the background of outwith, it came as no great surprise to find that it arose from the original word without, which today means something like ‘not having’, but was originally used to describe something that was ‘outside’, which compares with within, which refers to something ‘inside’. Sometimes there are some very silly changes in language use over time – this certainly looks like one of them.

My old friend outwith, it seems, is simply a variation on the original ‘without’, but, more importantly, was the version favoured by the Scots, which may explain my affinity to the word.

While the word outwith was reported to have fallen out of favour, and general use, it was of interest to note that some further searching revealed that far from being restricted to Scotland, use of outwith outwith Scotland has been noted to be increasing, and the word may be making a wider comeback.

Perhaps my insistence on using it for years played a small part. After all, most of the reports and presentations I made using it went all the way down to London for discussion by my peers.

In any event, I now know I can ignore any ill-informed spell-checker that throws a red line under any use of outwith I care to make in future, and that I can safely add it to my own list of approved words, and perhaps spread it around a bit more as well.

08/05/2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , ,


  1. In York there is an area called “Clifton Without”. Prior to the boundary changes in 1996, part of Clifton was in York, and part of it was in Ryedale. The part in Ryedale was, and still is, referred to as Clifton Without.

    I guess the reason “without” is no longer used very much in this sense is its ambiguity with the other meaning of “without”. If the Scottish adopted “outwith”, then that meant there was no ambiguity, so the word has stayed.


    Comment by Timothy Barton | 11/06/2009

  2. I didn’t know it was a Scottish thing until I went to uni in England and had the word cirlced in red on an essay!

    At school we sang a hymn which began

    “There is a green hill far away without a city wall”

    Of course, to the modern ear this suggests that the green hill does not have a city wall, but of course it means “not within”. “Outwith” would have made sense in the context.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Adam | 16/06/2009

  3. It’s painful, isn’t it?

    My friend told me about this over 5 years ago, and it still never fails to get me on a rant when I stumble across another outwither. I also dislike Microsoft word telling me it’s incorrect and asking me if I’d prefer ‘out-with’ or ‘out with’. Perhaps one day in the not so distant future, I won’t have to approve a perfectly correct, and damn right handy word!


    Comment by tartantanktop | 06/08/2009

  4. As an Irish/Englishman who did a lot of work around criminal law in Scotland some years ago, I came across Outwith in many court reports and legal documents north of the border. So it has real status as a word and must not be lost.


    Comment by Charles Hunter | 24/08/2009

  5. As an author/reviewer of technical documents for 30 years I find that substituting ‘outwith’ by ‘outside’ (e.g. as in “the nnnn subject is outside the scope of this report”) satisfies the intended understanding in over 99% of cases. In addition to the ‘misspelling’ issue, ‘outwith’ can introduce confusion for less-experienced readers; do many Scots realise it is so little used (i.e. only by ex-pat Scots)in the rest of the UK and other English-speaking countries?


    Comment by Jim | 13/05/2010

  6. Hi there. Found this while looking for information/ammunition for a debate on this very preposition.

    Jim, really, no-one ever misunderstands ‘outwith’, do they? I’ve had editors complain that *other people* might be confused, but no-one has ever expressed such confusion themselves. And what else could it possibly mean? ‘Outside’ is a perfectly adequate antonym for ‘inside’, but – for reasons already stated on here – ‘without’ has become an ambiguous antonym for ‘within’, and is no more usually seen as meaning something like ‘lacking’.

    Sure, ‘outside’ would usually suffice, but then ‘inside’ would usually substitute for ‘within’ as well, if our only purpose was to convey a basic meaning. But English is a fantastically rich and nuanced language, and I don’t like the creeping trend towards using subtle variants as effective synonyms.


    Comment by Colin Gavaghan | 28/07/2010

  7. I first came across ‘outwith’ when a new boss used it back in the early 1990’s. I have since taken to it and use it as the occasion arises.

    My Boss was born in Kent and had worked in various parts of England and Germany but not Scotland.

    My interest today stems from my Scottish wife using it in an OU assignment and ‘MS Word’ ‘Spell Check’ objecting and suggesting it should be two separate words That, however, would convey a different meaning to that intended.

    Liked the read.



    Comment by Bernard | 24/10/2010

  8. Its only the Scots use the word ‘outwith’. To English people it has a funny old fashioned ring to it, with possibly legal overtones. It sounds like someone trying to show off, which very often they are! I’ve heard it used for almost everything including ‘not included’ and even ‘absent – non-existant’! Funnily enough they dont use ‘inwith’, not following Chaucers lead on that one.


    Comment by Tony | 29/11/2010

  9. Tony did you not read my comment? I am not a Scot but use it and so do a number of people with whom I worked.

    I try to not stereotype as I find it makes life a lot easier for all.

    Seasons Gretings.


    Comment by Bernard | 01/12/2010

  10. As a civil servant I have launched my own crusade to insert ‘outwith’ into as many Government documents as possible to increase its chances of being accepted into the dictionary.


    Comment by The man inside | 14/12/2010

  11. As an Englishman in Scotland marking student essays, I have no problem at all with the word ‘outwith’, except that Scots students frequently write it ‘out with’ and don’t understand what it means (e.g. using it when they really mean ‘besides’). Is Microsoft going to kill it off?!


    Comment by RP | 14/03/2011

  12. Sounds as if your students will also write something like “I should of left before I got drunk”, when they really mean “I should’ve left before I got drunk”. Oops… my spellchecker just objected to should’ve, and it used a British English dictionary!


    Comment by Apollo | 14/03/2011

  13. I’m Scottish, and I remember being “corrected” on this when I was located in the English-speaking Caribbean and I used it in a report. That was in pre-Internet days (for me – c. 1994) and I had no real hope of researching it properly.

    Since then, it has always annoyed me to think that it isn’t a real word, and that I can’t legitimately use it. It’s good to discover that it is a Scottish-English word, and, therefore, just as legitimate as any other *nationality*-English word.

    You see, I NEED a word to use in phrases like “outwith the bounds of decency”. Outside doesn’t do it. Bounds don’t have sides, so the behaviour or whatever couldn’t possibly be held to be on either ‘side’. How wrong does “inside the bounds of decency” sound? Since the opposite to what I am looking for is within, the correct term would be without. However, since without has been usurped and is now taken to exclusively mean ‘not having’, outwith is the logical alternative.

    They may take our lives, but they will never take outwith!


    Comment by John | 24/04/2011

  14. I’m English but frequently visit Dunbartonshire, and use ‘outwith’ (certainly never [as] separate words); recently, I had cause to complain about a bus service and stated that my pass can be used “outwith Kent County Council’s boundaries”.

    I also use ‘kerfuffle’ but that’s more old-fashioned, rather than a Scots’ (Scotch?!!) word, although it is a Scots’ word.

    Up in Scotland, I have noticed ‘nae bother’ seems to be used more East of Scotland: Perthshre/Tayside/Lothian, than Strathclyde or the West, but maybe that’s me!!


    Comment by Alex | 07/05/2011

  15. Alex, please never (ever!) use “Scotch”.

    Apollo, I enjoyed your piece! I Googled “outwith”, because in my document too, MS Word flagged the word as an error.


    Comment by Anthony | 10/11/2011

  16. I find it necessary to beat any new ‘spell checker’ to within an inch of its life so that it accepts both English and Scottish spellings over Webster’s USA versions.


    Comment by Bernard | 11/11/2011

  17. […] never guess my favorite word right now. It’s Scottish. The word: Outwith. I found a fantastic blog post about the prospect of a world without the word […]


    Pingback by It’s Okay to Want a Style | Awake & Asleep | 20/11/2013

  18. Ye i know its a little late but thought i’d have my tuppenceworth. I totally agree with whats said in the comments here. The reason i ended up here was because bill gates n co decided that outwith wasn’t a real word and that threw me a little. To me it’s like this, within means, something or someone that is contained inside a boundary which can be either physical,metaphorical or otherwise. Outwith is the direct and only opposite of within, period. Without expresses the lack of something i.e he left the house without his glasses. If you wanted to reverse this sentence to the contrary. It would be, he left the house with his glasses.

    Liked comment 12, should of vs should’ve. Its interesting that you can read both versions and have absolutely no ambiguity as to what meaning was intended, i think i even say it like that sometimes 🙂

    The bottom line really is though, if you hear a word used, and you understand it and use it yourself and are in turn understood, then it is a REAL word, no matter what the dictionary or anyone else says. Language is far too fluent and fast moving for any dictionary to keep up with the cutting edge of usage.

    Dont ever let a spell checker or dictionary convince you a real word is “outwith” the rules.


    Comment by ubungmachtdenmeister | 19/03/2014

  19. I’m with 13 – “Outwith” has a meaning distinct from “outside” to me, although I think people use it without thinking about it.
    For example “Outside my control” suggests to me that the matter is potentially within my control, but for whatever reason, it isn’t.
    “Outwith my control” on the other hand is something which could not be within my control, even if I wanted it to be so.
    So, the catering at an event would be outside my control, if I were in charge of the car-park; the weather at the event would be outwith my control whatever my job.


    Comment by jock123 | 31/03/2014

  20. Its 2017 and MS Word accepts outwith as a real word.


    Comment by Ashar | 03/04/2017

  21. 🙂


    Comment by Apollo | 03/04/2017

  22. I have become familiar with this word only since working for a firm based in Scotland. A very useful weird it is, though.


    Comment by TheMrsNatG | 18/04/2017

  23. Another contributor to the increasing use of outwith south of the border is due to its use in the nuclear industry in technical reports. This is due to the significance of Dounreay to that industry. My understnding is that outwith doesn’t really mean “outside” as much as “not inside”


    Comment by Steven | 07/08/2017

  24. Nice.

    A subtle difference in meaning, but not lost on anyone who has had the opportunity to have had at least a little training in the law, and experience in the way courts, and the legal system, treat the use of words. It can be fun watching someone who thinks they have been clever in adding their own ‘spin’ to a word or expression, only to have the sheriff walk all over them and explain that courts don’t let people in court make up their own meanings.


    Comment by Apollo | 07/08/2017

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