Jock Tamson's Bairns

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A copper plaque by Duddingston Kirk, Edinburgh, Scotland. The Kirk is situated below Arthur's Seat and next to Duddingston Loch.

Jock Tamson's Bairns is a Lowland Scots (and Northumbrian English) dialect version of Jack (John) Thomson's children but both Jock and Tamson in this context take on the connotation of Everyman. The Dictionary of the Scots Language gives the following definitions:

  • Jock: (1) A generic term for a man, a male person. (34) Jock Tamson's bairns: the human race, common humanity; also, with less universal force, a group of people united by a common sentiment, interest or purpose.[1]
  • Tamson: a Scottish form of the surname Thomson. In phrases Tamson stands for the ordinary representative man in the street: Jock Tamson's bairns, common humanity.[2]

The phrase is used in common speech in Scotland and it also occurs in general culture. Some examples are: the play of that name by Liz Lochhead;[3] a folk music group of that name;[4] the title of a book describing the official records of the Scottish nation;[5] a report of a speech in parliament by Winnie Ewing;[6] a BBC report on the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).[7]

The phrase more often occurs in an extended form: We're a' Jock Tamson's bairns. This is interpreted in a metaphorical sense[8] as a statement of egalitarian sentiments[1] equivalent to "we're all the same under the skin" or "we are all God's children".[1]

The origin of the phrase is uncertain. The earliest reference quoted in the Dictionary of the Scots Language is from 1847 where it describes the phrase as "an expression of mutual good fellowship very frequently heard in Scotland."[1] One suggestion is that it was simply common usage in the Fife town of Buckhaven which had 70 Thomson families out of a total of 160 families in 1833.[citation needed]. Another is that the Reverend John Thomson, minister of Duddingston Kirk, Edinburgh, from 1805 to 1840, called the members of his congregation (and his many children) "ma bairns". The latter saying may well be the reason for the location of the plaque illustrated above.

The equivalent phrase in the Scottish Gaelic is "Clann MhicTamhais".


  1. ^ a b c d Dictionary of the Scots Language entries (1) and (34) for Jock. Note the examples lower down the page. Further examples are to be found in the supplement to the dictionary.
  2. ^ Dictionary of the Scots Language entry for Tamson
  3. ^ Brown, Ian (2013). Scottish Theatre: Diversity, Language, Continuity. Rodopi. page 201 
  4. ^ The folk group Jock Tamson's bairns have a recording of the same name
  5. ^ Sinclair, Cecil (2000). Jock Tamson's Bairns: A History of the Records of the General Register Office for Scotland. GROS. ISBN 978-1874451594. 
  6. ^ Winnie Ewing in Hansard
  7. ^ Morag Alexander, Scottish commissioner for the EHRC, reported by the BBC
  8. ^ Wilkinson, Dick (2013). Concise Thesaurus of Traditional English Metaphors. Routledge.