E come next to reminiscences chiefly connected with peculiarities which turned upon our Scottish LANGUAGE, whether contained in words or in expressions. Now this is a very important change, and affects in a greater degree than many persons would imagine, the general modes and aspects of society. I suppose at one time the two countries of England and Scotland were considered as almost speaking different languages, and I suppose also, that from the period of the union of the crowns, the language has been assimilating. We see the process of assimilation going on, and ere long amongst persons of education and birth very little difference will be perceptible. With regard to that class a great change has taken place in my time. I recollect old Scottish ladies and gentlemen who regularly spoke Scotch. It was not, mark me, speaking English with an accent. No; it was downright Scotch. Every tone and every syllable was Scotch. For example, I recollect old Miss Erskine of Dun, a fine specimen of a real lady, and daughter of an ancient Scottish house. Many people now would not understand her. She was always the lady, notwithstanding her dialect, and to none could the epithet vulgar be less appropriately applied. I speak of thirty years ago, and yet I recollect her accost to me as well as if it were yesterday, “I didna ken ye were i’ the toun.” Taking words and accent together, an address how totally unlike what we now meet with in society. Some of the old Scottish words which we can remember are delicious; but how strange they would sound to the ears of the present generation! Fancy that in walking from church, and discussing the sermon, a lady of rank should now express her opinion of it by the description of its being, “but a hummelcorn discourse.” Many living persons can remember Angus old ladies who would say to their nieces and daughters, “Whatna hummeldoddie o’ a mutch hae ye gotten?” meaning a flat and low-crowned cap. In speaking of the dryness of the soil on a road in Lanarkshire, a farmer said, “It stoors1 in an oor.”2 How would this be as tersely translated into English? The late Duchess of Gordon sat at dinner next an English gentleman who was carving, and who made it a boast that he was thoroughly master of the Scottish language. Her Grace turned to him and said, “Rax me a spaul o’ that bubbly jock.”3 The unfortunate man was completely nonplussed. A Scottish gentleman was entertaining at his house an English cousin who professed himself as rather knowing in the language of the north side of the Tweed. He asked him what he supposed to be the meaning of the expression, “ripin’ the ribs.”4 To which he readily answered, “Oh, it describes a very fat man.” I profess myself an out and out Scotchman. I have strong national partialities – call them if you will national prejudices. I cherish a great love of old Scottish language. Some of our pure Scottish ballad poetry is unsurpassed in any language for grace and pathos. How expressive, how beautiful are its phrases! You can’t translate them. Take an example of power in a Scotch expression, to describe with tenderness and feeling what is in human life. Take one of our most familiar phrases; as thus, – we meet an old friend, we talk over bygone days, and remember many who were dear to us both, once bright and young and gay, of whom some remain, honoured, prosperous, and happy – of whom some are under a cloud of misfortune or disgrace – some are broken in health and spirits – some sunk into the grave; we recal old familiar places – old companions, pleasures, and pursuits; as Scotchmen our hearts are touched with these remembrances of
AULD LANG SYNE.
Match me the phrase in English. You can’t translate it. The fitness and the beauty lie in the felicity of the language. Like many happy expressions, it is not transferable into another tongue, just like the “simplex munditiis” of Horace, which describes the natural grace of female elegance, or the ἀνῄριθμον γέλασμα of Æschylus, which describes the bright sparkling of the ocean in the sun.
I think the power of Scottish dialect was happily exemplified by the late Dr. Adam, rector of the High School of Edinburgh, in his translation of the Horatian expression, “desipere in loco,” which he turned by the Scotch phrase, “Weel-timed daffin,” a translation, however, which no one but a Scotchman could appreciate. The following humorous Scottish translation of an old Latin aphorism has been assigned to the late Dr. Hill of St. Andrews, “Qui bene cepit dimidium facti fecit.” The witty Principal expressed in Scotch, “Weel saipet (well soaped) is half shaven.”
What mere English word could have expressed a distinction so well in such a case as the following? I heard once a lady in Edinburgh objecting to a preacher that she did not understand him. Another lady, his great admirer, insinuated that probably he was too “deep” for her to follow. But her ready answer was, “Na, na, he’s no just deep, but he’s drumly.”5
We have just received a testimony to the value of our Scottish language from the illustrious Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, the force and authority of which no one will be disposed to question. Lord Brougham, in speaking of improvements upon the English language, makes these striking remarks:-
“The pure and classical language of Scotland must on no account be regarded as a provincial dialect, any more than French was so regarded in the reign of Henry V., or Italian in that of the first Napoleon, or Greek under the Roman Empire. Nor is it to be in any manner of way considered as a corruption of the Saxon; on the contrary, it contains much of the old and genuine Saxon, with an intermixture from the Northern nations, as Danes and Norse, and some, though a small portion, from the Celtic. But in whatever way composed, or from whatever sources arising, it is a national language, used by the whole people in their early years, by many learned and gifted persons throughout life, and in which are written the laws of the Scotch, their judicial proceedings, their ancient history, above all, their poetry.
“There can be no doubt that the English language would greatly gain by being enriched with a number both of words and of phrases, or turns of expression, now peculiar to the Scotch. It was by such a process that the Greek became the first of tongues, as well written as spoken…
“Would it not afford means of enriching and improving the English language, if full and accurate glossaries of improved Scotch words and phrases – those successfully used by the best writers, both in prose and verse – were given, with distinct explanation and reference to authorities? This has been done in France and other countries, where some dictionaries accompany the English, in some cases with Scotch synonymes, in others with varieties of expression.” Installation Address, p. 63.
I cannot help thinking that a change of national language involves to some extent change of national character. Numerous examples of great power in Scottish phraseology, to express the picturesque, the feeling, the wise, and the humorous, might be taken from the works of Robert Burns, Ferguson, or Allan Ramsay, and which lose their charm altogether when unscottified. The speaker certainly seems to take a strength and character from his words. We must now look for specimens of this racy and expressive tongue in the more retired parts of the country. It is no longer to be found in high places. It has disappeared from the social circles of our cities. In my early days the intercourse with the peasantry of Forfarshire, Kincardineshire, and especially of Deeside, was most amusing, not that the things said were so much out of the common, as that the language in which they were conveyed was picturesque, and odd, and taking. And certainly it does appear to me that as the language grows more uniform and conventional, less marked and peculiar in its dialect and expressions, so does the character of those who speak it become so. I have a rich sample of Mid-Lothian Scotch from a young friend in the country, who describes the conversation of an old woman on the property as amusing her by such specimens of genuine Scottish raciness and humour. On one occasion, for instance, the young lady had told her humble friend that she was going to Ireland, and would have to undergo a sea voyage. “Weel, noo, ye dinna mean that! Ance I thocht to gang across to tither side o’ the Queensferry wi’ some ither folks to a fair, ye ken; but juist when e’er I pat my fit in the boat, the boat gie wallop, and my heart gie a loup, and I thocht I’d gang oot o’ my judgment athegither, so says I, Na, na, ye gang awa by yoursells to tither side, and I’ll bide here till sik times as ye come awa back.” When we hear our Scottish language at home, and spoken by our own countrymen, we are not so much struck with any remarkable effects; but it takes a far more impressive character when heard amongst those who speak a different tongue, and when encountered in other lands. I recollect the late Sir Robert Liston expressing this feeling in his own case. When our ambassador at Constantinople, some Scotchmen had been recommended to him for some purpose of private or of government business; and Sir Robert was always ready to do a kind thing for a countryman. He found them out in a barber’s shop waiting for being shaved in turn. One came in rather late, and seeing he had scarcely room at the end of the seat, addressed his countryman, “Neebour, wad ye sit a bit wast.” What strong associations must have been called up, by hearing, in a distant land, such an expression in Scottish tones.
We may observe here, that marking the course any person is to take, or the direction in which any object is to be met with by the points of the compass, was a prevailing practice amongst the older Scottish race. There could hardly be a more ludicrous application of the test, than was furnished by an honest Highlander in describing the direction which his medicine would not take. Jean Cumming, of Altyre, who, in common with her three sisters, was a true sœur de la charité, was one day taking her rounds as usual, visiting the poor sick, among whom there was a certain Donald MacQueen, who had been sometime confined to his bed. Jean Cumming, after asking him how he felt, and finding that he was “no better,” of course inquired if he had taken the medicine which she had sent him; “Troth no, me lady,” he replied. “But why not, Donald,” she answered, “it was very wrong; how can you expect to get better if you do not help yourself with the remedies which Heaven provides for you.” “Vright or Vrang,” said Donald, “it wou’d na gang wast in spite o’ me.” In all the north country, it is always said, “I’m ganging east or west,” etc., and it happened that Donald on his sick bed was lying east and west, his feet pointing to the latter direction, hence his reply to indicate that he could not swallow the medicine!
We may fancy the amusement of the officers of a regiment in the West Indies at the innocent remark of a young lad who had just joined from Scotland. On meeting at dinner, his salutation to his colonel was, “Anither het day, Cornal,” as if “het days” were in Barbadoes few and far between, as they were in his dear old stormy cloudy Scotland. Or take the case of a Scottish saying, which indicated at once the dialect and the economical habits of a hardy and struggling race. A young Scotchman, who had been some time in London, met his friend recently come up from the north to pursue his fortune in the great metropolis. On discussing matters connected with their new life in London, the more experienced visitor remarked upon the greater expenses there than in the retired Scottish town which they had left. “Ay,” said the other, sighing over the reflection, “When ye get cheenge for a saxpence here, it’s soon slippit awa’.” I recollect a story of my father’s which illustrates the force of dialect, although confined to the inflections of a single monosyllable. On riding home one evening, he passed a cottage or small farm-house, where there was a considerable assemblage of people, and an evident incipient merry-making for some festive occasion. On asking one of the lasses standing about what it was, she answered, “Ou, it’s juist a wedding o’ Jock Thamson and Janet Fraser.” To the question, “Is the bride rich?” there was a plain quiet a plain quiet “Na.” “Is she young?” a more emphatic and decided “Naa!” but to the query, “Is she bonny?” a most elaborate and prolonged shout of “Naaa!”
It has been said that the Scottish dialect is peculiarly powerful in its use of vowels, and the following dialogue between a shopman and a customer has been given as a specimen. The conversation relates to a plaid hanging at the shop door –
Cus. (inquiring the material), Oo? (wool?)
Shop. Ay, oo (yes, of wool).
Cus. A’ oo? (all wool ?)
Shop. Ay, a’ oo (yes, all wool).
Cus. A’ ae oo? (all same wool?)
Shop. Ay, a’ ae oo (yes, all same wool).
An amusing anecdote of a pithy and jocular reply, comprised in one syllable, is recorded of an eccentric legal Scottish functionary of the last century. An advocate, of whose legal qualifications he had formed rather a low estimate, was complaining to him of being passed over in a recent appointment to the bench, and expressed his sense of the injustice with which he had been treated. He was very indignant at his claims and merit being overlooked in their not choosing him for the new judge, adding with much acrimony, “And I can tell you they might have got a ‘waur.’ ”6 To which, as if merely coming over the complainant’s language again, the answer was a grave “Whaur?”7 The merit of the impertinence was, that it sounded as if it were merely a repetition of his friend’s last words, waur and whaur. It was as if “echo answered whaur?” As I have said, the oddity and acuteness of the speaker arose from the manner of expression, not from the thing said. In fact, the same thing said in plain English would be mere commonplace. I recollect being much amused with a dialogue between my brother and his man, the chief manager of a farm which he had just taken, and, I suspect, in a good measure, manager of the farmer as well. At any rate he committed to this acute overseer all the practical details; and on the present occasion had sent him to market to dispose of a cow and a pony, a simple enough transaction, and with a simple enough result. The cow was brought back, the pony was sold. But the man’s description of it forms the point. “Well, John, have you sold the cow?” “Na, but I grippit a chiel for the powny.” The “grippit” was here most expressive! Indeed, this word has a significance hardly expressed by any English one, and used to be very prevalent to indicate keen and forcible tenacity of possession; thus a character noted for avarice or sharp looking to self interest, was termed “grippy.” In mechanical contrivances, anything taking a close adherence, was called having a gude grip. I recollect in boyish days when on Deeside taking wasp nests, an old man looking on was sharply stung by one, and his description was, “Ane o’ them’s grippit me fine.” The following had an indescribable piquancy, which arose from the Scotticism of the terms and the manners. Many years ago, when accompanying a shooting party on the Grampians, not with a gun like the rest, but with a botanical box for collecting specimens of mountain plants, the party had got very hot, and very tired, and very cross. On the way home, whilst sitting down to rest, a gamekeeper-sort of attendant, and a character in his way, said, “I wish I was in the dining-room of Fasque.”” An old laird very testily replied, “Ye’d soon be kickit out o’ that;” to which the other replied, not at all daunted, “Weel, weel, then I wadna be far frae the kitchen.” A quaint and characteristic reply, I recollect from another farm-servant. My eldest brother had just been constructing a piece of machinery, which was driven by a stream of water running through the home farm-yard. There was a thrashing machine, a winnowing machine, and circular saw for splitting trees into paling, and other contrivances of a like kind. Observing an old man, who had long been about the place, looking very attentively at all that was going on, he said, “Wonderful things people can do now, Robby?” “Ay,” said Robby, “indeed, Sir Alexander, I’m thinking if Solomon was alive noo he’d be thocht naething o’!” But, after all, it was amongst the old ladies that the great abundance of choice pungent Scottish expressions, such as you certainly do not meet with in these days, was to be sought. In their position of society, education either in England, or education conducted by English teachers, has so spread in Scottish families, and intercourse with the south has been so increased, that all these colloquial peculiarities are fast disappearing. Some of the ladies of this older school felt some indignation at the change which they lived to see was fast going on. One of them being asked if an individual whom she had lately seen was “Scotch,” answered with some bitterness, “I canna say; ye a’ speak sae genteel now that I dinna ken wha’s Scotch.” It was not uncommon to find, in young persons, examples, some years ago, of an attachment to the Scottish dialect, like that of the old lady. In the life of P. Tytler, lately published, there is an account of his first return to Scotland from a school in England. His family were delighted with his appearance, manners, and general improvement; but a sister did not share this pleasure unmixed, for being found in tears, and the remark being made, “Is he not charming,” her reply was, in great distress, “Oh yes, but he speaks English!”
The class of old Scottish ladies marked by so many peculiarities, generally lived in provincial towns, and never dreamt of going from home. Many had never been in London, or had even crossed the Tweed. But as Lord Cockburn’s experience goes back farther than mine, and as he had special opportunities of being acquainted with their characteristic peculiarities, I will quote his animated description at page 57 of his memorials. “There was a singular race of old Scotch ladies. They were a delightful set – strong-headed, warm-hearted, and high-spirited – merry even in solitude; very resolute; indifferent about the modes and habits of the modern world, and adhering to their own ways, so as to stand out like primitive rocks above ordinary society. Their prominent qualities of sense, humour, affection, and spirit, were embodied in curious outsides, for they all dressed, and spoke, and did exactly as they chose. Their language, like their habits, entirely Scotch, but without any other vulgarity than what perfect naturalness is sometimes mistaken for.”8
This is a masterly description of a race now all but passed away. I have known several of them in my early days; and amongst them we must look for the racy Scottish peculiarities of diction and of expression which, with them, are also nearly gone. Lord Cockburn has given some illustrations of these peculiarities; and I have heard others, especially connected with Jacobite partialities, of which I say nothing, as they are in fact rather strong for such an occasion as the present. One, however, I heard lately as coming from a Forfarshire old lady of this class, which bears upon the point of “resolute” determination referred to in Lord Cockburn’s description. She had been very positive in the disclaiming of some assertion which had been attributed to her, and on being asked if she had not written it, or something very like it, she replied, “Na, na; I never write onything of consequence – I may deny what I say, but I canna deny what I write.”
Mrs. Baird of Newbyth, the mother of our distinguished countryman the late General Sir David Baird, was always spoken of as a grand specimen of the class. When the news arrived from India of the gallant but unfortunate action of ‘84 against Hyder Ali, in which her son, then Captain Baird, was engaged, it was stated that he and other officers had been taken prisoners and chained together two and two. The friends were careful in breaking such sad intelligence to the mother of Captain Baird. When, however, she was made fully to understand the position of her son and his gallant companions, disdaining all weak and useless expressions of her own grief, and knowing well the restless and athletic habits of her son, all she said was, “Lord pity the chiel that’s chained to our Davy.”9
The ladies of this class had certainly no affectation in speaking of those who came under their displeasure, even when life and death were concerned. I had an anecdote illustrative of this characteristic, in a well-known old lady of the last century, Miss Johnstone of Westerhall. She had been extremely indignant that, on the death of her brother, his widow had proposed to sell off the old furniture of Westerhall. She was attached to it from old associations, and considered the parting with it little short of sacrilege. The event was, however, arrested by death, or, as she describes the result, “the furniture was a’ to be roupit, and we couldna persuade her. But before the sale cam on, in God’s gude providence, she just clinkit aff hersell.” Of this same Miss Johnstone, another characteristic anecdote has been preserved in the family. She came into possession of Hawkhill, near Edinburgh, and died there. When dying, a tremendous storm of rain and thunder came on, so as to shake the house. In her own quaint eccentric spirit, and with no thought of profane or light allusions, she looked up, and, listening to the storm, quietly remarked in reference to her departure, “Ech, sirs! what a nicht for me to be fleeing thro’ the air!” Of fine acute sarcasm I recollect hearing an expression from rather a modern sample of the class, a charming character, but only to a certain degree answering to the description of the older generation. Conversation turning, and with just indignation, on the infidel remarks which had been heard from a certain individual, and on his irreverent treatment of Holy Scripture, all that this lady condescended to say of him was, “Gey impudent of him, I think.”
A recorded reply of old Lady Perth to a French gentleman is quaint and characteristic. They had been discussing the respective merits of the cookery of each country. The Frenchman offended the old Scottish peeress by some disparaging remarks on Scottish dishes, and by highly preferring those of France. All she would answer was, “Weel, weel, some fowk like parritch, and some like paddocks.”10
Of this older race – the ladies who were aged fifty years ago – the description is given by Lord Cockburn in strong and bold outline. I would pretend to nothing more than giving a few illustrative details from my own experience, which may assist the description by adding some practical realities to the picture. Several of them whom I knew in my early days certainly answered to many of those descriptions of Lord Cockburn. Their language and expressions had a zest and peculiarity which is gone, and which would not, I fear, do for modern life and times.
I have spoken of Miss Erskine of Dun, which is near Montrose. She, however, resided in Edinburgh. But those I knew best had lived many years in the then retired society of a country town. Some were my own relations; and in boyish days (for they had not generally much patience with boys) were looked up to with considerable awe as very formidable personages. Their characters and modes of expression in many respects, remarkably corresponded with Lord Cockburn’s description. There was a dry Scottish humour which we fear their successors; do not inherit. One of these Montrose ladies had many anecdotes told of her quaint ways and sayings. Walking in the street one day, slippery from frost, she fairly fell down. A young officer with much politeness came forward and picked her up, earnestly asking her at the same time, “I hope, ma’am, you are no worse?” to which she replied, looking at him very steadily, “Indeed, sir, I’m just as little the better.” A few days after, she met her military supporter in a shop. He was a fine tall youth, upwards of six feet high, and by way of making some grateful recognition for his late polite attention, she eyed him from head to foot; and as she was of the opinion of the old Scotch lady, who declared she “aye liked bonny fowk,” she viewed her young friend with much satisfaction, but which she only evinced by the dry remark, “O’d, ye’re a lang lad; God gie ye grace.”
I had from a relative or intimate friend of two sisters of this school, well known about Glasgow, an odd account of what it seems from their own statement had passed between them at a country house, where they had attended a sale by auction. As the business of the day went on, a dozen of silver spoons had to be disposed of; and before they were put up for competition, they were, according to the usual custom, handed round for inspection to the company. When returned into the hands of the auctioneer, he found only eleven. In great wrath, he ordered the door to be shut, that no one might escape, and insisted on every one present being searched, to discover the delinquent. One of the sisters, in consternation, whispered to the other, “Esther, ye hae nae gotten the spune?” to which the other replied, “Na; but I hae gotten Mrs. Siddons in my pocket.” She had been struck by a miniature of the great actress, and quietly had pocketed it. The cautious reply of the sister was, “Then juist drop her, Esther.” One of the sisterhood, a connection of my own, had much of this dry Scottish humour. She had a lodging in the house of a respectable grocer; and on her niece most innocently asking her, “If she was not very fond of her landlord,” in reference to the excellence of her apartments and the attention he paid to her comfort, she demurred to the question, on the score of its propriety, by replying, “Fond of my landlord! that would be an unaccountable fondness.”
An amusing account was given of an interview and conversation between this lady and the provost of Montrose. She had demurred at paying some municipal tax with which she had been charged, and the provost was anxious to prevent her getting into difficulty on the subject, and kindly called to convince her of the fairness of the claim, and the necessity of paying it. In his explanation he referred back to his own bachelor days when a similar payment had been required from him. “I assure you, ma’am,” he said, “when I was in your situation I was called upon in a similar way for this tax;” to which she replied, in quiet scorn, “In my situation! an’ whan were ye in my situation – an auld maid leevin’ in a flat wi’ an ae lass?” But the complaints of such imposts were urged in a very humorous manner by another Montrose old lady, Miss Helen Carnegy of Craigo; she hated paying taxes, and always pretended to misunderstand their nature. One day, receiving a notice of such payment signed by the provost (Thom), she broke out: “I dinna understand thae taxes; but I just think when Mrs. Thom wants a new gown, the provost sends me a tax paper!” The good lady’s naïve rejection of the idea that she could be in any sense “fond of her landlord,” already referred to, was somewhat in unison with a similar feeling recorded to have been expressed by the late Mr. Wilson, the celebrated Scottish vocalist. He was taking lessons from the late Mr. Finlay Dun, one of the most accomplished musicians of his day. Mr. Dun had just returned from Italy, and impressed with admiration of the deep pathos, sentiment, and passion of the Italian school of music, he regretted to find in his pupil so lovely a voice and so much talent losing much of its effect for want of feeling. Anxious, therefore, to throw into his friend’s performance something of the Italian expression, he proposed to bring it out by this suggestion: “Now, Mr. Wilson, just suppose that I am your lady love, and sing to me as you could imagine yourself doing were you desirous of impressing her with your earnestness and affection.” Poor Mr. Wilson hesitated, blushed, and under doubt how far such a personification even in his case was allowable, at last remonstrated, “Ay, Mr. Dun, ye forget I’m a married man!”
A case has been reported of a country girl, however, who thought it possible there might be an excess in such scrupulous regard to appearances. On her marriage-day, the youth to whom she was about to be united, said to her in a triumphant tone, “Weel, Jenny, haven’t I been unco ceevil,” alluding to the fact that during their whole courtship he had never even given her a kiss. Her quiet reply was, “Ou, ay, man; senselessly ceevil.”
One of these Montrose ladies and a sister lived together; and in a very quiet way they were in the habit of giving little dinner parties, to which occasionally they invited their gentlemen friends. However, gentlemen were not always to be had; and on one occasion, when such a difficulty had occurred, they were talking over the matter with a friend. The one lady seemed to consider such an acquisition almost essential to the having a dinner at all. The other, who did not see the same necessity, quietly adding, “But, indeed, oor Jean thinks a man a perfect salvation.”
There was occasionally a pawky semi-sarcastic humour in the replies of some of the ladies we speak of that was quite irresistible, of which I have from a friend a good illustration in an anecdote well known at the time. A late well-known member of the Scottish bar, when a youth, was somewhat of a dandy, and, I suppose, somewhat short and sharp in his temper. He was going to pay a visit in the country, and was making a great fuss about his preparing and the putting up his habiliments. His old aunt was much annoyed at all this bustle, and stopped him by the somewhat contemptuous question, “Whaur’s this you’re gaun, Robby, that ye mak sic a grand wark about yer claes?” The young man lost temper, and pettishly replied, “I’m going to the devil.” “ ’Deed, Robby, then,” was the quiet answer, “ye needna be sae nice, he’ll juist tak ye as ye are.”
Ladies of this class had a quiet mode of expressing themselves on very serious subjects, which indicated their quaint power of description, rather than their want of feeling. Thus, of two sisters, when one had died, it was supposed that she had injured herself by an imprudent indulgence in strawberries and cream, of which she had partaken in the country. A friend was condoling with the surviving sister, and, expressing her sorrow, had added, “I had hoped your sister was to live many years.” To which her relative rejoined – “Leeve! hoo could she leeve! she juist felled11 hersell at Craigo wi’ strawberries and cream!” However, she spoke with the same degree of coolness of her own decease. For when her friend was comforting her in illness, by the hopes that she would, after winter, enjoy again some of their country spring butter, she exclaimed, without the slightest idea of being guilty of any irreverence, “Spring butter! by that time I shall be buttering in heaven.” When really dying, and when friends were round her bed, she overheard one of them saying to another, “Her face has lost its colour; it grows like a sheet of paper.” The quaint spirit even then broke out in the remark, “Then I’m sure it maun be broon paper.” A very strong-minded lady of the class, and, in Lord Cockburn’s language, “indifferent about modes and habits,” had been asking from a lady the character of a cook she was about to hire. The lady naturally entered a little upon her moral qualifications, and described her as a very decent woman; the reply to which was, “Oh, d—n her decency; can she make good collops?” – an answer which would somewhat surprise a lady of Moray Place now, if engaged in a similar discussion of a servant’s merits.
I had two grand-aunts living at Montrose at that time – two Miss Ramsays of Balmain. They were somewhat of the severe class – Nelly especially, who was an object rather of awe than of affection. She certainly had a very awful appearance to young apprehensions, from the strangeness of her head gear. Ladies of this class Lord Cockburn has spoken of as having their peculiarities embodied in curious outsides, as they dressed, spoke, and did exactly as they chose. As a sample of such curious outside and dress, my good aunt used to go about the house with an immense pillow strapped over her head – warm but formidable. These two maiden grand-aunts had a niece on a visit, an aunt of mine, who had made what they considered a very imprudent marriage, and where considerable poverty was likely to accompany the step she had taken. The poor niece had to bear many a slap directed to her improvident union, as for example: One day she had asked for a piece of tape for some work she had in hand as a young wife expecting to become a mother. Miss Nelly said with much point, “Ay, Kitty, ye shall get a bit knittin’ (i.e. a bit of tape). We hae a’thing; we’re no married.” It was this lady who, by an inadvertent use of a term, shewed what was passing in her mind in a way which must have been quite transparent to the bystanders. At a supper which she was giving, she was evidently much annoyed at the reckless and clumsy manner in which a gentleman was operating upon a ham which was at table, cutting out great lumps, and distributing them to the company. The lady said, in a very querulous tone, “Oh, Mr. Divet, will you help Mrs. So and So?” – divet being a provincial term for a turf or sod cut out of the green, and the resemblance of it to the pieces carved out by the gentleman evidently having taken possession of her imagination. Mrs. Helen Carnegy of Craigo was a thorough specimen of this class of old Scottish ladies. She lived in Montrose, and died in 1818, at the advanced age of 91. She was a Jacobite, and very aristocratic in her feelings, but on social terms with many burghers of Montrose, or Munross, as it was called. She preserved a very nice distinction of addresses, suited to different individuals in the town, according as she placed them in the scale of her consideration. She liked a party at quadrille, and sent out her servant every morning to invite the ladies required to make up the game, and her directions were graduated thus – “Nelly, ye’ll ging to Lady Carnegy’s, and mak my compliments, and ask the honour of her ladyship’s company; and that of the Miss Carnegies, to tea this evening; and if they canna come, ging to the Miss Mudies, and ask the pleasure of their company; and if they canna come, ye may ging to Miss Hunter and ask the favour of her company; and if she canna come, ging to Lucky Spark and bid her come.”
Some of those ladies, as belonging to the old county families, had very high notions of their own importance, and a great idea of their difference from the burgher families of the town. I am assured of the truth of the following naïve specimen of such family pride:- One of the olden maiden ladies of Montrose called one day on some ladies of one of the families in the neighbourhood, and on being questioned as to the news of the town said, “News! oh! Bailie ———‘s eldest son is to be married.” “And pray,” was the reply, “and pray, Miss ———, an’ fa’ ever heard o’ a merchant i’ the toon o’ Montrose ha’in’ an eldest son?”
At the beginning of this century, when the fear of invasion was rife, it was proposed to mount a small battery at the water-mouth by subscription, and Miss Carnegy was waited on by a deputation from the town council. One of them having addressed her on the subject, she heard him with some impatience, and when he had finished, she said, “Are ye ane o’ the toon council?” He replied, “I have that honour, ma’m.” To which she rejoined, “Ye may hae that profit, but honour ye hae nane;” and then to the point, she added, “But I’ve been tell’t that ae day’s wark o’ twa or three men wad mount the cannon, and that it may be a’ dune for twenty shillings, now there’s twa punds to ye.” The councillor pocketed the money and withdrew. On one occasion, as she sat in an easy chair, having assumed the habits and privileges of age, Mr. Mollison, the minister of the Established Kirk, called on her to solicit for some charity. She did not like being asked for money, and, from her Jacobite principles, she certainly did not respect the Presbyterian Kirk. When he came in, she made an inclination of the head, and he said, “Don’t get up, madam.” She replied, “Get up! I wadna rise out of my chair for King George himself, let abee a Whig minister.”
It is a curious subject the various shades of Scottish dialect and Scottish expressions, commonly called Scotticisms. We mark in the course of fifty years how some disappear altogether; others become more and more rare, and of all of them we may say, I think, that the specimens of them are to be looked for every year more in the descending classes of society. What was common amongst peers, judges, lairds, advocates, and people of family and education, is now found in humbler ranks of life. There are few persons perhaps who have been born in Scotland, and who have lived long in Scotland, whom a nice southern ear might not detect as from the north. But far beyond such nicer shades of distinction, there are strong and characteristic marks of a Caledonian origin with which some of us have had practical acquaintance. I possess two curious, and now, I believe, rather scarce, publications on the prevalent Scotticisms of our speaking and writing. One is entitled, “Scotticisms designed to Correct Improprieties of Speech and Writing,” by Dr. Beattie of Aberdeen. The other is to the same purpose, and is entitled, “Observations on the Scottish Dialect,” by the late Right Honourable Sir John Sinclair. Expressions which were common in their days, and used by persons of all ranks, are not known by the rising generation. Many amusing equivoques used to be current, arising from Scotch people in England applying terms and expressions in a manner rather surprising to Southern ears. Thus, the story was told of a public character dear to the memory of Scotland, Henry Dundas (Viscount Melville), applying to Mr. Pitt for the loan of a horse “the length of Highgate,” a very common expression in Scotland at that time to signify the distance to which the ride was to extend. Mr. Pitt good humouredly wrote back to say that he was afraid he had not a horse in his possession quite so long as Mr. Dundas had mentioned, but he had sent the longest he had. There is a well-known case of mystification, caused to English ears by the use of Scottish terms, which took place in the House of Peers during the examination of the Magistrates of Edinburgh touching the particulars of the Porteous Mob in 1736. The Duke of Newcastle having asked the Provost with what kind of shot the town-guard, commanded by Porteous, had loaded their muskets, received the unexpected reply, “Ou, juist sic as ane shutes dukes and sic-like fools wi.” The answer was considered as a contempt of the House of Lords, and the poor Provost would have suffered from misconception of his patois, had not the Duke of Argyle (who must have been exceedingly amused) explained that the worthy chief magistrate’s expression, when rendered into English, meant to describe the shot used for ducks and water-fowl. The circumstance is referred to by Sir W. Scott in the notes to the Heart of Mid-Lothian.
A very curious list may be made of words used in Scotland in a sense which would be quite unintelligible to southerns. Such applications are going out, but I remember them well amongst the old-fashioned people of Angus and the Mearns quite common in conversation. I subjoin some specimens:-
Bestial signifies amongst Scottish agriculturists cattle generally, the whole aggregate number of beasts on the farm. Again, a Scottish farmer when he speaks of his “hogs,” or of buying “hogs,” has no reference to swine, but means young sheep, i.e., sheep before they have lost their first fleece.
Discreet does not bear the meaning of prudent or cautious, but of civil, kind, attentive. Such application of the word is said to have been made by Dr. Chalmers to the Bishop of Exeter. Those two eminent individuals had met for the first time at the hospitable house of the late Mr. Murray, the publisher. On the introduction taking place, the bishop expressed himself so warmly as to the pleasure it gave him to meet so distinguished and excellent a man as Dr. Chalmers, that the Doctor was quite overcome, and in a deprecating tone, said, “Oh, I am sure your lordship is very ‘discreet.’ ”
Enterteening has in olden Scottish usage the sense not of amusing, but of interesting. I remember an honest Dandie Dinmont on a visit to Bath. A lady, who had taken a kind charge of him, accompanied him to the theatre, and in the most thrilling scene of Kemble’s acting, what is usually termed the dagger scene in Macbeth, she turned to the farmer with a whisper, “Is not that fine?” to which the confidential reply was, “Oh, mem, it’s verra enterteening!” Enterteening expressing his idea of the interesting!
Pig, in old-fashioned Scotch, was always used for a coarse earthenware jar or vessel. In the life of the late Patrick Tytler, the amiable and gifted historian of Scotland, there occurs an amusing exemplification of the utter confusion of ideas caused by the use of Scottish phraseology. The family, when they went to London, had taken with them an old Scottish servant who had no notion of any terms beside her own. She came in one day greatly disturbed at the extremely backward state of knowledge of domestic affairs amongst the Londoners. She had been to so many shops and could not get “a great broon pig12 to haud the butter in.”
From a relative of the family I have received an account of a still worse confusion of ideas caused by the inquiry of a Mrs. Chisholm of Chisholm, who died in London in 1825, at an advanced age. She had come from the country, to be with her daughter, and was a genuine Scottish lady of the old school. She wished to purchase a table-cloth of a cheque pattern like the squares of a chess or draft-board. Now a draft-board used to be called (as I remember) by old Scotch people a “dam13 – brod.”14 Accordingly, Mrs. Chisholm entered the shop of a linen-draper, and asked to be shown table-linen a dam-brod pattern. The shopman, although taken aback by a request, as he considered it, so strongly worded, by a respectable old lady, brought down what he assured her was the largest and widest made. No; that would not do. She repeated her wish for a dam-brod pattern, and left the shop surprised at the stupidity of the London shopman not having the pattern she asked for.
Silly has in genuine old Scottish use reference to weakness of body only, and not of mind. Before knowing the use of the word, I remember being much astonished at a farmer of the Mearns telling me of the strongest minded man in the county that he was “growing uncommon silly,” not insinuating any decline of mental vigour, but only meaning that his bodily strength was giving way.
Frail, in like manner, expresses infirmity of body, and implies no charge of any laxity in moral principle; yet I have seen English persons looking with considerable consternation when an old-fashioned Scottish lady, speaking of a young and graceful female, lamented her being so frail.
Fail is another instance of different use of words. In Scotland it used to be quite common to say of a person whose health and strength had declined, that he had failed. To say this of a person connected with mercantile business has a very serious effect upon Southern ears, as implying only bankruptcy and ruin. I recollect many years ago at Monmouth, a Scottish lady creating much consternation in the mind of the mayor, by saying of a worthy man, the principal banker in the town, whom they both concurred in praising, that she was “sorry to find he was failing.”
Honest has in Scotch a peculiar application, irrespective of any integrity of moral character. It is a kindly mode of referring to an individual, as we would say to a stranger, “Honest man, would you tell me the way to ———,” or as Lord Hermand, when about to sentence a woman for stealing, began, remonstratively, “Honest woman, what garr’d ye steal your neighbour’s tub.”
Superstitious: A correspondent informs me that in some parts of Mid-Lothian, the people constantly use the word “superstitious” for “bigoted;” thus, speaking of a very keen Free Church person, they will say, “he is awfu’ supperstitious.”
Kail in England simply expresses cabbage, but in Scotland represents the chief meal of the day. Hence the old-fashioned easy way of asking a friend to dinner was to ask him if he would take his kail with the family. In the same usage of the word, the Scottish proverb expresses distress and trouble in a person’s affairs, by saying that “he has got his kail through the reek.” In like manner Haddock, in Kincardineshire and Aberdeenshire, used to express the same idea, as the expression is, “Will ye tak your haddock wi’ us the day?” There is this difference however in the local usage, that to say in Aberdeen, Will you take your haddock, implies an invitation to dinner, whilst in Montrose the same expression means an invitation to supper. Differences of pronunciation also caused great confusion and misunderstanding. Novels used to be pronounced novels; envy envy; a cloak was a clock, to the surprise of an English lady, to whom the maid said, on leaving the house, “Mem, winna ye tak the clock wi’ ye.”
There is indeed a case of Scottish pronunciation which adds to the force and copiousness of our language, by discriminating four words, which according to English speaking, are undistinguishable from pronunciation. The words are – wright (a carpenter), to write (with a pen), right (the reverse of wrong), rite (a ceremony). The four are however distinguished in old-fashioned Scotch pronunciation, thus – 1, He’s a wiricht; 2, to wireete; 3, richt; 4, rite.
I can remember a peculiar Scottish phrase very commonly used, which now seems to have passed away. I mean the expression “to let on,” indicating the notice or observation of some thing, or of some person – For example, “I saw Mr. ———, at the meeting, but I never let on that I knew he was present.” A form of expression which has been a great favourite in Scotland, in my recollection, has much gone out of practice, – I mean the frequent use of diminutives, generally adopted either as terms of endearment or of contempt. Thus, it was very common to speak of a person whom you meant rather to undervalue, as a mannie, a bodie, a bit bodie, or a wee bit mannie. The Bailie in Rob Roy, when he intended to represent his party as persons of no importance, used the expression, “We are bits o’ Glasgow bodies.” In a popular child’s song, we have the endearing expression, “My wee bit laddie.” We have known the series of diminutives, as applied to the canine race, very rich in diminution. There is – 1. A dog; 2. A doggie; 3. A bit doggie; 4. A wee bit doggie; and even 5. A wee bit doggiekie. A correspondent has supplied me with a diminutive, which is of a more extravagant degree of attenuation than any I ever met with. It is this – “A peerie wee bit o’ a manikinie.” We used to hear such expressions as those, which would not now be reckoned genteel: “Come in and get your bit dinner;” “I hope you are now settled in your ain bit housie.” In the Caldwell papers (page 39) we have an interesting case of a diminutive happily applied. It is recorded in the family that Mrs. Mure, on receiving from David Hume, on his deathbed, the copy of his history, which is still in the library of Caldwell, marked “From the Author,” she thanked him very warmly, and added in her native dialect, which she and the historian spoke in great purity, “O David, that’s a book ye may weel be proud o’, but before ye dee ye should burn a’ your wee bukies;” to which, raising himself, he replied with some vehemence, half offended half in joke – “What for should I burn a’ my wee bukies?” He was too weak for discussion. He shook her hand and bade her farewell.
An admirable Scotch expression I recollect from one of the Montrose ladies before referred to. Her niece was asking a great many questions on some point concerning which her aunt had been giving her information, and coming over and over the ground, demanding an explanation how this had happened, and why something else was so and so. The old lady lost her patience, and at last burst forth: “I winna be back-speired noo, Pally Fullerton.” Back-speired! how much more pithy and expressive than cross-examined! Another capital expression to mark that a person has stated a point rather under than over the truth, is “The less I lee,” as in Guy Mannering, where the precentor exclaims to Mrs. MacCandlish, “Aweel, gudewife, then the less I lee.” We have found it a very amusing task collecting together a number of these phrases, and forming them into a connected epistolary composition. We may imagine the sort of puzzle it would be to a young person of the present day – one of what we may call the new school. We will suppose an English young lady, or an English educated young lady, lately married, receiving such a letter as the following from the Scottish aunt of her husband. We may suppose it be written by a very old lady, who, for the last fifty years, has not moved from home, and has changed nothing of her early days. I can safely affirm that every word of it I have either seen written in a letter, or have heard in ordinary conversation:-
“MY DEAR NIECE – I am real glad to find my nevy has made so good a choice as to have secured you for his wife; and I am sure this step will add much to his comfort, and we behove to rejoice at it. He will now look forward to his evening at home, and you will be happy because you will never want him. It will be a great pleasure when you hear him in the trance, and wipe his feet upon the bass. But Willy is not strong, and you must look well after him. I hope you do not let him snuff so much as he did. He had a sister, poor thing, who died early. She was remarkably clever, and well read, and most intelligent, but was always uncommonly silly.16 In the autumn of ‘40 she had a sair host, and was aye speaking through a cold, and at dinner never did more than to sup a few family broth. I am afraid she did not change her feet when she came in from the wet one evening. I never let on that I observed anything to be wrong; but I remember asking her to come and sit upon the fire. But she went out and did not take the door with her. She lingered till next spring, when she had a great income, and her parents were then too poor to take her south, and she died. I hope you will like the lassie Eppie we have sent you. She is a discreet girl, and comes of a decent family. She has a sister married upon a Seceding minister at Kirkcaldy. But I hear he expects to be transported soon. She was brought up in one of the hospitals here. Her father had been a souter and a pawky chiel enough, but was doited for years, and her mother was sair dottled. We have been greatly interested in the hospital where Eppie was educate, and intended getting up a bazaar for it, and would have asked you to help us, as we were most anxious to raise some additional funds, when one of the bailies died and left it 10,000 pounds, which was really a great mortification. I am not a good hand of write, and therefore shall stop. I am very tired, and have been gantin’ for this half hour, and even in correspondence gantin’ may be smittin’. The kitchen17 is just coming in, and I feel a smell of tea, so when I get my four hours, that will refresh me and set me up again. – I am your affectionate aunt,
This letter, then, we suppose written by a very old Forfarshire lady to her niece in England, and perhaps the young lady who received this letter might answer it in a style as strange to her aunt as her aunt’s is to her, especially if she belonged to that lively class of our young female friends who indulge a little in phraseology which they have imbibed from their brothers or male cousins, who have perhaps, for their amusement, encouraged them in its use. The answer, then, might be something like this; and without meaning to be severe or satirical upon our young lady friends, I may truly say that though I never heard from one young lady all these fast terms, I have heard the most of them separately from many:-
“MY DEAR AUNTY, – Many thanks for your kind letter and its enclosure. From my not knowing Scotch, I am not quite up to the whole, and some of the expressions I don’t twig at all. Willie is absent for a few days, but when he returns home he will explain it; he is quite awake on all such things. I am glad you are pleased that Willie and I are now spliced. I am well aware that you will hear me spoken of in some quarters as a fast young lady, but don’t believe them. We are certainly very happy at present. Willie comes home from the office every afternoon at five. We generally take a walk before dinner, and read and work if we don’t go out; and I assure you we are very jolly. We don’t know many people here yet. It is rather a swell neighbourhood; and if we can’t get in with the nobs, depend upon it we will never take up with any society that is decidedly snobby. I daresay the girl you are sending will be very useful to us; our present one is a very slow coach. But we hope some day to sport buttons. My father and mother paid us a visit last week. The governor is well, and notwithstanding years and infirmities, comes out quite a jolly old cove. He is, indeed, if you will pardon the partiality of a daughter, a regular brick. He says he will help us if we can’t get on, and I make no doubt will in due time fork out the tin. I am busy working a cap for you, dear aunty; it is from a pretty German pattern, and I think when finished will be quite a stunner. I have a shop in Regent Street, where I hire patterns and return them without buying them, which I think a capital dodge. I hope you will sport it for my sake the first tea-party you give.
“I have nothing particular to say, but am always
Your affectionate niece,
“P.S. – I am trying to break Willie off his horrid habit of taking snuff. I had rather see him take his cigar when we are walking. You will be told, I daresay, that I sometimes take a weed myself. It is not true, dear aunty.”
Before leaving the question of change in Scottish expressions, it may be proper to add a few words on the subject of Scottish dialects – i.e. on the differences which exist in different counties or localities in the Scottish tongue itself. These differences used to be as marked as different languages; of course they still exist among the peasantry as before. The change consists in their gradual vanishing from the conversation of the educated and refined. The dialects with which I am most conversant, are the two which present the greatest contrast, viz., the Angus and the Aberdeen, or the slow and broad Scotch – the quick and sharp Scotch. Whilst the one talks of “buuts and shoon,” the other calls the same articles “beets and sheen.” With the Aberdonian, “what” is always “fat,” or “fatten,” “music” is “meesic,” “brutes” are “breets;” “What are ye duing,” of Southern Scotch, in Aberdeen would be “Fat are ye deein’?”18 Thus, when a Southerner mentioned the death of a friend, a sharp lady of the granite city asked “Fat deed he o’?” which being utterly incomprehensible to the person asked, another Aberdonian lady kindly explained the question, and put it into language which she supposed could not be mistaken, as thus, “Fat did he dee o’?” “Doin” and “dying” being both Aberdonicé “deeing,” gave rise to an amusing equivoque on the part of my esteemed friend Mr. R. Chambers. In the summer of 1859 there were few successful fields of turnips. Calling with two friends, who were sufferers in this way, on a Brechin farmer who was amongst the fortunate exceptions, Mr. Chambers asked him about his turnips, to which he answered, “Ou, they’re deein rale weel;” when Mr. Chambers, affecting to misunderstand as to the phraseology, turned to his two friends and remarked, “You see it’s a perishing crop everywhere.” Another ludicrous interrogatory occurred regarding the death of a Mr. Thomas Thomson. It appeared there were two cousins of this name, both corpulent men. When it was announced that Mr. Thomas Thomson was dead, an Aberdeen friend of the family asked, “Fatten Thamas Thamson?” He was informed that it was a fat Thomas Thomson, upon which the Aberdeen query naturally arose, “Aye, but fatten fat Thamas Thamson?” A young lady from Aberdeen had been on a visit to Montrose, and was disappointed at finding there a great lack of beaus, and balls, and concerts. This lack was not made up to her by the invitations which she had received to dinner parties. And she thus expressed her feelings on the subject in her native dialect, when asked how she liked Montrose, “Indeed there’s neither men nor meesic, and fat care I for meat.” The dialect and the local feelings of Aberdeen were said to have produced some amusement in London, when displayed by the lady of the Provost of Aberdeen when accompanying her husband going up officially to the capital. Some persons to whom she had been introduced recommended her going to the opera as one of the sights worthy the attention of a stranger. The good lady, full of the greatness of her situation as wife of the provost, and knowing the sensation her appearance in public occasioned when in her own city, and supposing that a like excitement would accompany her with the London public, rather declined, under the modest plea, “Fat for should I gang to the opera, just to creat a confeesion.” An aunt of mine, who knew Aberdeen well, used to tell a traditionary story of two Aberdonian ladies who, by their insinuations against each other, finely illustrated the force of the dialect then in common use. They had both of them been very attentive to a sick lady in declining health, and on her death each had felt a distrust of the perfect disinterestedness of the other’s attention. This created more than a coolness between them, and the bad feeling came out on their passing in the street. The one insinuated her suspicions of unfair dealing by the property of the deceased by ejaculating, as the other passed her, “henny pig19 and green tea,” to which the other retorted, in the same spirit, “Silk coat and negligee!”20
I suppose no changes of the last half century have been more remarkable than those which have taken place in the dialect and general manners of our Scottish judges. As a class of society, they have been, of course, marked men. Many were celebrated for humour, conviviality, and a considerable degree of eccentricity of manners and habits; many of them were equally remarkable, too, for acute and powerful minds – distinguished for profound knowledge of law, and ready tact in the application of its general principles. I have two anecdotes to shew, that, both in social and judicial life, a remarkable change must have taken place amongst the “fifteen.” I am assured that the following scene took place at the table of Lord Polkemmet, at a dinner party in his house. When the covers were removed, the dinner was seen to consist of veal broth, a roast fillet of veal, veal cutlets, a florentine (an excellent old Scottish dish composed of veal), a calf’s head, calf’s foot jelly. The worthy judge could not help observing a surprise on the countenance of his guests, and perhaps a simper on some; so he broke out in explanation; “Ou ay, it’s a cauf; when we kill a beast we just eat up ae side and doun the tither.” The expressions he used to describe his own judicial preparations for the bench, were very characteristic: “Ye see I first read a’ the pleadings, and then, after letting them wamble in my wame wi’ the toddy twa or three days, I gie my ain interlocutor.” For a moment suppose such anecdotes to be told now of any of our high legal functionaries. Imagine the feelings of surprise that would be called forth were the present Justice-Clerk to adopt such imagery in describing the process of preparing his legal judgment on a difficult case in his court!
In regard to the wit of the Scottish bar. It is a subject which I do not pretend to illustrate. It would require a volume for itself. One anecdote, however, I cannot resist, and I record it as forming a striking example of the class of Scottish humour which, with our dialect, has lost its distinctive characteristics. John Clerk (afterwards a judge by the title of Lord Eldin), was arguing a Scotch appeal case before the House of Lords. His client claimed the use of a mill-stream by prescriptive right. Mr. Clerk spoke broad Scotch, and argued that “the watter had rin that way for forty years. Indeed naebody kenned how long, and why should his client now be deprived of the watter, etc.” The Chancellor, much amused at the pronunciation of the Scottish advocate, in a rather bantering tone, asked him, “Mr. Clerk, do you spell water in Scotland with two t’s?” Clerk, a little nettled at this hit at his national tongue, answered, “Na, my lord, we dinna spell watter (making the word as short as he could) wi’ twa t’s. But we spell mainners (making the word as long as he could) wi’ twa n’s.”
Under this head of Scottish dialect, language, and phraseology, we naturally introduce some notice of that most interesting subject connected with our national literature which belongs to Scottish PROVERBIAL expressions. It is an old remark, that the characteristics of a people are always found in such sayings, and the expression of Bacon has been often quoted – “The genius, wit, and wisdom of a nation are discovered by their proverbs.” Now, as there can be no doubt that there are proverbs exclusively Scottish, and that as in them we find also many traits of Scottish character, and many peculiar forms of Scottish thought and Scottish language, sayings of this kind, once so familiar, should have a place in our Scottish reminiscences. Indeed, proverbs are literally, in many instances, become reminiscences. They now seem to belong to that older generation whom we recollect, and who used them in conversation freely and constantly. To strengthen an argument, or illustrate a remark by a proverb, was then a common practice in conversation. Their use, however, is now considered vulgar, and their formal application is almost prohibited by the rules of polite society. Lord Chesterfield denounced the practice of quoting proverbs as a palpable violation of all polite refinement in conversation. Notwithstanding all this, we acknowledge having much pleasure in recalling our national proverbial expressions. They are full of character, and we find amongst them important truths, expressed forcibly, wisely, and gracefully.
All nations have their proverbs, and a vast number of books have been written on the subject. We find, accordingly, that collections have been made of proverbs considered as belonging peculiarly to Scotland. The collections to which I have had access are the following:-
1. The fifth edition, by Balfour, of “Ray’s Complete Collection of English proverbs,” in which is a separate collection of those which are considered Scottish Proverbs – 1813. Ray professes to have taken these from Fergusson’s work mentioned below.
2. A Complete Collection of Scottish Proverbs explained and made intelligible to the English reader, by James Kelly, M.A., published in London 1721.
3. Scottish Proverbs gathered together by David Fergusson, sometime minister at Dunfermline, and put ordine alphabetico when he departed this life anno 1598. Edinburgh, 1641.
4. A Collection of Scots Proverbs, dedicated to the Tenantry of Scotland, by Allan Ramsay. This collection is found in the edition of his Poetical Works, 3 vols. post octavo, Edin., 1818, but is not in the handsome edition of 1800. London, 2 vols. 8vo.21
5. Scottish Proverbs, collected and arranged by Andrew Henderson. With an Introductory Essay by W. Motherwell. Edin. 1832.
6. The Proverbial Philosophy of Scotland, an address to the School of Arts, by William Stirling of Keir, M.P. Stirling and Edin. 1855.
The collection of Ray, the great English naturalist is well known. The two first editions, published at Cambridge in 1670 and 1678, were by the author; subsequent editions were by other editors.
The work by James Kelly professes to collect Scottish proverbs only. It is a volume of nearly 400 pages, and contains a short explanation or commentary attached to each, and often parallel sayings from other languages.22 Mr. Kelly bears ample testimony to the extraordinary free use made of proverbs in his time by his countrymen and by himself. He says that “there were current in society upwards of 3000 proverbs, exclusively Scottish.” He adds, “the Scots are wonderfully given to this way of speaking, and as the consequence of that, abound with proverbs, many of which are very expressive, quick, and home to the purpose; and, indeed, this humour prevails universally over the whole nation, especially among the better sort of the commonalty, none of whom will discourse with you any considerable time, but he will affirm every assertion and observation with a Scottish proverb. To that nation I owe my birth and education; and to that manner of speaking I was used from my infancy, to such a degree that I became in some measure remarkable for it.” This was written in 1721, and we may see from Mr. Kelly’s account what a change has taken place in society as regards this mode of intercourse. Our author states that he has “omitted in his collection many popular proverbs which are very pat and expressive,” and adds as his reason, that “since it does not become a man of manners to use them, it does not become a man of my age and profession to write them. What was Mr. Kelly’s profession or what his age does not appear from any statements in this volume; but, judging by many proverbs which he has retained, those which consideration of years and of profession induced him to omit, must have been bad indeed, and unbecoming for any age or any profession.23 The third collection by Mr. Fergusson is mentioned by Kelly as the only one which had been made before his time, and that he had not met with it till he had made considerable progress in his own collection. The book is now extremely rare, and fetches a high price. By the great kindness of the learned librarian, I have been permitted to see the copy belonging to the library of the Writers to the Signet. It is the first edition and very rare. A quaint little thin volume, such as delight the eyes of true bibliomaniacs, unpaged, and published at Edinburgh, 1641 – although on the title-page the proverbs are said to have been collected at Mr. Fergusson’s death, 1598.24 There is no preface or notice by the author, but an address from the printer, “to the merrie, judicious, and discreet reader.”
The proverbs, amounting to 945, are given without any comment or explanation; many of them are of a very antique cast of language; indeed some would be to most persons quite unintelligible without a lexicon.
The printer, in this address, “to the merrie, judicious, and discreet reader,” refers in the following quaint expressions to the author:- “Therefore manie in this realme that hath hard of David Fergusson, sometime minister at Dunfermline, and of his quick answers and speeches, both to great persons and others inferiours, and hath heard of his proverbs which hee gathered together in his time, and now we put downe according to the order of the alphabet; and manie of all ranks of persons, being verie desirous to have the said proverbs, I have thought good to put them to the presse for thy better satisfaction… I know that there may be some that will say and marvell that a minister should have taken pains to gather such proverbs together; but they that knew his forme of powerfull preaching the word, and his ordinar talking, ever almost using proverbiall speeches, will not finde fault with this that hee hath done. And whereas there are some old Scottish words not in use now, bear with that, because if ye alter those words, the proverb will have no grace; and so, recommending these proverbs to thy good use, I bid thee farewell.”
I now subjoin a few of Fergusson’s Proverbs, verbatim, which are of a more obsolete character, and have appended explanations, of the correctness of which, however, I am not quite confident:-
A year a nurish,25 seven year a da.26 Refers, I presume, to fulfilling the maternal office.
Anes payit never cravit. Debts once paid give no more trouble.
All wald27 have all, all wald forgie.28 Those who exact much should be ready to concede.
A gangang29 fit30 is aye31 gettin (gin32 it were but a thorn), or, as it sometimes runs, gin it were but a broken tae, i.e., toe. A man of industry will certainly get a living, though the proverb is often applied to those who went abroad and got a mischief when they might safely have stayed at home. – (Kelly.)
All crakes,33 all bears.34 Spoken against bullies who keep a great hectoring, and yet, when put to it, tamely pocket an affront. – (Kelly.)
Bourd35 not wi’ bawtie36 (lest he bite you). Do not jest too familiarly with your superiors (Kelly), or with dangerous characters.
Bread’s house skailed never.37 While people have bread they need not give up housekeeping. Spoken when one has bread and wishes something better. – (Kelly.)
Crabbit38 was and cause had. Spoken ironically of persons put out of temper without adequate cause.
Dame, deem39 warily (ye watna40 wha wytes41 yersell). – Spoken to remind those who pass harsh on others that they may themselves be censured.
Efter lang mint42 never dint.43 Spoken of long and painful labour producing little effect. Kelly’s reading is “Lang mint little dint.” Spoken when men threaten much and dare not execute. – (Kelly.)
Fill fou44 and haud45 fou maks a stark46 man. In Border language a stark man was one who takes and keeps boldly.
He that crabbs47 without cause should mease48 without mends.49 Spoken to remind those who are angry without cause, that they should not be particular in requiring apologies from others.
He is worth na weill that may not bide na wae. He deserves not the sweet that will not taste the sour. He does not deserve prosperity who cannot meet adversity.
Kame50 sindle51 kame sair.52 Applied to those who forbear for a while, but when once roused can act with severity.
Kamesters53 are aye creeshie.54 It is usual for men to look like their trade.
Let alone makes mony lurden.55 Want of correction makes many a bad boy. – (Kelly.)
Mony tynes56 the half mark57 whinger58 (for the halfe pennie whang).59 Another version of penny wise and pound foolish.
Na plie60 is best.
Reavers61 should not be rewers.62 Those who are so fond of a thing as to snap at it, should not repent when they have got it. – (Kelly.)
Sokand seill is best. The interpretation of this proverb is not obvious, and later writers do not appear to have adopted it from Fergusson. It is quite clear that Sok or Sock is the ploughshare. Seil is happiness, as in Kelly. “Seil comes not till sorrow be o’er;” and in Aberdeen they say, “Seil o’ your face,” to express a blessing. My reading is “the plough and happiness the best lot.” The happiest life is the healthy country one. See Robert Burns’ spirited song with the chorus –
“Up wi’ my ploughman lad,
And hey my merry ploughman,
Of a’ the trades that I do ken,
Commend me to the ploughman.”
A somewhat different reading of this very obscure and now indeed obsolete proverb has been suggested by an esteemed and learned friend – “I should say rather it meant that the ploughshare, or country life, accompanied with good luck or fortune, was best; i.e., that industry coupled with good fortune (good seasons and the like), was the combination that was most to be desired. Sœl in Anglo-Saxon as a noun means opportunity, and then good luck, happiness, etc.
There’s mae63 madines64 nor makines.65 Girls are more plentiful in the world than hares.
Ye bried66 of the gouk,67 ye have not a rhyme68 but ane. Applied to persons who tire every body by constantly harping on one subject.
The collection by Allan Ramsay is very good, and professes to correct the errors of former collectors. I have now before me the first edition, Edinburgh, 1737, with the appropriate motto on the title page, “That maun be true that a’ men say.” This edition contains proverbs only, the number being 2464. Some proverbs in this collection I do not find in others, and one quality it possesses in a remarkable degree, it is very Scotch. The language of the proverbial wisdom has the true Scottish flavour; not only is this the case with the proverbs themselves, but the dedication to the tenantry of Scotland, prefixed to the collection, is written in pure Scottish dialect. From this dedication I make an extract, which falls in with our plan of recording Scotch reminiscences, as Allan Ramsay there states the great value set upon proverbs in his day, and the importance which he attaches to them as teachers of moral wisdom, and as combining amusement with instruction. The prose of Allan Ramsay has, too, a spice of his poetry in its composition. His dedication is, To the tenantry of Scotland, farmers of the dales, and storemasters of the hills –
“Worthy friends – The following hoard of wise sayings and observations of our forefathers, which have been gathering through mony bygane ages, I have collected with great care, and restored to their proper sense…
“As naething helps our happiness mair than to have the mind made up wi’ right principles, I desire you, for the thriving an’ pleasure of you and yours, to use your een and lend your lugs to these guid auld saws, that shine wi’ wail’d sense, and will as lang as the warld wags. Gar your bairns get them by heart; let them have a place among your family-books, and may never a window sole through the country be without them. On a spare hour, when the day is clear, behind a ruck, or on the green howm, draw the treasure frae your pouch, an’ enjoy the pleasant companion. Ye happy herds, while your hirdsell are feeding on the flowery braes, you may eithly make yoursells master of the haleware. How usefou’ will it prove to you (wha hae sae few opportunities of common clattering) when ye forgather wi’ your friends at kirk or market, banquet or bridal! By your proficiency you’ll be able, in the proverbial way, to keep up the saul of a conversation that is baith blyth an usefou’.”
Mr. Henderson’s work is a compilation from those already mentioned. It is very copious, and the introductory essay contains some excellent remarks upon the wisdom and wit of Scottish proverbial sayings.
Mr. Stirling’s address, like everything he writes, indicates a minute and profound knowledge of his subject, and is full of picturesque and just views of human nature. He attaches much importance to the teaching conveyed in proverbial expressions, and recommends his hearers even still to collect such proverbial expressions as may yet linger in conversation, because, as he observes, “If it is not yet registered, it is possible that it might have died with the tongue from which you took it, and so have been lost for ever.” “I believe,” he adds, “the number of good old saws still floating as waifs and strays on the tide of popular talk to be much greater than might at first appear.”
One remark is applicable to all these collections, viz., that out of so large a number there are many of them on which we have little grounds for deciding that they are exclusively Scottish. In fact, some are mere translations of proverbs adopted by many nations; some of universal adoption. Thus we have –
A burnt bairn fire dreads.
Ae swallow makes nae simmer.
Faint heart neer wan fair lady.
Ill weeds wax weel.
Mony smas mak a muckle.
O twa ills chuse the least.
Set a knave to grip a knave.
Twa wits are better than ane.
There’s nae fule to an auld fule.
Ye canna make a silk purse o’ a sow’s lug.
Ae bird i’ the hand is worth twa fleeing.
Mony cooks neer made gude kail.
Of numerous proverbs such as these, some may or may not be original in the Scottish. Mr. Stirling remarks, that many of the best and oldest proverbs may be common to all people – may have occurred to all. In our national collections, therefore, some of the proverbs recorded may be simply translations into Scotch of what have been long considered the property of other nations. Still, I hope, it is not a mere national partiality to say that many of the common proverbs gain much by such translation from other tongues. All that I would attempt now is, to select some of our more popular proverbial sayings, which many of us can remember as current amongst us, and were much used by the late generation in society, and to add a few from the collections I have named, which bear a very decided Scottish stamp either in turn of thought or in turn of language.
I remember being much struck the first time I heard the application of that pretty Scottish saying regarding a fair bride. I was walking in Montrose, a day or two before her marriage, with a young lady a connection of mine, who merited this description, when she was kindly accosted by an old friend, an honest fishwife of the town, “Weel, Miss Elizabeth, hae ye gotten a’ yer claes ready;” to which the young lady modestly answered, “Oh, Janet, my claes are soon got ready;” and Janet replied, in the old Scottish proverb, “Ay, weel, a bonny bride’s sune buskit.”69 In the old collection, an addition less sentimental is made to this proverb, A short horse is sune wispit.70
To encourage strenuous exertions to meet difficult circumstances, is well expressed by Setting a stout heart to a stey brae. This mode of expressing that the worth of a handsome woman outweighs even her beauty has a very Scottish character – She’s better than she’s bonny. The opposite of this was expressed by a Highlander of his own wife, when he somewhat ungrammatically said of her, She’s bonnier than she’s better.
The frequent evil to harvest operations from autumnal rains and fogs in Scotland, is well told in the saying, A dry summer ne’er made a dear peck.
There can be no question as to country in the following, which seems to express generally that persons may have the name and appearance of greatness without the reality – A’ Stuarts are na sib71 to the king.
There is an excellent Scottish version of the common proverb, “He that’s born to be hanged will never be drowned.” – The water will never warr72 the widdie, i.e., never cheat the gallows. This saying received a very naïve practical application during the anxiety and alarm of a storm. One of the passengers, a good simple-minded minister, was sharing the alarm that was felt round him, until spying one of his parishioners, of whose ignominious end he had long felt persuaded, exclaimed to himself, “O, we are all safe now,” and accordingly accosted the poor man with strong assurances of the great pleasure he had in seeing him on board.
It’s ill getting the breeks aff the Highlandman, is a proverb that savours very strong of a Lowland Scotch origin. Having suffered loss at the hands of their neighbours from the hills, this was a mode of expressing the painful truth, that there was little hope of obtaining redress from those who had not the means of supplying it.
Proverbs connected with the bagpipes I set down as legitimate Scotch, as thus, Ye are as lang in tuning your pipes as anither wad play a spring.73 You are as long in setting about a thing as another would be in doing it.
There is a set of Scottish proverbs which we may group together as containing one quality in common, and that in reference to the Evil Spirit, and to his agency in the world. This is a reference often, I fear, too lightly made; but I am not conscious of anything deliberately profane or irreverent in the following:-
The deil’s nae sae ill as he’s caaed. The most of people may be found to have some redeeming good point; applied in “Guy Mannering” by the Deacon to Gilbert Glossin, upon his intimating his intention to come to his shop soon for the purpose of laying in his winter stock of groceries.
To the same effect, It’s a sin to lee on the deil. Even of the worst people, truth at least should be spoken.
He should hae a lang shafted spune that sups kail wi’ the deil. He should be well guarded and well protected that has to do with cunning and unprincipled men.
Lang ere the deil dee by the dyke-side. Spoken when the improbable death of some powerful and ill-disposed person is talked of.
Let ae deil ding anither. Spoken when two bad persons are at variance over some evil work.
The deil’s bairns hae deil’s luck. Spoken enviously when ill people prosper.
The deil’s a busy bishop in his ain diocie. Bad men are sure to be active in promoting their own bad ends. A quaint proverb of this class I have been told of as coming from the reminiscences of an old lady of quality, to recommend a courteous manner to every one: It’s aye gude to be ceevil, as the auld wife said when she beckit74 to the deevil.
Raise nae mair deils than ye are able to lay. Provoke no strifes which ye may be unable to appease.
The deil’s aye gude to his ain. A malicious proverb, spoken as if those whom we disparage were deriving their success from bad causes.
Ye wad do little for God an the deevil was dead. A sarcastic mode of telling a person that fear, rather than love or principle, is the motive to his good conduct.
In the old collection already referred to, is a proverb which I quote unwillingly, and yet which I do not like to omit. It is doubtful against whom it took its origin, whether as a satire against the decanal order in general, or against some obnoxious dean in particular: The Deil an the Dean begin wi’ ae letter. When the Deil has the Dean the kirk will be the better.
The deil’s gane ower Jock Wabster, is a saying which I have been accustomed to in my part of the country from early years. It expresses generally misfortune or confusion, but I am not quite sure of the exact meaning, or who is represented by Jock Wabster. It was a great favourite with Sir Walter Scott, who quotes it twice in Rob Roy. Allan Ramsay introduces it in the Gentle Shepherd to express the misery of married life when the first dream of love has passed away:-
“The ‘Deil gaes ower Jock Wabster,’ hame grows hell,
When Pate misca’s ye waur than tongue can tell.”
There are two very pithy Scottish proverbial expressions for describing the case of young women losing their chance of good marriages, by setting their aims too high. Thus an old lady speaking of her grand-daughter having made what she considered a poor match, described her as having “lookit at the moon, and lichtit75 in the midden.”
It is recorded again of a celebrated beauty, Becky Monteith, that being asked how she had not made a good marriage, having replied, “Ye see, I wadna hae the walkers, and the riders gaed by.”
It’s ill to wauken sleeping dogs. It is bad policy to rouse dangerous and mischievous people, who are for the present quiet.
It is nae mair pity to see a woman greit nor to see a goose go barefit. A harsh and ungallant reference to the facility with which the softer sex can avail themselves of tears to carry a point.
A Scots mist will weet an Englishman to the skin. A proverb evidently of Caledonian origin, arising from the frequent complaints made by English visitors of the heavy mists which hang about our hills, and which are found to annoy the southern traveller as it were downright rain.
Keep your ain fish guts to your ain sea maws. This was a favourite proverb of Sir Walter Scott when he meant to express the policy of first considering the interests that are nearest home. The saying savours of the fishing population of the east coast.
A Yule feast may be done at Pasch. Festivities, although usually practised at Christmas, need not, on suitable occasions, be confined to any season.
It’s better to sup wi’ a cutty than want a spune. Cutty means anything short, stumpy, and not of full growth; frequently applied to a short-handled horn spoon. As Meg Merrilees says to the bewildered Dominie, “If ye dinna eat instantly, by the bread and salt, I’ll put it down your throat wi’ the cutty spune.”
“Fules mak feasts and wise men eat ‘em, my Lord.” This was said to a Scottish nobleman on his giving a great entertainment, and who readily answered, “Ay, and Wise men make proverbs and fools repeat ‘em.”
A green Yule76 and a white Pays77 mak a fat kirk-yard. A very coarse proverb, but may express a general truth as regards the effects of season on the human frame. Another of a similar character is, An air78 winter maks a sair79 winter.
Wha will bell the cat? The proverb is used in reference to a proposal for accomplishing a difficult or dangerous task, and alludes to the fable of the poor mice proposing to put a bell about the cat’s neck, that they might be apprised of his coming. The historical application is well known. When the nobles of Scotland proposed to go in a body to Stirling to take Cochrane, the favourite of James the Third, and hang him, the Lord Gray asked, “It is well said, but wha will bell the cat?” The Earl of Angus accepted the challenge, and effected the object. To his dying day he was called Archibald Bell-the-Cat.
Ye hae tint the tongue o’ the trump. “Trump” is a Jew’s harp. To lose the tongue of it is to lose what is essential to its sound.
Meat and mass hinders nae man. Needful food, and suitable religious exercises, should not be spared under greatest haste.
Ye fand it whar the highland man fand the tangs (i.e., at the fireside). A hit at our mountain neighbours, who occasionally took from the Lowlands – as having found – something that was never lost.
His head will ne’er fill his father’s bonnet. A picturesque way of expressing that the son will never equal the influence and ability of his sire.
His bark is waur nor his bite. A good-natured apology for one who is good-hearted and rough in speech.
Do as the cow of Forfar did, tak a standing drink. This proverb relates to an occurrence which gave rise to a law-suit and a whimsical legal decision. A woman in Forfar, who was brewing, set out her tub of beer to cool. A cow came by and drank it up. The owner of the cow was sued for compensation, but the bailies of Forfar, who tried the case, acquitted the owner of the cow on the ground that the farewell drink, called in the Highlands the dochan doris80 or stirrup cup, taken by the guest standing at the door, was never charged, and as the cow had taken but a standing drink outside, it could not, according to Scottish usage, be chargeable. Sir Walter Scott has humorously alluded to this circumstance in the notes to Waverley, but has not mentioned it as the subject of an old Scotch proverb.
Bannocks are better nor nae kind o’ bread. Evidently Scottish. Better have oatmeal cakes to eat than be in want of wheaten loaves.
Folly is a bonny dog. Meaning, I suppose, that many are imposed upon by the false appearances and attractions of vicious pleasures.
The e’ening brings a’ hame, is an interesting saying, meaning, that the evening of life, or the approach of death, softens many of our political and religious differences. I do not find this proverb in the older collections, but Mr. Stirling justly calls it “a beautiful proverb, which, lending itself to various uses, may be taken as an expression of faith in the gradual growth and spread of large-hearted Christian charity, the noblest result of our happy freedom of thought and discussion.” The literal idea of the “e’ening bringing a’ hame,” has a high and illustrious antiquity, as in the fragment of Sappho, Ἔσπερε, πάντα φέρῃς – φέρῃς ὄιν (or ὄινoν) φέρῃς αἶγα, φέρεις μάτερι παῖδα – which is thus paraphrased by Lord Byron in Don Juan, iii. 107:-
O Hesperus! thou bringest all good things –
Home to the weary, to the hungry cheer;
To the young bird the parent’s brooding wings,
The welcome stall to the o’erlaboured steer; etc.
Thou bring’st the child, too, to the mother’s breast.
A similar graceful and moral saying inculcates an acknowledgment of gratitude for the past favours which we have enjoyed when we come to the close of the day or the close of life –
Ruse81 the fair day at e’en.
But a very learned and esteemed friend has suggested another reading of this proverb, in accordance with the celebrated saying of Solon (Arist. Eth. N. I. 10): κατά Σόλωνα χρεών τέλος οράν – Do not praise the fairness of the day till evening; do not call the life happy till you have seen the close; or, in other matters, do not boast that all is well till you have conducted your undertaking to a prosperous end.
Let him tak a spring on his ain fiddle. Spoken of a foolish and unreasonable person as if to say, “We will for the present allow him to have his own way.” Bailie Nicol Jarvie quotes the proverb with great bitterness, when he warns his opponent that his time for triumph will come ere long, – “Aweel, aweel, sir, you’re welcome to a tune on your ain fiddle; but see if I dinna gar ye dance till’t afore it’s dune.”
The kirk is meikle, but ye may say mass in ae end o’t; or, as I have received it in another form, “If we canna preach in the kirk, we can sing mass in the quire.” This intimates, where something is alleged to be too much, that you need take no more than what you have need for have need for. I heard the proverb used in this sense by Sir Walter Scott at his own table. His son had complained of some quaighs which Sir Walter had produced for a dram after dinner, that they were too large. His answer was, “Well, Walter, as my good mother used to say, if the kirk is ower big, just sing mass in the quire.” Here is another reference to kirk and quire – He rives82 the kirk to theik83 the quire. Spoken of unprofitable persons, who, in the English proverb, “rob Peter to pay Paul.”
The king’s errand may come the cadger’s gate yet. A great man may need the service of a very mean one.
The maut is aboon the meal. His liquor has done more for him than his meat. The man is drunk.
Mak a kirk and a mill o’t. Turn a thing to any purpose you like; or rather, spoken sarcastically, Take it, and make the best of it.
Like a sow playing on a trump. No image could be well more incongruous than a pig performing on a Jew’s harp.
Mair by luck than gude guiding. His success is due to his fortunate circumstances, rather than to his own discretion.
He’s not a man to ride the water wi’. A common Scottish saying to express you cannot trust such an one in trying times. May have arisen from the districts where fords abounded, and the crossing them was dangerous.
He rides on the riggin o’ the kirk. The riggin being the top of the roof, the proverb used to be applied to those who carried their zeal for church matters to the extreme point.
Leal heart never leed, well expresses that an honest loyal disposition will scorn, under all circumstances to tell a falsehood.
A common Scottish proverb, Let that flee stick to the wa’, has an obvious meaning, – “Say nothing more on that subject.” But the derivation is not obvious.84 In like manner, the meaning of He that will to Cupar maun to Cupar, is clearly that if a man is obstinate, and bent upon his dangerous course, he must take it. But why Cupar? and whether is it the Cupar of Angus or the Cupar of Fife.
Kindness creeps where it canna gang, prettily expresses that where love can do little it will do that little though it cannot do more.
In my part of the country a ridiculous addition used to be made to the common Scottish saying, Mony a thing’s made for the pennie, i.e., many contrivances are thought of to get money. The addition is, “As the old woman said when she saw a black man,” – taking it for granted that he was an ingenious and curious piece of mechanism made for profit.
Bluid is thicker than water, is a proverb which has a marked Scottish aspect, as meant to vindicate those family predilections to which, as a nation, we are supposed to be rather strongly inclined.
There’s aye water where the stirkie85 drouns. Where certain effects are produced, there must be some causes at work – a proverb used to shew that a universal popular suspicion as to an obvious effect must be laid in truth.
Better a finger aff than aye waggin’. This proverb I remember as a great favourite with many Scotch people. Better experience the worst, than have an evil always pending.
Cadgers are aye cracking o’ crook-saddles86 has a very Scottish aspect, and signifies that professional men are very apt to talk too much of their professions.
As sure’s deeth. A common Scottish proverbial expression to signify either the truth or certainty of a fact, or to pledge the speaker to a performance of his promise. In the latter sense an amusing illustration of faith in the superior obligation of this asseveration to any other, is recorded in the Eglinton Papers.87 The Earl one day found a boy climbing up a tree, and called him to come down. The boy declined, because, he said, the Earl would thrash him. His lordship pledged his honour that he would not do so. The boy replied, “I dinna ken onything about your honour, but if ye say as sure’s deeth, I’ll come doun.”
Proverbs are sometimes local in their application.
The men o’ the Mearns manna do mair than they may. Even the men of Kincardineshire can only do their utmost – a proverb intended to be highly complimentary to the powers of the men of that county.
I’ll mak Cathkin’s covenant with you, Let abee for let abee. This is a local saying quoted often in Hamilton. The laird of that property had – very unlike the excellent family who have now possessed it for more than a century – been addicted to intemperance. One of his neighbours, in order to frighten him on his way home from his evening potations, disguised himself in a very dark night, and personating the devil, claimed a title to carry him off as his rightful property. Contrary to all expectation, however, the laird showed fight, and was about to commence the onslaught, when a parley was proposed, and the issue was “Cathkin’s covenant, Let abee for let abee.”
When the castle of Stirling gets a hat, the carse of Corntown pays for that. This is a local proverbial saying; the meaning is, that when the clouds descend so low as to envelope Stirling Castle, a deluge of rain may be expected in the adjacent country.
I will conclude this notice of our proverbial reminiscences, by adding a cluster of Scottish proverbs, selected from an excellent article on the general subject in the North British Review of February 1858. The reviewer designates these as “broader in their mirth, and more caustic in their tone,” than the moral proverbial expressions of the Spanish and Italian:-
A blate88 cat maks a proud mouse.
Better a toom89 house than an ill tenant.
Jouk90 and let the jaw91 gang by.
Mony ane speirs the gate92 he kens fu’ weel.
The tod93 ne’er sped better than when he gaed his ain errand.
A wilfu’ man should be unco wise.
He that has a meikle nose thinks ilka ane speaks o’t.
He that teaches himsel has a fule for his maister.
It is an ill cause that the lawyer thinks shame o’.
Lippen94 to me, but look to yoursell.
Mair whistle than woo, as the souter said when shearing the soo.
Ye gae far about seeking the nearest.
Ye’ll no sell your hen in a rainy day.
Ye’ll mend when ye grow better.
Ye’re nae chicken for a’ your cheepin’.95
I have now adduced quite sufficient specimens to convince those who may not have given attention to the subject, how much of wisdom, knowledge of life, and good feeling, are contained in these aphorisms which compose the mass of our Scottish proverbial sayings. No doubt, to many of my younger readers, proverbs are little known, and to all they are becoming more and more matters of reminiscence. I am quite convinced that much of the old quaint and characteristic Scottish talk which we are now endeavouring to recall, depended on a happy use of those abstracts of moral sentiment. And this feeling will be confirmed when we call to mind how often those of the old Scottish school of character, whose conversation we have ourselves admired, had most largely availed themselves of the use of its proverbial philosophy.
1 Stoor is, Scotticé, dust in motion, and there is really no synonyme for it in English.
3 Reach me a leg of that turkey.
4 Clearing ashes out of the bars of the grate.
5 Mentally confused. Muddy when applied to water.
8 Lord Cockburn’s Memorials, p. 58.
9 It is but due to the memory of “our Davy” to state that “the chiel” to whom he was chained, in writing home to his friends, bore high testimony to the kindness and consideration with which he was treated by Captain Baird.
12 Earthenware vessel.
13 Dam, the game of drafts.
14 Brod, the board.
15 The Scotticisms are printed in Italics.
16 Delicate in health.
18 Fergusson, nearly a century ago, noted this peculiarity of dialect in his poem of The Leith Races:-
“The Buchan bodies through the beach,
Their bunch of Findrams cry;
And skirl out bauld in Norland speech,
Gude speldans, fa will buy.”
“Findon,“ or “Finnan haddies,” are split, smoked, and partially dried haddocks. Fergusson, in using the word “Findrams,” which is not found in our glossaries, has been thought to be in error, but his accuracy has been verified, singularly enough, within the last few days, by a worthy octogenarian Newhaven fisherman, bearing the characteristic name of Flucker, who remarked “that it was a word commonly used in his youth; and, above all,” he added, “when Leith Races were held on the sands ye was like to be deeved wi’ the lang-tongued hizzies skirling out ‘Aell a Findram Speldrains,’ and they jist ca’ed it that to get a better grip o’t wi’ their tongues.”
In Galloway, in 1684, Symson, afterwards an ousted Episcopalian minister (of Kirkinner), notes some peculiarities in the speech of the people in that district. “Some of the countrey people, especially those of the elder sort, do very often omit the letter ‘h’ after ‘t’ as ting for thing; tree for three; tatch for thatch; wit for with; fait for faith; mout for mouth, etc.; and also, contrary to some north countrey people, they oftentimes pronounce ‘w’ for ‘v,’ as serwant for servant; and so they call the months of February, March, and April the ware quarter, from ver.* Hence their common proverb, speaking of the stormes in February, ‘Winter never comes till ware comes.’ ” These peculiarities of language have almost disappeared – the immense influx of Irish emigrants during late years having exercised a perceptible influence over the dialect of Wigtonshire.
* Ver. The spring months – e.g.
“This wes in ver quhen wynter tid.” – Barbour.
19 Honey jar.
20 A female garment then in common use.
21 This was pointed out to me by Sir John Melville, who kindly supplied me with the 3 volume edition.
22 Amongst many acts of kindness and essential assistance which I have received and am constantly receiving from my friend Mr. Hugh James Rollo, I owe my introduction to this interesting Scottish volume, now I believe rather scarce.
23 Kelly’s book is constantly quoted by Jamieson, and is, indeed, an excellent work for the study of good old Scotch.
24 This probably throws back the collection to about the middle of the century.
26 Daw, a slut.
29 Going or moving.
34 Used as cowards (?).
36 A dog’s name.
37 To skail house, to disfurnish.
38 Being angry or cross.
40 Know not.
42 To aim at.
43 A stroke.
46 Potent or strong.
47 Is angry.
53 Wool combers.
55 Worthless fellow.
58 A sort of dagger or hanger which seems to have been used both at meals as a knife and in broils –
And whingers now in friendship bare,
The social meal to part and share,
Had found a bloody sheath. – Lay of the Last Minstrel.
60 No lawsuit.
62 Rue to repeat.
66 Take after.
77 Pasch or Easter.
80 The proper orthography of this expression is deoch-an-doruis (or dorais). Deoch, a drink; an, of the; doruis or dorais, possessive case of dorus or doras, a door.
84 It has been suggested, and with much reason, that the reference is to a flee sticking on a wet or a newly painted wall; this is corroborated by the addition in Rob Roy, “When the dirt’s dry, it will rub out,” which seems to point out the meaning and derivation of the proverb.
85 A young bullock.
86 Saddle for supporting panniers.
87 Vol. I., page 134.
90 Stoop down.
92 The way.
94 Trust to.
* The word “skail” appears a couple of times within this chapter and this is a word we still use regularly in my office job. It’s a word that comes from the Gaelic “sgaoil” or “dissolve.” We use it in the context of “There’s an event skailing at [whatever venue]” – translation would be “the attendees of [whatever event] are dispersing/spilling/leaving.”