Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character
Edward Bannerman Ramsay
Part 5 out of 8
practice, whether a real or a supposed one; and we may fairly
say that under such principals as Shairp, Tulloch, Campbell,
Barclay, who now adorn the Scottish universities, we have a
guarantee that such reports must continue to be Reminiscence
and traditional only.
 Rev. R. Scott of Cranwell.
 I have derived some information from a curious book, "Kay's
Portraits," 2 vols. The work is scarcely known in England, and is
becoming rare in Scotland. "Nothing can be more valuable in the way of
engraved portraits than these representations of the distinguished men
who adorned Edinburgh in the latter part of the eighteenth
 Origin and Progress of Language.
 Douglas' Peerage, vol. i. p. 22.
 The version I have given of this amusing burlesque was revised by
the late Mr. Pagan, Cupar-Fife, and corrected from his own manuscript
copy, which he had procured from authentic sources about forty
 His Lordship usually pronounced _I am_--_Aum_.
CHAPTER THE SIXTH.
ON HUMOUR PROCEEDING FROM SCOTTISH EXPRESSIONS, INCLUDING SCOTTISH
We come next to Reminiscences which are chiefly connected with
peculiarities of our Scottish LANGUAGE, whether contained in words or in
expressions. I am quite aware that the difference between the anecdotes
belonging to this division and to the last division termed "Wit and
Humour" is very indistinct, and must, in fact, in many cases, be quite
arbitrary. Much of what we enjoy most in Scottish stories is not on
account of wit properly so called, in the speaker, but I should say
rather from the odd and unexpected view which is taken of some matter,
or from the quaint and original turn of the expression made use of, or
from the simple and matter-of-fact reference made to circumstances which
are unusual. I shall not, therefore, be careful to preserve any strict
line of separation between this division and the next. Each is
conversant with what is amusing and with what is Scotch. What we have
now chiefly to illustrate by suitable anecdotes is peculiarities of
Scottish language--its various humorous turns and odd expressions.
We have now to consider stories where words and expressions, which are
peculiarly Scotch, impart the humour and the point. Sometimes they are
altogether incapable of being rendered in other language. As, for
example, a parishioner in an Ayrshire village, meeting his pastor, who
had just returned after a considerable absence on account of ill
health, congratulated him on his convalescence, and added, anticipatory
of the pleasure he would have in hearing him again, "I'm unco yuckie to
hear a blaud o' your gab." This is an untranslatable form of saying how
glad he should be to hear his minister's voice again speaking to him the
words of salvation and of peace from the pulpit.
The two following are good examples of that Scottish style of expression
which has its own character. They are kindly sent by Sir Archibald
Dunbar. The first illustrates Scottish acute discernment. A certain
titled lady, well known around her country town for her long-continued
and extensive charities, which are not withheld from those who least
deserve them, had a few years since, by the unexpected death of her
brother and of his only son, become possessor of a fine estate. The news
soon spread in the neighbourhood, and a group of old women were
overheard in the streets of Elgin discussing the fact. One of them said,
"Ay, she may prosper, for she has baith the prayers of the good and
of the bad."
The second anecdote is a delightful illustration of Mrs. Hamilton's
_Cottagers of Glenburnie_, and of the old-fashioned Scottish pride in
the _midden_. About twenty years ago, under the apprehension of cholera,
committees of the most influential inhabitants of the county of Moray
were formed to enforce a more complete cleansing of its towns and
villages, and to induce the cottagers to remove their dunghills or
dung-pits from too close a proximity to their doors or windows. One
determined woman, on the outskirts of the town of Forres, no doubt with
her future potato crop in view, met the M.P. who headed one of these
committees, thus, "Noo, Major, ye may tak our lives, but ye'll no tak
The truth is, many of the peculiarities which marked Scottish society
departed with the disuse of the Scottish dialect in the upper ranks. I
recollect a familiar example of this, which I may well term a
Reminiscence. At a party assembled in a county house, the Earl of Elgin
(grandfather of the present Earl) came up to the tea-table, where Mrs.
Forbes of Medwyn, one of the finest examples of the past Scottish
_lady_, was sitting, evidently much engaged with her occupation. "You
are fond of your tea, Mrs. Forbes?" The reply was quite a characteristic
one, and a pure reminiscence of such a place and such interlocutors;
"'Deed, my Lord, I wadna gie my tea for your yerldom."
My aunt, the late Lady Burnett of Leys, was one of the class of Scottish
ladies I have referred to;--thoroughly a good woman and a gentlewoman,
but in dialect quite Scottish. For example, being shocked at the sharp
Aberdonian pronunciation adopted by her children, instead of the broader
Forfarshire model in which she had been brought up, she thus adverted to
their manner of calling the _floor_ of the room where they were playing:
"What gars ye ca' it '_fleer_?' canna ye ca' it '_flure_?' But I needna
speak; Sir Robert winna let me correc' your language."
In respect of language, no doubt, a very important change has taken
place in Scotland during the last seventy years, and which, I believe,
influences, in a greater degree than many persons would imagine, the
turn of thought and general modes and aspects of society. In losing the
old racy Scottish tongue, it seems as if much originality of _character_
was lost. 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 own time. I recollect old Scottish ladies
and gentlemen who really _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, so speaking. 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 more than forty
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 word and accents
together, an address how totally unlike what we now meet with in
society. Some of the old Scottish words which we can remember are
charming; 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 stoors in an oor." 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."
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." 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 Scottish 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 recall 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 [Greek: achaexithmon gelasma] of AEschylus, 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
We have a testimony to the value of our Scottish language from a late
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
"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
synonyms, in others with varieties of expression."--_Installation
Address_, p. 63.
The Scotch, as a people, from their more guarded and composed method of
speaking, are not so liable to fall into that figure of speech for which
our Irish neighbours are celebrated--usually called the Bull; some
specimens, however, of that confusion of thought, very like a bull, have
been recorded of Scottish interlocutors.
Of this the two following examples have been sent to me by a kind
It is related of a Scottish judge (who has supplied several anecdotes of
Scottish stories), that on going to consult a dentist, who, as is usual,
placed him in the professional chair, and told his lordship that he must
let him put his fingers into his mouth, he exclaimed, "Na! na! ye'll
aiblins _bite me_."
A Scottish laird, singularly enough the grandson of the learned judge
mentioned above, when going his round to canvass for the county, at the
time when the electors were chiefly confined to resident proprietors,
was asked at one house where he called if he would not take some
refreshment, hesitated, and said, "I doubt it's treating, and may be
But a still more amusing specimen of this figure of speech was supplied
by an honest Highlander, in the days of sedan chairs. For the benefit of
my young readers I may describe the sedan chair as a comfortable little
carriage fixed to two poles, and carried by two men, one behind and one
before. A dowager lady of quality had gone out to dinner in one of these
"leathern conveniences," and whilst she herself enjoyed the hospitality
of the mansion up-stairs, her bearers were profusely entertained
downstairs, and partook of the abundant refreshment offered to them.
When my lady was to return, and had taken her place in the sedan, her
bearers raised the chair, but she found no progress was made--she felt
herself sway first to one side, then to the other, and soon came bump
upon the ground, when Donald behind was heard shouting to Donald before
(for the bearers of sedans were always Highlanders), "Let her down,
Donald, man, _for she's drunk_."
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 charms 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. I cannot, however, omit calling my reader's
attention to a charming specimen of Scottish prose and of Scottish
humour of our own day, contained in a little book, entitled
"_Mystifications_" by Clementina Stirling Graham. The scenes described
in that volume are matters of pleasing reminiscence, and to some of us
who still remain "will recall that blithe and winning face, sagacious
and sincere, that kindly, cheery voice, that rich and quiet laugh, that
mingled sense and sensibility, which met, and still to our happiness
meet, in her who, with all her gifts, never gratified her consciousness
of these powers so as to give pain to any human being." These
words, written more than ten years ago, might have been penned
yesterday; and those who, like myself, have had the privilege of seeing
the authoress presiding in her beautiful mansion of Duntrune, will not
soon forget how happy, how gracious, and how young, old age may be.
"No fears to beat away--no strife to heal;
The past unsighed for, and the future sure."
In my early days the intercourse with the peasantry of Forfarshire,
Kincardineshire, and especially 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 whene'er I pat my fit in the boat, the boat gae wallop,
and my heart gae 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 sic 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 hearing 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 a 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 an eastern 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 Gumming of Altyre, who, in common with
her three sisters, was a true soeur de charite, was one day taking her
rounds as usual, visiting the poor sick, among whom there was a certain
Donald MacQueen, who had been some time confined to his bed. Miss
Gumming, 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?"
"_V_right or _V_rang," said Donald, "it wadna 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 just a wedding o' Jock Thamson and Janet Frazer." To
the question, "Is the bride rich?" there was 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 professional 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.'" To which, as if merely coming over the
complainant's language again, the answer was a grave "Whaur?" 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 a
late excellent relative of mine 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!"
"_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." Our good cousin the Rev. Mr. Wilson, minister
of Farnel, who liked well a quiet shot at the grouse, rather 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
farmyard. 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 gin Solomon were alive noo he'd be thocht
The two following derive their force entirely from the Scottish turn of
the expressions. Translated into English, they would lose all point--at
least, much of the point which they now have:--
At the sale of an antiquarian gentleman's effects in Roxburghshire,
which Sir Walter Scott happened to attend, there was one little article,
a Roman _patina_, which occasioned a good deal of competition, and was
eventually knocked down to the distinguished baronet at a high price.
Sir Walter was excessively amused during the time of bidding to observe
how much it excited the astonishment of an old woman, who had evidently
come there to buy culinary utensils on a more economical principle. "If
the parritch-pan," she at last burst out--"If the parritch-pan gangs at
that, what will the kail-pat gang for?"
An ancestor of Sir Walter Scott joined the Stuart Prince in 1715, and,
with his brother, was engaged in that unfortunate adventure which ended
in a skirmish and captivity at Preston. It was the fashion of those
times for all persons of the rank of gentlemen to wear scarlet
waistcoats. A ball had struck one of the brothers, and carried part of
this dress into his body, and in this condition he was taken prisoner
with a number of his companions, and stripped, as was too often the
practice in those remorseless wars. Thus wounded, and nearly naked,
having only a shirt on, and an old sack about him, the ancestor of the
great poet was sitting, along with his brother and a hundred and fifty
unfortunate gentlemen, in a granary at Preston. The wounded man fell
sick, as the story goes, and vomited the scarlet cloth which the ball
had passed into the wound. "O man, Wattie," cried his brother, "if you
have a wardrobe in your wame, I wish you would vomit me a pair o'
breeks." 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 further 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
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 a work as this. 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 the learned judge'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 Davie!"
It is only due to the memory of "our Davie," however, to add that the
"chiel" to whom he was chained, had, in writing home to his friends,
borne the highest testimony to the kindness and consideration of Captain
Baird, which he exercised towards him in this uncomfortable alliance.
General Baird was a first-rate officer, and a fine noble character. He
left home for active service so soon (before he was fifteen) that his
education had necessarily been very imperfect. This deficiency he had
always himself through life deeply regretted. A military friend, and
great admirer of Sir David, used jocularly to tell a story of him--that
having finished the despatch which must carry home the news of his great
action, the capture of Seringapatam, as he was preparing to sign it in
great form, he deliberately took off his coat. "Why do you take off your
coat?" said his friend. To which the General quietly answered, "Oh, it's
to turn the muckle D in Dauvid."
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 fleein' through the air!" Of fine acute sarcasm I
recollect hearing an expression from 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."
Of this older race--the ladies who were, aged, fifty years ago--no
description could be given in bolder or stronger outline than that which
I have quoted from Lord Cockburn. I would pretend to nothing more than
giving a few further illustrative details from my own experience, which
may assist the representation by adding some practical realities to
Several of them whom I knew in my early days certainly answered to many
of the terms made use of by his lordship. Their language and expressions
had a zest and peculiarity which are 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 idea of the race. There was
a dry Scottish humour which we fear their successors do not inherit. One
of these Montrose ladies, Miss Nelly Fullerton, 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 very drily answered,
looking at him very steadily, "'Deed, 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 quaint remark,
"Od, 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 she replied, "Na; but I hae gotten Mrs. Siddons in my
pocket." She had been struck by a miniature of the great actress, and
had quietly pocketed it. The cautious reply of the sister was, "Then
just 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, "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, anxious
to prevent her getting into difficulty on the subject, 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 (Thorn), she broke out: "I dinna understand thae taxes; but I
just think that when Mrs. Thorn wants a new gown, the provost sends me a
tax paper!" The good lady's naive 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 the 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
Very much of the same class of remarks was the following sly observation
of one of the sisterhood. At a well-known tea-table in a country town in
Forfarshire, the events of the day, grave and gay, had been fully
discussed by the assembled sisterhood. The occasion was improved by an
elderly spinster, as follows:--"Weel, weel, sirs, these are solemn
events--death and marriage--but ye ken they're what we must a' come
till." "Eh, Miss Jeany! ye have been lang spared," was the arch reply of
a younger member.
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 putting up his habiliments. His old
aunt was much annoyed at all this bustle, and stopped him by the
somewhat contemptuous question, "Whar's this you're gaun, Bobby, 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
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 replied--"Leeve! hoo could she leeve?
she juist felled hersell at Craigo wi' straeberries and 'ream!"
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 response 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
The Rev. Dr. Cook of Haddington supplies an excellent anecdote, of which
the point is in the dry Scottish answer: An old lady of the Doctor's
acquaintance, about seventy, sent for her medical attendant to consult
him about a sore throat, which had troubled her for some days. Her
medical man was ushered into her room, decked out with the now
prevailing fashion, a mustache and flowing beard. The old lady, after
exchanging the usual civilities, described her complaint to the worthy
son of AEsculapius. "Well," says he, "do you know, Mrs. Macfarlane, I
used to be much affected with the very same kind of sore throat, but
ever since I allowed my mustache and beard to grow, I have never been
troubled with it." "Aweel, aweel," said the old lady drily, "that may be
the case, but ye maun prescribe some other method for me to get quit o'
the sair throat; for ye ken, doctor, I canna adopt _that_ cure."
Then how quaint the answer of old Mrs. Robison, widow of the eminent
professor of natural philosophy, and who entertained an inveterate
dislike to everything which she thought savoured of _cant_. She had
invited a gentleman to dinner on a particular day, and he had accepted,
with the reservation, "If I am spared."--"Weel, weel," said Mrs.
Robison; "if ye're deed, I'll no expect ye."
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 headgear. 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 invited their niece to pay them a
visit--an aunt of mine, who had made what they considered a very
imprudent marriage, and where considerable pecuniary privations were too
likely to accompany the step she had taken. The poor niece had to bear
many a taunt directed against 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, showed 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. _Divot_,
will you help Mrs. So and So?"--divot 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, already mentioned, was a
thorough specimen of this class. She lived in Montrose, and died in
1818, at the advanced age of ninety-one. 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 the 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 Carnegys, 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_."
A great confusion existed in the minds of some of those old-fashioned
ladies on the subject of modern inventions and usages. A Montrose old
lady protested against the use of steam-vessels, as counteracting the
decrees of Providence in going against wind and tide, vehemently
asserting, "I would hae naething to say to thae _im-pious_ vessels."
Another lady was equally discomposed by the introduction of gas, asking,
with much earnestness, "What's to become o' the puir whales'?" deeming
their interests materially affected by this superseding of their oil. A
lady of this class, who had long lived in country retirement, coming up
to Edinburgh, was, after an absence of many years, going along Princes
Street about the time when the water-carts were introduced for
preventing the dust, and seeing one of them passing, rushed from off the
pavement to the driver, saying, "Man, ye're _skailin'_ a' the water."
Such being her ignorance of modern improvements.
There used to be a point and originality in expressions made use of in
regard to common matters, unlike what one finds now; for example: A
country minister had been invited, with his wife, to dine and spend the
night at the house of one of his lairds. Their host was very proud of
one of the very large beds which had just come into fashion, and in the
morning asked the lady how she had slept in it. "Oh, vary well, sir;
but, indeed, I thought I'd lost the minister athegither."
Nothing, however, in my opinion, comes up to the originality and point
of the Montrose old maiden lady's most "exquisite reason" for not
subscribing to the proposed fund for organising a volunteer corps in
that town. It was at the time of expected invasion at the beginning of
the century, and some of the town magistrates called upon her and
solicited her subscription to raise men for the service of the
king--"Indeed," she answered right sturdily, "I'll dae nae sic thing; I
ne'er could raise a man _for mysell_, and I'm no ga'in to raise men for
Some curious stories are told of ladies of this class, as connected with
the novelties and excitement of railway travelling. Missing their
luggage, or finding that something has gone wrong about it, often causes
very terrible distress, and might be amusing, were it not to the
sufferer so severe a calamity. I was much entertained with the
earnestness of this feeling, and the expression of it from an old Scotch
lady whose box was not forthcoming at the station where she was to
stop. When urged to be patient, her indignant exclamation was--"I can
bear ony pairtings that may be ca'ed for in God's providence; but I
_canna stan' pairtin' frae my claes_."
The following anecdote from the west exhibits a curious confusion of
ideas arising from the old-fashioned prejudice against Frenchmen and
their language, which existed in the last generation. During the long
French war, two old ladies in Stranraer were going to the kirk; the one
said to the other, "Was it no a wonderfu' thing that the Breetish were
aye victorious ower the French in battle?" "Not a bit," said the other
old lady; "dinna ye ken the Breetish aye say their prayers before ga'in
into battle?" The other replied, "But canna the French say their prayers
as weel?" The reply was most characteristic, "Hoot! jabbering bodies,
wha could _understan'_ them?"
Some of these 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 naive 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_?"
The good lady thought that any privilege of primogeniture belonged only
to the family of _laird_.
It is a dangerous experiment to try passing off ungrounded claims upon
characters of this description. Many a clever sarcastic reply is on
record from Scottish ladies, directed against those who wished to
impose upon them some false sentiment. I often think of the remark of
the outspoken ancient lady, who, when told by her pastor, of whose
disinterestedness in his charge she was not quite sure, that he "had a
call from his Lord and Master to go," replied--"'Deed, sir, the Lord
micht hae ca'ed and ca'ed to ye lang eneuch to Ouchtertoul (a very small
stipend), and ye'd ne'er hae letten on that ye heard him."
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-cooncil." He replied, "I have that honour, ma'am." 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 o' my chair for King
George himsell, let abee a whig minister."
This was plain speaking enough, but there is something quite inimitable
in the matter-of-factness of the following story of an advertisement,
which may tend to illustrate the Antiquary's remark to Mrs. Macleuchar,
anent the starting of a coach or fly to Queensferry. A carrier, who
plied his trade between Aberdeen and a village considerably to the north
of it, was asked by one of the villagers, "Fan are ye gaen to the toon"
(Aberdeen). To which he replied, "I'll be in on Monanday, God willin'
and weather permitting an' on Tiseday, _fither or no_."
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 long
associated with the affairs of Scotland, Henry Dundas (first 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 fules 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 magistrate's
expression, when rendered into English, did not apply to Peers and
Idiots but to _ducks_ and _water-fowl_. The circumstance is referred to
by Sir W. Scott in the notes to the Heart of Mid-Lothian. A similar
equivoque upon the double meaning of "Deuk" in Scottish language
supplied material for a poor woman's honest compliment to a benevolent
Scottish nobleman. John, Duke of Roxburghe, was one day out riding, and
at the gate of Floors he was accosted by an importunate old beggar
woman. He gave her half-a-crown, which pleased her so much that she
exclaimed, "Weel's me on your _guse_ face, for Duke's ower little
tae ca' ye."
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
_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 express the idea of a prudent or cautious person so
much as of one who is not rude, but considerate of the opinions of
others. Such application of the word is said to have been made by Dr.
Chalmers to the late Henry, Bishop of Exeter. These 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, somewhat surprised at such an unexpected ebullition from an
English Church dignitary, could only reply, "Oh, I am sure your lordship
is very 'discreet.'"
_Enterteening_ has in olden Scottish usage the sense not of amusing, but
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, its verra _enterteening!_" Enterteening expressing his idea of
the effect produced.
_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 pig 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 draught board. Now a
draught-board used to be called (as I remember) by old Scotch people a
"dam brod." 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
_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 "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
_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 nothing short of bankruptcy and ruin. I recollect many years
ago at Monmouth, my dear mother 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, whatever 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?" that fish being so plentiful
and so excellent that it was a standing dish. 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 no_vels_; envy en_vy_; a cloak was a clock, to the surprise
of an English lady, to whom the maid said, on her leaving the house,
"Mem, winna ye tak the _clock_ wi' ye?"
The names of children's diseases were a remarkable item in the catalogue
of Scottish words:--Thus, in 1775, Mrs. Betty Muirheid kept a
boarding-school for young ladies in the Trongate of Glasgow, near the
Tron steeple. A girl on her arrival was asked whether she had had
smallpox. "Yes, mem, I've had the sma'pox, the nirls, the blabs,
the scaw, the kinkhost, and the fever, the branks and the
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 in mere
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 something, 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 _boddie_, a _bit
boddie_, 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."
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! "He's not a man to ride the water
on," expresses your want of confidence and of trust in the character
referred to. 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 to 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 when you find you 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_ 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 many 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 _feuing-stances_ to the
amount of 5000 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 _kitchen_ 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, ISABEL DINGWALL."
This letter, then, we suppose written by a very old Forfarshire lady to
her niece in England, and perhaps the young lady who received it 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
"My Dear Aunty--Many thanks for your kind letter and its
enclosure. From my not knowing Scotch, I am not quite up to
the mark, 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. A man here had the impudence
to say that when he visited my husband's friends he would
tell them so. I quietly and civilly replied, 'You be blowed!'
So don't believe him. We get on famously 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 an awful _slow
coach_. In fact, the sending her to us was a regular _do_.
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_. There is a shop in
Regent Street where I hire patterns, and can get six of them
for five _bob_. I then return them without buying them, which
I think a capital _dodge_. I hope you will sport it for my
sake at your first _tea and turn out_.
"I have nothing more to say particular, 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 amongst
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 duin'?" of southern Scotch, in
Aberdeen would be "Fat are ye deein'?" 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, he
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 storms in
February, '_winter never comes till ware comes_.'" These peculiarities
of language have almost disappeared--the immense influx of Irish
emigrants during late years has exercised a perceptible influence over
the dialect of Wigtonshire.
When a southerner mentioned the death of a friend to a lady of the
granite city, she asked, "Fat dee'd 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'?" If there was this
difference between the Aberdeen and the Forfar dialect, how much greater
must be that difference when contrasted with the _ore rotundo_ language
of an English southern dignitary. Such a one being present at a school
examination in Aberdeen wished to put some questions on Scripture
history himself, and asked an intelligent boy, "What was the ultimate
fate of Pharaoh?" This the boy not understanding, the master put the
same question Aberdonice, "Jemmy, fat was the hinner end o' Pharaoh?"
which called forth the ready reply, "He was drouned i' the Red Sea." A
Forfarshire parent, dissatisfied with his son's English pronunciation,
remonstrated with him, "What for div' ye say _why_? why canna ye say
The power of Scottish phraseology, or rather of Scottish _language_,
could not be better displayed than in the following Aberdonian
description of London theatricals:--Mr. Taylor, at one time well known
in London as having the management of the opera-house, had his father up
from Aberdeen to visit him and see the wonders of the capital. When the
old man returned home, his friends, anxious to know the impressions
produced on his mind by scenes and characters so different from what he
had been accustomed to at home, inquired what sort of business his son
carried on? "Ou," said he (in reference to the operatic singers and the
corps de ballet), "he just keeps a curn o' quainies and a wheen
widdyfous, and gars them fissle, and loup, and mak murgeons,
to please the great fowk."
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 Thamas Thamson, upon which the Aberdeen query
naturally arose, "Ay, but fatten fat Thamas Thamson?" Another
illustration of the Aberdeen dialect is thus given:--"The Pope o' Rome
requires a bull to do his wark, but the Emperor o' France made a coo
dee't a'"--a cow do it all--a pun on _coup d'etat_. A young lady from
Aberdeen had been on a visit to Montrose, and was disappointed at
finding there a great lack of beaux, 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?" There is no male
society and no concerts, and what do I care for dinners? The dialect and
the local feelings of Aberdeen were said to have produced some amusement
in London, as 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 little 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 with the property of the
deceased by ejaculating, as the other passed her, "Henny pig and
green tea," to which the other retorted, in the same spirit, "Silk coat
and negligee." Aberdonian pronunciation produced on one occasion a
curious equivoque between the minister and a mother of a family with
whom he was conversing in a pastoral way. The minister had said, "Weel,
Margaret, I hope you're thoroughly ashamed of your _sins_" Now, in
Aberdeenshire _sons_ are pronounced sins; accordingly, to the minister's
surprise, Margaret burst forth, "Ashamed o' ma sins! na, na, I'm proud
o' ma sins. Indeed, gin it werena for thae cutties o' dauchters, I
should be _ower_ proud o' ma sins."
Any of my readers who are not much conversant with Aberdeen dialect will
find the following a good specimen:--A lady who resided in Aberdeen,
being on a visit to some friends in the country, joined an excursion on
horseback. Not being much of an equestrian, she was mounted upon a
Highland pony as being the _canniest baste_. He, however, had a trick of
standing still in crossing a stream. A burn had to be crossed--the rest
of the party passed on, while "Paddy" remained, pretending to drink.
Miss More, in great desperation, called out to one of her
friends--"Bell, 'oman, turn back an gie me your bit fuppie, for the
breet's stannin' i' the peel wi' ma."
A rich specimen of Aberdeen dialect, under peculiar circumstances, was
supplied by an Aberdonian lady who had risen in the world from selling
fruit at a stall to be the wife of the Lord Provost. Driving along in
her own carriage, she ordered it to stop, and called to her a poor
woman whom she saw following her old occupation. After some colloquy,
she dismissed her very coolly, remarking, "'Deed, freet's dear sin' I
sauld freet in streets o' Aberdeen." This anecdote of reference to a
good lady's more humble occupation than riding in her carriage may
introduce a somewhat analogous anecdote, in which a more distinguished
personage than the wife of the Provost of Aberdeen takes a prominent
part. The present Archbishop of Canterbury tells the story himself, with
that admixture of humour and of true dignity by which his Grace's manner
is so happily distinguished. The Archbishop's father in early life lived
much at Dollar, where, I believe, he had some legal and official
appointment. His sons, the Archbishop and his brother, attended the
grammar school, rather celebrated in the country; they ran about and
played like other lads, and were known as schoolboys to the peasantry.
In after days, when the Archbishop had arrived at his present place of
dignity as Primate of all England, he was attending a great confirmation
service at Croydon--the churchwardens, clergy, mayors, etc., of the
place in attendance upon the Archbishop, and a great congregation of
spectators. On going up the centre of the church, a Dollar man, who had
got into the crowd in a side aisle, said, loud enough for the Archbishop
to hear, "There wasna muckle o' this at Dollar, my Lord."
I have not had leisure to pursue, as I had intended, a further
consideration of SCOTTISH DIALECT, and their differences from each other
in the north, south, east, and west of Scotland. I merely remark now,
that the dialect of one district is considered quite barbarous, and
laughed at by the inhabitants of another district where a different form
of language is adopted. I have spoken of the essential difference
between Aberdeen and Southern Scotch. An English gentleman had been
visiting the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, and accompanied him to Aberdeen.
His lordship of Edinburgh introduced his English friend to the Provost
of Aberdeen, and they both attended a great dinner given by the latter.
After grace had been said, the Provost kindly and hospitably addressed
the company, Aberdonice--"Now, gentlemen, fah tee, fah tee." The
Englishman whispered to his friend, and asked what was meant by "fah
tee, fah tee;" to which his lordship replied--"Hout, he canna speak; he
means fau too, fau too." Thus one Scotticism was held in terror by those
who used a different Scotticism: as at Inverary, the wife of the chief
writer of the place, seeking to secure her guest from the taint of
inferior society, intimated to him, but somewhat confidentially, that
Mrs. W. (the rival writer's wife) was quite a vulgar body, so much so as
to ask any one leaving the room to "_snib_ the door," instead of bidding
them, as she triumphantly observed, "_sneck_ the door."
Now, to every one who follows these anecdotes of a past time, it must be
obvious how much peculiarities of Scottish wit and humour depend upon
the language in which they are clothed. As I have before remarked, much
of the point depends upon the _broad Scotch_ with which they are
accompanied. As a type and representative of that phraseology, we would
specially recommend a study of our Scottish proverbs. In fact, in
Scottish proverbs will be found an epitome of the Scottish phraseology,
which is peculiar and characteristic. I think it quite clear that there
are proverbs exclusively Scottish, and as we find embodied in them
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. Proverbs are
literally, in many instances, becoming _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. The expression of Bacon has often been
quoted--"The genius, wit, and wisdom of a nation, are discovered by
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
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 8vo, Edin. 1818, but is not in the
handsome edition of 1800. London, 2 vols. 8vo.
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
first two 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. 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. 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 delights 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. 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 his 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 hard
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
he 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, seven year a da_. Refers, I presume, to
fulfilling the maternal office.
_Anes payit never cravit_. Debts once paid give no more trouble.
_All wald have all, all wald forgie_. Those who exact much
should be ready to concede.
_A gangang fit is aye gettin (gin 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, all bears_. Spoken against bullies who kept a great
hectoring, and yet, when put to it, tamely pocket an affront--(Kelly).
_Bourd not wi' bawtie (lest he bite you_). Do not jest too
familiarly with your superiors (Kelly), or with dangerous characters.
_Bread's house skailed never_ While people have bread they need not
give up housekeeping. Spoken when one has bread and wishes something
_Crabbit was and cause had_. Spoken ironically of persons put out of
temper without adequate cause.
_Dame, deem warily, (ye watna wha wytes
yersell_).--Spoken to remind those who pass hard censures on others
that they may themselves be censured.
_Efter lang mint never dint_. 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 fou and hand fou maks a stark man_. In Border
language a _stark_ man was one who takes and keeps boldly.
_He that crabbs without cause should mease without
mends_. 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.
_Kame sindle kame sair_. Applied to those who forbear for
a while, but when once roused can act with severity.
_Kamesters are aye creeshie_. It is usual for men to look like
_Let alane maks mony lurden_. Want of correction makes many a bad
_Mony tynes the half-mark whinger (for the halfe pennie
whang_). Another version of penny wise and pound foolish.
_Na plie is best_.
_Reavers should not be rewers_. Those who are so fond of a
thing as to snap at it, should not repent when they have got
_Sok and 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
"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. _Soel_, in Anglo-Saxon, as a
noun, means _opportunity_, and then good luck, happiness, etc."
_There's mae madines nor makines_. Girls are more
plentiful in the world than hares.
_Ye bried of the gouk, ye have not a rhyme but ane_.
Applied to persons who tire everybody by constantly harping on
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 great 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 and 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 world 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
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 (now Sir W. Stirling-Maxwell'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 readers 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
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 ne'er wan fair lady.
Ill weeds wax weel.
Mony sma's 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 like an auld fule.
Ye canna mak a silk purse o' a sow's lug.
Ae bird i' the hand is worth twa fleeing.
Mony cooks ne'er made gude kail_.
Of numerous proverbs such as these, some may or may not be original in
the Scottish. Sir William 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 fish-wife 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 Scotch proverb, "Ay, weel, _a bonnie bride's sune
buskit_." In the old collection, an addition less sentimental is
made to this proverb, _A short horse is sune wispit_.
To encourage strenuous exertions to meet difficult circumstances, is
well expressed by _Setting a stout heart to a stey brae_.
The 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
bonnie_. The opposite of this was expressed by a Highlander of his own
wife, when he somewhat ungrammatically said of her, "_She's bonnier than
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
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 sib 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
warr, the widdie, i.e._ never cheat the gallows. This saying
received a very naive 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 around him, until spying one of his
parishioners, of whose ignominious end he had long felt persuaded, he
exclaimed to himself, "Oh, 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 no _means_ at their disposal.
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_. You are as long of 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 caa'd_. 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
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 too bad persons are at variance
over some evil work.
_The deil's bairns hae deil's luck_. Spoken enviously when ill people
_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 beckit 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, although
somewhat _personal_, is too good to omit. It is doubtful how it took its
origin, whether as a satire against the decanal order in general, or
against some obnoxious dean in particular. These are the terms of it:
_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 granddaughter
having made what she considered a poor match, described her as having
"_lookit at the moon, and lichtit in the midden_."
It is recorded again of a celebrated beauty, Becky Monteith, that being
asked how she had not made a good marriage, she replied, "_Ye see, I
wadna hae the walkers, and the riders gaed by._"
_It's ill to wauken sleeping dogs._ It is a bad policy to rouse
dangerous and mischievous people, who are for the present quiet.
_It is nae mair ferly to see a woman greit than 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
_Keep your ain fish-guts to your ain sea-maws._ This was a favourite
proverb with 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 cost.
_A Yule feast may be done at Pasch_. Festivities, although usually
practised at Christmas, need not, on suitable occasions, be confined to
_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 Merrilies 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 Yule and a white Pays 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
air winter maks a sair 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 Highlandman 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 rive_ (i.e. tear) _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 lawsuit 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 doris_, or stirrup-cup, taken
by the guest standing by the door, was never charged; and as the cow
had taken but a standing drink outside, it could not, according to the
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 Sir William Maxwell 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, [Greek:
'Espere, panta phereis--phereis oin (or oinon) phereis aiga, phereis
maeteri paida]--which is thus paraphrased by Lord Byron in Don Juan,
"O Hesperus, thou bringest all good things--
Home to the weary, to the hungry cheer;
To the young birds 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--
_Ruse 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): [Greek: Kata Solona chreon telos hozan]--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
_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. 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 rives the kirk to theik the quire_. Spoken of
unprofitable persons, who in the English proverb, "rob Peter to
_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
_He rides on the riggin o' the kirk._ The rigging 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 lee'd,_ 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. 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 own 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.
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