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For Puir Auld Scotland's Sake
Scottish Proverbs


IF the chief object of definition is to furnish information, there is no need to define a proverb, since everybody knows what it is. This conclusion is so far satisfactory that it gives relief from the difficult, if not impossible, task of framing such a logical definition of a proverb as will receive general assent. The task has been tried, but never yet successfully achieved. In this respect proverbs are like poetry; both are at once generally recognised when genuine, but their strictly essential qualities have never yet been precisely determined. In the absence of definition, descriptions of the proverb abound. One writer pleasantly observes that there are not more proverbs than there are attempted definitions of them. Some of these attempted definitions, or descriptions, are expressed so epigrammatically, or come so near the general conception of the thing they describe, as to be worth remembering. The popular idea of a proverb is perhaps met by representing it as a short saying that easily and pithily, or at least picturesquely, expresses some universally recognised and generally applicable truth. It is the revelation of a diamond which flashes truth from many facets. The late Earl Russell’s description puts the popular idea with a happiness that has never been quite matched. He describes a proverb as 'The wisdom of many and the wit of one.' Bacon’s description is not so neat but more philosophical—‘Proverbs' he says, 'preserve the genius, wit, and spirit of a nation/ There can be no doubt that the character of a nation is strongly written in its proverbs, whether they have been invented or adopted. Of foreign descriptions of the proverb, that of Cervantes, the most famous literary celebrity of a country which may be regarded as the very home of the proverb, is too characteristic of that great author not to be quoted—'It is' he says, ‘the short expression of a long experience'.

All thoughtfully taciturn people, whose motive in speech is to come to the point, and not to set out at all if there is no point, naturally fall into a habit of framing proverbs, or using those that have been so framed as to answer their purpose. Hence it is that the Spaniards, who are by nature grave, dignified, and decorous, converse so largely in a language which may be described as silence relieved by oracular utterances that rather suggest thought than encourage speech. Hence also that habitual resort to the authority and economy of the proverb which is characteristic of the rural, and especially the pastoral, population of our own country. Talking becomes an easy art, often a mere trick, in busy societies, involving in the majority of cases little outlay of energy in either brain or tongue ; but in the solitary areas of the country, in the ploughing field, and especially on the pasture hill, the means of acquiring the use of a quick and copious phraseology are scarcely to be had, and it is not without mental and physical effort as well, in the representation and enunciation of their ideas, that rustics can carry on a conversation. It is easier for them to think than to speak, and it is to their credit that thought with them preponderates over speech. The result is their formulation of the commoner experiences of life into proverbs or proverblike expressions, and their free use of the saws and maxims which tradition has sanctioned, and which time has invested with an authority little inferior to that of Scripture. By means of these portable propositions, capable as they are of daily use and various application, they save themselves the trouble of searching for and arranging unnecessary words, and have thus, as almost their only effort, in serious conversation among themselves, the free exercise of the judgment in the selection of that particular proverb from their store which will give precision and force to their meaning when their own proper words feebly convey an incomplete idea. Proverbs are, in short, the bank-notes of speech, conveying much value in small compass, current all over the country districts, and credited wherever they come.

A language which, though still in active use, has reached the stage beyond which, for whatever reason, there is no further external development—a stage at which the vernacular of Scotland seems to have arrived—is peculiarly liable to run into such crystallised forms, and to develop internally into a multiplicity of such idioms as border on the province of proverb. A language in this stage, if it has proved its capabilities by a worthy literature, is permanently classical. Composition in it can hardly be original ; it can be little more than a clever but still mechanical combination of approved phrases. Latin composition in our schools and colleges is nothing more than this: at best it is a patchwork or mosaic of idioms, and favourite quotations, and such turns of expression as one finds in their original beauty in Cicero, Livy, and Caesar. There has been little literary development of the Scottish language, except on the prose side, since the time of Burns. Wilson, in the ‘Noctes Ambrosianae,’ has occasionally shown with triumphant success the capacity of a long sentence in the Scottish tongue for the conveyance of elaborate description, subtle sentiment, and even abstruse metaphysical thought; but a Scottish epic, or even a seriously descriptive poem of real originality and commanding force, longer than the ‘Cottar’s Saturday Night' — ‘Kilmeny' perhaps, excepted—has not been written, and the time for the production of such a poem is past. The language has reached its limits. It is in the stage when only idioms, and suchlike idiomatic expressions as proverbs and popularly - expressed poetical sentiments survive in the speech of the people. The rest falls into disuse, and ultimately into oblivion.

Probably the proverbs, and the songs, with certain favourite and readily quotable passages from Burns, will be the longest-lived and last portions of the wreck of the Scottish language. Of these, at the present day, where Lowland Scotch is yet spoken, the proverbs are not the least vital. They are very well worthy of preservation for several reasons. First and foremost, they deserve to be perpetuated for the practical wisdom they condense, fit for ‘human nature’s daily food,’ quite independently of their Scottish origin. Then they discover those traits of character which are distinctive of the Scottish nation, and by which —presenting as they do the springs which regulated the national conduct—the nation may be judged. And, in the third place, they give valuable historical glimpses, in an incidental and therefore trustworthy way, of the manners and customs of our national ancestry.

There may be some three or four thousand native or naturalised Scottish proverbs in all, and if, as has been calculated, the European world contains an aggregate of between thirty and forty thousand, Scotland, with her tenth-part of the sum total, has no reason to be ashamed of her contribution to the general store. The Scottish proverbs may be variously classified. A very large proportion of them, to judge from the imagery they employ, are of rural growth, and of these again many are unmistakably of domestic origin. Some have for their object the inculcation of the social virtues. . Some are philosophical, and the philosophy is often presented in the form of a paradox. Some are humorous or sarcastic revelations of character. Some encourage thrift. Some encourage enterprise; and so on. It is not proposed in this paper to do more than just look at a sample, selecting however, only such as I have recently heard in common use among country folk.

They’ve ill will to ca’, that lets the gad fa’.

The duty of the goadsman, it may be pointed out, was simply to urge forward the oxen while the ploughman guided the plough in the furrow. Burns, it may be remembered, in the enumeration of his farm servants for the surveyor of taxes, wrote to the astonished official:—

‘For men, I’ve three mischeevous boys,
Run deils for rantin’ an’ for noise;
A gaudsman ane, a thresher t’other,
Wee Davoc hauds the nowte in fother.’

But in Burns’s day horses had mostly1 superseded oxen for ploughing, and gaudsman ’ had become equivalent to ploughmen.

An ill-gated coo had aye short horns.

This means that it is fortunate that those who are disposed to do mischief are usually denied the means to do much.

The king’s errand may come in the cadger’s gate.

That is, the least likely people may sometime have it in their power to aid or to injure you.

Corn’s no’ for staigs.

It is too expensive provender for colts, which are well enough at pasture.

I'll no keep a dog an* bark mysel'.
If folk counted a* cost (risk) they would never put plough i’ grund.
The maister’s foot's the best muck (manure).

The last of these refers to thorough supervision by the farmer himself if he would have his farm prosper.

Like's an ill (indefinite) mark amang ither folk's sheep.
An ill (unskilful) shearer never had a gude hyuck.

The reaper puts the blame on his sickle.

A fou man an' a fastin' horse mak' haste hame.

The antithesis here is less complete than the words seem to convey.

Dinna meddle wi' the deil nor wi' the laird's bairns.

All these proverbs are redolent of rural life and rustic occupations.

The following are illustrative chiefly of domestic life.

A wife's ae dochter an’ a cottar's ae coo—the ane's never weel, and the ither's never fou.
The foot at the cradle an' the hand at the reel is a sign o' a woman that means to do weel.
The thrift o’ you, and a dog's woo, would mak* a braw wab.

The cloth would simply be invisible, like the King’s new clothes, in Hans Andersen’s famous story.

Naething’s to be dune in haste but the grippm* o’ fleas.
Mair haste, waur speed, quoth the wee tailor to the lang thread.
He should sit still that has riven breeks.
Every craw thinks its ain bird whitest.
He has cowpit (emptied) the meikle pat into the little.

That is, he has made a poor exchange or a bad calculation who, etc.

A good ‘ social ’ proverb is,—

Tell the bourd but not the body.

That is, tell the joke if it is worth retailing, but reveal no names among friends.

Of ‘character’ proverbs here are half-a-dozen,—

They speak o’ my drinking but ne’er think o’ my drouth.
Send him to the sea, he’ll no get saut-water.
He’ll tell’t to nae mair than he meets.
Wha can help sickness? quoth the drucken wife, as she lay in the gutter.
His eggs ha’e a’ twa yolks.
They’re far ahint that canna follow.

And here are a few paradoxes,—

God help great folk, the puir can beg.
He has a guid judgment that doesna lippen to his ain.
He has come to gude by misguidin’.
He that gets forgets; he that wants thinks on.

Thrift is an outstanding feature of the Scottish national character. With the kindred virtues of caution, prudence, and patience, it has been so long in general practice as to have become a kind of second nature to the nation. They are probably right who trace it to its origin in the poverty which, before the Union, was the chronic condition of nearly all ranks of the community, and which of necessity demanded a careful economy of small means for the bare benefit of existence. Happier times came, when there was no longer absolute need for its practice ; but it continued as a habit, and here and there discovered a tendency to parsimony. Hence it is that while some foreign writers, in estimating the national character, give the Scots credit for a wise economy, others reproach them with the practice of an excessive frugality. As Mr Punch puts it,—‘They keep the Sawbath, and everything else they can lay their hands on.’

If the proverbs of a country reveal the character of its people—and few will doubt that they do—this feature of the Scottish character should be reflected in the national proverbs. As a matter of fact, the subject of a very large proportion of these proverbs is the doctrine of thrift, and the best means of attaining it Take the following specimens:—

A bit is aften better gi’en thar Teaten.

In this example, it must be owned, hospitality is advised on prudential grounds.

It’s ill brocht but, that’s no’ there ben.

This reminds one of the English truism [that you cannot both eat your cake and have it. It is scarcely necessary to say that, in the familiar cottage arrangement of a but and a ben, the but contained only what was for daily or immediate use, while the ben held the luxuries and the savings.

A broken kebbuck (cheese) gangs quick dune.

This is the converse of a well-known economical maxim, and might be rendered,—

Take care o’ the pound and it will take care of its pence.
He that has twa hoards will get a third.

And—

Put twa pennies in a purse, and they will creep thegither,

should recall the remark of Shylock in the play,—

‘Is your money ewes and rams?' asks the merchant; to which the Jew replies, ‘I cannot tell—I make it breed as fast'.

They ha’e need o’ a canny cook that ha’e but ae egg for their dinner.

Along with this may be taken the companion proverb,—

Better a bite for breakfast than want a’ day.
Deal sma’ and serve a*

is a good specimen of a rhyming proverb. Proverbs were originally meant for the ear and the memory, and were therefore furnished with such mutually suggestive terms as rhyme and alliteration supply. Some one has fancifully but aptly compared rhyme to wings, upon which truths may fly from mind to mind ; and alliteration to claws and talons, by which they may cling securely wherever they come.

A handfu’ o’ trade is worth a gowpen (two open handfuls) of gowd.

That is so, because trade is like a spring from which there is a continuous stream, while a sum of money not adventured in business is like water in a barrel—there is no more when it’s done.

Get your rock and spindle, God will send tow;

along with which may be taken,—

What better is the house though the daw rises sune.

The former clearly means that the opportunity comes to those who are ready to use it; the latter seems to signify that the opportunity is of no value unless it is, as Dr Watts would say, improved. A man may rise early and have a long day before him, but he must do more than chatter—he must ‘ put to ’ his hand and work—if he would prosper. To these might be added,—

A gaun (going) foot gets aye gate aneuch,

that is, there is always plenty to do if a man is willing and in the way of it; and

The drucken man gets the drucken penny,

which seems to say, though by means of a metaphor which our teetotal brethren will hardly admire, that willingness to accept a favour is often the condition of getting it. The drinker never refuses a dram.

Dinna sell your customer wi* your goods.

He won’t return if once taken advantage of.

Broken bread maks haill bairns.
Better a clout on than a hole oot,—

but, of course, best of all is whole cloth. This thrifty proverb recalls the delightful domestic picture of ‘The Cottar’s Saturday Night’—

‘The mother wi* her needle an’ her shears
Gars auld claes look amaist as weel’s the new.’
Better rue sit, than rue flit.

In the words of Shakspeare—

‘Rather bear the ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of.*

An unce o’ mother wit is worth a pund o’ clergy. There is nothing in this comparison odious to the ‘clergy,’ as we understand the term. As a rule, the clergy are let alone by the proverbial sayings of Scotland ; like the ‘ corbies,’ they are acknowledged to be a shot richt kittle (right difficult). The proverb means that a little common-sense is of more practical value than a load of learned lumber ; ‘ clergy * here meaning book-learning, or knowledge as distinct from wisdom. There is no depreciation of the benefits of a good education in the proverb; Scotland has always been alive to those benefits.

A bread hoose ne’er skaills.

This proverb means that good servants remain where they are well fed, and generally well treated. The economical value of the advice which is implied in the proverb is apparent.

Double drinks are gude for drouth,

that is, they are effective in creating drouth: they are therefore false economy. This proverb limits the application of the preceding one in the direction of undue liberality.

When the barn’s fu', ye may thresh afore the door.
Dear bocht and far socht—that’s meat for ladies.
Ye needna gang wi’ the rake after the besom.

And many others.

Another feature of the national character is strongly presented in the Scottish proverbs— namely, that sturdy independence which refuses respect to rank unless rank is accompanied by sterling worth,—which, in short, judges men by their manhood. It is the feeling which Burns has hit off so admirably in the well-known lines,—

The rank is but the guinea-stamp,
The man’s the gowd for a' that.

The following two or three specimens will suffice to illustrate this trait:—

As gude may haud the stirrup as he that loups on.
Ye’re come o’ bluid?—sae’s a puddin’.
An owre croose kipg never reigned lang.

And, perhaps, in one aspect of it,

I'll no’ lout sae laigh (stoop so low) to lift sae little.

The Scots are credited with a spirit of enterprise and perseverance which, under failure, finds refuge in a philosophical patience that must not be mistaken for contentment Illustrative of their enterprise and perseverance the proverbs give us—

Aft ettle (try or aim), whyles hit.
Hankerin’ an’ hingin’ on’s a puir trade.
He that forecasts a’ perils will win nae worship.
A gangin’ foot’s aye gettin’.
A wicht (capable) man ne’er wanted a wappin.
Do your turn weel an’ nane will speer what time ye took;

and perhaps—

A gude fallow ne’er tint but at an ill fallow’s hand.

Illustrative of their philosophical patience, we have—

Better be blythe wi’ little than sad wi’ naething.
Ye’ll win owre this trouble, an’ be waur aff.
Better a toom hoose nor an ill tenant.
Fling-at-the-gaud (kick at the pricks) was ne’er a wise ox.
Be thou weel, be thou wae, thou wilt not be aye sae.

There are many others.

This paper may be closed with a few proverbs that refer to law courts and kirks.

Hame’s hame-like, quoth the deil in the Court o’ Session.
Abundance o’ law’ll no’ brak it.
It’s an ill cause that lawyers think shame o’.
Ane o’ the Coort but nane o’ the Coonsel.
I may like the kirk an’ no ride on the riggin’.
The kirk’s meikle but ye may say mass i’ the end o’t.
The Lord gie us a gude conceit o’ oorsells, quoth the wife, an’ gaed whustlin’ ben the kirk.


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