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Scots Humour and Heroism
Chapter X - Highland Speech and Highland Dignity


The Highlander's personal dignity is invulnerable. It is maintained in all circumstances - even when his temper is ruffled, and no matter what funny mistakes he may make in his translated English.

Long association with the Saxon does not always bring with it accuracy of idiom. All depends on early training.

The police force in Glasgow is largely recruited from the Highlands and many stories are told about their marvellous attempts at every day speech.

We read for instance of a proclamation having been made to the following effect - "By command of Her Majesty King Edward and Her Grace the Duke of Argyle."

A stalwart guardian of the peace going his rounds one day was met by an acquaintance from the same village. Well, Murdoch," he inquired, "How long have you been in the police force?"

"Och," he replied, "she will be chust two years a police man, and a half." He translated the Gaelic literally; and the order is queer.

"How do you get to that village from here?" was asked of a peasant in Invernesshire. The answer was puzzling. "You chust will be walking to ta right; and you will be walking to ta left; and you chust will be walking on whateffer. Then a riffer will rise and meet you."

Gaelic is very poetic, and pictorial; and sometimes has figures of speech that don't run well into any other Western tongue.

One idiom which Highlanders of the uneducated class have picked up is the use of the word "intill" instead of "into". This may prove, at times, disconcerting to strangers. Prince Albert, the late Prince Consort, was very much interested in all that concerned the Highland steamers. The soup was one day particularly good, and he was anxious to know what the ingredients were. He called the cook; and, after praising the food on board, began to make inquiry about the soup. "What is it made of?" he said.

"There is mutton intill it," replied the, cook "and beef intill it, and potatoes intill it."

"Yes," said the Prince, "thank you. Yes I understand. But I don 't exactly know what is intill't."

The mountaineer's irritability got the better of him. "Didn't she tell her there was mutton and beef and potatoes intill it? And can't she hear her?"

"She" was his manner of saying, "Your Royal Highness."

But whatever odd expression the peasant hillman uses, you had better not even smile at it. For Highland blood is quick; and the very drovers of cattle move with the air of princes. They step out with self-possessed mien, and are as dignified as dukes. Indeed, you may meet with a drover that boasts a long descent reaching back four hundred or five hundred years.

Chivalrous to a fault and the very soul of honour, they are quick to resent even the semblance of an affront. "Do you always go barefoot?" said a tourist to a woman he met trudging home near the Trossachs.

"Whiles we do," murmured the old crone, offended at the liberty. And whiles we mind oor ain business."

Yet it was a Trossachs-girl that impressed Wordsworth with her old world courtesy and soft musical speech. The poet had accosted her graciously and got a modest gracious reply.

To this sense of personal dignity a great measure of sensitiveness must be added; and not a little pride. A Highland boatman was much incensed by a sharp-voiced lady from the South, who kept giving orders about her boxes. She was one of that numerous category of restless travellers who never can be at ease about their luggage.

She had had her belongings shifted some eight or nine times. At last the Highlander flared up, and told her "to go to Jericho". Shocked and insulted the lady went at once to the captain, and complained bitterly, The captain duly remonstrated with the erring boatman. "Duncan," he said, "you were very uncivil to this lady. You must really beg her pardon - before we get to Glasgow."

Duncan waited a while; then, towards the end of the journey, he casually approached the offended dame: "Wass you ta old woman I wass telling to go Jericho?"

"Yes," said the lady sharply.

"Well," continued Duncan sullenly. "The captain says you need not go now."

That was his apology. Despite its ungraciousness, the answer has something that is characteristic in it, for no Highlander likes to be forced to make excuses in any circumstances.

The haughtiness of the man of the mist is matched by his shrewdness in maintaining his self-respect. If he is the soul of courtesy, he can on occasion make an ironical or stinging retort.

This will be all the more effective for being totally unexpected. A company of tourists once thought to chaff an old shepherd.

"You have a fine view here, Dugald !"

"O yes, chentlemen," he said, "ferry fine."

"Now, you can see far on a clear day, I suppose?"

"O yes, inteet, a great distance."

"I suppose now you can see London from this extreme altitude?" Douglad by this time saw divined game they were up to, and retaliated after his own quiet manner.

"O, aye inteet; and much farther too."

"Farther than London! Is that what you say?"

"Aye, to be surely; and farther than America."

"Oh, but that is impossible!"

"Weel, weel, it 's chust true. But if you won't beliefe me, sit doon here, and wait for twa three oors ( oors - hours); and if the mist will clear, you'll see the moon from here!"

But this is a playful retort compared with what Hamish or Donald is capable of, if he imagines there is a trace of superiority in your remarks. And, of course, in return for anything distantly savouring of impoliteness he gives, at the least, "as good as he gets."

Aggravated by a certain gamekeeper's lofty demeanour a Southern visitor, who was shooting in the North with his party, tried to humiliate the haughty servitor by making him a little ridiculous. This he imagined to be quite easy, as the gamekeeper had dark hair and a red moustache.

"Donald," he said. "You should dye your moustache the colour of your hair. They don't match, you know."

Donald caught the point, and declared war. For, noticing that the Saxon's nose was of a deep hue not suggestive of total abstinence, he exclaimed aggressively: "Ah, Sir, you should let people's heads alone, and paint her nose the colour of her face."

Everybody laughed! To make the best of it, the Saxon felt in his pocket, and reached Donald a half-sovereign. "Take it," he said, "I often wondered about Highland wit."

But Donald was not to be appeased.

"O keep it, Sir. It will help to pay for ta paint!"

Money is never any salve for the mountaineer's wounded pride. Very likely he belonged to the MacPhersons. It was popularly supposed that the MacPhersons, like the MacGregors and Camerons, were amongst the most self-respecting of all the clans. Which is saying a great deal.

But here we are trenching on dangerous ground; and it requires a specialist in Highland History to draw the distinctions accurately between clan and clan, and do justice all round.


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