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Scots Humour and Heroism
Chapter XII - Lowlander and Highlander - Contrasts and Resemblances


A Glasgow merchant once lost his way in Paris; and, as he knew no French and was far from any tourist-centre where English is spoken, he failed to make himself intelligible. Do what he would — and he tried many expedients — no one understood one single word.

At last, a grotesque, but highly ingenious, scheme occurred to him, when he saw a woman pass along selling gooseberries. By the use of signs he bought her basket full of fruit, and the measure for the berries. Then, shouldering his stock-in-trade, he marched down the middle of the street shouting, in broadest Doric:

"Fine grossets! Fine grossets! A bawbee the chappie!" The crowd laughed; and people came from all sides to see the strange sight. After a time the familiar cry brought some Scots on the scene; and the wanderer was able to get to his hotel. That is a type of a Lowlander, a man of expedients, of reasoning, of resource. He can put cool argument and an effective plan foremost, and his dignity second. He always has an eye for humorous situations. And he is born for success.

If the energy of the Highlands is recurrent and fierce; and if its idealism, though enthusiastic, be variable and elusive, now rising into gladness, now falling into gloom,—the energy of the Lowlands, on the other hand, is unflagging and persistent, and its idealism like a steady light. It does not readily suffer eclipse. Experience has trained the Saxon to believe in his own powers. With him the struggle for existence is not directly against nature, but is industrial, commercial, competitive. Thus, all through the land of "ta Sassenach" the contrast involved between a man and his office is a never-failing subject of mirth. And indeed the Lowlands are known as the nurse of kindly humour. As people do not always come up to their ideals and as the Lowlander has keen eyes for his own shortcomings and those of his neighbours, there arise those collisions between what he aims at and what he actually does, which give him a keen view of the irony of life.

The most striking instances are found in the professions, and in the relation of servant and master. The independence and downrightness of the Lowland servant we have already noticed. As may be imagined, their plain talk sometimes grows more than exasperating —then they may be dismissed. But they do not always accept their dismissal.

"You’ll have to go," said the mistress.

"Na, na," was the answer, "if ye dinna ken when ye have a gude servant, I ken when I have a gude place."

This is more reasonable and less dramatic than the conduct of a new servant, who was very clumsy, and smashed many of the things entrusted to her. Getting tired of the work after a few hours’ struggle in the kitchen, she called up the housekeeper and shouted to her from a distance: "Your plates are smashed; and I’m awa!"

The criticism of preachers, that we have adverted to, is of the same quality, and has its root in the discrimination which people make between the ministerial office and the minister himself as a man. Thus wit was deemed an admirable offset to a preacher in almost all positions, Any quickness of retort took the popular fancy.

A very loud voiced and active minister had gone to Switzerland for a holiday. "Well," said someone, "he looked strong; but I suppose he needed a rest."

"Rest," said an old parishioner, "na, na, no him; it was his congregation that needed a rest."

In the conflict of realism and idealism facts were never lost sight of; and the finality of Lowland wit has that explanation. It is reasonable and calmly decisive.

A grim old Covenanter was asked by his daughter Jean to give his consent to a young man’s visits at the house with a possible view to matrimony. He said:

"Jean, it’s a solemn thing to be marriet."

"Nae doot, father," she replied, "but it is a solemner thing no to be marriet."

This, in its way, is as shrewd as the famous saying of the convivial farmer whom the boys of the parish tried to frighten out of his wits. This old gentleman, who in his manner of life was far from abstemious, used to return home from his visits to the neighbouring market in a muddled, but hilarious condition.

As he was obliged to pass a graveyard, the youths imagined that it would be an easy matter to frighten the reveller. They concealed themselves along the roadside, while their leader, dressed in a white sheet, took his stand in the middle of the way. When the old farmer approached, the "ghost" drew near, emitting bloodcurdling sounds and waving his arms. But the hardy old countryman took it all quite calmly. He just stopped in an interested way, and put a leading question to the apparition. "o say, ghost! Tell me, noo, is it a gineral risin’, or are ye jist takin’ a wee bit of a danner (danner = stroll, a walk for pleasure) yirsel’?"

This is akin to what was said by an old divine to a certain English lady who had an estate in Scotland. She invited him for a fortnight to the castle; and, somehow or other — perhaps it was from a spirit of mischief — put him in the "haunted room." Next morning all the other visitors — presumably in the secret — were eager to see if the clergyman betrayed any signs of having encountered the traditional ghost. But nothing could be read from his face or demeanour.

When he was leaving at the end of a pleasant visit, the Countess asked him had he not been uncomfortable in his room? No, he replied. He had been all right. "But," she asked, "did you not see anything?"

"Oh," he said, "Now I see what you’re at. I did see the ghost, the first night I was here. He came to me making noises. But I just asked him would he give me a subscription to my new church. He went awa’, frightened like; and I never saw him again."

It may be understood that pride of country is as marked in the Highlands as in the Lowlands. The flavour of the latter is, of course, argumentative and abstract; while that of the former is touchy and authoritative. Once upon a time an Englishman travelling by rail with a company of Glasgowrnen got rather bored—"fedup" he would have said — by hearing so very much about Burns and Scott and Carlyle.

He irritably interposed, "Well, are there no writers but Scotch? I suppose you will hardly tell me that Shakespeare was a Scotsman."

"Weel," was the reply. "I’m no sure about Shakespeare being a Scotsman. But one thing I do know; he had intellect enough for a Scotsman."

This is the Lowland manner to a nicety; but it is not quite the manner of the mountaineer. By way of comparison, take a celebrated Highland retort. It occurred at a Court festival in connection with James the First’s accession.

It seems that Lord Harewood gave a great dinner, to which a vast number of courtiers and officers were invited. The feast was ended, and the wine had circulated once or twice, when General Seely, an English trooper of fame and a reckless duellist, got up and addressed the company: "Gentlemen," he said, "when I am in my cups, I have an absurd custom of railing against the Scots. Knowing my weakness I hope no gentleman will take it amiss."

He sat down; and a Highland chief, Sir Robert Blake, of Blair Atholl, a huge man with a front like a massive tower, rose quietly, and, with the utmost simplicity and good nature, said: "Friends, when I am in my cups, if I hear a man rail against the Scots, I have an absurd custom of kicking him out of the company. And, knowing my weakness, no gentleman, I hope, will take it amiss!"

Between the Highland and the Lowland character there are, of course, innumerable points of correspondence. For instance, both the Man of the Mist and the Man of the Plains are great travellers.

At the siege of Plevna, a gigantic Russian met a Turkish officer who was negotiating under a flag of truce.

There was an Englishman present who overheard an amazing conversation between these apparent enemies. The Russian began: "Aweel, Hamish, are ye no tiret o’ this?"

The Turk replied: "Aye, aye, Sandy Forbes. Ye did a good bit of fightin’ the morn’ yirsel’. Ye’ll be gettin’ off soon; and we’ll gang thegither till Oban!"

In the matter of ubiquity and independence and religious sentiment there are strong lines of resemblance between the two races while yet the broad distinctions remain. For cool criticism the Saxon has the pre-eminence. It is his philosophic definition that has been so much admired. "Metapheesics! Aye A ken weel what that is. When yin man talks tae anither man, an’ that ither doesna know what the first man’s talkin’ aboot, — an’ when the man himsel’ doesna know what he’s talkin’ about, — that’s metapheesics."

When it comes to anything mystic or occult, the advantage is all on the side of the Gael. People will not speak much about it — that is unlucky — but second-sight is still believed in. Dozens of startling instances are widely accepted. Astonishing pre-visions are well attested; and many a Highland mother is mysteriously aware when trouble threatens her sons in far off climes.

But different as they are, the Highlander and the Lowlander have sufficient points in common to make them good friends. Right jolly and social they can be together, on due occasion. It was a learned theologian, if we mistake not, that sang the praise of friendly rivalry in the national dance. Scottish music has a lilt in it that he thought should be irresistible to both parties. Play the reel with spirit in a mixed company and you will find all Scotsmen one. It needs the pipes to do justice to Tullochgorum! Yet the naive lines have rhythm.

Come gie’s (gie’s = give us) a sang, Montgomery cried,
And lay your disputes aside,
What signifies’t for folk to chide
For what was done before them?
Let Whig and Tory all agree, —
Whig and Tory, Whig and Tory, —
Whig and Tory all agree
To drop their Whig-mig-morum. (Whig-mig-morum (made up word of contempt) = sour insociability).
Let Whig and Tory all agree.
To spend the night wi’ mirth and glee,
And cheerful sing alang wi’ me
The Reel o’ Tullochgorum.

O Tullochgorum’s my delight,
It gars (gars = makes) us a’ in ane unite.
And ony sumph (ony sumph — any foolish fellow) that keeps a spite,
In conscience I abhor him:
For blithe and cheery we’ll be a’ —
Blithe and cheery, blithe and cheery, —
Blithe and cheery we’ll be a’,
And make a happy quorum;
For blithe and cheery we’ll be a’,
As lang as we ha’e breath to draw,
And dance till we be like to fa’, (fa — fall)
The Reel o’ Tullochgorum.

Let worldly worms their minds oppress
Wi’ fears o’ want and double cess,
And sullen sorts themsel’s distress
Wi’ keepin’ up decorum;
Shall we sae sour and sulky sit. —
Sour and sulky, sour and sulky, —
Sour and sulky shall we sit
Like old philosophorum? (philosophorum = Wise-acres (made-up word of contempt))
Shall we sac sour and sulky sit,
Wi’ neither sense, nor mirth, nor wit,
Nor over try to shake a fit (fit — foot)
To the Reel o’ Tullochgorum?

My choicest blessings aye attend
Each honest, open-hearted friend,
And calm and quiet be his end;
And a’ that’s good watch o’er him;
May peace and plenty be his lot,
Peace and plenty, peace and plenty,
Peace and plenty be his lot,
And dainties a great store o’ them
May peace and plenty be his lot,
Unstained by any vicious spot;
And may he never want a groat
That’s fond o’ Tullochgorum!


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