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Scots Humour and Heroism
Chapter II - Some Misconceptions Removed


This proverbial capacity of the Scot to succeed affects people differently. Some are restive under it; others are resigned. The Irishman makes up his mind to it as to a law of nature. He thinks the Scotsman cannot help himself — that he is bound to come to the top in all his undertakings, just as the tides are bound to rise. All Scots he regards as being much the same; they are all destined to make their way easily.

Now this is a grand error. The Highlander is a Celt of the Celts; and except that he has little sympathy with Patrick’s jokes he would be more at home in Killarney or Cork than in the lowlands of his own country.

Some Englishmen are not resigned to this preponderance of the Scot, as the phrase goes, but grow a trifle restive and uneasy under it, and take a very odd revenge. They subject Sandy to a curious criticism. They urge that it is only by a surgical operation you can get a witticism into a Scotsman's head. It was Sydney Smith who gave this judgment; and he ought to have known better, for he lived many years in Edinburgh.

This is indeed a mistake with a vengeance. For Scotland is perhaps the most genuinely humorous country in Europe. The peasantry are witty - not in the same way as the Irish peasantry - but witty for all that. The mind of the Irish countryman is for the most part effervescent, bubbling over with imaginative surprises. Typical Scottish wit, on the contrary, is like the final summing up of a clever lawyer.

The most inimitably amusing things in English are nearly all penned by Scotsmen. You may test these. They will bear endless repetition and remain as pungent as ever.

But we can account for this English criticism.

True, a Scotch peasant will not laugh at nothing, and will not readily burst into a roar. His humour is dry and caustic, and it can be very cheery and protective; but mostly it has a sharp edge and point, like what is best in French. Here is an instance.

It occurred at one of those rustic wooings when suitors were admitted under certain conditions to the comfort of the kitchen to pay their respects to the servant-maids.

The countryman on this occasion was very sheepish. Etiquette forbade the young woman to begin the conversation, and Jock couldn't begin. He had been duly accommodated to a seat before an excellent fire. So much in love and so bashful was the swain that he could not think of anything to say, and sat in mortified despair for two long hours. Janet waited patiently - but she didn't like it - till at last Jock found something. "Janet," he said. "Janet, there's a feather on your dress."

Then she was able to give some expression to her feelings. "Weel, weel," she replied, "I shouldna wonder, if there were twa feathers on ma dress - for I've been sitting beside a goose all night."

And remember we are talking for the moment about the peasantry, whose characteristics are easily seen. This wit of the peasant women is eminently practical.

A shopkeeper in Brechin had surprised a farmer's wife one market-day by telling her that there was no sale for eggs, that the supply was greater than the demand.

The merchants, he said, had had a conference, and had agreed they couldn't give more than sixpence a dozen for eggs.

The egg-vendor was amazed, but submitted and accepted the small price of sixpence a dozen. On leaving the shop she soon learnt that the story of the conference was a hoax. Whereupon she made up her mind to punish the deceitful middleman. So on the next market-day she had a basket filled with pigeons-eggs and pullets-eggs, all of the smallest size she could get hold of.

Going to the trader's she enquired if the price had risen. No; it hadn't.

Well, she agreed to take the same price as before. Depositing her basket on the counter she waited till the deceiver opened it. He was frantic to see little eggs not much bigger than nuts.

"How's this ? Woman, you're a robber, you're a thief."

"Na, na"; she replied, "ye see the hens in our backyard had a conference, and agreed they couIdna lay bigger eggs than that for sixpence a dozen."

Don't tell us these people have no wit. Everyone knows they have humour; but wit - that's abundant too.

Then why did Sidney Smith say what he did? There are many reasons for this.

In the first place Scotsmen don't care much for puns; and puns in England are an honoured and popular form of pleasantry; Shakespeare is an inveterate punster.

Yet on occasion the Scot is not indifferent to a play on words. There was once a political meeting many years ago when the minister, who presided, prayed that the Liberals might `hang all together'. An irreverent 'Amen' came from the end of the hall from a conservative opponent, who pretended of course to take the sentence as a fervid wish that the Liberals should all be hanged.

The imperturbable chairman continued: "Not in the sense in which that profane scoffer would have you to understand, but that they may all hang together in accord and concord."

A voice was heard again breaking the silence: "A dinna care so much what kind of cord it is, so long as it is a strong cord".

But on the whole, puns are English, not Scottish. That great literary dictator, Dr. Samuel Johnson, once said: "He that makes a pun would pick a pocket"; but his dictum did not affect the national taste in the South of the Island. English comic papers teem with puns to the present hour; and according to your taste they are either a beauty or a defect in the Bard of Avon.

Then again, no self-respecting Scotsman appears to be amused when he says a good thing. He can control himself in everything, laughter included. In Scotland one often hears the criticism : "He is a puir (puir = poor) sort of body, he laughs at his own jokes". That is the last word. A man of that kind is beneath notice, so to speak.

Further there is the character of the wit he admires. It must not be vapid or wordy. He likes it concentrated, biting, and strong; or kindly, canny and protective; but always intellectual and logical. Examples of this love of finality abound.

A professor was once lecturing to a rustic audience on the prophets. He had spent half an hour on Isaiah, three quarters of an hour on Jeremiah, a trifle longer on Ezekiel; then having got well into the pace, he cleared his throat pleasantly and said with gusto:

"And now what place shall we assign to the prophet Hosea?" A countryman near the front got up promptly and said:

"Sir, he may have my place, for A'm goin' hame." (hame = home)

This kind of independence of speech runs through all grades. Perhaps this is one reason why the distinction of classes is less sharply marked than elsewhere.

Of David Hume a story is told which illustrates the caustic and incisive character of the national wit.

It appears that this great man once proposed for the hand of a lady, who refused him.

Some time after she thought the better of it and sent a message that she had 'changed her mind.'

"So have I," said the philosopher.

And it is not philosophers and critics alone who possess shrewdness and decisiveness. Peasant women have it too.

A ploughman once told his betrothed that he would't marry her.

"Why not"? she said.

He answered that he had changed his mind.

"Well," she replied; "don't say that now, for nobody would look at me in the parish if it was known that you had given me the go-by. (give the go-by = reject, give up) But wait till we're gettin marriet (marriet = married); say you `yes'; and when I'm asked, I'll say `no' ".

They appeared duly before the Minister, who put the question: "Alexander, do you take Jane Janet to be your wedded wife ?"

Alexander said, "yes".

Turning to Jane Janet his Reverence proceeded: "Do you take this man to be your wedded husband?" She said, "yes", too !

"What, what!" cried the astounded and indignant Alexander. "Didn't ye promise to say no?"

"Oo aye", replied Janet firmly; "I did promise; but I hev' changed my mind."

Another charge levelled at Sandy is, that he's too thrifty.

His severest censors admit that he is scrupulously just; but they say that he is overcareful about the bawbees.

And many are the jokes about his economy. People assert that he 'keeps' the `Sabbath' and - everything else he can lay his hands upon.

A villager from the Lowlands once visited London, and was asked on his return what he thought of the great city. His reply was characteristic. "Man, it`s an awfu' place, I hadna been twa hours in London when bang went saxpence!"

"O say, Macduff," pleaded a needy friend, "I'm badly in want of money; will you lend me a sympathetic ear?" "Surely, man, I will," he replied, "but - naething mair."

Indeed so much fun has been poked at the North-Briton for his ability to gather property, and his caution in spending it, that the whole subject has become trite.

Ian Maclaren used to tell about an Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scot, who travelled together in the same railway compartment on their first visit to London.

When they entered Euston, the Irishman dashed out of the carriage, forgetting everything in his enthusiasm.

"Ah, be the powers!" he exclaimed, losing himself in the crush. "And is this the famous city? It's grand!"

John Bull conscientiously selected his own belongings - neither more nor less - from the pile of materials on the racks, and stolidly stalked forth upon his business.

Sandy, the last in the carriage, carefully gathered up all the luggage that remained, allowing nothing to be lost; and thus entered London no poorer for the voyage.

But quite apart from these well-worn pleasantries about the Scot's acquisitiveness and thrift, is it true that he is too economical?

We answer: no.

Certainly every genuine Scot in normal circumstances has an objection to paying (say) two shillings and six pence for an article which is sold in the open market for sixpence.

He simply won't do it; for he is likely to be well informed. Account for it as you may, he knows the market price of objects he wants to have.

If he is interested in walking-sticks, for, example, he knows what people pay for them. Knowledge, indeed, of all kinds he absorbs automatically; he is not content with guesses or opinions; somehow or other gets in touch with hard facts.

Then again, when he knows the market price of a commodity, he has sufficient energy either to go, or to send, to the place where the article may be acquired at the customary rate. He has nothing but contempt for the man who will not walk down the street and buy an article at the price commonly being paid for it.

And it need scarcely be said that he is the last person in the world tamely to allow an impudent shopkeeper to dictate to him. He feels quite competent to form his own opinion, and to express it.

Furthermore he is not pretentious. He may be rugged, but he is sincere - sincere with you and with himself. He is above the vulgarity of wishing to appear a millionaire when he is not one.

He does not care for unreal show about his means, and is not afraid to say, `no'.

He is fully aware - for he is a past master at arithmetic - that if he goes on paying two and sixpence for articles worth sixpence, the day will come when he will have no more two-and-sixpences to spend. He wishes to determine for himself where those extra two shillings are to go.

He has a destination for saved money, for he is a man of purpose. It represents to him thought, progress, love, devotion. It will buy books or tools; or enable him to travel. It will educate his sons for college. It will support a church, or rear edifices, or build institutions and endow universities. At the very least it will make him - what every man should be - what every Scotsman is - independent.

He understands quite well Burns's excellent advice:

And gather gear by every wile,
That's justified by honour;
To catch Dame Fortune's golden smile,
Assiduous wait upon her,
Not for to hide it in a hedge,
Nor for a train attendant,
But for the glorious privilege
Of being independent.

The Book of Proverbs has entered into the very fibre of Scottish thought; and people have taken to heart its shrewd warnings against waste, whether of means or of time or of opportunity.

No; the Scot is not penurious. He is generous, openhanded and munificent; but he detests all that is empty and unreal and extravagant. He is not wasteful or improvident; and above all he chooses carefully the objects of his liberality.

Given an adequate cause, your Scot doesn't mind being considered miserly.

That is the pathos of many a home. The money is scraped together with the utmost care to give the children the best of educations. Nothing is grudged for this purpose; and the self-denial that is incurred for ends like these is past all counting.

No country in the world has shown more heroism of that kind than the land of John Knox.

It may be well understood that when the Scot is capable of so much self-sacrifice we are not likely to bring him in guilty of any unfeeling hardness.

Who can imagine that the country which produced such a profusion of tender lyrics could be devoid of deep emotion?

About these poems also there are two astounding features, that are not as well known as they deserve to be.


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