Humour and Heroism
Chapter II - Some Misconceptions
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"And now what place shall we assign
to the prophet Hosea?" A countryman near the front got up promptly and
"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
A ploughman once told his betrothed
that he would't marry her.
"Why not"? she said.
He answered that he had changed his
"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
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
"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
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
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
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 -
He understands quite well Burns's
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
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
About these poems also there are two
astounding features, that are not as well known as they deserve to be.
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