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Scots Humour and Heroism
Chapter IV - Some National Characteristics Illustrated


Humour and pathos are found side by side in the life of the kindly Scot. The reason for this that in him a number of apparently contradictory qualities meet. In daily life there is a frequent reconciliation of opposites and this leads to many a humorous situation.

For instance he has the utmost respect for authority and worth. But he never fails to have just as much respect for himself, and his independence often leads to irresistibly funny sayings and doings. Usually it results in the finest courtesy, as when Queen Victoria used to go to visit the peasants at Balmoral.

"Yir Majesty's welcome", the old cottar-woman used to say. "Just come ben and sit doon at the fire and warm yirsel." There was no subservience, but a hearty and loyal greeting to the Queen of Scotland and Head of all the clans. Nowhere is there less cringing to wealth and position. But stories not a few are told of the consternation caused in high quarters by the extraordinary coolness of some countrymen.

There was a certain crofter from whom Her Majesty had had two collie dogs. As she wished to thank the donor for them she sent for him.

Before presenting himself at Balmoral he got some drilling in court etiquette, but forgot all about it when he was ushered into the Queen's presence.

When the Royal Lady smilingly tendered him her thanks, instead of being overpowered he felt very much at his ease. He shook Her Majesty warmly by the hand, and tapping her on the shoulder briskly, said in his jolliest tones: "Hoots , woman! (hoots - dissatisfaction and irritation, Eng. tut.) Say nae mair aboot it. What's twa dogs between you and me?"

The court was aghast; but the Queen laughed till she could not stand.

This reverence for authority extends to all representatives of order and rank from the chief of the clan down to the constable on duty.

So, naturally, magistrates are held in honour by reason of their office. But this does not prevent the critical faculty of the Scot from playing like an intellectual search-light on the opinions and judgments of legal dignitaries.

One of these much respected magistrates found a group of youths loudly quarrelling. As he approached, he noticed a little dog in the centre of the ring.

Stopping to enquire, in a stately way, what all the noise was about, he was answered by a boy:

"Oh" said the lad, "we're just seein who'll tell the biggest lie; and the winner gets the dog."

"Boys", he replied, "that's verra wrong. Now that's a thing I never did, tell a lie?"

"Jock!" exclaimed a voice from the outskirts of the crowd, "hand him over the dog."

This self-confidence shows itself in freedom of speech within definite limits. If respect is given to rank, this does not in any way way hamper people's liberty of action and freedom of judgment.

Startling indeed used to be the direct and independent attitude of the old Scottish servant to his master. For one thing, he was quite ready to give good advice.

Dean Ramsey in his book of Reminiscences gives several examples: "Bring me some wine," commanded the laird. "There's enough in the bottle", was the reply.

"Margaret, put some coals on the fire," said the mistress. "The fire doesn't need it," answered the domestic.

Except that the manner of saying it was deferential, a stranger might have thought that the servants were insolent; but the attachment and loyalty of such old retainers is beyond all praise. No wonder it has become almost proverbial, for it is amongst the most touching things in history. These old family servants would follow their master round the world, and readily part with their hard-earned savings to help him out of dificulty.

A typical request was made by an old nurse who had been all her life attached to a particular family. On her death-bed she asked to see the young master. "Laird", she said with faltering accents, "I have one thing to ask ye before I gang awa'. Bury me in the kirk-yaird where I'll lie near across your feet".

Yet there is no doubt that the traditional prayer of the stone-mason represents a common attitude of mind. This celebrated petition runs somewhat as follows: "Lord, gi' us a good opinion o' oorselves".

The host at a dinner party had taken wine with nearly all the ladies. In fact the butler had only noticed that one lady was omitted. He came up behind his master's chair and expostulated in a stage whisper: "What haf ye, Sir, against the lady in the green gown?"

The respect for family, rank, and legal dignity is matched by the awe felt for learning and eminence in the pulpit. It was the profound admiration for ecclesiastical fame that once led to the most curious of invitations ever tended to a minister.

The divine in question had been a renowned orator in his day, but had now retired and was living in the dignified ease of an ex-Moderator.

He had gone to reside in a little country parish; and the local incumbent there fell suddenly sick on a Saturday.

The beadle, or minister's man, was despatched in hot haste to scour the country-side and discover someone capable of conducting the services.

He was busy all day but could find nobody. At last in despair he ventured apologetically to approach the great man. Fully aware that it was a bold thing to do, he explained, by way of excusing himself, why he ventured to trouble an ex-Moderator: "I hope you will not think it presumptuous for us to ask you to take our serrvice; we would have been content with a far worse preacher than you - if we only had known where to find him."

Another interesting contrast is that between reasonableness and sentiment.

You may rely on Scottish men and women being ready to listen to argument. If one is in a railway-carriage on a long tedious journey, it's said you can always interest a true Scot by propounding to him one of those fascinating but bewildering puzzles that you find in logic books.

To him the fallacy is irresistble and will keep him occupied the whole time.

The Irishman will be kept quiet by anything imaginative. The way to appeal to an Englishman is to give him something to do, - to make something out of paper, for example, or tie a new knot.

North of the Tweed life in all its details proceeds on a rational basis, and people like to philosophize.

To survey dispassionately any unpleasant situation that may arise seems the most natural thing in the world. The bricklayer that fell from the third storey showed himself to be a typical Scot when he was overheard saying, on his passage to the ground, "It's no' the fall I mind. .. it's the stoppin'." Surely it is only a Lowlander who would care to analyze his feeling at such a moment.

We see the same tranquil criticism in the answer of the Aberdonian who was intrusting a case to his lawyer. The writer to the signet asked him: "Have you stated all the particulars just as they occurred?" "O aye, Sir," he replied; "I thocht it best to tell ye the plain truth. You can put in the lies yourself."

And was not that an eminently reasonable reply of the Scottish lassie when a suitor she did not care for, kept troubling her with fine speeches: "I'll admit, Jamie" she said, "I hev no objection to love in the aibstract, it's you I object to."

Now the good humour with which plain speaking is received is remarkable. The Highlander is proud and sensitive, but in the Lowlands retorts that are sometimes startling are exchanged amongst the peasantry in friendly sport.

Blows are given and received that suggest to us what young lions do when they are playing, pawing and cuffing one another all in fun. The people in these rustic encounters are not afraid of a scratch or two on either side.

An elderly bachelor in an certain parish married an elderly spinster of considerable means, and it was understood generally that the couple regarded the arrangement rather as a business transaction than as love's young dream.

Not long afterwards the husband, from his wife's money bought a fine horse and showed off the steed's paces to the bride. She, looking at the whole turn-out, got the idea that the husband was a trifle elated with his new purchase, and thought it would do no harm to bring him in touch with reality. She admired the horse duly, and added: "Indeed it's a bonnie beast, Andrew - but if it hadna been for my siller (Siller = money), that horse wudna have been here." Andrew, nothing loth, accepted the challenge, and capped the argument: "Wumman, if it hadna been for your siller, you wouldna hev been here yourself."

There's no affectation about that; but neither party thought of taking offence.

Many a tale can be told to bring out this sturdy candour and this freedom from pretence. When people who on occasion can be so very plain-spoken, talk sentiment, one can believe them. And strong sentiment lies beneath everything else - deep, ardent, and unquenchable.

A retired judge once fell in with a friend of his youth whom he had known tenderly thirty years before. He had spent the intervening years in India. She had married, but was now a widow. By and by they got talking about old times, and, as often happens in such cases, lapsed into the Doric. "Mary," he said, "I hev never loved anybody but you."

"Rob, Rob," she replied, shaking a reproving finger at him: "You're just as big a leear as ever you were, and - I believe you just the same."

There is plenty of shrewdness everywhere, yet genuine feeling wins the day. That is why the sentiment of Auld Lang Syne makes so wide an appeal; for there is no place where English is spoken but that song will touch a chord.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to min',
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days o' lang syne?

We twa hae run aboot the braes (braes - hillocks)
And pou'd the gowans  fine, (gowans = daisies)
But we've wandered many a weary foot
Since auld lang syne.

We twa have paidled in the burn (piadle - walk back and forwards in water)
Frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braed' hae roared
Since auld lang syne.

Of courage there was never any lack in Scotland. Maarten Maarten says: "These are the men who through the slow ages of combat never yielded to aught but God." And they do not yield to one another either. The national emblem is a very apt one; it is a thistle with the motto: "Nemo me impune lacessit."

It is a wise counsel not to interfere with a Scotsman in the performance of his duty. Students of character are aware that good sport may be expected when a talkative busybody comes to proffer advice unasked.

Then we are not astonished if some retort is made akin to the well-known reply of the thatcher.

Thatching is a notoriously difficult business and requires close attention.

One day a man was giving his whole mind to this responsible work when a stranger came up and watched proceedings critically for a while, then said: "You're doing it all wrong."

The thatcher put down the instruments of his trade and replied quietly: "Do ye want tae hear a story?"

A good deal surprised, the intruder agreed: "Oh - oh, yes."

"Weel then; there was a man in oor parish who got verra rich," said the thatcher impressively. "Now, do ye know how?"

"No," said the stranger, "I don't know."

"Will I tell ye?" said the workman.

"Yes, do."

"He got verra rich - by mindin' his ain business!"

The other side of this independence and courage is deep feeling, which, however, may be often hidden under a veil of bluntness and coldness.

One of the many charms of Ian Maclaren's writings is that they convey this sentiment in all sorts of circumstances.

The really poor and weak come in for their share of consideration. When a hunting party given by a certain baronet were driving through a village on the Dee side, a poor woman was observed hurrying out of sight with a bundle of stolen firewood which she had picked up in the copses. "Keeper, keeper," said the old baronet pointing to the retreating figure, "do you see that?"

"No, Sir Jeams," replied the old servant, "I didna see that and what's mair, I didna think that you would see it either."


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