Humour and Heroism
Chapter IV - Some National
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
The thatcher put down the
instruments of his trade and replied quietly: "Do ye want tae hear a
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
"Will I tell ye?" said the
"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
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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