1923 in a paper entitled ‘Theory of Scots Letters’, Hugh MacDiarmid
described Scots as:
A vast unutilised
mass of lapsed observations made by minds whose attitude to
experience and whose speculative an imaginative tendencies were
quite different from any possible to Englishmen and anglicised
Scots today. Just as, physiologially we have lost certain powers
possessed by our forefathers---the art of wiggling our ears, for
example, so we have lost word-forming faculties peculiar to the
Doric for the purposes of psychological and nature description.
There are words and phrases in the verncular which thrill me with
a sense of having been produced as result of mental processes
entirely different from my own and much more powerful. They embody
observations of a kind which the modern mind makes with increasing
difficulty and weakened effect.
There is a wealth of
Scots proverbs which illustrate the power of expression of the Scots
language and the collective wisdom of the Scots nation. To some extent,
the following sayings also embody the community morality and provide a
guide to conduct in life in an earlier society, relatively unaffected by
the destructive effects of globalisation, and. a population explosion
masquerading as human progress. In the huge Scots diaspora in the
English-speaking world, Scots proverbs provide a link to older
traditional values which characterised the Scots psyche, in ‘the Auld
Scotland we maunna forget: blinkert an nairrae, but staunch an kynd, leal
an true’. While some of these values may now seem irrelevant in the
modern world, most of them are eternal verities, and a legacy from
Scotland for the whole of mankind
A blate cat maks a proud
cf. When the cat’saway
the mice will play. Then word blate now seems more common in North
American English than in England.
A bonnie bryde is suin
buskit an a short horse is suin wispit.
This means that it does
not take long to adorn a pretty bride for her wedding, or to groom a
little horse. The figurative meaning is subtle and relates to the saying
that it is difficult to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. On the
other hand, if the material is good, everything becomes comparitively
A burd in the haund is
wurth ten fliein
The relationship with ‘A
bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ is obvious.
A crook i the Forth’s wurth
a Yerldom i the north.
The river Forth forms
many fertile crooks in winding through the Carse of Stirling. This
proverb refers to the agricultural poverty of land beyond the Highland
Line and it embodies an element of materialistic contempt for impoverished
Highland lairds, or even for Earls.
A dish o mairrit luiv richt
suin growes cauld an dozens doun ti nane as fowk growes auld.
The author of this
saying evidently had an unhappy marriage and ended up a cynic. It is
difficult to see how it could be applied to marriages of convenience,
where the bride has been assured that the love would come later.
A dreich drink is better
nor a dry sermon.
In this context, dreich
also means dry. The advantage of the drink was that one could take it or
leave it. There was no escape from the sermon. Now that sermons no
longer last for several hours, this saying has lost some of its original
A fou purse nevir wants
This is perhaps an
observed truth, though a slightly cynical observation.
A gaun (or gangin) fuit’s
This can only be an
expression of admiration for industry or an exhortation to effort, with a
view to getherin gear. It appears to mean the opposite of ‘a rolling
stone gathers no moss’. It can be a wry comment on other people’s
acquisitiveness and sometimes, the ironical qualification, be it but a
thorn or a broken tae, is added.
A grippie haund wul nevir
The word grippie in
Scots, means miserly, acquisitive or mean, characteristics often wrongly
attributed to Scottish people, who sometimes discover they never really
knew what these words really meant before leaving Scotland..
A guid cou can hae an ill
The converse, An ill
cou can hae a guid cauf, is also true. All behavioral characteristics are
Ah dout she haes made a
stick for ti brek hir ain back
This saying is often
applied to women who spoil their children, men, or invalids in their
care. The meaning that she brought it on herself, is entirely
Ah dout his craig wul suin
ken the wecht o his hurdies.
Literally, this grim
saying means that someone will probably end up being hanged, so that his
neck will have to bear the weight of his hips. Generally, it means that
someone is heading for retribution, the high jump, or a fall. Hasnging is
less likely these days. Although the black humor sounds very Scots, this
expression was known in medieval Flanders, so it may well be of Flemish
Ah dout ma stammik thinks
ma thrappil’s cut awthegither
In other words it’s
high time I had something to eat.
A hungirie man suin sniffs
This is both literal
and metaphoric. Meat in Scots, means food in general or in this context,
anything to be eaten. A contrast can be made between green meat (like
salad) and butcher meat. Hunger concentrates the mind.
A licht purse maks a heavie
This is sometimes true
but not a universal truth. Some people stay light-hearted despite
A liear soud aye hae a guid
Oh what a tangled web
we weave when first we practice to deceive!
A man can be kynd an pairt
wi littil gear
Kindness is from the
heart rather than the purse. But this is a convenient proverb for those
who want to hold on to what they have.
An auld dug snaks siccar
Experience makes us
more formidable in sonme repects. The verb ti snak meaning ‘to bite’, has
now been borrowed into English as a noun, a ‘snack’, a light bite.
As blyth as a blek amang
There is, of course, no
recent evidence that people with dark skins are any happier among treacle
than whites, but this saying reflects an attitude in earlier days. Black
people were few and far between in 18th century Scotland, and
they were generally assumed to have simple tastes and a happy disposition.
The English equivalent
is ‘happy as a sandman’.
A skabbit yowe wul smit the
This indicates an early
understanding of the dangers of infection in sheep and has moral
implications for human beings, like the perception that one rotten apple
could spoil the whole barrel.
As the auld cock craws the
yung ane lairns
This is a truism not
only relative to poultry. It applies to growing up in general.
Athout a pikkil smeddum,
the’r no mukkil ye can dae
Some courage is
certainly necessary for any effective action in life, although some people
manage to survive with very little.
Auld maids lykes aye bairns
This certainly seems to
be true of most aged spinsters, although some are less indulgent than
Auld men dies an bairns
This is a comment on
the ever-changing social pattern, the ephemeral nature of individual life
and the loss of community identity. Life is like shifting sand and the
total entropy in the universe is always increasing. The concerns of
yester-year are soon forgotten. Another fatalistic saying which has a
similar meaning is: It wul aw be the same a hunder year hence, an we’l no
be here to see it. Sometimes, gin we’r spared an weill, was added
Awbodie complains o want o
siller but nane o want o sense.
How true this is! But
it would be curious indeed, to hear people complaining about their want of
sense, however good their grounds were for doing so. This proverb implies
that the lack of sense is a greater deprivation than poverty, or perhaps
that if people had more sense, they might acquire more siller. cf. Want o
wut is waur nor want o walth.
Aw things rouse ye an the
cat breks yeir hert
A familiar feeling for
stressed housewives and not unknown among men faced with the slings and
arrows of outrageous fortune.
Bannoks is better nor nae
The English equivalent
is, ‘Half a loaf is better than none’. Bannoks made from barley meal
were evidently regarded as inferior to bread made from wheaten flour, at
the time this proverb was coined (17th century or earlier). It
was unwise for anybody in these days to neglect the opportunity to eat
what was available to them. At the next meal time there might be nothing
on offer. The saying is, of course, figuratively used to mean, make use
of what is available. Uise whit ye hae, an ye’l never want! The
corresponding English saying is, ‘Half a loaf is better than none’.
Better a byte first thing
nor fest aw day
An apposite saw in
times of famine and no doubt also agreeable to professional eaters.
Better a deil nor a daw
A daw is a fekless
idle person and this saying could be a comfort to parents with unruly
Better a dug fleitch ye nor
berk at ye
A dog that licks the
hand of a visitor is certainly more reassuring than one that barks
angrily, but this may not be true for fawning guests in general!
Better a fingir aff as aye
Nobody likes to have
fingers wagged at them, but amputation is perhaps not the best remedy.
Better an auld maid nor a
This is a judgment
which depends on the perspective of who makes it and not a choice
deliberately made by many girls..
Better that bairns soud
greit nor baerdit men.
This saying goes back
to the 16th century and is associated with John Knox. At this
time, men were reputed to have been like whunstane: there were certainly
some who were prepared to be burnt alive for their beliefs. A matter
which would cause bearded men to weep was therefore seen to be quite
serious. Heresy hunting and political correctness are still very much
with us, and this proverb has sometimes been invoked to justify drastic
action against helpless people.
Better weir shuin not
Death is not an
attractive prospect for most.
Blinnd men soudna juidge
Obviously not, though
some presume to do so, and the deaf have sometimes composed music.
Brunt bairns dreids aye the
This is literally true,
and some have been frightened by threats of hell fire on the basis of
experience of real fire!
Cannie bairns git brukken
People with a gentle
disposition are sometimes seen as vulnerable and become victims of
aggression by cowards.
Corn him weill an he’l wurk
Originally on analogy
with the care of horses, but now generally applicable to employees.
Dautit bairns hear littil
Petted children are
inattentive since they feel no obligation to listen.
Ding doun the nests an the
craws wul flie awa.
This exhortation was
used by the Reformers to justify the destruction of abbeys and churches in
the 16th century. This iconoclastic approach was sometimes
used as a substitute for theological argument and debate.
Dinna skaud yeir mou wi
ither fowk’s kail.
This is another way of
saying, ‘Mind your own business!’ Among horticulturalists, the same idea
is expressed more forcibly in: He’s aye jaggin his graip inti somebodie
Draff is guid aneuch for
Swine are not assumed
to be particular. cf. There is no point in casting pearls before swine.
Facts ir cheils at winna
This saying occurred in
a poem by Robert Burns, when it was followed by the phrase, an daurna be
disputit. It seems that facts will not wear away, or that, in the long
run, cannot be beaten. Some politicians certainly have a good try.
Fancie flies afore the wund
In the old Scotland,
where most people relied on the land and the weather to survive, flights
of fancy had to give way before practical considerations.
Fekless fowk is aye fain o
Presumably because they
have something in common. This is more an observation than a proverb.
Forbid a fuil to dae a
thing an he wul gang an dae it
No doubt this sometimes
happened. It would certainly be difficult to live with.
Freist an falset hae baith
a clairtie awa gaun
In both cases the
aftermath (the thaw and the repercussions) can certainly be unpleasant.
Fuils an bairns soud never
see things hauf duin.
It needs powers of
perception and mature judgment to visualise the result of an enterprise.
There does not seem to be an equivalent English proverb, which is
surprising, in view of the fact that this saying is relevant in so many
situations. Even the first wheel is said to have attracted adverse
comment before it was completed.
Fyre an wattir ir guid
sairvants but ill maisters
This is a word of
caution about the dangers of both.
Gie a beggar a bed an he’l
pey ye wi a louss.
The sentiment here is
conservative and perhaps a little uncharitable. It could even be regarded
as unchristian. Such prudent attitudes, which were no doubt, based on the
bitter experience of housing beggars, have been common among worthy
burgesses for hundreds of years in Scotland.
Gie a dug an ill name an he
wul suin be hangit
This is a metaphor
emphasising the power of miscalling other people. It has really nothing to
do with hanging dogs.
Gie thaim towe aneuch an
thay’l hang thairsells
This is common as:
‘Give him enough rope and he’ll hang himself!’
Gie you an inch an ye’l tak
There are several
similar varsions in English
Glesses an lassies ir
Both have to be teated
Gowd can be ower dear coft
This a moral warning
against the danger of avarice.
Guid gear cums in smaw bouk
(an sae dis puzzin).
Bouk is the equivalent
of English, bulk, and this saying means that quality items are on a small
scale. The proverb is usually applied to describe good qualities in
children or people of small stature. There is a notion that excellence
(or nastiness) may have become somehow concentrated in small people (for
example fairies or goblins), although there is no scientific evidence to
support this view.
There does not appear
to be an equivalent English expression.
Hame’s aye hame, tho nevir
Here we have a play on
the dual meaning of hamelie: something dear to the heart, though
Hame’s hamelie quo the Deil
whan he fand himsell in the Court o Session.
This sound like
contempt of Court. Despite the powerful legal tradition in Scotland,
lawyers were not generally trusted, and sometimes they were associated
with devilries. This is not a view confined to Scotland, for the Russians
had a saying, ‘where there is a Court there is injustice’.
He caresna whas bairns
greit, gin his lauch
People who are unable
to see beyond their own family are often the object of criticism: She’s
juist interested in me an mynes -- in hirsell an hir ain bairns!
He disna aye ryde whan he
saidils his horse
This describes somebody
who is irresolute or unpredictable.
He haed mukkil prayer but
In other words, A Holie
Willie, hypocrite or someone ‘holier than thou’.
He maks aye wit the rake
eftir the shuil
Someone who undoes what
he has already completed.
Him wi a mukkil neb thinks
awbodie speaks o’t.
A criticism of
His room is a sicht better
nor his cumpanie
criticism of a bore or offensive person.
Hungir is aye guid kitchen
Hunger can compensate
for any menu.
‘Hyuh!’ gars a deif man
Implies that people who
are hard of hearing can hear what is to their own advantage.
Ilka man bous ti the buss
that gies him beild.
Every man bows to the
bush which shelters him, that is to say, defers to his protector. There
is surely some truth in this, but it paints a picture of a nation of
sycophants and Holy Willies. Perhaps some qualification is needed.
Ill daears is aye ill
They judge the motives
o others by themselves.
It gangs in at the ae lug
an out at the ither
It’s an ill burd at fyles
its ain nest.
Even criminals have
family loyalties and there can be honor among thieves. This idea is
expressed in another proverb, Hawks winna pyke out anither hawk’s een.
People who lacked such basic loyalties were seen as being exceptional, but
in the new millennium, with the loosening of family and community ties,
such ill birds may well be on the increase.
It’s no tint whit a frein
Here the sentiment is
generous and not self-centered.
It’s past joukin whan the
How true! In other
words, act in time for it is too late to lock the stable door when the
horse is away. The truth of this cannot be denied. Here we have a
situation where it is too late to mend. There is an earlier version from
the 15th century: The nek to stoup quhen it the straik sal
get, is sone eneuch.
It taks a lang spuin ti sup
wi the Deil or a Fifer.
This saying is still
very common and means that it is not easy to come off well in trafficking
with the Devil, or with folk from Fife. This does not mean that Fifers
are regarded as minor devils, but that they are credited with flyness,
that is craft or cunning. There is another saying; as fly as a Fifer.
Jouk an lat the jaw gae
Duck an let the water
slosh past. It will soon pass! Ti jaw means to pour a quantity of water.
A jaw-box was a sink under a tap, sometimes at the bottom of a tenement
Keep yeir ain fish guts
for yeir ain see maws
begins at home.
Latna the plou staun for ti
kill a mouss
Have a proper sense of
Lat that flie stick ti the
waw; whan it’s dry the dirt wul rub out.
This means: Never mind
about that small point---later we can forget about it. This
is a handy proverb for
those who chair meetings, for it amounts to passing on cheerfully to next
business, when the point at issue has not been resolved.
Mairriage is a creel whaur
ye micht claucht an edder or an eel
Marriage is a venture
where the future is unpredictable. Wives and men do not always turn out
Monie a pikkil maks a
The equivalent English
saying is, perhaps, ‘Look after the pennies and the pounds will look
after themselves!’ Curiously, an erroneous version of this proverb, Monie
a mikkil (or meikle) maks a mukkil, is often heard. Since a mikkil (or
meikle) means the same as a mukkil, this makes no sense.
Naething soud be duin in
haste but grippin flaes.
This reflects on
earlier social conditions in Scotland, when it was, no doubt, a pleasantly
soothing precept. Fleas are less common now, It covers the meaning of
‘The more hurry the less speed’, but goes even further. For those who are
free of fleas, there are evidently no circumstances in which haste is
Nevir quut whit’s siccar
No doubt good advice,
although it conflicts with, ‘Nothing ventrured, nothing gained’.
Nevir shaw yeir teeth binna
ye can snak
metaphorical precept, not to be interpreted literally.
Our hindmaist goun haes
This is to say our
shrouds will have no pockets. In other words, you can’t take it with
you! The same image was familiar in medieval Italy: L’ultimo vestito ce
lo fanno senza tasche. A similar idea occurs in, Nae man haes a tack
(lease) on his lyfe.
“Ower monie maisters” as
the taid remerkit whan he wes harlt ablo the harraw.
This saying refers to
the plight of a toad caught below the tines of a harrow, and to all those
who feel they are over-governed or pushed around by bureaucrates. It does
not, of course, apply solely to Scotland, but is relevant for the whole of
Rats is no sae bad, aince
ye git ti ken thaim richt
Even rats can be
unjustly treated by being given a bad name.
“Smaw sorrow at our pairtin”,
as the auld meir said ti the broken cairt.
exemplifies the feeling we all experience when we are finally relieved of
a tiresome burden.
Tak tent o tyme or tyme be
This is quoted on a
sun-dial in a park in Edinburgh! The ephemeral nature of life is a
favorite theme in ancient Chinese poetry. Compare, ‘Time and tide, wait
for no man’.
The Deil’s aye guid til
It was actually
believed at one time that Auld Nick had the power to protect and provide
for his followers. This certainly sometimes seems to be true, but the
expression is essentially jocular nowadays. It is sometimes used to decry
those whose success is envied or resented.
The’l be bunnets on the
green owre the heid o that.
This saying is used
figuratively, to refer to situations which will lead to a dispute, not
necessarily between bonnet-clad males bent on combat on a village green.
It could, for example, refer to a verbal quarrel brewing up between
The mair ye dae the less
ye’r thocht o.
This is a common
complaint of women who feel that their efforts are not appreciated. This
saying has affinities with, ‘The willing horse gets the heavy load’, a
Scots version of which is, the wullin naig is aye wrocht ti daith, a worse
fate than that of its English counterpart.
The mither nevir haed a
sang but hir dochter haed a verse o’t.
The Scots language
reveals a cast of mind which is now difficult to reconcile with a global
behavior pattern in which greed rule is OK is the only guiding principle.
There is poetry for all mankind in many Scots saws, and it is not
surprising that Hugh MacDiarmid recognised the unrealised artistic
potential in the language.
The’r naething sae crouss
as a weill-wuishen louss – the’r naething sae wae as a weill-wuishen flae.
This saying is hardly a
proverb, but it throws some light on social conditions in 18th
century Scotland. Crouss means cocky, i.e. ready to cock up yeir lugs,
and wae means sad, so flaes (fleas) were evidently discouraged by
personal hygiene in their hosts, whereas lice were rendered crouss or
invigorated by washing. Robert Burns had a short way with lice, to judge
by his remarks in his poem, ‘To a Louse’.
The soutar gied the sou a
kiss. “Humph”, quo she, “it’s for ma birss!”
Although a really
satisfactory rendering in English is not possible, this saying could imply
a lack of trust on the part of unattractive females in amorous advances
from men. There is always the suspicion that the lover may be after
material gain. Compare: ‘Beware the Greeks bearing gifts!’
We maun pit a stout hert
til a stey brae.
A stey brae is a steep
slope and the proverb means that the more difficult the task is, the
greater is the fortitude needed to perform it. We must summon up our
reserves when the going gets tough This is a character-building truism.
It is frequently used to ‘buck up’ those in adversity and is a favorite
advice among Job’s comforters. It is unfortunate when the heart is not
equal to the effort.
Whaur the’r fishin for
awbodie the’r fishin for naebodie.
Although this looks
like a criticism of the EU Common Fisherie Policy, its origin is lost in
the mists of antiquity. This proverb has important environmental
implications and covers some ot the same ground as, ‘killing the goose
that lays the golden egg’ and the folly of eating the seed corn or
creating common grazings.
Wha wul ti Cupar maun ti
It is not clear what
the particular attraction was in Cupar. This saying means that there is
little point in opposing people who are really determined in their
purpose, or that pig-headed people should be left to get on with it.
Another similar expression used to describe determination is; He wul be
naither ti haud nor ti binnd. The two expressions could be joined to
give: He wul be naither ti haud nor ti binnd or he wins ti Cupar!
Ye hae a crappin for aw
A crappin means a
stomach or crop, so this saying means the same as, ‘All is grist that
comes to your mill.’
Ye can lether the Deil
intil a wyfe but ye’l never ding him out hir.
Modern husbands, caw
cannie wi the belt! This proverb belong to a pre-feminist world.
Many Scot proverbs are
concerned with the dire consequences of bad marriages, and another on this
theme is: Better hauf hangit nor ill-mairrit. In English, of course, we
have, ‘Marry in haste and repent at leisure.’
In another proverb on a
similar subject (Aw ir guid lassies, but whaur dae aw the ill wyfes cum
frae?) the question is, whether the ill wyfes conceal their bad nature
before marriage or develop it afterwards, possibly as a result of
Ye breed o the leek, ye hae
a whyte heid an a green tail.
This saying was
associated with girls who had been subjected to advances from amorous old
men. There is a feeling here that sexual activity is inappropriate and
unbecoming in older people.
Ye’l no claw a tuim kyte
eftir sic a denner
You won’t scratch an
empty belly after eating such a dinner. However, nobody would say that in
English, or would they?
Ye’r aye ahint lyke the
This makes an
unfavorable comparison of reprehensible behavior with an undesirable
Scots Saws by David Murison
(1981) James Thin, Mercat Press, Edinburgh
Scots Proverbs & Rhymes by Forbes MacGregor (1970) W & R Chambers,
renderings in Scots of a few ancient Chinese saws seem remarkably familiar
in Scots and illustrate some universal truths about human relationships.
Auld Chinese Saws
Eftir be-in cloured ower the heid wi an aix, it’s a fair pleisir ti be
loundert wi a stick.
After being hit on the head with an axe, it is
quite a pleasure to be thrashed with a stick. To some extent, pain is
relative. There are gentler kinds of torture and abuse.
medieval Scotland, the pirlie-winkies (a screw on the pinkie) was seen as
a milder kind of torture.
Whan a yung man taks a scorpion intil his bed, Ah dout the auld fowk ir
for the door.
This brings to mind a poem by Marion Angus called, ‘The Wife’, which ends:
Oh, better ye haed dee’d,
A happy lauchin wean
Ma son, your comelie bride
Haes the gray gled’s een.
Dinna fleitch oniebodie o seivintie ti byde the nicht, an never invyte a
bodie o echtie ti sit doun
Don’t implore older people to become guests! This
is good, if ungenerous, advice, unless you are a natural carer.
Naebodie’s faimlie can hing up a sign sayin: ‘Awthing’s hunkie-dorie in
Discord is endemic in families.. There are evidently exceptions in
England where there is a song (My Old Dutch) with the words: “We’ve been
together nah for nigh on forty year and it don’t seem a day too much!”
The’r nae thrift in gaun aerlie ti bed ti hain caunils an ye end up wi
There is no economy in going early to bed to save
candles if you end up with twin children as a result. This is appropriate
for earlier days of unprotected sex and dependence on candles for light.
Giein siller til a waister is lik peltin an ill dug wi butcher-meat
Giving money to a wastrel is like throwing meat pies at a bad dog.
Probably this is true, but few have put it to the test.
rowth o almonds cums aye ti fowk wi nae teeth.
Plenty almonds come to those with no teeth. More
generally, opportunities arise when we are too late to profit from them
Dinna set yeir houss on haud even for ti fash yeir guidmither
Don’t set fire to your house even to spite your
mother-in-law. This seems a wise precept, even when mothers-in-law are
Dinna dicht a flie frae yeir frein’s brou wi a mukkil aix!
Don’t wipe a fly from
your friend’s forehead with a great axe! In other words: Don’t use a
sledgehammer to crack a nut or injure a fly, or don’t over-react over a
disagreement with a friend!
Freinship til a speider is like an ill wund in the desert.
Spiders lack fellow feeling even for other spiders,
and it is a waste of time trying to establish a relationship with one.