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Poems, Stories, Plays in the Scots Language by David Purves
Scots Proverbs


In 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 mouss

    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 easy.

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 force.

A fou purse nevir wants guid freins

     This is perhaps an observed truth, though a slightly cynical observation.

A gaun (or gangin) fuit’s aye gittin.

    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 want

     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 cauf

    The converse, An ill cou can hae a guid cauf, is also true.  All behavioral characteristics are not heritable.

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 metaphorical

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 origin.

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 out meat

    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 hert

    This is sometimes true but not a universal truth.  Some people stay light-hearted despite poverty.

A liear soud aye hae a guid maimorie

    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 trekkil.

    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 haill hirsel

    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 an dugs

    This certainly seems to be true of most aged spinsters, although some are less indulgent than others.

Auld men dies an bairns suin forgets.

    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 facetiously. 

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 breid.

   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 children.

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 wag-waggin

    Nobody likes to have fingers wagged at them, but amputation is perhaps not the best remedy.

Better an auld maid nor a yung hure

    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 sheets

    Death is not an attractive prospect for most.

Blinnd men soudna juidge anent culors

    Obviously not, though some presume to do so, and the deaf have sometimes composed music.

Brunt bairns dreids aye the fyre

    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 brous

    People with a gentle disposition are sometimes seen as vulnerable and become victims of  aggression by cowards.

Corn him weill an he’l wurk the better

    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 else’s midden

Draff is guid aneuch for swyne

     Swine are not assumed to be particular.  cf. There is no point in casting pearls before swine.

Facts ir cheils at winna ding.

    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 ither

    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 an ell

      There are several similar varsions in English

Glesses an lassies ir brukkil ware

     Both have to be teated carefully.

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 sae hamelie.

     Here we have a play on the dual meaning of hamelie: something dear to the heart, though unattractive.

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 smaw devotion

    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 self-consciousness.

His room is a sicht better nor his cumpanie

    An uncompromising criticism of  a bore or offensive person.

Hungir is aye guid kitchen

    Hunger can compensate for any menu.

‘Hyuh!’ gars a deif man hear.

    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 dreiders

    They judge the motives o others by themselves.

It gangs in at the ae lug an out at the ither

    Describes an inattentive person.   

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 gits

    Here the sentiment is generous and not self-centered.

It’s past joukin whan the heid’s aff.

    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 by

   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 stair.

Keep yeir ain fish guts for yeir ain see maws

    Essentially: Charity begins at home.

Latna the plou staun for ti kill a mouss

    Have a proper sense of priorities!

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 as expected!

Monie a pikkil maks a mukkil.

    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 justified.

Nevir quut whit’s siccar for howp

    No doubt good advice, although it conflicts with, ‘Nothing ventrured, nothing gained’.

Nevir shaw yeir teeth binna ye can snak

    An entirely metaphorical precept, not to be interpreted literally.

Our hindmaist goun  haes nae poutches.

    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 mankind.

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.

     This proverb exemplifies the feeling we all experience when we are finally relieved of a tiresome burden.

Tak tent o tyme or tyme be tint

    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 his ain.

     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 women. 

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 Cupar.

    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 corn.

    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 excessive chastisement.

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 cou’s tail

    This makes an unfavorable comparison of reprehensible behavior with an undesirable situation.

References

Scots Saws by David Murison (1981) James Thin, Mercat Press, Edinburgh
Scots Proverbs & Rhymes by Forbes MacGregor (1970) W & R Chambers, Edinburgh


    The following renderings in Scots of a few ancient Chinese saws seem remarkably familiar in Scots and illustrate some universal truths about human relationships.

A Whein 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.

In 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 here.’

    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 twun bairns.

    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 puddens.

   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.

A 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 tiresome.

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.


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