Edward Bannerman Ramsay.

Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character online

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party in commemoration of old Scotland. There was a great deal of
Scottish enthusiasm. There were _seven_ sheep-heads (singed) down the
table; and Lord Lothian told me that after dinner he sang with great
applause "The Laird o' Cockpen."

Another anecdote arising out of Scotsmen meeting in distant lands, is
rather of a more serious character, and used to be told with exquisite
humour by the late lamented Dr. Norman Macleod. A settler in Australia,
who for a long time had heard nothing of his Scottish kith and kin, was
delighted at the arrival of a countryman direct from his own part of the
country. When he met with him, the following conversation took place
between them: - _Q_. "Ye ken my fouk, friend; can ye tell me gin my
faather's alive?" _A_. - "Hout, na; he's deed." _Q_. - "Deed! What did he
dee o'? was it fever?" _A_. - "Na, it wasna fever." _Q_. - "Was it
cholera?" _A_. - "Na." The question being pressed, the stranger drily
said, "Sheep," and then he accompanied the ominous word by delicately
and significantly pointing to the jugular under his ear. The man had
been hanged for sheep-stealing!

It must always be amusing for Scotsmen to meet in distant lands, and
there to play off on each other the same dry, quaint humour which
delighted them in their native land, and in their early days at home. An
illustration of this remark has been communicated by a kind
correspondent at Glasgow. Mrs. Hume, a true Scot, sends me the following
dialogue, accompanied by a very clever etching of the parties, from the
Melbourne _Punch_, August 17, 1871, headed "Too Poor, - _Night of
Waverley Concert_."

_Southron_. - You here, Mac! you ought to have been at the concert, you
know. Aren't you one of the 'Scots wha hae?'

_Mac_. - Indeed no. I'm are o' the Scots wha hae na, or I wadna be here
the nicht.

He would not have stayed at home if he had been one of the "Scots wha

I am assured that the genuineness of the following anecdote is
unquestionable, as my informant received it from the person to whom it
occurred. A popular Anglican Nonconformist minister was residing with a
family in Glasgow while on a visit to that city, whither he had gone on
a deputation from the Wesleyan Missionary Society. After dinner, in
reply to an invitation to partake of some fine fruit, he mentioned to
the family a curious circumstance concerning himself - viz. that he had
never in his life tasted an apple, pear, grape, or indeed any kind of
green fruit. This fact seemed to evoke considerable surprise from the
company, but a cautious Scotsman, of a practical, matter-of-fact turn of
mind, who had listened with much unconcern, drily remarked, "It's a
peety but ye had been in Paradise, and there micht na hae been ony faa."
I have spoken elsewhere of the cool matter-of-fact manner in which the
awful questions connected with the funerals of friends are often
approached by Scottish people, without the least intention or purpose of
being irreverent or unfeeling. By the kindness of Mr. Lyon, I am enabled
to give an authentic anecdote of a curious character, illustrative of
this habit of mind, and I cannot do better than give it in his own
words: - "An old tenant of my late father, George Lyon of Wester Ogil,
many years ago, when on his deathbed, and his end near at hand, his wife
thus addressed him: 'Willie, Willie, as lang as ye can speak, tell us
are ye for your burial-baps round or _square_?' Willie having responded
to this inquiry, was next asked if the _murners_ were to have _glooes_
(gloves) or mittens, the former being articles with fingers, the latter
having only a thumb-piece; and Willie, having also answered this
question, was allowed to depart in peace."

There could not be a better example of this familiar handling, without
meaning offence, than one which has just been sent to me by a kind
correspondent. I give her own words. "Happening to call on a poor
neighbour, I asked after the children of a person who lived close by."
She replied, "They're no hame yet; gaed awa to the English kirk to get
_a clap_ o' _the heid_. It was the day of _confirmation_ for St. Paul's.
This definition of the 'outward and visible sign' would look rather odd
in the catechism. But the poor woman said it from no disrespect; it was
merely her way of answering my question." But remarks on serious
subjects often go to deeper views of religious matters than might be
expected from the position of the parties and the terms made use of.

Of the wise and shrewd judgment of the Scottish character, as bearing
upon religious pretensions, I have an apt example from my friend Dr.
Norman Macleod. During one of the late revivals in Scotland, a small
farmer went about preaching with much fluency and zeal the doctrine of a
"full assurance" of faith, and expressed his belief of it for himself in
such extravagant terms as few men would venture upon who were humble and
cautious against presumption. The "preacher," being personally rather
remarkable as a man of greedy and selfish views in life, excited some
suspicion in the breast of an old sagacious countryman, a neighbour of
Dr. Macleod, who asked him what _he_ thought of John as a preacher, and
of his doctrine. Scratching his head, as if in some doubt, he replied,
"I'm no verra sure o' Jock. I never ken't a man _sae sure o' Heaven, and
sae sweert to be gaing tae't_." He showed his sagacity, for John was
soon after in prison for theft.

Another story gives a good idea of the Scottish matter-of-fact view of
things being brought to bear upon a religious question without meaning
to be profane or irreverent. Dr. Macleod was on a Highland loch when a
storm came on which threatened serious consequences. The doctor, a large
powerful man, was accompanied by a clerical friend of diminutive size
and small appearance, who began to speak seriously to the boatmen of
their danger, and proposed that all present should join in prayer. "Na,
na," said the chief boatman; "let the _little_ ane gang to pray, but
first the big ane maun tak an oar." Illustrative of the same spirit was
the reply of a Scotsman of the genuine old school, "Boatie" of Deeside,
of whom I have more to say, to a relative of mine. He had been nearly
lost in a squall, and saved after great exertion, and was told by my
aunt that he should be grateful to providence for his safety. The man,
not meaning to be at all ungrateful, but viewing his preservation in
the purely hard matter-of-fact light, quietly answered, "Weel, weel,
Mrs. Russell; Providence here or Providence there, an I hadna worked
sair mysell I had been drouned."

Old Mr. Downie, the parish minister of Banchory, was noted, in my
earliest days, for his quiet pithy remarks on men and things, as they
came before him. His reply to his son, of whose social position he had
no very exalted opinion, was of this class. Young Downie had come to
visit his father from the West Indies, and told him that on his return
he was to be married to a lady whose high qualities and position he
spoke of in extravagant terms. He assured his father that she was "quite
young, was very rich, and very beautiful." "Aweel, Jemmy," said the old
man, very quietly and very slily, "I'm thinking there maun be some
_faut_." Of the dry sarcasm we have a good example in the quiet
utterance of a good Scottish phrase by an elder of a Free Kirk lately
formed. The minister was an eloquent man, and had attracted one of the
town-council, who, it was known, hardly ever entered the door of a
church, and now came on motives of curiosity. He was talking very grand
to some of the congregation: "Upon my word, your minister is a very
eloquent man. Indeed, he will quite convert me." One of the elders,
taking the word in a higher sense than the speaker intended, quietly
replied, "Indeed, Bailie, there's _muckle need_."

A kind correspondent sends me an illustration of this quaint
matter-of-fact view of a question as affecting the sentiments or the
feelings. He tells me he knew an old lady who was a stout large woman,
and who with this state of body had many ailments, which she bore
cheerfully and patiently. When asked one day by a friend, "How she was
keeping," she replied, "Ou, just middling; there's _ower muckle o' me_
to be a' weel at ae time." No Englishwoman would have given such an
answer. The same class of character is very strongly marked in a story
which was told by Mr. Thomas Constable, who has a keen appreciation of a
good Scottish story, and tells it inimitably. He used to visit an old
lady who was much attenuated by long illness, and on going up stairs one
tremendously hot afternoon, the daughter was driving away the flies,
which were very troublesome, and was saying, "Thae flies will eat up a'
that remains o' my puir mither." The old lady opened her eyes, and the
last words she spoke were, "What's left o' me's guid eneuch for them."

The spirit of caution and wariness by which the Scottish character is
supposed to be distinguished has given rise to many of these national

Certainly this cautious spirit thus pervaded the opinions of the
Scottish architect who was called upon to erect a building in England
upon the long-lease system, so common with Anglican proprietors, but
quite new to our Scottish friend. When he found the proposal was to
build upon the tenure of 999 years, he quietly suggested, "Culd ye no
mak it a _thousand_? 999 years'll be slippin' awa'."

But of all the cautious and careful answers we ever heard of was one
given by a carpenter to an old lady in Glasgow, for whom he was working,
and the anecdote is well authenticated. She had offered him a dram, and
asked him whether he would have it then or wait till his work was
done - "Indeed, mem," he said, "there's been sic a power o' sudden deaths
lately that I'll just tak it now." He would guard against contingency
and secure his dram.

The following is a good specimen of the same humour: - A minister had
been preaching against covetousness and the love of money, and had
frequently repeated how "love of money was the root of all evil" Two old
bodies walking home from church - one said, "An' wasna the minister
strang upo' the money?" "Nae doubt," said the other, rather
hesitatingly; and added, "ay, but it's grand to hae the wee bit siller
in your haund when ye gang an errand."

I have still another specimen of this national, cool, and deliberative
view of a question, which seems characteristic of the temperament of our
good countrymen. Some time back, when it was not uncommon for challenges
to be given and accepted for insults, or supposed insults, an English
gentleman was entertaining a party at Inverness with an account of the
wonders he had seen and the deeds he had performed in India, from whence
he had lately arrived. He enlarged particularly upon the size of the
tigers he had met with at different times in his travels, and by way of
corroborating his statements, assured the company that he had shot one
himself considerably above forty feet long. A Scottish gentleman
present, who thought that these narratives rather exceeded a traveller's
allowed privileges, coolly said that no doubt those were very remarkable
tigers; but that he could assure the gentleman there were in that
northern part of the country some wonderful animals, and, as an example,
he cited the existence of a skate-fish captured off Thurso, which
exceeded half-an-acre in extent. The Englishman saw this was intended as
a sarcasm against his own story, so he left the room in indignation, and
sent his friend, according to the old plan, to demand satisfaction or an
apology from the gentleman, who had, he thought, insulted him. The
narrator of the skate story coolly replied, "Weel, sir, gin yer freend
will tak' a few feet aff the length o' his tiger, we'll see what can be
dune about the breadth o' the skate." He was too cautious to commit
himself to a rash or decided course of conduct. When the tiger was
shortened, he would take into consideration a reduction of superficial
area in his skate.

A kind correspondent has sent me about as good a specimen of dry
Scottish quiet humour as I know. A certain Aberdeenshire laird, who kept
a very good poultry-yard, could not command a fresh egg for his
breakfast, and felt much aggrieved by the want. One day, however, he met
his grieve's wife with a nice basket, and very suspiciously going
towards the market; on passing and speaking a word, he was enabled to
discover that her basket was full of beautiful white eggs. Next time he
talked with his grieve, he said to him, "James, I like you very well,
and I think you serve me faithfully, but I cannot say I admire your
wife." To which the cool reply was, "Oh, 'deed, sir, I'm no surprised at
that, for I dinna muckle admire her mysel'."

An answer very much resembling this, and as much to the point, was that
of a gudewife on Deeside, whose daughter had just been married and had
left her for her new home. A lady asked the mother very kindly about her
daughter, and said she hoped she liked her new home and new relations.
"Ou, my lady, she likes the parish weel eneuch, but she doesna think
muckle o' her _man_!"

The natives of Aberdeenshire are distinguished for the two qualities of
being very acute in their remarks and very peculiar in their language.
Any one may still gain a thorough knowledge of Aberdeen dialect and see
capital examples of Aberdeen humour. I have been supplied with a
remarkable example of this combination of Aberdeen shrewdness with
Aberdeen dialect. In the course of the week after the Sunday on which
several elders of an Aberdeen parish had been set apart for parochial
offices, a knot of the parishioners had assembled at what was in all
parishes a great place of resort for idle gossiping - the smiddy or
blacksmith's workshop. The qualifications of the new elders were
severely criticised. One of the speakers emphatically laid down that the
minister should not have been satisfied, and had in fact made a most
unfortunate choice. He was thus answered by another parish
oracle - perhaps the schoolmaster, perhaps a weaver: - "Fat better culd
the man dee nir he's dune? - he bud tae big's dyke wi' the feal at fit
o't." He meant there was no choice of material - he could only take
what offered.

By the kindness of Dr. Begg, I have a most amusing anecdote to
illustrate how deeply long-tried associations were mixed up with the
habits of life in the older generation. A junior minister having to
assist at a church in a remote part of Aberdeenshire, the parochial
minister (one of the old school) promised his young friend a good glass
of whisky-toddy after all was over, adding slily and very significantly,
"and gude _smuggled_ whusky." His Southron guest thought it incumbent to
say, "Ah, minister, that's wrong, is it not? you know it is contrary to
Act of Parliament." The old Aberdonian could not so easily give up his
fine whisky to what he considered an unjust interference; so he quietly
said, "Oh, Acts o' Parliament lose their breath before they get to

There is something very amusing in the idea of what may be called the
"fitness of things," in regard to snuff-taking, which occurred to an
honest Highlander, a genuine lover of sneeshin. At the door of the
Blair-Athole Hotel he observed standing a magnificent man in full
tartans, and noticed with much admiration the wide dimensions of his
nostrils in a fine upturned nose. He accosted him, and, as his most
complimentary act, offered him his mull for a pinch. The stranger drew
up, and rather haughtily said: "I never take snuff." "Oh," said the
other, "that's a peety, for there's grand _accommodation_[15]!"

I don't know a better example of the sly sarcasm than the following
answer of a Scottish servant to the violent command of his enraged
master. A well-known coarse and abusive Scottish law functionary, when
driving out of his grounds, was shaken by his carriage coming in contact
with a large stone at the gate. He was very angry, and ordered the
gatekeeper to have it removed before his return. On driving home,
however, he encountered another severe shock by the wheels coming in
contact with the very same stone, which remained in the very same place.
Still more irritated than before, in his usual coarse language he called
the gatekeeper, and roared out: "You rascal, if you don't send that
beastly stone to h - -, I'll break your head." "Well," said the man
quietly, and as if he had received an order which he had to execute, and
without meaning anything irreverent, "aiblins gin it were sent to heevan
_it wad be mair out o' your Lordship's way_."

I think about as cool a Scottish "aside" as I know, was that of the old
dealer who, when exhorting his son to practise honesty in his dealings,
on the ground of its being the "best policy," quietly added, "I _hae
tried baith_"

In this work frequent mention is made of a class of old _ladies_,
generally residing in small towns, who retained till within the memory
of many now living the special characteristics I have referred to. Owing
to local connection, I have brought forward those chiefly who lived in
Montrose and the neighbourhood. But the race is extinct; you might as
well look for hoops and farthingales in society as for such characters
now. You can scarcely imagine an old lady, however quaint, now making
use of some of the expressions recorded in the text, or saying, for the
purpose of breaking up a party of which she was tired, from holding bad
cards, "We'll stop now, bairns; I'm no enterteened;" or urging more
haste in going to church on the plea, "Come awa, or I'll be ower late
for the 'wicked man'" - her mode of expressing the commencement of
the service.

Nothing could better illustrate the quiet pawky style for which our
countrymen have been distinguished, than the old story of the piper and
the wolves. A Scottish piper was passing through a deep forest. In the
evening he sat down to take his supper. He had hardly begun, when a
number of hungry wolves, prowling about for food, collected round him.
In self-defence, the poor man began to throw pieces of his victuals to
them, which they greedily devoured. When he had disposed of all, in a
fit of despair he took his pipes and began to play. The unusual sound
terrified the wolves, which, one and all, took to their heels and
scampered off in every direction: on observing which, Sandy quietly
remarked, "Od, an I'd kenned ye liket the pipes sae weel, I'd a gien ye
a spring _afore_ supper."

This imperturbable mode of looking at the events of life is illustrated
by perhaps the _most_ cautious answer on record, of the Scotsman who,
being asked if he could play the fiddle, warily answered, "He couldna
say, for he had never tried." But take other cases. For example: One
tremendously hot day, during the old stage-coach system, I was going
down to Portobello, when the coachman drew up to take in a gentleman who
had hailed him on the road. He was evidently an Englishman - a fat man,
and in a perfect state of "thaw and dissolution" from the heat and dust.
He wiped himself, and exclaimed, as a remark addressed to the company
generally, "D - - d hot it is." No one said anything for a time, till a
man in the corner slily remarked, "I dinna doubt, sir, but it may." The
cautiousness against committing himself unreservedly to any proposition,
however plausible, was quite delicious.

A more determined objection to giving a categorical answer occurred, as
I have been assured, in regard to a more profound question. A party
travelling on a railway got into deep discussion on theological
questions. Like Milton's spirits in Pandemonium, they had

"Reason'd high
Of providence, fore-knowledge, will, and fate -
Fix'd fate, free-will, fore-knowledge absolute;
And found no end, in wand'ring mazes lost."

A plain Scotsman present seemed much interested in these matters, and
having expressed himself as not satisfied with the explanations which
had been elicited in the course of discussion on a particular point
regarding predestination, one of the party said to him that he had
observed a minister, whom they all knew, in the adjoining compartment,
and that when the train stopped at the next station a few minutes, he
could go and ask _his_ opinion. The good man accordingly availed himself
of the opportunity to get hold of the minister, and lay their difficulty
before him. He returned in time to resume his own place, and when they
had started again, the gentleman who had advised him, finding him not
much disposed to voluntary communication, asked if he had seen the
minister. "O ay," he said, "he had seen him." "And did you propose the
question to him?" "O ay." "And what did he say?" "Oh, he just said he
didna ken; and what was mair he didna _care!_"

I have received the four following admirable anecdotes, illustrative of
dry Scottish pawky humour, from an esteemed minister of the Scottish
Church, the Rev. W. Mearns of Kinneff. I now record them nearly in the
same words as his own kind communication. The anecdotes are as
follow: - An aged minister of the old school, Mr. Patrick Stewart, one
Sunday took to the pulpit a sermon without observing that the first leaf
or two were so worn and eaten away that he couldn't decipher or announce
the text. He was not a man, however, to be embarrassed or taken aback by
a matter of this sort, but at once intimated the state of matters to the
congregation, - "My brethren, I canna tell ye the text, for the mice hae
eaten it; but we'll just begin whaur the mice left aff, and when I come
to it I'll let you ken."

In the year 1843, shortly after the Disruption, a parish minister had
left the manse and removed to about a mile's distance. His pony got
loose one day, and galloped down the road in the direction of the old
glebe. The minister's man in charge ran after the pony in a great fuss,
and when passing a large farm-steading on the way, cried out to the
farmer, who was sauntering about, but did not know what had taken
place - "Oh, sir, did _ye_ see the minister's shault?" "No, no," was the
answer, - "but what's happened?" "Ou, sir, fat do ye think? the
minister's shault's _got lowse_ frae his tether, an' I'm frichtened he's
ta'en the road doun to the auld glebe." "Weel-a-wicht!" - was the shrewd
clever rejoinder of the farmer, who was a keen supporter of the old
parish church, "I wad _na_ wonder at _that_. An' I'se warrant, gin the
minister was gettin' _lowse_ frae _his_ tether, he wad jist tak the
same road."

An old clerical friend upon Speyside, a confirmed bachelor, on going up
to the pulpit one Sunday to preach, found, after giving out the psalm,
that he had forgotten his sermon. I do not know what his objections were
to his leaving the pulpit, and going to the manse for his sermon, but he
preferred sending his old confidential housekeeper for it. He
accordingly stood up in the pulpit, stopped the singing which had
commenced, and thus accosted his faithful domestic: - "Annie; I say,
Annie, _we've_ committed a mistak the day. Ye maun jist gang your waa's
hame, and ye'll get my sermon oot o' my breek-pouch, an' we'll sing to
the praise o' the Lord till ye come back again." Annie, of course, at
once executed her important mission, and brought the sermon out of "the
breek-pouch," and the service, so far as we heard, was completed without
further interruption.

My dear friend, the late Rev. Dr. John Hunter, told me an anecdote very
characteristic of the unimaginative matter-of-fact Scottish view of
matters. One of the ministers of Edinburgh, a man of dry humour, had a
daughter who had for some time passed the period of youth and of
beauty. She had become an Episcopalian, an event which the Doctor
accepted with much good-nature, and he was asking her one day if she did
not intend to be confirmed. "Well," she said, "I don't know. I
understand Mr. Craig always kisses the candidates whom he prepares, and
I could not stand that." "Indeed, Jeanie," said the Doctor slily, "gin
Edward Craig _were_ to gie ye a kiss, I dinna think ye would be muckle
the waur."

Many anecdotes characteristic of the Scottish peasant often turn upon
words and ideas connected with Holy Scripture. This is not to be
considered as in any sense profane or irreverent; but it arises from the
Bible being to the peasantry of an older generation their library - their
only book. We have constant indications of this almost exclusive
familiarity with Scripture ideas. At the late ceremonial in the north,
when the Archbishop of Canterbury laid the foundation of a Bishop's
Church at Inverness, a number of persons, amid the general interest and

Online LibraryEdward Bannerman RamsayReminiscences of Scottish Life and Character → online text (page 9 of 35)