The lords of lochaber

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IN the preface to Henderson’s “Proverbs of

Scotland” it is stated that “few countries

can lay claim to a more abundant store of

these pithy sayings than our own; and no people

were at one time more attached to the use of

these significant and figurative laconisms than

Scotsment.” On the other hand, there are writers

who say that the Celtic races were not much

given to proverbs, and explanation given

is that a people gifted with the power of speech,

like the Celts, are averse to their too frequent

use. A proverb clinches the argument too

abruptly, and gives no play to the metaphysical

science said to be so dear to the heart of every

Scotsman. The present writer would prefer to

accept Mr. Henderson’s opinion on the matter.

From personal experience he can say that the

present-day Highlander finds the proverbs very

useful in conversation, and frequently quotes

them to good purpose and very satisfied with

himself does he look when he can introduce

some saying or proverb has for him a double

claim for his consideration: (1) its own intrinsic

worth, and (2) its association with the past

sages of his race. At the same time it must be

admitted that we cannot compete with, say,

the Spaniards, in the number of our proverbs.

As regards quality we can hold our own, not-

withstanding the reputed genius of the Spaniards

for pithy sayings, and the unusual adaptability

of the Spanish language in the use of them
It is said that the proverbs of a people

“contain the living traits of a people’s char-

acter,” its grave and its gave sides, and yet the

definition of a proverb has puzzled men from

the time of Aristotle to the present day. Lord

Bacon described proverbs as “the genius, wit

and spirit of a nation.” Lord John Russell

defined the proverb as “the wisdom of many

and the wit of one.” Cervantes, the Spaniard,

is comprehensive but vague when he says that

the proverb is “a short sentence drawn from

long experience.” Better than any one of these

is the definition of another Spanish writer,

Capriano de Valera, where he describes it as

“a short sentence, sententious and true, long

since accepted by common consent.” By this

it will be seen that all proverbial sayings in the

wider sense are not proverbs in the real sense

of the term. While it is true that “both the

authority and their dignity from the same source,

that is, old age and long usage, the mere saying

lacks the terseness, the pungency, and the

general applicability of the true prover.” The

He who runs may read,

would not be always applicable. Of far more

general application is the Gaelic proverb which

says :-
Is mall a mharchdaicheas

Am fear a bheachdaicheas.

He rides slowly who observes.
“The true proverb is never parochial, it has

not any local patriotism, caring no more for one

parish than another. It has neither father

nor mother, and takes delight in shrouding its

origin in mystery.” Mere sayings, on the other

hand, are frequently localised, applicable only

when associated with a particular locality, or

the prototype of a particular individual. It is

proposed to give selections from both in the

following pages.

Matthew Arnold says that the sensibility

of the Highlander gives him a peculiarly near

and intimate feeling with nature. This is true;

the Highlander seems in a special way attracted

by the secret of natural beauty and natural

magic; he feels close to it, he half divines it.

Behind the visible he sees the invisible; he

creates the latter in his mind’s eye, his prophetic

imagination travelling to the unseen beyond

mountain, and torrent and loch. Science and

order, unchangeable amid the mutation of the

things that are seen.” It is felt by the sensitive

Celt as a power irresistible and omnipotent,

governing and controlling all things. The Celtic

character is made for devotion, and loyalty and

obedience. His is easily led, but cannot be

driven. He craves for a leader, one in whom

he can implicitly trust, and having found him,

he will follow him to the gates of death, For-

lorn causes have, as a consequence, found him,

perhaps too often, their staunchest adherent.
It is, however, a mistake to suppose, as is

too often glibly asserted, that he always allows

sentiment to run away with him. He can be

as practical as most mortals when he likes, and

many of his proverbs give ample demonstration

of this, and these particular proverbs show every

evidence of their having been composed by men

of humble life. As Sherriff Nicolson says, they

are the product of the thatched cottages, and

not of the baronial or academic halls; poor in

high moral standard, with an intelligence shrewd

and searching; a singular sense of property

and grace, and a distinct sense of humour never

found among savages and clodhoppers.

Nature’s appeal to him is pointedly illustrated

in his proverbs.

There is a beautiful combination of sub-

stance and humility conveyed to us by the

following object lesson:-
Is ì ’n dàs ìs truìme ìs ìsle ’chromas a ceann.

Th heaviest ear of corn bends its head the

while the opposite is aptly portrayed thus:-
A chuiseag a dh’ fhàsas as an òcrach

’si ’s aìrd a thogas a ceann

The weed that’s on the dunghill growng

Will its head be highest showing.
and there is some fine philosophy in the:-
A bheinn is àird’ a th’ anns an tir,

’S ann oirr’ ìs trìc a chithear an ceò.

The highest mountain in the land

Is oftnest covered with mist.
The pointed truth in the following is

thoughtful to a degree:-

Is sàmhach an obair dol a dholaidh.

Going to ruin is silent work.
Truly one might almost think that the noise

accompanying the mere threats if revolution

may not be so terrible after all. Like the pain

felt in a part of the human body helping to locate

the disease, and so leading to its diagnosis,

and the resulting cure, a noise in the body-

politic draws an attention that brings remedial

or counteracting steps, with equally happy

results. But the process of a silent decay, like

that of a painless disease, is apt to be undetected

until too late.

It has been truly said that “in the eternal

relations of mankind, and their indestructible

passions and feelings, the proverbs of all nations

present a striking uniformity,” while “in other

relations they illustrate the individual char-

acteristics of the different races. Before letters

were invented wisdom was abroad in the world.

Proverbs were the germ of moral and political

science. Things that marble and brass and

other devices of human invention have allowed

to perish, proverbs, floating upon the living

voices of the people, have perpetuated.”

Paradoxical as it may seem, its has been

truly said that “there is not surer sign of the oral

knowledge of a people being on the wane than

the attempt to secure it from oblivion by collect-

ing its fragments and printing them in books.”

With the strenuous life of our present-day

industrial civilisation oral transmission from

mouth to mouth, “on the living voices of the

people,” ceases to be the rule. To-day, trans-

mission, incision, and fruition in such matters

depend upon the written or printed word,

figure, or date.
A bhliadhn’ a chaidh am buntàt’ a


The year of the potato famine,
is not now the epoch from which so many subse-

quent events are calculated.

If there is one medium more than another

that will perpetuate for us the wit and wisdom

of our forefathers, who belonged to a time when

mother wit and native shrewdness took the

place of present-day sharpness, that medium is

the proverb.

There are substantial reasons to believe

that there is more than the common passions

and feeling of mankind to account for the

similarity of many of our Gaelic proverbs with

those of other nations. Our Churchmen who

received their education in the Scots Colleges at

Madrid, Paris and Rome; our Scottish soldiers

of fortune, notably those with the famous

Gustavus Adolphus; and in a general way the

well-known wandering habits of the Scots, in

the famous days of old, as soldiers, scholars, or

merchants, would have brought our countrymen

into contact with the peoples of other countries.

They easily assimilated with them, they quickly

learned their language, they appropriated their

thought, and returning would bring home with

them a treasure more enduring than silver or

gold, in the form of foreign culture.

But deduct these proverbs that are common

to other peoples, and we still have a considerable

number that are characteristically Highland;

that cannot be understood apart from the

Highlands and Highland people. But while

the bulk of our proverbs are the product of the

thatched cottages, and not of the baronial halls,

a considerable number are as evidently the

product of the better-to-do of the days of old.

In the Highlands, in the days of the Clan System,

class distinctions were not so hard and fast as

hey were under the autocracy of Norman and

Tuetonic feudalism. Quiet humour, shrewd

insight, and homely truths with a large measure

of deductive philosophy are enshrined in the

proverbs, and it is a pity that along with the

decline of oral transmission, already referred to,

all our printed collections are out of print. The

first of these, known as M’Intosh’s Collection,

appeared in 1785, and it contained 1305 Gaelic

proverbs and proverbial sayings. A second

edition appeared in 1819, which the number

was increased 1538, while the late Sherriff

Nicholson’s more pretentious collection,

published in 1882, contained no less than 3900.

The latter included the whole of M’Intosh’s,

and the additional 2392 indicated. Owing to

the present cost of production and the consequent

prohibitive selling price at which it could be

offered, there is no attempt in this volume to

equal, much less to improve upon the worthy

Sherriff’s patriotic achievement. But this volume

is indebted to him to a considerable extent,

while not always accepting his renderings of

the original Gaelic, of which there are several

current variants of some of them. The English

equivalents adopted are also different in many

cases. The exhaustive list give in the late

Dr. Cameron of Brodick’s “Reliquæ Celticæ”

has also been largely drawn upon, as has also

Professor Magnus MacLean’s “Literature of the

Scottish Highlands,! and also the original of

all collections of Gaelic proverbs, that of the

Rev. Donald MacIntosh, already referred to.

For a few hitherto unpublished proverbs and

sayings, the writer is indebted to Mr. John N.

MacLeod, The Schoolhouse, Kirkhill, and Mr.

Donald Sinclair, Manchester, both well-known

workers in the field of Gaelic activities. To

the Rev. Alex MacDiarmid, the late of Morven,

the writer is indebted to for encouragement and

Out of nearly 4000 Gaelic proverbs and

proverbial sayings, known as current in the

Highlands, including native and borrowed, the

number included here is necessarily limited.

This is on account of the exigencies of space

in a volume intended for issue at a popular price.

For the opportunity to do even this much,

gratitude must be expressed to Mr. Mackay,

of the firm of Mr. Eneas Mackey, publishers.

Stirling, who is worthily upholding his late

father’s zeal in regard to Gaelic or Highland

book undertakings, which appeal to so widely

scattered and to not too numerous a constituency.

Opinions may differ as regards many of the

proverbs here included, in preference to the

many others that might have been preferred

from the large available stock. But-

Cha dean duine dona ach a dhìchioll.

A poor fellow can do but his best.
T. D. M.


1. Anail a Ghaidheil, air a mhullach!

The Gael’s breathing place - on the summit!
2. Abair ach beagan agus abair gu math e.

Say but little and say it well.
3. Abair sin, nuair a chaitheas tu cruach

mhòine còmhla ris.

Say that, when you have spent a stack of

peats along with it.
4. A bhliadhn’ is gainne a mhin,

Dean fuine mhòr aineamh.

During the year when meal is scarce

Let big bakings be few.
5. A’chungaidh leighis is goirte,

’Si is moth’tha deaneamh feum.

The medicine (or liniment) that hurts the most

Is generally the best healer.
6. A cur suas inisg, sa bun aig a bhaile.

Spreading a fama, and its root at home.
7. A ghaoth ag iarraidh na’m port.

The wind seeking the harbours.
8. A h-uile cù air a chù choimheach.

All dogs down on the strange dog.
9. A sgaoladh na’n sguab ’s a trusadh na’n


Scattering the sheaves and gathering the

10. Aithnichear an leomhan air scriob de


The lion is known by the scrath of his claw.
11. An ràmh is fhaisg air laimh, iomair leis.

The oar that’s nearest at hand, row with it.
12. An neach nach cìnn na chadal,

Cha chìnn e na dhuisg.

He who will not prosper in his sleep.

Will not prosper when awake.
13. A mheud ’sa gheibh thu gu math,

Se’n lughad a gheibh thu de’n olc.

The more you get of what’s good,

The less you will get of what’s bad.
14. Am fear is fliuche, rachadh e do’n tobair.

He who is wettest, let him go to the well.
15. An luigh nach fhaighear cha’n ì a chobhras.

The herb that cannot be found will not give

16. A taomadh na mara le cliabh.

Bailing the sea with a creel.
17. A h-uile rud ach an rud bu chòir.

Everything but the right thing.
18. Adhaircean fada air a chrodh a bhios anns a


Long horns on the cattle that are seen through

the mist.
--td 27

19. Air gnothaich na cuthaig.

On the cuckoo’s business.
A1. - A chuir a ruith na cuthaig.

Sent to chase the cuckoo.

S.P.-A gowk’s errand.
20. An ceòl air feadh na fìdhle.

The music throughout the fiddle.
21. An làmh a bheir ’si a gheibh,

Mar a d’thugar do dhroch dhuin’e.

The hand that gives is the hand that will receive,

Except when given to a bad man.
22. Am fear, is fhaide chaidh bho’n bhaile,

Chual e’n ceòl bu mhilse leis nuair thill e dhachaidh.

Who farthest away e’er did roam

Heard the sweetest music on returning home.
23. A lion beag ìs bheagan, mar a dh’ ith an

cat an t-iasg.

Little by little, as the cat eat the fish.
24. An rud a nithear gu math, chithear a bhuil.

What is well done will be shown by results.
25. A chuid de Fhlaitheanas dha.

His shore of Paradise to him.
"Flaitheanas" according to our etomologists, is from "Flath

Innis", "The Isle of Heroes," the heaven of Celtic

Mythology. Here the souls of the brave (none other were

deserving), went for enternal and blissful repose, at the

end of their warrior-careers. Cowardice was deemed a sin

that barred the guilty from entering that coveted place.

The other place, in those days, was not the brimstone-fueled

fire of later beliefs, but a desolated area of ice and snow;

cold, not heat, was the meted punishment.
26. Am facal a thig a Ifrinn --

Se a gheibh, ma ’s e ’s mo bheir.

The message from hell --

Give to the highest bidder.
27. An rud a thèid fad o’n t-sùil

Thèid e fad o’n chrìdhe.

What goes far from the eye

Will go far from the heart.
E.P. - Out of sight out of mind.

But even proverbs may be mistaken sometimes, as for


"Kind eyes may speak the heart’s desire,

When heart for heart doth beat,

But fond hearts will communicate

When the eyes cannot meet."
28. An turadh, an t-anmoch, am muir-làn, ’s

an Dòmhnach.

Fair weather, the evening, high water, and

the Sabbath.
Does this imply a choice of circumstances?
29. An uair a bhios sinn ri òrach

Bidheadhmaid ri òrach;

’S nuair a bhios sinn ri maorach,

Bidheadhmaid ri maorach.

When we are seeking gold,

let us be seeking gold;

And when we are seeking bait

let us be seeking bait.
E.P. -One thing at a time, and everything in its

own time.
30. An uair a chluinneas tu sgeul gun dreach

na creid i.

When you hear a tale that is not pleasant, do

not believe it.
This means that one should turn a deaf ear to

scandal mongerig.

31. Am fear nach gheidh na h-airm ’nam na sìth,

Cha bhi iad aige ’n am a chogaidh.

Who keeps not his arms in times of peace,

Will have no arms in times of war.
32. An car a h’ anns an t-seana mhaide,

Is duilich a thoirt as.

Straightening the bend in old wood

Is a difficult job.
33. Air rèir do mheas ort fhèin

’S ann a mheasas càch thu.

According as thou esteemest thyself

Others will esteem thee.
34. Am boll’ air an sgillinn

Is gun an sgillinn ann.

The boll (of meal) at a penny

And no penny in hand.
35. A cheud sgeul air fear an taighe,

Is sgeul gu làth’ air an aoidh.

The first story from the host,

And tales till morning from the guest.
This one recalls old Highland manners and

customs, with an "Arabian Nights" atmosphere

about them.
36. Am fear a bhios fad aig an aiseig

Gheibh e thairis uaireigin.

He that waits long at the ferry

Will get across sometime.
(E.P. - Everything comes to him that waits.)
37. Am fear nach seall roimhe

Seallaidh e as a dheigh.

He who will not look before him

Will look behind him.
38. An triuir nach fuiling an cniodachadh,

Seann bhean, cearc, agus caora.

Three that won’t bear caressing,

An old woman, a hen, and a sheep.
39. A bheairt sin a bhios cearr,

’Se foighidinn is fhear a dheanamh ris.

The loom (or engine) that has gone wrong

Patience is best for putting it right.
40. An ràthad fada glan, is an ràthad goirid


The long clean road, and the short dirty road.
The latter is taken by those who are in a hurry to

get rich, irrespective of the means adopted.

41. A bhò is miosa ’th’ anns a bhuaile

’S is cruaidh ni gèum.

The worst cow in the fold

Lows the loudest.
42. An rud nach gabh leasachadh,

’S fheudar cur suas leis.

What cannot be helped

Must be put up with.
E.P. - Crying over spilt milk, etc.

43. An ni ’s an teid dàil theid dearmaid.

What is delayed will be forgotten.
44. An rud is fhiach a ghabhail, ’s fhaich e iarraidh.

If it is worth taking, it is worth asking for.
45. An rud a thig gu dona falbhaidh e leis a


What is got by guile will disappear with the

46. A mire ri cuilein, cha sgur e gus an sgal e.

Playing with a pup ends in a howl.
47. Be sin an conadh a chuir do ’n choille.

That were sending fuel to the wood.
E.P. - Sending coals to Newcastle.
48. Bu mhath an sgàthan sùil caraid.

A friend’s eye is a good looking-glass.
49. Buinidh urram do’n aois.

Honour belongs to old age.
50. Bheir an èigin air rud-eigin a dheanamh.

Necessity will get something done.
E.P. - Necessity is the mother of invention.
51. Bheirear comhairle seachad ach cha toirear


Council can be given, but not conduct.
52. Bheir duine beath’ air èigin, ach cha toir

e rath air èigin.

A man may force a livelihood, but he cannot

force fortune.
--td 52

53. Bheir aon fhear each gu uisge

Ach cha toir a dhà-dheug air òl.

One man can lead a horse to the water,

But twelve cannot make it drink.
Ae man may lead a horse to the water,

But ane and twenty winna gar him drink.

- Allan Ramsay’s Proverbs.
54. Bior a d’dhòrn na fàisg;

Easbhuidheachd ri d’ nàmhaid na ruisg;

Ri gearradh-sgian a d’ fheol na èisd;

Beisd nimheil ri d’ bheò na duisg.

A thorn in your grasp, do not squeeze;

Thy wants to thine enemy do not bare;

The dagger’s point to your flesh do not hear;

A venomous reptile do not rouse.
55. Bu mhath ìmpidh a choilich mu shiol a

thoirt do na cearcan.

Well was the cock’s petition for corn for the

56. Be sin ìm a chuir do thaigh àraich.

That were sending butter to the farmhouse.
57. Bithidh bean-mhuinntir aig an fheannaig

’s an Fhoghar.

The crow has her maid-servant at harvest time.
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