WITH ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS
T. D. MACDONALD
AUTHOR OF “THE LORDS OF LOCHABER,” “CELTIC DIALECTS,”
“DÀIN EADAR-THEANGAICHTE,” “DÀIN AN AM CHOGAIDH,”
“DÀIN AN DÉIDH A CHOGAIDH,” ETC.
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
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
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
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
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
Fair weather, the evening, high water, and
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
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
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
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
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.