GAELIC PROVERBS AND PROVERBIAL SAYINGS FROM THE ISLAND OF TIREE
Donald E. Meek
My subject for this evening is one which has been close to my heart for many years, and has arisen quite naturally from my own connection with this island. I was brought up on a croft – 'Coll View', Caolas – within a family which was predominantly Gaelic speaking: it was also a family which showed the age-imbalance which is a feature of Highland society more generally. As I remember 'Coll View' first, it had no less than six older people within it – five of them siblings of the MacDonald family, whose patriarch was my great-grandfather, Hector MacDonald, otherwise known as 'Eachann Bàn'. The older folk – my great-aunts and great-uncles – were Eachann Bàn's children, and had been born in the 1870s. These older folk, whom some of you will remember well, were:
Hector, who lived in the cottage down by the shore, where Archie Eglinton's house now stands.
Charles, who retired from Vancouver, Canada, in 1949, and went to live in Hector's cottage after Hector's death. I will say quite a bit about Charlie later.
Annabel, who similarly retired from Vancouver in 1949, and went to live with her brother, Charles, in the cottage. Previously, both had stayed in 'Coll View'.
Maggie, who lived on the 'Coll View' croft all her life.
Donald, who inherited the 'Coll View' croft from his father. Donald married a MacLean from 'Càrnan': she was thus the only one of the older family who was not a MacDonald.
My father, Hector Meek, was the son of another member of the MacDonald family, Nancy, who had married James Meek from Falkirk. After living in Falkirk for a few years, James and Nancy emigrated to Vancouver in the early years of this century, leaving my father behind in 'Coll View', in the expectation that he would follow the rest of the family but he never did. My father learned Gaelic as a very young boy, and soon became completely Highland.
What has all that got to do with Gaelic proverbs? Well, two things:
First, Gaelic proverbs and proverbial sayings were all around me as I grew up, and worked on the croft. In the 1950s and 1960s, this was a culturally rich environment, still maintaining many of the older customs. For example, I well remember attending the deireadh bhuana, 'the end of the reaping', when a splendid tea was prepared for the family and their helpers. Among the most welcome guests was the maighdeann bhuana, 'the harvest maiden', which consisted of the last sheaf of corn which had been cut, suitably dressed up as a maiden. I was also given the rare privilege of hearing nineteenth-century Gaelic at first hand; by 1970, all of the older members of the family had passed on.
Looking back now, I am aware that much of crofting life and, indeed, much of the community life in the island, was surrounded by sayings and proverbs which underpinned the culture and the way of life, and that the one supported the other. There were little sayings about most things, from shoeing the horse to reaping the harvest maiden.
However, the main point is that these proverbs were fixed in the conversation of the old folk in the house: they flowed out of their mouths. My father had learned a lot of proverbs from his uncles and aunts. They came out quite effortlessly, and it was only in later life that I became aware that these pithy little statements – some offering an explanation of a particular event, some gentle comments to soothe anger, some very witty, some very biting and even quite sarcastic – were special sayings or 'proverbs'. They were part of the natural life of the Gaelic culture of that time. To give you a couple of examples:
One very calm morning, as I was leaving to go to Ruaig school, I noticed that there were a lot of seagulls well inland, in fact, right up on the inbye of the croft. This I mentioned to my father, who replied -
Comharradh na gaillinn, eòin na mar' air an t-sliabh.
It is a sign of a storm when the seabirds are on the rough ground.
If I did not know what that saying meant when I set off for school, I certainly knew what it meant by the time I came back, for it was blowing a howling gale.
On another occasion, we were very busy at the harvest, making corn stooks. We were so busy that we had hardly a moment to speak, and, of course, we were keeping an eye on the weather. A neighbour came to help us – Niall Ailein from Aird Deas – and even he didn't have a moment to talk. My father's comment was:
Harvest-time is a very stand-offish fellow
which meant, quite simply, that there was no time to stand talking when there was a lot of hard work to be done.
Or, to take another, instance. One day I was with my father and we were about to launch a boat at the Port Ruadh. We had the dinghy on a carrying pole, and held an end each. Her bow was pointing due west, and I pushed hard to try to turn it anticlockwise. My father stopped me, with the words
Deiseil air gach nì
Sunwise with everything
and promptly turned the boat round clockwise, in the direction of the sun!
My couple of illustrations of the natural use of proverbs in my family has become three, but permit me to make it four. Proverbs were used to pass comment on different types of people, especially if they were doing odd things or going beyond themselves in some way. My father had a bit of an aversion to people who imitated the managerial style, shall we say, when the real boss was absent. When he felt irritated by someone who was doing that, he would say –
Is mise fear an taighe nuair bhios m' athair anns an Ros.
I am the man of the house when my father is in the Ross of Mull.
You will be aware, I am sure, that, in the old days, the Tiree folk often went to the Ross of Mull for peat and timber, and that is what the proverb alludes to. Proverbs often preserve the memory of old customs and traditions, as we will see. I often chuckle at that saying – it is so neatly phrased, and beautifully understated.
So that is the first point well illustrated, I hope. Members of my family were brim-full of proverbs, and most families in Tiree, in the hey-day of Gaelic speech, would have been the same. Proverbs and sayings were as natural as breathing.
Here, then, is my second point, to show how fond my people were of Gaelic proverbs, and how much they enjoyed them. Not only did the 'Coll View' folk use proverbs - one of the family also recorded a great store of Tiree proverbs! I have here tonight a collection of Gaelic proverbs made by my great-uncle, Charles MacDonald, whom I have mentioned already. You will remember that I said that he lived with his sister, Annabel, in a small cottage where the Eglintons' house now stands. Charlie, as he was known to many, was a very able man, who was very much the seanchaidh or traditional historian of the MacDonald family. He was a joiner to trade, and was also a shipwright, having served his time in Glasgow in the yard later owned by Harland and Wolff. He then went abroad, served as a joiner in South Africa, sailed as a ship’s carpenter during the First World War, moved later to Vancouver, Canada, where he was a fisherman – and then, as I said, retired to Caolas. In my eyes, he was a very wonderful man – full of fun, stories, and songs. He was always active, and even in his mid-eighties had the energy of a youngster. I used to spend the weekends with Charlie and Annabel, and I felt always that they were at least as young as myself. Very often during these weekends, Charlie would start to tell stories - about the Spanish galleon in Tobermory Bay, or about Ailean nan Sop, or about Iain Garbh of Coll. He died in 1961 - just before the School of Scottish Studies began to take a deep interest in Tiree traditions, although Hamish Henderson was able to record him in 1958. I still miss him greatly.
It was only by chance that I discovered that he had made the collection of proverbs. I was collecting Tiree proverbs myself in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and my father drew this collection to my attention. It had lain in an outhouse for years, and came to light only because I asked my father if he knew of anyone who had made a collection of Tiree proverbs! My father remembered, how, as a comparatively young boy, he had acted as Charlie's scribe, writing and re-writing the proverbs for him when he was home on holiday in Tiree. Charlie could not write Gaelic very well; so he got my father to be his amanuensis, and between them they produced two notebooks, the one containing the rough versions, and the other a fair copy.
Now, this is quite a collection. I reckon it must contain about 1,000 proverbs and sayings, including riddles and rhymes, collected in Tiree sometime before 1920. Of these 1,000 sayings, I estimate that about 400 may well be peculiar to Tiree itself. Every island and locality of the Scottish Highlands had its own store of local proverbs, as well as its share of the great floating corpus of proverbs which was the common stock of the whole of the Highland area. I have been trying to edit this collection for some time, and I hope that I will be able to publish it as a little book in memory of Charles MacDonald and the 'Coll View' folk.
What I want to do tonight is to give you just a little taste of the richness of Tiree tradition, and specifically the east-end tradition, in the way of proverbs and sayings. I am going to give you some samples from my own gathering, but I will be drawing a lot of material from Charlie's collection, which is so full of interesting examples. The majority of the sayings I will use belong specifically to Tiree, and I am choosing them because they are not in other collections of proverbs or are found in distinctively different forms.
What strikes me whenever I look at Charlie's collection is how very rich Tiree tradition once was. A large number of proverbs were gathered by the Rev. John Gregorson Campbell, minister of Tiree in the second half of the nineteenth century, and these were incorporated by Sheriff Nicolson in his collection of Gaelic proverbs. Even so, there are still about 400 in Charlie's collection not found in Nicolson's!
The best way to handle this large topic is to take it in small bites, according to different themes in the proverbs themselves: proverbs and sayings about people and places, about work on the land, work on the sea, the weather, and so on. I will include some riddles, too, which will test your ingenuity.
1. People and places
I will begin with proverbs and sayings about people and places in Tiree itself. This will prove to you very clearly that the island had its own set of sayings, although similar types of sayings can be found in other communities in the Highlands.
It is well known that people who share the same island or district like to differentiate one another in a humorous way. Friendly rivalries and banter exist between different townships. In the old days, special code-names or nick-names were often used; these were commonly the names of animals or birds. Thus, at the east end of Tiree, there was a saying about the people of Ruaig:
Ròin Ruthaig a' tighinn 'nan dusain, 's chan urrainn dhaibh am bruthach a dhìreadh.
The seals of Ruaig are coming in their dozens, and they cannot climb the hill.
The Caolas people also had their characters delineated in a similar way. They were
‘Tunnagan a' Chaolais’ – 'the ducks of Caolas' – and the saying continued ‘ithidh iad am maorach cho caol ris na feannagan’ – 'they will eat shellfish as bare as the crows [would eat it]' (?).
The people of Vaul were known as ‘Sgait Bhalla’, 'the skates of Vaul'.
These, of course, are names from the east end, and I would like to know whether the west end had a similar selection. I think I have heard the people of Cornaig, for example, referred to as ‘eich Chòrnaig’, 'the horses of Cornaig'.
How were these sayings used? I remember my father telling me that they were often used by schoolchildren as the prelude to an inter-township battle in the playground. They were the words of insult, by which you challenged your opponents to a fight.
How did they come about? I suspect that they reflect dominant features of the townships concerned: there were perhaps a lot of seals on the rocks of Ruaig, a lot of ducks in Caolas, and skate may have been a delicacy enjoyed by the folk of Vaul, or perhaps commonly fished by them. Perhaps the people of Cornaig were good at breeding horses. Somebody here will want to tell me after the meeting.
Some of the sayings were focused on particular families. I will give you one example from my own family. My great-grandfather, Eachann Bàn or Hector MacDonald, built 'Coll View' in 1891, and acquired the stone by blasting it from a quarry. As a result, he was given a little saying about himself, which went -
Eachann Bàn, blastair, a' buachailleachd nam partan.
Fair Hector, the blaster, who shepherds the crabs.
This was used to summon my own family to a fight in the playground! Wild people, the east-enders! But were the people of the west end any better? What did you call one another?
So much for the people. What about places mentioned in Tiree proverbs? My first example is fairly well known -
Stad e mu Ghot – 'He stopped about Gott'. This is used when something is delayed in the process - or when someone does not turn up for rather dubious reasons. There was once an inn or change-house in Gott, which was used as a staging-post by travellers in the island, and people were inclined to spend too much time in it, sampling the beverages.
Another about travelling in the island –
Rathad Hogh a Hoighnis gu Beinn Cheann a' Bhara
The road from Hough to Hynish, up to (= via) the Hill of Ceann a' Bhara
This was used of a round-about way, taking a detour rather than going straight from A to B. I have heard variants of this saying, and some of you may have different versions.
Here is one which mentions the township of Kennovay –
Is trosg an Ceann a' Bhàigh e.
It is a cod in Kennovay.
How was that used? According to my father, it was used when something was unattainable - hard to get. If that is a correct explanation, it is obviously another east-end saying.
Now here is one which is quite definitely about the west end, and says something about the quality of the harvest in Balephuil -
Cha b'fhuilear dha a bhith seachdain air thodhar, bàrr odhar Bhail' a' Phuill
The dun-coloured crop of Balephuil would be the better of going on the bleach for a week.
The saying seems to imply that crops in Balephuil did not ripen well, and needed to be given more sunlight to take them to a natural colour. I wonder if anyone has a fuller explanation of that one?
Tiree people, of course, travelled well beyond the confines of their own island, for all sorts of reasons. There are Tiree sayings about other islands and places on the mainland. For example, about Barra -
Ge fada mach Barraigh, ruigear e.
Although Barra is far out, it can be reached.
One reason for the travels of the Tiree people was to find fuel, such as peat, and wood for building. People on the other islands and the mainland were not always pleased to see them when they arrived. I suspect that they may have travelled as far as mainland Argyll, and I know of one saying which may refer to a 'bad experience' in mainland Argyll:
Gearr-ghobaich gun mhodh, gun oilean, coillearan Mhucàrna.
The foresters of Muckairn are short-snouted, mannerless, boorish bunch.
The Tiree folk took more than wood and peat from the other islands. I know of one little riddle that commemorates something else:
Gobhar iubhair adhair
A thug m' athair as an Ros;
Ged chuirte bheul fodha,
Cha tigeadh deur às.
A goat of yew and sky (???)
That my father brought from the Ross (of Mull);
Though it should be turned mouth downwards,
Not a drop would come out of it.
After a lot of head-scratching – and I am still scratching – I was told that the answer to that teaser was 'a cow's udder', so there you are! I think we may conclude that cows were transported from Mull to Tiree! Not an earth-shattering conclusion, but it is interesting to see the old 'trade routes' being commemorated in this way.
Now a rather nice one about a place called Achadh nan Tulach, which I am sure is not on the geographical map, but is certainly on the map of human experience:
Chan eil Achadh nan Tulach
nan cnocan buidhe, bòidheach,
nach eil latha gu subhach
is latha gu dubhach, brònach.
Achadh nan Tulach (lit. 'The Field of the Hills')
of the fair, yellow hills
is not without its happy day
and its day of sadness and gloom.
2. Boats and the sea
A few sayings now about boats and the sea. My family had some memorable sayings in this group, which must be close to the heart of any true Tirisdeach. Here was one used when circumstances altered:
Chan eil carraig air nach caochail sruth, ach carraig dhubh Liosmòir.
There is no headland which does not experience a change of current, except the black headland of Lismore.
I have heard the first part commonly in other parts and places, but the second part - 'ach carraig dhubh Liosmòir' – I have heard only once beyond Tiree. The tidal races at the western tip of Lismore are well known, and the resulting, ever-present whirlpool can be felt even on board the Lord of the Isles.
Another, applying to the seashore (and found in my uncle's collection) –
Ged as ionnan cladach, chan ionnan maorach.
Although the shoreline is the same, the shellfish are different.
This saying is used in other parts of the Highlands, and applied when there has been a change within a community. It may look the same – the same houses, the same lie of the land – but the inhabitants, the 'shellfish' have changed. This saying is often in my mind when I myself return to Tiree these days.
Here is one which I know only from my uncle's collection:
Chan fhacas long mhòr riamh gun gheòla bheag aice.
A big boat was never seen without its little boat.
The meaning of that is fairly obvious; even the biggest and strongest need to take precautions against loss.
And another from the same source:
Am fear a ghleidheas a long, gheibh e latha.
The man who preserves his ship will get a suitable day to sail.
This was evidently an exhortation to be patient, when the weather was bad. Better to preserve the ship, and wait until the weather had improved.
A few now about the weather. Tiree people watched the weather, and liked to be able to forecast it or understand its patterns.
I remember well being at a funeral in Kirkapol some years ago, on a terrible day in July. The day was so bad that you could hardly see Gott Pier. As we came out of the church, an older Tirisdeach (Archibald MacArthur, Heylipol, Ailig Beag’s father) commented on the weather, and said:
Mar a theireadh na seann daoine, Trì làithean den Iuchair san Fhaoilteach, agus trì làithean den Fhaoilteach san Iuchair.
As the old folks would say, 'Three days of July weather in January, and there days of January weather in July'.
Strictly, the Faoilteach is not a month name, but a name for the angry weather at the turn of the year. The Tiree folk had a saying about it -
Iomadh sgobadh na Faoiltich, caoilt' is gearan
The Faoilteach is a season of many snatches, starvation and discontent.
Here is one about spring-time from my uncle's collection -
Ceò earraich – thig sneachd às a dhèidh cho cinnteach 's ged robh e glaiste 'sa chist' agad.
Mist in spring-time will be followed by snow, as surely as it would come if you had it locked in the chest.
And another which I used to hear from my father, but which is fairly common elsewhere, commenting on perverse weather, which goes against the pattern:
Chan uisg' ach uisg' on tuath, 's cha thuradh buan ach on deas.
No rain comes but from the north, and no lasting dry weather comes but from the south.
That, as you will be aware, was the opposite of the normal experience of people. My father used to maintain that if you got rain from the north, it tended to last much longer, and if you got dry weather with a south wind, it could last similarly. (I see that this proverb is noted in Nicolson's collection, and it is said to be of Tiree origin. I know of one variant from the other islands.)
Some sayings now about work on the land. Earlier in the lecture, I mentioned a Tiree saying about harvest, and here is another about work in general, which refers to the weather:
Is e an latha bagarrach a nì an obair thogarrach.
A lowering day makes the work go with a swing.
That is, people work more willingly to avoid bad weather.
Work such as fishing was very much dependent on the weather, and on the ups and downs of life. Here is a saying about a fisherman:
An ceann seachd bliadhna innsidh an t-iasgair fhortan.
The fisherman will announce his fortune at the end of seven years.
That is the Tiree and Gaelic equivalent of 'not counting one's chickens before they are hatched'!
A nice one now, about making butter:
Cha dèan corrag mhilis ìm.
A sweet finger will not make butter.
5. People of different kinds: human behaviour
Some sayings now about different sorts of people, and especially their behaviour. There are some nice ones here, using all sorts of images.
From my uncle's collection:
Cha b'fhiach an tràigh shìolag dol thuice an oidhche nach robh Ceit a-mach.
It wasn't worth going to the shore for sand-eels the night that Kate wasn't out there.
I presume that this was used of someone who never missed a chance.
Cha bu toigh leam a bhith 'nam each aig ceàrd.
I would not like to be a tinker's horse.
possibly because tinkers tended to sell their horses frequently.
Cha dèan sinn feum le Lachainn, 's cha dèan sinn feum gun Lachainn.
We cannot manage with Lachie, and we cannot manage without Lachie.
That is, more than one helper is required, but he cannot be dispensed with, in spite of his inadequacies.
Here's one containg a wee laugh at the minister, and specifically about the sort of calf that was reared at the manse:
Fada caol, mar a bha laogh a' mhinisteir.
Long and thin, like the minister's calf.
This probably implies that the minister's calf was denied good milk. The cream etc. went to the manse!
There are a lot of amusing sayings in this category, and I well remember how they would raise a wry smile when they were used.
Another now about the virtuous person, someone who is pure in heart -
An duine nach bi olc 'na chridhe, cha bhi olc air aire.
The man who is not evil in his heart will contemplate no evil.
Here is one which is a list of animals and people to be watched with care -
Cù gramach, each breabach, tè bheulach is fear sgeulach - bi 'nad earalas orra.
A snappy dog, a kicking horse, a plausible woman and a tale-telling man - be on your guard against them.
6. Animal images
Some proverbs now which refer ostensibly to animals, but which have an obvious human application -
Far am bi a' chaora, bidh an t-uan.
Where the sheep is, the lamb will be there too.
Gach uan nas gile na mhàthair, 's a mhàthair cho geal ris an t-sneachd.
Every lamb is whiter than its mother, and its mother is as white as snow.
This was doubtless used sarcastically!
Now a couple about the cat -
Is toigh leis a' chat a chomalladh.
The cat likes its own equivalent.
Cha chuir bainne cait mòran uachdair dheth.
A cat's milk will not produce much cream.
It doesn't get the chance to produce cream, because the cat drinks it so quickly.
One now about the brown fly that one used to see about the dunghills -
Is i chuileag ruadh as àirde srann nuair dh'èireas i.
The brown fly makes the greatest noise of all when it rises.
This was probably said of people who drew a lot of attention to themselves, but were really not very reputable.
One referring to a cow:
Am fear a th'air an aona mhart, tha a h-earball 'na dhòrn.
The man who has only one cow holds her tail in his fist.
Here's a saying referring to the horse:
Tha seana n-each an geall air searrach.
An old horse is very keen to get a foal.
I was told that this was sometimes applied to expectant grandparents!
I would like to conclude tonight by giving you a few samples of the riddles which were once so common in Gaelic communities. You see if you can crack these: the first person who gets them all right is the champion riddle-buster of Tiree, and deserves a special prize:
Craobh dhìoganach, ghàganach, ghuaganach,
A bun suas 's barr sìos,
'S i a' fàs mus-sun (= mar sin).
A thorny, bunchy, stumpy tree,
its roots at the top and its foliage at the bottom,
and it's growing like that. (A cow's tail)
Muc dhubh, dhubh aig ceann taigh Fhearchair
Dithis 'na ceann is triùir 'na h-earball
A black, black pig at the end of Farquhar's house;
Two at its head and three at its tail. (A pot)
And the last one -
Chì mi thall air àilleagan,
Air bharr na lice ruaidh,
Am mac a' tighinn bho mhàthair,
'S a mhàthair a' tighinn uaith'.
I see yonder, over the lovely plain (?),
on the top of the red slab of rock,
the son being born of his mother,
and his mother being born of him. (Sunrise)
That was only a small sample from a very large collection. We would need a week to go through it all, and at least another week to discuss all the different forms of the proverbs.
I hope that you will feel that the evening has been worthwhile, and I hope even more that you will now go back to your own part of Tiree and think about all the proverbs and sayings that you know. If you can find time, write them down, and we'll see how many more collections we'll have by this time next year!
Fèis Lecture, July 1993