Seanfhacail is Gnathsan-cainnte a Tiriodh / Gaelic Proverbs and Idiomatic Phrases from Tiree
SAYINGS AND RIDDLES
FROM THE ISLAND OF
With the exception of a small number of sayings followed by
an asterisk, all the material in this collection was gathered by my
grand-uncle, Charles MacDonald, 'Coll View', Caolas, Tiree. Born in 1874,
Charles was the third son of Euphemia MacLeod and Hector (Eachann Bàn)MacDonald.
Having served his time as a shipwright/ joiner on Clydeside, he found
employment in the area, before emigrating to South Africa for a brief period.
Thereafter he spent two longish periods in Vancouver, B.C., Canada, and
returned finally to Tiree in 1949. He died in 1961. An acknowledged authority
on island genealogies and local history, he left behind him some MS material,
of which the greater part is a collection of proverbs.See Chapter Four of my autobiography (on
this website) for further discussion of Charles MacDonald.
The collection is contained in two quarto note-books. One of
these is written mainly in pencil, and would appear to contain the original
jottings. The second note-book, written in ink, is a fair copy of the fisrt,
and it was transcribed by several different people, including my father, Hector
MacDonald Meek, who began the new book under my grand-uncle's supervision
sometime around 1920. The first note-book contains some material which appears
to have been added after the fair copy was completed.
It is not known when Charles started to collect proverbial
material, but it seems likely that he was at work in the late nineteenth
cenury. The collection is thus another indication of the general interest in
such material in the later part of the nineteenth century and the early part of
the twentieth century. Most of the collectors of the period were minister,
priests, or schoolmasters (or men with some scholarly background). It is a
measure of the enthusiasm for proverbs and proverbial lore during this time
that the collector on this occasion was a crofter's son, with no formal
education beyond the village school. This is reflected to some extent in the MS
orthography, which is basically that of normal Gaelic, but which shows the
influence of English rather markedly in places.
The purpose of Charles's collection is not clear. He may
have intended to publish it as a book; on the other hand, he may have compiled
it simply for his own pleasure. Over and above the material published here, the
collection contains some five or six hundred proverbs already published in
Nicolson, in slightly variant forms. It therefore seems likely that the collection
was not meant to supplement Nicolson, although the latter may have acted as a
stimulus; certainly there are no indications that Nicolson was consulted. On
the other hand, Charles may have felt that variants of the material in Nicolson
were worthy of inclusion in their own right. The opposite view is taken in the
present edition, and sayings which occur in variant form in Nicolson are
retained here only when they show a particularly interesting local variation,
or when they shed light on Nicolson's forms.
There seems little doubt that the majority of sayings
published below were collected by Charles in Tiree, or from Tiree contacts,
although it is not unlikely that some were derived from natives of other parts
of the Highlands with whom he came into contact on Clydeside. Many of the
sayings can still be heard in Tiree; indeed the majority have been checked out
by the editor in the island. The quantity and variety of the material is
remarkable, particularly since extensive collections of Tiree sayings were made
earlier in the nineteenth century by the Rev. John Gregorson Campbell, who
passed his material on to Nicolson.
The sayings in this collection which are followed by an
asterisk bear witness to the continuing use of proverbs in Tiree. These have
been collected gradually by the editor since 1970; probably many more remain to
Translations and notes are by the editor. In this
connection, I would like to acknowledge my debt to my father, who not only
preserved the note-books, but also explained the significance of many of the
1. A' chas as moille, a' chas as diumbaiche.
The slowest foot is the most spiteful foot.
2. A chomalladh fhèin do gach neach; an sin bidh iad
Let everyone find his equivalent; then they
will be like one another.
The first part of
this saying is frequently used on its own.
3. A' falbh le a teang' air a gualainn.*
Going about with her tongue on her shoulder.
Said of a gossip.
4. A' fàs mar isean a' gheòidh.
Growing like the goose's chick.
Said of a young
person who is growing fast.
5.A' gearradh bhoc
Leaping like a wind-cock.
was a child's toy. It was made by fixing hen feathers to a potato. When it was
released on a windy day, it would travel with the wind at great speed, bounding
off the ground.
6. A' ruith a dh' ionnsaigh na tanalaich.
Runing into the shallows.
The image is drawn
from sailing, and the saying is used of a person who is heading for trouble.
7. Aghaidh fhlaitheil, fòghnaidh dhi suathadh de chlùd.
A noble countenance needs only a wipe with a
8. Air a ghabhail sin da-san!
Let him take it!
Used when something unusual happens to a
person you don't like.
9. Aithnichear an duin'-uasal air a ghnìomh.
You can tell a gentleman by his action.
10. Am fear a dh' itheas mil, ithidh esan sprochd dha fhèin.
The man who eats honey will eat sorrow for
Presumably a warning against eating too
many sweet things.
11. Am fear a ghleidheas a long, gheibh e latha.
The man who keeps his ship will get a day to
12. Am fear as luaithe làmh, is leis a' ghobhar bhàn san
The man with the quickest hand will get the
white goat (stuck) in a bog.
Cf. BP no. 112.
13. Am fear a thèid a ghnàth a-mach le linn, gheibh e eòin
The man who always fishes with long lines
will catch birds sometimes.
things can happen. Nicolson in hisnote
to N 17, 4, seems to havae misunderstood the significance of Mackintosh's
original saying, which had eun for eòin of the present version, and he
preferred the version which read iasg
('fish') instead. My father informed me that he occasionally found cormorants
attached to the hooks of long lines set for flounders.
14. Am fear nach cuireadh na crùin, chuireadh e na bilean.
The man who wouldn't send the crowns would
send the bills.
i.e., a mean person is eager to get
money for himself.
15. An ceann seachd bliadhna innsidh an t-iasgair fhortan.
A fisherman will announce his fortune at the
end of seven years.
A reference to the unpredictability of
16. An ceum seo gu Galldachd.
This (is a ) step towards the Lowlands!
Presumably used when a person adopts
Lowland ideas or ways of work.
17. An duine a bhrath e, 's e marbh e.
The man who betrayed him was the man who
18. An duine nach bi olc 'na chridhe, cha bhi olc air aire.
The man who is not evil at heart will
contemplate no evil.
Cf. N 20, 1.
19. An duine nach toir turas don bhaile mhòr, bheir e turas
The man who will not journey to the city
will journey from it.
Cf. N 17, 6; BP no. 11. This version
could mean that a person who is unwilling to go to a city is glad to get out of
20. An galar a bhios sa mhàthair, is gnàth leis a bhith san
A mother's disease will usually be carried
by her daughter.
21. An leanabh a thèid a bhaisteadh 's ann air a bhios an
The name will be borne by the child who
receives it in baptism.
Cf. C no. 74.
22. An neach leis an cumhang, teicheadh e.
The person who considers the situation
dificult, let him flee.
23. An searrach a bu chòir a bhith aig an làir bhàin, 's ann
a tha e aig a' ghearran.
The garron has the foal which the white mare
ought to have.
Cf. C no. 84.
24. An t-uan a' cadal ann am broilleach na leòghainn.
The lamb is asleep in the lion's bosom.
This could be applied to various
situations, e.g. a person in a dangerous position of which he is unaware, or a
reconciliation betwen two unlikely people.
25. Aontachadh Brìonaig le Breunaig.
Untruthful's agreement with Nasty.
Cf. C no. 115. Used of companions in
26. Atharrachadh tric air na h-uile.
things alter frequently.
27. Bainne cìche circe an an adharc muice, 's ite cait ga
Milk from a hen's breast in a pig's horn,
being stirred by a cat's feather.
28. Barail a' choin air a mhàthair - barail bhochd.*
The dog's opinion of its mother - a poor
Cf. N 382, 5. The second part of the
saying can vary in intensity!
29. B' e sin an sgriosadail gòrach de bhean òg a thighinn gu
taigh duine còir sam bith.
That would be the coming of a silly,
destructive young wife to the house of some kind man.
30. B' e sin an t-srathair a chur an àite na dìollaid.
That would be to put the harness in the
place of the saddle.
i.e. putting a
cart on a horse instead of riding it.
31. B' e sin dol eadar a' chaora 's an rùsg.
That would be to go between the sheep and
Cf. N 48, 10; BP
32. B' e sin garadh na seana bhean.
That would be (like) the warming of the old
difficult to accomplish.
33. B' fheàrr leam gu robh 'B' fheàrr leam' beò, 's e pòsd'
aig 'Mura bitheadh'.
I wish that 'I wish' were alive, and maried
off to 'Were it not'.
34. Bheir e an t-eàrr 's an t-urball dheth.
will take his extremities and his tail off.
i.e. skin him
completely. Seiche ('hide') is often
used in place of eàrr.
35.Bidh an uaisle 'na gille-trannsa far nach freagair i.
Gentility will be like a lobby-boy (?) where
it is inappropriate.
Gille-trannsa (tentatively translated
as 'lobby-boy') is not known to me in any other context. Presumably it refers
to some kind of menial servant who worked in the trannsa ('entrance porch, corridor, lobby') of big houses. The
meaning of the saying would seem to be that people with grand ideas sometimes
have to swallow their pride.
36. Bidh losgadh na caillich 'na cuimhne.
The old woman's burning will remain in her
Cf. N 359, 7.
37. Blianach chaol, gum bi riadh (?) oirre.
Very lean meat will have a streak through it
I am not sure
whether riadh is an accurate
restoration of MS reaig. If so, I
take it as a variant of riadhan,
which has 'streak' as one of its meanings (Dw. s.v.).
38. Brògan beaga do chasan mòra.
Small shoes for big feet.
39. Bu dùthchas dha sin; cha b' e a cheannach a rinn e.
He obtained that by heredity; he did not buy
The second part
of this saying is frequently used on its own, with clear reference to
40. Buail an fhearsaid air!
Strike him with the spindle!
Used of a young
person who is growing too fast. It was thought that a blow with the spindle
would arrest his growth!
41. Buail thall 's coinnich a-bhos e.
Strike it over yonder, and meet it over
something and wait for the consequences.
42. Buille air a' chù is buille air a' chat!
Strike the dog and strike the cat!
i.e. clear everything out of the road.
43. Cagar an cluais -
chuala triùir e.
A secret whispered in the ear has been
heard by three.
i.e. a secret
ceases to be such as soon as it has been passed on, however quietly.
44. Ceannaich seann rud is bi gun aon rud.
Buy an old thing and have nothing.
45. Ceò earraich - thig sneachd as a dhèidh cho cinnteach 's
ged an robh e glaiste sa chist' agad.
Mist in spring-time will be followed by
snow; you can be as sure of it as you would be if you had it locked in a chest.
46. Cha b'ann air a thòin a bha an claidheamh.
The swoed was not positioned on his
i.e. he was
ready for a fight.
47. 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 there.
of a person who 'never missed a chance'.
48. Cha b' fhuilear dha a bhith seachdain air thodhar, bàrr
odhar Bhail'-a- Phuill.*
The dun-coloured grain-crop of Bailephuil
would be the better of a week on the bleach.
The village of
Bailephuil in the south-west corner of Tiree has a considerable amount of
marshy ground, as its name ('The Town of the Mud') suggests. This probably
affected the quality and the colour of its grain-crop.
49. Cha bhi cuid agam den bhodach chaol.
I will have no part of the thin cod.
My father suggsts
that bodach caol is possibly an
alternative name for the dog-fish or for the eel.Both fish are still taboo to some people in
50. Cha bhi dìcheall air deireadh.
Diligence will not lag behind.
51. Cha bhochd am beagair thusa.
are no poor beggar.
to someone who pretended to be worse off than he actually was.
52. Cha bu mhagadh sin air cù a mharbhadh fèidh.
that could kill a deer would not suffer ridicule through that.
i.e. a person
whose reputation is proved can sit light to ridicule. Cf. BP no. 38.
53. Cha bu mhath leam searrach a reic riut air latha fliuch.
I would not like to sell you a foal on a
54. Cha bu toigh leam a bhith nam each aig ceàrd.
I would not like to be a tinker's horse.
refers to the tinkers' propensity for buying and selling horses, rather than to
their treatment of the animals, which is usually very good.
55. Cha chuir bainne cait mòran uachdair dheth.
A cat's milk will not produce much
Cf. N 88, 8.
56. Cha chuir mise don'-fheòraich ort.
I'll not make evil enquiries about you.
i.e. I'll not enquire about your reputation.
57. Cha dèan 'B' fheàrr leam'feum.
'I wish' will not do.
Cf. no. 33.
58. Cha dèan cas shiùbhlach tràthach.
A nimble foot will not let long grass grow.
In Tiree tràthach is used particularly of the long grass which grows through
a road or pathway.
59. Cha dèan corrag ghoirt (or mhilis) ìm.
sore (or sweet) finger will not make
i.e. a finger
which is continually on one's mouth.
60. Cha dèan mogam toiram iasgach.
A dry trouser-leg will not catch fish.
A variant of
this saying has dubhan falamh ('an
empty hook') instead of mogan tioram.
61. Cha dèan sinn feum le Lachain, 's cha dèan sinn feum gun
We cannot manage with Lachlan, and we canot
manage without him.
i.e. more than
one helper is required, but he cannot be dispensed with, in spite of his
62. Cha dèan thu maorach nuair a tha an làn ann.
You cannot gather shellfish at high tide.
63. Cha do mharbhadh lucha bheag fo mhulan mòr riamh.
little mouse was never killed under a big corn-stack.
64. Cha do mhilleadh math ri olc.
Good was never spoilt through contact with
65. Cha do rinn Thugam ceum 's cha do chailleadh Theab
to me'never walked a step, and
'Almost'was never lost.
66. Cha duine tàillear, 's cha duine dhà dhiubh.
A tailor does not amount to a man, nor do
Cf. C no. 249.
67. Cha nigh am breamag e fhèin ach a h-uile reothairt.
The dirty fellow will wash himself only at
every spring tide.
68. Cha tèid nì sam bith san dòrn dhùinte.
Nothing will go into the closed fist.
69. Cha tig de chuileagan ach na thàinig.
No more flies will come than have already
means that matters will become no worse.
70. Cha tig duine carach fad an uidhe.
A wily man will not come the length of the
71. Cha togadh e ceò air an uisge.
He would not cause mist to rise from the
72. Cha toir a cheòl an cuideachd e.
His music-making will not take him into
73. Cha toir na tha de dh'fhòghlum fon ghrèin sròn a'
ghadhair don tarbh.
All the erudition under the sun will not
give the greyhound's nose to the bull.
74. Cha toirinn pòg an aghaidh dùirn do dhuine sam bith.
would not give any man a kiss in return for a punch.
75. Cha tug e an corc às a' bhotall.
He didn't take the cork out of the bottle.
i.e. he obtained nothing.
76. Chaill thu an t-soag a' ruith an t-suip.
You lost the wisp in chasing after the
A local variant
gives the opposite sense: a' call an
t-suip a' ruith na siobhaig ('losing the straw in pursuit of the wisp').
77. Chan e cas, ach an culaidh fhaotainn.
It's not the foot that's wanted, but the
Presumably the reference is to an animal being
butchered; the saying could apply to a person who was anxious to get the best
78. 'Chan e coilich a h-aon agaibh a th'ann, ach na coilich
agamsa,' ars am madadh-ruadh.
'The cockerels don't belong to any one of
you; they are mine,' said the fox.
looks as if it once formed part of a fable.
79. Chan e an saor, ach a shliseag.
matters is not the joiner, but his shaving.
80. Chan eil Achadh nan Tulach
nach eil latha
is latha gu
Achadh nan Tulach of the fair, yellow
hills is not without a happy day or a day of gloom and sorrow.
Cf. N 116, 6.
81. Chan eil aig duine ach maorach a thoirtàs a' chladach dha fhèin.
One has no alternative but to fetch
shellfish from the shore for himself.
i.e. it's a case
of every man for himself.
82. Chan eil an sin ach buille beag air bàrr na crudha.
That is nothing more than a light blow on
the tip of a horseshoe.
83. Chan eil ann ach sgarbh na faile.
He is only a smelly cormorant (?).
84. Chan eil carraig air nach caochail sruth, ach carraig
There is no headland where the tide does not
turn, except the black hjeadland of Lismore.
from the Firth of Lorne, Loch Linnhe and the Sound of Mull converge close to
the western tip of Lismore (where the lighthouse is situated). This creates a
whirlpool which is noticeable at all states of the tide.
85. Chan eil deur air an t-sùil, ged tha 'n cù caoineadh.
There's no tear in the dog's eye, although
Often used of
children who cry frequently and for very little reason. The saying can also be
extended to crocodile tears.
86. Chan eil do dhuine sona ach a bhreith; chan eil do
dhuine dona acha bhreith is àrach.
A lucky mam needs only to be born; an
unlucky man needs to be born and brought up.
Cf. C, no. 296.
87. Chan eil dùthchas aig bean no ministear.
A woman and a minister have no patrimony.
substitutionof ministear for sagart
('priest'), which is normally used in this saying, is interesting.
88. Chan eil gealladh air latha.*
No day is guaranteed.
i.e. there is no certainty about the
89. Chan eil fhios dè as fheàrr do cheann carrach, fuachd no
Nobody knows what best suits a scabby head,
whether it be cold or heat.
Cf. C, no. 310.
90. Chan fhaca long mòr riamh gun gheòla bheag aice.
No big ship has ever been seen which hasn't
had a little boat (on board).
i.e. precautions ought to be taken, however
large the enterprise.
91. Chan fhaigh a' ghortag cnàmh.
A penurious woman will not get a (single)
92. Chan fheàrr an cat cam air fiosachd na mi fhèin.
The one-eyed cat is no better at telling the
future than I am.
93. Chan fheàrr duine falamh na duine air a' chuthach.
A man who possesses nothing is better than a
94. Cho amh ri iasg.
As raw as fish.
95. Cho bodhar ri crann-tarruing.
As deaf as a wooden pin.
96. Cho bog ri cailleach-cheòsach.
As soft as a wood-louse.
97. Cho cam ri cù a mhùin air sneachd.
As squint as a dog that relieved itself on
98. Cho carrach ri craiceann dallaig.
rough as the skin of a dogfish.
99. Cho daor ris an aran mhilis.
expensive as sweet bread.
100. Cho lom ris a' chearc bhon chòcaire.
As bare as a hen which has come from the
101. Cho searbh ri sùgh na sealbhaig.
As bitter as the sap of common sorrel.
102. Cho sèimh ris an uachdar.
As unruffled as cream.
103. Cho siùbhlach ri srannachan.
As fast-moving as a humming board.
In Tiree, a srannachan was usually a piece of
rounded leather with a serrated edge. A string passed through two holes in the
centre of the piece, and when the string was wound up and pulled, the srannachan could be kept in perpetual
motion at high speed.
104. Cho tioram ri tòn an t-sagairt.
As dry as a priest's bottom.
105. Cho trang ri triùir ann an leabaidh.
As busy as three in a bed.
106. Cho trang 's nach eil suidhe ri cas.
So busy that no foot can rest.
For cas ('foot'), tigh is
often substituted, giving a meaning, 'So busy that there's no time to sit at
107. Chuir ceòl bho chèile sinn, 's thug ceòl gu chèile
Music caused us to separate, andmusic reconciled us.
108. Clach a bhios air thurraman, tuitidh i uaireigin.
A stone which keeps rocking will fall
109. Comharradh na gaillinn, eòin na mara air tìr.
a sign of a storm when seabirds come inland.
110. Cù gramach, each breabach, tè bheulach is fear sgeulach
- bi nad earalas orra.
A dog that bites, a horse that kicks, a plausible
woman and a gossiping man - be on your guard with them.
111. Cuid a bha is cuid nach robh, mar a bha iasgach
Some that were, and some that weren't, like
Fair Donald's fishing.
112. Cùm thusa an giadh is spiònaidh mis'e.
You hold the goose and I'll pluck it.
113. Cùm thusa sin romhad, mar a bha am fear a ghoid a'
Keep that in front of you, like the man who
stole the pig.
114. Cut! Cut! a chait, 's do chraiceann air a ruadhadh!
Get out of the way, cat - your coat has been
Said of people
who have gone close to a source of danger, and have been slightly scathed.
115. Dàil aon oidhche, dàil ceud bliadhna.
delay for one night is to delay for a hundred years.
116. Dèan gu math is geibh thu gu math.
Deal well, and you will be well dealt with.
117. Deireadh an latha Di-sathurna, 's ann a nì an fheannag
It's at the end of the day, on a Saturday,
that the crow relieves itself.
This saying is
used when a person from whom help is expected turns up late, and then does very
118. Deoch-slàinte a' mhinig nach tig,
is tric a'
mhinig a thàinig;
ach b' fheàrr
leam gur h-e minig nach tig
àite a' mhinig a thàinig.
Here's a health to what has frequently
not happened, and often (a health) to what has frequently happened; but I wish
that what has often not happened were in the place of what has happened. (?)
119. Duine gun dòigh, duine gun rath.
A man without means is a man without
120. Duine nach toir an aire air a' ghnothach, nach toir a
ghnothach an aire air.
If a man doesn't attend to his business, his
business will not attend to him.
chlaisich 's each air bhàin.*
A horse in the furrow and a horse on the
This gives the
correct positions for a team of two horses in a plough.
122. Eadar an dorus 's an ursann.
Between the door and the doorpost.
123. Fada caol, mar a bha laogh a' mhinistir.
Long and lanky, like the ministers's calf.
124. Falbh a-nis, is falbh le fois.
Go now, and go in peace.
125. Faodaidh gum faigh mise latha foghair orr' fhathast.
It may yet be that they will give me a
day's help with the harvest.
Said when a person helped another; the saying
is based on the co-operation of neighbours in the main activities of the
126. Far am bi a chaora, bidh an t-uan.
Where the sheep is, the lamb will be too.
127. Far am bi an gaol tana, bidh na lochdan lìonmhor.*
Where love is thin, faults are plentiful.
128. Fear falmh 's e gun nì, suidhidh e fada shìos o chàch.
A poor man with no possessions will sit far
down from other people.
Cf. C no. 37.
129. Fhuair iad athair do Rob.
have found a father for Rob.
sarcastically, when people discuss the paternity of an illegitimate child.
130. Gabhaidh gach dath dubh, ach cha ghabh dubh dath.
Every colour will absorb black, but black
will not absorb another colour.
Cf. N 298, 1.
131. 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.
Cf. C no. 490.
132. Ge bith cò a bhios san fhèith, bidh fear na bò fhèin
Whoever (else) is in the bog, the owner of
the cow himself will be there.
133. Ge bith cò a dh' òrdaich an ceòl, pàigheadh e e.
Whoever called for the music can pay for it.
134. Ge bith dè gheibh cearac a' sgrìoban, chan fhaigh cearc
a' crùban dad.
Whatever a hen may get by scraping, it
will not get anything by crouching.
135. Gealltanas math 's droch phàigheadh.
good promise and a poor pay.
136. Geàrr an toiseach e, 's geàrr a rithist e; an treas
uair bidh e ceart.
it to begin with, and cut it again; the third time it will be right.