Scottish Proverbs-"A New Walk in an Old Field" [1]

By Williams, Fionnuala Carson | Folklore, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Scottish Proverbs-"A New Walk in an Old Field" [1]


Williams, Fionnuala Carson, Folklore


In two recent articles in Folklore (106[1995]:57-70 and 111 [2000]:23-42), Wolfgang Mieder has drawn attention to the use of proverbs in English writing and letters. This note offers information about past and present Scottish proverbs and makes suggestions for future paremiological research.

The distinctiveness of Scottish proverbs has been exploited by copywriters and manufacturers. From the last century there has been a tendency to give popular publications on Scottish life, for instance, cookery books [2] a national flavour by sprinkling them with proverbs. Products such as tea towels both for the home market and for souvenirs have also employed the proverb to enhance their Scottishness.

The value of the proverb in arresting readers' attention has been fully realised by newspaper editors; widespread and common proverbs are frequently used, particularly for headlines. The proverb can be quoted verbatim as in "Forewarned is forearmed when the psychological sellers call," but is more often altered to a greater or lesser degree to suit the particular copy, as in the following: "All not equal under the sun" and "Old wounds that no amount of time will heal." Refutations of the original proverb, like the ones cited, or a parody or play on the original words, are often employed as in the following about the exposure of the alleged antics of a Thai Buddhist monk on the deck of a ferry: "Kama Sutra before the storm on a Norwegian cruise." In the main they appear to be Standard English, although this is not always so, as demonstrated by the apposite punning caption for a piece on planning permission for land in Alloway near Robert Burns's birthplace: "A plan's a plan for a' that!" [3] Advertisers also realise how effectively proverbs can catch the eye and ear and frequently employ them (see Mieder 1975; Mieder and Mieder 1977).

The mass media, widespread literacy, and reading habits have greatly facilitated the spread of proverbs both within Scotland and to it from other lands. "It takes two to tango," for example, is familiar all over Scotland although only comparatively recently imported, as described in "Proverbs in American Popular Songs" (Mieder 1988, 90-1). It is, in fact, well enough known to have been parodied in the Scottish tabloid press as: "It takes two to quango" (Sunday Mail, 10 April 1994:2).

Proverbial material is being disseminated, not only by the mass media, but in a wide variety of ways. Businesses, especially public houses, hairdressers and cafes, use it for their names--The Jewel in the Crown, an Indian restaurant in Dumfries, was noted in November 1994, and a modern service station in the north-east of Scotland carries the saying: "Ye could gang faur and fare waur" [You could go far and fare worse].

Although the transmission of proverbs has been essentially oral--tempered, of course, by interaction with printed sources--there have certainly been many other minor factors in maintaining currency which should not be overlooked and, indeed, merit closer examination. At the heart of the kitchen in Culzean Castle, Ayrshire (and this is just one of many in similar establishments)--above the cooking place and below a clock--the patronising, command-like advice "Waste not, want not" is starkly enamelled on a white oval plaque embedded in the plaster. A precedent for displaying proverbs in the interiors of high-status dwellings and also churches was set especially between 1550 and 1650 when Scottish fashion was keeping pace with painted Renaissance decoration generally (Apted 1966). From time to time through the ages, there have in addition been fashions to include proverbs on portable artefacts such as vessels and furniture as well as on more personal objects such as jewellery.

Sources For Older Versions

Collections

Our knowledge of proverbs in Scotland, especially the earlier versions, is overwhelmingly based on printed collections which, in their first form, were generally gathered diligently by one person from contemporary oral tradition and presented in full-length books (see Anderson 1957; Fenton 1959, 67-71; Parsons 1971). …

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