Thursday 21 February 2013

Some Aspects of Scottish Wit and Humour (1919)

The articles, in the "Standard" which have dealt with Ulstermen and Ulster-Scots lead one to think of one characteristic common to both; that lighter quality commonly called wit. It has been said that the Scottish people do not possess the faculty of being witty. Not only that, but also that it requires a surgical operation to put a joke into a Scotsman's head. We all know of the Scot who heard a funny story one morning, and to the surprise of everybody, had a violent fit of laughter just at suppertime. It had taken the intervening time; for the pith and point of the joke to soak into his humourless brain! Nevertheless, a Scot can be funny, and he does appreciate humour when he sees it, no matter how the general opinion seems all the other way.

Of course, there is a great difference between the humour of the Irish man and the Scot; the one is merry and joyous and sparkling with laughter, like the effect a bright Irish sky would have on the temperament; the latter is dour and heavy, often pawky, and bears the effect of the more stern upbringing and sober atmosphere of Scottish life. We are speaking of the humour of a century ago. Alas, it has gone! The rush of present-day civilisation has quite changed both; that is in the more industrial re-modernised parts of both countries. How could we expect the quaint, ingenuous sallies we read of in by-gone days to thrive under smoky skies and amidst the worry and bustle of modern life. In those by-gone days things were taken at more leisurely pace, and more of the real essence of life's joy and laughter was got out of it. In comparison, present-day wit as we hear it, or read it in paper and magazine is lamentably thin and watery. Now it has become a profession almost to be funny; then it was real, integral part of the daily life of the people. The gift of humour in its many grades was common to all classes, and the poorest or humblest thought nothing of pointing a joke or directing a witty sarcasm at their superiors. In spite of all our advantages, indeed, it is doubtful if all ranks of society to-day are in as intimate connection with each other as they were then -- so delightfully and simply, too. We propose to retail a few of those choice stories with this in view, showing how in the Scottish life of that time the gift of humour was a gift common to all classes. In the main these stories are quoted from Dean Ramsay's "Reminiscences of Scottish Life and Character." One of the commonest features of the Scot, lowland or highland, is his coolness in all circumstances, his refusal to get excited or over-exhuberant, no matter how the circumstances call for such. This dry and unconcerned quality is seen to advantage in the following story, a gentleman was sitting in a stage-coach at Berwick, and was complaining bitterly to his fellow-passengers of the condition of the cushion on which he sat. On looking up to the roof he saw a hole from which the rain was descending copiously. He called for the coachman, and in great wrath reproached him with the evil under which the suffered, and pointed to the hole which was the cause of it. All the satisfaction he got, however, was the quiet unmoved reply, "Ay, mony a ane has complained o' that hole." The following is a good example of child-humour and shows that the humourist also is born not made.  It is related of the son of an old Mr. Campbell, of Jura. It seems the boy was much spoilt by indulgence. In fact, the parents were scarce able to refuse him anything he demanded. He was in the drawing room on one occasion when dinner was announced, and on being ordered up to the nursery, he insisted on going down to dinner with the company. His mother was for refusal, but the child persevered, and kept saying, "If I dinna gang, I'll tell thou." His father then for peace sake let him go. So he went and sat at a table by his mother. When he found everyone getting soup, and himself omitted, he demanded soup, and repeated, "If tell thou." His father then for peace given, and various other things yielded to his importunities, to which he always added the usual threat of "telling thou." At last when it came to wine, his mother stood firm, and positively refused, as "a bad thing for boys" and so on. He then became more vociferous than ever about "telling thou," and as still he was refused, he declared, "Now, I will tell them thou," and at last roared out, "Ma new breeks were made oot o' the auld curtains." We mentioned that there was perfect freedom in these days between all classes, and many a joke was made by servant at the expense of master, without the slightest offence being taken. The following is a case in point. A former Duke of Athol was met one day by one of his gardeners. He asked him, "How Marget, his wife, was the day," to which the man replied that she had that morning given birth to twins. Upon which the Duke who had no family of his own, said, "Well, Donald, ye ken the Almighty never sends bairns without the meet." To which Donald replied, "That may be, your grace, but whiles I think that Providence maks a mistak in thae matters, and sends the bairns to ae hoose and the meat to anither." Next to the Laird, the minister probably came in the social scale, and, while the folk had a due respect for his office, sometimes his person and his performance did not escape their shafts of humour. A young minister was preaching for a few Sundays in a country pulpit, and on one of these occasions dined with one of the famers after service was over. He thought it necessary to apologise to his host for eating so substantial a dinner. "You see," he said, "I am always very Hungry after preaching." The old gentleman, not much admiring the youth's ministrations at last replied sarcastically, "Indeed, sir, I'm no' surprised at it, considering the trash that came off your stomach in the morning." The following story is also good. The Laird in this case being the unconscious humourist. A Laird in a small way once called see the late Duke of Hamilton, with whom he had business, and the Duke politely asked him to lunch. A liveried servant waited upon them, and was most assiduous in his attentions to the Duke and his guest. At last the latter lost patience, and looking at the servant, addressed him thus, "What the deil are ye dance, dancing, about the room that gait; can ye no draw in your chair, and sit down? I'm sure there's plenty on the table for three!" Our last story has a touch of grimness about it. Funerals in the days we speak of were attended by scenes the reverse of solemn and a farmer had been exercising hospitality at an inn near by his house, where his second wife lay dead. The master of the inn on looking over his bill, defended his charge as moderate, when the farmer reminded him "Ye forget, man, that its no ilka ane that brings a second funeral to your house."

These are few specimens of the humorsome tendencies of the past generation of Scots. Dean Ramsay's "Reminiscences" from which these samples are culled is, indeed, a treasure, and the lucky owner of his immortal work can, when he is so minded dip into its pages anywhere, and find himself refreshed by the charm of his writing. In a future issue we hope to quote and comment on a few more of these stories.

(This article (though not the illustrations) was originally published in the Lisburn Standard on 21 February 1919. The text along with other extracts can be found on my website Eddies Extracts.)

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