Gaelic and Celtic Customs
from the Hebrides and Beyond

Fada's Farsaing (Far and Wide) is a series of articles by Liam O Caiside in English but with Gaelic words and phrases interwoven in the text. The articles describe a wide range of Gaelic and Celtic customs. These pages were originally published in the "Scottish Radiance" e-magazine and have been reproduced here with the kind permission of the Scottish Radiance editor, Sharma Krauskopf.

An seanfhacal gu fada fìor, cha bhreugaichear an seanfhacal.
"The old saying long held true shall never be belied."

Proverbs are, as the well-worn proverbial phrase goes, as old as the hills. But they typically receive little attention as a form of oral literature or folklore. Their value lies not only in the wisdom or advice they contain -- shopworn as it may on occasion seem -- but in their wit, their linguistic artistry and in the unique cultural viewpoint they often convey. Proverbs can be a window onto the thoughts and values of a people, reflecting their outlook on the world. (The example on the right and at the end are via Wikimedia)

Lately proverbs have come back into their own. Go to your local bookstore, and you'll probably find a several collections of proverbs, ranging from slab-like illustrated tomes meant to adorn coffee-tables to miniature books designed to be slipped into a lover's coat pocket or purse.

Most of these books follow ethnic or linguistic lines, and the Scots and their fellow Celts are well represented. Two recently released books in particular deserve special mention: "A Little Book of Gaelic Proverbs" compiled by W.A. and H.R. Ross and published by Appletree Press, Belfast, and the reissue of the granddaddy of them all, "Gaelic Proverbs", edited by Andrew Nicolson, first published in 1881 and reprinted in 1996 by Birlinn, Edinburgh.

The first is a small (60-page) collection of Scottish Gaelic proverbs strikingly illustrated by Brian Fitzgerald. It is one of a series of "little books" that deal with Scottish, Irish and Celtic topics, ranging from proverbs to toasts, recipes, verse, history and songs. "Each different society gives its proverbs a tincture of their own," the editors or compilers write, while stressing the universal nature of proverbs in general: "The essentials of human needs remain the same across the globe."

Some interesting examples from the book:

Cha shoirbh triubhas a chur air cat "It's not easy to put trews (trousers) on a cat."
Gheibh cearc an sgrìoban rudeigin, is chan fhaigh cearc a' chrùbain dad idir."The scraping hen will find something, but the creeping hen will find nothing."
Ge milis a' mhil, cò dh'imlicheadh o bhàrr dri i? "Honey may be sweet, but who would lick it from the top of a briar?"

Many of the proverbs, like these, express concepts familiar to English speakers in refreshingly different ways, with stimulating imagery and language.

My only complaint with the book is the claim that these proverbs give us insights into a society "now gone," a long-lost Celtic heroic age.

It's true that cattle-raiding and other time-honored Gaelic customs have gone out of fashion in the past few centuries, but I've heard proverbs similar to the ones in this book from the lips of people living today in the Hebrides and Cape Breton. (And one not in this book -- cho teth ri brochan Aonghuis Ruaidh -- "As hot as Red Angus's porridge," a personal favorite received with thanks from Maighread Cooper of North Uist.)

Gaelic proverbs may be rooted in antiquity, but they are often contemporary as well, a part of living Gaelic culture.

The second book is the ultimate source book for Scottish Gaelic proverbs, or seanfhaclan (old sayings) -- its nearly 500 pages contain almost 4,000 proverbs.

Nicolson himself based his work on an 18th century collection of proverbs -- the first effort to gather and publish Scottish Gaelic wise sayings -- by Donald Macintosh. This volume was published in 1785, along with a Gaelic translation of Benjamin Franklin's "Way to Wealth"! Ben Franklin╣s work was translated by Robert Macfarlane, a schoolmaster, at the request of the Earl of Buchan.

Macintosh's aim, described in his collection, was to "preserve the language, and a few remains of the ancient customs of Scotland, by bringing so many of the proverbial sayings of the people into one point of view." Nicolson expanded this work greatly, tripling the number of proverbs in the collection.

Nicolson was quick to stress the moral character of the proverbs he recorded, and he certainly felt the need to defend Gaelic culture against its detractors. The proverbs, he said, "expressed the thoughts and feelings of hardy, frugal, healthy-minded and healthy-bodied men, who spent most of their time in the fields, in the woods, on the moors and on the sea."

They reflect, he believed, "a high moral standard, an intelligence shrewd and searching, a singular sense of propriety and grace, and, what may be considered one of the tests of intellectual rank and culture, a distinct sense of humour, never found among savages or clod-hoppers."

Thankfully, he compared Scottish Gaelic proverbs with Irish, Manx, Welsh, Breton, English, Scots, Danish, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Arabic Latin and Greek proverbs. Of the Isle of Man, which has a great store of "raaghyn-creeney" or wise sayings, he notes: "sayings are still found in words almost identical with ours which must have originated in a prehistoric period, when the Isle of Man, the north of Ireland, the south-west of Scotland and the Hebrides spoke the same Gaelic tongue, and had constant intercourse."

Now for some examples from Nicolson's text:

Am fear a bhuaileadh mo chù, bhuaileadh e mifhéin. "The man who would strike my dog would strike me." A good measure of character, I think.
Chan eil ach mòran eadar a' bh˛ 's a mheanbh-chuileag "The cow is only a good deal bigger than the midge." As any visitor to the Highlands and Islands in summer could tell you.
Some proverbs had to do with weather, or holidays, such as:

Cha tig Geamhradh gu cùl Callainn, no Earrach gu cùl Fhèill Pàraig. "Winter comes not till after New Year, nor Spring till after St. Patrick's Day."
Others display a fine sense of irony and wit:

Is mòr am beathach nach tiochd a-muigh. "It's a big beast that there isn't room for outside."
Mòran sgalan, 's beagan ollainn, mun dubhairt Muisean 's e lomairt na muice. "Great cry and little wool, as the Devil said when he sheared the sow."
Some are particularly ancient, with literary or mythological allusions:

Cho teòma ri Coibhi Druidh. "As clever as Coibhi the Druid." Nicolson could not trace the origins of this proverb, or the derivation of the name Coibhi. Could it be that Coibhi is a corruption of Cathbhadh, the druid of King Conchobhar in the story of Deirdre and the Ulster cycle of heroic tales from early medieval Ireland?
There are many clan-related sayings as well, and many of them none too kind:

Clann Diarmaid nam busa dubha, cuiribh riu is beiribh orra. "The black-mouthed MacDiarmids, go at them and catch them." Clann Diarmaid were Campbells.
Faram 's na toiream, fasan Chlann D˛mhnaill. "Give me, but let me not give -- the MacDonald fashion." A less partisan version in Scots is "Ye come o the MacTaks, an no o the MacGies."

But Nicolson's book contains more than proverbs -- his notes include several poems, rhymes and rare expressions that are treasures in themselves, especially for the Gaelic learner. I'll end with one:

A h-uile latha sona dhut,
Gun latha idir dona dhut!

Good to you every day,
without an evil day to you!

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