Great Scottish Grannies By All Definitions

Her uncle (when I, a mere Englishman, might say "Oh, come off it!" or "Go and take a running jump!") used to say: "Och, yer grannie!" He used it to put down the preposterous or silly. All the dismissive emphasis rested on "grannie."

The Scots are experts at this kind of thing. Being married to his niece, I know firsthand. A schoolteacher by profession, she probably needs a store of useful expressions for general survival tactics. We've known each other a while now, but occasionally some circumstance prompts a Scottish expression I haven't heard before, as if it is a seed deep in her folk memory waiting for the right conditions to pop out of the soil.

"Where did you get that one from?" I ask, bemused.

"I've no idea," she invariably replies.

Some of her sayings come quite frequently. Her version of "Och, yer grannie!" is "Och, away and skooch your dooch!" (I am uncertain about the spelling, but the "ch" must be said with full Scots throatiness.) Another is "Och, away to Fintry!" (Fintry is a village not far from Loch Lomond.)

Or, "Och, away to Paisley!" Paisley is only just outside her home city of Glasgow. I asked her if Fintry and Paisley were considered rustic and remote by Glaswegians and thus ideal places of banishment.

She replied, "I've no idea."

My theory is that most of her sayings come from her "grannie," if not directly, then at least by subliminal hand-me-down.

According to my "Concise Scots Dictionary," the word "grannie" is the Scots spelling for "granny." It has some delightful additional meanings: [2] the last sheaf cut at harvest time; [3] a hairy caterpillar, the larva of the tiger moth; [4] a chimney-cowl. Only when it gets to definition [5] does it discuss my wife's uncle's phrase. The dialogue used to illustrate is a delight: "We might have improvised...." "Improvised yer grannie."

It strikes me that maybe this avuncular usage might have nothing to do with grandmothers at all, but could refer to hairy caterpillars or chimney-cowls. Why not?

Second and third dictionary definitions are no less valid than first ones. They all represent usage, and they demonstrate the rich layers of meaning many words contain. If only first definitions were allowable (as some word-afficionados propose), language would wither away.

It would be reduced to a paucity of significance, starved of its history and its potential.

Nevertheless, the grandmotherly imagination, Scottish or otherwise, undoubtedly enriches the words and sayings of nations. A little paperback published in Glasgow last year is "dedicated to grannies everywhere" but concentrates on "Your Scottish Granny's Favourite Sayings."

I never met my Scottish granny. She moved to New Zealand well before my time, and didn't return. None of her sayings ever reached me.

Eighteen years of living in Glasgow have gone some way toward allaying this deficiency, however. And now there's this collection of sayings put together by Allan Morrison. Morrison says Scottish grannies "are a special breed." His book's title is just the sort of thing they say to kids - or anyone - who won't be quiet: "Haud Yer Wheesht!"

"Wheesht!" by itself means "Quiet!", and "Haud your wheesht'' bears the additional connotation of "hold your tongue." But one thing is clear:

Scottish grannies may tell others to be quiet, but they don't practice what they preach, not for a "wee minent." They are "blethers" all of them - a "blether" being a person who talks too much. Or how else did they come up with all these sayings?

THEIR sayings seem to cover most of life, and of course they contradict each other left, right, and center. Just before "Haud yer wheesht" in Morrison's book is "Kindly words are best fr the mooth." (Say gentle words only - you may have to eat them later.)

And it is hardly "kindly" to say: "Some folks' minds are like the wind in a winter's nicht" or "Away and dry your chin" (another version of "Be quiet").

These grannie statements are wise, canny, funny, or just plain sensible by turns.

Observation is built in. I like particularly: " 'Cana be done," which means "If you want a Scotsman to do something, tell him it cannot be done." "We're a' Jock Tamson's bairns." (We're all equal, all Adam's children.) "It's not darkness that puts oot the candle." And "Picnic spots are always better farther on."

Some, naturally, are sayings designed to foster respect for grandmothers.

For example: "You can fool ithers but no yer auld grannie." Or, "Never throw yer grannie aff a bus." (Don't be careless with grandmothers; they're priceless.) Or the sublime Glasgow version of "What do you take me for?": "Dae ye think I come up the [River] Clyde on a bike?"

Missing, though, is one I heard: "Are ye trying to teach yer grannie how to have babbies?"

I don't think I made it up. But if you ask me where it came from, I'd have to say "I've no idea."

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