A Gude Conceit


THE Scotsman prays ‘O Lord, gi’e us a gude conceit of oorsel’s.’ A prayer which, as Ian Hay points out, has been ‘abundantly well answered.’

It is a conceit that is not like the conceit of the men of other nations — of the men, I say advisedly, for it does not — or does very rarely — touch the women of Scotland, perhaps because there must be someone to do the admiring. Nor yet is it the ordinary conceit of the male. It is a brightening of the eye, an erecting of the head, a puffing out of the chest, a ‘Here am I, a Scotsman: scion of the oldest and gr-r-randest race on earth; of the land of swinging kilts, and skirling pipes, and frowning mountain-sides, and gray castles where the Bonnie Prrrince has spent a night.’ It is the conceit that comes of pride of country for its stirring deeds, its rugged honesty, its romance, — which is good, — and of pride in self as the point on which all these virtues have focused — which is less good.

Here let me hasten to say that no one admires and appreciates the excellent qualities of Scotland and the Scots more than I do, I who am half a Scot myself. I am not casting aspersions on them when I speak of this conceit of theirs. It is more than counterbalanced by their independence, their love of liberty and hatred of ‘chains and slavery’ that influenced Patrick Henry and James Wilson, and through them our own blow for freedom, far more than counterbalanced by their loyalty. Like Alan Breck — who was also, by the way, one of the most conceited men that ever glorified the pages of a book — they are ‘no’ so very bonny,’ but they’re ‘leal to them they lo’e.’ It reminds one of their own homely, shaggy, faithful Highland terriers. And then their courage! Only before the supernatural do we find the Scot quailing. An old Book of Common Prayer contains this petition in its Litany: —

From ghoulies and ghosties,
And long-leggited beasties,
And things that go Boomp! in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

It has frequently been remarked that the Scotsman is, to use his own term, ‘canny,’ to use ours, ‘tight.’ That, however, is an attack scarcely worth consideration, and easily disposed of. For are not the people in the North of all countries accused of that very same defect? The Galician is the mock of Spain, the Lombard, of Italy, and who in America has the reputation of driving a harder bargain than the New Englander? It is a matter of relative locality.

It has been said that to find a true picture of the character of a people, you must turn to their ballads and their folklore: there you find their natural expression of themselves, produced without self-consciousness or desire for effect. And in the ballads, especially those dealing with the ever alluring theme, love, do we find the Scotsman’s conceit most evident.

There is no vulgar truckling to a woman’s beauty or sweetness; any Scotsman is the equal — thus far do they condescend to follow the conventions of love-making; what they really mean is the superior — of any woman.

The Laird of Cockpen, the one whose ‘mind was ta’en up wi’ things of the state,’ and who thought that ‘favor wi’ wooin’ was fashous to seek,’ when he went courting ‘McClish’s ae dochter of Claverse-ha-lea,’ was absolutely amazed and dumfounded when the lady, though only ‘a penniless lass wi’ a lang pedigree,’ proved blind to his attractions and worldly advantages, and uncompromisingly — and somewhat curtly, one feels — said ‘Na.’

Such a quick and unflattering decision on the part of a lady might well shake the self-confidence of the ordinary man. Not so the Laird of Cockpen.

. . . Nae sigh did he gie,
He mounted his mare; he rade cannily;
And aften he thought, as he gaed through the glen,
’She’s daft to refuse the Laird of Cockpen!’

Perhaps such self-assurance is not surprising in a laird, but it persists through all the strata of society, down to one Willie whose father was emphatically ‘nae laird,’ although, to be just to him, ‘he keppit ay a good kailyard and a ha’ house and a pantry.’

‘Will ye compare a nasty pack,’ protests the upstanding son of this menage, ‘to me, your winsome Willie?’

Furthermore, this sturdy self-respect is present in an entirely unknown gentleman, without lands or position, apparently without even a kail-yard; his only attraction is that he is ‘young and stout,’ and that, as he himself observes, ‘ nane dances like me on the green.’ (At least, I gather that he has no material wealth or position: none are mentioned; and my experience with Scotsmen, especially Scotsmen a-wooing, tells me that if there had been any of these things, he would certainly have spoken of them.) At all events, this unknown coolly warns his fiancee: —

And gin ye forsake me, Marion,
I’ll e’en draw up wi’ Jean.

This readiness to substitute another lady at the slightest indication that the intended lacks the proper spirit of appreciation is frequently seen in the Scottish lover. Even young Lochinvar, the epitome of the romantic, haughtily reminds fair Ellen’s choleric parent that

Love swells like the Solway, but ebbs like its tide.

Moreover, he declares severely,

There are maidens in Scotland more lovely by far,
That would gladly be bride to the young Lochinvar.

One wonders whether, if Ellen had heard this remark somewhat derogatory to her beauty, she would have leaped to the saddle with quite so much alacrity a few minutes later.

But of all the braw young Highlanders who ever went a-courting, decidedly the handsomest and the bonniest was the one Leezie Lindsay was lucky enough to get. He, too, had a gude conceit of himself. Without further introduction, he asks her: —

Will ye gang wi’ me, Leezie Lindsay,
My bride and my darling to be?

She parries his advance with considerable skill. No one could turn dowm ‘cold’ the kilted youth who stood before Leezie; on the other hand every girl is taught to be wary about a ‘pickup’— which this undoubtedly was. She resorted to familiar feminine tactics, refusing without entirely withdrawing hope.

To gang to the Hielands with you, sir,
I dinna ken how that may be,
For I ken na the land that you live in,
Na ken I the lad I’m gaun wi’.

To which he replies with naïve astonishment : —

Oh, Leezie, lass, ye maun ken little,
If sae ye dinna ken me,
For I am Lord Ronald MacDonald,
A chieftain of high degree.

At this point it is hard to defend the Scots from the charge of canniness, when we consider with what speed, after hearing this pleasing bit of information: —

She’s kilted her skirts of green satin,
She’s kilted them up to the knee,
And she’s off with Lord Ronald MacDonald,
A chieftain of high degree.

But, after all, Leezie was Sassenach.

I hear somebody saying, ‘But these were written several years ago! How unjust to judge the modern Scot by them!’ In answer to which I recall the Scotsman’s prayer — I am sorry to drag in his prayers so frequently, but then it is one of his principal virtues that he is ‘verra releegious’ —

‘O Lord, start me right, for thou knowest, Lord, thou canst not change me.’