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The Unspeakable ScotByThomas William Hodgson Crosland

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The Unspeakable Scot

By

Thomas William Hodgson Crosland

Table of Contents

I.  THE SUPERSTITION

II.  PREDECESSORS

III.  THE POW-WOW MEN

IV.  THE SCOT IN JOURNALISM

V.  THRUMS AND DRUMTOCHTY

VI.  BARBIE

VII.  THE BARD

VIII.  THE SCOT AS A CRITIC

IX.  THE SCOT AS BIOGRAPHER

X.  THE SCOT IN LETTERS

XI.  THE SCOT IN COMMERCE

XII.  THE SCOT AS A DIPSOMANIAC

XIII.  THE SCOT AS CRIMINAL

XIV.  THE SCOT BY ADOPTION

XV.  THE SCOT AND ENGLAND

XVI.  THE WAY OUT

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FOOTNOTES

I. THE SUPERSTITION

This book is for Anglo-Saxons. It is also in the nature of a broad hint for Scotchmen. My qualification to bestow broad hints upon the politest and most intellectual of the peoples is that I possess a large fund of contempt for the Scottish character. Also, I had the misfortune to be born on a day which is marked, sadly enough, in the calendars, Burns died. So that, one way and another, I appear to have been raised up for the work before us, even as Dr. J. M. Barrie[1] was raised up to assist the fortunes of a certain brand of smoking mixture.[2]

Of course, if a man speak of the Scotch in any but the most dulcet tones he invites the onslaught of a thousand witty pens. The bare title of the present essay is pronounced by good judges to be uncomplimentary to Scotland, and I can well imagine that since its announcement Drs. Lang, Archer, Robertson Nicoll, Ross, and Hamish Hendry, together with a base residuum of anonymous reviewers, have made a point of sleeping in their clothes in order that they might be “ready, aye ready,” to deal faithfully with the haughty Southron at the earliest possible moment. I like to think, however, that Dr. Lang, who, with true Scottish shrewdness, avowed himself but yesterday a convinced crystal-gazer,[3] has had due prevision of the friendliness of my intentions. Were I disposed to bloody battle, I might have opened fire by remarking in hot type that if you scratch a Scotchman you will find a very low person indeed. Or I could have thrown from my pompom that shining projectile:

False Scot

Sold his king

For a groat.

But who, that has a feeling for warfare, would fight with a Scotchman? Such a one, I hope, does not breathe; the plain fact being that if a Scot beats you, he beats you; whereas, if you begin to beat a Scot, he will assuredly bawl, in the King’s name, for the law. “Hech, sirs, rin for the polis. Ah’m gettin’ whupped!” Let us therefore continue our discourse amicably.

Your proper child of Caledonia believes in his bones that he is the salt of the earth. Prompted by a glozing pride, not to say by a black and consuming avarice, he has proclaimed his saltiness from the house-tops in and out of season, unblushingly, assiduously, and with results which have no doubt been most satisfactory from his own point of view. There is nothing creditable to the race of men, from filial piety to a pretty taste in claret, which he has not sedulously advertised as a virtue peculiar to himself. This arrogation has served him passing well. It has brought him into unrivalled esteem. He is the one species of human animal that is taken by all the world to be fifty per cent cleverer and pluckier and honester than the facts warrant. He is the daw with a peacock’s tail of his own painting. He is the ass who has been at pains to cultivate the convincing roar of a lion. He is the fine gentleman whose father toils with a muck-fork. And, to have done with parable, he is the clumsy lout from Tullietudlescleugh, who, after a childhood of intimacy with the crudest sort of poverty, and twelve months at “the college” on moneys wrung from the diet of his family,[4] drops his threadbare kilt and comes South in a slop suit to instruct the English in the arts of civilisation and in the English language. And because he is Scotch, and the Scotch superstition is heavy on our Southern lands, England will forthwith give him a chance; for an English chance is his birthright. Soon, forbye, shall he be living in “chambers” and writing idiot books. Or he shall swell and hector and fume in the sub-editor’s room of a halfpenny paper. Or a pompous and gravel-blind city house shall grapple him to its soul in the capacity of confidential clerk. Or he shall be cashier in a jam factory, or “boo and boo” behind a mercer’s counter, or “wait on” in a coffee tavern, or, for that matter, soak away his chapped spirit in the four-ale bars off Fleet Street. Hence, as an elegant writer in one of the weekly reviews puts it, the Englishman “is painfully aware that it is the Scot who thrusts him aside in the contest for many of the best prizes.”

When one turns to the intimate study of the Scotch character as limned by Scotch authority, one finds oneself confronted with the work of two schools of artists, which, for the sake of convenience, we will dub the Old and New Schools. The Old School—of which, by the way, every Scotchman save one is either a member or a supporter—has had a tremendous vogue and has accomplished superhuman things for the country and people of its love. To this school the Scotch superstition owes its origin and its firm grip on the imagination of the average white man. It is a forthright, downright, thorough sort of school, not in the least diffident or mealy-mouthed, not in the least ambiguous, not in the least infected with that “proud reserve” which is understood to be Scotland’s noblest heritage. Among the choice exemplars of the art of the Old School—and it has thousands of choice exemplars—we may reckon Dr. George Lockhart, who wrote the Memoirs and thereby earned for himself imperishable fame. Lockhart was a “Scotland-for-ever” man of the first water. “As for the [Scots],” he says, “none will, I think, deny them to have been a Brave, Generous, Hardy People.… As the Scots were a Brave, so likewise were they a Polite People; every Country has its own peculiar Customs, and so had Scotland, but in the main they lived and were refined as other Countries; and this won’t seem strange, for the English themselves allow the Scots to be a Wise and Ingenious People, for say they to a Proverb, ‘They never knew a Scots Man a Fool.’ And if so, what should hinder them from being as well bred and civilised as any other People? Those of Rank (as they still do) travelled Abroad into foreign Countries for their Improvement, and vast numbers, when their Country at home did not require their services [mark the fine sophistry] went into that of foreign Princes, from whence after they had gained immortal Honour and Glory, they returned home; and as it is obvious that at this very time (which must chiefly proceed from this humour of Travelling) the Scotch Gentry do far exceed those of England, so that in the one you shall find all the accomplishments of well-bred gentleman, and in your country English Esquires all the Barbarity imaginable.”[5] Thus Dr. George Lockhart, two hundred years ago. ’Tis a fair picture and a winning, if a trifle overstated. There stands your brilliant, and at the same time unassuming, figure of a Scotchman—“brave,” “generous,” “hardy,” “polite,” “refined,” “not a fool,” “well bred,” “civilised,” “travelled,” “wise,” “ingenious,” and immortally “honourable” and “glorious.” Who can withstand him? Who would deny him the look of love, the patriot glow? Certainly not the men of his own blood, who have their livings to get. Certainly not the Scotchman, who perceives, by favour of Dr. Lockhart, his own impeccable sonsie self done to the life. To this day the artists of the Old School continue to paint the same inspiring portrait, and if you look into the latest replica, by no less judicial a hand than that of Dr. John Hill Burton[6] you shall discover the undying lineaments, bespeaking the undying virtues, and composed sweetly to the purposes of the undying advertisement.

So much for the Old School. As for the New School, I take credit that it is a discovery of my own. It consists of one man only. He is a Scotchman, and his name is William Robertson Nicoll. Dr. Nicoll is the editor of the British Weekly. He also edits the Bookman, and lounges round letters in a paper called the Sketch. Some time ago this great and good Scotchman was accused of indulging in too many literary aliases. We were then informed by a protégé of his that it would be well for us to lift reverent eyes and behold in Dr. William Robertson Nicoll “a force in letters”—“the only force, some of us think,” added the incense-breathing protégé. We looked and beheld. Also we read, in Who’s Who, that Dr. Nicoll was the author of The Lamb of God, The Key of the Grave, The Incarnate Saviour, The Return to the Cross, The Secret of Christian Experience, Songs of Rest, and Sunday Afternoon Verses, all, no doubt, excellent and exciting works, but obviously sealed to a department of letters in which we have not specialised. Therefore, we took “the-force-in-letters” notion for granted. Our own idea of Dr. Robertson Nicoll’s relation to letters will be set forth duly in another chapter. Meanwhile, it is necessary to say that Dr. Nicoll is one of those delightfully irresponsible literary forces who babble of “Mr. S. R. Crockett’s great novel Joan of the Sword Hand,” in one breath, and with the next pray to be delivered from “a misuse of words.”

But let us give honour where honour is due. There are white marks even on the editor of the British Weekly. For quite two years past his dropsical pennyworth has been our constant solace in times of darkness and difficulty. Each week it contains a lengthy and helpful letter by one “Claudius Clear.” Many young Scotch writers have told us in many a useful paragraph that they do not think they are breaking a confidence when they say that “Claudius Clear” is one of the pen names of Dr. Robertson Nicoll. So that on the whole “Claudius” is a Scotchman, despite the circumstance that he dates his correspondence from Basil Regis, Middlesex, and masquerades in a name which is about as Scotch as “Schiepan.” For that matter, anybody might have guessed it from his syntax. And being a Scotchman, “Claudius” is, of course, omniscient and infallible. That is where the absurd beauty of him comes in. That, Messrs. Hodder and Stoughton, is why one reads the British Weekly. Do you wish to know how to run the Times? Would you care to be instructed in “the art of conversation”? Are you anxious to learn what is really meant by “good manners”? Would you be advised on “Order and Method,” “Brilliance,” “Overwork,” “Handwriting,” “Publishing as a Profession,” “Editing as a Profession,” “The Keeping of Old Letters,” “How to Remember and how to Forget,” “The Art of Life,” “The Art of Taking things Coolly,” “Turning Out the Fools,” or indeed on any other matter under the sun—from “Vanity” to “Samuel”?—why, you just turn up “Claudius,” and there you are; two columns which settle the question swiftly and for ever. What wonder, then, that in my anxiety to get at the truth about Scotchmen, I should turn up “Claudius”? Nor have I turned him up in vain, as witness the following admirable words:

“In the first place, the Scotsman is a son of the rock. The circumstances of his birth and upbringing are as a rule very stern. He is cradled in the storm; he has to fight for life in a rough climate, in a huddle of grey houses. The amenities of life are by no means plentiful. As a rule, money is scarce. There are few demonstrations of affection; one is made to feel that he must trust himself, that man is a soldier, and life is a fight. [Here, Scot-like, the worthy “Claudius” breaks off to indulge in a little pathetic personal reminiscence.] When I look back to my early years it seems to me that the whole atmosphere was laden with care, that the strain on the hearts of the people was so tightened by the material needs of those who depended on them that life was a taut rope on which only a trained acrobat could keep his balance. The result was a feeling of constant anxiety, a dread of the future. It was haunted by fears which could hardly be measured, and as the years went on their difficulties seemed to increase. [Which, to say the least, is clumsily put.] In this way young Scotsmen were taught to take things seriously. They knew that their right arms must serve them, and they did not lean upon others. They were thus fiercely independent. They asked nothing from those about them—the asking would be vain. As they sought nothing they would give nothing. Acknowledgment of superior position they resolutely refused; and they were ready to resent every assumption of superiority. They knew well that the door of opportunity opens but seldom, and were eager to enter it when it did open. They knew that success in any form was to be paid for, and they were willing to pay. They would work hard without complaining, and they were willing to sacrifice, and ever came to disdain the pleasures and amusements of life. They had been taught that it was of no use to complain, and they did not complain. But they made amends for this by refusing to be gracious, by a reserved and proud manner. They knew that competition was the law of life, and they were none too gentle in dealing with their competitors. Those who achieved positions were objects of criticism, and the criticism was pitiless enough. For a fight they were in constant readiness. ‘Touch me gin you daur,’ was the national motto, and there never was one more expressive of character. The Scotsman as a rule does not take the offensive, but those who meddle with him must take all the consequences.”[7]

Clearly, as one might say, a Daniel come to judgment! “Claudius Clear,” the New School, struts and roisters and swaggers as your Scot must do, or perish; but, on the whole and out of the honesty of his heart, he will modify. Perhaps he was not in the best of humours when he wrote the foregoing. Anyway it rather disposes of the gallant and debonair vision conjured up for us by the glowing pencils of the Old School. The generous, polite, refined, well-bred, civilised, and immortally honourable and glorious Scotchman of Dr. George Lockhart becomes, under the brush of Dr. Robertson Nicoll, another and a distinctly less beautiful personality. He is born on the rock. The amenities of life are not for him. He is haunted by constant fears. He will give nothing. He refuses to be gracious. He is none too gentle in dealing with his competitors. And instead of saying “Nemo me impune lacesset,” as you might expect of a young man who has been to college, he whoops “Touch me gin you daur,” like any common rowdy. When I come to think of it, I am much obliged to the New School.

On another matter—a very big matter, indeed, with your common Scotchman—Dr. Nicoll is equally frank. “I think I may also say,” he remarks, “that the Scottish people cared very much for education and knowledge, far more in my opinion than the average Englishman. They thought about learning as the New Englanders did in the days of Emerson. The learned man was much more respected than the rich man. Perhaps there was an intuition that in the end of the day knowledge is the key to everything. But thirty years ago, at all events, knowledge was regarded as an end, and its possessor was profoundly esteemed. The summum bonum[8] of the best Scottish youth in those days was to be a professor.” Summum bonum is scarcely the phrase, but that and the New Englanders may pass. Scotland, admittedly, enjoys a reputation for learning of a sort. Once, I visited Edinburgh with a Scotchman. It was a rash thing to do, yet I did it. On the road north my Scotchman filled me with tales of his country’s culture. “You are not going into a dirty English city,” quoth he, “but into a centre of light and leading. Every man, woman, and child in ‘aud Immemour’ can at least read, and every publican in the place keeps a set of Chambers’s Encyclopædia, a copy of Fox’s Book of Martyrs, and plenty of back numbers of the Nineteenth Century, just as an English publican keeps for the use of his customers the Post Office Directory and Whitaker’s Almanack.” And the first thing I noticed when we got into Edinburgh was a fruiterer’s sign, upon which was written in startling letters:

FRUITS IN THERE SEASON

All the same, I concede that the Scotch really do love learning. I gather, too, from unbiassed sources that they starve their mothers and make gin-mules of their fathers to get it. And when it is gotten, what a monstrous and unlovely possession it usually turns out to be. For your Scotchman always takes knowledge for wisdom. His learning consists wholly of “facts and figures,” all grouped methodically round that heaven-sent date, A.D. 1314,[9] and if you cannot tell him off-hand the salary of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the population of Otaheite and the names of the fixed stars, he votes you a damned ignorant Southron, and goes about telling his friends that he shouldn’t wonder if you never went to “the schule.” It may rejoice him to know that his readiness to answer all manner of questions involving book learning is in point of fact the beginnings of a species of idiocy. Persons of whom this idiocy has got properly hold are styled by the medical profession “idiot savants.” “In all asylums,” says Professor Vivian Poore, “you will find idiot savants.… There used to be at Earlswood—and I saw him when I visited Earlswood—an idiot quite incapable of taking care of himself, but who had a most extraordinary memory. When I went to the asylum the superintendent said to me: ‘Ask that man anything you like.’ It was rather a strange thing to be told to do; I said: ‘What kind of thing shall I ask about?’ And he said: ‘Any ordinary bit of knowledge.’ I said: ‘Tell me about Socrates.’ The idiot then drew himself up like a child would who was about to repeat a lesson, gave a cough, and told me about Socrates.… He knew a great deal more about Socrates than I did; he knew when he was born, why he was condemned, the name of his wife, and everything that was essential to be known. This he repeated without difficulty. The superintendent gave a grin and said: ‘Would you like to ask him anything else?’ I was afraid that the man might ask me something. I said: ‘What do you know about comets?’ Immediately he gave me—I presume correctly—all the facts about the chief comets, their periods of revolution, the names of the best known, and so on. Nothing that had ever been read by this patient did he seem to forget. The words which had been read to him seemed to have stuck to the cells of his brain like so much superior glue, and nothing would eradicate it.”[10]

How very, very, very Scotch! Who has not met just this idiot savant in a newspaper office, at the meetings of absurd societies, at the houses of uncultivated people? And always, always, he is Scotch. And always, always, he has that sententious trick of drawing himself up to launching into his subject by way of the self-satisfied cough of conscious knowledge.

And now, to make a handsome end for a brilliant chapter, let us remember

I.

That Hadrian had the excellent sense to build a wall for the purpose of keeping the Scotch out of England.

II.

That for a thousand years the Scot was England’s bitterest enemy, and plotted and made war against her with France.

III.

That the Scotch deserted that large lame woman (and, according to the Scotch, that paragon of all the virtues), Mary Stuart, in her hour of direst need.

IV.

That it was the Scotch who sold Charles I. (and a Stuart) to the Parliamentarians for £400,000.

V.

That the Stuarts were the wickedest and stupidest kings Europe has ever known.

VI.

That the Scotch are in point of fact quite the dullest race of white men in the world, and that they “knock along” simply by virtue of the Scottish superstition coupled with plod, thrift, a gravid manner, and the ordinary endowments of mediocrity.

VII.

That it was a Scotchman who introduced thistles into Canada, and that, very likely, it was a Scotchman who introduced rabbits into Australia.

II. PREDECESSORS

From the day he first clapped eyes on him, the Englishman has felt that there was something wrong about the Scotchman. And this feeling rapidly crystallised itself into literature. Many early ballads against the Scotch are to be found by him who cares to look for them. That Chaucer did not love Scotchmen is pretty certain, though there is nothing in his writings to prove it. The same holds true of Spenser. But when one comes to Shakespeare the case is very much altered. There can be no getting away from the circumstance that Shakespeare knew his Scotchman through and through. Any Scot who is feeling a desire to be particularly humble and to learn the real truth about himself and his compatriots should read and read again the tragedy of Macbeth