Tag Archives: Scottish

“No fool like an old fool”


“No fool like an old fool”

“We say this kinda thing when people get a bit ruckus and they’ve always been that way.  The way me and my friends used it was when somebody was  doing wrong and we’d talk about how they would get their [karma] one day.”


This informant, MS, comes from Aberdeen, Scotland and has lived there for all of her life, except for a few years she spent in London.   She’s from the silent generation and has grown up with many Scottish sayings that she’s heard and seen gone out of style.  Although she says this one isn’t as popular anymore, it is still said among the older communities.


I invited MS, my great grandmother, to talk with me after a family reunion zoom call.  A few days later, we got together and we live streamed a rerun of Strictly Come Dancing over zoom and during the commercial breaks, we talked over some  folklore from her life in Scotland, specifically from her childhood in Aberdeen.


It’s great to hear such a prominent saying about old fools, because in the United States, I believe we tend to hear about young fools more.  I believe that this statement is definitely an insult of sorts, as well as a great proverb that is meant to teach  people that the biggest kind of fool there is is one who does not learn from their mistakes.

“You a scunner?”/”You’re a wee scunner!”


“You a scunner?”/”You’re a wee scunner!”

“Scunner is like a bother, specifically like a kid or something.  I don’t know what came first, but I say “You a scunner?” and so do many people I know around here, but my friends in Edinburgh say “You’re a wee scunner!”  We use it to kind of callout a child for being a whiner.


This informant, MS, comes from Aberdeen, Scotland and has lived there for all of her life, except for a few years she spent in London.   She’s from the silent generation so she has heard a lot of different sayings come and go over the years, but she says she remembers telling this to her sons, her grandchildren, and her great grandchildren. She even remembers her mother saying it to her when she was a little kid.


I invited MS, my great grandmother, to talk with me after a family reunion zoom call.  A few

days later, we got together and we live streamed a rerun of Strictly Come Dancing over zoom and during the commercial breaks, we talked over some  folklore from her life in Scotland, specifically from her childhood in Aberdeen.


What’s fascinating to me is the dichotomy of this statement.  It appears that the idea of calling kids “scunners” when they misbehave is universal among the Scottish folk group as a whole, but the way it is said is regional within the folk group which shows you slightly different meanings.  The Aberdeen way of saying it is so much more questioning, while the Edinburgh way is more accusatory and statement based.  It shows you that variation is a very huge part of folklore, especially in this way of saying the same thing.

Irish Goodbye

Main Piece:

The following is transcribed form a conversation between the informant and the interviewer

Informant: The Irish goodbye is when you leave a party without letting other people know that you’re leaving. You just get up and leave. You might bump into a few people on your way out, and then you would have to announce you leaving, but the point is to not be going around the room and say goodbye to everyone, especially not the host, the host can’t know that you’re leaving.

Interviewer: Why is this associated with Ireland? Why is it called the “Irish goodbye”?

Informant: I don’t think anyone knows the exact story as to who or what in Ireland started it. But it’s just an Irish thing, I guess, and people just call it that now.

Interviewer: Can you think of any reason as to what about Irish culture that would bring up an abrupt departure?

Informant: The thing with Irish people is that everyone’s so fucking kind when they invite you over to their homes. Like my grandma, for example, always always have different kinds of tea, breads, meal, dessert, and more stuff ready. That’s just kinda true for all grandmas, but all Irish people are like that. To invite someone to my house means that you have to satisfy your guests, and that makes these hosts go a little crazy with the antics. So I think leaving without letting people know is actually a kind thing to do.

Interviewer: How so?

Informant: We’re saving the host from having to be all kind and whatnot, we just get up and leave. You’ll know I’m gone when I’m gone.

Interviewer: So this practice isn’t used to show disapproval?

Informant: No, no bad feelings at all. The exact opposite, really.

Background: My informant is of Irish and Scottish descent, his parents being immigrants from those respective countries. He still has most of his relatives living in Ireland and Scotland, and the cultures he aligns himself with are close to those mainlands rather than the diaspora – Irish American or Scottish American. The grandmother that he mentions is also an immigrant, who moved from Ireland to California in the late 80s.

Context: The conversation took place army informant’s house in Orange County, California. It was a familiar, comfortable setting.

My thoughts: I can’t say that I practice the Irish goodbye often myself, I tend to say goodbye to at least my friends. But hearing my informant talk the reasoning behind an abrupt departure, I do understand how it might actually deviate the host from that duty, and how it might actually be a kind gesture.



I conducted this interview over the phone, the subject was born and raised in Scotland before moving to England, Canada, the United States, then to Northern Ireland, and, finally, back to the United States. I knew she continued to practice certain traditions which were heavily present in her childhood and wanted to ask her more about them.



“I’ve learned this from my childhood, from Grandma and Grandpa. It’s this big tradition in Scotland, when you grow there it’s what you know. It is a New Year’s tradition, at midnight, we call it “when the bells ring” on Hogmanay, um you, either go first footing if you’re a young person, or you get a first foot, which means it’s the first person to step inside your house for the new year and they have to have dark hair. Usually they have a gift, nothing big, maybe a drink or something, to bring luck to the house, and they cannot, under any circumstance, have light or blonde hair.”

Interviewer: “Why do you carry this tradition?”

Subject: “Because I’ve been taught to believe that if you don’t do this, or have someone who’s blonde come in, then your year will have bad luck. This is purely Scottish.”



First-footing is a common practice in Scotland and Northern England. Some areas have more elaborate forms of this practice, such as in Worcestershire where you must stop a caroler and bring them inside. Sometimes the ritual must also be accompanied by some entertainment, such as with the caroler, or with a dance. It is considered unlucky to have a female, or a male with female-hair be the first-foot.

A resident of the home is allowed to be the first-foot, so long as they were not inside the home at the stroke of midnight. The gifts the first-food brings also vary, such as coin, bread, salt, alcoholic beverages, etc.


Grandma Pat’s Shortbread Recipe

I asked my mom for any recipes that have been passed down/recipes that she did not learn from a book, but learned from others. She emailed me the following recipe, which is my paternal grandma’s recipe. My grandma is from Old Kilpatrick, Scotland (she moved to Canada, and eventually the United States, in her 20s), and shortbread is a Scottish specialty. I don’t like shortbread unless my grandma has made it, and anyone I know who has tried her shortbread says it’s the best they’ve ever had. Ironically, my grandma is absolutely terrible at making any other food, and she always has been; shortbread is her one dish. I was there when my grandma taught it to the two of us, going along as she went. She didn’t have the recipe written down and couldn’t write it down from memory, as she goes through the motions automatically. Although I collected this from my mom, she collected it from my grandma, so here is her information:

Nationality: Scottish
Primary Language: English
Other language(s):
Age: At the time of collection, 87
Occupation: Homemaker
Residence: Old Kilpatrick, Scotland, UK
Performance Date: December 14, 2015

The following recipe is what my mom wrote down from that experience, on December 14, 2015.

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups flour
Knead sugar and butter together with hands.
Add flour, continue kneading.
Press into cookie sheet with your knuckles. Make fork marks on top.
Bake @360 degrees F, 40-45 minutes until edges are lightly browned.
Cut immediately into fingers, okay to leave in pan (important to cut quickly!).
Sprinkle sugar on top!
Learned from Aunt Mary who sponsored her to come to Canada/Denver, 1952.

How the McIsaac Clan Came to Be

Context: Gathered from one of my roommates once he found out about my collection project.

Background: My roommate comes from “a long lineage of Scottish kings and clan leaders of a certain group of isles.”

Dialogue: Donald McIsaac… was the, progenitor, the originator… the first dude, named McIsaac, um… and, he— So the backstory, basically, I learned this from my dad, he would tell this to my sister and me, his dad would tell it to him, I don’t know how far back it goes, maybe it stopped at Grandpa, but he always told us that this is, like, a story passed down through their family. Um, and, basically, uh, in Scotland, there was a war between two clans, the McDonalds and the Campbells. There was no McIsaac clan. Uh, these two clans were at war, and one day, uh, a group of Campbells’ bandits, um… They weren’t fixing for a nice helping of warm soup, they were, they were, bandits from Scotland, um… not cartoon characters from soup commercials… Um, they caught this guy named Isaac McDonald, and, Isaac McDonald was like, “N0nononono, guys, you don’t wanna kill me, or steal any of my stuff, I’m not a McDonald. I am not Donald-” Wait, uh- “I am not Isaac McDonald, I am Donald McIsaac, huh?” And they were like, “OH, kay! Sorry to bother you, run along!”

And that was how the McIsaac clan came to be, he ran along and started a family, etcetera, and, and… They just escaped persecution by just saying their name was McIsaac and not McDonald.

Analysis: I almost put this in the Humor category because of how much this plays out like a Monty Python sketch. It’s almost crazy to think that a solution so simple would work, but based on the story told, the feud between the two clans was more because of their names than because of anything the actual people with those names had done before. Cool to compare this with the other name origin legend I collected for this project, too, and how the differences in the legends surrounding the names illustrate what was important to the cultures those families belonged to: one focused on the progeny of the family, and the other focused on the conflicts between different families.

How to Name Scottish Royalty

Context: Gathered from one of my roommates once he found out about my collection project.

Background: My roommate comes from “a long lineage of Scottish kings and clan leaders of a certain group of isles.”

The Tradition: In Scotland, the ritual for naming a child in a family line, particularly if they’re royalty, is to simply add the prefix “Mc” or “Mac” to the name of the father and make that the child’s surname.

Example: My roommate has an ancestor with the full title Angus McRonald McDonald Sworely, King of the Isles. Thus, he is alternatively know as King Angus, Son of Ronald McDonald Sworely, who was himself at one point King Ronald, Son of Donald Sworely.

(Note: The proper spelling of the surname “Sworely” is unknown.)

Analysis: I found this Scottish process of naming is most comparable to the Vikings’ method of creating the “____son” surname (Ex: Lief Erikson, or Lief, Son of Erik). I put a little research into the claims my roommate made, and the only thing I found off about the whole thing was that the names mentioned above are in fact “MacDonald” rather than “McDonald” (I kept the piece above as is for the sake of putting down what I was told by my roommate).

Origin of a Name

D is a 57 year old man. He is a practicing cardiologist at a hospital in the northern suburbs of Illinois. He identifies as American as he grew up in Boston, but he strongly associates with his Scottish heritage as well. D completed his undergraduate studies at Dartmouth University and he attended Cornell University for his degree in medicine. During his studies, both undergraduate and med school, D studied abroad in France two times. While in medical school, D studied at the Faculté de Médecine et de Maïeutique de Lille in Lille, France. English is his primary language, yet he is also fluent in French.

Me: Can you tell me about your Scottish heritage?

D: Well, my last name is Campbell, and it’s, well, the name is Scottish. Um, the name comes from the Clan Campbell.

Me: Do you know what the name means?

D: Campbell, or, well, I guess it was Cambéal if you want to to get specific, which is made up of two Scottish Gaelic words that when put together translate to mean “crooked mouth.”

Me: Why crooked mouth?

D: It (Cambéal) was more of a nickname than anything. It took the place as a surname later on.

Me: But then why were they nicknamed “crooked mouth.”

D: Oh, yeah, well the Clan Campbell wasn’t a very popular group in Scotland highlands. They supported the British government, so the highlanders didn’t really get along with them. Mostly the name is taken to mean, untrustworthy or tricksters, other things alongs those lines.

Me: Why? I mean, can you give me some history?

D:  The Campbell’s were responsible for many massacres, and many people hated for their support of the British government, but I think the most prominent one is probably the Massacre of Glencoe. In the late 1600’s, the British government used their supporters, the Campbells, in a plan to suppress Jacobitism. After spending over a week in Glencoe, taking advantage of the MacDonald’s hospitality, the Campbells killed around 40 unarmed Clan MacDonald men, women, and children. And I visited Glencoe during a backpacking trip with my buddies in college. I remember asking for Campbell plaid. The saleswoman at the shop gave me a dead stare and told me “we don’t sell that here.” There were also signs in some store windows that said “no dogs or Campbells allowed.”

Me: Wow, they really don’t like Campbells there do they?

D: I think Glencoe is a specific case because the massacre was so terrible. I didn’t get the same reaction in other parts of Scotland. For the most part, it was a long time ago and people don’t care so much anymore. I found Campbell plaid pretty easily as soon as we travelled closer to Edinbourgh.

Me: How do you know all of this?

D: My father mostly, and this little green book he gave me. It that talks all about the history of the Campbell Clan. I gave the book to my kids to read as well. It’s important to know where you come from.

D’s heritage obviously means a lot to him, most of it ties into his last name. He knows a lot about Clan Campbell and their history. He has the tartan specific to the Clan Campbell as well, so he is proud of his heritage. Regardless of the questionable things that his ancestors did, the family still has a rich history. He wants his kids to know about their ancestry as well because he passed down the book about their family that his father gave him to his children.

Here is the link to the book D is talking about: http://www.amazon.com/The-Campbells-Campbell-Scottish-Mini-book/dp/1852170360

The Parting Glass

“Oh, all the money, that ‘ere I have spent
I have spent it in good company
And all the harm, that ‘ere I’ve done,
Alas, it was to none, but me

And all that I have done
For lack of wit
To memory now
I can’t recall
So, fill to me The Parting Glass
Goodnight and Joy be with you all!

Oh, all the comrades, that ‘ere I have had
Are sorry for my going away
And, all the sweethearts, that ‘ere I have had
Would wish me one more day, to stay

But since it falls, unto my lot
That I shall rise, and you shall not
I will gently rise, and as softly call
Goodnight and Joy be with you all!”


The informant learned this song from her childhood family friends, the McNeils. The McNeils would travel across the country in a giant bus, singing folksongs and teaching people about history through these folksongs. It is entitled, “The Parting Glass”, from either Ireland or Scotland, the informant couldn’t remember. The informant says this is one of her favorite songs, because of the melody and the memories it brings back. When the informant was in her twenties, she sang this song with her new friends in Finland, where there is a great tradition of singing at and after meals. It helped her bond with these Finnish friends, despite their ethnic diversity. And twenty years later, when her children were younger, she used to sing them this song as a bedtime lullaby. The song brings back memories of her childhood with the McNeils, her adventures in Finland, and spending time with her children. Thus, it means a lot to the informant.

The song is about a person saying farewell to some friends. It says, “I will gently rise, and as softly call/Goodnight and Joy be with you all”. The singer is saying goodnight to his friends after an evening of fun. The song is happy because the singer wishes Joy on all his friends. In the first stanza of the song, the singer is taking responsibility for his actions. He is very humble and wise. This might be reflective of Irish or Scottish culture, where they place an emphasis on solving your own problems, not bragging, and being responsible for yourself. I think the song has a very nice message.

I grew up listening to this song and others recorded by the McNeils. The song has a very pretty memory, similar to other Scottish and Irish slow melodies. I never looked into the lyrics until now, but I’m glad to find that the message is pleasant. It brings me back to my childhood as well.