From Ireland we cross the Irish Sea, heading for Scotland. Unsurprisingly, now that we’re on home soil, we’ve a lot more etymological and linguistic gold to mine.
Of all of the Scottish map’s etymological exports, perhaps the most famous is paisley, the name of an ornamental design using a characteristic teardrop pattern, taken from the Scottish town outside Glasgow where the intricately patterned fabric was once manufactured. Equally well known are Dundee cakes, rich fruitcakes, traditionally topped with a concentric design of almonds,t said to have originated in the city of Dundee. And Edinburgh rock was invented in Edinburgh in the mid nineteenth century, by adding cream of tartar to the traditional sugar-rock recipe.
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At the more obscure end of the lexicographic scale are a number of ever more arcane local dialect expressions and proverbs, like a Skyreburn warning, a proverbial expression for no warning at all, especially in instances of gross misfortune. It alludes to a stream in Galloway, the Skyre Burn, which once had a reputation for flooding swiftly and unexpectedly.
All to one side, like Gourock, is an expression of lopsidedness that namechecks the port of Gourock on the Firth of Clyde, which stands almost entirely on one side of a steep hill. And the proverb he that can hear Dumbuck may hear Dumbarton refers to the proximity of two locations on the outskirts of Glasgow:
Dumbuck Hill in Argyllshire is farther from Glasgow (the locale of this saying) than Dumbarton: proverbially [it is] applied to those who are better acquainted with circumstances than they pretend to be, but who, in their anxiety to gain more information, betray themselves.
Speaking of Glasgow, of all the entries in the dictionary that namecheck a Scottish town or city, perhaps the most peculiar of all is the Glasgow magistrate – an early nineteenth-century nickname for a herring. Where did such a peculiar expression come from? Admittedly, no one is entirely sure. But there are at least a few explanations; it’s just that one is ever so slightly fishier than the other.
On the more plausible side here, there is this:
Herring were cured there by Walter Gibson, a merchant of Glasgow and Provost of that city in 1688, and it is perhaps because of Provost Gibson that salt herring acquired their nickname of ‘Glasgow Magistrates’.
A gentleman named Walter Gibson did indeed help to establish Glasgow’s lucrative herring industry in the late seventeenth century, and he did indeed become provost (chief magistrate) of the city in 1688. But is he really the origin of the term? And is the establishment of a herring-curing factory really the most entertaining story we have on offer here? No. No, it’s really not.
The problem is that if Walter Gibson were the original Glasgow magistrate, we’d have to accept a century-and-a-half gap between his appointment as provost in 1688, and the earliest written record of the phrase in print, which the Oxford English Dictionary traces to 1833. That’d be by no means impossible, of course, as slang and dialect expressions are used relatively seldom in print. But it nevertheless casts doubt over the Walter Gibson theory, and it all becomes a lot more doubtful given the other explanation on offer.
In a revised edition of his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1894), the lexicographer E. C. Brewer included the expression Glasgow magistrate (alongside Yarmouth capon and Billingsgate pheasant) as a nickname for a salted herring. He also offered this brief, yet brilliant, account of its possible etymological origins:
When George IV visited Glasgow, some wag placed a salt herring on the iron guard of the carriage of a well-known magistrate, who formed one of the deputation to receive him.
Quite where or how Brewer came across this story isn’t clear, but he does go on to explain:
I remember a similar joke played on a magistrate because he said, during a time of great scarcity, he wondered why the poor did not eat salt herrings, which he himself found very appetising.
So is this tale of a local Glaswegian scallywag secreting a herring onto a processional carriage true? Well, by namechecking George IV, Brewer is certainly proposing a date that seems to fit with the evidence: George took to the throne in 1820 and reigned for the next ten years, so written evidence dating from around 1833 is perfectly reasonable. There is, however, a problem: King George visited Scotland only once in his ten-year reign – and he never set foot in Glasgow.
In 1822, George IV became the first Hanoverian monarch – as well as the first reigning monarch in nearly two hundred years – to visit Scotland, when he stayed in Edinburgh for three weeks in mid August. During that time, the king attended all sorts of predictably glamorous postants and processions – all stage-managed by Sir Walter Scott, no less – and throughout it all reportedly managed to make a complete fool of himself by opting to wear bright pink stockings under a criminally undersized kilt in an attempt to fit in.
At no point, however, did he make the journey to Glasgow.
Does this fact blow Brewer’s fishy theory out of the water? Perhaps not. We know that some 300,000 Scottish people – a staggering one in seven of the entire population at the time – turned out to see the various events put on for the royal visit in Edinburgh in 1822. And we also know that a large proportion of all those who attended had made the short forty-mile trip from Glasgow, as it was reported at the time that the city had been left all but deserted.
So could it be that Brewer’s Glaswegian prankster was in fact among the crowds in Edinburgh, rather than in his home city? And that somehow the city’s names became crossed at some point in their history? It’s not only plausible, but it’s a much better story.
The teardrop on paisley fabric is called a botah, and is Persian in origin. Originally imported into Britain and Europe from Central Asia, fabrics and shawls bearing this design proved hugely popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, leading fabric manufacturers in Paisley to replicate the pattern in an attempt to monopolise on the trend.
According to legend, Dundee cakes’ traditional almond-covered tops were first produced for Mary, Queen of Scots, as a replacement for more typical glacé cherries, which she did not like.
It’s possible that this expression was also coined in response to an earlier expression, a Scarborough warning, of similar meaning. According to etymological lore, this earlier phrase alludes to an occasion in 1557 when the rebellious Thomas Stafford stormed the Yorkshire town of Scarborough and occupied its castle before any of the townspeople had even realised. Stafford, who led two rebellions against Mary I, was eventually executed for treason later the same year.
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