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A COLLECT/ON OF GAELIC PROVERBS, AND FAMILIAR PHRASES, BASED ON MACKINTOSH'S COLLECTION. Edited by AtEXANMB Nicolson, M.A., LL.D., Advocate. Edinburgh: Maclachlan & Stewart. London: Sirnpkin, Marshall, k Co. 1881.
We hail with no ordinary pleasure the appearance of this elegant volume, from the pen of its learned and esteemed author, the Sheriff of Kirkcudbright An excellent work is what all who have the pleasure of being acquainted with Dr Nicolson might naturally expect, and that excellent work now lies in its beauty before us. The external aspect of the book is nice and pleasing, while the type is clear and distinct, and the binding in every respect neat and handsome. Dr Nicolson's well known mental powers so happily balanced, his deep erudition, his amiable nature, and his truly Highland heart, have been happily concentrated to bear upon the production of this unique and valuable volume. A more sterling or genuine Highlander than the worthy author never set foot on our Highland hills and heather. He is devotedly attached to his kindred and country, more especially to his dear native Isle of Skye, the picturesque scenery of which he has brilliantly described in several interesting papers, as well as in various beautiful English and Gaelic poems in Good Words, and elsewhere.
The Book of Gaelic Proverbs has already received the favourable criticism of several publications and learned writers. That distinguished scholar, "Nether-Lochaber," was among the first to celebrate this opportune and highly valued contribution to our Celtic literature, and few or none could have done it better. His magic pen is equally ready and powerful to describe the organisation of the midge and the minnow, or to delineate the movements and orbits of those vast globes of light that roll in the firmament of heaven. While such a galaxy of learned men have deemed it their pleasant duty to bestow their merited encomiums upon this collection of Gaelic Proverbs, it will surely ill become the purpose and the name of the Celtic Magazine not to do its part, and with hearty Highland goodwill throw his "clach" into Dr Nicolson's "earn."
But pausing for a little in our remarks upon this handsome book, we shall briefly allude to the nature and antiquity of proverbs. We believe that all the large empires and nations of the known world have had their "wise sayings." We know that such detached aphorisms or maxims were composed by Solomon. His collection, which we have in our Bibles, and which he called "Meshalim," or authoritative maxims, are very instructive. The Proverbs of the wise King generally consisted of two clauses or sentences, joined in a kind of antithesis—the second being sometimes a reduplication, sometimes an explanation, and sometimes an opposition to the sense of the first. In this respect the wisdom of all ages, from the remotest antiquity, has chosen to express its lessons in this manner, and thus to compress them into plain, parabolic sentences as a means of instruction, and to form them into concise maxims, which are readily comprehended and Terr easily remembered. Proverbs, therefore, may be said to be the flower of popular wit, and the "flos laotis" of the treasures of popular wisdom. They communicate instruction in an impressive manner, bydrawing comparisons from the ordinary scenes of life, and by forming them into rhyme, or into parallelism, or at times into alliteration. Proverbs often save long explanations by presenting a striking image of the subject matter under consideration. Many lengthy addresses have been superseded by such French adages as the following:—" One spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a hundred barrels of vinegar." The adage of the Latin bard is very expressive, when he said, "Quern Deus vult perdere prius dementat;" and nothing less so is the well-known maxim—
Vir spit qui paoca loquitur.
He is a wise man who speaks little.
Is glic fear nan tearc-bhriathar.
The following Arabian maxim of Burckhardt's is sufficiently forcible :—
While the testimony of all ages, and of every nation of the earth, proves alike the prevalence and popularity of these metaphorical maxims, they torm at the same time an index to the virtues and character of the nations wherein they are found. In short, the structure of these popular sayings is distinctly indicative of the genius of the nation to which they belong. Some countries make use of proverbs which are rude, indelicate, and gross in their allusions to domestic life, so much so, indeed, that they never would be tolerated in our dear country. Far otherwise, and of a much higher and virtuous standard are the instructive proverbs of Dr Nicolson's interesting volume. They may be considered as pointed lessons on morality and prudence, and lessons expressed in language that cannot offend the most fastidious and delicate ear. The Spanish proverbs, for example, are justly characterised lor their force and humour, but the main object of the great majority of them is to vilify and depreciate the female character. The most forcible sayings of that nation have been pointed with a cruel severity against women; and it is still more remarkable that in this respect the nations most distinguished for their gallantry have been the most guilty of this ungallant practice. The French, the Spaniards, and the Italians are equally offenders in their bitter proverbial invectives against the unoffending female sex. A Spaniard seems to take pleasure in giving such as the following advice:—" Beware of a bad woman, and do not trust a good one." An Italian will, in the same manner, maintain, "That the salt is from tho sea, and ills from women;" and the Frenchman is nothing behind in his cruel invective, when be declares that " Un homme de paille, vaut uno femme d'or," that is, "A man of straw is worth a woman of gold."
The number of learned men of all countries who have written collections of these instructive adages is astonishingly great. Dr Nicolson very properly states, that "the value of proverbs, as condensed lessons of wisdom, 'Abridgements of Knowledge,' as Mr Disraeli calls them, has been recognised by the wisest of men, from Solomon to Aristotle, from Aristotle to Bacon, from Bacon to Benjamin Franklin. The interest attaching to them as an index of the character of a nation is equally great They are an unintentional, and all the more truthful, revelation of a
S people's peculiarities, habits, and ideas. In both these respects the proverbs embraced in this collection are entitled to a high place in the unwritten philosophy of nations. Some of them aro common to various countries; others of them are borrowed, gaining oftener than losing in their new form. Hut a large proportion of them is of a native growth, as certainly as is the heather on Ben .Nevis, or the lichen on Capo Wrath; and as a reflex of the ways of thinking and feeling, the life and manners, the wisdom or superstition, the wit or nonsense of the Celtic race in Scotland, they are interesting alike to the historian, the philologist, and the student of human natura" l)r Nicolson has further truly said, that " the most of these proverbs, however, so far as native, came from thatched cottages, and not from baronial or academic halls. They expressed the thoughts and feelings of hardy, frugal, healthy-minded, and healthy-bodied men, who spent most of their time in the fields, in the woods, on the moors, and on the sea. So considered, they do great credit to the people whose thoughts and manners they represent, proving that there was, and is a civilisation in Celtic Scotland, much beyond tho imagination even of such a brilliant Celt as Lord Macaulay."
These statements by our learned author are palpably true, and rigidly correct; and his indefatigible industry in using all available means to illustrate his Celtic maxims deserves much credit. He has contrived by dint of no ordinary labour, to cite an immense variety of cognate equivalents in other languages besides Gaelic and English to illustrate his wise sayings. Ho has had recourse to writers in Latin, Greek, Welsh, Manx, Irish, French, Italian, Spanish, German, &c , in order to increase the value of his admirable collection, by placing our own Celtic maxims in juxtaposition, and contrast with those of other nations. In his preface, which is a beautiful piece of composition, a great amount of information is given as to the number and variety of authors who have published works on proverbs, not only in our own country, but in different foreign lands. Among those in the former he has adduced the names of Hazlett, Kelly, Ramsay, Henderson, Hislop, Macadam, Disraeli, French, &c. But in the midst of all these our warm Celtic-hearted author stands "Tanquam luna inter sidera minora."
But further, Dr .Nicolson has clearly illustrated the morality and virtues of our Celtic ancestors, by giving us a perspicuous and distinct classification of their genuine proverbial maxims. Ho shows us that in these Gaelic Proverbs there is a plain and consistent inculcation of the virtues of truthfulness, honesty, fidelity, self-restraint, self-esteem, sense of honour, courage, caution in word and deed, generosity, hospitality, courtesy, peacefulness, love of kindred, patience, promptness, industry, prudence, &c. There are none to be found excusing or recommending selfishness, cunning, time-serving, or any other form of vice or meanness.
It is rather remarkable how few of the ancient sayings of our remote forefathers indicate any feelings of revenge, or of enmity against their fellow-creatures, seeing that in these olden times endless quarrels and feuds existed among the Celtic clans.
Our esteemed author has given in his preface a still more extended catalogue, to represent the virtuous character of our Highland ancestors, selected entirely from their native proverbs. This catalogue embraces their religion, general morals, self-respect and sense of honour, truth, justice, fidelity, courage, temperance, industry, punctuality, promptness, early-rising, courtesy, hospitality, benevolence, patience, humility, silence, caution, words and deeds, appearances, fools, boors, women, marriage, children, education, kindred, fosterhood, clannishness, friendship, landlord and tenant, husbandry, food, sayings that refer to prehistoric times, humourous sayings, and of all these he gives brief illustrations. His preface, therefore, is extremely valuable, and nothing less so his supplement and appendix, both replete with interesting folk-lore.
While these proverbs, as already stated, contain a rich treasury of Celtic wisdom, which from primteval times have come down to us, floating from age to age on the memories of sage men, to the present day, yet it is to be feared that this process of preserving them may soon come to a termination. Let half a century, or perhaps a still less period, pass away, and most of the old Highlanders whose delight and pastime it was to rehearse these parabolic maxims shall have gone the way of all living. Then as a sure consequence these instructive gems of wisdom, except what has been here collected of them, shall vanish into the land of ohlivion. The young and rising generation shall not possess a vestige of these beauties of Celtic lore, hence the benefit, the fortunate event in fact, that so many thousands of them have been secured intact, and alphabetically arranged, by the strenuous exertions of the learned Sheriff. It is, therefore in due and proper time that our talented friend has finished his valuable work. There are still, however, many hundreds no doubt of these excellent proverbs in different parts of the Highlands and Islands of which he did not get hold. Such parties as that distinguished savant, "NetherLochaber," that amiable graphic poetess, Mary Mackellar, those gentlemen mentioned in the preface, and several others, may have it in their power greatly to supplement the thousands already recorded in Dr Nicolson's valuable collection. We hope that it is destined to run into several editions, and that the learned and genial author may have an opportunity of adding a fresh group to each.
It is sad to think that of the gradual disappearance of the Gaelic language we have too many palpable proofs. That emphatic tongue is vanishing by perceptible degrees from our Highland parishes. Within the memory of many living, Gaelic was preached in the Parish Church of Crathie, where Her Majesty so frequently worships. It was preached in the same way in the parishes of Glenmuick, Tullich, Glengairn, Corgarff, and Braemar, all in Aberdeenshire. It has likewise ceased to be preached within the last few years in six or seven populous parishes in the counties of Nairn and Inverness, so that the boundaries of the venerable language are becoming year after year more contracted and circumscribed.
An excellent critic on Dr Nicolson's collection expresses his sorrow "to find that the learned Sheriff looks upon himself as one of the embalmers of the Gaelic language. Why (asks this critic) shall such a noble language perish? Wliat is to hinder the Highlanders from being a bilingual people? Railways and all that sort of thing have done their worst, but the language has as yet survived." Of all men living, no one feels a deeper or a more sincere regret for the declining and the gradual disappearance of our noble language th:in the worthy Sheriff, but he has eyes and he sees that like all other mortal things his beloved mothertongue must eventually die in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.