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Metadata for text 92
No. words in text192425
Title Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Familiar Phrases
Author N/A
Editor Nicolson, Alexander
Date Of Edition 1881
Date Of Language 1850-1899
Publisher MacLachlan and Stewart
Place Published Edinburgh
Volume N/A
Location National, academic and local libraries
Link Digital version created by National Library of Scotland
Download File PDF / plain text 
Geographical Origins Various
Register Literature, Prose
Alternative Author Name N/A
Manuscript Or Edition Ed.
Size And Condition 18.7cm x 12.5cm
Short Title Gaelic Proverbs
Reference Details EUL: .3989(41)MACI
Number Of Pages xxxvi, 421
Gaelic Text By N/A
Illustrator N/A
Social Context Alexander Nicolson was born in Skye on 27th September, 1827. His father, Malcolm Nicolson, was the proprietor of the Husabost estate in the north of Skye. Nicolson was educated at home, and later studied for an Arts degree at Edinburgh University, with the intention of becoming a Free Church minister. For a time, he was assistant to Professor Sir W. Hamilton, among others, and he was later awarded an honorary MA for his services. At some point during his education, Nicolson decided to study law. He worked for a while as a sub-editor on the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and he also worked as a journalist, before being called to the Bar in 1860. He was a reporter for The Scottish Jurist for a time, but he struggled to obtain a good legal position in Edinburgh. He was appointed Assisant Commissioner by the Scottish Education Commission in 1865, which allowed him to travel around the Islands inspecting schools. In 1886, he published his Report on the State of Education in the Hebrides, which was described by Lord Ardmillan as ‘the most readable blue-book ever printed’ (1996 edition, p. vii). Nicolson was appointed Steward (later Sheriff) Substitute of Kirkcudbright in 1872, and later of Greenock – a post which he held until his retirement in 1889 due to poor health. At this point, Nicolson returned to Edinburgh to stay with his sister. He never married.

Nicolson was also an esteemed writer of poetry and prose in Gaelic and English, and was offered the Chair of Celtic at Edinburgh University, which he declined. He was on the revision committee for the Gaelic Bible, alongside Prof. Donald MacKinnon, and was a member of the Argyll Education Commission and of the Napier Commission. MacDonald suggests (1996, p. viii) that ‘There appears to be a general consensus that he lacked the energy to fulfil his undoubted potential.’ He quotes Henry Whyte, who had stated in The Celtic Monthly that Nicolson was ‘a man of intellectual power and high literary ability, but his energy was somewhat crippled by a lethargic constitution’. (ibid.) There was another side to Nicolson, however, for which he did not seem to lack energy. MacDonald describes him as ‘one of the pioneers of mountain climbing in his beloved Cuillins’ (ibid.) and notes that Sgurr Alasdair was named after him, at the insistence of the Alpine Club. He frequently visited his native Skye, and his love of the island often appeared in his writings. Nicolson died suddenly in Edinburgh in January 1893. Some of his poems were published in Verses, edited by Walter Smith, later that year.

On the title page of this volume, it is noted that this collection is based on MacIntosh’s Collection of Gaelic Proverbs, and Familiar Phrases, which was first published in 1785 in Edinburgh (Text 159). In the Preface, Nicolson states (p. vii) that, although MacIntosh’s collection was quite small (1305 entries) ‘and in several aspects defective’, it was still ‘a valuable contribution to Celtic Literature’, and was in fact the ‘only collection of Celtic Proverbs gathered into a book, and translated for the benefit of the world’. Although an enlarged edition had appeared in 1819, edited by Alexander Campbell, Nicolson explains that Campbell had re-translated some of MacInstosh’s proverbs in an unsatisfactory manner and that there were more spelling mistakes in the second edition than in the first. He also notes that a considerable number of popular proverbs and sayings were not included in either edition. It was these inadequacies that prompted Nicolson to produce a new collection of proverbs, containing over 3900 entries.
Contents Preface (pp. vii-xxxv)
In the Preface to this edition, Nicolson introduces MacIntosh’s collection of proverbs, and the subsequent second edition, and discusses his motivations for producing a new, larger, collection. He appreciates, of course, that the new collection will by no means be complete. Like MacIntosh before him, he has decided to include ‘Familiar Phrases’, as well as proverbs. He has chosen to furnish them with ‘illustrative notes and comments as seemed necessary or suitable’ (p. xiii). He has also included ‘maledictions’, but these are ‘neither coarse nor blasphemous’ (p. xiv).

Regarding English translations, Nicolson states that he has translated the proverbs to the best of his ability, but that his translations may not always be correct, and that there are some proverbs that he has left untranslated, ‘rather than to offer an unsatisfactory guess’ (p. xiv). This volume also contains more ‘parallel proverbs’ than the previous two editions. This, he claims, ‘greatly added to the interest of the book’. He acknowledges that he sought help, where necessary, when working on proverbs in other languages.

Nicolson then turns to the subject of proverbs in general, looking at the value of proverbs in society, the composers, the similarity of Gaelic proverbs to proverbs in other languages, and at the ‘special relations of Scotland to some of the continental nations’ (p. xix) that may account for this. He then looks at the different types of Gaelic proverbs, as listed below, giving examples of each, in English translation. He finishes by thanking a number of people who have helped him in this endeavour.

Nicolson also discusses the orthography, including accents, employed in this edition; see Orthography below.

Gaelic Proverbs and Phrases (pp. 1-378)
In the Preface (p. xxxii), Nicolson had divided the proverbs in this collection into 24 categories as follows: Religion; Morals – General; 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; Humorous Sayings; and Poetical Sayings, i.e. sayings that are ‘purely poetical and pretty’.

The proverbs are not presented in the text under these headings, however, but alphabetically, beginning with the first letter of the first word in the proverb, including the definite article. Nicolson declares that ‘the alphabetical arrangement was decided on from the beginning, as the most useful and feasible’. Unfortunately this method of arrangement often makes it difficult to find proverbs containing specific words or relating to specific topics. However, the 1951 edition, which retains the pagination of the 1881 edition, contains a useful index, in English, as do subsequent editions.

Supplement (pp. 379-404)
Pp. 381-89 contain some of the proverbs and phrases that were collected too late to publish in the main body of the text. Nicolson explains that some others had simply been omitted. Pp. 389-404 give ‘some sayings in verse which, for various reasons, were not included in the body of this collection’ (p. 389).

Appendix (pp. 405-21)
The Appendix contains additional notes to some of the proverbs, and a section on MacIntosh. It contains additional material under seven headings: I ‘‘Aireamh na h-Aoine,’ &c., p. 7’ (p. 407); II ‘‘Am port a’s fhearr,’ &c., p. 25’ (pp. 407-10); III ‘‘Cha ghluais bròg,’ &c., p. 25’ (p. 102); IV ‘Seasons’ (pp. 411-14); V ‘‘Gach dàn gu Dàn an Deirg,’ &c., p. 190’ (pp. 414-15); VI ‘‘Is fhearr léum-iochd,’ &c., p. 248’ (pp. 415-16); and VII ‘The Rev. Donald MacIntosh’ (pp. 416-21).
Sources In the Preface, Nicolson thanks a number of people who have contributed to his work on this volume. In particular, he thanks Rev. J. G. Campbell of Tiree and Mr A. A. Carmichael, North Uist, for supplying him with the largest collections, and Donald C. MacPherson of the Advocates’ Library for supplying him with proverbs from various manuscript sources and from his own knowledge. It is apparent that Nicolson was given proverbs from various geographical locations, including Lewis, Tiree, Sutherland, Uist, and Lochearn. There is no mention in the text, however, of where specific proverbs were collected. Nicolson also indicates that he found a number of proverbs in various journals, such as An Gaidheal, The Highlander, An Teachdaire Gaelach and the later An Teachdaire Gàidhealach, and Cuairtear nan Gleann.
Language As noted above, the proverbs in this volume cover a wide range of topics, and this is reflected in the range of terminology which they include. The index to the 1951 edition shows that this volume contains a number of proverbs relating to boats, ships, and fishing; animals, e.g. dogs, cats, cows, calves, horses, hens, foxs, and birds; people, e.g. men, mothers, women, wives, friends, and fools; parts of the body, e.g. eyes, mouths, tongues, feet, bellies; also death; seasons and elements, especially autumn, spring, water, wind, rain, and fire; also food, stone, and luck.

Proverbs expose or establish connections between people, things, causes and results, actions and consequences. The terms that capture these relationships are polished with long usage, and the words that express them are of prime interest to lexicographers. To give just two examples, ‘Cha d’ éug duine beairteach riamh gun dìleabach’ (p. 95) and ‘Cha deanar salann gun sàil, no leas bràthar gun dìobhail’ (p. 95).

The proverbs contain a number of interesting verbal juxtapositions, including synonyms and opposites, e.g. ‘Chuir e na buinn ’s na breabanan air’ (p. 145), ‘Chuir iad am balgan-suain fo ’cheann’ (p. 145), ‘Is ann as a’ bheagan a thig am móran’ (p. 214), ‘Is ann de’n aon chlòth an cathdath’ (p. 214), and ‘Gealach bhuidhe na Feill-Mhìcheil’ (p. 197).

The proverbs also reflect the people’s attitudes and beliefs about life, e.g. ‘Cha deoch-slàint’ i gun a tràghadh’ (p. 95), ‘Cha ’n fhiach sagart gun chléireach’ (p. 119), ‘Fanaidh Moisean ri ’latha’ (p. 176), and ‘Clanna nan Gàidheal ’an gualaibh a chéile!’ (p. 150).

In addition to Nicolson’s classifications, as noted above, we might also add a general heading of daily life and work. For example, we find proverbs such as ‘Cha do shuidh air stiùir nach d’ thàinig bho ’làimh uair-eigin’ (p. 99), ‘Cha do shéid gaoth riamh nach robh ’an seòl cuid-eigin’ (p. 99), ‘Cha d’ rinn uisge glan riamh leann math’ (p. 99), ‘Cluinnidh an dùthaich ’us cù Rob cheaird e’ (p. 151), ‘Faodaidh a’ chaora dol bàs, a’ feitheamh ris an fhiar ùr’ (p. 176), ‘Far am bi saoir, bidh sliseagan, \ Far am bi mnài, bi giseagan’ (p. 179), ‘Ged nach beirteadh bó ’an Eirinn’ (p. 200), ‘Ged ’tha mi n diugh ’am chù-baile, bha mi roimh’ ’am chù-mòintich’ (p. 201), ‘Is coma leam fear-fuadain ’s e luath labhar’ (p. 224), and ‘Is corrach gob an dubhain’ (p. 224).
Orthography In the Preface to this edition, Nicolson declares that while there is no standard orthography in Gaelic, he has tried to make the orthography ‘as correct as possible, and in general accordance with the best authorities’ (p. xi). However, he justifies the use of variant spellings of some words (e.g. béul and bial, rìs and rithist) in order to represent the pronunciation and to retain the rhyme and rhythm of the proverbs. He also indicates that he has modernised so to seo and sud to sid as these better represent the pronunciation, and dhoibh to dhaibh, as it is his preferred form.

In the short section on Accents (p. xxxvi), Nicolson notes that ‘As the use of accents in this book differs a little from that found in the Gaelic Bible and in Dictionaries, the following explanations seem necessary’. He goes on to state that only the grave accent is used over the vowel a to indicate either a monophthong (e.g. bàs) or a dipthong (e.g. càm); the acute accent over the vowel e is used on words such as féin and sgéul; the grave accent over the vowel e is used on words such as mèud and sèimh; only the grave accent is used over the vowel i, and is used on words such as tìr and mìr; the acute accent over the vowel o is used in words such as  and mór, and is also used to represent dipthongs, e.g. in lóm and dónn; the grave accent over the vowel o is used in words such as òg and sròn to differentiate between the vowel sounds in  and mór; and only the grave accent is used over the vowel u, in words such as ciùrr and sùil.

Nicolson also explains in the Preface that he has chosen not to use accents on words such as ceard and fearr on the grounds that ‘there are two pronunciations of them, equally correct’ (p. xii), which could be represented either by ceàrd and feàrr, or by cèard and fèarr. Nicolson also takes account of the variation when a word which has a stressed long vowel becomes part of a compound and the long vowel is de-stressed and shortened as a consequence, e.g. Féill but Feill-Brìghde. He adds that while he has done his best to be consistent in dealing with such cases, there will no doubt be one or two errors. Nicolson himself believed that the use of accents, unless to differentiate between words (like bata and bàta), were ‘useless alike to those who know the language and those who do not’ (p. xii).
Edition First edition. New editions were published in 1882, 1951, 1996, and 1997.

1951 edition
The 1951 edition was published by the Caledonian Press in Glasgow, and contains an Index, which was later adapted for the 1996 edition. The 1951 edition also contains a Foreword and a short biographical note on Nicolson by Malcolm MacInnes. The proverbs are numbered, beginning with the number ‘1’ at the top of each page. The 1951 edition retained the pagination of the 1881 edition, and the original orthography.

1996 edition
The 1996 edition was published in Edinburgh by Birlinn. The proverbs are not numbered in this edition. Some of the proverbs that appeared in the Supplement of the first edition were incorporated into the main body of the text in this edition, but verse was kept separate and is published later in the volume. The original pagination has not been kept in the 1996 edition, and the orthography and punctuation have been modernised. Some of the errors in the 1881 and 1951 editions have been corrected, and the spelling of the Irish, Scots, and English proverbs has been revised. The proverbs have not been altered in any other way, although a small number of the proverbs now appear in a slightly different order in this edition, due to the spelling changes. Only the grave accent is used, although there is no absolute uniformity of spelling. The 1996 edition also includes a short section on Malcolm MacInnes, editor of the 1951 edition.

It may be advisable for editors to use MacIntosh’s Proverbs (Text 159) in conjunction with this text, and to quote from the earlier text where appropriate.
Other Sources
Further Reading MacInnes, Malcolm (ed.), Nicolson’s Gaelic Proverbs, 1951.
MacIntosh, Donald (ed.), Collection of Gaelic Proverbs, and Familiar Phrases, 1785. (Text 159)
Nicolson, Alexander (ed.), A Collection of Gaelic Proverbs and Familiar Phrases, 1996.
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