Today, about Scottish Jokes, or rather jokes about Scotsmen – whether singularly, or in a twosome, or in the classic threesome “An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman…”, where the Scotsman will probably come off best. There was a reasonably amusing sitcom on British TV named after the opening of the joke, in the sixties I think, and it does or should lend itself to that treatment. This is a well-known kind of folklore, and can be called “The Three Nationalities Joke”. In countries outwith Britain, you get another trio, at least one of which is the butt, as in Poland, featuring a Pole, a German and a Russian. This is actually an ethnic variant of an anecdote about three of a kind, as for instance three religious – a Roman Catholic priest, a Protestant minister and a rabbi. For instance, about the only one that I can remember goes thus:
A priest, a minister and a rabbi are out fishing in a lake, and after a while the priest suggests some beer, which has been left on the shore. “I’ll get it”, says the rabbi, and off he goes across the water, reaches the shore, and returns trotting over the water to the boat. The minister looks at this with amazement but says nothing. After a while the priest volunteers to go, and off he sets over the water as before. The minister looks at this and realises it’ll soon be his turn. So after a while he gets his courage up and offers to get more beer. “Sure”, say the others. Over the side of the boat he goes, but his faith must be weak because he falls into the water and comes up spluttering. “Oh for God’s sake,” says the priest, “show him where the stepping stones are!”
This is of course based on the story of Jesus walking over the water on the Sea of Galilee ( Gospel of John 6:16–21), though the folklorist will tell you that miracle is often ascribed to religious leaders and heroes, or just people like Sariputta, the follower of Buddha, who have faith in them.
There can be some cross-pollination:
An Englishman, an Irishman, and a rabbi go into a bar.
“Oh,” says the rabbi, “I think I’m in the wrong joke!”
And then there’s:
An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman walk into a bar.
“What’s this,” says the barman, “some kind of joke?”
But often enough the anecdote is about two Scotsmen, and the punch-line concerns the legendary thriftiness (to use a nice word) of the Scot, which is one of the universal attributes of the stereotype. This poking fun at such national foibles is called blason populaire, literally “folk heraldry” or such, which characterises a nation (seen as a homogeneous unity) as different or laughable or disgusting or just strange – different from us, that is, the users of the expression, who are obviously normal and nice. Scots may be expected to lampoon the stuffy English, who will themselves make remarks about the stingy whisky-swilling Scots. And their kilts of course (“Nae, madam, there’s naething worn aneath the kilt – it’s aa in fine workin order!”).
Sometimes jokes get near the knuckle in PC terms:
An Englishman, lecturing on his travels, was speaking disparagingly about the Scots in Canada and the mixing of the race with the Indians. “You’ll find,” he said, “a great number of Scots half breeds and French half breeds, but you cannot find any English half breeds.” “Not surprisingly,” shouted a Scot from the audience. “The squaws had to draw the line somewhere.”
But then again they are just intended to be humorous, with a Scots accent:
Jock’s wife Maggie went to the doctor complaining of pains in the stomach. The doctor told her it was ‘just wind’. “Just wind?” she screamed at him. “It was just wind that blew down the Tay Bridge!”
This will mean more to a Scot than others; the great railway bridge over the Tay River between Fife and Angus went down in a fearful storm chronicled by William Topaz McGonagall:
Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last sabbath day of 1879
Which shall be remembered for a very long time.
My grannie, Helen Rodger, was born in 1869, and she was ten years old when the disaster occurred. Sixty years later she recalled the strength of the wind that blew slates and chimney pots off roofs – her story about the event was one I always asked for. McGonagall wrote his lament shortly after the event, having previously saluted the fine new bridge, and he went on to write another salute to the second bridge, which still stands. He was probably sincere in his seriousness, but it is an unfortunate fact that his verses have been derided as about the worst poetry ever written – by a Scot at least. They are the Scottish joke in rhyme; wherefore many a piece of doggerel has been laid at his door:
As I was goin doon the road
I met a coo – a bull, begoad!
Upon the road there stauns a coo –
If it’s no there, it’s awa noo.
And what about
Oh, Water o’ Leith! Oh, Water o’ Leith,
Where the girls go down to wash their teeth;
And o’er the stream there is a house right knackie,
Of that grand old man, Professor Blackie.
This was evidently written by a student at Edinburgh, where Blackie was Professor of Greek, besides Professor of Humanity at Aberdeen. He travelled widely, and went to Egypt, which occasioned a translation into Scots of Emanuel Geibel’s Lob der edlen Musika (“Ein lustiger Musikante marschierte einst am Nil”), to be found in The Scottish Students’ Song Book. It’s a very good rendition into Scots of the German, changing the fiddle that’s played to divert the threatening crocodile into (of course) the bagpipe. We’ll go into that next time.