Politics beats sex and religion

13th December 1996 at 00:00
DICTIONARY OF SCOTTISH QUOTATIONS. Edited by Angela Cran and James Robertson Mainstream Publishing Pounds 20. Olga Wojtas looks through the 4,000 entries in a book of Scottish quotations

On my sixth birthday, my great-aunt Liz presented me with a biography of missionary Mary Slessor. Perhaps the author was an undercover atheist, since I formed the distinct impression that Miss Slessor was a sanctimonious weed.

It has taken the new Dictionary of Scottish Quotations to show me my mistake through nine trenchant, astute and compassionate quotes from the woman herself, including: "Don't grow up to be a nervous old maid. Gird yourself up for the battle outside somewhere, and keep your heart young. Give up your whole being to create music everywhere, in the light places, and in the dark places, and your life will make melody."

A trawl through the dictionary's 4,000 entries can dislodge old prejudices and stimulate new insights, as well as offering tangible proof of the great wealth Scotland has in its people, from scientists, writers and artists to lawyers, clerics and educationists. Entries are listed alphabetically by quotee, and as well as cross-referencing by key words, there is a subject index. Startlingly, "Birds, Animals and Insects" has 84 entries, only two fewer than "Education", while "Love and Sex" has 148 entries, almost double the 80 in "Marriage", clearly an unrelated topic.

The second highest score goes to "Religion", with 194 quotes, while the winner is "Politics" with 212. The fervour surrounding issues of nationhood and identity resonates down the centuries, and the concerns of the past can be helpful in illuminating those of today. But editors Angela Cran and James Robertson seem to find themselves on shaky ground when tackling the present. There is a quote from Michael Heseltine, dated June 28 this year, on Labour's change of policy on devolution, but while Labour leader Tony Blair and Shadow Scottish Secretary George Robertson amass six quotes between them, there is not a cheep on the referendum debacle. There are four quotes from Gordon Brown, but his endogenous growth theory is missing. There are five Rab C Nesbitt quotes from scriptwriter Ian Pattison, but they are neither the funniest nor the most cynical. There is a 1929 quote from Mary Lamond calling for women to have a greater role in the Church of Scotland, but nothing from Anne Hepburn, originator of the 1990s "Motherhood of God" debate at the Kirk's General Assembly.

And while Magnus Magnusson's "I've started so I'll finish" is legitimately included as a classic catchphrase, will there be enduring appeal for journalist Tom Morton's description of Inverness as "Dolphinsludge, Queen of the Highland Fleshpots", or for businessman Tom Farmer's assertion that "Women dream of falling in love with a Kwik-Fit fitter"?

There are curious inconsistencies: while Annie Lennox of Eurhythmics and Ricky Ross of Deacon Blue are credited with song titles, the Proclaimers merit no song titles but have chunks of lyrics attributed to them, whereas Runrig get both. With impeccable logic, non-Scots have their nationality listed, while Scots do not, unless they achieved fame elsewhere - Andrew Carnegie, for example, is a "Dunfermline-born American industrialist and philanthropist", and Tony Blair is a "Scottish-born politician, Labour Party leader".

But am I the only person astonished to find Lonnie Donegan listed simply as "skiffle singer and guitarist"? Can it be that his old man was not a dustman but a scaffie? And various Scots are defined as Glaswegian, while other regional birthplaces are ignored. The 1980s advertising slogan "Glasgow's Miles Better" is attributed to "Anonymous", a bit of a misnomer since presumably someone, somewhere picked up a substantial sum of money for the ubiquitous campaign.

The thirty-something poet Matthew Fitt has two quotes in contemporary patois from "Kate O'Shanter's Tale", but there is nothing from the master of the genre, Tom Leonard, except for two prose quotes in English. Similarly, the comedian Stanley Baxter has several quotes about the humour of dialect, particularly Glaswegian, but there are no examples, not even a passing reference to his "Parliamo Glasgow" skits.

Nonetheless, the dictionary appears to have coined at least one neologism. A quote from Henryson's 15th century Testament of Cresseid, which originally described Cresseid as "giglotlike", behaving like a strumpet, appears in the dictionary as "gigotlike". I hope the proof-readers are feeling suitably sheepish.

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