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Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

By E. Cobham Brewer

(Published 1898)


Scotland. (See ALBIN)


A name at one time applied to the northern part of Scotland, called by the Romans “Caledonia.” This was the part inhabited by the Picts. The Scots migrated from Scotia in the North of Ireland, and acquired mastery under Kenneth M’Alpin in 843. In poetry Scotland is called Albin.

Gaelic, ailp; Keltic, alp, our Alps. Alpin is either Ailp-ben son of the hills, i.e., the hill-country, or Alp-inn the hilly island, Albania means the “hilly country.”

“Woe to his kindred, and woe to his cause,
When Albin her claymore indignantly draws.”

       Campbell: Lochiel’s Warning.


England, so named from the ancient inhabitants called Albio’nes. The usual etymology of albus (white), said to have been given by Julius Cæsar in allusion to the “white cliffs,” is quite untenable, as an old Greek treatise, the De Mundo, formerly ascribed to Aristotle, mentions the islands of Albion and Ierne three hundred years before the invasion of Cæsar. Probably “Albion” or Albany was the Celtio name of all Great Britain, subsequently restricted to Scotland, and then to the Highlands of Scotland. Certainly the inhabitants of the whole island are implied in the word Albiones in Festus Avienus’s account of the voyage of Hamilcar in the fifth century B.C. (See ALBIN)

“Beyond the Pillars of Hercules is the ocean which flows round the earth, and in it are 2 very large islands called Britannia, viz., Albion and lerne.”—De Mundo, Sec. iii.


Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, was so called. James III made favourites of architects and masons. One mason, named Cochrane, he created Earl of Mar. The Scotch nobles held a council in the church of Lauder for the purpose of putting down these upstarts, when Lord Gray asked, “Who will bell the cat?” “That will I,” said Douglas, and he fearlessly put to death, in the king’s presence, the obnoxious minions. (See BELL)

Who is to bell the cat

Who will risk his own life to save his neighbours? Any one who encounters great personal hazard for the sake of others undertakes to “bell the cat.” The allusion is to the fable of the cunning old mouse, who suggested that they should hang a bell on the cat’s neck to give notice to all mice of her approach. “Excellent,” said a wise young mouse, “but who is to undertake the job?”

“Is there a man in all Spain able and willing to bell the cat [i.e. persuade the queen to abdicate]?”—The Times



(See Caledo’nia)

“Not, thus, in ancient days of Caledon,
Was thy voice mute amid the festal crowd.”

Sir W. Scott



A corruption of Celyddon, a Celtic word meaning “a dweller in woods and forests.” The word Celt is itself a contraction of the same word (Celyd), and means the same thing.

“Sees Caledonia in romantic view.”


“O Caledonia, stern and wild,
Meet nurse for a poetic child.”

Sir W. Scott: Lay of the Last Minstrel.

Cock of the North

The Duke of Gordon

So called on a monument erected to his honour at Fochabers, in Aberdeenshire. (Died 1836.)

Coronation Chair

Consists of a stone so enclosed as to form a chair.

It was probably the stone on which the kings of Ireland were inaugurated on the hill of Tara. It was removed by Fergus, son of Eric, to Argyleshire, and thence by King Kenneth (in the ninth century) to Scone, where it was enclosed in a wooden chair. Edward I transferred it to Westminster.

The monkish legend says that it was the very stone which formed “Jacob’s pillow.”

The tradition is, “Wherever this stone is found, there will reign some of the Scotch race of kings.” (See SCONE)

Curse of Scotland

The nine of diamonds

The two most plausible suggestions are these: (1) The nine of diamonds in the game of Pope Joan is called the Pope, the Antichrist of the Scotch reformers. (2) In the game of comette, introduced by Queen Mary, it is the great winning card, and the game was the curse of Scotland because it was the ruin of so many families.

Other suggestions are these. (3) The word “curse” is a corruption of cross, and the nine of diamonds is so arranged as to form a St. Andrew’s Cross; but as the nine of hearts would do as well, this explanation must be abandoned. (4) Some say it was the card on which the “Butcher Duke” wroke his cruel order after the Battle of Cullod’en; but the term must have been in vogue at the period, as the ladies nicknamed Justice-Clerk Ormistone “The Nine of Diamonds” (1715). (5) Similarly, we must reject the suggestion that it refers to the arms of Dalrymple, Earl of Stair—viz. or, on a saltire azure, nine lozenges of the first. The earl was justly held in abhorrence for the massacre of Glencoe; so also was Colonel Packer, who attended Charles I on the scaffold, and had for his arms “gules a cross lozengy or.”

Grose says of the nine of diamonds: “Diamonds … imply royalty … and every ninth King of Scotland has been observed for many ages to be a tyrant and a curse to the country.”—Tour Thro Scotland, 1789.

It is a pity that Grose does not give the names of these kings. Malcolm III was assassinated in 1046 by Macbeth*, William was taken prisoner by Henry II (died 1214), James I was assassinated in 1437. [* This is probably meant to be Duncan I who was killed in 1040 by Macbeth.]

Grahame’s Dyke

The Roman wall between the friths of the Clyde and Forth, so called from the first person who leaped over it after the Romans left Britain.

“This wall defended the Britons for a time, but the Scots and Picts assembled themselves in great numbers, and climbed over it … A man named Grahame is said to have been the first soldier who got over, and the common people still call the remains of the wall ‘Grahame’s Dike.’”—Sir Walter Scott: Tales of a Grandfather.

Jacob’s Stone

The stone inclosed in the coronation chair of Great Britain, brought from Scone by Edward I, and said to be the stone on which the patriarch Jacob laid his head when he dreamt about the ladder referred to above.

This stone was originally used in Ireland as a coronation stone. It was called “Innisfail,” or Stone of Destiny. (See CORONATION CHAIR)


The partisans of James II (when William III superseded him), his son, and grandson

Jacobites, nicknamed Warming-pans. It is said that Mary d’Este, the wife of James II, never had a living child, but that on one occasion a child, introduced to her bedroom in a warming-pan, was substituted for her dead infant. This “warming-pan child” was the Pretender. Such is the tale, the truth is quite another matter.

Lia-fail (of Ireland)

The Fatalé Marmor or Stone of Destiny

On this stone the ancient Irish kings sat at their coronation, and according to tradition, wherever that stone might be the people there would be dominant. It was removed to Scone; and Edward removed it from Scone Abbey to London. It is kept in Westminster Abbey under the royal throne, on which the English sovereigns sit at their coronation. (See CORONATION CHAIR, SCONE.)


The inhabitants of Albin, north-east of Scotland

The name is usually said to be the Latin picti (painted [or tattooed] with woad), but in the Irish chronicles the Picts are called Pictones, Pietores, Piccardaig, etc.

Picts’ Houses

Those underground buildings more accurately termed “earth houses,” as the Pict’s House at Kettleburn, in Caithness.

Rule (St.) or St. Reg’ulus

A monk of Patræ in Achaia, is the real saint of Scotland. He was the first to colonise its metropolitan see, and to convert the inhabitants (370). The name Killrule (Cella Reg’uli) perpetuates this fact. St. Andrew superseded the Achæan.

“But I have solemn vows to pay…
To far St. Andrew’s bound,
Within the ocean-cave to pray,
Where good St. Rule his holy lay
Sung to the billow’s sound.”

Sir Walter Scott: Marmion, i. 20.

Scone (pron. Skoon)

Edward I removed to London, and placed in Westminster Abbey, the great stone upon which the kings of Scotland were wont to be crowned. This stone is still preserved, and forms the support of Edward the Confessor’s chair, which the British monarchs occupy at their coronation. It is said to have been brought from Ireland by Fergus, son of Eric, who led the Dalriads to the shores of Argyllshire. (See TANIST-STONE)

“Ni fallat fatum, Scoti, quocunque locatum
Invenient lapidem, regnare tenentur ibidem.”

Lardner, i. p. 67.

Unless the fates are faithless found
And prophets’ voice be vain,
Where’er is placed this stone, e’en there
The Scottish race shall reign.


The same as Scythian in etymology; the root of both is Sct. The Greeks had no c, and would change t into th, making the root skth, and by adding a phonetic vowel we get Skuth-ai (Scythians), and Skoth-ai (Scoths). The Welsh disliked s at the beginning of a word, and would change it to ys; they would also changed c or k to g, and th to d; whence the Welsh root would be Ysgd, and Skuth or Skoth would become ysgod. Once more, the Saxons would cut off the Welsh y, and change the g back again to c, and the d to t, converting the Ysgod to Scot.

N.B. Before the third century Scotland was called Caledonia or Alban.


The people or language of Scotland:

  • Highland Scotch - Scottish Gaelic.
  • Lowland Scotch - The English dialect spoken in the lowlands of Scotland.
  • Broad Scotch - The official language of Scotland in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; sometimes used in novels and in verse.

Scotch Pint (A)

 A Scotch pint = 2 English quarts.

Scotch Pound (A)

A Scotch Pound was originally of the same value as an English pound, but after 1355 it gradually depreciated, until in 1600 it was but one-twelfth of the value of an English pound, that is about 1s. 8d.

Scotch Shilling

A Scotch Shilling = a penny sterling. The Scotch pound in 1600 was worth 20d., and as it was divided into twenty shillings, it follows that a Scotch shilling was worth one penny English.


Now applied poetically to Scotland, but at one time Ireland was so called. Hence Claudius says:

“When Scots came thundering from the Irish shores,
And ocean trembled, struck with hostile oars.”


St. Andrew is the patron saint of this country, and tradition says that the remains of the apostle were brought by Reg’ulus, a Greek monk, to the eastern coast of Fife in 368. (See RULE, St.)

Scotland a fief of England

Edward I founded his claim to the lordship of Scotland on these four grounds:—(1) the ancient chroniclers, who state that Scotch kings had occasionally paid homage to the English sovereigns from time immemorial. Extracts are given from St. Alban, Marianus Scotus, Ralph of Diceto, Roger of Hoveden, and William of Malmesbury. (2) From charters of Scotch kings: as those of Edgar, son of Malcolm, William, and his son Alexander II. (3) From papal rescripts: as those of Honorius III, Gregory IX, and Clement IV. (4) By an extract from The Life and Miracles of St. John of Beverley. The tenor of this extract is quite suited to this Dictionary of Fable: In the reign of Adelstan the Scots invaded England and committed great devastation. Adelstan went to drive them back, and on reaching the Tyne, found that the Scotch had retreated. At midnight St. John of Beverley appeared to him, and bade him cross the river at daybreak, for he “should discomfit the foe.” Adelstan obeyed the vision, and reduced the whole kingdom to subjection. On reaching Dunbar on his return march, he prayed that some sign might be vouchsafed to him to satisfy all ages that “God, by the intercession of St. John, had given him the kingdom of Scotland.” Then struck he with his sword the basaltic rocks near the coast, and the blade sank into the solid flint “as if it had been butter,” cleaving it asunder for “an ell or more,” and the cleft remains even to the present hour. Without doubt there is a fissure in the basalt, and how could it have come there except in the way recorded above? And how could a sword cut three feet deep into a hard rock without miraculous aid? And what could such a miracle have been vouchsafed for, except to show that Adelstan was rightful lord of Scotland? And if Adelstan was lord, of course Edward should be so likewise. Q. E. D. (Rymer: Fœdera, vol. i. pt. ii. p. 771.)

Scotland Yard (London)

So called from a palace built there for the reception of the kings of Scotland when they visited England. Pennant tells us it was originally given by King Edgar to Kenneth of Scotland when he came to London to pay homage.

Scotland Yard

The headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, whence all public orders to the force proceed.

Tanist Stone

A monolith erected by the Celts at a coronation. We read in the Book of Judges (ix. 6) of Abimelech, that a “pillar was erected in Shechem” when he was made king; and (2 Kings xi. 14) it is said that a pillar was raised when Joash was made king, “as the manner was.” The Lia Fail of Ireland was erected in Icolmkil for the coronation of Fergus Eric. This stone was removed to Scone, and became the coronation chair of Scotland. It was taken to Westminster by Edward I, and is the coronation chair of our sovereigns. (Celtic, Tanist, the heir-apparent.)

The Wall

from the Tyne to Boulness, on the Solway Firth, a distance of eighty miles. Called:

  • The Roman Wall, because it was the work of the Romans.
  • Agricola’s Wall, because Agricola made the south bank and ditch.
  • Hadrian’s Wall, because Hadrian added another vallum and mound parallel to Agricola’s.
  • The Wall of Severus, because Severus followed in the same line with a stone wall, having castles and turrets.
  • The Picts’ Wall, because its object was to prevent the incursions of the Picts.

The wall of Antoni’nus, now called Graeme’s Dyke, from Dunglass Castle on the Clyde to Blackness Castle on the Forth, was made by Lollius Urbicus, legate of Antoninus Pius, A.D. 140. It was a turf wall.

The Wall of Antonine

A turf entrenchment raised by the Romans from Dunglass Castle, on the Clyde, to Caer Ridden Kirk, near the Firth of Forth, under the direction of Lollius Urb’icus, legate of Antoni’nus Pius, A.D. 140.

The Wall of Severus

A stone rampart, built in 208 by the Emperor Seve’rus, between the Tyne and the Solway. It is to the north of Hadrian’s wall, which was constructed in 120.



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