The history of traditional Scottish sayings

The Scots have their own language that developed quite separately from the English, although they share an common ancestor in Old English.

Loch Lomond, Scotland (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Over the centuries, English gradually became the dominant language in Scotland, and now, though valiant efforts are being made to revive the flagging spirit of the Scots language, there are many people who at best, know just a few words of it.

Here we take a look at a selection of Scottish words of wit and wisdom.

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Feed a cauld and starve a fever
Traditional advice about giving nutritious food to people suffering with a cold is not always appropriate if they have a fever.

Fill fu’ and haud fu’ maks a stark man

Plenty of good food and drink makes a person strong.

A cauld needs the cook as muckle as the doctor

Nutritious food can cure a cold as effectively as medicine.

Better wear shoon than sheets

It is better to wear shoes to keep the feed warm and dry (even though this may be expensive) rather than become ill.

Gae tae bed wi’ the lamb and rise wi’ the laverock

Over the centuries English became the dominant language in Scotland.

A recipe for remaining healthy; a Scots version of ‘early to bed, early to rise’.

He that eats but ae dish seldom needs the doctor

A warning to be sparing in the amount of food you eat, if you want to remain healthy.

Rise when the day daws, bed when the nicht fa’s

The Scots language developed quite seperately from the English.

An injunction to stay healthy by going to bed early and getting up early.


A hungry wame has nae lugs

Those who are hungry seem to lose the power of hearing and so don’t listen to reason.

A kiss and a drink o’watter mak a wersh breakfast

Said as a warning to a couple who think they can live on love and very little else.

Bannocks are better than nae breid

Very plain food is better than no food at all.

Better wait on the cook than the doctor

A reference to the fact that many people felt that the ill would benefit more from nourishing food than medicine.

Breid’s hoose is skailed never

If a house contains bread you can never say it has no food in it.

Eat in measure and defy the doctor

Moderation in eating makes for a healthy life.

Eats meat, an’s never fed; wears claes and never cled

No matter how well-fed or well-clothed some people may be, they never seem to look any better for it.

Fat paunches bode lean prows

People who are greedy and over-fed have empty heads.

Tak a piece - your teeth’s longer than your beard

Words of encouragement said to children to get them to take a titbit or treat when they have the chance.

Some hae meat and canna eat and some wad meat that want it. But we hae meat and we can eat, for which the lord be thankit

A grace said before meals, known as the Selkirk Grace.

The nearer the grave, the greedier

The older people get, the more food they like to have.

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About the moon there is a brough, the weather will be cold and rough

A warning of rough weather if there is a halo effect round the moon.

A green Yule makes a fat kirkyard

A wet winter results in many deaths because of the many illnesses that are caused of worsened by damp conditions.

As the day lengthens, the cauld strengthens

A reminder that when the days begin to get longer, the weather often becomes colder.

Mony haws, money snaws

A warning that a good harvest of haw berries will result in a cold, hard winter.

Sorrow an’ ill weather come unca’d

Both ill fortune and ill weather are beyond our control.


He’s got his nose in the gude kail oat

Literally, he has got his head in a good soup pot; said of a person who has married someone well-off.

Moyen does muckle, but moyen does mair

Influence can do a lot, but money is even more powerful.

A deaf man will hear the clink o’money

A saying that emphasises the lure of money very well.

Get what you can, and keep what you hae, that’s the way to get rich

It sounds so easy that it makes you wonder why there are not more rich people around!

Wealth gars wits waver

People tend to lose their common sense when money is involved.

It’s folly to live poor to dee rich

Akin to - you can’t take it with you.

Want o’wit is waur than want o’gear

It is worse to be lacking in intelligence and sense than to be lacking in money.


Dinna open yer mou tae fill ither folks

A warning not to gossip.

Put your thoom on that!

Literally, put your thumb on that; said as a warning to keep something secret.

The loodest bummer’s no the best bee

The person who says the most is rarely the most effective person.


Auld saws speak truths

There’s a lot of truth in old sayings.

A fu’ heart never lied

People are more likely to tell the truth when they are in the grip of emotion.


A man o’ words but no’ o’deeds is like a garden fu’ o’ weeds

A saying telling us that actions are much more useful than mere words.

Praise without profits puts little i’ the pat

Fine words alone are not much practical use to anyone.

Words are but wind, but dunts are the devil

Physical blows are much worse than verbal abuse.

Thanks winna feed the cat

Verbal thanks is not worth much; sometimes said as a grudging, belittling acknowledgement of spoken thanks.