We have all heard the phrase ‘no room to swing a cat’ but where did this saying come from?
Thankfully it has nothing to do with animal cruelty and literally swinging a living cat around but the actual answer is not exactly that nice either.
The phrase is believed to have come from the cat o’ nine tails. This was a fearsome punishment that was used during the Jacobite Risings especially in the British military. If you had committed a crime you would be punished with a whipping. The cat o’ nine tails consisted of nine knotted ropes used together in one blow to inflict punishment on the wrongdoer.
Here the instrument can look quite tame, especially lying on our handling table, but with a little force it was designed to lacerate the skin so as to cause the recipient a great deal of pain. As you can imagine, to get the full effectiveness of the whip there needs to be space to create some power behind it.
The ‘no room’ part of the phrase seems to stem mainly from naval usage. Down below the deck of the ships there was very little room so any floggings would occur above deck where there was plenty of room.
Thankfully the practice of flogging has been abolished across most countries but the phrase still lives on, though thankfully now it just means an awkwardly small space.
Another phrase which many have associated with the cat o’ nine tails is ‘cat got your tongue’. This one apparently stems from the fact that after a flogging the recipient tended to be rather quiet. However, there is no clear answer on the origin and some believe it may in fact come from ancient Egypt where liars tongues were cut out and fed to cats.
We hope you found this post interesting. As always please like, tweet, comment and share.
It seems fair to say that most people associate bagpipes with Scotland. But there may be more to this instrument than meets the eye…
Whilst Scotland may be the home of the bagpipes now their origins stem back thousands of years. Texts in both Roman and Greek make mention of bagpipe like instruments and it is believed that the were in existence even before these well known empires were around making the bagpipe one of the oldest known musical instruments. Indeed in Ancient Egypt it is believed that as early as 400 BC the ‘pipers of Thebes’ would blow pipes made from dog skin with bone chanters.
The bagpipe probably didn’t become quite so established until the middle ages where many places in Western Europe including Spain, France and Italy all have reference to instruments similar to bagpipes though every country seems to have slightly different characteristics. It is safe to say there is more than one type of bagpipe around but regardless of the many different forms they all seem to comprise of a basic construction with an air supply, a bag with a chanter and one or more drones.
In Italy people still play pipes known as Zampogna which are smaller than the traditional Great Highland pipes you may think of. In France meanwhile there is a pipe called the Musette which has been around for hundred of years.
Within Scotland there are different types of pipes. The Great highland pipes are the ones most recognisable but there are the Border pipes, which are slightly smaller and use bellows rather than a mouthpiece, and further south there are the Northumbrian small pipes, which are again similar to the Border pipes. Many other types have existed over the years but these are probably the main ones still around today.
In Scotland the original Highland pipes probably comprised a single drone with the second drone being added in the mid to late 1500’s. The third, or the great drone, came into use sometime in the early 1700s and this is when they really started to find their popularity.
Region also had an effect on pipers status. Those in England and the borders who played the pipes were generally part of the minstrel class, playing at feasts and fairs throughout the country. In the Highlands however pipers held a higher more honoured position perhaps due to the influence of the Celtic background. Indeed by the 1700’s the piper began to replace the traditional harpist as the musician of choice within the clan system.
Bagpipes have not had a simple history and today many associate the pipe with the military,with many military units throughout the world having pipers within them to this day. This tradition, at least in Scotland, dates from the 16th Century where pipers replaced trumpets in order to help inspire men as they went into battle. The sound from the pipe worked well with all the noise of the battle with the sound carrying for miles around, some say up to 10 miles away.
After Culloden the Government considered Jacobite pipers guilty by association. One piper, James Reid was a taken prisoner and held at Carlisle in 1746. He tried to argue that as a piper he had not played an active combative role against the government but still he was arrested and imprisoned. As the Government saw it, no Highland regiment would have marched without a piper and therefore he was guilty with some even considering the bagpipes an instrument of war. This is a well known tale that has been retold many times but it must be remembered that bagpipes were not the only instrument to be targeted. Drums and horns were given the same status as all these instruments were used to incite a riot and stir up the men to battle.
Luckily today bagpipes are not used to incite riots but are still a big part of military culture and there are many military pipe bands throughout the world. Now though they play to entertain and to showcase the skill of the piper with annual pipe band championships, highland games and military tattoos to demonstrate the power of the bagpipes.
We hope you enjoyed this little look at bagpipes. As always please like, share, tweet, comment and why not pick up a set of pipe and give them a go yourself.
There are some who refer to the nine of diamonds in a deck of cards as the ‘curse of Scotland’. But, why is this and where did this belief first appear?
There seem to be two main stories.
Firstly, to us here at the Battle of Culloden. Here it is said that on the eve of the battle the Duke of Cumberland was playing cards with some of his men. A young officer arrived wanting to know the Duke’s orders for the next day. The Duke allegedly ordered “no quarter” to the Jacobites. Worried about the nature of the order and the outcry it could cause the officer asked for the it to be written down. In annoyance the Duke grabbed a playing card and wrote the order down. The card the Duke picked up was supposedly the nine of diamonds. This may be a good story but it is highly unlikely to be true. The first references to the nine of diamonds as the curse of Scotland existed years before Culloden took place so the true origin must be earlier.
This leads us to the second story and to the massacre of Glencoe in 1692. Here the MacDonalds of Glencoe were massacred by another clan, the Campbells, after they missed the deadline to pledge their allegiance to King William. Sir John Dalrymple, 1st Earl of Stair and Secretary of State for Scotland was the man who gave the order to carry out the massacre in February 1692. The Dalrymple coat of arms features nine diamonds arranged like the playing card, so it is very likely that the nine of diamonds became associated with the much-hated Dalrymple and the curse of Scotland was born. Again a good story but whether there is any truth to the matter remains to be seen.
Other theories abound as to how the curse came about. It has been suggested that it is a misreading of the “Corse of Scotland” i.e. the “Cross of Scotland”. The St Andrew’s Saltire is similar in design to old style nine of diamond cards. Whilst the cards of today are arranged in an H pattern, early versions favoured an X shape. When viewed sideways, these cards look very similar to the Scottish flag. Some contest that it is possible the card was actually known as the Corse of Scotland and there is no curse at all.
Finally worth mentioning is a theory from the reign of Mary Queen of Scots. During her reign nine diamonds were stolen from the crown of Scotland by an Edinburgh freebooter called George Campbell. After the theft a tax was levied on the Scottish people to pay for them and the tax apparently got the nickname “The Curse of Scotland”.
Who can say which theory if any is true but it is safe to say that many people still regard the nine of diamonds as an unlucky card so next time you’re playing you might want to steer clear of the nine of diamonds.
We hope you enjoyed this post and as always please like, tweet, share, comment and remember, never ask a Scotsman for the nine of diamonds if you’re playing ‘Go Fish’.
Another set of phrases from the 18th Century for you to enjoy. Firstly, reading someone the riot act.
Whilst today this is simply a phrase, used to warn people to try and stop them misbehaving, in 1715 the Riot Act was law and would be read out before being enforced.
With King George I taking the throne and the fear of a Jacobite Uprising looming the ‘Riot Act’ was passed in 1714 and came into force in 1715. Designed to prevent groups gathering and forming into a mob the Riot Act was more formally called ‘An act for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies, and for the more speedy and effectual punishing the rioters‘ and contained this warning:
“Our sovereign Lord the King chargeth and commandeth all persons, being assembled, immediately to disperse themselves, and peaceably to depart to their habitations, or to their lawful business, upon the pains contained in the act made in the first year of King George, for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies. God save the King.”
Any group of twelve or more people, that the authorities didn’t like the look of, could be arrested if they didn’t disperse within an hour of the Riot Act being read to them by a magistrate. And, if they didn’t obey, the punishments were severe. Either penal servitude for at least three years, or imprisonment with hard labour for up to two years.
After the Hanoverians were established in power the Riot Act began to fade into disuse. It was read to a group of demonstrating mill workers at Manchester Town Hall in 1842, but was used with decreasing frequency and had become a rarity by the 20th century. Surprisingly, the Act remained on the UK statute books into modern times and wasn’t formally repealed until 1973. It was eventually superseded by the 1986 Public Order Act but the phrase still remains today.
Another Jacobite born phrase is ‘going off half cocked’. This one stems from the flintlock musket as did ‘flash in the pan’. Flintlocks have a striking mechanism called a ‘cock’ which is held in a raised position ready to fall and make a spark used to fire the gun. This mechanism can be set at half cock, when the gun was in a safe state, or at full cock, when the gun was ready to fire. A gun would only go off at half cock by mistake.
Today we use the phrase ‘go off at half-cock’ or ‘go off half-cocked’ to mean doing something or saying something impulsively rather than thinking it through, but interestingly in the 18th Century it was used to mean tipsy or a little bit drunk. At this time there were many ‘half’ phrases to imply someone was on their way to drunkenness including ‘half-seas-over’ and ‘half-and-half’. It wasn’t until about 1880 that the modern meaning became the norm for the phrase.
That’s all for this week. Hopefully you discovered something new and as always please like, share, follow, tweet and try to keep the rioting to a minimum.
Most people may not stop to think about but the origins of this phrase, but it should be clear by now that we’re not exactly most people. And impressively enough the phrase ‘laughing your head off’ actually stems all the way from Jacobite times. When you stop to think about it you may be able to guess the circumstances but we’re here to tell you the whole story.
It was this week in 1747, the 9th of April to be exact, that Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat was executed on Tower Hill in London by John Thrift. Lovat was Chief of Clan Fraser of Lovat and by all accounts he was not a particularly nice man, with a violent streak and a cunning mind. During the ’45 Uprising he forced his son to fight with the Jacobites while he himself professed his loyalty to King George II claiming his sons actions were against his wishes.
Following the Jacobites defeat at Culloden his deceit was soon found out by the government and he was forced into hiding in the Highlands. He was eventually arrested on an island in Loch Morar and transported to London where after a trial lasting five days (in which evidence was given against him by fellow Jacobite John Murray of Broughton) he was sentenced to beheading on 19th March 1747.
Shortly before the execution, a scaffold for spectators viewing the beheading had collapsed and left 20 dead, much to his amusement. Apparently Lovat was laughing about the spectacle as the executioners axe fell. So ended the life of Simon Fraser and the phrase ‘laughing your head off’ was born.
For those interested in the life of Simon Fraser there is a book ‘The Last Highlander’ available, of course, from our shop at Culloden Battlefield that covers all his infamous adventures and misdeads.
Interestingly this is not the only phrase to originate from Jacobite times, how about ‘flash in the pan’?
Meaning a short lived success, in the 1700s, the pan of a flintlock musket was a part that held the gunpowder. If all went well, sparks from the flint would ignite the charge, which would then propel the bullet out of the barrel. However, sometimes the gun powder would burn without igniting a main charge. The flash would burn brightly but only briefly, with no lasting effect hence a ‘flash in the pan’.
We hope you enjoy these little titbits of information. As usual like, tweet, follow, share and laugh your head off, though not quite as literally as Simon Fraser. All the best. K & D