‘No Room to Swing a Cat’

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.

Cat o’nine tails


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 knotted tails could cause a lot of damage


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.

All the best, The Culloden Team

‘Laughing your head off.’

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