One of the very many enjoyable and fascinating facts in this book is that for one UK citizen, Gordon Brown enjoyed the distinction of being considered "son of them ants".
Mishearing the dread and over-used phrase "son of the manse", this individual was no doubt mystified. From Brown's perspective, this label was probably no worse a badge than many others pinned to him over the years, and certainly preferable to some, such as the Misery from the Manse and the Incredible Sulk. Nobody ever said politics was even-handed or kind, but it has always seemed distinctly unfair that Brown attracted so many unflattering epithets while Blair waltzed around virtually unscathed, any mud that was flung at him miraculously slithering off as if it were he and not his Chancellor who enjoyed a family connection to the Almighty.
Son of the manse – and a list of notable such men and women – is only one of the myriad entries in Ian Crofton's compelling and quirky dictionary. Mirroring his work on the brilliant original template, Brewer's Dictionary Of Phrase And Fable, as devised by that most curious Victorian clergyman, the Rev Dr E Cobham Brewer, and which has since gone into 18 editions, Crofton is a distinguished editor and dictionary compiler, whose own credits include contributing to Brewer's Dictionary Of Modern Phrase And Fable, and co-authoring Brewer's Britain And Ireland.
Crofton is what might be termed a son of the stethoscope, if such a title existed. In his entry on The Edinburgh Method, he indulges in a well-deserved tribute to his late father, Professor John Crofton, describing how he and his colleagues at Edinburgh University in the 1950s devised the means by which tuberculosis could be permanently treated. As his son writes, "in six years Crofton and his team had got TB in the city under control, and the method was subsequently adopted around the world, saving millions of lives".
That's a hard act for anyone to follow, but while Ian Crofton may not have healing hands, this book will prove a lifesaver for those in need of diversion and enlightenment. As this reader can testify, it is nigh impossible to reach the item you first set out to read without being sidetracked by other beguiling morsels, thus turning what should be a swift and efficient informational raid into a linguistic version of snakes and ladders as one is diverted to subjects all over the place, and the original purpose of opening the book is almost forgotten.
As is evident from Crofton's wry tone, providing intelligent entertainment is his guiding principle. In a self-deprecating introduction, he explains his outlook: "in truth, this book is a gallimaufry, a miscellany of colourful and interesting phrases and names and stories that accumulate one upon the other... It is a work in progress, an ongoing project that I hope will extend far into the future, a rolling stone that will continue to gather all kinds of interesting and hitherto unidentified mosses as it rolls ponderously along forgotten stalkers' tracks and old drove roads grown over with heather – not to mention the unexpected gems to be found in the unlit, graffiti-spattered wynds and closes of our modern cities."
Compiled over a period of 10 years, A Dictionary of Scottish Phrase And Fable covers proverbs, quotations, sayings, slang, mottoes, insults, snatches from poems and songs and a great deal more besides. While there are inevitably holes to be plugged in a future edition, this reader simply enjoyed the helter-skelter pleasure of browsing, being led from one entry to another by cross-references or simple serendipity.
So into the mix go colourful terms for flowers, such as the Devil's Snuffbox (the common puffball), or explanations for turns of phrase, such as "He couldnae get a wumman in Paisley". This, one discovers, is no slur on Paisley womanhood but refers to a time when the town was so full of women millworkers, even the most shilpit man had some hope of success.
Soor plooms, that Galashiels delicacy, apparently have their origins in the day in 1337 when a band of Gala men came upon English raiders eating unripe plums and killed them. In fact, the Borders, like the Highlands, are given generous coverage, reflecting the vivid place these particularly lawless and wild areas have made for themselves in legend and lore. Thus there's a "Liddesdale drow", defined as "a shower that wets an Englishman to the skin", and an account of "Muckle Mon'd Meg", the tale of a reiver who agrees to "exchange one noose for another" by marrying the unlovely daughter of the man he has aggrieved rather than be hanged.
Four-footed clansmen, the Year of the Sheep, and the Year of the Burning are but three references to the horrors of the clearances. Another clearance, in the form of animal genocide, is covered in the Last Wolf in Scotland, though Crofton notes the recent return of this controversial beast, albeit behind modern fences.
From old history books, memoirs, poems and dictionaries to The Busconductor Hines and Trainspotting, the editor's sources are wide, eclectic and characterful as those of any true acolyte of Brewer should be. Though the country's history generates a wealth of violent tales and gallows humour, the dominant mood of this dictionary is upbeat, and even droll. Under Crofton's collector's eye, the rollicking spirit of Scotland, old and modern, comes proudly alive, as if the people of the past – or just last year – were talking to us themselves. Which, in this sort of dictionary, they almost certainly are.