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Ten of the best Scottish food and drink proverbs

Here are ten of the best Scots proverbs that use the pleasures (or deprivations) of the table to teach their lessons.

Published: September 18, 2015
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The traditional Scottish wit, wisdom and way with words have been applied to many a motto, and it's unsurprising that so many use food as a metaphor, given its essential role in life. Perhaps even less surprising, given their provenance, is that there are a fair few that take drink as their inspiration too.

Bannocks is better nor nae breid.”

The English-language equivalent to this proverb is “half a loaf is better than none”. Bannocks are flat breads made from unleavened barley, and having been presumably considered less appetising than other types of bread, while the literal translation – that “bannocks are better than no bread” – may have arisen as sensible and practical advice to eat what you can when times are lean, it's also a reminder that something is better than nothing, and to be grateful for what you have.

Bees that hae honey in their mouths, hae stings in their tails.”

To be cautioned that “bees that have honey in their mouths have stings in their tails” is to be given a warning to be wary of overly charming, sweet-talking smoothies, who are usually not so nice as they seem – and to remember that, in general, things are not always what they appear, particularly those that seem to good to be true.

A hungirie man suin sniffs out meat.”

The word “meat” is used in Scots to mean food in general and this saying, both literal and metaphorical, means in the former sense that a hungry man will soon find food, and in the latter, that you will find whatever it is that you need, when your need is great – that great want, of anything, makes one focus on the pursuit of it.

It’s a sair ficht for half a loaf.”

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“It's a sore fight for half a loaf” – meaning life is tough and you don't get much for your efforts – might not seem the most optimistic of sentiments, but there's a certain stoic reassurance to be had from the acceptance that life is hard, and something moreover very Scottish about this Calvinist-style comfort – presumably first coined by those on the long road to salvation via the Protestant work ethic.

Enough's as gude as a feast.”

This maxim was the subtitle of a pamphlet published in Edinburgh in 1707 entitled “Moderate man's advice against extravagant drinking” (a cracking read, no doubt), and one by which to remember that so long as you have enough to eat – or in any other area of life in which you might feel yourself hard done by when in reality you are not – then you don't need more than that and should be happy with your lot, as there is no value in excess. A running theme in Scots proverbs it would seem, this attitude of cultivating contentment has stood the test of time, with the modern-day fashion for mindfulness apparently just an updated version of what the Scottish have seemingly known for some time.

A cold needs the cook as much as the doctor.”

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While this is practical advice that nourishment will be as restorative as medicine when you're ill, it's also a reminder that healthy eating will keep you well in the first place, as is the closely related: “diet cures mair than doctors.”

Keep your breath to cool your own crowdie.”

Literally meaning “save your breath to cool your porridge” – don't waste your breath talking about things that do not concern you when you could do something useful with it (basically, mind your own business) – this is among the most widely used of Scottish proverbs, even employed by Elizabeth Bennet to chide Mr Darcy in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. An edition of The Ladies' Literary Gazette of the New York Mirror published in 1828 pronounced that this maxim: “Expresses more than any other phrase of the like brevity in our language. It is pithy, laconic and decisive; declaring in seven words all the contempt possible and the utter uselessness of any further parley.” The article went on to claim that although the saying is commonly regarded as of Scots origin, it could just as easily be native to the USA, which is certainly a claim.

A hungersome wame haes nae lugs.”

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A somewhat more prosaic saying than others, this is literally translated as “a hungry belly has no ears” – meaning that a hungry person cannot listen to reason, so it's best not to attempt to argue on an empty stomach. Although to give “wame” its alternative translation of “womb” would lend a more melancholy meaning.

They speak of my drinking, but never think of my thirst.”

Somewhat plaintive this one, it serves as a reminder to think of the reason behind a person's behaviour, the better not to judge them on it – in this case, to question why a person might drink so much. American punk rock band The Menzingers used this undeniably poetic proclamation as the title of a song whose lyrics cover the hypocrisy of the pharmaceutical industry's treatments of addicts. It is also, in a somewhat more tongue-in-cheek sense, a handy justification for enthusiastic drinking – thirst.

And of course the classic... “Dinnae teach yer granny tae suck eggs!”

“Don’t teach your grandmother to suck eggs” simply means don't try to teach someone something they already know, particularly someone older or more experienced in the field than you.

Lindsey Johnstone is a freelance journalist based between Edinburgh and Paris. She has written for, Wow 247, The List, The Skinny, The Scottish Sun,, Fest and The Local France on arts, travel, news, food, fashion and pop culture.

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