The South Ayrshire Golf Club Owner and Oban Sesame

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From ‘Aald Rock’ to ‘Zeenty-teenty’, A Dictionary of Scottish Phrase and Fable is an unputdownable gallimaufry of curious items, embracing sayings, put-downs, insults, mottos, traditions, legends, folklore, customs, festivals, games, songs, dances, nicknames – and it is now brought right up to date, with many entries from Scotland’s Highlands and Islands.

Author Ian Crofton has cast his eye across Scottish life, history, language and culture to produce this unique compendium of all things Scottish. There are more than 4,500 authoritative entries on matters that you might have puzzled over without a clue where to find an answer. Crofton, a contributor to the renowned Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable, has imagined the questions of curious minds and provides the answers. How does he do it?

‘Back in the early Noughties, when I was working on a number of the Brewer’s dictionaries of phrase and fable, it occurred to me that there was a big gap as far as Scotland was concerned. Scotland, I knew well, had a lexical fecundity, a folkloric and literary richness, a diversity of histories and local cultures, that were undreamt of by the Reverend E. Cobham Brewer and his largely English successors.

Ian Crofton

‘So during my researches I started gathering specifically Scottish fragments of phrase and fable that I came across. Initially it was mostly a matter of serendipity, but as my baby began to grow and take shape, I realized what a wealth of expressions and cultural memes Scotland has produced over the centuries, and embarked on a more systematic approach to collection. And so I began to ransack dictionaries, anthologies, compilations and reference books, both ancient and modern, as well as shelves of works of literature and history.’

This new 2021 edition features many expanded entries, as well as completely new ones – including Big Tam, the Third Forth Bridge, the Loony Dook and the War of the One-eyed Woman. The result is a kaleidoscopic snapshot of the Scottish nation, both past and present, from the mythical origins of the Scots in ancient Scythia to the foibles of modern Follyrood, from Sawney Bean to Oor Wullie, from ‘The end of an old song’ to ‘Aw fur coat and nae knickers’, from The Heart of Midlothian to ‘Ye cannae shove yer granny aff a bus’.

Entries from the new edition

South Ayrshire golf club owner loses 2020 presidential election

How the Ayrshire News headlined its story on the result of the US election on November 7, 2020. Donald Trump (whose mother was a MacLeod, born near Stornoway in Lewis) had acquired the golf resort at Turnberry in South Ayrshire in 2014, and rebranded it Trump Turnberry.

Armstrong the Good Giraffe

Nom de guerre of the philanthropist Armstrong Baillie (b. 1980), an unemployed man who hit the headlines in 2012 for his acts of charity. Twice a week he would don a giraffe costume (including long neck), made for him by his mother, and travel to different parts of Scotland to commit good deeds, such as handing out bananas to runners in the Edinburgh Half Marathon, clearing litter off Portobello Beach, cleaning out cages in cat homes, handing out £10 vouchers to mothers in hospitals, and presenting passers-by with cups of coffee on cold mornings. He funded his acts of charity with the cash he raised by busking with his kazoo and djembe drum, and saved money by hitch-hiking to his destinations.

Unfortunately, the length of his neck meant that he was only able to accept lifts from open-topped convertibles. ‘Giraffes are like me,’ he said, ‘as my head is in the clouds but my heart is in the right place.’ Mostly people look on him kindly, but he receives mixed reactions from dogs, and was once chased by a beagle.

Other entries from the Highlands & Islands

Oban Sesame

The name of a whole food shop in Oban.


A name proposed for the new model industrial village completed in 1908 at the head of Loch Leven, between Glen Coe and the Mamores. It was built to serve the aluminium processing plant that had begun to operate there, powered by the hydroelectric scheme based on the Blackwater Reservoir, created by the building of a vast dam. The site of the new village was previously occupied by two tiny settlements, Kinlochbeg and Kinlochmore, and the name eventually chosen for the new village was Kinlochleven. Making use of the abundance of hydro power, Kinlochleven became the first village in the world to be powered entirely by electricity, earning it the title of ‘the Electric Village’, and inspiring the Oban Times to gush:

Kinlochleven by night bears an impressive scenic aspect, which makes it worth the visitor’s while to tarry until the shades of evening fall. Hosts of brilliant electric lights, every home illuminated, and the twinkling aluminium furnaces in a sombre setting of frowning bens and darkened sea, raise up fancies of fairyland and the magical power of Pluto.

The aluminium plant closed in 2000.

The Hanging Tree of Fort William

An old oak that used to grow outside the walls of Fort William, which was used to hang malefactors. It was cut down in the 1970s to make way for the town’s new public library, and this act of vandalism, according to some locals, provoked a buidseachd or curse.

Accordingly, so the press reported, the morning after the new library was opened staff found books and paintings strewn across the floor, heard toilets flushing and strange dog-like snuffling noises, and witnessed their precious electric typewriter chuntering along on its own – and printing out characters upside down.


In medieval times, sanctuary from the law was obtainable in or at certain religious institutions and sites, such as the graves on Iona, and the Sanctuary Cross half-way across the strip of sand linking Colonsay and Oronsay at low tide; any law-breaker from Colonsay who succeeding in reaching the cross was given sanctuary on Oronsay (the ‘island of St Oran’, who founded a priory here in 563), provided he or she stayed on the island for a year and a day.

Eoghan of the Little Head (Gaelic Eoghan a chinn bhig)

A Maclean of Lochbuie on Mull who was killed in battle some time in the 16th or early 17th century, having had his head cut off with a claymore while charging full tilt at his enemies. His horse ran off with his body still mounted upon it, so that all his family could bury of him was his head. As a consequence, his restless (and headless) spirit still rides abroad at night, presumably in search of its missing member. According to some accounts, the reason Eoghan’s ghost is unquiet is that he was killed before he had broken his fast. An early version was recounted in the periodical Teachdaire Gaelach (August 1830).

Tautological toponymy

Place names not infrequently have accretions of terms in different languages meaning the same thing. A fine example in Scotland is Ardtornish Point (on the east coast of Mull), which means ‘point of Thorir’s point point’, from Gaelic ard, ‘headland’, plus Thoris, possessive of the Old Scandinavian male personal name Thorir, plus Old Scandinavian nes, ‘promontory’, plus Modern English point.

James Bond

The fictional Secret Service agent who features in a series of thrillers by the English writer Ian Fleming, starting with Casino Royale (1953). Bond is supposedly the son of a Scottish father, a certain Andrew Bond of Glencoe. The character of Bond is based on a range of men Fleming met during the Second World War while working in naval intelligence; a particular inspiration was the Scottish diplomat, soldier, politician and author Fitzroy Maclean (1911–96), who operated with Tito’s partisans behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia.

The Lost Valley of Glencoe

A high hidden valley clenched between the precipitous flanks of Bheinn Fhada and Geàrr Aonach, two of the three sisters of Glencoe. In Gaelic it is known as Coire Gabhail, ‘the corrie of capture’, traditionally because it was here that the local Macdonalds hid their rustled cattle. Another peculiarity of the place is that the river, the Allt Coire Gabhail, disappears underground for much of the length of the valley (an unusual circumstance in non-limestone areas). Recalling a visit he made in March 1939, the mountaineer and writer W.H. Murray wrote (from the German prison camp where he spent the last three years of the war):

Spring or autumn – for these have greatest charm – a man might come here for a week and be alone. He might pitch a tent on that meadow and be as much out of sight and sound of civilization as if he dwelt on the North Pole.
– W.H. Murray, Mountaineering in Scotland (1947)

Abducted by an Eagle

The following account of the abduction of an infant by an eagle is reported by William Daniell in his Voyage Round Great Britain (1815–25):
In conversing on the strength of these formidable animals, he [Dr Jura, the son of the laird of that isle] stated that an eagle once took up a child which its mother had wrapped up in a piece of flannel and laid down by a stook of oats (it being harvest time) and flew with it from Scarba to Jura [a flight of at least a mile, over the Gulf of corryvreckan]. Some of the people of Jura observing the eagle descend, with what they supposed to be a lamb in his talons, hastened to the place where he alighted, and, to their surprise, found the infant unhurt, with the wrapping around it scarcely discomposed.

Blue Men of the Minch

Supernatural sea creatures, known as Na Fir Ghorm in Gaelic, who haunt the Minch (the stretch of water between mainland Scotland and the Outer Hebrides), occasionally preying on sailors.

When the chief of the Blue Men had all his men gathered about him, ready to attack a ship, he rose high in the water and shouted to the skipper two lines of poetry and if the skipper did not reply at once by adding two lines to complete the verse, the Blue Men seized the ship and upset it. Many a ship was lost in days of old because the skipper had no skill at verse.
– Donald Alexander Mackenzie, Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend (1917)

It is possible that the Blue Men originated as personifications of the notoriously dangerous waters of the Minch, particularly those around the Shiant Isles.

John Campbell, minister of Tiree between 1861 and 1891, reported that on one voyage his boat had been followed by ‘a blue-covered man’, but the reverend gentleman came to no harm.