Fight or Flyte

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Nobody does insults like the Scots.

Maybe it’s the guttural consonants, the rapid staccato of the Scottish accent that makes insulting people sound so wonderfully and lavishly abusive. Maybe it’s the quick wits and the sharp retorts learned in the school playground. Maybe it’s a survival mechanism we’ve adapted in a culture that seems to delight in putting others down. Maybe it’s all the practice we get on the football terraces.

Whatever it is, the Scots are world champions. These days we have slagging matches, 600 years ago they called it flyting. (Which is not the same as flirting, though sometimes it’s hard to tell.)

The Makars developed flyting into an art-form which reached its pinnacle in The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy, a long tirade of abuse written by William Dunbar directed at his poetic rival Walter Kennedy. Flyting was a test of verbal dexterity, a duel with words instead of swords, razor sharp wit instead of just razors. And Dunbar – one of Scotland’s literary heavyweights – remains the unbeaten champion.

Take this for starters:

Revin, raggit ruke, and full of rebaldrie,
Scarth fra scorpione, scaldit in scurrilitie
I se the haltane in thy harlotrie
And into uthir science no thing slie,
Of every vertew void, as men may sie;
Quytclame clergie and cleik to the ane club,
Ane baird blasphemar in brybrie ay to be;
For wit and woisdom ane wisp fra the may rub.

Raven, ragged rook, and ridden with rudeness
Spawn of a scorpion, scolded in scurrilousness
I see you arrogant in your baseness
And skilled in no other knowledge,
Devoid of every virtue, as men may see;
Disclaim your education and stick to the one trade,
A blaspheming bard will always resort to bribery;
The slightest thing would rob you of your wit and wisdom.

Nasty – but it pays to read it in the Scots. No English translation can really do justice.

Further on, we learn that Kennedy has thrown down the gauntlet, which Dunbar readily accepts:

Thou speiris, dastard, gif I dare with the fecht:
Ye! dagone dowbart, thairof haif thow no doubt.
Quhairevir we meir, thairto my hand I hecht
To red the rebald rymyng with a rowt.
Throw all Bretaine it sal be blawing owt
How that thow, poisonit pelour, gat thy paikis;
With ane dog-leich I schepe to gar the schowt,
And nowther to the tak knyfe, swerd nor aix

You ask me, you coward, if I dare fight with you:
Yes! worthless villain, have no doubt.
Wherever we meet, I give you my word,
To purge your perverted poetry with a punch.
Through all Britain it shall be well-known
How you, poisonous monster, got a beating;
With a dog-leash I’m going to make you scream
And not to take to you a knife, sword or axe

As well as casting doubt on Kennedy’s poetic abilities, Dunbar creatively insults his appearance, informing him that :

Thow hes ane perrilous face to play with lambis.
You’ve got a dangerous face for playing with lambs

Perhaps because his face is:

Lyk as the gleddis had on thy gulesnowt dynd
As if buzzards had dined on your yellow snout

He also suggests Kennedy might be a werewolf:

Mismaid monstour, ilk mone owt of thy mynd
Misshapen monster, every month you’re out of your mind

And it’s not just Kennedy that gets his share of the abuse, The Flyting has a swipe at speakers of the Gaelic:

Thy trechour tung has tane ane helang strynd –
Your treacherous tongue has taken a Highland accent

Ane lawland ers wald mak a bettir noyis
A Lowland arse would make a better noise
Here too:

Thow art but gluntoch
You’re nothing but a hairy highlander


Ersche katherene, with thy polk briek and rilling
Gaelic marauder, with your tartan bag and your tattered shoes

But he saves his best insults for last. The poem ends with a virtuoso display of invective, though some of the insults to our ears are just plain odd (e.g. button biter?):

Mauch-muttoun, byt buttoun, peilit gluttoun, air to Hilhous,
Rank beggar, ostir-dregar, flay-fleggar in the flet,
Chittirlilling, ruch rilling, lik-schilling in the milhous,
Baird rehatour, theif of nator, flas tratour, feyindis gett,
Filling of tauch, rak-sauch – cry-crauch, thow art oursett!
Muttoun-dryver, girnall-ryver, yadswyvar – fowll fell the!
Herretyk, lunatyk, purspyk, carlingis pet,
Rottin crok, dirtin dok – cry cok, or I sall quell the!

Maggoty mutton, button biter, bankrupt glutton, heir to Hillhouse
Foul beggar, oyster-dredger, flea-frightener in the hallway
Chitterlilling, rough boot, greedy scavenger in the millhouse
Abominable poet, thief by nature, false traitor, born of a fiend
Lump of grease, gallows bird - give up, you are beaten!
Sheep-driver, grain-thief, horse-shagger – a curse on you!
Heretic, lunatic, pick-pocket, old hag’s fart,
Rotten old ewe, filthy arse – give up or I shall knock you down!

Old Flyting is characterised by language which is heavily consonantal and strongly alliterative, and makes liberal use of internal rhyme. It’s also very rude.

But what characterises this strange skill is that while it remains adversarial, almost gladiatorial, at heart there lies a warmth and a strong bond of friendship between the two poets. Of course, being pals as well as rivals isn’t unheard of. But taken a bit further, the notion of being able to hold two opposing and contradictory ideas or feelings at the same time is at the heart of Scottish culture. It’s like saying: “I support the Scottish football team – but I can’t stand Scottish football.” Or “We’ve got the best culture in the world, we’re such a talented bunch of people, wha’s like us! – but I’m emigrating to Australia ‘cos Scotland’s rubbish.” Consequently, our literature is full of it, perfectly embodied today in the Glasgow Zen of Alan Spence at the opposite end of the railway line from Irvine Welsh’s Leith terminus, both of whom embrace contrasting yet compatible aspects of contemporary Scottishness.

Arguably, the Scots were the best at flyting, though it was a tradition which by no means stopped at the Border. A hundred years or so after Dunbar, another William – Mr Shakespeare – was developing a reputation as a writer with a wicked way with words. Many of his plays demonstrate his skill with a put-down:

From the perfunctory :
I saw the man today, if man he be.
(All’s Well That Ends Well)

to the vicious:
He is deformed, crooked, old and sere, ill faced, worse bodied, shapeless everywhere, vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind, stigmatical in making, worse in mind.
(Comedy of Errors)

the utterly ridiculous:
You lisp and wear strange suits!
(As You Like It)

the withering:
Away, you three inch fool.
(The Taming of the Shrew)

and the nearly beautiful:
You have such a February face, so full of frost, of storm and cloudiness.
(Much Ado About Nothing)

Impressive, but it’s better when a real person is on the receiving end. Or even an entire nation. Samuel Johnson had plenty of things to say about Scotland and the Scots – none of them complimentary. Such as this:

Much may be made of a Scotsman, if he is caught young.

Or this:

Sir, let me tell you, the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!

He even immortalised his loathing in his Dictionary:

Oats: a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

One of the glories of exploring literature is that you get to hear great writers slagging each other off. In the 18th century Robert Fergusson published a retort to Johnson’s famous Dictionary entry:

Mind ye what Sam, the lying loun!
Had in his Dictionar laid down?
That aits in England are a feast
To cow an’ horse an’ sican beast
While in Scots ground this growth was common
To gust the gab o’ man a woman.

(To the Principal and Professors of St Andrews on their Superb Treat to Samuel Johnson)

Though never quite reaching Dunbar’s foul-mouthed triumph of slander, Fergusson does have the pompous old windbag Dr Johnson striving to draw breath under the weight of a delicious-sounding (if a little stodgy) menu composed entirely of Scottish food.

Robert Burns was no stranger to the flyting, either. He turned out many epigrams and epitaphs and satires, sometimes directed at individuals, sometimes at whole groups; sometimes he disguised his targets’ identities, sometimes he put their names in the title. Like On Andrew Turner:

In se’enteen hunder’n forty-nine,
The deil gat stuff to mak a swine,
An’ coost it in a corner;
But wilily he chang’d his plan,
An’ shap’d it something like a man,
An’ ca’d it Andrew Turner.

The flyting tradition in Scotland lives on. A few years ago a Herald columnist invited contributions to his Diary of memorable insults and collected them in his book Not the Worst of Tom Shields (1999). They included some peculiarly Scots phrases:

. . . a face like a Gregg’s Hallowe’en cake
. . . a face like a torn melodeon with the tune hingin oot.
. . . a face like a poun’ o’ knitted mince.

Some of them employ the Makar device of alliteration:

. . . a face that would frighten the French.
. . . a rerr face for hauntin hooses.

Not to mention rudeness:

. . . a face like a well-skelped arse.
. . . a face like the north end of a south-bound cow
. . . a face like a battered fart.

But curiously, even these more modern insults, or flytes, seem to belong to a past generation. Perhaps it’s telling that we need to collect them in books. It seems a great deal of our insults we get now from TV comedians, catch-phrases, soap-operas. Where’s the combativeness gone? The sharp words? The razor wit? Has ribaldry succumbed to political correctness? Has rivalry given way to a chummy we’re-all-in-it-together-ness?

Unlikely. Not until hell freezes over, Celtic fans wear orange, Rangers fans adopt the shamrock and everybody learns to love the English. The flyting tradition is safe.