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Summer Special!

Part One of our serialised version of Aesop's Fables in Modern Scots.

Tuesday, June 11, 2024
12 mins

In March we presented a new translation of Aesop's Fables in Modern Scots.

The idea was to generate some funds by 'selling' something rather than just rattling the tin for donations. Sadly, it hasn't taken off as we hoped and sales have been slack.

So, in the run-up to the UK general election on July 9th we'll be publishing the collection in parts.

We'll publish between half a dozen and ten stories every other day.

We're proud of this work and feel it is deserving of an audience. ('Work' feels like the wrong word given that it was so enjoyable to do.)

If any readers know of publishers who may be interested in producing the piece as a conventional hard copy book, please forward the link for this page. We also suspect that what we're doing may reach a more receptive audience in the ex-pat communities scattered across the globe so we would urge readers to forward the link to anyone they feel may enjoy a Scots take on the ancient classic.


Aesop embodies a wee bit o' wisdom no uncommon in oor history; his fame is aw the mair deservin' juist because he never actually earned it. The steidin' foondations o' common sense, the canny jabs at daftness, that mak up aw the Fables, dinna belang tae him, but tae humanity hersel'. In the earliest days o' fowk, onything true is true for iverybody; an onything true for iverybody has nae single name. In sic cases, there's aye some fellae in the middle wha first haes the fash o' gatherin' them up, an then gets the credit for makin' them up. He gets the fame; an, aa things considered, he deserves it. Maun be somethin' braw an humane, somethin' o' the human future an the human past, in sic a fellae: even if he juist uised it tae nick bits o' history or mislead fowk aboot the future. The tale o Arthur micht truly be connectit tae the maist fechtin' Christianity o' fawin' Rome or tae the auldest, heatheny tales hid in the Welsh hills. But the word "Mappe" or "Malory" will aye mean King Arthur; even tho we find aulder an better origins nor the Mabinogion; or write later an waur versions nor the "Idylls o' the King." The bairns' fairy tales micht hae come oot o' Asia wi the Indo-European fowk, noo thankfully gane; they micht hae been inventit by some fine French leddy or gentleman like Perrault: they micht even be what they say they are. But we'll aye ca' the best selection o' sic tales "Grimm's Tales": simply because it's the best collection.

The real Aesop, if there ever wis an actual Aesop, seems tae hae been a Phrygian slave, or at least no someone specially or symbolically kitted oot wi the Phrygian bonnet o' liberty. He lived, if he lived at all, aboot the saxth century afore Christ, in the time o' that Croesus fellae whose story we baith like an' suspect, same as we dae maist things in Herodotus. Thare's stories o' him bein' ugly an' haein' a gey sharp tongue: stories that (as the weel-kent Cardinal said) explain, even tho they dinna excuse, him bein' chucked aff a high cliff in Delphi. It's up tae fowk who read the Fables tae decide whether he wis truly thrown ower for bein' ugly an' rude, or maybe rather for bein' ower moral an proper. But there's nae doot that the general story o' him can fairlie rank him wi' a group o' fowk ower easily forgotten in oor modern comparisons: the group o' the great philosopher-slaves. Aesop micht hae been a made-up character like Uncle Remus: he wis also, juist like Uncle Remus, a real person. It's a fact that slaves in the auld warld could be worshipped like Aesop, or loved like Uncle Remus. It's strange tae see that baith o' thae great slaves tellt their best stories aboot beasts an' birds.

But whatever credit we gie Aesop, the hale human history o' Fables disnae belong tae him. This wean gaed on lang afore ony sarcastic freedman frae Phrygia got thrawn aff a cliff (or maybe no); an it's lingered on lang efter. It's guid tae see the difference, mind ye, 'cause it makes Aesop seem mair effective nor ony ither fabulist. Grimm's Tales, braw as they are, war githered by twa German students. An if we cannae be sure o' a German student, at least we ken mair aboot them than we dae aboot a Phrygian slave. The truth o' course is, Aesop's Fables arenae Aesop's fables, ony mair nor Grimm's Fairy Tales war ever Grimm's fairy tales. But fables an fairy tales are twa completely different beasts. There's a wheen o' wee bits that set them apart; but the maist obvious is easy enough tae see. There cannae be a guid fable wi human beings in it. There cannae be a guid fairy tale withoot them.

Aesop, or Babrius (or whatever his name wis), understood this weel: aw the characters in a fable maun be like nameless ideas. They need to be like abstract concepts in maths, or like chess pieces. The lion will aye be stronger nor the wolf, jist as fower is aye twice twa. In a fable, the fox maun aye be cunning, juust like a knight in chess maun move wi deviousness. The sheep in a fable maun keep gaen forrit, like a pawn in chess. A fable cannae hae the sneaky captures o' a pawn; it cannae hae whit Balzac cried "the rebellion o' a sheep."

On the ither hand, a fairy tale completely relies on the hinge o' human personality. If nae hero wis there tae fecht the dragons, we'd niver ken they war dragons at aw. If nae adventurer wis cast upon the undiscoverit island, it would remain undiscovered. If the miller's third son disnae find the enchanted garden whaur the seven princesses stand pale an frozen, weel, then they'll juist bide pale an frozen an enchanted. If there's nae prince tae find the Sleepin' Beauty, she'll simply sleep on. Fables rest on the opposite idea: that everything is juist whit it is, an will speak for itself regardless. The wolf will aye be wolfish; the fox will aye be foxy. This micht be kinda like the animal worship o' the Egyptians, Indians, an mony ither great cultures. Fowk dinnae, I think, love beetles or cats or crocodiles wi a totally personal love; they see them as expressions o' that abstract an nameless energy in nature, somethin' awe-inspiring even tae someone who disnae believe in God, an downright fearsome tae an atheist. Sae in aw the fables, whether they be Aesop's or no, aw the animal forces act like forces o' nature, like mighty rivers or growin' trees. It's their limit an their loss that they cannae be onything but themsels; it's their tragedy that they cannae lose their souls.

This is the wee bit o' magic that maks Fables immortal: we couldna teach the maist basic truths sae simply wioot turnin' folks intae chess pieces. We cannae discuss these wee, simple things withoot usin' creatures that cannae speak at aw. Imagine, for a minute, turnin' the wolf intae a wolfish baron, or the fox intae a crafty diplomat. Ye wad instantly mind that even barons are human, ye couldna forget that even diplomats are men. Ye'd aye be lookin' for that wee spark o' human kindness that micht sometimes peek oot o' an even the cruelest fellae; for that wee bit o' understandin' o' even the good things, like decency, that ye micht find in ony decent diplomat. But ance ye pit somethin' on twa legs instead o' fower, an' tak' its feathers awa', ye cannae help but ask for a human bein', either heroic, like in fairy tales, or unheroic, like in the modern novels.

By usin' beasts in sic a strict an arbitrary style, lik hoo they're uised on heraldic shields or auncient hieroglyphs, fowk hae managed tae pass doon thir awfu' truths we ca' "common sense". If the chivalrous lion is red an roarin', it's aye gonnae be red an roarin'; if the sacred ibis stands on one leg, it'll stand that way forever. In this language, like a giant alphabet o' beasts, some o' the first basic truths o' mankind are scribbled doon. Juist like a wee bairn learns "A is for Apple" or "B is for Bear", sae fowk hae learnt tae link the simpler, stronger creatures wi the simpler, stronger truths. That a flowin' burn cannae dirty its ain source, an onybody sayin' it can is a tyrant an a liar; that a mouse is ower wee tae fecht a lion, but ower strang for the chains that can haud a lion; that a fox that gets the maist oot o' a flat plate micht get the least oot o' a deep ane; that the crow the gods forbid tae sing, the gods still gie cheese tae; that when a goat insults frae a mountain tap, it's no the goat that insults, but the mountain: aw these are deep truths etched onto the rocks wherever fowk hae been. It disnae maitter how auld or new they are; they're the alphabet o' humanity, which, like mony forms o' primitive picture-writin', uises ony livin' symbol afore drawin' a human. These auncient, universal tales are aw aboot beasts; juist like the latest discoveries in the auldest prehistoric caves are aw aboot beasts. In his simpler states, a man aye felt he wis ower mysterious tae be drawn. But the legend he carved under thir simpler symbols wis aye the same; an whether fables startit wi Aesop or Adam, whether they war German an medieval like Reynard the Fox, or French an Renaissance like La Fontaine, the outcome is aye essentially the same: that superiority is aye arrogant, 'cause it's aye an accident; that pride comes before a fa'; an that there's sic a thing as bein' ower clever by half. Ye winna find ony ither legend than this scribbled on the rocks by ony human hand. There's every type an time o' fable: but there's only ane moral tae the fable; because there's only ane moral tae everything.

(Translated from the original English introduction by G. K. Chesterton)


The Tod and the Grapes

The Guisse that laid Gowden Eggs

The Cootie and the Wee Beasties

The Wee Blether Biter

The Coalie an' the Bleacher

The Wee Blethers in Convention

The Fletherin' Bat an' the Sly Stoats

The Cootie an' the Sow: A Wee Debate Ootbye

The Cootie an' the Corbie: A Tale o' Flattery an' Feathers

The Clydesdale an' the Scoundrel: A Tale o' Trickery an' Trotters

The Cootie an' the Wee Blether: A Bite o' Blether an' a Gowl's Supper

The Pruf o' the Feathers: A Tale o' Colours an' Flight

The Cootie an' the Wee Feathered Foes: A Crafty Cat an' Wise Wingers

The Meeser an' the Wee Winged Wae: A Tale o' Foolishness an' Feathers

The Sly Auld Wifie an' the Bamboozled Doc: A Bletherin' Bargain an' Blind Bluffs

The Moon's Moody Makeover: A Yarn o' Gowns an' Growin' Pains

The Auld Woodcutter's Axe: A Splash o' Honesty an' a Golden Gleam

The Gomeril, the Sly Tod, an' the Lairdy Lion: A Yarn o' Backstabbin' an' Bites in the Backside

The Lairdly Lion an' the Feathery Foot: A Yarn o' Tiny Teeth an' Big Favours

The Caw an' the Crafty Wee Wattle: A Yarn o' Thirst an' Tricks

The Loons an' the Lochan Dwellers: A Tale o' Taunts an' Tears

The Blazin' Sun an' the Blustery North Wind: A Brawl o' Bree an' Brilliance

The Widow and her Servants

The Guids and the Ills

The Hawses an' the Froggies

The Sly Tod and the Lang-legged Steerie

The Tod in Sheep's Claes 

The Hunted Hart an' the Stoorie Staw

The Lassie an' Her Lorny

The Dolphins the Whales and the Sprat

The Tod and the Wee Sleekit Monkey

The Donkey and the Lap-Dog

The Fir-tree and the Bramble

The Frogs’ Complaint Against The Sun

The Dog, the Cockerel and the Fox 

The Midgie and the Bull

The Bear and the Chielers

A Fleein' Slave an' a Fae Lion

The Flea and the Man

The Bee and Jupiter

The Oak and the Reeds

The Blind Wumman and the Wolf Cub

The Boy and the Snails

The Apes and the Two Travellers

The Cuddy an' His Loads

The Hirdy's Lad an' the Fause Cry

The Tod an' the Gowkit Goat

The Creel an' the Sprat

The Braggin' Brawdler

The Crab an' His Ma

The Cuddy an' His Shimmer

The Hingin' Man an' His Laddies

The Cuddy an' the Cook

The Cuddy Crowned King

The Rogues an' the Chanter

The Crofter an' His Chance

Jura an' the Mucky Midget

The Gaffer an' His Brawlin' Bairns

The Lamp

The Hoolet and the Birdies

The Donkey in the Lion’s skin

The She-Goats and their beards

The Old Lion

Wee Laddie in the Linn

The Quack Frog

The Swollen Fox

The Boy and the Nettles

The Peasant and the Apple Tree

The Jackdaw and the Pigeons

Jupiter and the Tortoise

The Dog in the Manger

The Two Bags

The Oxen and the Axletrees

The Boy and the Filberts

The Frogs asking for a King

The Olive Tree and the Fig Tree

The Lion and the Boar

The Walnut Tree

The Man and the Lion

The Tortoise and the Eagle

The Goat on the Roof

The Fox Without a Tail

The Vain Jackdaw

The Traveller and his Dog

The Shipwrecked Man and the Sea

The Wild Boar and the Fox

Mercury and the Sculptor

The Fawn and his Ma

The Fox and the Lion

The Eagle and his Captor

The Blacksmith and his Dog

The Stag at the Pool

The Dog and his Shadow

Mercury and the Tradesmen

The Mice and the Weasel

The Peacock and Juno

The Bear and the Fox

The Donkey and the Old Peasant

The Ox and the Frog

The Man and the Image

Hercules and the Waggoner

The Pomegranate, the Apple Tree and the Bramble

The Two Soldiers and the Robber

The Lion and the Wild Donkey

The Man and the Satyr

The Image Seller


The Tod and the Grapes

A starvin' tod spied a wheen braw clusters o' grapes hingin' frae a vine clambrin' up a muckle trellis. He fair skeltit tae reach them, loupin' like a daft wee baffoon, but nae guid it did - they were just ootae his gnashers. Sae, wi' a huffy wee sniff an' a feigned swagger, he slunk aff, mutterin', "Triflin' things! Afore I thocht they'd be rinnin' wi' juicie sweetness, but they're as dour as auld cheese."

Moral: "It's gey simple tae hae disdain for whit ye cannae reach."


The Guisse that laid Gowden Eggs

A canny Man and his braw Wife haed a guisse, a fine feathered beast it wis, that would lay a gowden egg ilka mornin', shinin' like the sun. Weel, luck shone on them like it did on the guisse, but nae sun shines forever, an' greed, like a sneaky wee shadow, crept in.

Thinkin' they couldnae get rich fast eneuch, the Man and Wife, blinded by gowden dreams, convinced themsels the guisse maun be stuffed wi' treasure inside. So, in a fit o' haste, they killed the poor creature, hopin' to find a nest o' riches.

But oh, the folly o' it! When they cut it open, nae gowden glint met their eyes, just the same flesh and feathers as ony ither guisse. Nae sudden fortune, nae daily gowden gift, just empty hands and heavy hearts.

Greed, ye see, aye wants mair, but in its grasp, it loses all. So mind ye, let contentment be yer gowden egg, for true wealth lies nae in what ye hae, but in the riches o' a grateful heart.

Moral: It's best to appreciate what ye have, lest ye end up like the Man and Wife, with nae guisse and nae gowd!


The Cootie an' the Wee Beasties

There wis ance a hoose fair overrun wi' wee crawlies. A cootie got wind o' this, an' she thocht tae hersel', "That's the braw wee spot for me!", an' aff she scooted, settlin' in like a queen an' gowpin' the wee beasties ane by ane for her supper. 

Awe, the wee blighters couldnae thole it nae mair, an' they a' huddled in their wee hames, glowerin' oot fearfully. "Och, botheration!" the cootie grunted, "The only wey oot is tae bamboozle the wee buggers." So she sat her haunches tae think, then up the wa' she scampered like a wee monkey, swingin' upside doon frae a nail like a stuffed toy. 

Wee while later, a cheeky beastie poked oot its heid an' saw the cootie hangin' there like a gowk. "Ha!" it squeaked, "Ye may think ye're clever, Miss Slinky, pretendin' tae be a sack o' meal an' a', but nae a single whisker o' us is comin' near yer scunners!"

Now, if ye're a smarty, dinnae be gowked by the innocent act o' them ye ken tae be trouble. A leopard cannae change its spots, nor a cootie its cunning!


The Wee Blether Biter

There wis ance a dug, mair bitey than a wasp in a kilt, nippin' an' gnawin' at folk for nae reason ava, a right gomer to onybody comin' near his maister's hoose. So, the maister, at his wits' end, clappit a jinglin' bell on the wee brute's neck, like a warnin' beacon. The dug, he wis chuffed as a bairn wi' a new rattle, prancin' aboot, shakin' his jingler wi' nae shame. But, up comes an auld, wise dug an' says, "Dinnae fash yer tail feathers, young yin. Ye think that bell's a medal o' honour, dae ye? Naebody's mistakin' it for a crown jewel, believe me. It's a muckle sign o' yer bad manners, plain an' simple."

Moral:  Weel-kentness isnae aye the same as renown.


The Coalie an' the Bleacher

There wis ance a coalie livin' a quiet life in the hills, black as a beetle wi' the soot an' charcoal. Now, alang comes a bleacher, settin' up shop nearby, whitenin' an' brightenin' everything he could get his hands on. The coalie, bein' a friendly soul, struck up a conversation, an' after a while, says, "Come share my wee hame, eh? We could get tae ken each ither better, an' save a few bawbees on firewood an' the like!" The bleacher, polite like, shakes his heid, sayin', "Nae can dae, pal. Yer sooty ways would have my linens lookin' like chimney sweeps in nae time!"

So there ye have it, a tale o' how opposites don't always attract, even if they share a street. Just goes tae show, sometimes it's best tae stick tae yer ain trade, an' keep the charcoal an' the bleach well apart.

Moral:  A tapestry o' different hues creates a bonnier picture than ane o' just ae colour.


The Wee Blethers in Convention

Aince upon a time, a' the wee crawlies huddle thegither in a big meetin', discussin' how tae bide safe frae the claws o' the cootie. Efter a wheen blethers an' ideas, auld Greyfur, a wise auld blether wi' heaps o' experience, squeaks up, "I've got it! We can stick a jinglin' bell on the cootie's scunner, sae we'll hear her comin' a mile aff an' scurry oot o' sicht!"

The hail lot o' them gied a right cheer, thinkin' this wis the answer tae their prayers. But juist afore they a' signed up, wee Scruffytoe, a blether wi' mair sass than a bagpipe, pipes up, "Aye, that's a braw plan, nae doot. But wha's gaein tae strap the bell on the cootie's neck?"

An' that, me friends, is the crux o' the matter. It's easy tae come up wi' grand ideas, but it's the doin' that's the tricky bit. So next time ye're hatchin' a plan, dinnae forget tae ask yersel', "Wha's gaein tae bell the cootie?"

Moral:  Aye, a clever plan is nae use if it cannae be put intae practice. Mind the gap atween thinkin' an' doin'.

Editor:  Les Bertrand

Translation: Frances Watt

Illustrations: Jo Teque, Rab Clark

Copyright Off-Topic Scotland, March 2024

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