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Nine of diamonds, or the curse of Scotland: an etymological drama in two acts: Act 1

The origin of this mysterious phrase, “nine of diamonds,” has been discussed for over two hundred years. Nor are surveys wanting. I cannot say anything on this subject the world does not know, and I have no serious preferences for any of the relatively promising hypotheses. Yet I have probably amassed more clippings on this mysterious expression than any of my predecessors (the archives of the OED must contain a richer treasure trove, but it is out of public view), so that sitting on such a collection makes me feel a bit like the dog in the manger. In addition to dictionaries and books, I, as always, have a heap of articles and notes from The Gentleman’s Magazine, Notes and Queries, and The Spectator. Below, I’ll dispense with references, but, if someone needs them, I’ll be happy to provide both volume and page numbers.

“The dog in the manger, not a character to emulate.” Image credit: The Dog in the Manger courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Enter Prolog: On Cards, Men, and Numerals

“The queen of clubs is called in Northamptonshire Queen Bess, perhaps, because that queen, history says, was of a swarthy complexion [and for that reason some imaginative scholars thought that Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of the Sonnets, who, incidentally, is never called either lady or dark in the poems, was the queen]; the four of spades, Ned Stokes, but why I know not; the nine of diamonds, the curse of Scotland, because every ninth monarch of that nation was a bad king to his subjects. I have been told by old people, that this card [nine of diamonds] was called long before the Rebellion in 1745, and therefore it could not arise from the circumstance of the Duke of Cumberland’s sending orders, accidentally written upon the card, the night before the battle of Culloden for General Campbell to give no quarter” [about all these things more will be said next week]. With regard to every ninth monarch being evil, it should be remembered that nine is a common number in myths and later folklore (for instance, the Scandinavian god Odin hanged himself as part of a mysterious self-sacrifice and was suspended from a tree for nine nights. See also my post titled “Nine Tailors Make a Man” for April 6, 2016. Every mention of nine in popular stories should arouse a researcher’s suspicion.

“The most unfortunate of all cards, as far as one tradition goes.” Image credit: “Diamonds Nine 9 Card Recreation Games Cards” by Clker-Free-Vector-Images. CC0 via Pixabay.

The Case of a Missing Card

It has been documented that people, sometimes important personalities, did scribble notes on the reverse of playing cards. And the card allegedly written at Culloden has been invoked many times in the discussion of the phrase the curse of Scotland. Has it been found? “…I am told on good authority that the identical card is preserved at Slains Castle, Aberdeenshire, the seat of Lord Errol” (written in 1893). Alas and alack! Half a year later, in 1894, a rejoinder appeared: “…my friend Capt. Webbe, who married a sister of the present Lord Errol, has most kindly made a search for this card, and he writes to me: ‘…the only card I can find among the Kilmarnock papers is the eight of diamonds; it has a short letter written on the back of it from the Duke of Hamilton to the Countess of Yarmouth, expressing regret at his not having been able to call upon her. There is no other card, nor has my wife ever heard of there ever having been another in existence here’.” This is a bit of an anticlimax. By way of consolation, I may add that the name of Little Lord Fauntleroy’s mother (“Dearest”) was Mrs. Errol. She too had been married to a captain, the youngest of the three sons of the Earl of Dorincourt.

“Beware of the evil playing cards may bring!” Image credit: “Military Alice In Wonderland Disneyland Paris Theme” by dassel. CC0 via Pixabay.

The Plot Thickens: Cards, Like an Ill Wind, Bring No One Any Good

One of the card games bears the name Pope Joan. It was possibly introduced to Scotland by Mary of Lorraine (1515-1560), regent of her daughter Mary Stuart, or James, Duke of York, later King of England (1631-1701), the last (deposed) Catholic English king. In the game, the nine of diamonds, or the Pope, is the winning card, and the story goes that many Scottish courtiers were ruined because of their addiction to that game. The antipapal spirit of the Scots supposedly caused the pope to be called the Curse of Scotland. This game was originally called Pope Julio and goes back to the reign of Queen Elizabeth (Queen Bess). I note with some unease that the sources mention another equally deleterious French game, called comette or comète, also introduced by Mary of Lorraine. Comète was played with two

whole packs, the first containing all the red cards, the other the black. Each pack was to be used alternately, the nine of diamonds being the red comète, and the nine of clubs the black. By this method there will be two comètes moving in the same circle, and each equally liable to be called the curse of Scotland.

Cards and Phonetics. Say No to Sentimental Guessing

Curse in the phrase curse of Scotland may be an old way of pronouncing cross in Scotch. “St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland; he suffered on a cross, not of the usual form, but like the letter X, which has since been commonly called a St. Andrew’s cross.” This was written in 1849. An immediate refutation followed this conjecture: “The nine resembles St. Andrew’s cross less than five, in a pack of cards; and, moreover, the nine of any other suit would be equally applicable.” Incidentally, the same objection should be leveled against the connection between the card and every ninth king of Scotland being a tyrant. But lo and behold! In 1875, the old idea occurred to another correspondent. Obviously, the author did not know that he had a predecessor (a common curse of those who love rushing into print) and concluded his note on a melancholy note: “This may be held to be somewhat fanciful, but it is a fanciful matter with which we are dealing.” Yet he was self-confident: “This derivation does away with a great deal of sentimental guessing; but I have no doubt it is the true one, though the question still remains, why was it applied to the Nine of Diamonds, and not to any of the other nines? I have not considered this point.” Beware of the etymologists who say I have no doubt.  And indeed why just nine of diamonds? (See above!) We again witness reference to the form of the cross: “When I say the form of the Nine of Diamonds suggests (to some extent) the form of St. Andrew’s Cross, it is meant that we may suppose two cross lines proceeding from the diamonds at the foot.

Image credit: Martirio de San Andrés by Juan Correa de Vivar. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Cards and Taxes

In 1894, the following excerpt from The History of Scotland by John Hill Burton was quoted: “Diamonds, nine of, called the curse of Scotland, from Scotch member of Parliament, part of whose family arms is the nine of diamonds, voting for the introduction of the malt tax into Scotland.” As conjectured, the Member of Parliament might be Daniel Campbell of Shawfield, member for Glasgow, provided his arms contained nine lozenges. His house was destroyed by a mob in 1727, because he was suspected of “having given Government the information on the habits and statistics of Scotland necessary for the preparation of the malt tax, as well as of having exposed a system of evasion of duties in the Scots tobacco trade.” Shawfield riots are a well-documented event. The rest is intelligent guessing.

To be continued.

Featured image: “C M Coolidge Dogs Canines Poker Cards Humor” by 12019. CC0 via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    Alas, the arms of Campbell of Shawfield are the usual Campbell gyronny of Or and sable charged with either 8 or 9 crescents. No trace of either lozenges or fusils (the distinction was not always made).

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