Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Nine of diamonds, or the curse of Scotland: an etymological drama in two acts. Act 2, Scene 2

See the previous posts with the same title. We are approaching the end of the drama. It will be a thriller without a denouement, a tragedy without catharsis, but such are most etymological dramas. Putting the kibosh on the origin of a hard word or phrase is an almost impossible endeavor.

Heraldry for etymologists and a note on unlikely candidates

It has been said, and for good reason, that, whenever people played cards, every man whose unpopularity made him hated by the people and bearing as arms nine lozenges could be referred to as the curse of Scotland. The literature on armorial bearings is not easy to read, for the entire vocabulary is French. Today, easily understood is perhaps only bent sinister, alluding to bastardy, with its typical French word order (an adjective after the noun it modifies, as in heir apparent, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary, court martial, and so forth). Sinister of course means “left.” While reading descriptions of arms of mail, one should be ready to understand phrases like or on a saltire azure (that is, a geometrical figure like St. Andrew’s cross against the background of gold).

“This is bent sinister. Great people, William the Conqueror, or William the Bastard, among them, wore it proudly. Apparently, there is nothing sinister about it. Bent sinister also happens to be the title of a novel by Nabokov.” Image credit: Argent a bend sinister gules by Ipankonin. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Daniel Shawfield’s coat of arms has already been mentioned (see the comment on the first installment of this series). The expected nine lozenges do not appear there. Then there was a certain Colonel Packer, who presumably was on the scaffold when Charles I was beheaded and afterwards commanded with great severity in Scotland. No version of the armorial bearings of the Packers looks in any way like the nine of diamonds. It is also most unlikely that such a visible person would have survived the end of the Civil War. In any case, Packer does not appear among the regicides. See also below on the confusion of names in printed sources! Then comes John Dalrymple, the Earl of Stair, and his coat of arms fits the plot and brings us to the Massacre of Glencoe.

The Massacre of Glencoe and Lord Stair

In the previous post, the bloody events that attended the Jacobite movement in England were touched upon. The root of the word Jacobite is the Latinized form of James. The deposed James II was the last Stuart (and the last Catholic) king of England. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Mary and her husband William (that is, Mary II and William III) ruled the country, but their ascension to the throne did not end the period of turmoil. The subject that concerns us centers on the oath of allegiance to William and Mary. Scotland had many catholic sympathizers and remained a hotbed of political unrest. There is no need to describe in detail the events that led to the tragedy of February 3, 1693, in the Highlands of Scotland. Whatever the causes of that tragedy, one thing remains undisputed. On that day, 38 McDonalds from the clan MacDonald of Glencoe were killed treacherously, and 48 women and children died of exposure, after their homes were burned.  Even those who supported the assailants agreed that such atrocities cannot be exonerated.

“This is the Dalrymple coat of mail. The lozenges are here all right.” Dalrymple Coat of Arms courtesy of Culloden Battlefield.

Lord Stair was Secretary of State for Scotland and fought for obtaining allegiance to William and Mary. He was  (and is) mainly remembered for the role he played  in concluding the 1701 Treaty of Union between the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland, which resulted in the creating of Great Britain. In Scotland, many people looked upon this treaty as a disaster. Lord Stair’s coat of arms did contain nine lozenges (see above), but whether we have solved the riddle of the card remains unclear. James Murray, whose letter I quoted in full in the previous post, did not know the origin of the phrase the curse of Scotland as applied to the playing card. He only referred to The Imperial Dictionary and asked a question. In that dictionary, mention is made of Colonel Parker, a cruel commander in Scotland after the death of Charles I. He must be the same person who appeared in the pages of The Gentleman’s Magazine as Colonel Packer, and I wonder which name is correct. In any case, we don’t owe the phrase under investigation to him.

When the time came for explaining in the OED the curse of Scotland, Murray wrote that its origin is doubtful, but that a connection between the armorial bearings of Lord Stair, his role in bringing about the Union, and the name of the card is not unlikely. In the OED online, this statement has not been revised. The Century Dictionary says the same. However, the contributors to The Imperial Dictionary, the OED, and The Century Dictionary had not yet discovered the short text in The British Apollo. The Massacre of Glencoe took place in 1693, and Apollo was published in 1708. It is hard to imagine that fifteen years after the tragedy no one remembered the association between the mastermind behind the event and the phrase that allegedly referred to him.

“Glencoe. The apotheosis of war.” The Massacre of Glencoe courtesy of Scotland Info Guide.

Apollo’s editors knew only the folklore about every ninth king of Scotland being a tyrant. In my opinion, the phrase predates 1693; I believe that it was tied to Lord Stair in retrospect. There is a legend that when Robert Bruce was in flight on the water of Cairn in the Galloway district, the heel of his boot became loose. The treacherous or careless Rob McQuechan undertook to mend the boot and wounded Bruce badly in the heel. Robert Burns, according to the recollections of his friend, spoke of the wound as of NINE inches in extent, even though the popular proverb says as gleg [quick] as MacKeachan’s elshin [awl], that went through six plies blend leather, and half an inch into the king’s heel. Nine seems to be as important number in Scottish oral tradition as in all European folklore and mythology. Burns probably wanted the nail to go all the way to Bruce’s heart. The name of the blood red card with its nine sharp diamonds can trace to this or any other similar tale. In 1893, Murray wrote: “I have not at present any grounds for thinking that the phrase is of Scottish origin.” But it probably is, and the entry in the OED points to Murray’s change of mind on this issue.

Enter Fool

In such a drama, one cannot do without an anticlimax. There is a story that in the second half of the seventeenth century, a certain George Campbell attempted to steal the crown out of Edinburgh castle, but succeeded only in abstracting nine jewels from it. To replace the diamonds, a heavy tax was laid on the whole kingdom; hence, allegedly, the curse of Scotland. The story was repeated as late as the 1830. I was unable to find anything on this event, but at one time, the nine of diamonds was indeed called George Campbell.

“The indomitable Robert Bruce. No awl, even nine inches long, could rob him of victory.” Image credit: Robert the Bruce kills Sir Henry de Bohun on the first day of the Battle of Bannockburn by James William Edmund Doyle. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Behind the scenes

A bibliographical note

In periodicals, the idiom was discussed in four waves: in The Gentleman’s Magazine, beginning with 1786, and in Notes and Queries [NQ] in 1849-1851, the 1870’s, and the 1890’s. The best early survey of the existing conjectures will be found in NQ, 5th Series/IV: 20. In The British Apollo, the pages are not numbered. To make the search easier, I’ll give the reference: see the issue for September 3-September 8, 1708 (this edition existed for one year only!), p. 2, the left-hand column.

Featured Image Credit: “Statue Queen Victoria Glasgow Square Scotland” by skeeze. CC0 via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Though it might not re-shuffle the “nine of diamonds” debate, it may be worth noting a broadside with the title “Curse of Scotland,” since broadsides are occasionally useful in etymology. Also, the 1708-offered explanation, every ninth king of Scotland being a curse, later appears with a version of every ninth king of England supposedly being so–from which perspective may be a dilemma. Of course 1707 saw the Act of Union between England and Scotland. And the broadside “Curse of Scotland,” while not mentioning any playing cards, is plainly from an English perspective. It does have an illustration of a nobleman holding, apparently, a piece of paper. It begins: “We have no dinner, alas! what shall we do,/ For we are all true Englishmen, and cannot eat burgoo [oatmeal porridge]….”
    Other slanders ensue. This broadside, with an estimated date c. 1707, probably printed in London, is in the Madden Collection in Cambridge (vol 4, sheet 428). It is available on microfilm; and is reprinted in Holloway and Black, Later English Broadside Ballads, 1975, v. 1, n. 32 pp. 79-80; and is discussed in DelGiudice and Porter, eds., Imagined States, 2001, pp. 124-5.

Comments are closed.