Book:The Wee Free Men/Annotations

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in the APF, Breebart and Kew write:-

+ [p. 153] "'We'll dance the FiveHundredAndTwelvesome Reel to the tune o' "The Devil Among The Lawyers"'"

There are Foursome, Eightsome and Twelvesome Reels, which involve exchanges of partners between two, four or six couples. 512 is eight cubed, so presumably it's more complicated, but basically the same. "The Devil Among The Lawyers" is possibly a reference to Burns' "The Deil's Awa' Wi' The Exciseman", or to 'The Devil Among The Tailors', (or, as it's sometimes known, 'The Deil Amang the Tailors') a well-known folk-dance tune (which is in fact, I'm told, the original tune for an Eightsome Reel).

Discussing the reference:-

  • George McDonald Fraser wrote three books of semi-autobiographical short stories about his time as a subaltern in the Gordon Highlanders just after the end of WW2. He spent a little under two years as a junior officer in one of Scotland's most famous (some might say notorious) Army regiments. What becomes clear from his books is that the Gordons have many similarities to the Feegle. His Scottish soldiers essentially ARE the Feegle, only cleaner, neater, and subject to military discipline - they are even known by nicknames such as Daft Bob, Wee Wullie, et c.

In fact, in WW2, the 51st (Highland)Infantry Division, whose insignia was a stylised "HD", were known to the rest of the British Army as "The Hydraulics", because "those bloody Scotsmen would lift anything".

Scottish regiments certainly saw grand theft as a challenge: elsewhere in his writings, McDonald Fraser recounts being busted down to private from lance-corporal, because a raiding party of Cameron Highlanders stole the tent from over his and his comrades' heads while they slept.

Pterry notes that the Feegles who adopt Tiffany as Kelda are virtually all alike, accent-wise, save for those who accompanied the new Kelda from her birthplace in the Long Lake clan. Ref Breebart and Kew:-

+ [p. 152] "He spoke differently too, [...]"

While the other Nac Mac Feegle sound like people doing Rab C Nesbitt impressions (Nesbitt is a well-known Scots character (of the dirty, foul-mouthed, sexist drunkard kind) from a BBC comedy series), William has the sort of exaggerated Ayrshire burr you might hear folk put on when reciting Robert Burns (the famous Scots poet, who wrote 'Auld Lang Syne').

  • McDonald Fraser describes his Gordon Highlanders similarly, as being 80% drawn from Glasgow (ie, Rab C. Nesbitts and Billy Connollys) but with the remaining 20% drawn from the real Scottish Highlands and Islands. (apart from a draft from the Liverpool Scottish with thick Scouse accents and names like McDonald, McLeod, et c)

In the first book of short stories, The General Danced At Dawn, it may interest students of Feegledom to note that a 128-some reel was actually danced, (in Libya in 1946), at the end of an otherwise disastrous General's inspection. This 'record' stood until 24th April 1988, when inspired by Fraser's story and according to the 1989 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, "The most complex Scottish country dance ever held was a 256-some reel, choreographed by Ian Price, which took place ... in Vancouver, Canada." As far as is known, this remains the most intricate single-set Scottish reel danced anywhere by anybody, although larger groups have since taken the field (no 'floor' being big enough) in Toronto (512) and Aberdeenshire (1254) as aggregations of smaller sets.

The Scottish general gets progressively drunker over dinner, and prevails on the wee pipe-sergeant (the Regiment's principal piper and to all intents and purposes, its Gonnagal and guardian of its tradition) to expand the dancing. From the conventional foursome and eightsome reels, to the rarely danced and far longer sixteensome.

To correct Breebaart and Kew who say: 512 is eight cubed, so presumably it's more complicated, but basically the same.

Not quite, gentlemen: the thing about Scottish dancing is that the length of the dance increases almost exponentially as you proceed upwards through powers of two. A twosome is simple; a foursome takes longer as each dancer has to interact with three others before it can end. In an eightsome, each dancer has to physically dance a measure with each of seven other dancers. In a sixteensome, that's fifteen other people, and it takes proportionately longer. Now imagine....

The General then calls for a thirty-twosome reel. Then he gets delusions of grandeur and calls for a sixty-foursome: one of the longest and most complex Scottish reels ever performed anywhere.

By now, it's one in the morning, the Military Police are out, curious Arabs are wondering what the noise is (it's a full Highland pipe band), the English regiment who share the barracks are awake, and German prisoners of war housed nearby are considering a protest under the Geneva Convention. (In fact, in a Vimes/Night Watch sort of way, the Military Police are unsure as to whether or not they have the authority to arrest a General, even a Scottish one, for drunken disorderly behaviour and related offences...)

But the General carries on...

"I say, pipey, is there any reason why we couldn't..."

And a one hundred and twenty-eightsome happens, which takes one hour and twenty eight minutes to dance to a conclusion... by Highlanders, whooping Arabs, Northumberland Fusiliers, and German prisoners of war roped in to make up the numbers.

The 512-some reel is the next logical step up, would take between six and seven hours to dance to a finish, and only Feegles would be daft enough to dance it.

It could also be noted that the most Feegle-like of the Highlanders, the habitually filthy, illiterate, shambling wreck who is Private McAuslan, (nicknamed "Private Piltdown" by the defending officer at his court-martial) is reduced to an embarrassed red-faced mumbling Rob Anybody (in the presence of Tiffany) by a beautiful girl with whom he disastrously falls in love... this is MacAuslan, a man who, when short of money, raided the platoon armoury, and then was caught by the Military Police trying to sell the Arabs a three-inch mortar and shells.

more here: Daft Wullie

Over on the APF, I find a certain confirmation for this annotation! Terry Pratchett is quoted as saying:-

"These are modern authors whose books I will automatically buy knowing that life is going to get that little bit richer:

Pratchett lists five authors, but at the top of the list is....

George McDonald Fraser (The Flashman books)

Discovering TP is a GMcD-F fan kind of seals the Feegles-Gordon Highlanders asociation, methinks?

Incidentally, any reader of the Flashman books will notice immediately that McDonald Fraser, like TP, is also a great exponent of explanatory footnotes (although these are grouped in a separate section at the end - more "endnotes", really)

--AgProv 13:17, 21 May 2008 (UTC)

More here Talk:Pictsies concerning Feegle-speak.

There's a link, on the Reading Suggestions page, to Irish children's author Pat O'Shea. Re-reading the early chapters of The Wee Free Men, it has just struck me how the scene between Tiffany and Miss Tick, when they meet for the first time, is in all aspects pure pastiche of O'Shea. The setting reflects one of the bizarre, slightly dream-like, "country fairs" of her Irish faeryscape - right down to the in-line text drawings. There is O'Shea's obligatory talking animal - not Cù Rùa the wise fox, but the "yellow, sick, toad" There is the superficially whimsical dialogue between Tiffany and Miss Tick, but which hides deeper realities. It has the same, slightly eerie, almost-making-sense, quality of a conversation in a dream, that O'Shea excels at.

Check out The Hounds of the Morrigan, particularly the Swapping Fair scenes, to see what I mean here...--AgProv 13:26, 23 July 2008 (UTC)


No King, no Lords, no Gentry, no Taxes! - this was the slogan of angry workers in Scotland in the 1820's, first forced off the land into the city slums during the Highland Clearances, and then discovering that during the industrial recession and near-famine of the 1820's, not even ill-paid factory work was available to them. Scottish soldiers who had served faithfully in the Napoleonic Wars were also being demobbed (no Army pensions and invalidity pay in those days)to discover that what they were returning to was something a lot less than a land fit for heroes. 60,000 workers went on mass strike, and even artillery was mobilised to the streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh as a threat and deterrent. Nae Quin! Nae Lairds....


Tiffany and the Feegle fight the Grimhounds. The wee Gonnagal fights them off with the Notes of Pain - the excruciatingly supersonic sound of the mousepipes.

This is reminiscent of the scene in Michael Moorcock's Corum cycle, where Corum and the Companion to Heroes are trapped inside a stone circle in the snowy frozen waste by the fell hounds of the FhoiMhoir. The psychotic Gaynor, Prince of the Damned, leaves them there to starve or be torn to pieces if they try to escape. (Yes, I'd be psychotic too if my parents had called their son Gaynor). They are rescued by the wizard Calatin, who uses a horn to subdue the dogs - one blast causes them to mill in confusion, a second is fiercely painful, the third kills.

As Moorcock was drawing extensively from Irish mythology, this could be another case of "fishing in the same stream".

HarperCollins, Paperback. Page 11
"She didn't call the downland the Chalk, she called it 'the wold.' Up on the wold the wind blows cold, Tiffany had thought, and the words had stuck that way."
This is a reference to the English folk rhyme:
At Brill on the hill
The wind blows shrill
The cook no meat can dress
At Stow-in-the-Wold
The wind blows cold
I know no more than this