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Tatties Ower the Side

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Tatties Ower the Side

Gilbert Summers

Having an English father, my wife’s linguistic heritage of Scots vocabulary was formerly limited, though there’s nothing wrong with that – especially since her own mother had some Gaelic words by way of compensation. In addition, my wife was brought up in Edinburgh, a cosmopolitan place that can hardly be described as a repository for our older tongue. However, as she then lived in North-East Scotland for many years she picked up some fine and colourful expressions.

I overheard her using one on the phone just the other day. Basically, if a certain chain of events took place I heard her say, ‘then it’s tatties ower the side’. (I think it was something to do with some media representative who,  if he wasn’t driven to the airport by such-and-such a time, would miss his plane.)

I could also tell that the person she was speaking to, who was also a Scottish travel guide, had never heard the expression before. So in the interests of preserving something colourful, she went on and explained it to him.

It’s a very useful expression, by the way, and means, obviously, that if a certain thing happens, then the plan falls apart. I suppose it might be the equivalent of something ‘going pear-shaped’. (And if someone could explain that phrase, I’d be most interested.) The ‘ower’  (or o'er) is, of course, ‘over’ but pronounced to rhyme with ‘hour’.

I think it may be a reference to an old and slightly non-PC story about a cook aboard a fishing drifter – yes, that old - who was making a meal for the crew. This was almost sure to have been tatties and herrin. (Potatoes and herring.) It was a rough sea (or what the crew would have called ‘a coorse day’). When the tatties were ready, the cook had to drain them. He came out of the galley, leaned over as the boat gave a lurch and drained away not just the boiling water but also the contents of the pot.

He was distraught and rushed to tell the skipper in the wheelhouse about the culinary disaster. Unfortunately, this cook also had a speech impediment, a stammer (which is why it’s a non-PC story). He opened the wheelhouse door and tried to communicate, again and again, but barely got past the initial syllable. The skipper was attending to the hauling of the nets, and watching the weather and the course, and growing more and more exasperated at the figure beside him, opening and shutting his mouth.

Finally, he turned to his cook and said ‘Oh, for god’s sake, Jimmy, will ye just sing it’. Whereupon, in a fine baritone voice, with perfect enunciation, Jimmy the Cook sang out (of course) ‘The tatt-ies is ow-er the si-ide’. That's it - literally 'tatties ower the side' (of the boat).

All right, I agree, you have to be able to time it right and really sing out yourself if you’re telling this story – but it still gets a laugh, even to this day. Come to think of it, that perhaps says something about the company I keep. (Maybe this blog would work better as a podcast.) More to the point, it also shines a light on the droll Scots’ sense of humour. So, next time you believe something’s about to go pear shaped, forget the fruit and go for the veg. It’s ‘tatties ower the side’. And, if you know more about the origins of the expression, then let me know.