First recorded in 1825 [see earliest occurrence below], God bless the Duke of Argyle, or Argyll 1, was a disparaging phrase referring to the alleged fact that the Scots were verminous.
1 Duke of Argyll: a title, created in the Peerage of Scotland in 1701
The exact origin of this phrase is unclear. Various explanations have been given since the second half of the 19th century, but what is common to all versions is that:
– for some reason or another, one of the Dukes of Argyle had posts erected on certain tracts of his land;
– the Scots, who were infested with vermin, rubbed themselves against these posts and, when doing so, blessed the Duke.
EARLY OCCURRENCES OF THE PHRASE
The earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from the Chester Chronicle, and Cheshire and North Wales Advertiser (Chester, Cheshire, England) of Friday 15th July 1825—the phrase was already in common usage, since its meaning is not explained:
An innkeeper in the north advertises, among the other advantages of his hotel, that his “beds are free from fleas and all such monstrous destroyers of sleep!”—We presume his guests will have no occasion to cry “God bless the Duke of Argyle.”!
The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from the column Fashion, Facts, and Fictions, published in The Liverpool Standard and General Commercial Advertiser (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Tuesday 17th September 1833:
The King came to town on Wednesday, when Lord Wellesley, having resigned his white staff as Lord Steward, was declared Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in Council. The Duke of Argyll received the staff of Lord Steward, and was sworn of the Privy Council, having on Saturday been honoured with the Grand Cross of the Guelphic Order.
The new Lord Steward.—“God bless the Duke of Argyll!” So say the sawnies 2, upon particular occasions. We hope his grace will be able to bear his blushing honours, which have crowded quick upon him, with becoming dignity.
2 sawney: a derisive nickname for a Scot
The phrase then occurs in an anecdote that the Irish Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor (circa 1796-1855) told during a public meeting at Manchester—as transcribed in The Northern Star, and Leeds General Advertiser (Leeds, Yorkshire, England) of Saturday 13th May 1843:
“A former Duke of Argyle provided for the convenience of his countrymen; and when they were enjoying the benefit of his generosity, they exclaimed, God bless the Duke of Argyle!”
Published in the Democratic Free Press (Detroit, Michigan, USA) of Tuesday 2nd July 1844, an advertisement for Dr Sherman’s Lozenges used the phrase:
“GOD BLESS THE DUKE OF ARGYLE”
was once a common saying in Scotland, especially by those who had occasion to avail themselves of the use of certain posts he had caused to be erected at convenient distances as substitutes for flesh brushes.
EXPLANATIONS OF THE PHRASE
In the following passage from Highland Flings at Sutherland: Salmon.—No. II, published in Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle (London, England) of Sunday 5th August 1849, ‘Ephemera’ seems to imply that the posts were specially erected for people to rub themselves against (there may be an allusion to the phrase Scotch fiddle, which is defined below):
There was a great Duke of Argyle, ever careful of the wants of his countrymen; and as he knew how necessary for their comfort a certain description of musical execution was, he caused, far and near, curious sorts of cremonas 3 to be fabricated; so that not only his clans-men, but all comers and goers might fiddle away whenever the scratching fit seized them. Hence the universal benison—“God bless the Duke of Argyle!”
3 cremona: a violin – from Cremona, the name of a town in Lombardy, where the art of violin-making reached its highest perfection in the 17th and early 18th centuries
Likewise, the following, from The Lincolnshire, Boston, and Spalding Free Press (Spalding, Lincolnshire, England) of Tuesday 27th August 1850, seems to imply that the posts were specially erected for people to rub themselves against:
In consequence of the prevalence at Moulton of the disease commonly known as the “Scotch fiddle,” it is stated to be the intention of a benevolent (?) and esteemed (?) personage of that place to have put down by the sides of the different roads leading thereto, rubbing posts, in imitation of the example of the good Duke of Argyle, so that when a Moultonian is making use of any of the posts, instead of following the old Scotch example, and saying “God bless the Duke of Argyle,” his cry must be “God bless the pious Moultonian!”
However, according to The Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette (Devizes, Wiltshire, England) of Thursday 16th February 1860, one Captain Vernon explained that the posts erected by the Duke of Argyle were milestones:
A PICTURE OF THE PRESENT CABINET.
There was a grand Conservative Banquet last evening at Reading—upwards of 400 gentlemen being present. In the course of the evening Captain Vernon returned thanks for the toast of the Conservative Members; and alluded to the motley majority which drove the Conservatives from power. “Oh,” said the Liberals, “Your government was too exclusive—too aristocratic—what the country wants is a government for the people, and taken from the people,” and so on; and yet, to furnish this wish, they had noble dukes and noble earls, lords, baronets, &c. (laughter, and hear, hear). But they (the Liberals) apologetically said, “These are aristocrats, it is true; but then every man has his specialty—each man is famous for something.” Now let us see what they were famous for:
[…] The Duke of Argyll was famous for—well, he hardly knew what—unless it was on account of his having descended from that philanthropic nobleman who first introduced milestones into Scotland (laughter)—articles which his bewildered but grateful countrymen imagined were intended more for personal use than the measurement of distance (increased laughter); for they exclaimed, whilst utilising the convenience, in order to allay cuticular irritation—
“God bless the Duke of Argyll,
Who has set up scratching posts at every mile.”
(shouts of laughter).
But, according to The Slang Dictionary; or, The Vulgar Words, Street Phrases, and “Fast” Expressions of High and Low Society. Many with Their Etymology, and a Few with Their History Traced (London: John Camden Hotten, 1864), the posts marked the boundary of the Duke’s property in Glasgow:
“God bless the Duke of Argyle!” a Scottish insinuation made when one shrugs his shoulders, of its being caused by parasites or cutaneous affections.—See Scotch fiddle, Scotch greys. It is said to have been originally the thankful exclamation of the Glasgow folks, at finding a certain row of iron posts, erected by his grace in that city to mark the division of his property, very convenient to rub against.
Scotch-fiddle, the itch; “to play the Scotch fiddle,” to work the index finger of the right hand like a fiddlestick between the index and middle finger of the left. This provokes a Scotchman in the highest degree, it implying that he is afflicted with the itch.
Scotch grays, lice. Our northern neighbours are calumniously reported, from their living on oatmeal, to be peculiarly liable to cutaneous eruptions and parasites.
Interestingly, in The Slang Dictionary, Etymological, Historical, and Anecdotal. A New Edition, Revised and Corrected, with Many Additions (London: Chatto and Windus, 1874), the following remark was appended to the original definition of God bless the Duke of Argyle:
Some say the posts were put up purposely for the benefit of the good folk of Glasgow, who were at the time suffering from the “Scotch fiddle.” This is, however, but a Southern scandal.
In The Athenæum: Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts (London: Printed by James Holmes – Published by John Francis) of Saturday 29th October 1864, the reviewer of The Slang Dictionary added an alternative explanation, i.e., that the posts were intended for the Duke of Argyle’s cattle:
We all know how “God bless the Duke of Argyle” arose out of the use which Scottish people with titillating backs made of the posts which the Duke put up for the service of his itching cows, or as landmarks between his and his neighbours’ property.
In Golf Gossip, published in The Port-Glasgow Express. And Observer (Port-Glasgow, Renfrewshire, Scotland) of Friday 2nd April 1897, ‘Bulger’, too, wrote that the posts were intended for the Duke of Argyle’s cattle:
“God bless the Duke of Argyle,” said the man as he scratched his back against a stile thoughtfully placed in a field on the ducal estate for the use of the cattle meandering about.
This was also the explanation given by “a veterinary surgeon”, according to the Cheltenham Examiner (Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England) of Wednesday 20th January 1904—which, incidentally, also mentioned the phrase it’s got the duke, meaning it’s suffering from a skin disease:
Slang Terms Defined.—When arrested on a charge of working a horse in an unfit state, a carman remarked, “Oh, it’s got the duke.” At the South-Western Police Court on Saturday it was explained that this was slang for skin disease. The Magistrate: “What is the origin of the expression?” A Veterinary Surgeon: Only the old saying, “God bless the Duke of Argyll,” he having had a wish to erect in Scotland posts for four-legged animals to rub themselves against. The prosecution was withdrawn.