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To pay or not to pay?

When I was in the west of Ireland last year I pulled into a car park in a small town and as I parked I saw a notice simply reading "SAOR". I took it from that that I wasn't expected to pay for the parking, and indeed there was no paystation to be seen. I thought I knew what the word meant.

In Scotland, the same word is usually seen in the wild in front of the word "Alba", usually attached to someone waving a flag. That's how I knew the meaning. "Free (parking)" "Free Scotland!" Or so I thought. I commented on the parking sign to a friend just last week, but remarked that I still didn't know how to pronounce it, because it hadn't yet come up in the Duolingo course.

Then it did. "Tha tagais saor." "Chan eil biadh saor idir."


Was I supposed to pay for that parking space after all, maybe just ten cents or something?

Flag-waving aside, I'm confused. Cheap and free aren't the same thing. Haggis may be cheap but the butcher sure ain't giving it away. Can anyone clear this up for me?

January 29, 2020



OK. So saor means both cheap and free. It basically just means something of low value. It's also the word for a joiner (carpenter). This is probably a coincedence.

The whole Saor Alba thing is a relatively new usage and comes from English. Many would argue that the phrase makes little sense or meaning in Gaelic (although it is accepted as wel all know what it means). Pedants hate the phrase though.

It's actually quite difficult to describe independence in Gaelic, so the phrase Saor Alba was invented to fill the gap. It has basically just taken the fact that saor is the word for "free", and thar "free" has multiple meanings in English.


Thank you very much for the explanation. So "saor Alba" really means "Scotland, cheap, of low value"! That's hilarious. I can see why you say it makes little sense or meaning. It always sounded a bit weird to me and I can see why pedants would hate it. Indeed, I can feel pedantry creeping over me on this one.

However, leaving that aside, how does this work in practice? You're a shopkeeper. How do you differentiate between a bargain and a freebie? I find it hard to imagine a language that can't articulate that.

Certainly the sign in the car park in Donegal definitely seemed to be indicating that there was no charge at all. I'm just imagining all these bargain basement signs outside shops. Cheap! or Free! how do you tell?


As an aside, regarding trying to find Gaelic words for English slogans, I heard that in 2014 it was very difficult to decide what to put on the Yes badges! "Tha" didn't cut it and in the end they settled on "Bu Chòir" (I think). So people had these badges with Bu Chòir on them and there was some unionist dignitary from England visiting the islands and he asked what the badges were. Some wag told him it was the Gaelic for "No Thanks" and urged him to take one. He initially fell for it and was about to pin the badge to his jacket. People were ready with their phones to snap a picture for Facebook, Twitter, the front page of the Scotsman and so on, but one of his team who was local turned round and saw what was going on and stopped him just before the crucial moment.

Shame, really, it would have been funny.


I wrote a big response to this that hasn't appeared.

Basically I said I had one of those badges. Bu chòir do means "should", and the reason it was chosen for "yes" during the independence campaign is because the Government considered putting a Gaelic translation on the ballot. They decided not to, by if they did the phrase would likely have been something like "am bu chòir do dh'Alba neo-eisimeileach fhaighinn."


Here's the whole article published on 06 September 2014 on a totally unbiased page – hilarious or no :) http://www.bbc.scotlandshire.co.uk/index.php/city-news/812-crisis-in-gaidhealtachd.html Have fun, a h-uile duine! :)


Ah, the wonderful and inimitable BBC Scotlandshire! Erudite and unfailingly hysterical. The one on the Muse of History had me literally rotfl.

I'm not sure I read that one at the time, probably too busy struggling up farm track with WBBs and printing out maps for Plaid Cymru volunteers. Literally lol-ing here.


Thanks, I didn't know that.


Have a lingot.. this is hilarious.


Have another Moràg that is hilarious!


I thought the 'bu chòir' badges betrayed an ignorance of Gaelic. You ought to do what exactly?!


You could say the same about the "Yes" badges. Context is everything. I think the people who decided on "bu chòir" were native speakers.


saor = free [not captive] or = cheap.

saor an asgaidh = free [-of charge].

saor Alba = carpenter Scotland


Best explanation I've ever seen!


Embarrassingly, I saw a pile of baseball caps on sale at a rally in Edinburgh some time last year, embroidered with a map of Scotland and the legend "SOAR ALBA".

That's right up there with the painted road signs reading "SOTP" and so on. "You had one job..." Goodness gracious, you don't need to speak the language or even know how it's pronounced to be able to spell a four-letter word. Especially when you're ordering a consignment of expensive baseball caps.


Small update here. I was watching the kiddie TV stuff on BBC Alba, and Piseag agus Cuilean were investigating ice. Towards the end there was a toy robot frozen inside a block of ice, and a child was pouring warm water on it to melt the ice, something that happened gradually. I heard the words "robot saor" a couple of times and was thinking, a cheap robot? a robot carpenter?, and then the truimphant cry as the last of the ice went made the penny drop.

Free robot! The robot was free from the ice. So, same sense as "Saor Alba", there.


Another update here, from my diligent perusal of the kiddie cartoons on BBC Alba. This time it was the slightly more advanced Dràgonan: rèis chun an iomaill, more commonly known in Beurla as How to train your dragon.

The dragons were imprisoned in some sort of fighting pit, with the dragonriders trying to free them. In the end of course they succeeded, and released a wild dragon with no rider that was in there too. The cage was lifted from over the pit and Alex exhorted the bemused dragon take off and get out of there. He said - "Thalla saor!"

So that's two examples from kiddie TV of "saor" definitely being used as "free" in the sense of unconfined or not captive.


I would say: An e sin an asgaidh? - literally is that a gift or present?


What a great question! Can't really help you, except refer you to https://www.faclair.com > "saor", where you'll find a guide to pronunciation, that you probably didn't need to pay at that car park, and that "saor Alba" (or perhaps better "Alba Saor"?) does indeed mean "Free Scotland".


"Alba" is fem. so it would have to be "Alba shaor". Just sayin'...


If saor is an adjective meaning 'free' then yes absolutely: Alba Shaor. But with the saor first it is a verb meaning 'free'. So this is an imperative to free Scotland, in the same way that the Dubliners make the demand to 'Free the People' (YouTube link)

So it is a demand that Scotland be freed, not a statement that Scotland is free. People just assume it's an adjective in English without thinking through what makes sense.

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