Gordon tells of Lady Keith's presentient dream (described in While She Was Laughing) which followed James' transfer of Abbey of Deer holdings to the Keith family). Perhaps as a precursor to being stripped of title to those lands, Gordon cites a clause in what appears to be the Abbey's 13th-century charter:
Cursed be those that taketh this away from the holy use whereunto it is now dedicat.
It is apparent that the 5th Earl Marischal did not confine his scorn to wifely premonitions ... that upsetting Monks would lead to dire consequences. In 1593 George Keith founded Marischal College. He did so on the site of a former monastery.
Marischal College was created as a Protestant alternative to the Earl's nearby alma mater, the extant King's College (purged of its Catholic staff in 1560). “This resulted in Aberdeen having two Universities … at a time when there were only two such institutions (Oxford and Cambridge) in the whole of England.” [See Eddie Fowler’s post in Doric Columns.]
There is, in the literature, much scorn for the Keith family aggregating Abbey lands, as kingly reward after Earl stood as proxy groom in James' 1589 Cophenhagen marriage to 14-year-old Anne of Denmark. Eight years prior George Keith had inherited an annual income of 270,000 merks, "regarded as ‘the revenue greatest of any earl of Scotland,’" reports Simmons. "It was commonly said," relates Taylor, in his Great Historic Families of Scotland (1889), that this Earl Marischal "could enter Scotland at Berwick, and travel through the country to its northern extremity without requiring ever to take a meal or a night’s rest off his own lands." A trek of 300 miles, George Keith was exceedingly wealthy before the noble reward. Says Gordon of the transfer, " it hath bein observed by sundrie that the earles of that house befor wer the richest in the kingdom, having treasure and store besyde them."
"When it was about a century old," imparts Hutton, of the college, "somewhat better quarters, on the same site, were built for it. But neither its first nor its second shell was considered worthy of the spirit and the soul within it, and in 1841, the central block of the still existing buildings was finished and occupied. On a carefully preserved stone from the older structure is cut, in relief, and in very ancient style of lettering, the family motto of the Keiths, Earls Marischal:"
Thay Haif Said: Quhat Say Thay? Lat Thame Say.Veritas Vincit,' for "Truth Shews It" or - formally - 'Truth Conquers,' since at least the 1513 Battle of Flodden Field.
The Marischal's shield was to have born the phrase, "Thay say: quhat they say: thay haif sayed: let thame say."
To me, the second variation ... sans question mark ... seems more in character with what I've learned of George Keith. It's unlikely Hutton ever saw the inscription. Ferguson, in his Great North of Scotland Railway Guide (1881), reports "the inscription in large letters remained on the buildings till 1836, when they were taken down."
I most appreciate the declarative expression advanced in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (1859):
THAI HAIF SAID : QUHAT SAY THAY : LAT THAME SAY
I'd like to imagine the 5th Marischal sufficiently staunch that he made no inquiry of others' positions. Taylor relies on the interestingly named Dr. Pratt to tie the expression to Lady Keith's dream: "It is thought to have been in reference to this legend or to some reproaches of a similar nature, which were heaped on the Marischal family at the time, in consequence of their sacrilegious appropriation of the Abbey and its possessions, that they inscribed the unavailing defiance." Clark, who, in his Spell of Scotland (1916), reported seeing a question mark, felt the phrase described "a certain ancestral right of hauteur."
Ferguson’s Guide relates a similar motto was affixed to a home in Peterhead, the burgh about Inverugie Castle: "It ran thus:
They saye–they saye. What saye they? Do you well, and lat them saye, saye.”
They Have Said. And They Will Say. Let Them Be Saying."
Bulloch, in Vol. III of Scottish Notes and Queries (1890) employs the query, but says cryptically his phrasing differs from that in the Marischal College gateway. "Almost the same words as above are still in common use in Buchan:
Lat them say, say, as thae like, I carena what thae say."But Bulloch seems to give the motto the most thought. "The common use of this phrase shows there is little respect paid to conventionalism, or it may be the outcome of true independence of character."
"Such inscriptions must have had some effect in moulding the character of past generations, when books were scarce, and the rudimental part of education confined to a few. By the prominence given to selected adages, and popular sayings, they became impressed upon the minds of those able to read them, and by this means became a source of knowledge to the community, by being often repeated and referred to as good authority or wise sayings on many subjects. The originality of some of them, and the intelligent selection of others, is evidence an advancing spirit of enquiry among the more intelligent classes. Many of them show evidence of individuality of character more common and characteristic than now to be met with."
Henderson, in a volume of the Dictionary of National Biography, describes George Keith as "one of the few thoroughly cultured Scottish noblemen of his time." A sympathetic biographer claims "at eighteen he was an adept in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, "and in the studies of antiquities, history, and literature when, discontented with the scope allowed in his own country, he resolved to study in France." Simmons, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, reports Keith was educated with his younger brother William in Paris "and at the academy in Geneva, where he studied under the Calvinist theologian Theodore Beza, who held his pupil in high regard." After his younger brother was killed in a brawl, Keith "abandoned his studies to tour the courts of Italy and Germany." Continues Simmons: "It has been argued that the earl's decision to establish the college as a firmly protestant institution, teaching along humanist lines and using a professorial system, arose from his dissatisfaction at the failure of King's College in Old Aberdeen to reform itself thus."
It is interesting to observe that the brilliant Irish wit George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) had "They say. What do they say? Let them say." carved into his own livingroom mantelpiece.
H. L. Menken, whom I hold priestly in American letters, employed the phrasing “They haif said. Quhat say they? Lat thame say.” as the motto in the masthead of a journal on language he inspired in 1925. Author John Alego explains its use: "The form American Speech adopted is from an inscription over a doorway at Aberdeen's Marischal College, founded in 1593. It is likely that the motto's original import was a disregard for the opinions of the world. I have suspected, however, that the founders of American Speech took it instead as a statement of their editorial policy, which was to inquire into the actual usage of [language by] Americans and report it, but not to attempt to 'improve' or 'correct' it (and perhaps also not to worry about those who thought they should)." [Parentheses in the original.]
We have no evidence that George Keith coined the phrase, but it is demonstrable that - by inscribing this motto on the wall of an institution of learning - his sentiments have inspired intellectuals passionate about language and thought. It may be that such 'cavalier' reasoning influenced the House of Keith in succeeding generations ... and could lead to controversial mating choices made by Parson James Keith (1696-c1752) and depicted in the post Clishmaclaver.