The king of hearts is called the suicide king because the king appears to be stabbing himself in the head. The jack of spades and jack of hearts are known as one-eyed jacks because their faces are in profile and only one eye is visible. But do you know why the nine of diamonds is called the curse of Scotland? Did you even know that it’s considered to be the most unlucky card in the deck? It is, though how it received its fearsome name is a source of wild speculation.
[Image credit: Flickr user feministjulie]Here are eight leading theories on why the nine of diamonds is called the curse (or scourge) of Scotland. Some are more plausible than others, but all of them are highly intriguing.
1. British Commander William Augustus, the “Butcher Duke of Cumberland” was a lover of card games and always carried two packs on his person. After his decisive victory in the Battle of Culloden, he quickly scribbled an execution order for his Scottish prisoners on the closest paper he had at hand. The paper turned out to be—you guessed it—the nine of diamonds, a card that haunts the Scots to this day.
[Prince William, the “Butcher Duke” of Cumberland]2. In the reign of Mary Queen of Scots, A notorious jewel thief by the name of George Campbell snuck into Edinburgh Castle and successfully heisted nine valuable diamonds. He then escaped to a neighboring country, never to be heard from again. Queen Mary responded by levying a heavy tax upon her kingdom to replace the gems. The hapless tax-payers have ever since had negative opinions about the nine missing diamonds and have vented their frustration by renaming the nine of diamonds playing card, the curse of Scotland.
[Image credit: Flickr user afternoon_sunlight]3. Comete, a card game inspired by the discovery of Halley’s comet was introduced to Scotland by James II. To win the game, one needed to secure the nine of diamonds. It is said that the card was called the curse of Scotland on account of the large sums of money that Scottish gamers lost when first learning this new game.
The Cross (or Corse) of Scotland.
4. Though the nine diamonds in today’s playing cards are arranged in an H pattern, early versions favoured an X shape. When viewed sideways, these cards look very similar to the Scottish flag—known as St. Andrew’s Cross or the Cross of Scotland. It’s very possible that the original name of the card was actually the Cross of Scotland.
5. Pope Joan was a popular card-based gambling game played as far back as 1732. In the game, special significance is paid to the nine of diamonds which is called the pope. Because the pope was a villain figure among Scotch reformers, the nine of diamonds was renamed the curse of Scotland in this game and—eventually—all games played in Scotland.
[An early political cartoon from 1745 uses the nine of diamonds to represent the pope. The card can be seen (just barely) on the ground between the legs of the central figure)]6. Just as there’s a supposed curse involving U.S. presidents elected in years evenly divisible by twenty, so too is there an observation that every ninth English monarch reigns as a tyrant. Because diamonds represent royalty, the nine of diamonds is said to be a symbol of the English rulers that have been oppressing the Scottish people since the dark ages.
The Dalrymple shield.
7. John Dalrymple, 1st Earl of Stair was a Scottish lowland noble who had some beef with the Highland MacDonald clan. He successfully convinced King William to sign an order to extirpate (ie. “root out and destroy”) the clan in a heinous event known as the Massacre of Glencoe. The Scottish citizens were outraged, especially when King William absolved both himself and the Earl of any wrongdoing. The Dalrymple coat of arms features nine diamonds arranged like the playing card, so it is very likely that the nine of diamonds became associated with the much-hated Dalrymple.
8. Nine red diamonds (or lozenges gules presented saltire-wise as the arrangement is called in heraldry) are also said to be featured prominently on the crests of other detested figures in Scotland’s past. Among them are a colonel named Packer who was on the scaffold when Charles the First was beheaded, the Duke of Argyle who helped unite Scotland with England, and a member of the Scottish parliament who voted for the introduction of the malt tax. Bottom line: don’t go taxing a Scotsman’s malt.
Which (if any) of the above explanations is the correct one? Nobody can say for certain, but what is known, if you’re playing Go Fish with a Scotsman you should do your best not to win the game by asking for his nine of diamonds—you don’t want to give the Scots any more reasons to view the card so unfavourably.