WHO are these blooming Scots who always get off free? Who is this Riley who is always living the high life?

While the rest of the world has been worrying about getting ready for the big day, these are earth-shattering questions that have been bothering me this week.

Saturday’s main front page headline said that “fraudster ‘lived life of Riley’ on £2.5m” – the story was about a car company accountant from east Durham who syphoned off cash to lavish extravagant gifts on his family and himself.

And then in Tuesday’s paper, columnist Chris Moncrieff said that the Tory back-bench mutineers who had rebelled against Theresa May were “getting away with it scot-free”.

Scot-free, to my surprise, has nothing to do with people who live north of the border. A “scot” was an ancient tax that a 12th Century feudal tenant paid to his lord or king.

An old phrase was “scot and lot” which meant you’d paid all your dues and so you were a respectable fellow, a pillar of society. In some places, paying your scot and lot enabled you to gain a vote.

As late as the 17th Century, in the marshy areas of Kent and Sussex, a water-scot was a tax levied on householders to pay for drainage.

So to get away with its scot-free meant that, by the grace of the lord or king, you were exempt from paying your taxes, you would not be punished if you did not pay your share.

In another age, if you were living scot-free it might have been said that you were “living the life of Riley”, as was our fraudster who was spending his ill-gotten gains on houses and flash cars.

This saying seems to arise from an old Irish story about poor Catholic farmer William Reilly who eloped with his sweetheart, who was the daughter of a wealthy Protestant landowner. In the original versions, his sweetheart is described as a “caillin ban”, which is Gaelic for a “young, white girl”, but as the story was retold “caillin ban” turned into Colleen Bawn.

Willie was found guilty of kidnapping Colleen and sentenced to hang, but he escaped execution when Colleen testified that she’d happily gone with him for love. Not only was Willie free, but suddenly he was rolling in it as Colleen inherited her father’s estate.

The life of Reilly became a favoured theme for 19th Century ballad writers and musichall singers, particularly among the Irish community in America. The phrase enters our vocabulary during the First World War, possibly brought over by US soldiers who said that when they were relaxing in reserve they were living the life of Reilly because, like Reilly, they had escaped execution – in the trenches.

SHOULD you need a distraction while you are wrapping your presents on Saturday evening, I can be heard on BBC Tees reviewing the year’s political events with former Hartlepool MP Iain Wright and Anna Round from the ippr thinktank. David McMillan of BBC Tees tries to keep order while playing some of our favourite music of the year. It is on the radio from 6pm, and thoughts on the political year will appear in the paper next week.