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The Production and Dissemination of Knowledge in Scotland

Lesley Graham

Prologue: Scots language inside and outside the classroom in the twenty-first century

James Robertson

Texte intégral

1‘Mehr licht! ’ These, I am sure you will know, are reputedly the last words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

2Had Goethe been Scottish, he might well have uttered the exact same phrase as he expired: ‘Mair licht! ’

3Now I don’t want to dwell too long on death and dying in this talk, because that would be depressing, but, for the last 300 years or so, almost every generation seems to have thrown up yet another lament for the death of the Scots language. Edward Bannerman Ramsay, writing in 1857, said this:

I can remember a peculiar Scotch phrase very commonly used, which now seems to have passed away. I mean the expression ‘to let on’, indicating the notice or observation of something, or some person. For example, ‘I saw Mr ----- at the meeting, but I never let on I knew he was present.’ A form of expression which has been a great favourite in Scotland in my recollection has much gone out of practice – I mean the frequent use of diminutives, generally adopted as terms of endearment or of contempt. Thus it was very common to speak of a person whom you meant rather to undervalue, as a mannie, a boddie, a bit boddie, or a wee bit mannie.

4Both these idioms are still very much in use 150 years after Ramsay thought they had died out. Earlier, in 1775, just eleven years before the publication of Robert Burns’s first book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, the Edinburgh novelist and critic Henry Mackenzie had complained, ‘Tis pity that the Language… will probably soon become so antiquated as not to be understood.’ (Ironically, Mackenzie, who coined the description of Burns as ‘this Heav’n-taught ploughman’, actually disliked Burns’s vigorous use of Scots, and wished he would write more genteelly, in English.)

5Robert Louis Stevenson, introducing the Scots poems in his 1887 collection Underwoods, reckoned Scots to be ‘a dying language’: ‘The day draws near when this illustrious and malleable tongue shall be quite forgotten; and Burns’s Ayrshire, and Dr MacDonald’s Aberdeen-awa’, and [Walter] Scott’s brave, metropolitan utterance will all be equally the ghosts of speech.’

6And yet, despite such dire predictions, and also some heart-felt wishes from other folk who wish the linguistic difficulties thrown up by the close relationship between Scots and English would just go away, the Scots tongue has shown a remarkable tenacity or, to use a good Scots word, thrawnness. To illustrate this, here is a poem written by the late George Bruce:

It wis hardly worth peying for
a casket,
the body wis that peelie-wally,
nae bluid in’t
luikit like a
scrap o’ broun paper
papyrus mebbe?
nae gran eneuch for that,
but there wis some gran mourners, the
Editor o’ the Scottish National Dictionary,
Heid o’ the Depairtment o’ Scot. Lit.,
President o’ the Burns Federation,
President o’ the Lallans Society,
President o’ the Saltire Society,
a’ present in strict alphabetical order
an’ ane/twa orra Scot. Nats.
Syne cam a fuff o’ win
an’ liftit it oot o’ the bowlie
an’ hine awa,
a wee bird sang.
Dew dreep’d
on the beld heids
o’ the auld men
stude gloweran
at the tuim tomb.
‘She’s jinkit again,
the bitch! ’
said the man wi the spade.

7It is true that the story of Scots since the seventeenth century often appears to be one of steady decline, punctuated by literary revivals. Two events in particular are often held up as key historical moments when serious and permanent damage was done to the status and usage of Scots: the first was the removal of the Scots-speaking royal court to London when James VI succeeded Elizabeth I to the throne of England in 1603; and the second was the publication of James’s authorised version of the Bible in English a few years later. In fact the process of Scots becoming separated from people and places of power and influence was a long drawn-out one. Right from the outset of the Scottish Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century, for example, only Bibles printed in English (usually imported from England) had been available. Still, there is no doubt that these two events were severe blows to the use of Scots in formal discourse and in written form (although, again, advocates and judges continued to speak Scots in courts of law well into the nineteenth century). But to measure a language by its visibility in written form is not necessarily an accurate gauge of its health at street-level.

8The evidence that Scots is still alive and kicking was given a major boost in 2011, when for the first time ever questions about Scots usage were asked in the national census. Usage of Gaelic has been monitored in censuses since 1881, but nobody thought to ask about Scots till three years ago. The officially stated reasons for including questions about Scots in 2011 were (1) that there was considerable public demand for them, and (2) that ‘the Scots language is one of the UK minority languages covered by Part II of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which was ratified by the UK Government in 2001’. This demonstrates the importance of the European context: almost every country in the EU has to deal with one or more minority, regional or lesser-used language within its borders, and, under the terms of the Charter, governments that are signatories are obliged to recognise, protect and support those languages, not suppress or discourage them and not discriminate against speakers. The UK and Scottish Governments are signed up to the Charter with regard to Welsh in Wales, Scots and Gaelic in Scotland, and Ulster Scots and Irish in Northern Ireland, and also Manx Gaelic (500 speakers, 1700 with some knowledge) and Cornish (about 600 speakers, 2000 with some knowledge). The Governments’ obligations towards Scots stop some way short of their obligations towards Gaelic (58,000 speakers), which has Part III status, which requires formal educational provision as well as a certain level of provision through public broadcasting, recognition in courts of law and so on. None of this as yet applies to Scots, yet without the European Charter it is doubtful whether Scots would have acquired even the low level of recognition and status it now enjoys.

9Nobody knew how many people would say they could speak, read, write or understand Scots, partly because there was a problem of definition. As Scots has never been accorded an official status in education, nobody has ever formally been taught to read, write or speak Scots at school. It has been treated, in the main, as a mode of expression inferior to English, and either ignored or deliberately suppressed by schools. Many of those with the very richest forms of Scots in their mouths do not think of themselves as speaking Scots at all: in the Northeast of the country, the term used for the very rich dialect spoken there is Doric, and as a result many people there might deny that they speak Scots, which they equate with the speech of Central Scotland. Likewise Shetlanders will habitually say they speak ‘Shetland’, Glaswegians ‘Glaswegian’, and Fifers ‘Fife’, even though these are all dialects of Scots. And a huge number of Scots speakers who don’t identify themselves as such will say, if asked, that they speak ‘slang’.

10In the guidance notes as to how to fill in the form, the census actually recognised this confused situation and defined Scots as ‘the collective name for Scottish dialects known also as “Doric”, “Lallans” and “Scotch” or by more local names for example “Buchan”, “Dundonian”, “Glesca” or “Shetland”’. It went on to explain the differences between English and Scots, so anybody who took the trouble to read these guidance notes would be able to answer the question reasonably accurately.

11 Simply by including this question the census conferred a status on Scots that it had never before had. The census, for the first time, produced a base number of those who identified themselves as understanding or speaking, at least some of the time, something called Scots which was distinct and different from English. And the results were, even with qualifications relating to over-reporting or under-reporting, as follows: speakers of Scots: 1.5 million or 28 % of the Scottish population. Those who could speak, read, write or understand Scots to some extent: 1.9 million or 36 % of the population.

12But that does not tell the whole story, or explain the way Scots informs the daily lives of almost everybody. For even those Scottish people who don’t habitually speak Scots, or Broad/Braid Scots if you want to define it more closely, understand a great deal of it and indeed use it often without knowing. Scottish Standard English is a very different beast from English Standard English. Most Scots will be familiar with, or use on a regular basis, words such as scunner, dreich, wee, aye, crabbit, pinkie, thrawn and peelie-wally. They will also use constructions such as ‘going for the messages’ for ‘going shopping’, ‘I’m away to my bed’ for ‘I’m going to bed’, and ‘He’s got the cold’ for ‘he has a cold’. When Scots say they ‘stay’ somewhere they usually mean their place of permanent not temporary residence. And then there are prepositions and adverbs. Something may be said to be ‘outwith’ a person’s remit, something else may be an activity unheard of ‘furth of the town’, and the extremely versatile but not so much used word forbye can mean besides, in addition to, moreover, except, let alone, not to mention, nearby, beyond, compared with etc.

13I make this point because although it is sometimes the more complex words in a language that make it seem exotic or different, the short, almost unnoticed words are the stitches that hold the whole thing together. The writer William McIlvanney once described Scots as being like English in its underwear. I’m not sure that that is quite accurate, but I certainly think that the underlying support garments of Scots are often quite different from those of standard English.

14The biggest ongoing difficulty for establishing a status for modern Scots however is its close relationship with English. It is not distinct from English as, say, Gaelic or French or Japanese are distinct. Most Scots can and do modulate and adjust their language along a continuum from what you might call broad Scots to formal English, depending on whom they are speaking to and the context of the conversation. Scots and English interchange all the time in everyday speech, often within the same sentence. This means that a very interesting, sometimes creative, sometimes reductive, sometimes downright antagonistic relationship exists between Scots and English. In this relationship, Scots is almost always in the subversive role. I recommend that you search on YouTube for some of the sketches from a TV show called Burnistoun, especially one in which two Scotsmen get stuck in a lift operated only by voice recognition, and try to instruct the lift to take them to floor eleven.

15As a further illustration, I want to analysis a brief exchange from the TV show Chewin’ the Fat, which was incredibly popular in Scotland between 1999 and 2005. One particular sketch concerned two lighthouse keepers, one of whom plays increasingly extreme tricks on the other to relieve the boredom. The dialogue between the two men is as follows:

‘Gonnae no dae that?’ ‘How?’
‘Jist… gonnae no?’

16This is a wonderful example of both the economy and the depth of Scots syntax. Basically, you can translate this as, ‘Please don’t do that, ’ ‘Why not?’ and ‘Please, just don’t.’ But note that the Scots phrases are all interrogatives. A more elaborate translation, with all the subtleties added, might read as follows:

‘Would you please not do that? I am asking you this in a polite but familiar tone; it is both a request and an instruction.’

17The one word response ‘How’ contains the following possible readings: ‘Why not?’ ‘Why shouldn’t I?’ ‘Who’s going to stop me?’ (Also, ‘how’ in this context is not bad English but good Scots. It refers back to an older Scots construction, ‘Whit wey?’ which means ‘Why’ but implies that method as much as reason is required in the answer. The word ‘no’, as in the complete phrase ‘How no?’ has disappeared. It is redundant in a way that the ‘not’ of ‘Why not?’ isn’t.)

18Finally, the persecuted first speaker finishes, ‘Jist… gonnae no?’ By now there is an extra meaning: resignation. ‘I am asking/telling you again, please do not do that. I do not expect you to comply, but I live in hope.’

19Now I’m stretching a point here, but the point is this: the reason that many Scots, especially Glaswegians in this instance, find this achingly funny is because they are absolutely attuned to all the nuances this short dialogue contains. A very deep linguistic nerve is being stimulated. The same could be said of another, older live sketch show, Scotland the What?, which was also generally very popular but had similarly specific resonances for folk in the Doric-speaking north-east of the country; or of the ‘Parliamo Glasgow’ routines of the veteran comedian Stanley Baxter. In fact, use of Scots has long been a staple of music-hall, pantomime, stand-up, television and theatrical comedy, and in part this has been because Scots does have a relationship with English, a deflating, levelling relationship, which delights in pricking pomposity and pretentiousness, and where punning and wordplay abound (exploiting, for example, the different meanings of words like ‘greet’ or ‘rare’ in Scots and English, or sound differences, most famously in the exchange, ‘Is that a cake or a meringue?’ ‘No, you’re quite right.’)

20 Let’s look briefly at the problem of definition. The fact that Scots shares common roots and features with English has led to endless debate about what it actually is. Is it a language in its own right or a mere dialect of English? If the latter, how do you account for its own dialects, and can you equate Scots, with its enormous vocabulary, its distinctive syntax, its massive literary heritage and its multi-volume dictionaries with, say, Yorkshire or Norfolk dialects? While nobody would suggest that French and English are the same because they share, but pronounce differently, words like ‘table’, ‘situation’ and ‘cascade’, the sociopolitical relationship between English and Scots has meant that words like hoose and faither and mair have usually been considered mere dialect variations of other, more ‘correct’ words.

Scots English
hoose house
faither father
coo cow
heid head
fit foot
toun town
mair more
teuch tough
tae toe/to
ower over
craw crow

21If you present a list (or leet) of more unusual words, which are not cognate with their English equivalents, then the picture looks rather different.

Scots English
bletherskite a talker of nonsense
bubblyjock turkey
hamesucken assault on someone at home (law)
heeliegoleerie topsy-turvy
hochmagandie fornication
kist o whistles (church) organ
tattiebogle scarecrow
whigmaleerie trinket, fanciful notion
yowe-trummle cold spell in June after sheep-shearing

22 And without a glossary, how many of these could one successfully guess the meaning of?

greit pend wersh cowp
smirr nyaff bauchle
trauchle wabbit

23All of these words are still in common usage.

24The answer to the question of how to define Scots depends at least as much on one’s political and cultural point of view as it does on identifiable linguistic characteristics. The often-quoted aphorism supporting this observation is that a language is a dialect in possession of an army and a navy. (Professor Alan Riach doesn’t like this idea much. He says, and I agree, that it smacks of fascism, status determined by guns. He prefers the proposition that a language is a dialect with a literature.) The differences between English and Scots are in many ways no less than the differences between Norwegian and Danish, Czech and Slovak, or Spanish and Catalan: these are all, nowadays, regarded as languages in their own right, but they certainly weren’t all in the past when different political circumstances prevailed. Furthermore, in some respects, Scots may have more in common with other Germanic languages than it does with English. Look for example at this table of vocabulary:

Danish Scots English
barn bairn child
bygge big build
flytte flit move
græde greit weep
kende ken know
fra frae, fae from
hel haill whole
efter efter after
hus hoose house
ud oot out
kirke kirk church

25 These words demonstrate shared origins of certain words. Other words, for historic reasons of trade, political alliance and so on, have been imported from Dutch (particularly in its Flemish form) or French into Scots but not into English. Here are just a few examples of French loanwords:

French Scots English
fâcher fash annoy
jalouser jalouse guess
doux/douce douce gentle
armoire aumrie wardrobe
ciboule sybo, sybie spring onion
assiette ashet serving-plate
groseille groset gooseberry

26Very briefly, and with some considerable oversimplification, modern Scots and modern English are both descended from the West Germanic language, Old English or Anglo-Saxon. The Northern branch of Old English was spoken north of the Humber as far as the Firth of Forth, where it ran into the Celtic language Gaelic, which was then dominant in most of what we now call Scotland. Norse and Danish invasions in the ninth to eleventh centuries also had a profound linguistic influence on these parts. The Southern branch of Old English became English. With the establishment of the political border as the nations of Scotland and England emerged in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Old English north of that border became Scots and increasingly diversified from the speech of the north of England (although there remained, and still remains, considerable overlap especially of vocabulary). Gaelic slowly retreated to the Highlands and Islands as Scots became the language of the Scottish court and the Lowlands. If England and Scotland had remained independent of one another, it is very likely that Scots, being in possession of an army, a navy and a literature, would have continued to be distinguished as a separate language. But this didn’t happen, and usage of English grew and grew in Scotland, especially in written form.

27As previously noted, the Bible, the one book you could expect to find in most Scottish households, was in English. English became, effectively, the Word of God and the official language of Scotland, and so, crucially, it became the language of education. When education became compulsory for all children between the ages of 5 and 13, in 1872, Gaelic-speaking and Scots-speaking children arriving at their schools for the first time found that their education only came in one language, and it wasn’t theirs. In order to get an education they had to learn English. As many folk above the age of forty will attest, they would be physically and psychologically punished for using their native tongues in the classroom. This is vividly illustrated in an extract from William McIlvanney’s novel Docherty, published in 1975. The boy Conn is brought before the headmaster (or heidie) to be punished for fighting in the playground. This is the conversation between them:

‘What’s wrong with your face, Docherty?’
‘Skint ma nose, sur.’
‘Ah fell an bumped ma heid in the sheuch, sur.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Ah fell an bumped ma heid in the sheuch, sur.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
In the pause Conn understands the nature of the choice, tremblingly, compulsively, makes it.
‘Ah fell an bumped ma heid in the sheuch, sur.’
The blow is instant. His ear seems to enlarge, is muffed in numbness…
‘That, Docherty, is impertinence. You will translate, please, into the mother-tongue.… What happened?’
‘I bumped my head, sir.’
‘Where? Where did you bump it, Docherty?’
‘In the gutter, sir.’
‘Not an inappropriate setting for you, if I may say so.’

28But the signals sent out to children were not always this clear-cut. If they had been, life might have been simpler. If Scots was permitted into the secondary school classroom for the purposes of study – and there always have been individual teachers who have wanted to acquaint their pupils with the riches of literature in Scots – it entered via the English Department. McIlvanney was himself a teacher for some years, and tells a story about a boy who simply couldn’t help using Scots words like dinnae, cannae, aye, heid etc in class, all of which were regarded as impertinence by one of McIlvanney’s teaching colleagues. Eventually the boy was made to stand in a corner of the class as a punishment. After a while the headmaster came in for some reason, looked at the boy and said to the teacher, ‘Oh aye, whit’s he been daein noo?’

29So, we have moved from outside the classroom into that space. What connection does this vibrant, spoken, modern language have with the vast 600-year-old written literature that exists in Scots? Is there a relationship? I would argue, without hesitation, that there is. In Sir Walter Scott’s novel St Ronan’s Well, one of the characters is a no-nonsense innkeeper called Meg Dods, whose catchphrase, ‘And what for no?’, is the early nineteenth-century equivalent of the lighthouse keeper’s ‘How?’ When Meg Dods put her hands on her hurdies and demanded, ‘And what for no?’ Scott’s readers might not have fallen about clutching their sides like the Chewin’ the Fat audience, but they would absolutely have appreciated the pithy nature of the phrase and what it said about her character. There are countless examples of this, from the great makars (poets) of the late fifteenth/early sixteenth centuries to Irvine Welsh today, where a word or two connects everyday modern Scots speech with our rich literature and has the effect of validating words that in other circumstances school pupils might be reprimanded for using. This, for example, is William Dunbar, a poet at the court of James IV, complaining about his sair heid and how it stops him from makking or writing poetry:

My heid did yak yester nicht,
This day to mak that I na micht.
So sair the magryme dois me menyie,
Perseing my brow as ony ganyie,
That scant I luik may on the licht.

And now, schir, laitlie, efter mess,
To dyt thocht I begowthe to dress,
The sentence lay full evill til find,
Unsleipit in my heid behind,
Dullit in dulness and distress.

Full oft at morrow I upryse
Quhen that my curage sleiping lyis.
For mirth, for menstrallie and play,

For din nor dancing nor deray,
It will not waukin me no wise.

30This is a short poem which gives a relatively easy way into one of the greatest poets Scotland has ever produced. Unfortunately our education system has, generally speaking, and with honourable exceptions in the form of enthusiastic teachers, failed to make such connections. Most Scots have never heard of William Dunbar, let alone read any of his work. Even during the great annual learning and reciting of Robert Burns’s work each January children are seldom encouraged to see that the language they speak and the language of Burns are one and the same, just 250 years apart. One of the poems most Scottish children get at school is Burns’s ‘Tae a Moose’, which starts with two lines that are as fresh and accessible to a 7-year-old today as they ever were:

Wee sleekit cowrin timrous beastie,
Ah what a panic’s in thy breastie!

31But within a few lines children are being confronted with words like pattle meaning ‘plough staff’ and a daimen icker in a thrave, meaning ‘an occasional ear of corn in twenty-four sheaves’. Nothing wrong, of course, in being challenged to learn new words, but this is long-disused agricultural terminology and even once you’ve explained what it means it doesn’t mean much to your average urban-dwelling bairn. Giving 7 or 8 year olds this poem, which soon becomes a very sophisticated musing on life, death, poverty, fate and chance is all very well, but a bit like giving them one of Hamlet’s soliloquies, rather too much too soon perhaps.

32There is such a wealth of literature in Scots to delve into that there is no shortage of age-appropriate material from which to choose. The cult of Burns has, unfortunately, been detrimental to an appreciation of the wider tradition of which Burns is only a part – as he himself was always keen to acknowledge. As with Dunbar, very few Scots ever read, or indeed have heard of, William Soutar, Robert Fergusson or Hugh MacDiarmid. This is MacDiarmid’s groundbreaking poem ‘The Watergaw’:

Ae weet forenicht i’ the yowe-trummle
I saw yon antrin thing
A watergaw, wi’ its chitterin’ licht
Ayont the on-ding;
An’ I thocht o’ that last wild look ye gied
Afore ye deed!

There was nae reek i’ the laverock’s hoose
That nicht – an’ nane i’ mine;
But I hae thocht o’ that foolish licht
Ever sin’ syne;
An’ I think that mebbe at last I ken
What your look meant then.

33Fortunately we are better acquainted with the oral tradition, including the Border and bothy ballads and a vast treasure-chest of other songs: some richly comic, some tragic, some grossly sentimental and maudlin and some sublime, but as a body of work this has come down to us and is still being added to. It is often through songs, or poems turned into songs – by such writers as Carolina Oliphant, Anne Lindsay, Violet Jacob and Helen Cruickshank. Robert Burns was a great poet, but he was also a great collector and writer of songs. And it’s worth remembering that the world’s anthem of friendship, ‘Auld Lang Syne’, adapted and enriched by Burns from an earlier song, is written in Scots.

34I’d like to say something now about Itchy Coo. In the late 1990s and early 2000s myself and some colleagues felt that we had to try to address some of the issues I have been discussing. We wanted to bring Scots into the classroom in an educationally constructive way that did not threaten teachers (who, remember, have mostly gone through their own education without being taught much about or in Scots), alienate parents (who often equate Scots with slang or ‘bad English’ and with being poorly educated) or confuse children. So we went into partnership with an Edinburgh publisher to create Itchy Coo, an education project and publishing imprint specialising in texts in Scots for young readers. One of the things we have tried to do is to introduce children to literature in Scots through contemporary, relevant and age-appropriate verse. This is a poem by Gregor Steele about a terrible neighbour, Mrs Nae Offence:

We cry her Mrs Nae Offence –
 That’s whit she likes tae say,
Afore sayin somethin awfie,
Then heidin on her way.
‘Nae offence, but see yon skirt ye bocht,
It maks ye look gey fat.’
‘Nae offence, ye’re like a standard lamp
When ye wear yir new blue hat.’
‘Nae offence, but see yir perfume, ’
She whitters like a doo,
‘It minds me o thae yellae cubes
Ye get in a laddies’ loo.’
‘Nae offence, but see yir hairdo,
Ye must hae been a mug
Tae fork oot twenty quid for that –
 Ye look like a Pekingese dug.’
It fell upon ma granny
Tae pit her in her place.
Gran skelped her wi a brolly, sayin,
‘Nae offence, but shut yir face.’

35This kind of poem has an instantaneous and almost always completely positive effect in the classroom. It both entertains and intrigues children to see and hear their own language given the kudos usually reserved for English. In many classrooms nothing reduces attention deficiency and alienated behaviour more, especially among boys of a certain age, than introducing Scots into the lesson: those same difficult, cheeky, apparently inarticulate boys are often revealed as the ones with the best Scots vocabulary and pronunciation and the ability to express themselves with most confidence. We’ve also found that giving Scots a real value has a knock-on effect on improving pupils’ appreciation of and use of English. We’ve produced some books, translations of well-known books in English, that are extremely useful in honing Scottish children’s general linguistic skills while at the same time encouraging them to take a pride in their own voices. In effect, they are able to realise that they have the tools to be bilingual, fully articulate in both English and Scots. Translations, as other lesser used or minority or regional languages have found, are a great way to rapidly increase the canon of available texts. So, novels by Roald Dahl such as The Twits, George’s Marvellous Medicine and Fantastic Mr Fox have become, in Scots, The Eejits, Geordie’s Mingin Medicine and The Sleekit Mr Tod.

36All of these have been very popular sellers. Even though some of the vocabulary is not familiar to the children, they can check individual words against the English editions, but the point is they have no more aversion to learning new Scots words in a Scots text than they do to learning new English words in an English text. What engages them at first is that the sounds coming off the page, if they are being read to or if they are reading aloud, are their own sounds. In the beginning, remember, was not the word, but the sound. We are repeatedly told by children that they find the Scots versions funnier and more engaging. I greatly admire Roald Dahl as a storyteller, but if you think about it this is exactly what you’d expect a French or Spanish or Swedish child to say about a Roald Dahl book in their own native language. We even have a situation now where some children read one of these Roald Dahl books in Scots before they read it in English. Think what that does to your sense of linguistic hierarchy.

37Even a quintessentially English, and wonderfully so, children’s classic like Winnie-the-Pooh takes on a new life in Scots. Here’s a brief extract:

‘And hoo’s yersel?’ said Winnie-the-Pooh.
Heehaw shook his heid frae side tae side.
‘No awfie hoo, ’ he said. ‘It’s lang, lang syne, I jalouse, since I felt ony hoo at aw.’
‘Michty me, ’ said Pooh, ‘I’m sorry tae hear it. Let’s hae a keek at ye.’
Sae Heehaw stood there, glumshin gloomily at the grund, and Pooh walked aw the wey roond him.
‘Weel, whit’s happened tae yer tail?’ he said, dumfoonert.
‘Whit has happened tae it?’ said Heehaw.
‘It’s no there! ’
‘Are ye shair?’
‘Weel, either a tail’s there or it isna. Ye canna be mistaen aboot it, and yours isna! ’
‘Then whit is?’

38One interesting effect when you take a book like this and translate it from English into Scots is what happens to the characters. Christopher Robin, who I always thought was a rather precious child, seems to toughen up somewhat when he speaks in Scots. Other characters such as Heehaw (Eeyore), Wee Grumphie (Piglet) and Hoolet (Owl) also seem to develop Scottish characteristics beyond the words they speak. And then there is the strange case of Tigger.

39I’m always being surprised at how resilient Scots is, and how much Scots, in some communities, is still used by very young children even though they are exposed to huge amounts of TV, film, games and other material delivered in American or English English. I was in the public library of a former mining village a year or two ago and I asked the children for as many Scots names for birds and animals as they could think of. We had obvious ones like coo, dug, moose and craw, and a few slightly rarer ones like doo, tod, cuddy and speug, and then to my amazement a wee lassie said ‘teeger’. I asked her to repeat it. ‘Teeger.’ I asked her if she had read The Hoose at Pooh’s Neuk, in which, you’ll remember, the reader is first introduced to the new strippit craitur in the forest, who in this book is cried ‘Teeger’. She had no idea what I was talking about. Here was a 9-year-old lassie in post-industrial Stirlingshire, still using the word ‘teeger’, which has at least a 200-year-old pedigree in Scots.

40This is a very powerful reminder of how integral to one’s sense of identity language is, both at an individual and a community level. And it is precisely because of that strength of linguistic identity, I think, that there was such a strong response to the Scots questions in the 2011 census, and why children respond so enthusiastically to books and songs and stories in Scots. It is also why, in my view, it is educationally criminal and counter-productive to try to exclude a child’s natural language from their formal education. This is not to suggest that Scots should be taught instead of English or at the expense of English. Competence in one should and can complement and strengthen competence in the other. And in other languages too. In the UK generally, and in Scotland in particular, we have some big lessons to learn from the experience of many other European countries where bilingualism or multilingualism is completely normal.

41Some more examples of Itchy Coo translations include The Gruffalo in Scots, which we published in 2012 and which has sold 40,000 copies in its first two years, and The Gruffalo’s Wean (20,000 copies in one year.) We had a similar level of success last year when we published our first Asterix title, Asterix chez les Pictes, as Asterix and the Picts. Two more Asterix titles are about to come out, and another publisher has also started publishing Tintin in Scots. Other classics of European literature, I am sure, will follow.

42All this is very encouraging but it is not all good news. Scots is not unique in being under immense pressure from global English but it is more vulnerable than some languages because there is no clear-cut demarcation zone between English and Scots. Sometimes this generates a wonderful response. A really excellent book, A Scots-Polish Lexicon by Kasia Michalska, was created by a Polish teacher living in Edinburgh because so many of her compatriots (there are now more speakers of Polish in Scotland than there are speakers of Gaelic) arrive in what officially is an English-speaking country only to find they can’t understand half of what the natives are saying! Yet despite this difficulty for immigrants there has been substantial vocabulary loss among the Scots-speaking population in many parts of Scotland. There is also, especially in the West and around Glasgow, evidence of sound loss – or sound change. The distinctive velar fricative sound – the ‘ch’ sound in loch and licht – may be disappearing, so we may one day no longer be in a position to mock English people who pronounce Loch Lomond as Lock Lomond. And the ‘wh’ sound in wha, whaup and whigmaleerie may also be in decline. That’s the nature of language, but language is now altered and affected by 24-hour mass media in a way that simply wasn’t the case fifty or even thirty years ago. It is probably fair to say that Scottish voices have become more audible on radio, television and other media in recent years, but that Scots language has become more diluted. It has never been that visible, but if you look for it — moving back outside from the classroom again – it is there. Placenames and street names from Broxburn to Brig o Turk and Lang Stracht to Sauchiehall Street are rich repositories of Scots, and there are many examples of Scots being used in signage, advertising, shop and pub names and so on.

43Most of the classroom experience I’ve described has been primary school experience. Since we began Itchy Coo in 2002, primary schools have embraced not just our books but Scots language as a legitimate subject in its own right and as a hugely adaptable tool in other areas of a child’s early education. In secondary schools, where pressures to conform to an exam-driven curriculum are much greater, the take-up has been more piecemeal and less successful. But even here things are changing: Education Scotland, the government agency responsible for maintaining and improving quality in Scottish schools, has recently appointed four Scots Language co-ordinators to develop good practice and resources in the teaching of Scots; and this year too saw the creation of the first ever officially sanctioned Scots study units, deliverable in schools and which result in awards to students. I think the secondary school sector is where the next push for raising awareness of the educational value of Scots has to happen. Scottish literature is already widely studied but that of course includes a great deal of literature written in English. Literature in Scots is a great resource but one largely unexplored by many teachers or their students. The potential for contemporary spoken Scots and written Scots past and present to have an energising, creative relationship is enormous.

44I’ve talked a lot about the relationship Scots has with English. I’ve also talked of the relationship, often very distant, between the Scots of the street and the Scots of literature. And I’ve talked about those historical moments, which had important effects on the progress and health of Scots, such as the dominance of an English Bible from the Reformation onwards. So I’m going to finish with something that, I think, covers all of those ideas. I started wi licht and I’ll finish wi luve. This is a passage from William Lorimer’s magisterial Scots version of the New Testament, which first appeared, after his death, in 1983, and was a surprise bestseller. This was not the first New Testament in Scots, but it was the first translated directly from the original Greek text. Arguably this work came about 350 years too late. Nevertheless it is a fine example, though there are many others, of the beauty of Scots in the hands of a real craftsman, and demonstrates that for all its earthy, comic, raucous and sentimental characteristics in daily speech, it is capable of reaching the very highest literary peaks. Remember, this is not a translation from the King James Bible, but from the Greek, of the first book of Corinthians, chapter 13.

Gin I speak wi the tungs o men an angels, but hae nae luve i my hairt, I am no nane better nor dunnerin bress or a rínging cymbal. Gin I hae the gift o prophecíe, an am acquent wi the saicret mind o God, an ken aathing ither at man may ken, an gin I hae siccan faith as can flit the hills frae their larachs - gin I hae aa that, but hae nae luve i my hairt, I am nocht. Gin I skail aa my guids an graith in awmous, an gin I gíe up my bodie tae be brunt in aiss - gin I een dae that, but hae nae luve i my hairt, I am nane the better o it.

Luve is pâtientfu; luve is couthie and kind; luve is nane jailous; nane sprosie; nane bowdent wi pride; nane mislaired; nane hame-drauchtit; nane toustie. Luve keeps nae nickstick o the wrangs it drees; finnds nae pleisur i the ill wark o ithers; is ey liftit up whan truth dings líes; kens ey tae keep a caum souch; is ey sweired tae misdout; ey howps the best; ey bides the warst.

Luve will ne’er fail. Prophecies, they s’ een be by wi; tungs, they s’ een devaul; knawledge, it s’ een be by wi. Aa our knawledge is hauflin; aa our prophesíein is hauflin: but whan the perfyte is comed, the onperfyte will be by wi. In my bairn days, I hed the speech o a bairn, the thochts o a bairn, the mind o a bairn, but nou at I am grown manmuckle, I am through wi aathing bairnlie. Nou we are like luikin in a mirror an seein aa thing athraw, but than we s’ luik aathing braid i the face. Nou I ken aathing hauflinsweys, but than I will ken aathing as weill as God kens me.

In smaa: there is three things bides for ey: faith, howp, luve. But the grytest o the three is luve.

James Robertson, Bordeaux, 9th October 2014.


A Scottish poet, novelist, short story writer and editor. He holds a PhD from Edinburgh University on the novels of Walter Scott. His own novels include The Fanatic, Joseph Knight, The Testament of Gideon Mack, And the Land Lay Still, The Professor of Truth, and To Be Continued. He also runs an independent publishing company called Kettillonia, and is a founder, editor and a contributing author to the Scots language children’s imprint Itchy Coo. He is based in Angus.

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