CommonSpace columnist Gary Elliot says the use of the Scots language has been gradually shamed out of people from school age, but it’s time to shake off the ‘Scottish cringe’ and reclaim an important part of Scots culture
I ENJOYED the CommonSpace Twitter feed the other day. A request was sent out for suitable Scots and Gaelic words to name chapters of the planned ‘Butterfly Rammy’ Edinburgh fringe event organised by the Common Weal.
The request resulted in an ongoing torrent of Scots language words, most of which were familiar, but some which were new to me.
The response from Twitter users was heartening and underlined something that I’ve believed for a long while – that if the people of Scotland get the opportunity to embrace their own culture at a level they are comfortable with, they embrace it with pride and enthusiasm.
It isn’t always the case though. A few years ago, not long after it started, Newsnet Scotland ran articles published in Scots and it caused a massive stushie.
If the people of Scotland get the opportunity to embrace their own culture at a level they are comfortable with, they embrace it with pride and enthusiasm.
Even within this Nationalist/pro independence readership, some people were uncomfortable with written Scots.
Why would this be the case? In my opinion, one reason is the ongoing and pervasive presence of the Scottish cringe. That embarrassment that many people in Scotland feel when presented with what, although it is ‘their’ culture, doesn’t feel like it because of the generational cultural colonialism of the British state.
The other reason is a simple linguistic one and is to do with register. So, although many people might feel happy and comfortable with funny memes of anthropromorphic ant-eaters saying “mon then ya bawbag”, 1,000 word articles in higher register Scots language seem alien and forced.
Of course they do, because people aren’t used to either reading it or hearing it. There are two main reasons for this historically and it is the lack of Scots Language content at both school and through the media.
I’m sure there are many in Scotland who share similar experiences to me in that when we were at school Scots was considered ‘slang’. My generation were simply told off for using Scots words, older generations were belted.
Things should be better now. Scots language is specifically part of the Curriculum for Excellence and it’s usage should be encouraged in schools.
When we were at school Scots was considered ‘slang’. My generation were simply told off for using Scots words, older generations were belted.
It is pertinent at this point to ask the extent to which this is taking place and, also, whether it is making any difference for the future well-being of the language.
My own kids are a case in point. In January, they were all learning Scots poems around Burns Night. All three did very well and I was particularly taken by my five-year-old’s rendition of ‘Ma Wee Rid Caur’.
Outwith Burns Night, though, I see very little in the way of use or promotion of the language within the school (and my oldest is in P6 so it’s a pattern I’ve seen over successive years).
So, although no longer punished in schools, the danger is that it’s presence does not go beyond mere tokenism. That isn’t good enough. That tokenism is reflected in the situation in the media, where Scots is virtually non-existent, apart from in comedy and in occasional programmes about Scots language.
Elaine C Smith recently fronted one and its main focus was on ‘What’s your favourite Scots word?’. I’m sorry, but we should be past that by now.
It’s one thing for CommonSpace to put out a quick tweet looking for Scots words as titles for Fringe events, but is ‘What’s your favourite Scots word?’ the best the BBC can do? Where are the topical discussion programmes in Scots, the documentaries in Scots?
Although no longer punished in schools, the danger is that it’s presence does not go beyond mere tokenism. That isn’t good enough.
I know for a fact that there are people at BBC Scotland who are supportive of the language, but I also know for a fact that there is resistance as well (an ex-BBC employee I know told me they attended a meeting about Scots programming at which the responsible producer audibly groaned at the thought of having to do it).
The thing is, none of what I’m saying is new. The need for more Scots language in education and broadcasting has been said by others time and time again.
Why, therefore, isn’t progress being made? Over 1.54 million Scots self-identified as Scots speakers at the last census but it doesn’t feel like there is the lobbying strength of that many people. Is it the case that many of those are happy to identify on a census but won’t go further than that?
Is it also the case that those who do lobby for the language have been getting it wrong over the years? The Gaidhlig Language lobby has managed to secure an entire radio station (Radio nan Gaidheal), an entire TV station (BBC Alba) and immersion education at pre-school, nursery, primary, secondary and tertiary education levels, despite the fact that there are far fewer Gaidhlig speakers in Scotland than Scots speakers.
I should emphasise at this point that far from being a criticism of that Gaidhlig lobby, as a Gaidhlig learner it’s more that I feel much could be learned in relation to the development of Scots.
To be fair, progress is being made in education, with the SQA introducing secondary school qualifications in S3-S6 and the opportunity arising to introduce Scots in a more strategic way in primary schools through the 1+2 modern languages initiative.
However, for both of these opportunities to really bear fruit it requires a major cultural shift in the thinking of both local authorities and educators.
The need for more Scots language in education and broadcasting has been said by others time and time again.
It also means that those who would wish to cherish the language should probably be more vocal in asking for local provision. It’s no use opportunities being there if sceptical local authorities can use the excuse of “nobody wanted it” as a reason for not making provision available.
I’m sure that there are those that think this doesn’t matter. In my opinion it matters hugely. On one hand, because having a deep knowledge of your own culture builds individual self-confidence and helps eradicate the type of cultural cringe that has negatively affected Scotland for too long.
Secondly, there are naysayers that would suggest this type of outlook is narrow and parochial. I would argue otherwise, because to me it is clear that this type of deep cultural knowledge lends a greater appreciation to other cultures, both near and far, and helps give context to our own global place.
Folk in Scotland who, like me, like hearing the words on Scandinavian telly from The Killing to 1864 which sound the same in Danish/Swedish/Norwegian as they do in Scots will know what I mean. Ken?
Picture courtesy of duncan c