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The Daith O Scots? I Wuidnae Be Sae Sure

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  • The Daith O Scots? I Wuidnae Be Sae Sure

    Sunday Herald - 15 September 2002
    The Daith O Scots? I Wuidnae Be Sae Sure
    If hundreds of thousands of us speak it, how can it be a dead language? As the pressure mounts on the Scottish parliament to take our mother tongue seriously, Scots expert Billy Kay explains why he believes it's high time we reclaimed our linguistic roots

    In my home town in Ayrshire recently, a local electrician came up to me in the pub and recounted for me an incident that had happened the day before. 'It wes gey nearhaun fower o clock, Billy, sae I says, 'Richt boys, redd up and gaither aw yer graith thegither, it's lowsin time.

    'Just then a bit came on the wireless aboot the daith o Scots, an the expert lamented the fact that once-common words like 'graith' [tools] and 'redd' [clear, tidy] were no longer in currency. Me an the boys juist luiked at wan anither an speired whit kinna planet we wes leivin on!'

    I thought of such expertise when I saw the confused harangue by historian Michael Fry in a Sunday paper last week. Monie o thaim that threaps on aboot Scots wuidnae ken a Scots word gin it lowped up an skelped thaim on the puss.

    In the past few weeks we have seen the publication of L Colin Wilson's Luath Scots Language Learner, the completion of the Oxford Dictionary Of The Older Scottish Tongue and the launch of a series of highly successful Scots children's books in the Itchy Coo imprint. Yet every time there is a wave of Scots creativity, as sure as night follows day, there will be a spate of newspaper articles saying what a waste of time it all is as Scots is a dead or dying language.

    The detractors are obviously in serious denial, for in the past year or so we have had novels by James Robertson, Matthew Fitt, Janet Paisley and Irvine Welsh, plays by David Greig and Liz Lochhead and festival music, poetry and performance in varieties of a language that is very much alive. The General Register Office survey of 1996 estimated Scots to have 1.5 million speakers -- by far the greatest number for any indigenous minority language in the UK.

    Many of those speakers, like me, experienced a Scottish education system that considered itself successful if each generation was less Scottish than the one before, and tholed bizarre dichotomies such as being given a prize for reciting the Bard's poetry on Burns Day then getting belted for speaking his language every other day of the year. Despite such incongruities, the language remained a crucial part of my family's identity. It enriched every part of our lives, from the joy of a niece's wedding where my daughter sang the Scots love song The Lea Rig to the sadness of my father's funeral, when he joined my mother under a heidstane inscribed with the words 'Till a' the seas gang dry'.

    The tension between the Scots and English duality has been in existence for a long time, and shows little sign of abating. At the end of the 18th century, Robert Burns was advised by the anglicised elite at the head of Scottish society not to write in Scots as it would be dead within a few generations. Thankfully for world literature, Burns kent better and continued to express in his mither tongue songs such as the great radical hymn A Man's A Man For A' That, which so movingly opened our parliament and established a new democracy for Scotland in 1999.

    Now, although I knew that the Catalans reckoned it would take three generations of democracy to remove the stigmatisation of their culture established by centuries of Castilian Spanish domination, the optimism of that moment convinced me that it was a new beginning and the beginning of the end for the 'Scottish cringe'.

    Within a year, though, the snell wind of reality blew away the optimism as I observed the scunnersome sicht of certain MSPs reducing the debate on whether to have a question on Scots included in the census to the level of comic capers.

    As someone whose work has always promoted cultural diversity -- radio programmes, for example, about minorities such as Lanarkshire Lithuanians or Ayrshire Spaniards whom very few people knew existed -- I was pleased to see that the lobby pressing for a question on religious identity in the census had succeeded. I found it bitterly ironic, though, that if I had belonged to a religious or ethnic minority the same MSPs would not have dared trash my mither tongue. Once again I had the feeling of being a stranger in my own country.

    Hundreds of thousands of people have Scots as their first language and their strongest badge of identity, yet see it given scant recognition by our major institutions. The most major of these is the parliament. As a member of the cross-party group for Scots I have recently witnessed yet another thwarting of Scots' linguistic rights when our requests for discussions on Scots signage in the new parliament building were diverted and delayed and passed on until finally, with no debate whatsoever, we were told it had been decided that there would be Scots signage. The minimalist communication on the matter from figures such as Sir David Steel was high on obfuscating spin but low on adequate reasons for the omission. What they basically said was: ye're no gettin it an that's you telt!

    But political events elsewhere will, I believe, make the present attitude of negation untenable in the future. In the European Union, Scots is recognised as a language and the government of the UK has ratified the European Charter for regional or minority languages. Yet most of the stipulations demanded by the charter to promote languages such as Scots are not being met by either the Scottish or UK governments .

    Westminster has also signed up for the Good Friday Agreement with the Irish government, where there is a commitment to promote Irish Gaelic and Ulster Scots. So we now have a great irony: major funding and status for Scots in Ulster and bawbees and sleekit sneers for Scots in its homeland. Pressure must be brought to bear on the Scottish and UK governments to make them realise that doing nothing is no longer an option, and to make them begin to fulfil their obligations to Scots as something central to our existence as a European nation.

    When confronted with a large, knowledgeable and committed gathering of the cross-party group (CPG) last Tuesday, the Minister for Culture, Lord Watson, responded well to the points made and appeared genuine in his expressed desire for a definite strategy for Scots to develop. And within the next month the CPG will publish a groundbreaking document that could act as the basis for such a strategy, Scots: A Statement O Principles (A Wey Forrit For The Scots Language In A Multilingual Scotland).

    But even with the best political will it can take a long time for strategies to be implemented. In the mean time there is something much simpler which the minister and the Executive could do that would go a long way to proving that the new democracy is working and that the culture and speech of the mass of the people is being recognised. They could produce a simple sign to hang at the main entrance to the parliament building which has the words SCOTS PAIRLIAMENT alongside the English and Gaelic ones. More than anything, this would tell folk like me that we do finally belong and that the ideal of inclusivity cherished by all those who worked for the creation of the parliament was at last being achieved.

    Historian and broadcaster Billy Kay is the author of Scots: The Mither Tongue, published by Alloway

    Copyright © 2002 smg sunday newspapers ltd. no.176088

  • #2
    'Just then a bit came on the wireless aboot the daith o Scots, an the expert lamented the fact that once-common words like 'graith' [tools] and 'redd' [clear, tidy] were no longer in currency.
    Where I live in Lanarkshire these words can still be heard. My first job was for the Parks dept. of the local council, and I was constantly reminded to "redd up an gaither up yer graith afore lowsin" by the charge haun.
    . So we now have a great irony: major funding and status for Scots in Ulster and bawbees and sleekit sneers for Scots in its homeland.
    Now that is irony, as weel iz bein a damn disgrace!
    100% Air a dhèanamh ann an Alba.


    • #3
      The Daith O Scots? I Wuidnae Be Sae Sure
      I am reminded of the last few lines of the George Bruce poem Urn Burial:-

      o' the auld men
      stude gloweran
      at the tuim tomb.
      'She's jinkit again,
      the b*tch!'
      said the auld man wi the spade.
      100% Air a dhèanamh ann an Alba.


      • #4
        Aye, ye're nae wrang. Oor leid winna lie doon an dee like it's been telt. It's an affa scunner!


        • #5
          Well, sounds like the media just needed something to fill the big white gap in the paper. LOL Can't believe that the Scots tongue should be dying out. There is a saying: Those who are believed to be dead have the longest life of all!
          "Wherever the spirit of Montrose may lead me"