The Scots Language Centre is grateful to Thomas Widman for granting permission to reproduce this map.

Map of Scots Speakers – 2013. The Scots Language Centre is grateful to Thomas Widman for granting permission to reproduce this map.

There has been talk recently (quite rightly) of ‘the missing voices of Scottish public life’.  Michael Hance, Director of the Scots Language Centre points to a most recent and more obvious example of ‘the missing’.

One and a half million folk speak Scots. A member of the Scots Language Centre’s facebook group described it (I think correctly) as, ‘one of the most important stories in modern Scottish cultural history’.

So why so little coverage of these striking figures?

Well, for a start, the National Records for Scotland, the agency responsible for the census contrived to ignore Scots in the press statements it released last Thursday. In a report that had been produced to give more information about the Scots questions, the NRS went further, casting doubt on the validity of their figures and implying that those saying they spoke Scots hadn’t understood the question.

Bizarrely, instead of trumpeting the fact that that the census data confirmed the research carried out in 1996 by the NRS’s predecessor organisation, the GROS (General Register Office for Scotland), the state statisticians applied skewed and linguistically questionable interpretations to the data. The outcome was that the report undermined a respected and methodologically sound survey carried out by its own staff and brought into question the agency’s ability to collect data effectively by suggesting that questions which it had developed and tested had been misunderstood by respondents. Since the 1996 survey had estimated the number of Scots speakers at 1.5 million the NRS found itself arguing that on the two occasions it had collected information about Scots it had failed to collect the data accurately – in exactly the same way!

Not content to limit itself to considering the data from a statistical perspective the NRS allowed itself to stray into the field of linguistics. But experts in one area must always ca canny about believing they are knowledgeable in another. The cultural and linguistic assumptions of the report’s writers were obvious to outside observers even if they were invisible to them. Indeed, the author’s linguistic prejudices were so strong that they outweighed what otherwise one would assume would be the natural desire to present the NRS as an institution with a pedigree of successful research into the prevalence of Scots language speakers in the general population.

Sadly there were practical implications to NRS’s data cleansing. The fascinating figures on Scots language were completely ignored in the NRS’s press releases and its staff cast doubt on the capacity of respondents to understand the questions. That meant that journalists and commentators failed to pick up the story and the figures went by largely unremarked upon. When they were discussed it was reported that only 1% of people could speak Scots – this was based on the NRS’s untested assumptions about the differences in respondents’ answers to the questions about Scots language ability compared with their responses to the question about language spoken in the home.

But more than just suppressing good news and interesting data the NRS has quietly given Scots speakers and the wider community a message. And the message is this: ignore the responses to the census, they don’t prove anything, the people who said they were speakers are not to be trusted; they didn’t understand the question, they don’t know themselves well enough to answer it correctly, Scots is just English, it doesn’t exist. In this, NRS follows an established pattern with which Scots speakers are familiar. If the state and its agencies pretend Scots doesn’t exist, some how or other it will just go away. This is how schools treated Scots for over a century, Scots wasn’t banned in the classroom like Catalan was in Franco’s Spain, it wasn’t named and legislated against. Instead Scots was simply treated as if it wasn’t there.

The language of Scots speaking children was described as an inferior version of something else, something that needed curing and correcting. Scots speakers were taught to define themselves as linguistically disordered, not as the guardians and inheritors of a centuries old language and culture. The treatment for the disorder was shame and physical punishment. Unlike Catalonia where banning the language raised its status and empowered its speakers, the tactic used in Scotland, of ignoring the local language or treating it as a mangled and fixable version of something else (‘proper English’) was and continues to be disempowering and shaming.

The notion that Scots and English are just the same thing is so pervasive in our culture that even when a question designed to elicit data about incidence of speakers reveals the widespread use of the language, the first inclination of those who gathered the information is to claim that Scots in the minds of those who answered the question is ‘interchangeable’ with English. What nonsense and how shocking that people whose trade is statistics should make such a claim without testing it.

The figures, however, point to something quite different. That is the existence of a self-conscious community of speakers. People who know perfectly well what ‘Scots’ means, who understood the question and answered it accurately. Otherwise why does this map of Scotland show so exactly the geographical distribution of Scots speakers that anyone with the slightest knowledge of the linguistic make up of the country would have predicted before the census figures were released. And let’s stop for a moment and consider just how remarkable these figures are. Nearly half of all the folk living in Moray, Shetland and Aberdeenshire think of themselves as Scots speakers. That’s not an opinion poll, that’s real folk in real homes answering real questions about a real language. The notion that a respondent in Shetland who described herself as a Scots speaker in the census didn’t actually know the difference between her own speech and English is insulting and absurd. But that is the argument NRS makes in its already discredited report.

So if half of all the people living in Aberdeenshire and Shetland are Scots speakers then what do should we do in response to that information? Already this year, Bruce Eunson, the Shetland dialect officer, and the only person paid specifically to promote any Scots dialect, lost his job because of lack of funding. While millions are spent on maintaining historic buildings, primping visitor centres at battlefields and building museums for dead poets, this living language that defines Scotland more than anything else gets by on the most meagre of rations.

At the Scots Language Centre we want to see change. First we will be writing to NRS asking them to address our criticisms of their report. Secondly we are calling on the government to develop a policy for Scots, it needs to be overarching and take account of the geographical spread of Scots speakers. Thirdly we want respect for Scots speakers – it’s time to stop telling people not only that they don’t know what they’re talking about but that they don’t know what language they’re talking.

‘It’s a sair fecht!’ The well-known expression certainly sums up the degree of difficulty faced by those of us who campaign for Scots, having at last secured a question on Scots we immediately face the problem of the data being questioned by those who gathered it. But another Latin / Scots expression, ‘nil desperandum an nivver deval’ (don’t despair and don’t give up) is one which many of us take strength from. We are 1.5 million and we will be heard.