By David Officer, artist and writer based in Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire.
The launch of Creative Scotland’s Scots language policy today is long overdue and sorely needed. I’m sure there’ll be many who view such a policy with suspicion and disdain; no doubt we’ll hear such choice phrases such as “Scots is a dialect, not a language”, “Why are we promoting teuchter rubbish?”, “only neds speak like that” or the classic “no one speaks like that anymore”. But this is precisely why a Scots language policy is needed by Creative Scotland, the Scottish Government, Local Authorities and indeed all our publicly funded organisations across the country.
I am not a natural Scots speaker. Sure, there’s a few words that come freely to me and I’ll likely greet you with “Fit like?” as often as “How’s it going?”, but I grew up “speaking properly” (though with a frustrating speech impediment) and that meant speaking English. This wasn’t something that was necessarily forced on me by any single person or institution, but rather an impact of cultural influence at home, in school and through our media. My parents have fairly neutral accents – my Mum went to secretarial college and has worked on receptions or in offices all her life, but my Dad (a joiner) still has a few doric words up his sleeve. Both come from rural backgrounds here in the Mearns. Stonehaven and Catterline, where I grew up, are both middle class settlements with a smattering of working class people. As a result, anyone who speaks Scots in school is marked as different and children quickly learn to hide their background. In Catterline, many of my close friends were English which made the difference even more pronounced. This continued at Secondary school of course, though there was more acceptance of wee bits of Scots — often emerging in key phrases but not as a whole language. Teachers would chastise students for their glottal stops though and we were told to speak properly.
Then we have our media. With the loss of genuine regionalised TV, we lost our most high profile advocate for Scots. Grampian TV was both loved and ridiculed for its parochial nature, but it ensured the North-East was represented on screen. Now there are very few doric voices on mainstream TV, except for an occasional glimpse of Robbie Shepherd. Radio Scotland has occasional representation, and even BBC Alba chips in with the odd program with a Scots or Doric speaker, but on the whole this is a hidden language. Not like Gaelic, Scotland’s other native tongue which has had high profile backing in recent years, if not vast sums of money (compared to overall media or education spending). Scots has historically had very little support despite being recognised as one of our three native languages. I’m definitely not saying we should stop supporting Gaelic in favour of Scots, this isn’t an either/or thing. We should be advocating and supporting both at far greater levels than we do currently.
The very fact that Scotland has 3 languages to draw upon is cause for celebration, not consternation. Multi-lingualism leads to higher standards in education, language skills and employability. Language is living, breathing, evolving and a marker of our culture and society. To turn our back on our native languages is to throw away where we’ve come from and what made us who we are today. And this isn’t some kind of nationalistic thing about native Scots. Scots (the language) has drawn influence and been shaped by those who have moved here and those places where we’ve been. Doric has much in common with the languages of lowland Western Europe, but this is hardly discussed, taught or known about even here in Aberdeenshire. We are denying our history, our culture and an opportunity to see common connections with our European neighbours.
No one really wants to live in a homogenous society, full of indentikit towns with everyone speaking perfect Queen’s English — just ask the Queen how dull that must be. It’s our differences that bring our society to life. A Scots language policy should encourage this expression, but not define it; it should advocate but not enforce and it should educate without claiming ownership. Scots, like most languages, is a language of the people. It evolves with us as we grow and as we use it in our daily lives. What has happened over the years is that this use has been artificially restricted, actively discouraged and unconsciously removed. We need to stop being afraid or unsure about writing or speaking in Scots, claim it as ours and be proud to use it.
When I worked at a prominent North-East rural arts venue, I felt it was weird that the venue never used Scots in any of its communications. We had a very brief discussion in the office about this and it was agreed that there was no reason not to use it, but that it shouldn’t be forced and nor should it restrict our accessibility to the venue’s overall audience (we didn’t want to alienate non-Scots speakers obviously). So, I would use it now and again on our social media pages and I put it on the bottom of our mailing list emails, pointing people to our website and social media platforms. I felt it reflected the location and history of the area we worked in and while few people noticed or commented, it seemed a small, inconsequential effort to increase acceptance of Scots in official communications. Sadly, since I and many of my colleagues moved on from that organisation, they have stopped this practice. It feels like a lost opportunity. Creative Scotland’s new policy commits them to working with funded organisations to advocate use of Scots. I hope this isn’t met with resistance but viewed as an opportunity for organisations to naturally engage with their audiences in new ways, giving them a way of expressing their work that will connect with groups and their locations in a way they haven’t done while talking solely in English. It shouldnae be a sair fecht, but a natural progression of their existing communications.
So, how will this help Scots speakers, or non-Scots speakers who are interested in the language? I hope that a policy of advocacy will lead to greater awareness about Scots among modern residents. It certainly feels like it’s been a fading language over the years and that less people are speaking it in everyday life. There are wee shoots of hope. The recent BBC Radio 2 short story contest showed that children are still using lots of Scots words, if not writing or speaking wholly in the language (oh, and it is a distinct language by almost every definition and recognised as a regional or minority language by the UK Government and the EU). That shows there’s still an interest in our linguistic heritage. Through our national arts agency we have an organisation who could enable great change in the national perception of Scots. It is through our culture, our works of art, our writing and our language that we ultimately influence and reflect our society. If Creative Scotland can encourage our artists and cultural organisations to advocate Scots as a form of expression and communication then we might just save this wonderfully poetic and expressive language from being a historical curiosity, and reclaim a bit of ourselves in the process.
Ah’ll end is scrieve wi a wee spiel aboot ma current experience wi spikkin the doric. Ower the years ah’ve worked a number o jobs in retail an customer service an ah aywis felt that ah could spik to abidy. Ah used this as an opportunity tae spik mair doric an ower the years ah’ve grown mair comfortable spikkin fit should be ma natural tongue. Ah use it regularly in work and socially, but rarely fan spikkin wi ma wife (it’s jist nivvir bin a hing wi us, she speaks properly). Ah’m trying to spik it tae ma baby son, because ah hink he shid grow up hearing is leid. Whether he chooses tae spik it is up tae him, but ah winnae tell the loon he needs tae spik English or Scots, he jist needs tae be himsel nae matter fit ony ither fowk spier at i loon. Ah jist want him tae hae the choice. If naebody spiks it, fit choice dae wi hae?
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