The Missing

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.

Comments (25)

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  1. It goes to show, that even if you try, you can’t kill it. Still, it does add to the general Caledonian Antisyzygy the way, for example, myself and my father interchange Doric with so-called RP depending on circumstance.

    Anyway, check oot yon wabsteid here: very funny ‘Doric Call Centre’ sketch >>

  2. An Duine Gruamach says:

    Thanks for this Michael – an thanks tae Bella for pittin it on the site. Pretendin Scots isna there whan ane an a hauf million fowk says they spik it jist isna guid eneuch. We dinna hae tae tak this onie mair.

  3. setondene says:

    Scots is my language and I’m proud of it. At the very least these census results must be used to inform a national strategy for the promotion and development of Scots in its heartlands. I don’t know who will lead this but we need a lead body or bodies to shoulder the responsibility. Unfortunately, many Scots language advocates have wasted their time on ill-informed and bad mannered attacks on the Gaels for successfully defending their language. They should have been learning from the Gaels instead of attacking them, particularly how to lobby successfully. After all there are strong similarities in the way both languages have been minoritised by the British state.

    1. Michael says:

      Hi, thanks for the comment. I can’t speak for the whole community but I’d say that I certainly have no gripes with Gaelic. I’ve always spoken in favour of it and have many friends who are campaigners for the language. Our information officer at a graduate in Celtic and has some knowledge of Gaelic. Scots language campaigners have been lobbying very hard – that’s how we got a question in the 2011 census and why we’re now discussing the results. Michael

  4. Other than one line I disagreed with (“this living language that defines Scotland more than anything else”) this article was excellent and a bit of a revelation. Given the SNP has not made any commitment to official language status for Scots or Gaidhlig (& I’m pretty doubtful it’ll be in the White Paper) I suspect if there is a YES vote both Gaidhlig & Scots speakers would have a battle on their hands to get into the new constitution & thus have education etc in that language enshrined as a right. A trilingual Scotland should not be tokenistic – with constitutional protection, linguistic equality becomes a duty.

    1. habibbarri says:

      I have argued in response to an article on the census in a previous edition of Bella Caledonia, that just as Gaelic is being promoted by schools in which the medium of education throughout the curriculum is Gaelic, so should Scots be the language of instruction throughout the curriculum in Scots speaking areas. English would remain as an important second language, being the language of international diplomacy, trade and finance. But English is a foreign language. Can you imaging the French using German as the language of Education?

      We need to be proud of our national languages. Our children need to be taught them, and taught in them.

      1. 11 says:

        english is not a foreign language u muppet, its the bloody national language. ye can understand it and scots because they are sister languages. Also i think yis are miles behind northern ireland in promoting scots

      2. habibbarri says:

        I’ve never understood why people who disagree with one resort to calling one names. I imagine Freud or Jung would have an answer.

        The only reason English is the national language is that it has been gradually imposed on us by our conquerors, and children have not been educated in one of our truly national languages. English really is a foreign language. Yes it is a cognate language with Scots, but it is not native to our country. I can understand English and Scots (but my Scots lacks much vocabulary) because I was raised in Scotland, but the English people I know cannot understand Scots, nor can the Americans and Canadians I know. I don’t know whether or not we are behind Northern Ireland in promoting Scots. My argument is that we need to promote it and make it the medium of education in Scots speaking areas.

  5. An me a Glesca keelie,cannae talk rite either.Aye keep them thinking that their culture and language is inferior and some believed it,that was how to keep us down and too many still believe that we are less than others.Me ah know am jist as guid as ony o them.

  6. Wullie says:

    How come Caithness is missing from the map? have they been taking elocution lessons ower ee Ord?

    1. Michael says:

      Caithness is in the HIghlands council area. That’s how the data was released.

  7. Allyhib says:

    and therein lies the basis of the Scottish Cringe …. you are right – Scots is not an inferior version of anything …..

  8. When it comes to “discrimination”, perhaps we should all check with the thousands (possibly) of people in Scotland whose first and preferred means of communication is British Sign Language; they’re completely off the radar as far as the census date was concerned, and in so many respects encounter blatant discrimination in their everyday lives from a world which either doesn’t understand or dismisses the unique nature of their spatial, non-verbal form of communication.

  9. Douglas says:

    The UN: “protection of minority languages is a human rights issue”

  10. Piobaire says:

    I was always intrigued how, in the area shown as Highland Region, nobody spoke what is termed Scots. Billy Kay has everyone in this area speaking “Highland English” and yet, I know many people, especially in the east Highlands who use Scots words and expressions. I noticed when reading Scots:The Mither Tongue, Billy didn’t even have the word “Gaelic” in the index. I always thought that was a bit curious; writing a book on language development in Scotland and not mentioning the founding language of the Scottish state.

  11. Seon Caimbeul says:

    “We are 1.5 million and we will be heard.”

    That’s pish. Mair likely about a hunner thousan. We hae nae playgroups, na skuils, nae colleges. We hae nae real place in public life. We’ll no be heard oan e radio or seen oan e telly excep tae mak a mockery o wirsels. We dinnae even hae ony recordins o wir aulder spikkers in e Scots Language Centre. Whan A speirt them whit wey culd they no hae a collection osoun recordins wi fowk spikkin it, courses tae lairn it an big it up thir leader tellt us, in English, thir wis nae need acause jist aboutawbody in Scotland spiks it areadies!

    Wir leid is about tae disappear. That’s fack. Kiddin oan at its daein fine an at it’s got yin an a hauf million spikkers is yin o the warst things ye culd dae.

  12. Wang King says:

    Ah dinna ken oanythin aboot aat

  13. Ian Scott says:

    A Lewisman aince telt me that when he wis at the schuil, the toonies were pit in a cupboard during the Gaelic lesson lest they corrupt the purity of the country bairns’ Gaelic. Wid it no be the same if we tocht Lallans? The weans wid a be sterting frae different levels especially if their parents had made them learn the glossary frae Chris Grieve’s poetry!

    1. LASmith says:

      Aye, an us Doric spikkers could hae Alistair Mackie ti read fir fan wi were pit in i cupboard. Sadly, the written word has lost the struggle to remain Doric, for me at any rate. Twenty-six years ago, in my daughter’s P1 class, there was at least one child who did not speak
      English, at all. All the children spoke Doric, except the English child, but most could also speak English In fact, we all still speak Doric on a regular basis, without consciously doing so, it is just part of who we are.

      1. habibbarri says:

        I’m happy for those for whom Scots is just part of who they are. My Scots which is part of who I am, is deficient. When I read Burns I need to consult the glossary often because I do not understand much of the vocabulary. This vocabulary needs to be taught in schools for us to recover Scots. Classes and t.v. programmes which teach it, need to be held for adults. There is much to be done to regain command of this important language.

  14. am Morair Moireach says:

    Scots and English are not the same thing. One is Gaelic and the other is English.

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