An Owresetter’s Tale

Scotland-map-web2A wis born at 11.45 a.m. on Monday the 11th July in 1949, the furst o twin brothers, in the Cottage Hospital at Netherdale in Galashiels, while my faither an mither wis on leave frae Nigeria. Ma faither Cyril Holton wis the saxt o seiven bairns, the youngest son o a faimly at flittit frae Waterford ti Liverpool at the en o the Furst Warld War; his faither an his uncle wir baith engineers wi the Ben Line, sailin ti Hong Kong, Canton, Shanghai an Yokohama, an sae wis twae o my mither’s uncles, Alec Young, an Alec Smith.

Dad wis educatit in French frae he wis about echt or nine year auld, an wis bilingual. Eftir an accident wi a parachute in Egypt (he wis a commando, an focht i the Westren Desert) he wis a wheen few months in Tanganyika, whaur he leirit the Swahili, to eik ti the Latin and Greek he’d leirit at the seminary; eftir his medical dischairge in 1943, he mairriet ma mither Isobel Young in Galashiels, an he fund a job in northren Nigeria, whaur he’d ti lairn the Hausa. Eftir ma brither Harvey and me wis born, we flittit ti Lagos, whaur Dad eikit some Yoruba ti his leids, tho the warkin leid at hame wis maistly West African Pidgin, at Mum, a naitral Border Scots speaker, wis no bad at, tae. Whan ma brither Norman wis born in 1951, Harvey an me alreadies hed the Hausa names o Hassan and Hussein, fursten twin and saicont twin, sae Norman becam Gambo, the fursten bairn eftir twins.

Frae ma bairntime A wis uised wi a multilingual environment: our servin-chiel Dennis Oziri tellt us bedtime tales in Pidgin; Uncle Ali, a Hausa trader frae the north, wis a favourite veisitor we played wi, tho he spak nae English; an our lullabies and bairn-rhymes wis in Scots.

We cam hame ti Edinburgh ti stert the schuil in 1954, an never gaed back ti West Africa. Scotland in the fifties, grippit wi the postwar austerity, wis a dourer, dreicher place as Scotland is the nou, an mindin on Lagos, for Harvey an me, wis ti mind on a prelapsarian paradise, an Eden in thon big hous at 26 Point Road, Apapa, wi an orchard o guavas an papayas in the compound, deidlie snakes in the flouer-bauks, scarlet an gowd military bands mairchin out an in the airmy barracks at the road-en, an, as we gaed ti sleep ablow our mosquito nets, the soun of High Life jazz frae the howff i the street ahint us.

Dad wad play games wi us at dennertime an teatime, when we hed ti speir for what we wantit in the leid of his choice – the Hausa, the French, the Swahili, an aa that. No long afore he dee’d, Norman tellt uis that he mindit the Swahili for sugar yit, and the Hausa for saut, tae. My grandfaither Samuel McDiarmid Young – a cousin o Hugh McDiarmid’s – hed us playin memory games an aa, like Pelmanism or Kim’s Game.

Later on, A wis yokit ti the Latin and the French at Larbert High Schuil, an then, at Galashiels Academy, A wis luckie ti sit under thrie byous dominies: A stertit at the Greek and gaed on wi the Latin under the brilliant an warm-hairtit Donald Gibson, gaed on wi the French under the fearsome but eydent Mysie Hargreaves, and read for Higher English under Donald McInnes, a Skye man that gied an equal wecht ti literature in baith the Scots an the English. We read frae the Makars, Henryson, Dunbar, and Gawain Douglas, throu the Border Ballads, on ti Stevenson, Scott an Hogg, and up ti the twentieth-century Scottish Renaissance, the like o Hugh McDiarmid, Sydney Goodsir Smith, and Lewis Grassic Gibbon. In whit wis a state-o-the-art language lab A learned masel a pickle German, and in ma saxt year A hed the chance ti dae a wee bit Russian.

And there ye hae it: hou cud A no be a translator?

Chinese cam ti uis in Gala Academy library. A’d been readin Arthur Waley’s The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes wi a burnin sense o injustice that this hedna been spoken o in history lessons, an a dawnin unnerstaunin o hou the Chinese and Japanese bric-a-brac A’d grown up wi hed come ti be in ma grandfaither’s hous. As A wis pittin the book back on the shelf, tho, A spied a slim wee beukie aside it: it wis Arthur Waley’s 100 Chinese Poems. A wis fair daft for poetry, readin aa A cud in onie o the leids A hed, but thon coup de foudre seems as shairp ti uis nou as it wis yon day in 1965: it hed never come up ma humph at Chinese fowk wad write poetry. A gaed gilravagin throu Waley, follaed that wi Pound’s Cathay, then took out the wersh an unhelpfu Teach Yourself Chinese frae Gala Library: A was feelin nearhaun by somethin awfu big, kennin A needit ti ken mair, but no kennin whaur ti gaun for’t. Then, later on in my fift year, as A wis buskin masel ti apply ti the university, A spied a paragraph in the Scotsman sayin Edinburgh University wis gaun ti stert a degree in Chinese Studies, and, agin monie sage advices frae some o ma dominies an some of my ain fowk, A made up ma mind ti apply for that.

Eftir a fause stert in 1967-9, A gaed back in 1971 to sit under John Chinnery, Dou Daoming, the inspirational an impossible John Scott, an the far-seen and mensefu William Dolby: A graduatit summa cum laude in 1975. In 1976-8 A read for a PhD (never feinisht) at Durham University.

But hou Scots? Weill, hou no? It’s ma mither tongue, eftir aa’s said an dune.

It cam ti uis yin simmer gloamin in 1965, staunin outside Joe’s Café in Selkirk Market Place wi Cathy Cockburn. A lad comes by an says ti her, “Ir oo aa gaun soomin at the Skerrs the morn’s morn?” It wis a revelation: A hed stertit ti see the Latin ruits o French an hed gotten haud o the link atween Greek and Latin, an on a suddentie A kent at whit A’d juist heard – the tongue A spak amang my schuil friens an wi monie o ma mither’s fowk – wisna the ‘bad English’ primary schuil dominies hed proscribit, or onie kin o ‘slang’, but a leid in its ain richt, separate an distinct frae English. Donald McInnes’s lessons had sunk in, sae A set masel ti read aa the literature in Scots A cud, and tak mair time lissenin ti ma grannie an her fowk.

At this same time, ma brither Harvey hed stertit ti tak an interest in Scots, pittin out his fursten poems in 1966 or 1967. Scots wis his chosen medium, and eftir graduatin frae Dundee University, whaur he immersed hissel in the literatures o Scotland, he began ti publish original an tentilie-craftit poetry. His example, an his weill-wrocht and metrically intricate wark, these wir aye an inspiration ti me: he showed uis hou ti mak ma owresettins inti leivin poems, an A honour his memory for that, as for muckle else forby.

A wis kittled ti owreset inti Scots in 1980. Whan A wis an undergraduate i the seiventies, A cudna veisit China acause o the soss an sotter of the sae-cried Cultural Revolution, sae A spent the fower year o ma MA course readin pre-modern fiction an drama, an tho we read a whein o poetry tae, we read a couple o novels in extenso, an the ane A likit best wis Shuihu Zhuan . A wis fair browdent on yon beuk, but A fund the English owresttins awfu puir, an A stertit ti wunner cud A dae’t better. A ettlt at it in English, but English wis stechie an unbowsome for a mediaeval reivin tale, the fursten maisterwark o vernacular Chinese, a beuk at uises a leid that’s souple, fresh, an new-farrant. Yin nicht in our hous in Gattonside, A wis tellin this tale ti my fursten wife Monika Dunlop, and she says “Weill, ye’ve spent a puckle years readin aa ye can fin in Scots, so hou no try’t in Scots?” A swithered: A’d never been learnt ti write Scots, hed never written it, didna ken cud A or no, an siclike thing. But the neisten day A sat doun at the typewriter, an the first paragraphs juist fair fell onti the page. A hedna kent A cud dae this, an the match wi the skirl o the colloquial language in the original was that neat, A wis fair amazed and delytit wi’t. Whan A’d the fursten chapter feinisht, A sent copies o my saicont draft to John Scott and Bill Dolby. Bill, whae hed owreset Chinese poetry inti Welsh, was in sic a lowe wi’t, he gaed breingin affhaun doun Buccleuch Place ti the office o the literary quarterly Cencrastus, an straight-aff the editor, Glenn Murray, greed ti serialise ma Men o the Mossflow. A’d gotten ma stert: A wis an owresetter!

See what can befaa ye, an ye lift a wee beukie aff a library shelf?




(1) Kent as The Water Margin, All Men Are Brothers, or Outlaws of the Marshes in its English owresettins. Jacques Dars’ Au bord de l’eau is the best yin A ken, tho.

(2) Tho some chapters o ma Men o the Mossflow cam out in Cencrastus under Glen Murray an ither editors, as weill as in The Edinburgh Review under Peter Kravitz an Murdo MacDonald, nae publisher hes seen fit ti pit out onie mair o’it. A wee walin o’t can be fund at


• A langer version o this tale in English is ti come out in Spring 2016, when Shearsman Books pits out Staunin Ma Lane, a walin o ma Scots versions o classical Chinese poetry.

Comments (17)

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  1. Jim Gilchrist says:

    Hey Mister Bella-Ed,

    Why fir d’ye no pit Brian Holton’s byline on his rare airticle, An Owresetter’s Tale? (an the screivers’ names on mony ither Bell articles owerby?). I ken weill at it’s Brian, but mony ithers willnae. Gie he man his credit!

    1. Eh? I’m confused. His name’s on the article above? I’m confused. Wouldn’t dream of not giving Brian the credit he deserves.

    2. Brian Holton says:

      Ho Jim!

      Are ye aye ti the fore then? It’s been a guid wee whylie.

      We’d better tak a gless neist month when A’m back hame, h no?


  2. Elizabeth Thomson says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I found a few words a didna ken! I wish I could remember more from childhood; school and the BBC knocked it out of me.

    Thanks Brian.

  3. Angus Coutts says:

    Was that the same Donald McInnes who previously taught English at Watson’s? – I seem to recall that he left to teach in The Borders.

  4. Peter Burnett says:

    I enjoyed this nippock o history, thanks very much – – coincidentally I read Tom Hubbard’s HARVEY HOLTON: BARD, MAKAR, SHAMAN (Fras Publications, 2013) just two nights ago. Harvey is the only poet I have heard of, whose poems have been set to – – yes, knitting.

    More than a few of us had the Scots removed from us a kids, and it’s an amazing feeling, as Brian describes, to find it’s still there, and that it ‘fair falls onti the page’ when we try. Reading it out loud, sounds even better 😉 Cheers Brian.

  5. Alf Baird says:

    Thanks Brian. The three critical components of any nation: the land; the people; the language. Scotland lost them all. We could do with getting them all back.

  6. Doreen Milne says:

    What a wonderful piece. Thank you, Brian, you have started me on a journey.

  7. Fay Kennedy says:

    How uplifting. Even though I struggle with some of it thanks to the demonising of speaking Glaswegian as a wee lassie. I agree with the comments that land language and pride go hand in hand for a better Scotland for all.

  8. Hamish Dhu OZ calling says:

    Thanks for that Brian, as I read it something occurred to me, although I had emigrated from Scotland as a boy and now speak with an Australian accent, when thinking or having a conservation with myself I communicate in my former old Scots vernacular.
    Something I had never thought about until I read for me, your emotional and stimulating contribution, much appreciated.
    And to Alf, the land is never lost it remains as distinctive as ourselves, it just awaits it’s people to awaken and remove the devious constraints that have been woven around her beautiful form.
    And in gratitude she will reward her people mightily.

  9. bill telfer says:

    Brilliant Brian! Gie’s mair o this an’ mebbe less o your recipes on FB! When’ll i next sei ee in the Muckle Toon?

  10. Matt Seattle says:

    Whit a fine surprise tae sei ee here Brian! Mair pow’r tae ye, an tae the Scots leid in aa its weys.

  11. lawrence says:

    Great to see scots promoted this way but it highlights for me the need for a standardised dictionary/reference point for scots, as some of the words I’d never heard before and when I searched online was unable to find them, there are numerous online translators and dictionaries each with there own spelling. I found the same when I was learning Cantonese, compared to mandarin were the Chinese government has standardised the phonetics Cantonese is all over the place (a real pain) so the only way to learn is face to face with a native speaker.

    1. Mark Ó Domhnaill says:

      Lawrence, I agree with your comment on the need for a standardised Scots. I have recently started a project to do just this. I have created a standardised form of spelling named SSS which stays true to pronounciation and a Scots dictionary will be written for the spelling system. If you’re interested to find out more I have created a Facebook group specifically to discuss Scots spelling

      1. Michael Everson says:

        A unified orthography is difficult. I say this having published “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” in nine dialects of Scots…

  12. Matt Seattle says:

    The glory of written Scots is that it is not fixed into a single spelling because it’s not a single way of speaking. Even within Shetland, Northeast, Border, etc. pronunciation is different fae toun tae toun, whitfor wad ye want tae screive it jist the yin wey? Whit’s wrang wi diversity?

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