Tak heed! The jottins in aneath are scrievit in Scots – nae the Scots o the early makars, nor the Lallans o MacDiarmid. Gin it’ll gar ye greet gin this is nae the wey you’d scrieve it, or girn far there’s a ‘f’ an you’d hae pitten a ‘wh’ or a ‘quh’, then STOP NOU! There, ye’ve been telt! For there’s mair nor the ae wey tae use Scots the day. Tae monie o us it’s the local idiom abeen the graimmar an vocabular that maks the language a ‘leid’. But flytins ower fit we spik, an fit tae cry it, gings back a lang wey.
In 1596 Father James Dalrymple owersett Bishop John Leslie’s The Historie of Scotland fae Latin intil Scots. Fit we learned fae Dalrymple wes this: “Thay quha this day with vs speik the ald Scottis toung [..] thay have keipet the toung hail Vncorrupte”. The issue o corruption o the language is ane tae tak tent o. Bein sib tae English, fowk aft tak the notion at Scots maun be English “ill-spoken”. But lang afore David Hume raxed his hairns for weys tae be mair civil an decreyed the speech o Lowland Scotland, some fae England thocht mair o the leid nor he. As Yorkshireman Henry Saville scrievit in 1604, gin Scotland an England wedd thegither as ae kingdom, it wuid help the English reverse the corruption o their speech:
“The Scots and North People of England speak more incorruptly than the south [which speech] is become more mingled and degenerate from the ancient tounge, as will easily appear to him that shall compare the two dialects with the German, mother of them both”
But fit did Saville ken o languages? An Oxford graduate an scholar o Greek, Saville wes ane o the chiels at owersett the King James version of the bible. Aince based in the Netherlands, he wes versed in a nummer o the Germanic leids. Fit is mair, he’d baith heard the claik o the Court o King James, an doubtless read the warks o William Dunbar, Robert Henryson, Walter Kennedy an Gavin Douglas. Indeed, he kent mair anent the Scots leid nor monie fowk in Scotland the day, especially fowk sic as Lord Robertson or Alex Massie. Thir fowk are amun a bing o unfriens o Scots – culture an language deniers – lately haudin forrit at nae sic a leid exists.
Truth be telt, A’m dumfoonert bi the fankle fowk are getting thirsels in ower this stramash. Ae quine in Edinburgh (fa wes “working class” divent ya ken!), an some cove fae Ullapool scrievit tae the papers an telt us their truth. Ye see, neither they, nor their kith nor kin spik Scots, an sae, wi unco authority they’ve adjudged at it disnae exist. “Nobody speaks like that” says wir unfriens “because I do not speak it, it cannot exist”. Are thir fowk nae mair nor threipin vilipendars? Ye see, this isnae the first time A’ve been telt there’s nae sic a thing as Scots, an doubtless, it’ll nae be the last. Sae a feel A maun interpone.
In 1996 A dargit on a socio-linguistics project tae forgaither data on fou monie fowk either spoke, read or micht scrieve in Scots. A followed the EU model o quota-samplin, spierin 450 fowk bi age, gender an social status. Afore this wark, gin a chiel micht ettle tae ken fou muckle fowk in Scotland kent Scots, we had nithin but haivers. Some fowk said ilka chiel in Scotland spoke Scots, fylst ithers said nane did ava. An fyles, aa nummers in atween were pitten aroun as fowk preferred. The results o ma darg gied oot at somewey near twa million fowk in Scotland could ay spik or scrieve in ane o the Scottish dialects. “Dinna be feel” A wes telt, “at canna be richt!”. Fit we’d shawin wes at the aulder the age group the mair fowk spoke Scots, but in particular at the North East of o Scotland an the Northren Isles wes heartlands wi weel abeen 50% o the population claimin fluency.
A copy o ma wark landed on the desk o Ian Mate fae the General Register Office for Scotland (GROS). Ian wesna fashed the ae wey or the ither about Scots afore this, but he spiert us gin A wuid ging doun tae Edinburgh an deliver ma research tae a clique o government fowk. This A did. They preined back their lugs; an ane or twa gied a snort o derision – ithers teen tent o the scientific approach. Ian hissel thocht tae pit ma wark tae the proof in twa weys. Thousans o fowk were spiert bi telephone anent their use or itherweys o Scots. The results surprised the GROS, for, like monie fowk nae versed in the dialects o the airts o Scotland, they thocht at the wey they spoke maun be the ae wey for ilkanither chiel in the land. But tae mak siccar o fit he wes learnin, Ian ettled tae tak us on a journey the length o Scotland “in search of the soul of the nation” he aince said. An sae a group o socio-linguists an GROS staff recorded hunners o face-tae-face interviews across the Lowlands an the Northeast o Scotland.
In ilka forgaitherin we claikit in English, Scots an a maxtur o baith (an jist the aince A spoke Gaelic wi an auld chiel fae Skye). Fyles A haed tae translate fae Scots intae English for the GROS staff. A wesna surprised at yon aince we landed in Aberdeenshire. But fit gied me a linguistic fleg wes twice haen tae ging the ither wey – owersettin fae English intae Scots – sae as fowk micht unnerstand fit they’d been spiert. Baith times wes on the Buchan coast, an the GROS team wes sae teen bi ane o the aulder fowk at we let the tape recorder ging ere she’d telt us aa she’d needed tae. Fae her we learned o the physical skelpin’s she’d teen fae teachers keen tae unlearn the wee quine her native Buchan dialect. Fan A spiert gin this wes fitwey she’d nae spik tae Ian in English she gied a grin an said it wes just she’d nae spoken English in near 40 year.
Ilka interview wes recorded; ilka ane transcrievit an pit in the public domain. An the ootcome o the exercise? The GROS report (1996) concluded at ma nummers for spikkers fae the year afore wes near bang on. It wes estimate near 1.6 million spak Scots as their mither tongue. Sae efter twa systematic surveys, baith gied near the same result. An there’s the differ atween the vilipendars an the GROS; research wes deen, pit tae the proof an sustained. Then the big ane; the government spiert anent Scots ability on the census in 2010. Ilka househald in Scotland wes spiert anent Scots wi the same results returned – aince mair. The heartlands in ilka survey is ay the North East an the Northern Isles wi strang enclaves in Fife, the Borders an Ayrshire.
Nou, A’m nae ane o yon chiels at ettles tae suffer Scots upon thir fowk at dinna want it. But dinna tell me it disnae or didna exist, for tae me it clearly daes. But richt there is the crux; Scots is nae unlike Schrödinger’s Cat – a language at baith exists or disnae exist in the ae kist at the ae time – it depends on far ye bide, fit ye’ve read an fou open yer lugs an heid are tae learnin. Tae them at say there’s nae sic a thing as Scots, they micht try tae keik intae the kist afore they gie oot onie mair gypit haivers. For inside lies a thousan years o literature, scrievins, poetry an sang, forby screids an screids o research tae gie the leid the proof. Massie et al michtna like it, but that disnae mean it isna there. Nou the thing is, are they feart or sweirt tae keik intae the kist?
Steve Murdoch is Professor o Historie, University o Sanct Aundraes