A Scots Language Primer

339371_10150956601888300_1416585463_oBilly Kay’s 6 part archive series on the history of Scots, The Scots Tongue is currently being broadcast on Radio Scotland. A new seventh programme will be added to bring the story up to date.

The Scots Tongue spiers whit the future hauds for the mither tongue o ower a million an a hauf Scots fowk in the 21st centurie, fowk like you that micht speak the leid ilkae day, but hae nae kennin o ocht belangin the braw leiterature or gowden history o the langage. I wad be gleg tae haud forrit scrievin tae ye in Scots, but jalouse that maist o ye wad finnd it a sair chave tae follae whit I am threapin on aboot, as gey few Scots are leiterate in their ain leid …sae like Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song I’ll gae ower tae English…

“…you wanted the words they’d known and used, forgotten in the faroff youngness of their lives, Scots words to tell to your heart, how they wrung it and held it, the toil of their days and unendingly their fight. And the next minute that passed from you, you were English, back to the English words so sharp and clean and true for a while, for a while, till they slid so smooth from your throat you knew they could never say anything that was worth the saying at all.”

Personally, I am delighted that my second language is English – as a lingua franca in the world today, it is a perfect medium of communication. But, I know the power and pathos of Scots and I want future generations to be bi-lingual in Scots and English, or Gaelic and English in the Highlands, so that like me they find it easier to learn other languages and communicate confidently with the world.

There’s still a lot of ignorance out there. A member of the Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Scots once asked a Scottish Executive Minister if he had received the bi-lingual invitation to come to a meeting of the Group and received the reply, “Oh, that thing, with the funny writing. Yes, I threw it in the bin”! When I hear stories like that and feel alienation from my fellow countrymen, I remember

Hugh MacDiarmid’s humorous response to the same conundrum…

“Mercy o’ Gode, I canna thole
wi sic an orra mob to roll”
“Wheesht! It’s for the guid o your soul.”
It micht be for the guid o my soul, I’m jist no shuir whit it’s daein tae ma heid!

However, to paraphrase another wonderful poet who was also steeped in the great Scots ballad tradition… the times they are a changin!

In the early 2000’s there was a debate anent a Census question on Scots, the idea was treated with disdain and ridiculed by many in the main three unionist parties who voted against the idea en masse. In the 2011 Census however, there was a question on Scots and the whole parliament responded positively to the proposal.

There are now Scots Language Co-ordinators in the schools, a Scots Scriever, Hamish MacDonald based at the National Library of Scotland, Scots Ambassadors promoting the language such as singers Robyn Stapleton and Sheena Wellington, as well as yours truly. I end the final programme ends with these words:

Scotland maun cherish an haud deir its native leids gin we’re tae be ocht ava as a nation. I’ll lea ye wi a wheen veices whae aw howp that as faur as Scots is concerned, MacDiarmid’s prophetic lines will bear the gree in years tae come:

For we hae faith in Scotland’s hidden poo’ers,
The present’s theirs, but a’ the past an future’s oors.

Billy Kay, author, Scots The Mither Tongue

Three programme have already been broadcast, and you can hear them by clicking here


For all of Bella Caledonia’s Scots section click here:


Comments (13)

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  1. Tam says:

    Thanks Billy, I’m loving the series.

    (I’m also, incidentally, enjoying Melvyn Bragg’s current series The Matter of the North (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07q3gjw), which describes similar sorts of linguistic discrimination (e.g. Joan Bakewell on dropping her Northern accent/dialect: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p045zmb8 ). It seems interesting in itself that these documentaries need to be made.)

    I notive in your summary of how “the times they are a changin!” you seem to have intentionally focussed on changes by officialdom, but there also seems to be a flowering of Scots media and culture, including for example newsprint, publishing, theatre, and Scots Radio (http://www.scotsradio.com). It seems amazing to me that RadioScotland/the BBC can produce a program on the existence of Scots, but then not make provisions for it to be part of regular broadcasting (which they already do for Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland). You’d think given the that precedent and the polling that says people in Scotland don’t feel their lives are well-represented by BBC programming, they would show some initiative on this.

    I was wondering… do you know if the National Library of Scotland ever done an exhibition on Scots? I was looking at their past exhibitions and I couldn’t see one devoted to it.

    I’ve been to a couple of exhibitions there and they often tell a story through the display of books, information boards, and media… an exhibition on the story of Scots from early origins to the present day would make a great and timely exhibition… and given that they mainly display books, it’s a perfect exhibition for them. It would mix a bit of history on the peoples/languages of early Scotland/Britain, how languages actually change and evolve (and get added to by immigration), relevant history on power/language/religion/writing in Scotland, some sociolinguistics on historical & current attitudes to Scots, modern developments both in terms of social media, politics, policy, publishing, etc. Ending with alternative possible futures. And physically illustrated by books or texts from down the ages right up to The Mither Tongue, TinTin and But n Ben A-Go-Go. (mibbe it’s been done and I missed it!)

    1. Haideng says:

      I’ve been listening to both also, and both are very good. The Bragg on the North is really insightful – I’ve often thought that it’s not Scotland that needs to assert it’s identity more against England (already does ok) but for the North of England to assert it’s own identity more against the south – which in turn reinforces Scotland (as the north linguistically and culturally is closer to Scotland). Would be a more interesting challenge to the cultural hegemony of the South (not that folk in the South of England are to blame. It’s just the result of 18th 19th and 20th century nation building and centralisation. \same thing happened all over the world – Italy, Germany, Japan, India etc).

      Linguistically it seems, the division in English occured somewhere around the Humber with the northern languages including Scots following a different path to their southern counterparts.

      But interesting stuff.

      1. Haideng says:

        Although a friend of mine was complaining about the proliferation of type of Scots in Scottish national life, not because he was opposed to it but because he’s from the Aberdeenshire and speaks a very different Doric to that which gets published in the national and central belt. Suppose the problem with promoting Scots as a language in classrooms and in media is that it becomes standardised like English and can’t help but discriminate against other tongues. He goes mental every time he here’s the words ‘Wean’ and not ‘bairn’ used for example, or wheesht, or gallus, or frae not fae etc, but never loon or quine, far, divent, briks or breeks, deem or dame, fecht, feart etc.

        1. Billy Kay says:

          Thanks, tell your pal that that the most recent programme
          is all about the Doric, and a great north east Scots speaker in
          Duncan Muirden, a fairmer fae Clatt/

      2. Billy Kay says:

        I too have always thought that knowledge of Scots could liberate
        speakers of the northern dialects of English…show them what can be achieved
        in non standard English literature. Mrs Gaskell did it well, but she had Scots connections

    2. Billy Kay says:

      I will pass on this suggestion to the Learning team at the NLS. With the Scots Scriever
      Hamish MacDonald in position, I know they are keen to highlight their extensive Scots language material. Great idea

  2. Colin MacGregor says:

    Colonialism, that’s the short and long of it!

    I have bee watching several programmes recently on the way European Canadians eradicated indigenous people’s culture. In Canada.

    First they went for the language then important aspects of culture that defined who the people were. They then separated kids from parents and standardised education to European ways, callously leaving the kids short of an education in both their own or European ways.

    Pretty disgusting!

    That Scots were involved in this crime, should make us give good cause for thought and reflection!

    BUT, the same tactics have used on Sxotland for the past 300 years. And still we won’t bow our heads!

    Culture and language are wonderful and defining characteristics, if we loose them we loose everything including our souls and country!

    Fight to save Gaelic, Doric and Scots from those who would take them away for the greater good of britain!

  3. Alf Baird says:

    Cliver fowk in hie airts micht haiver a’ thay want. Trowth be telt, Scots fowk are willintly haud doun, bi thon state offeecials, schuils, meeja/BBC, toun cooncils an sleek-gabbit elected politeecians wha aw connogue tae kep Scots fowk an bairns frae lairnin their ain leid. Strowth, if us Scots fund oot we haed wir ain leid, we’d shuirly want wir ain naition bak anaw, dam swith tae. So, a unionist ‘Establishment’ /elite conspeeracy, thon’s whit it is! As Colin abuin argies, we’re a colonie so whit shuid onybody expect.

    Remedy? Plain as parritch, a ‘Scots Language (Scotland) Act’ (e’en-haundit wi Gaelic anaw!!). Nocht less is wirth batherin aboot. Itherwise – tell it like it is – cultural discrimination/cultural racism by oor unionist maisters will conteena.

  4. Alison Lindsay says:

    As a member of our National Library I love the idea of Tim’s event .

    Put this idea directly to the Library staff, Tim, as suggested by Billy. Obviously this would take time to research and plan: programmes are planned well in advance of presentation. Good to see this by next year?

  5. Alf Baird says:

    “There are now Scots Language Co-ordinators in the schools, a Scots Scriever, Hamish MacDonald based at the National Library of Scotland, Scots Ambassadors….”

    Crums aff oor Unionist maisters tableau, ma freend.

    What is needed above all else is a ‘Scots Language Act’ (as with the ‘Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act ‘ 2005/£50m spend a year), and to similarly provide for:

    – Scots language teachers in schools and Scots language firmly on the curriculum
    – Scots Language degree courses in our universities
    – Scots Language Broadcaster
    – Scots Language Board (to ensure all the above is implemented)
    – Scots Language Budget – £250m+/year

    This budget could partly be provided for by reducing some of the intensive/unncessary ‘English’ taught in schools. Such a strategy would in turn render English as our ‘administrative’ language, as in many other countries and particularly ex colonies. This is what our ‘Language Minister’ and Culture Minister should be doing, if they really respected the Scots language and the right to equal treatment.

  6. Graeme Purves says:

    Gat a gliff on Sunday fan A turned on the wireless an heard ma faither on yer programme!

    1. Billy Kay says:

      A fine chield, an bonnie fechter for Scots

    2. Billy Kay says:

      Guid man an bonnie fechter for Scots.

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