Scottish Twitter, Scottish Protest
When a pro-windpower, anti-nuclear protest sign that personally insults Donald Trump in Scots is on the front page of a national (in fact The National) newspaper, it constitutes a distinctively Caledonian resistance to the ‘fake tanned fanny.’
Our contribution is not only that of elaborate yet direct insults, although, especially given Trump’s easy-bruising prize-peach ego, that’s hardly worthless. However, the complex of causes expressed in just one placard demonstrate the axial place Scotland occupies in the global defiance of Orange Menace. Equally, and perhaps even more importantly, it situates some of the most significant issues facing Scotland, as a nation, in a firmly international context. And it does so through a medium, the Scots language, that has recently been experiencing an unexpected kind of renaissance: the phenomenon of ‘Scottish Twitter.’
There’s a Scottish Tweets compilation account, of course, but, if you Google the phrase, the omniscient suggestion box will nudge you towards Buzzfeed, whose listicles like 54 of the Funniest Scottish Tweets of 2016 finds one entry asking, ‘@policescotland hi guys just a quick question, is it legal or illegal to slide tackle a goth?’ perhaps prompted by the reflection that ‘Police brutality in america is fucking awful man polis in scotland probably flip coins for who’s chapping the door and who’s dain the talkin.’ As for the impact of the carrier bag charge, one user wrote ‘Can live wi paying 5p for one but am sick of having to fuckin light the beacons of Gondor to summon someone anytime I want a bag in Asda’, while on the subject of the general election, it was observed that ‘Voting no and greeting at Tory government is like grassing yer da for shaggin the neighbour then greeting when he gets flung out aff yer maw’
More important, even, than the properly legal way to tackle a goth, though, is the question, ‘Here is there like “German Twitter” or “Italian Twitter” where mad euro cunts are firin out hilarious spaghetti bolognese patter?’
The answer is, obviously, no.
There are some broad characteristics that distinguish Scottish Twitter from other online subcultures. The swearing is probably the most obvious. It’s probably also the least surprising to any Scot. Even to a native, however, what’s striking is seeing these words actually written out, without the tasteful veil of winking asterisks to count out the unpronounceable letters. We do swear a lot, in terms of profanity-per-sentence. It’s used as much as punctuation as it is for emphasis: a rhythmic device that renders the Scots language as staccato and syncopated as the (particularly Lowland) accent. Its less-than-demure language is only confrontational to those with a mind to be offended. If Scottish Twitter is swearing at anything in particular, it’s only against anyone who would be so patronising as to use the word ‘scatological.’
Thus reintegrated, the full vocabulary of Scots speech can render the tonality of its spoken music in written form. That form is itself the subject of meta-comment in the form of quizzes like Are You A Fluent Scottish Twitter Speaker? Although it’s perhaps disproportionately influenced by the Glasgow patter, what can make this corner of the internet particularly confounding, however, especially for non-digital natives, however, is its departure from standard written Scots. Gone are the glottal-stop-denoting apostrophes. Cannae has mutated into canny. The influence of text-speak is obvious in the contraction of mad wi’ it to mwi.
It’s easy to blame Twitter’s character limit for this move towards concision. Nevertheless, it can also be considered in more organic terms, as a language being (re)claimed by its speakers. In a forum free from the constraints of any kind of formality or structure beyond that of basic intelligibility, a kind of spontaneous Scots, more closely tied to its real daily use, is being rendered. Most Scots speakers tend not to write in the Mither Tongue, and, when they do, they have to think very hard about whether, for example, the second vowel in the word ‘Mither’ should be ‘i’ or ‘e’. Standardised Scots is often popularly associated with the poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid or the New Testament translation of William Lorimer: an artistic or scholarly pursuit. However, the technological sea-change of universal mobile phone and internet usage has shifted daily communication more towards written media. Looking at the utilitarian orthography of Scottish Twitter, one can wonder if the older formal standards are something of a transliteration, inscribing foreignness in its grammatical caveats. Denuded of these accoutrements, written Scots is being democratised in an unprecedented fashion.
This, then, is the real power of this online phenomenon: the startling experience of seeing the world communicated in intimately familiar terms. For the Scots speaker, there is always an alienation inherent in written English, in the (sooner-or-later unconscious) decision not to use certain words or constructions that you probably wouldn’t repress when speaking. To see those words rather than simply to hear them makes the sphere of public possibility so much wider. Narrowing the gulf between oor ain voice and popular discourse brings citizenship home. Simultaneously, it also claims space in the forum for Scots as Scots, both nationally and linguistically.
The distinctiveness of Scottish Twitter’s culture is inherently organic in nature, rather than being the product of romanticisation or conservation. Grounded in a common language, it is also loosely aligned in certain attitudes and preoccupations: the absurdity of the everyday, the highs and lows of the party life, and the puncturing of pretension. Together, these begin to coalesce into a grassroots expression of identity. It’s likely no accident that Twitter has become its medium: its chaotically accessible, fundamentally horizontal structure chimes with Caledonian egalitarianism. It’s condensed form, too, is a perfect vehicle for the particular value placed, in Scottish culture, on the perfectly turned, pithy, phrase, and the scattershot back-and-forth of the patter.
The atomisation of Twitter has another effect: in rendering rhetoric into 140-character artefacts, it has enabled the meme-ification of the gems of this corner of the internet. Viral units, they are transmitted, with a life of their own, through the virtual world. Just as ‘British humour’ has exported and expounded a specific identity and set of values to the wider world, so can an identifiable online discourse communicate an – albeit-unsubtle – version of Scottish identity. Moreover, while it might seem asinine to suggest that tweets about ‘getting wee Alan to fit into a Kopparberg box’ make a powerful ambassador for the spirit of a beleaguered nation, the surprising paradox here is that, in its embrace of everyday localism, Scottish Twitter manages to elide the parochialism that is often risked by more self-consciously nationalistic efforts. In unselfconsciously and shamelessly doing questionable things while drunk and grumbling about pensioners with the words ‘aww yes boil me alive Agnes beat me wae a ladle n call me lentil soup,’ it has nothing to prove, but is nonetheless immediately identifiable.
This kind of visible Scottishness for the internet age has, moreover, become pressingly relevant. The memes have migrated from Twitter into the material world, onto placards and protests signs, images of which have themselves gone native online. In Donald Trump, the resurgent Scots tongue has found its natural enemy – and like all the best enemies, he’s an Auld Enemy.
When Trump flew to Scotland post-Brexit and pre-White House to promote his carbuncle of a golf course, he was greeted with outrage, scorn, and a wide range of creatively elaborate and devastatingly specific insults on Twitter. In person, he was met with numerous protesters, armed with signs calling him a bawbag, was presented with swastika-emblazoned golf balls, and had his ‘hair’ interrogated by a static-charged balloon. Although we hadn’t quite got around to building the windfarms that offend his delicate aesthetic sense, a Mexican flag was flown in full view of his resort in the hopes of achieving a similar effect. Recent post-election protests in the cities have continued the trend, producing a broad and memorable vocabulary of insult and dissent that is characteristically Scottish: Ye cannae shove yer Muslims off the bUS.
The ebullient carnival of Scottish resistance to Trump is not only perpetuating the viral work of Twitter; it is also transposing it into a new key. The organic voices of individual Scots respond in chorus to the man who is, like it or not, currently the global centre of gravity.The ground-level visibility possible in the internet age enables this very local pageant of protest to occur on an international stage. No longer hamstrung by the geographical or linguistic preciousness of a largely London-based media, the voices of ordinary Glaswegians, Dundonians and Invernesians are now as accessible as that of the second-generation half-Lewisman currently embarrassing us all from his squat in Washington DC. The particular solidarity our nation of thrawn underdogs can offer to the persecuted is no longer filtered or compromised, but, untranslated, is now transmitted large as life in all its distinctiveness.
However, this is not only a national response to an international issue. Scots have been fighting Trump for a long time. We’re not just part of the Trump narrative that has now swept the world into its dragnet: we were its prequel. We’ve engaged his particular brand of narcissism before, and we’ve even had some small amount of picturesque success. There is perhaps nowhere else on earth than can so decisively reject the now-president’s poisonous brand of romanticised nativism, his pretension to speak for ‘ordinary’ people, and his almost-adamantine self-regard.
It’s not something that has gone unnoticed across the Atlantic. Recently, Daily Show alumna Samantha Bee sent an (English) correspondent to Aberdeen and Edinburgh to learn from The Original Trump Haters. The stubborn resistance of farmer Michael Forbes forms the (subtitled) centrepiece of a narrative of bullying, government complicity, and broken promises (that were never believed in the first place) being resisted with unimpressed contempt, creativity, pranks, and a parliamentary committee laughing in his face. Asked to offer advice to a country finding itself in a battle metaphorically similar to his own, Forbes answers, ‘An arsehole’s always an arsehole. Just keep pissin’ him off and he’ll crack up. He’ll end up in a padded cell.’
We had the measure of him first. Trump’s bullying bluster is calculated to arouse Scottish scorn and, along with it, our most profound and dextrous leveller: humour. We realised ten years ago that there’s no point in engaging a man who acts as his own echo-chamber: solipsists don’t have ears. With a twin emphasis on ridiculing his herculean self-regard while offering practical as well as moral support to those in his crosshairs, the response to and defiance of Trump presents international onlookers with a taste of our particular politics and values.
Our story, however, is more than a plucky echo of the American one. The specific grounds of revolt against the Turnberry tyrant encompass many of the vital themes that animate Scottish politics: land ownership, renewable energy, and the disproportionate power wielded by the wealthy. The placard featured on the front page of The National was more than just a protest: it was a manifesto. In the Trump era, the distinctive concerns of Scotland chime intimately with the broader themes of global politics.
Self-determination is now more than a purely internal matter; it is part of a broader struggle, and can be introduced the world as such, and expressed, without translation or mediation, in our own words. Alongside the skewed aphorisms and the surreal snapshots of the previous night’s session on the town shared on Twitter, a new language of resistance is being formed. In the fundamental self-assertion of its being spoken at all, that language is, in some sense, the root of resistance itself.
Scotland is sending out memes like they’re midges, and they’re sinking their teeth into the most powerful man in the world. Tweeting our own language, we become visible as Scots in a worldwide context. Resisting Trump, we are distinctively Scottish on the world stage.