Afraid of our own voices

by | 30 May 2022

Why is Scotland so persistently afraid to accept that we have a distinct, important literary tradition? Why are we so afraid of our own language?

I spent Saturday evening in the company of Braw Clan. It is a new-created Scots-language theatre company and their debut performance was a reading of a new play by Martin Travers (it was a great night). That and a conversation I had last week left me pondering a simple question – how is Braw Clan the first Scots-language-specialist theatre company?

I would consider myself to be a Scots speaker. I’m a long way from being an expert on more archaic Scots language and if reading MacDiarmid or Robert Fergusson then yes, I’ll be referring to a glossary from time to time.

But I’ve never had a conversation in Scots I couldn’t follow completely (even if the dialects of the North East or Scottish Borders can be unfamiliar to me). I very much think of Scots as a living language and one I have always been comfortable in.

So why is this seen as controversial? How was Scots language turned into a kind of Scottish ‘culture wars’ issue? Or perhaps more relevantly, how did we get into the latest phase of that culture war?

We saw it in response to Billy Kay addressing the Scottish Parliament in Scots which picked up a (for me) inexplicable backlash. But there will be few of us Scot speakers of any age who have not been chastised in a classroom, workplace or law court for answering ‘aye’ where the perceived correct pronunciation is ‘yes’.

I grew up in a place where Scots dialect words were routine. Of course you put your hands up your jukes to keep them warm, your bedroom alternated between cowp and midden and it all left your maw scunnered.

But more than that, by chance a group of teachers at my school were very interested in the two Scottish literary renaissances and so we studied poems by Norman MacCaig, Edwin Morgan and Hugh MacDiarmid.

I remember thinking that was normal, that everyone did it, that everyone had read Scots poetry beyond Burns. I also assumed that it would have got much better since then. So it was with some dismay that I sat through the Q&A after the performance on Saturday night.

Young people in the audience had simply not been exposed to the body of Scottish literature at school. If they had read any bits and pieces then they seemed to be treated as isolated works, not part of a tradition.

What kind of self-respecting culture requires four renaissances in a century to start to feel that its own language is worthy of serious respect?

This reflected the conversation I had earlier in the week about arts policy in Scotland. For reasons which are beyond me, it almost seems as if Scotland is dead set against developing a canon of Scots literature and exposing people in Scotland to it. Kidnapped is fun, Burns is ubiquitous and MacDiarmid is difficult and controversial.

But they’re not presented as linked, as part of a literary history. It is perhaps therefore no surprise that Scotland’s culture sometimes seems to be a kind of trench warfare between renaissance and decline, remembering and then forgetting again.

If you’re not familiar with the last 100 years of this tradition, a small group of writers galvanised by the figure of Christopher Grieve (soon to become Hugh MacDiarmid) challenged a generation of belief that ‘you don’t write art in Scots’. This group defiantly did create art in Scots and when one of the younger members of the group (James Leslie Mitchell, then to become Lewis Grassic Gibbon) wrote a book (Sunset Song) that went on to become very popular, it went mainstream.

And yet the Second World War and the reinvigorated sense of Britishness it generated slowed progress. Thus it is generally considered that when the next group of Scots writers (Morgan, McIlvanney, Leonard etc) emerged in the 1970s it was considered a second renaissance.

You could argue that that had lost momentum by the late 1990s but then you suddenly see the global impact of the film of Trainspotting (building on a new generations of writers round about Rebel Inc) it looks something like a third renaissance. Perhaps another decade later the period during and after indyref represents another upsurge in Scots.

So this is the question – what kind of self-respecting culture requires four renaissances in a century to start to feel that its own language is worthy of serious respect? I generally avoid too much discussion of whether Scotland was ‘colonised’ or not as it doesn’t strike me as all that helpful a lot of the time, but here it really does seem pertinent. That is what the relationship between a nation and its culture looks like if it is under colonial rule.

There has always been a distinct political element to this. Despite unionist revisionism, Scotland has always been a more precarious member of the union than the narrative about ‘active participants in Empire’ suggests (that was an elite preoccupation) and there has always been a more active home rule or independence movement than is acknowledged.

And so language was a political battlefield. The institutions that were most likely to exclude Scots as a legitimate language were of the establishment and certainly fully bought into the project of Empire. The reaction to Billy Kay shows that dynamic is far from over.

Surely we can’t be so scared, so philistine that we will shy away from art because some political activists go mental on Twitter?

So what is Scotland to do about this? I don’t think I can help with the culture war part of it. I am bemused by culture wars, the process of hating things before you’ve seen or listened to them based on your pre-existing political stance. I have no difficulty whatsoever in enjoying and appreciating art which does not reinforce my own political views (the openly Fascist Ezra Pound remains a wonderful poet).

Scotland is in a battle over what it is, what it will be. I believe that, sooner or later, that battle will resolve itself into Scotland becoming an independent country. Perhaps at that point teaching kids a poem in Scots (other than Burns) will not be controversial.

But until then, surely we can’t be so scared, so philistine that we will shy away from art because some political activists go mental on Twitter if you read it? Surely we’re not going to let the book-burners dictate our cultural future?

And yet it has been increasingly become my view that that is exactly what is happening. It seems to me (and I’m very much not alone) that the Scottish Government has decided that the promotion of a canon of indigenous Scottish literature and art is a provocation to unionists it wishes to avoid. It is certainly doing a good job of avoiding it.

This is doubly depressing – if a ‘nationalist’ government won’t take the truly non-controversial step of recognising and celebrating the fact that it serves a nation which has a truly wonderful indigenous tradition of singing, writing and painting, who will?

I struggle to get my kids to pick up Scots vocabulary, influenced as they are by the Americanisms of YouTube (and to be fair, as we are a mixed race and multicultural family we do also try to promote their understanding of the Mexican part of their heritage, possibly putting me in a minority).

But I’m the only person they get it from these days. It doesn’t crop up in the school curriculum that I’ve seen so far. I don’t think either of my children has ever learned a poem in Scots. It pains me to write that.

Building some kind of shared literary canon, ‘ten works of Scottish literature everyone should read before they leave school’, would be transformative. It would change a generation’s relationship to their own culture. Personally I’d also have learning parts of our own language as part of the curriculum too – a word a week from P1 onwards perhaps.

I don’t offer any of this as a nationalist view point but as a student of literature who has always loved art. When I travel to other countries for leisure the first thing I do when preparing to go is to find a great piece of literature from the country concerned to take to read when I’m there (two or three more French trips and I’ll get Proust finished…). It’s not the wonder of Scotland I want to celebrate but the wonder of culture, the wonder of language.

But we may still be too scared of it to do what we really ought to do. It certainly feels that way. So until we overcome that fear, that cringe, I can only wish the very best to initiatives like Braw Clan who will fight on and keep the story and future of that culture alive until the rest of us catch them up.

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