Equating being English with being Educated
After the Protestant (or Presbyterian) Reformation in Scotland in 1560 education was treated as a first-class citizen, and by the mid-17th century Scottish law required that every parish must have a school and that all children must attend. By the 18th century Scotland had the highest literacy rates in Europe.
And despite this, by the start of the 20th century Scotland was, insofar as the learned classes were concerned, embarrassed by its indigenous language. As Gibbon wrote of his protagonist, Chris Guthrie, in the novel Sunset Song
…two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk, and learning was brave and fine
The novel places a great emphasis on the conflicting interplay between these dual aspects of the central character, the “English Chris” who dreams of becoming a teacher, and the “Scotch Chris” who is interminably drawn to work on the land. Pivotal to this novel is the theme of change (in fact, Chris Guthrie is the personification of transience), and the effect of this upon the countryside, peoples’ lives and not least the language is raised several times:
Rob was just saying what a shame it was that folk should be shamed nowadays to speak Scotch
Despite this, the novel is largely written in plain English and its author, although born in the north-east of Scotland, wrote it while living in an affluent commuter town outside London, to which he’d moved in order to get ahead in journalism.
Even the bard of Scottish literature, Robert Burns, whose birthday, I suspect, is more important to Scots than St. Andrew’s Day, mostly wrote his poems in an accented speech, and yet he frequently used English to highlight the greater issues. If you’re not already familiar with this poem, how many of you can discern to whom or what Burns is addressing in this, the opening stanza to one of his most well-loved poems:
Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, whit a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need’na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!
Before frightening off non-Scots readers, Burns quickly makes his point in the second stanza using plain English:
I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
He is, of course, addressing a mouse, “On turning her up in her nest, with the plough, November, 1785”.
Plundering the past
Burns was championed by Walter Scott who, at that time, was the most popular writer in the English-speaking world and who was arguably largely responsible for a revival of all things now considered as Scottish: tartan and kilts, whisky, the rugged romanticism of the highlands and its drovers; he recovered our lost crown jewels and organised the first visit of a British monarch to Scotland in over 150 years (and is therefore seen as reversing the trend over the previous 50-100 years). Scott was also a great collector of Scottish folk tales, poems and songs but unlike Burns Scott wrote in plain English, deviating to a dialect only when he wished a character to use it for effect. Rather than using his native tongue for writing, Scott used the more widespread, accepted tongue and then punctuated it with the vernacular almost like someone referring to a friend in conversation.
Similarly, Burns was also an avid gatherer of folk songs and poems, and most likely modified an existing song to create Auld Lang Syne. Many readers of this article will recognise the melody of this song, and probably also the title, yet probably far fewer could recite any of the lyrics; and although the title seems largely incomprehensible to a non-Scots speaker, 90% of the lyrics are actually in plain English.
As I’ve explained, Burns happily wrote in both dialect and plain English, frequently in the same poem or song. Perhaps he implemented dialect for his more social passages in an effort to engage his fellow farm-workers, but he certainly had no qualms about using English and if he perceived it as an alien tongue (Burns was an ardent Scottish nationalist) then it certainly didn’t stand in the way of his procuring it to get his point across.
Whaur’s Wullie? Probably at school
In fact, excluding pre-19th century poems or the deliberately-misspelt English that Irvine Welsh uses, the only time I’ve seen Scots written down is in a cartoon in a Sunday newspaper printed in Glasgow. Each week the Sunday Post carries two cartoons written very much in the vernacular. One of these, The Broons follows a family, the Browns, and the other, Oor Wullie, follows a young boy, the eponymous ‘Willie’. Each Christmas that year’s collected cartoons are published as a book and is still enormously popular. I can avidly recall a degree of glee and even rebelliousness when reading these cartoons as a youngster: here was printed material written in the same dialect that I spoke outside of school. The dialect was authentically Modern Scots, but in recent years this has been watered down somewhat. The versions that I read even as recently as the 1980s would have required a glossary for non-Scots but sadly, like every other printer and speaker of the Scottish word, it seems that the Sunday Post has decided to adhere to the Scottish Education Department’s guidelines and have given Wullie an education.
I’m left wondering who has benefitted.
nothing, it has been said, is true but change
Cover image via Pexels (CC0)