I’ve been in Lerwick for a week, researching Scots language dialects for a new performance provisionally entitled Building a Nation which aims to look at the growth of a city (Glasgow) against the backdrop of inter-country migration from various parts of the country, and the impact that has had on our language(s) and ability to communicate, as well as exploring ideas of class, judgement and the infamous Cringe.
Last week, in Orkney, my eyes were opened at the vast difference and complexity of the insular Scots tongue (as it is categorised here) – of how it differs from island to island and how, from generation to generation, there is a sense of erosion and loss.
However as soon as I arrived in Lerwick I felt that there was a linguistic charge in the air. The Shetland dialect is alive and well and it is brilliantly inescapable. Much of this pride and intuition exists in no small part to individuals and groups who actively promote and encourage the use of Shetland dialect in everyday use – one such group being Shetland ForWirds.
The group, in their wirds, aim to ‘foster and promote the use of written and spoken Shetland dialect as a valued and essential element of Shetland’s distinctive heritage and culture.’ I witnessed first hand this incredible devotion in person at a regular meeting conducted entirely in dialect, and was overwhelmed at the interest in my own project. Many members of the group volunteered to have a recorded conversation with me about the story of their voice, and I was welcomed into their homes where I listened to their experiences of growing up speaking a mixture dialect and English, and the impact that has had on them and their understanding of the self.
There were common themes: not being allowed to speak dialect to elders or at school; realisations that one way of speaking was not as acceptable as the other; learning to code switch; influences from the rest of the UK and abroad on the islands; and the future of the dialect. I was amazed at the breadth of experience and insight coming from these participants, and value the importance that these stories have on our understanding of our identities today.
Mary Blance, broadcaster with the BBC, was one of the first professionals to speak dialect on radio, and it was not welcomed with open arms. However, over the years, her efforts have had a positive impact on the representation of Scots language in the mainstream, and this has contributed to the sense of pride that people on Shetland have regarding their midder tongue. Now you’ll hear other broadcasters in Shetland (and Orkney) speaking in dialect and very often councilors, local politicians, business people and commentators will regularly – and confidently – speak on air in their dialect.
I was interested in how this pride in dialect could be fostered for future generations and so I started hanging out with Bruce Eunson, who is Scots language coordinator for Education Scotland and uses his Shetland knowledge to create learning techniques and to promote Scots in schools. One very real issue for teachers around the country is the nebulous state of the language, and how to manage this in the classroom. Bruce advises that ‘Each pupil can choose to codify Scots any way they like as long as they consider it and remain consistent. And then the question of it’s consistency is no different to the lessons of how to spell in English - it reinforces literacy.’
When I asked if this can provide a gateway to enhancing learning, Bruce told me of a recent experience he had in a Sandwick school. Liz Lochhead – outgoing Makar – was visiting Shetland and some pupils had written poetry to show her. Liz instantly picked out a poem written in Shetland dialect and asked if the pupil could read it out. The boy was absent that day, and so Bruce did the honours. He noticed how well written it was: the spelling, the layout, the alliteration, imagery, and narrative. However it transpired that this particular pupil was what Bruce might call (in education terms) a reluctant learner, but one – they realised – who has a real talent for poetry which has manifested from his use of dialect. Or to be more specific: a talent that has transpired because of the opportunity to be allowed to write in dialect.
This pupil came from farming family, and used this to full effect in his poem perhaps because many Shetland dialect words are connected to land, animals, the sea, nature etc (which could also be reason for the decline in these words) but Bruce insists that there is ‘something about the language that resonates with voice: pupils can be more expressive and that’s what I’ve learned from travelling across Scotland. Boys in particular perform better and show increased levels of attainment. Their literacy is re-engaged and so many of them never have the chance to find that because so many teachers don't investigate it. An untapped element of Scottish education is self expression and creative writing and Scots lends itself to that.’
Another connection to Shetland ForWirds, arts worker and playwright Jacqui Clark is also testament to this type of linguistic intervention. Jacqui grew up in a Shetland household and was exposed only to the language of her family. But her early school life in the eighties coincided with the surge of new oil workers from every part of the UK who settled in Shetland and had children, resulting in the growth of non-Shetland teachers. On entering primary school, Jacqui was instantly different from her peers and teacher, and attended extra lessons three days a week to learn to speak proper.
‘I always mind it making me feel like an outcast and it had a big impact on me. Oil workers would come and go and the children were constantly changing. I would have Shetland spoken to me at home but at school I would be hearing anything fae the north of England, Wales, Scotland. So I geographically decided to pitch my voice somewhere in the middle: so I picked Glasgow. And at twelve my dialect was watered doon fae when I was peerie. That changed what my midder tongue would be. Whereas noo I put my hands up in horror at the very thought that that was what I did.’
Bruce has also seen this first hand: ‘There is enough anecdotal evidence to show the language used at home should be utilised more in school as it would be the best one for pupils to express themselves confidently and creatively. There is a wealth of vocabulary that is not currently explored in the classroom to its full potential.’
I wondered about this self-editing, and if this has an effect on confidence and social interaction. Jacqui notes that this experience still leaves her tongue tied when it comes to speaking certain words, especially the choice between the English th and Shetland d.
However, she also notes there is a confidence that comes with bilingualism and the ability of switiching tongues for different situations. Jacqui also talks of her writing:
‘Secondary school English teachers encouraged me to write in the dialect, and I’m Glad they did. It’s the midder tongue that comes to you at the moment of inspiration when writing – it’s more natural but it’s also easier to be creative. Work and study was always English. It’s a different voice – it’s a work voice.’
Bruce and I spoke at length about the question of standardising Scots for the classroom, which again brings up the question which Scots? ‘I’m happy with the idea that someone could take a careful in-depth approach as to how we can standardise Scots but I am not in favour of accepting central belt Scots that mostly gets published getting called Scots language - to me that would be a death nail between relations between regions. Why do we need to have one way to say something?’
Listening to Bruce and Jacqui and Mary; and Tom from Orkney; and Michael from the Scots Language Centre; and all the people I have visited lately – Colin, Christian, Anne, Laureen, Douglas, Jean, Margaret, Billy…one thing they have all presented is a quiet resolve that is entirely unaffected by any political or national(ist) motivations. While hopping from house to house I would regularly check Twitter and see the mock outrage that was unfolding because one newspaper dared to publish a column in Scots. The resulting fallout, the name-calling, the bigotry, the ignorance all pales into insignificance when you hear first hand accounts of the effects of enforced monolingualism on individuals and communities. But here it seems most people are quietly and happily unaware of central belt stooshies on how people should speak. I have not met one person who is banging a drum, who is demanding equality or who is erecting walls. But they are still enforcing change: by continuing to talk in their own way.
I’ll leave it at that. Actually, I’ll leave it to Bruce: ‘Scotland’s pupils now are the generation who can grow up in a world where their local dialect of their home or their Scots is something they can use to their advantage. They can use it in the classroom if they’re a teacher, in a business environment, or an arts environment. The opportunity for them to fully reach their potential is there.'
For the past year, I have been investigating my practice within the realm of the Scots language, and it’s place in contemporary performance and poetry. When I first began writing my own material for performance, including spoken word, I admit that I started with the intention of making people laugh. The Scots I was employing was mainly focused around perceived working class scenarios, fighting, drinking and football. So far, so predictable. However, over the course of my developing practice, I have begun to see the positive use of writing and performing in – not slang, not dialect – but Scots, and my own version of west coast or Glasgow or Urban Scots. Call it what you will. In fact, you’ll find this post littered with examples of various ways to describe one thing – such is the nebulous nature of the Scots language.
During the time of my pervious one man show Theology, I was determined to be more responsible in my presentation of my Scottish voice. No longer interested in comedy for comedy’s sake, and much more aware of my responsibility in representing authentic people and place, my work aimed to elevate our everyday language to a place where it can be respected, celebrated and appreciated. The performance aimed to show that our own way of speaking (whatever that may be) is just as beautiful as any scripture.
Fast forward to 2016 and I’m sitting here in my BnB in Kirkwall, Orkney. Funded by National Theatre of Scotland, I’m visiting various sites of linguistic interest and engaging in recorded conversations with folk around the question of the story of their voice, and what influences the way we speak in Scotland today. I’ll then be visiting Lerwick and later I’ll travel to the Western Isles to capture some Gaelic. These findings will be showcased and staged at a Glasgow Arts Gaelic work in progress later in the year.
My first realisation when carrying out these conversations was that I had no idea the Orkney voice would be so distinct. The firm held idea of Scots as a simple third language of Scotland was already starting to disappear. I recorded conversations at Orkney Library, at a Family History drop in evening, at Radio Orkney and a music night in a local pub. I started to get a picture of the Orkney dialect from the people who live here, and their own relationship with their voice. And I began to question how useful it is to categorise all of these voices as Scots given that even amongst it’s own islands, the Orkney dialect varies wildly from place to place.
I had a chat with Dr Tom Rendall (local historian, dialect lover and collector of voice, educator, and much, much more), and we began by talking about his own investigations into language. Tom was given the opportunity to carry out a PhD in the Orkney dialect, but he was less interested in the linguistic nature of words. Instead, his questions centred around social and cultural aspects of the use of Orkney dialect and so he travelled the islands recording people in their own voice.
Tom is very passionate about all things dialect and during our conversation he compared our ways speaking with great excitement (I must admit I geeked out a bit too). He is also very optimistic about the future of the dialect, as he says, “Some of the people that I have spoken to about this says – “oh folk’s just no speaking dialect much any more. The young one’s’ll no be speaking dialect and it’s dying. It’s dying out”. I don’t really say it’s dying out – it’s changing.”
There is no doubt that the dialect is changing in Orkney because of influences from people who have moved in, but also influences from the media, television and social networking. As an educator in reading intervention, Tom is particularly encouraged by the promotion of Scots by Education Scotland and has the view that it can remain in a “healthy state, provided as people don’t stop speaking it because of their attitudes. Because it will make them appear less educated.”
This was of interest to me. It seems my own speaking and performing of Glasgow Scots is undermined by attitudes of class rather geography; and intelligence rather than culture. Tom did speak of being careful when attempting to “speak seriously,” and if you attempt to talk about a serious matter in Scots, you might be accused of being derogatory or flippant.
I also came across some of these issues. My own research took me to the Orkney Library Sound Archive, where I could potentially listen to weeks of recorded material. But I very quickly realised that this would not allow me to hear the full extent of the dialect, given that most of the recordings were created for broadcast, and therefore most interviewees spoke in standard Scots or Scottish English in order to be understood (or because they felt the pressure of the microphone – a feeling replicated by participants in this research).
I asked if that meant there was no such thing as a higher register for writing or speaking in Scots. Perhaps the fact that I’m writing this in English is a good example of this (and why should that be? Because I don’t have the same words in Scots? Because I want to be understood by a larger audience? Or because an academic or official writing style simply does not exist in Scots? Additionally, I am not even going to attempt to recreate Tom’s dialect here. I would have no idea where to start). But thankfully Tom believes “There is no right or wrong way to speak in Orcadian or any branch of the Scots language.”
But I was keen to know: is there a Standardised Scots speech? How do you regulate it, particularly in schools? Orkney dialect is completely different to Glasgow and completely different again to the Doric. How can schools manage that diversity, especially if there are a variety of teachers who may not be confident in speaking Scots to begin with?
“Some Orcadian teachers will code switch a lot. And there isn’t a regulation that you must speak in that way or teach in that way. It depends on the individual child: you would code switch depending on who you were talking to. I think schools are moving away from regulating – in the 1950s we had directives in how to speak in school. Now you can encourage local variations as much as possible and I’m all for that. It’s giving people the chance for people to express themselves the way they want to and the way they’re brought up.”
In our conversation, and with conversations with other people over this week, I have been speaking about vernacular, and branch, and dialect, and variation... Is Scots a language? From Glasgow to Orkney, and from me to Tom there is such a wide range. Can the two even be compared?
“Scots is a language – some people dispute that. Orcadian is a branch of Scots. All these dialects from Shetland to the Borders have variants of Scots. Though in Orkney we have words based on Orkney Norse – so we use these words to intersperse with Scots terms so our dialect is a mixture of Scots mixed with these lexical items form Orkney Norn. You speak a west side Scots – I have my Orcadian way of speaking – they’re not dissimilar but there are variants all the way through.”
With thanks to Tom Rendall and all of the people who contributed to this project in Kirkwall. You can keep up to date with the project at this website, and please visit Tom’s SoundCloud and listen to his podcasts here.