A few recent experiences have prompted me to write down some thoughts about Scots and the place of Scots in my work. Most of these experiences have come about because of rejections – of proposals, jobs, funding etc – but some have come about by attending Scots events, and generally being attuned to the spoken word in today’s performance.
I’ve been developing my work with a strong focus on language – specifically the language of the everyday – and this work takes lots of different forms – theatre, writing, poetry and performance. But with all of this I’m interested in real experiences through biography and verbatim and conversations with people. I’m excited about honest and authentic voices in my work. And I always try to allow the space and opportunity for these voices to be collected and then presented in a way that enables audiences to engage and recognise themselves.
And it is important to write this with people – because so much of the language we inherit for writing is not reflective of Scottish people, and this non-representation can often disengage us from participating in society, it can make us feel stupid, and exclude us from taking part in arts activities or attending arts events. I also feel that if people see their way of speaking as routinely mocked, then will never identify themselves with that tongue, that history or tradition. Instead my work aims to elevate our language and our own ways of speaking to a place where it has worth, where it has can inspire and where it can be celebrated.
For many years I described my work as Glaswegian: I always reckoned it was separate from Scots. But reflecting on these pieces I learned that what I was creating was an idiolect – where I mixed high and low, Scots and English, poetic and prosaic. It’s individual but multi-voiced; traditional and contemporary and is more reflective of modern Scots speakers, and more representational of our own ways of speaking.
I was heartened to hear the poet Liz Niven talk about a ‘spectrum of Scots’ at the most recent Cross Party Culture Group meeting. She admitted that she doesn’t necessarily speak as broad as others on the panel, but nevertheless her language (and more so her work) is pure Scots. Another interesting subject that was raised was the idea of a ‘formal Scots’ and how that seems to be a bit of a paradox; and the anecdote of a Scots speaker interviewing other Scots speakers on the Radio for a Scots programme who just couldn’t bring himself to speak in his own language and reverted to English.
If the Eskimos have a hundred words for ice, we seemed to have a hundred words to describe drunkenness and aggression. I started to realize that my work might be suggesting that Scots and Scottish dialects are good for nothing but obscenities and promoting an ugly voice. Joyce McMillan wrote recently that these stereotypes are human qualities normally connected with languages that have lost political power, and have so have slowly lost their ability to deal with the higher things of life.
This was central to my most recent performance, Theology. This was a one-man show (with a male community choir) that fused the language of Scottish streets with the language of religion and challenged the idea that one was correct and one was coarse. It was my intention to show that our everyday speech patterns and sounds can be just as poetic as any Gregorian chant and our stories are just as valid as anything in the Bible.
Some of the rejections I mentioned earlier are often explained by saying my work is ‘not international enough.’ And that is problematic for me as I see many other productions forging ahead with Scots, or a version of Scots, spoken. However, in many of these cases it is simply there for comic effect or is there to portray a character who is stupid, drunk, violent etc etc. For me, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, although brilliant in terms of energy and staging female lives, fell way short in terms of it’s spoken text. There were many phrases that would not have been uttered by a young female from Oban, and too many examples of a pretend Scottish voice that had been ironed out for the sake of the audience. I was also disappointed that there was a massive change between spoken and sung text. There must be a way for people to embrace their peripheral nature and set themselves at the centre of their own world, describing it the way they see it in their own voice.
David Greig talks of different kinds of audiences, with different values and expectations. We both disagree that the more universal it is, the better it is, and the idea that ‘the audience’ for theatre is made up of white, British, middle class, intellectual people, and any audience that is different to that is inferior.
I know that there is a lot of confusion around the term Scots. Some people try to correct me when I bring it up: “You mean Gaelic?” I also know that most Scottish people still believe that Scots is just a lazy form of English, that we should leave behind so we can advance ourselves, even though our everyday speech patterns and word choice are part of a rich, complex tradition, and, in my view, just as poetic as anything written in any other language.
John McGrath writes that in the past, Scottish working-class drama (as he called it) was always a representation of something in the process of dying, and a past way of life. But I think that by engaging with the way people are speaking today in Scotland we can create work that evolves at the same rate as the language itself, allowing it to form it’s own path, just like every other language has done.
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