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.