HighlandLIT enjoyed A Nicht o Scots on 18th January 2022, a Zoom event at which poets Lynn Valentine, Colin Bramwell and Hamish MacDonald read from their work. The event was followed with a question and answer session, chaired by HighlandLIT’s Scott Fraser in which Lynn, Colin and Hamish answered questions from the audience. Their follows a lightly-edited transcript of the discussion.
Colin Bramwell is a widely-published poet and performer from Fortrose. He writes in English and Scots, and was the runner up for the 2020 Edwin Morgan Prize. The first Scots Scriever for the National Library of Scotland, Hamish MacDonald is published in poetry and fiction including the novel The Gravy Star. His latest poetry collection Wilson’s Ornithology & Burds in Scots was published by Scotland Street Press in 2020. He has also written several plays which have toured throughout and furth of Scotland. Lynn Valentine’s debut poetry collection which will be published by Cinnamon Press in April 2022, after she won their Literature Award. Her Scots language pamphlet A Glimmer o Stars was published with Hedgehog Poetry Press in 2021
Is Scots a broad church?
Scott: The style and content of the work we heard from you all was quite diverse. Are there any confines to what is defined as Scots or is it a very broad church?
Lynn Valentine: I think it’s a broad church. Me personally, I write Scots in the dialect of my childhood, so it’s all in Angus Scots, which is different to Colin and Hamish, and I think that even listening to us tonight, you can kind of see the differences maybe. I’m a recent convert to writing in Scots: because I don’t speak it day to day, I didn’t feel I had the right to write in it either, so I’ve only been writing in it for the past year, year-and-a-half or so. So maybe it’s something for Colin and Hamish to answer.
Colin Bramwell: I think about this a lot, because I often have those sort of feelings of I suppose fraudulence. I didn’t grow up speaking it although I did grow up reading it a lot, and so I suppose I approached the language as a learner. But that’s not to say there wasn’t Scots in the Black Isle: there are two different pockets in the Black Isle where Scots is spoken. As an incomer, I didn’t hear it all that much. We talk about it being a language, and if it is a language it should be learnable.
I think it’s fantastic that the language itself is stressed in dialect, where people look for the accuracy of dialect, so in a way I quite welcome the people who – I wouldn’t go so far as to day who police it – but who look for some kind of standard. If you know your dialect, you need to know why you’re spelling things certain ways, I think.
Also there’s an aspect of this which is counter to the whole thing of getting it ‘right.’ Which is just ‘go in and do your level best, and I think that’s what most people do. And there’s an interesting crossover between Scots, and people who would sort of perform their work as well. Quite a lot of the Scots poets perform professionally, and I don’t know if you can say exactly the same for English-language poets in Scotland.
Scott: Any thoughts on that, Hamish?
Hamish Macdonald: Aye, well today it’s definitely a broad church. I think because it wasn’t taught to us formally in any way whatsoever there can be a sort of anarchic way to using Scots. But I don’t think it’s any the worse for that.
I think, you know, that it’s like an amazing palette you can turn to and use in different ways. Whether, as I’ve already demonstrated, it’s comic kids’ poems, or having been involved like Colin in more serious translations of war poetry and so on from Eastern Europe.
And for some reason Scots seems to lend itself to a whole load of different senses and moods, so I think it’s a magnificent language to use in any way you want to use it whether it’s in your own dialect or whether you’re adopting it from some other form.
I’m not keen on it being too formalized. I just think that pedantry can constrain Scots. I think it has to breathe, you know, we don’t have a formal set of rules as we do in English. We’ve got a number of rich dialects, and you know sometimes you can try something in another dialect that disnae quite work in your dialect so on and so forth but I think we just need to educate ourselves more in it and get a bit of freedom and looser with it and a bit less constrained in liberating it. So a broad church, definitely.
Preserving the language
Scott: I suppose I’m right in saying that the three of you seem quite committed to preserve it, you know, there’s something worth passing on. You know, preserving the language. If you don’t have these things, will it just slip away?
Lynn: Yes, because it’s so rich, I love writing in it. I write in English as well, but Scots gives you like another string to your bow almost. I’d much rather have a poem that has a ‘foggy bummer’ in it than one that has a bumble-bee! I think different words like that are just absolutely fantastic! So it’s just ‘Why wouldn’t you want to use it?’ So I think the Scots language scene as far as I know in my limited knowledge is quite large now. I think we were all a bit ashamed of it when we were young certainly, but I don’t think anyone’s like that anymore.
Colin: Yes, it seems to have met with more acceptance in recent times perhaps. I’m not so qualified to comment, because I’m a new person on the scene. I’ve been writing about it, though, and that’s been quite interesting.
I’ve been looking into the subject of what they call ‘language shift’ when older forms of language are being replaced by large, global languages. It’s a process that happens all over the world and kind of ….. I think it’s quite akin to climate change in some ways.
But I’m unconvinced as to the effect that poetry has on the actual preservation of languages. Scots is a really unusual case, because it’s always encountered in literature more often than in the classroom. It seems to be uniquely seen as almost a language that’s solely for use in literature. I hope that the language itself hasn’t just been seen as a kind of curiosity for that purpose.
It really …. If literature proves anything, it proves that it’s highly adaptable, as Hamish was saying to every sort of purpose, I think to civic purposes as well as literary ones.
And you’d hope to see it more spoken in public life, and you’d hope that your efforts as a poet might make that kind of case. But I think the odds really do go against the kind of language shift thing which Scots is certainly imperilled by. We need far more in the way of a kind of generalized government action. It’s not the job of poets to make the language survive, although their work will be the best case for it.
Hamish: Aye, I think maybe celebrated rather than preserved, you know. I can see exactly where you’re coming from, but sometimes ‘preserved’ maybe implies keeping something in aspic, you know? Almost as a museum piece and then it becomes not so worthwhile.
What we need to do is recognise present forms of Scots, get it encouraged in the classrooms, get bairns comfortable with Scots, their ain language even although it’s constantly interchanged with English. There is a case, you know, for preserving older forms of Scots. You can be quite sneaky too – you can try and sneak in a wee word here or there, and try to get it …. You know what I mean?
I took the job as the Scots Screiver and the word ‘screive’ had almost gone out of usage, to my knowledge, for years. But due to Twitter, and social media, that word’s kind of slipped back in again. Lynn, myself and possibly you Colin have used it in our poems. And you see it on social media, so words can, when you encourage a language it’s like blawin it into a wee fire, and getting it to reignite. The more you work at it, and encourage it in literature, but very much encourage it in spoken forms. You know? Scots at its very best is an aural language.
I agree with Colin on getting better recognition fae the government side of things. I’m fortunate in that I’ve been able to encourage Scots from nursery ages right up to adults. And when folk get it, you can just sense a wee lift, you know? People are liberated, and they recognise it and go with it.
So I think we just need to be a bit less hung up about our Scots, celebrate it more, get it more into print like Colin and Lynn are doing and brilliant publishing hooses like Itchy Coo are doing, and keep working at it, keep the shoulder to the wheel, you know?
Scott: Great, that’s fascinating! Mark, do you have a question?
The sensory quality of Scots
Mark Williams: Just a general comment. I just love the kind of lyrical quality that’s come through in all of the poems we’ve heard tonight, this ….some of then made me feel as if I was being carried along on a gentle wave which was very nice.
And oddly enough it took me back a bit to my childhood. I spent a lot of my early years on a croft in Aberdeenshire, and having moved from England, I had to learn the Doric very quickly, because all the kids at school spoke a foreign language as far as I was concerned. For example ‘The tractor’s lairt in the dubs, the bogey’s cowped an’ the neeps are aa’wai’ which was a bit of a handful when I’d just come from Sheffield.
So I think it’s lovely the way that you guys have just sort of been working, poetry which as I’ve said before – it’s well-documented – I don’t understand poetry generally, but I just love the way that very simply you convey the message in the local Scots dialects in its varying forms, and it’s just really lovely to hear the work that you’re all doing. I think it’s a great contributor to the overall picture of language that we all are common to, and yet at the same time there’s always different strands that just make it unique and exciting and interesting. So, just well done to you all! Thank you very much!
Hamish: Hugh MacDiarmid called Scots ‘an inexhaustible quarry of subtle and significant sounds.’ And to me it’s a very sensory language, Scots. It can just convey a picture or an emotion brilliantly. I don’t know if that’s because it is a more primitive language, you know, coming from old English, more in tune with the Germanic origins. I don’t know if that’s the reason, you know. Somehow the sense has been drawn out of it a wee bit wi’ change and so on, but I’d agree with you, it’s a very very sensory language when you read it and when you hear it, I think.
Scots as a medium for translation from other languages
Scott: So just on that subject, when you’ve been doing the translation work have you found the Scots really works well in some of these translations in a way which English wouldn’t?
Colin: Yeah, a good question. I think with the translations, sometimes you feel a bit that you’re putting the language under the kind of stress of having to deal with another language. I don’t know if Hamish feels this as well. You sometimes feel that you’re testing it because it’s very easy to kind of boldly go where no-one has gone before in Scots.
Most of the poets I’ve translated – for instance Parra and Tarkovsky - haven’t already been translated into Scots, and there is a sort of feeling of wanting to try and enlarge the language, to see if it can house a certain type of poet and it’s as good, and sometimes as frustrating a language as English to put something into it.
I think that the specificities of Scots, and the aspects of dialect, that sort of thing, do make it quite a good language to get across an idea that someone is kind of from somewhere different. I think invariably when you’re translating unless it’s a paid sort of thing you’re working with poems that you’ve got some kind of passion for anyway. I read a poet, and I think ‘This one would work in Scots, and this one would work in Scots.’ And I think that’s got more to do with my own sympathies, the things I like to read than it has with any innate property of the language itself. But yes, I’d be interested to hear whether Hamish has had similar experiences.
Hamish: No, my main preoccupation in translation has been a long narrative poem which was originally written in Romani about the genocide of the Roma people in Volhynia in what was then Poland, now Ukraine during WW2 - Papusza’s Tears of Blood. It’s a long narrative poem about that experience – she survives all this.
And I found that….obviously, it’s difficult to get the right spirit of that poem. I hadna to translate from Romani – we had a couple of specialists, it was translated to literal English, and I then translated it into a poetic idiom in English and in Scots. They’re both fascinating experiences but in some ways the Scots somehow lent itself more to that world and that experience – not the brutality and so on but… you know, there’s a number of words in Scots that are almost exactly the same as they are in Romani – like gadgie for a fellow, or chor tae steal.
It’s all set in a forest this tale, or mainly, about surviving in a forest. Somehow I found using the Scots drew me closer into that world. I don’t know if it’s the sensory thing or not. I took liberties with the Scots as well – I used a whole range of words from different dialects. I didn’t constrain it, it didn’t seem right just to do it in Doric, or in A or B or C. And again I found the palette of Scots was brilliant to go in and get those meanings and senses. You know, I was discussing a lot of this with a Roma academic, and we could really tune in to a lot of meaning through Scots andRomani – we were really quite fascinated by the linguistic affinities.
So that’s really my main experience of translation. I’ve translated some shorter poems as well, but I found in that instance – it was fantastic to work in English as well. I kind of jumped from one to the other. If Scots was helping me get a sense of things, I’d jump over to the Scots translation and get a wee bit more of the feel of the thing, and then go back to my English translation, so …. I think Scots is an incredible language to translate into for that reason … and obviously that’s more personal to me. I don’t know how it’s going to be to the reader, you know? But Scots just seems to give me a very subtle palette in which I can draw senses out of meanings in what was the original language.
Is Scots a class-based language?
Cathy Carr: Is it class-based at all as a language?
Lynn: I think when I was young, it was seen as class-based, because you were told off by teachers for using Scots. My granny spoke broad Scots most of the time and I would even tell her off, you know? It’s that I didn’t want to have a granny that was in a shop speaking broad Scots, so I think there was … not now… a bit of shame to it? I don’t know what the others would think about it?
Cathy: It’s just because it is the language my grandfather – my granddad – spoke. It was mixed up with English and all sorts, because he’d gone from Glasgow to Manchester. I just wondered, because he was very working class. His friends whom I knew who also spoke a version of Scots were also working class so I never sort of heard anyone who was middle class or higher up speaking Scots. I just wondered whether it was class-based because of that. That was my experience.
Colin: I think it’s a yes, yes and no sort of question really. Yes, I think if you look back to what they call the ‘golden age’ of Scots writing, that was all done by noble people, which wasn’t to say there wasn’t a sort of corresponding activity going on with working class people in Scotland either. And I think that after the court moved down south it was solely carried by the non-aristocratic classes, and so I’d say ‘Yes, more class-based certainly than other languages.’ You know in some contexts French is quite class-based too. If you’re in Quebec, as soon as you start speaking Quebecois that’s often a sign of working classness. I think now that [speaking in Scots] is definitely more of a sign of working classness. That’s my not very definitive answer, but it’s an important question. .
Hamish: I would say in my broad experience Scots is very much class based. There’s a whole raft of historical reasons for that. It was schooled out of the middle classes in the 18th century, and Scots was very much given over as an inferior language to the more dominant English. And sadly that inferiority is something that still prevails to the present day in some cases.
There are different levels of class-based distinctions in Scots. You know, people who call themselves Scots speakers might frown on Glaswegian speakers, because they’re more working class, and more impoverished and so on.
And by far the best reactions I’ve had in teaching Scots has been in the working class areas of the different parts of Scotland – I mean, not exclusively - brilliant reactions from kids at Halkirk in Caithness and so on, in Galloway. But when you go to the working class schemes of Dundee and Glasgow it’s like you’re lighting a wee spark. Cause they feel that, maybe the suppression, they don’t think their language is significant and meaningful…..it’s just something that they use outwith the classroom. And nowadays on Twitter you see young women getting harangued and persecuted by on-line bullies for expressing themselves in Scots. So we still have to live with this stigma, it’s still got a stigma , so yes, there’s definitely still a class distinction between Scots and English, and to a lesser degree between different forms of Scots as well in my experience.
The Relationship of Scots and Gaelic
Scott: A question has come in from Timski: ‘I would like to hear how you see Scots and Gaelic rubbing up against each other.’
Lynn: I don’t know!
Colin: Yeah, I’m not sure if I understand the phrasing of the question. Rubbing up against one another in a negative way? I mean, they both exist in our Scottish languages. I don’t think that activity in one should cancel out the other. I think, I hope, we’re all sort of happy saying that though Scotland is a small nation, population-wise it has a pretty rich linguistic heritage.
I see Scots and Gaelic as certainly being of equal worth and I think that Scots writers and Gaelic writers have much to communicate about, much to say to each other. The government reaction to both languages hasn’t been one of parity, but I think we’re only now awakening to the idea that Scots is a language in its own right, a real language, and we’re still coming to terms with the consequences of that. Gaelic is undeniably a different language, and so it gets a different sort of reaction. I wouldn’t want to pit one against the other. Scots and Gaelic are brothers.
Hamish: I don’t really perceive any great contention between Scots and Gaelic, certainly no as languages. Possibly, there’s a bit of disillusionment among Scots speakers that Gaelic gets a greater representation on media and education and through funding and so on, despite having a much smaller demographic.
But, you know, there’s always like tremendous arguments as to why Gaelic deserves this , being the brilliant language that it is and the history of diaspora and so on, and the history of the Gaeltacht and the need to keep that strong. My kids went tae Gaelic medium schools, and I’ve done Scots workshops in Gaelic schools and had fantastic receptions, and thought there was a great appreciation of Scots from them as Gaelic learners so I don’t see any great kind of friction between the two. Other than in the minds of some people that Scots, with 1.6 million speakers according to the last census, should have greater funding and be more visible and so on, and we should have a Language Act to record that, and say there should be greater parity between the two. Yeah, they coexist and … I mean there’ll be people who use both Scots and Gaelic, so I don’t see any dichotomy or conflict between the two.
Scott: I’d like to say thankyou to the three of you for coming tonight. I found it fascinating myself, and just seeing the variety and the range of that ‘palette’ of language that we have within Scotland. It’s tremendous to see it before us tonight, and it’s just given me some encouragement to go and look into that a bit deeper, and also I found Hamish’s work very evocative – it was like going back to staying with my granny down in Glasgow. I think she stayed in Blethertoun! That was very special, so I appreciate that. So, thank you guys for being with us tonight!
Lynn, Hamish, Colin: Thank you for having us!