“We boast, then we cower” (The Proclaimers, “Cap in Hand”).
By happy coincidence, I first started doing business in Orkney around the time of the launch of “Orkney Farmer” magazine. It wasn’t long until their editor, a friendly and engaging man Ken Amer, approached me and asked me to take out some advertising space in his new publication. A deal was struck and, six years on, our regular adverts are as integral part of our strategy as our frequent on-farm support and, hopefully, sensible advice.
As a courtesy, Ken sends me a complimentary copy of the bi-monthly journal. Whilst I enjoy the narrow farming aspect of many of the articles, I relish the wider ranging human interest stories that go along with it.
But what I really enjoy is the style of the writing. Visiting Orkney frequently, as I do, I tune into the local dialect a lot quicker than I used to. I find myself adopting the word “peedie” and woe betide my own peedie wans if they gang oot without a gansey. But the articles use these wonderful words as well. Cattle become “kye”, it becomes “hid”, and went becomes “geed”. I even have a friend from Sandwick who messages me from her ‘phone in her vernacular.
Some Scots words are so good that you couldn’t translate them into English in a million years. Some dictionaries describe “thrawn” as “stubborn”, but this criminally undersells it. Thrawn is a turbocharged stubborn on stilts, a different stratosphere of intransigence. Stubborn is refusing to take your cod-liver oil. Thrawn is taking your cod-liver oil and then refusing to use the toilet.
You can have a lot of fun with The Scots dialects. I love the apocryphal story of the Aberdonian on his first skiing holiday and struggling to get his snow boots on. “Fit fit fits fit fit?“, he asks the nonplussed instructor.
Speaking in our native tongues ought to be as natural as breathing and a great source of pride. It certainly is in Orkney. But, sadly, for a lot of people it isn’t.
Our attitude to our language has always been, at best, ambivalent. I had the privilege of being taught English by a certain Mr Hunter, one of the best in the business. He instilled in me a love of Burns and Shakespeare that will never leave me. And yet, he’d threaten his students with detention for using words like aye” and “windae” even though for every one of us this was our language. We were the lucky ones though – the generation before us got the belt for their impertinence.
He used to tell us the origin of words. “Stranraer”, he said, meant “row of houses on the burn” (raer = burn, stran = row).
It was a great story, but it had one minor flaw. It was total nonsense. Years later, I found out that he’d either been mistaken or making it up. Stranraer is actually Gaelic and means “broad nose”. This makes more sense, as it describes perfectly the shape of the Rhins peninsula on which it stands.
I’ll give Mr Hunter the benefit of the doubt because most people agreed with his version. But why was it so commonly believed?
I’ll tell you why. About three hundred years ago, from the time of the Act of Union and certainly after Culloden, an alternative narrative was being written. Scotland became in the rulers’ eyes “North Britain“. The kilt was banned, and the idea that you couldn’t get ahead unless you flattened all the vowels and threw the ‘r’ away became common currency. Even Burns himself believed that he’d only succeed by writing in English until the great Robert Fergusson persuaded him otherwise. Dr Samuel Johnston went as far as writing a book telling Scots how to rid themselves of “vulgar scottisisms“. It proved very popular. In such a context, it’s not surprisingly that the Gaelic origins of placenames were lost or deliberately airbrushed from history.
So I don’t believe Jack was deliberately lying to me. He was just repeating the story as he understood it, the story that had been handed down the generations. Once a falsehood is established in popular imagination, it’s ill to shift. It’s how Better Together won the referendum. It’s how Brexit happened.
It was the beginning of perhaps the one big thing that holds us back as a nation – the Scottish cringe.
And it’s remarkably resilient. My father was sent by my granny for elocution lessons (although, thankfully, they didn’t work). If you watch Michael Gove (and I quite understand if you don’t) you’ll notice how he speaks the Queen’s English most of the time, but if he’s talking about Scotland (he’s from Aberdeen) he affects a ridiculous Scottish burr.
I see it all the time when Scots question Scotland’s ability to govern itself. I go to Burns Suppers a lot, and speaking from the top table gives you a lot of time to study the crowd. I’ve got quite good at identifying the unionists – they tend to be the ones with a lot of tartan on. There’s nothing in this world more hilarious than retired bankers and solicitors belting songs about independence. I meet them at the bar afterwards. “Enjoyed the speech, Alec”, they’ll say, “and, like you, I’m a proud Scot”.
And then it comes, as inevitable as rain on Stranraer Show day:
This year, a woman couldn’t wait that long so she got ripped into me from the start. “I suppose you’ll be a nationalist like your father”, she began. I can’t remember everything she said afterwards, but it definitely included the words division, uncertainty, currency, oil, deficit, black-hole and Greece.
She then stood up and gave a speech about what a brilliant country Scotland was, and I remembered why I have my local taxi firm on speed-dial.
It’s totally bizarre. It’s like people wear their national identity on special occasions and then put it back in a drawer, as if it was a red nose that only got dusted down for comic relief day.
I’m used to all this, but yesterday in Holyrood saw the cringe develop into outright contempt. In an extraordinarily bitter and ill-tempered speech, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson mocked the Scottish accent of a fellow MSP. In a Scottish debating chamber. In the capital of Scotland. I’m not making this up. Her colleague Murdo Fraser then came very close to questioning the very legitimacy of the Scottish Parliament, while another, Annie Wells, refused to recognise the sovereignty of the Scottish people. Are we a country or not? Yesterday, almost half of Holyrood effectively decided we are a region.
Where is Scottish farming in all this?
In 2014, I took part in a radio debate with a member of Rural Better together. His argument was that we needed a No vote to keep Scottish farmers in the EU (yes, I know: let’s not go there) but also that we didn’t want to upset one of our bigger markets (England) by altering our constitutional arrangements.
Naturally, I disagreed with this. Just as well – it would have made for rubbish radio otherwise. Firstly, an awful lot of folk outwith Scotland aren’t that bothered how we run our affairs – that’s up to us. Secondly, the Better Together guy was a former chair of Quality Meat Scotland (and, to be fair, a really good one). But I argued that if he really thought Independence would threaten the market of a product that he’d championed brilliantly for years, then maybe he didn’t have much faith in it at after all.
I’m hearing the same “don’t rock the boat” arguments all over again, but either the product is good enough or it is not. How we run our own affairs is irrelevant. I suggested to our man from Better Together that a change in the constitutional arrangements of France would in no way slow down my sizeable consumption of their claret. My English pals say the same about our whisky, our beef, our lamb, and our pork.
And, believe me, it’s plenty good enough. Food and drink is worth over £15b to the Scottish economy annually. We export forty bottles of whisky a second (and, like oil, it won’t be running out any time soon). You can buy Orkney cheese in New York and Highland Park whisky in Mumbai and Highland Wagyu burgers (a snip at £30) in the London Dorchester. We’re net exporters in every single sector.
As a nation, we’re a bit backward in coming forward, but I’ll say it: we’re really, really good at this.
For many people, our industry is a success story that will exist in their thinking long after Scotland’s constitutional arrangements are settled. We, rightly, talk the talk. Now we need to walk the walk. We shouldn’t be boastful, but neither should we be slow to champion our deserved reputation as a food producing nation of the first water.
So let’s ditch the cringe in the dustbin of history. We are living in the early days of a better future.
Farming Matters is a weekly column by Alec Ross