As we carefully move from the worst of the pandemic towards whatever normal now looks like, it was a pleasure to finally get up Orkney again recently, meet a few folk and enjoy putting the world to rights over a couple of drams. whilst reflecting on the conundrum that the people who actually have all the answers to the world’s problems are too busy selling stuff to Orcadian farmers to actually solve them.
It’s also a blessed relief to escape the Scottish cringe. I always feel my time in the islands begins in earnest when the early morning radio programme is presented by folk who speak in the local dialect, whose local paper’s cartoon strip uses local vernacular (“hid”, not “it”), and where the farming magazines run articles in the Orcadian dialect. I come from a place where teachers used to tell me that Gaelic was never spoken in Dumfries and Galloway (it was) despite Stranraer being a Gaelic word (it means Broad Nose), so this matters to me. “It’s a sad man my friend living in his own skin that can’t stand the company”, sings Bruce Springsteen. Orkney feels, for all its contradictions, like a place comfortable in its own identity.
I think the rest of us could do with more than a bit of that, instead of being a country whose lingering strain of cringing ambivalence about its own culture and language means that it wasn’t all that long ago that you could win a certificate for speaking Scots or Gaelic on Friday but get the belt for saying “forbye” or “glaiket” on Monday.
Not that this is anything particularly new. Far from it.
I’ve long believed that Robert Burns’ enduring appeal is partly down to the timing of his birth and life. Born in 1759, only thirteen years after the ‘45 ended in disaster at Culloden – and with it the last chance (until now) to get out of the union with England of 1707 that had come about after the Noblemen of Scotland sold out a Scottish parliament (and saddled Scotland with the debt) to recover the money they’d squandered on the disaster that was Darien. A parliament, incidentally, that wasn’t reconvened until as recently as 1999.
So the debate about Scotland’s constitutional arrangements that we have today isn’t a new thing. It was very much a live issue when Burns was alive. And that’s an interesting historical parallel that echoes in the chambers of Holyrood and Westminster today.
Burns was born into a Scotland in the still early days of an identity crisis and in the midst of a cultural approbation which saw the kilt banned and the language sneered at – we were being rebranded as “North Britain”. In such an era, it was considered rather vulgar, not to say commercially unwise, to publish in Scots. Indeed, Burns received a famous letter from Dr John Moore, a regular correspondent, in which he was advised to write in English to broaden his appeal.
It’s estimated that 9.5m people over 2500 different events celebrated Burns this season. You’d have to say that Burns made the right call in ignoring the advice of a well-meaning friend. And while Dr Moore’s advice hasn’t aged well, the mindset – that Scots is in some way an inferior language and not one that an ambitious Scot should seek to employ – has unfortunately lasted rather better.
Such is the dichotomy of the Scottish psyche. We boast, then we cower. We beg for a piece of what’s already ours. No wonder Jekyll & Hyde was written by a Scot. It’s practically our very DNA.
Not Burns though, who took a conscious decision to write in Scots.
There are, I think, several reasons.
Firstly, even heroes have heroes.
Just as such luminaries as diverse as Bob Dylan, John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, Mohammed Ali, Maya Angelou and Abraham Lincoln all adored Burns, similarly Burns knew that he was standing on the shoulders of giants.
One such colossus was the Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson, who wrote wonderful poems like Ghaists and The Daft Days – in Scots. Burns was hugely influenced, not least because Fergusson wrote in his native language.
Indeed, when Burns visited Edinburgh in the winter of 1787 the first thing he did was use some of the money that he’d made from the publication of the book to pay for a proper gravestone for Fergusson, who was to that point lying in a pauper’s grave, and to erect a plaque commemorating the great man.
Burns knew he owed a huge debt to Fergusson, and this was him, in Edinburgh, literally and figuratively, paying his dues.
And like his hero Fergusson. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that he saved the Scots language, and he spent the latter part of his career collecting old Scots songs that would otherwise have been lost.
Burns was a Janus like figure who looked back as well as forward. I often think of him as an important signpost in our history. He’s born not long after the ‘45 which was kind of the last of the old Scotland but also was born into an Enlightenment Scotland full of new ideas, not least in agriculture where Burns was a keen student of farming improvements. And his more enlightened religious views were partly influenced by his his reading of Adam Smith’s Theory of Modern Sentiments. He was timeless, but also very much a man of his time.
But I think there’s perhaps a second reason why Burns chose to write in Scots.
In the culture wars of 18th Century Scotland, Scots may have been in retreat but it was still the dominant language. Much of what Burns wrote reads more like performance art than poetry. Poems like The Holy Fair, The Jolly Beggars and Tam o’ Shanter were written to be performed live as much as to be read. So as he was writing for the people in the pubs of Ayrshire, it made perfect sense to write in his, and their, native tongue.
Scots is a beautiful language, and it should be more than just Burns Night and a gift shop curiosity that we bring out of a drawer and dust down on January 25th every year. If we don’t use it, we lose it and the fact that it endures is, I think, largely down to an Ayrshire farmer and exciseman and his decision to write in his own language, even when he was being advised not to.
All this, and more, came to mind when I was scrolling through social media on the ferry back to mainland Scotland.
“Nicola Sturgeon thinks Scots language should be taught in schools”, read the post. “What do you think?”
My immediate thought was – what other country would even think to ask such a question? Is there another country anywhere where actually teaching your own language in your own schools to your own people would be seen, rather than just a normal part of the curriculum, as somehow controversial and politically divisive?
And, secondly, that such a question is even being asked points to a basic reason why we aren’t independent yet: a lingering lack of confidence and pride in our own language and in our wider culture. My English teacher taught the poems of Burns but wouldn’t let you answer a question by saying “aye”. We’ve moved on from those days. But not as far as we’d like to think.
What’s holding us back isn’t, I think, fears about pensions and water rates, worries about currency, the colour of our passports and whether or not we’ll be able to get watch Strictly on the telly. What’s limiting us much more than anything is the long, lingering ambivalence we hold towards our own language and culture.
We need to lose the cringe. Because the biggest single step we make towards normality will happen when we believe we are already normal. Because if we don’t believe in ourselves – why should anyone else?
And if we truly believe that, then we’re already halfway there. But we need to get there soon. Because it’s later than you think.
Stay safe everybody. I’ll meet you further on up the road.