Normal People

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.

Aye, right.

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.

This is in the Portrait Gallery of the Perry–Castañeda Library of the University of Texas at Austin.

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4 replies »

  1. As usual Alec you hit the nail right in the heid. We have to get over this inferiority complex. If we don’t believe in ourselves why should we expect other to believe in us. I believe it’s slowly getting through to folk though that we are quite capable of running our own country without interference from down south who are only interested in taking advantage of our natural resources and having a place to store their weapons of mass destruction.

  2. in answer to your 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?”

    may I point out Northern Ireland (not admittedly a country, but like Scotland , still under Westminster rule) and its 16 year wait for an Irish language Act that also encompasses Ulster Scots?

    Just to illustrate Unionism’s opposition to our native tongue here’s what’s been happening to Irish language since NI’s inception

    1922/23: Grants paid to the Irish Teacher Training Colleges in Belfast removed; bilingual programme ceased in the Tyrone Gaeltacht; Irish language text books burned by Inspectors.
    1922: Department of Education removes post of Irish Language Organiser: “There is no such thing as an organiser of Irish Language.”
    1923: Lyn Report: Irish restricted to 90 minutes per week teaching in Primary School: “Irish occupies a preferential position for which, in our judgement, there is no justification.”
    1923: New Education Act for Northern Ireland: Irish banned as an optional subject in 5th Standard. Numbers studying Irish decline by 50% within two years.
    1926: Irish banned as an optional extra in Standards 3 and 4, 70% of students studying Irish have to cease their study of the language.
    1928: “The language of no practical utility, but may be of much value to incipient traitors, as a means of fomenting trouble.” Loyalist League.
    1933: All payment towards the teaching of Irish in Primary Schools ceased. Would remain so for over 80 years.
    1933: “The only people interested in this language are the people who are the avowed enemies of Northern Ireland.” William Grant, Ulster Unionist Party MP, Stormont Parliament,
    1936: Lord Craigavon: “What use is it here in this progressive busy part of the Empire to teach our children the Irish Language? What use would it be to them? Is it not leading them along a road which has no practical value? We have not stopped such teaching; we have stopped the grants – simply because we do not see that these boys being taught Irish would be any better citizens”
    1942: “I, personally, feel strongly that the teaching of Irish – the chief object of which is to foment antagonism to Great Britain…should not be paid for by us.” – John Andrews, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.
    1942: Grand Lodge of Ireland (Orange Order): “That the Government of Northern Ireland be asked to remove from the Curriculum of the Ministry of Education the Irish language, and that no facilities be given in public, secondary or elementary schools for the teaching of such.”
    1945: “No foreign language here.” Basil Brooke, Prime Minister, Northern Ireland, during a speech in Irish by Nationalist MP Eddie McAteer.
    1948: “Apparently certain local authorities in County Down are at the moment naming streets in a language which is not our language and I do not think that should be allowed.” Brian Faulkner, Stormount Prime-Minister/ UUP
    1987: “Irish is a leprechaun language.” Sammy Wilson, Democratic Unionist Party.
    1996: “Their language is a dead language for a dead people” – Jim Shannon, letter to Irish News, 25th September 1996.
    2007: “I must sat that I am heartily sickened to hear a Minister of this institution speaking in Irish”. David McNarry, UUP MLA, Stormount Assembly.
    2009: “Ms De Brún, as part of her aggressive republican agenda, regales us in this dead tongue.” Jim Allister, Traditional Unionist Voice, European Parliament.
    2014: “On behalf of our party let me say clearly, we will never agree to an Irish Language Act at Stormont and we will treat their entire wish list as no more than toilet paper. They better get used to it.” Gregory Campbell, DUP
    2017: “If you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back for more”. Arlene Foster (in response to the demand for an Irish language act).
    2017: “Irish is essentially a hobby language, it is of no practical value to anyone” Jim Allister, TUV
    2021: “This zealot [proposed Irish language commissioner] will set standards that every public body must meet in the use of Irish in the delivery of its services…..Thus TUV is resolute in rejecting Irish language legislation.” Jim Allister, TUV
    2021: The Irish language will be key to the push to make NI unrecognisable as part of the UK / How many times, post 2017, did you see emotive images of children demanding an ILA? – Ben Lowry, Editor, Newsletter

  3. Burns did write in English – but in an Augustan style that seems mannered and lifeless compared to his better-known works. He made the right choice to write in Scots!

  4. Dear Alec!
    I am an avid reader of your writings in The Orkney News.
    This article about language and dialect has touvhed a very raw nerve in me.
    You ask “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 I answer you: Switzerland.
    The language of the Siss German speaking part of my birth country is Swiss German. Swiss German – not German. It is about as different from German (which we call High German or Written German) as Doric or the Orcadian dialect are from Oxford English.
    Teaching in Swiss German is either frowned on or even forbidden. By hair’s breadth a political motion was recently countered which wanted to ban Swiss German even from Kindergarden, which would have meant all our wealth of songs and verses for children would have been forbidden. I was a teacher for 42 years, and while speaking Swiss German in school was already frowned on at the beginning of my carfeer, at the end of it it would have meant a damning report had I been caught by eductional “authorities” wich would have had repercussions on my wages and ultimately on my ability to continue my career.
    Pressure is being out on from two sides: First from politicians and educational chair warmers who have no real relation to their roots, second from politicians and people working in the social sector demanding that Swiss German be given up because non-German speaking people arriving in our country need to learn High German in order to read and write and, so politicians and people working in the social sector say, ought not to be confronted with the true language of our country as well.

    So I can relate directly to your writing and in my opinion I clearly say: Fight to keep your language and culture alive!!!!

    Meet you (maybe) further along the line!

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