IMAGINE Arthur Conan Doyle writing a story about the young Sherlock Holmes and insisting that it appears in print in Scots for a year before it is translated into English or any other language.
• Alexander McCall Smith
That's effectively what is going to happen this month with the publication of Alexander McCall Smith's Precious and the Puggies (Precious and the Monkeys), which tells the story of his world-famous detective Mma Ramotswe's first case – when she was an eight-year-old growing up in Botswana.
As McCall Smith's No1 Ladies' Detective Agency series has already been translated into 44 other languages and has worldwide sales of 20 million, publishers will be queuing up to translate the new book from Scots.
"This is what makes it unique," says James Robertson, the award-winning novelist and co-founder of Itchy Coo, which publishes bestselling books for children and young people in Scots.
"Not only is it a brand new story by Alexander McCall Smith, but it's about his most famous character's childhood. He's never written about that before – but if you want to read it, you've either got to read it in Scots first or to wait a year until it appears in another language. I think this is the first time this has ever happened."
The idea for the book came about a year ago. Robertson had already translated works by Roald Dahl and AA Milne into Scots for Itchy Coo, and his original request to McCall Smith was to ask if he could do the same for one of his children's stories.
Instead, McCall Smith suggested writing a brand new tale in which the eight-year-old Precious Ramotswe finds out who is stealing the cakes her classmates bring to school for their lunchbreak. The book is lavishly illustrated by Iain McIntosh, who also illustrates McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street series in The Scotsman.
"The fact that so many of my books have been translated into so many languages is a source of great delight," said McCall Smith yesterday, "but the fact that this new story is appearing in Scots is the icing on the cake."
McCall Smith, who is not a native Scots speaker, wrote the story in English and gave it to Robertson to translate, along with exclusive rights for a year.
He is, however, a keen supporter of the Scots language. "Every language has something to offer," he said, "a different way of looking at the world, a stock of poetry and song. The disappearance of a language is like the silencing of some lovely bird."
"That's exactly what we believe too," said Robertson, "and why it's wonderful to have his support."
Unlike other Itchy Coo books, Precious and the Puggies also has a small glossary of Scots words. Glossaries are a tendentious issue for books in Scots, the argument against them being that they disrupt reading and effectively demote the language.
"As this book will, we hope, get a worldwide readership," said Robertson, "we thought it important to give a key to understanding Scots to people who may have no knowledge at all of it.
"This is a story set in Africa, and one of the things we want to show is that Scots doesn't just have to be used in stories about Scotland, but that it's a 21st century language and can take its place with all of the others.
"When news of this book gets out, I hope people will be interested all over the world – that even in Botswana there'll be people wanting to know more about Scots and why Alexander McCall Smith is supporting it."
Campaigners for more widespread use of Scots welcomed the news yesterday. "I can't think of a parallel to this project," said Derrick McClure, the author of Why Scots Matters. "It's a tremendous boost to Scots."
• Precious and the Puggies by Alexander McCall Smith will be published in hardback by Itchy Coo on 25 February, price 9.99.
Whit tae dae wi a muckle lion?
THIS is an extract from the new book:
WHIT wid ye dae if ye fund yersel face tae face wi a muckle lion? Staund as still as a stookie? Mak yer feet yer freens and rin? Creep awa quiet-like? Mibbe ye wid jist steek yer een and hope that ye were haein a dream – which is whit Obed did at first when he saw the frichtsome lion starin strecht at him.
But when he opened his een again, the lion wis aye there, and whit wis waur, wis stertin tae open its muckle mooth.