Dani Garavelli: Why politicise the Scots language?

A winner in any language. Oor Wullie has entertained youngsters for decades as well as, in many cases, providing an introduction to Scots words. However, whether or not more emphasis should be put on the Scots language in the classroom is a contentious issue. Photograph: Phil Wilkinson
A winner in any language. Oor Wullie has entertained youngsters for decades as well as, in many cases, providing an introduction to Scots words. However, whether or not more emphasis should be put on the Scots language in the classroom is a contentious issue. Photograph: Phil Wilkinson
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MY YOUNGEST son, who is in P7, came home from his first day back at school clutching a leaflet with a picture of Oor Wullie and the words: “Jings, Crivvens, help my Boab!” on the front and a list of websites on the Scots language inside.

I was neither perturbed nor surprised by this. It is only a fortnight or so until Burns Night and all my children (pre- and post-CfE) have explored Scots in the run-up to the big day. It isn’t only the National Bard they study, of course. Using 25 January as a springboard they look at other, more modern verse too, including Matt McGinn’s Jeely Piece Song and Margaret Hamilton’s Lament for a Lost Dinner Ticket.

Anyway, we logged on to the websites and looked at words such as “glaikit” and “lugs” and “wabbit” and “gallus” and talked about how expressive they are and how remarkable it is that some of them have meanings which cannot be fully expressed in English. We talked about the difference between dialect and accent and how, though we don’t speak Scots, we still use words like “fouter”, “thrawn”, “crabbit” and “midden” on a regular basis. What we didn’t do, was engage in some tedious debate on whether or not Scots was a bona fide language, a dialect of English or merely slang because frankly, my dears, neither o’ us gied a damn.

Later that evening, however, lots of people on Twitter were getting worked up about just such matters. The spark for the discussion was The National newspaper which had chosen to mark the launch of a new Scots column by writing its entire front page in “the mithir tongue.” As a one-off, I loved it. What’s not to love about seeing the phrase “stairheid rammy” in a headline? I want such phrases to flourish, not as a great expression of national identity or to advance some political agenda, but because they possess innate beauty and worth and enhance our linguistic powers. Many others praised it too. But some found it cringeworthy. The “Scots language” is a synthetic construct, they said, given many different dialects were spoken in different parts of the country, and therefore unworthy of such attention.

From there, the debate progressed to schools. Last year, Education Scotland urged teachers to increase the use of Scots language in the classroom. Now, the inevitable backlash that call provoked resurfaced, with one commentator, tweeting: “What kind of school system takes on a f***ing invented language and teaches it? We’d be as well teaching Wookie or Klingon.”

All this was being played out against the backdrop of a separate row over the introduction of standardised tests in primaries, and in the midst of all the hoo-ha it struck me (though not for the first time): in polarised, post-referendum Scotland, pupils are just pawns in an ideological war.

There’s fault on both sides. Under the SNP, it feels as if Scottish literature and history isn’t being taught simply because it is interesting and important, but to make a statement. For all the protestations to the contrary, Scottish pupils have long learned a smattering of Scots words.

Now, however, pupils must LEARN SCOTS in some kind of grander, declamatory way. Then there’s the National Fives. Thirty-odd years ago, I studied The Horses by Edwin Muir for my O Grade English. Muir was born in Orkney and moved to Glasgow but believed the only way we could establish a national literature was by writing in English. Now my 15-year-old son is studying six poems by former Scots Makar Edwin Morgan (who left almost £1 million to the SNP in his will). I have no real objection to this, but I dislike the prescriptiveness and drum-beating that accompanied the drawing up of the list of works for the new compulsory Scottish literature question. Ditto the emphasis on the Scottish Wars of Independence. In essence, it’s a great thing: not only is this an exciting period of history, but it means trips to Stirling Castle and the Bannockburn Visitor Centre. Yet you can never quite escape the sense that its place at the heart of most schools’ primary teaching suits the SNP just fine.

The other side – those unionists who, also for political reasons, decry Gaelic schools or signage and other expressions of Scottish culture – are just as bad. They speak of the “ridiculousness” of teaching Scots as a proper language as if, in classrooms across the country, children were conjugating verbs and wading through translations, as opposed to simply revelling in the wonder of words such as “tattie-bogle”. As Edinburgh-based linguistics expert Pavel Iosad said in a piece in the New Statesman last week: “Criticism of language rarely has to do with the language itself but is a proxy for social attitudes.”

Those who are uncomfortable with children learning Scots needn’t worry. Once standardised tests in maths and literacy are introduced in primaries, attention will doubtless switch to making sure pupils pass them and we will hear less about “the mithir tongue”. Standardised testing is the frontline in another ideological battle, only this time the principle at stake is the notion that publicly identifying those schools where numeracy and literacy levels are low will help them improve.

Personally, I look forward to the day when Scottish culture and education is once again valued for its own sake, not viewed through the prism of the independence debate, or kicked about as a political football by ideologues whose chief objective is to lay a glove on their opponents. But I’m no’ haudin’ ma braith.