Scotland's claim to fame as birthplace of the F-word revealed

It is the country that has turned cursing into something of an art form. Now a new TV documentary is set to reveal Scotland’s new claim to fame as the birthplace of the F-word.

Actress and theatre-maker Cora Bissett and language expert Dr Joanna Kopaczyk pore over the earliest written records of swearing in Scotland.
Actress and theatre-maker Cora Bissett and language expert Dr Joanna Kopaczyk pore over the earliest written records of swearing in Scotland.

Experts say the origins of the profanity can be traced all the way back to the 16th century equivalent of a rap battle.

An account of a “flyting” duel between two poets, held in the collection of the National Library of Scotland, is said to be its first recorded use anywhere in the world.

The hour-long BBC Scotland programme, which airs on Tuesday, sees actress, singer and theatre-maker Cora Bissett trace the nation’s long love affair with swearing and insults, despite the long-standing efforts of religious leaders to condemn it as a sin.

The earliest written record of the F-word is in a manuscript held in the archives of the National Library of Scotland.

Billed as “a celebration of Caledonian cursing,” the documentary sees Bissett visit the National Library’s archives in Edinburgh for some detective work with Dr Joanna Kopaczyk, a historical linguistics expert from Glasgow University.

In Scotland – Contains Strong Language, they explore the Bannatyne Manuscript, one of the most important collections of medieval Scottish literature, which was compiled by the Edinburgh merchant George Bannatyne in 1568 when a plague struck the city and he was forced to stay at home.

The collection contains The Flyting Of Dunbar And Kennedy, an account by the poet William Dunbar of a duel with Walter Kennedy, said to have been conducted in Edinburgh before the court of King James IV of Scotland in around 1500.

In the documentary, which will go out on the BBC Scotland channel at 10pm, Dr Kopaczyk describes how Bannatyne’s collection describes “some very juicy language” and points out that one of insults traded between the two poets was the phrase “wan fukkit funling.”

Cora Bissett presents the 'celebration of Caledonian cursing,' which goes out on Tuesday.

She adds: “We are looking at a 500-year-old object. It’s a very precious manuscript and you can see the actual handwriting. In The Flyting Of Dunbar And Kennedy, when Kennedy addresses Dunbar, there is the earliest surviving record of the word ‘f***’ in the world.”

Bissett says: “It might never quite make the tourist trail, but here in the National Library we have the first written ‘f***’ in the world. I think that’s something to be proud of.”

A spokeswoman for the National Library said: “The Bannatyne Manuscript is a collection of some 400 poems compiled by the young Edinburgh merchant George Bannatyne in the last months of 1568, when an outbreak of plague in Edinburgh compelled him to stay indoors. It is one of the most important surviving sources of Older Scots poetry.

“The manuscript remained in his descendants’ possession until they gifted it to the National Library’s predecessor – in 1772.

This is believed to the earliest written record of the F-word anywhere in the world.

“It has long been known that the manuscript contains some strong swearwords that are now common in everyday language, although at the time, they were very much used in good-natured jest.

“In particular the great slanging match between the poets William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy has been infamous for giving us the earliest known examples of these terms in written form.”

The documentary explores some of Scotland’s most celebrated controversies over bad language, including Billy Connolly’s famous run-ins with religious leader Pastor Jack Glass and author James Kelman’s 1994 Booker Prize winner How Late It Was, How Late, which is thought to contain the F-word more than 4,000 times, and charts the sweeping changes in attitudes to swearing by broadcasters.

John McCormick, former controller of BBC Scotland, who joined the corporation in 1970, says: “When I started out in the BBC there was a very strict no-swearing policy.

“Words like bloody, bugger and damn would be questionable – if you would ever hear them. If you were going into people’s homes, you wouldn’t want to use them.”

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