Mindin’ the mither tongue

Welcome to a world of cyber dugs, yattering yaks and Greek gods who discuss their Olympian affairs in gallus Glaswegian patois. Another planet? You could say that. Planet Fankle is one of the first four books to be published by Itchy Coo, a new initiative, based at Dundee University, designed to meet a pressing need for imaginative, attractively illustrated school materials in Scots.

Launching its first publications this Tuesday, during the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Itchy Coo, catering for pre-school to Advanced Higher levels, is the brainchild of three people, combining a wealth of experience in teaching, writing and editing Scots literature and language.

One of them is Matthew Fitt, the project’s schools Scots language development officer, and author of the groundbreaking Scots science-fiction novel But ’n Ben A-Go-Go, who says that demand for the books has grown beyond all expectations.

"In 1991 the Scottish Consultative Committee on the Curriculum advised that the languages children bring to school should be fostered and encouraged," says Fitt. "Many children use Scots in their day-to-day life but are discouraged from using it at school and often don’t know what common words such as ‘brae’ and ‘burn’, actually mean."

Many teachers, he adds, have been working to promote Scots but have been hindered by a lack of resource material. "It’s vital that their understanding of Scots isn’t lost, because access to their own culture will disappear with it," says Fitt. "Nor will they be able to access their country’s literature, from the works of Robert Burns to those of 20th-century authorities such as Hugh MacDiarmid and William Soutar."

Also behind the project are James Robertson, author of the widely praised novel The Fanatic, and Scots lexicographer Susan Rennie, editor of The Electronic Scots School Dictionary.

Assisted by Lottery funding through the Scottish Arts Council, Itchy Coo’s first four books, published next month by Leith-based Black & White Publishing, are Animal ABC: A Scots Alphabet and a primary school Scots reader, Planet Fankle, both by Rennie, The Hoose o Haivers - Fitt’s rip-roaring take on the Greek and Roman legends, and Robertson’s A Scots Parliament, telling the story of that institution until the union of 1707 and in its recently reconstituted form.

The mother of a five-year-old daughter, Susan Rennie was only too aware of the difficulty of finding attractively presented children’s books in Scots: "So we decided there was no point in doing anything that wasn’t well-illustrated and in full colour, especially for the younger age groups. "

The books aimed at younger readers - such as her ABC with its wonderful lines about "Auld armadillos airm in airm" or "Yaks yattering ower yetts" - concentrate on core Scots vocabulary. "With later age groups we start introducing dialect variations, more advanced grammatical features, things like that."

Bearing in mind the many teachers who, with the best will in the world, don’t have any background in Scots, each book has corresponding teachers’ notes.

Rennie and her colleagues decided to deal with different dialects, rather than trying to establish a generic standard. Fitt’s Hoose o Haivers skips between dialect areas to give a rumbustious re-telling of classical mythology, with the Midas legend, for instance, told in Dundonian Scots, The Twelve Trauchles o Heracles in bumptious Big Yin-style Glaswegian and Orpheus and Eurydice in lilting north-east Doric: "Eence, fin the musician Orpheus wis a loon, he cairted his lyre til the tap o the Apollo Braes abeen his fedder’s ferm ..."

"There’s so much stuff in Scottish literature that relies on a knowledge of the Greek and Roman myths, that we wanted to introduce these stories early on, " says Rennie. At a primary level, her own Planet Fankle combines lively illustrations and imaginative but accessible use of Scots to introduce primary readers to a world where "cyberdugs" and "astrostavaigers" travel through space in wormholes.

Back down to earth, there is a certain irony that while the Scottish parliament currently stands accused of not committing itself sufficiently to supporting the ailing Scots tongue (signage in the new building is to be in English and Gaelic only), James Robertson’s A Scots Parliament tells the story of the institution in that very language in which its business was once conducted.

Written primarily for secondary school readers, this warts-and-all portrait of the parliament is also aimed at a wider readership, says Robertson. "Writing it in Scots was a challenge," he says, "but I’m pleased with the way it’s turned out. And it’s in an accessible, modern Scots."

The book provides examples of the old parliament’s acts, such as the banning of football and golf in favour of martial arts, the persecution of witches and the 16th-century clamp-down on beggars and "Egyptians" or gypsies, the last giving a salutory nod to the ethnic cleansing of all too recent history elsewhere in Europe: "It’s worth remindin oorsels that the Scots hae been just as capable o sic behaviour as onybody else."

For further details, visit www.itchy-coo.com. The first four titles are launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 20 August.