But now organisers of this year’s Edinburgh People’s Festival are aiming to take argument to a whole new level – by reviving the Scottish tradition of “flyting”.
Described as a contest consisting of the ritual exchange of insults and abuse, it is expected the participants will not be holding back in their arguments on either side.
Kevin Williamson, founder of the cult publishing house Rebel Inc, which discovered Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, and Neil Findlay, a Lothians Labour MSP, have been lined up for a “flyting-style” debate on independence as part of the festival next month.
Flyting dates back to Anglo Saxon times, but became a form of public entertainment in Scotland in the 15th and 16th centuries when makars, or poets, would engage in verbal contests of abuse. James IV and James V encouraged “court flyting”. A contest between William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy in front of James IV is said to include the earliest recorded use of the word “s***” as a personal insult.
Flytings also appear in several of Shakespeare’s plays. And while the language is often crude, flyting itself is seen as quite a skill and has been described as “the verbal equivalent of virtuoso sword-play”.
Festival director Colin Fox, a former Scottish Socialist MSP, said the flyting tradition was also important to Scottish poets such as Hamish Henderson and Hugh MacDiarmid, who were inspirational figures for the original People’s Festival in the 1950s.
Mr Fox expects next month’s clash between Messrs Williamson and Findlay to be a passionate debate with no quarter given. He said: “Both of them are passionate speakers. They will both be allowed to say what they like with no holds barred, but they will be asked to be respectful of other people,
“They will each be trying to persuade the audience of their case, but they will be encouraged to make it entertaining.”
Mr Fox claimed the event could help bring some life to the independence v union issue. “This is a debate that needs some spark,” he said. “So far it has been criticised for being all about process and technicalities and being pretty tedious. We will be focusing on the real meat of the difference between people.”
The flyting is on Thursday, August 9 at 7.30pm, at the Out of the Blue Arts Centre, Dalmeny Street, Leith.
The festival was founded in 2002 by community activists and arts enthusiasts and is marking its tenth anniversary by “recession-proofing” the event and waiving all ticket prices. Along with the flyting, other highlights this year include a Rebus tour of city locations and comedy stars in Gorgie.
Mr Fox said: “Thanks to the generosity of Edinburgh’s trade union movement all our shows will be free this year. So here’s an unbeatable opportunity to forget the recession and celebrate with the ‘festival for the people and by the people’.
Comment – Page 14
Independence: it’s your choice
Flyting independence - Trainspotting-style
How the flyting debate might go were the participants to take a couple of famous Trainspotting quotes as their guide:
Choose Life. Choose independence. Choose a big ******* First Minister. Choose free prescriptions, free bus travel for pensioners. Choose full ******* fiscal powers. Choose the pound. Choose a Scotland free of nuclear ******* weapons. Choose to still be in Nato. Choose DIY, cause we don’t need anyone to ******* help us. Choose to tax the **** out of big oil companies. Choose clean energy. Choose a one-question referendum. Choose Scotland.
IT’S ***** being independent. Some hate the Union. I don’t. It’s just full of *******. We, on the other hand, think that we are better than these ******* even when we’re ruled over by misguided ******* who can’t even decide what ******* currency they want, how the army would work or how they can pay for all this free *****. It’s a ***** state of affairs to be in and all the independence in the world won’t make any ******* difference.
n With apologies to Irvine Welsh