How Scotland's sport clubs help keep Scots alive as a language – Alistair Heather

Dundee United fans, including many Scots speakers, celebrate a goal (Picture: Michael Gillen)Dundee United fans, including many Scots speakers, celebrate a goal (Picture: Michael Gillen)
Dundee United fans, including many Scots speakers, celebrate a goal (Picture: Michael Gillen)
Scots is surviving in part because of this country’s sporting clubs and their fans, writes Alistair Heather in Scots with an English version below.

Sport’s at the hairt o oor culture. The langer its pit aff wi the virus, the mair that’ll be tint. Them that arnae intae sport, wha dinnae hae a team in the SPFL, dinnae hae a ba o ony shape in the gairden, they dinnae aye see sport as essential.

But Scotland wioot sport wad be a wersh version o itsel. Peely-wally. Washed-oot.

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I’ve nae lang finished a documentary aboot the Scots leid, cried Rebel Tongue. It’s up on the iPlayer the noo. We funn that Scots, in aa its braw urban an rural dialects fae Ayrshire up, wadnae be near sae lively had it no been fir sport. Haud on an I’ll explain ye.

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Scots is a language and not ‘slang’ – Alistair Heather

Owre the seevnty years just by, Scotland’s chynged. Kirks hae shut doon, mills went oot o business. Supermairkets oot o toon took owre the place o local shoppies. Even mony o the guid auld battle-cruiser boozers that aince lurked in ilka scheme an village are awa. These were the centres whaur Scotland’s ethnic culture wis wrocht, challenged, makkit modren. These tint spaces gied Scots less space tae be spake.

Further assaults fae the public braidcaster - wha marginalised the tongue on the tele - an fae oor education system - wha at ae time caaed fir an ‘unrelenting campaign’ tae be waged on Scots - pit the leid intae decline owre the last decades o the 20th century.

Sports clubs gied bield tae the leid, an tae the attendant culture. Sportin societies maistly cam o age in the latter 1800s, just as the seccont Industrial Revolution wis gettin up a heid o steam. As fowk were sindered fae their traditional modes o livin, o eatin, o traivelin an o warkin, sports clubs gied them space tae be their sels, tae keep their identities an their dialect mair protectit fae the warld ootside.

We ken that fitba clubs are culturally conservative spaces. That's how yer likes o sectarianism an racism can hing aboot like a honkin fart langer in stadia than ootside. This cultural conservatism isnae aye guid. But fir ethnic culture, an fir the Scots leid, it’s a saviour.

Fir filmin Rebel Tongue we went tae twa sports clubs. Hawick RFC an Dundee United. Baith hae been awfy important in preservin the distinct Scots dialects o their areas, in different weys.

Hawick has lang been a mill toon, drawin its pooer fae the twa rivers it sits aboon. Lang syne, the distinct Scots dialect o the fowk wad hae thrived in the mills. These deys, wi mony o them shut doon, an mair an mair fowk gingin in tae wark in offices whaur English dominates, the leid could hae deed awa. Happily, Hawick has an astonishin seeven rugby clubs an at least twa amateur fitba teams. Fir the documentary, we went alang tae Hawick RFC trainin. The hail session wis done in Scots, wi coaches shoutin at pleyers “no tae drap that ba” and “dinnae hud back wi him!” Tae tak pairt, ye hae tae ken Scots. Ae Polish pleyer wis haein aahin pit fae Scots tae Polish fir him by a bilingual Hawick laddie.

At Tannadice, hame o Dundee United FC, it isnae the pleyers that are sae important. It’s the stadium itsel, situated in the middle o warkin-class Dundee. It gies fowk a venue tae blether thegither in their ain Dundee Scots, wioot judgement or correction. Online, United supporters can jyne in wi threids in forums in Scots, or snipe at ane anither on social media in their ain tongue. There’s even noo a United podcast wi twa Dundee Scots speakin hosts. United provides a hail ecosystem whaur Scots is the first leid.

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Hawick RFC, Dundee United an the hunners o ither sports club fae totty wee bowlin clubs tae muckle fitba teams hae done mair fir oor tradtional cultural continuity, cohesion an confidence than onythin fae officialdom.

Sports clubs are vital, an the sooner we can safely get them aa back up an rinnin again, the better fir aabdy

English version:

Sport is central to society. The longer it's suspended by coronavirus, the greater the loss. For those without a team in the SPFL, or set of golf clubs, sport can seem frivolous. However, it plays vital cultural roles.

Last night my documentary, Rebel Tongue, about the decline and growth of the Scots language, was broadcast on BBC Scotland. Sport is a huge part of the story of that language’s survival.

Through the last 70 years, society in Scotland changed. Kirks closed, mills shut, supermarkets replaced grocers, the drink-sodden pubs that pooled in the recesses of our schemes and villages evaporated. These environments were forums where identities could be developed, challenged and renewed. Stories, language, music, belief, all sorts of valuable sharing took place, and it was in these spaces that Scotland’s ethnic culture was maintained. Their destruction deeply impacted upon the transmission of our traditional language.

Further assaults from the educational authorities – who went so far as to call for an ‘unrelenting campaign’ against the Scots language to be waged in classrooms – and public broadcaster further reduced the vibrancy of the Scots language and much attendant culture.

‘Dinnae hud back wi him!’

Sports clubs became incubators, protecting against this change. Clubs and sporting societies began to organise in the 1800s, as the second industrial revolution gathered steam. People were being uprooted, moved. Lifestyles were changed radically. Sports clubs provided centres of continuity, where local culture, values, identities and language were at least partially safeguarded against the tremendous alterations going on around them. They provided safe spaces for people to continue to speak Scots.

An example. The Borders town of Hawick has a distinct, rich and beautiful Scots dialect. According to the census, around half the population speak it. Once upon a time, Scots would’ve been the first language of the numerous mills that dominated the riverbanks of Hawick. Now many of them are closed, that space for language and cultural transmission is reduced. Sport stepped into the breach.

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Hawick today boasts seven rugby clubs and a pair of football clubs. A remarkable number for a town of less than 10,000 souls. In creating the documentary, I went down to Hawick RFC training one cold Borders evening. The entire thing was led by Scots-speaking coaches, who yelled at folk “no tae drap that ba” and “dinnae hud back wi him!” In order to take part, you have to understand Scots. It is the language of instruction. The other clubs, I'm told, are much the same. These sporting centres provide an invaluable incubator for language against the economic and social buffets the town has taken.

Scots social media

Filming for the documentary also took us to Tannadice, home of Dundee United. Supporters of the club can speak Scots on the terraces every week, and also join in endless threads of chat about the club on forums and on social media where Scots is an accepted medium.

The club even generates its own fan podcast with hosts who speak Dundee Scots. It is a whole Scots language biosphere that protects and nurtures the tongue and the culture of its supporters against the changes and attitudes outside.

Hawick RFC, Dundee United and so many sporting organisations like them play a vital cultural role. As we discovered in filming the documentary, these clubs have done more than our education system, devolved government and public broadcaster combined, in order to safeguard our language. And this is only a fragment of their positive impact.

Sports clubs are vital, and the sooner they are safely back up and running, the better for aabdy.

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