Susan Morrison: Word has it, I’ve had right rerr terr

Scottish weather may be a bit mingin’ and dreich, but language is real thing of beauty...

It’s enough to gie ye the boak.

As part of the just-launched history festival (yes, Susan Morrison proudly punting her favourite festival since September 2011), we are recreating The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy. Now, for those of you who don’t know what the flyting is – and, weirdly, it’s dropped off the school curriculum – it’s a word battle between two poets, Dunbar and Kennedy, at the court of James IV.

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The insults are clever and frantic and very, very funny. The two makars have a right go with Latin phrases, high-flown metaphor and firecracker alliteration, and it is also the first time a certain four-letter word ever appears in print. In fact, two very rude four-letter words. Oh, hang on, that’s probably why it’s not in classroom poetry lessons alongside that guy wittering on about daffodils.

It’s the great showcase for the Scots language which, in the face of insurmountable odds, survives. Only this morning at the bus stop, a fellow traveller told an argumentative man who was delaying the forward progress of the bus to “get away an bile yer heid, ya gleikit eejit”. That’s poetry.

Scots language has its own rules about time. Everyone knows that ten minutes to or past the hour is generally known as roon aboot, as in “roon aboot 12”. Should the meeting be some time after the hour, then that would be categorised as “jist efter”. And Scotty was wrong, you can change the laws of physics, since only in Scotland can you have a “wee minute”.

If you are feeling poorly, then there is nothing more certain to get you back on your feet than a nap, or a “wee ten minutes”. This was my old auntie Suzie’s cure for all, until the final lie-down. As she lay on her death bed, she told my mother not to grieve too much. She’d had a good life, she said. In fact, she’d had a “right rerr terr” – a phrase that defies translation. And she had. When she was a young woman, she’d been chucked out of the Panopticon Music Hall in Glasgow for spitting cherry stones at the trombone player.

Might get that put on my gravestone: I had a right rerr terr.

It’s time to wake up and embrace Leith-Weegie

While we’re on the subject, though, my pal Richard Melvin came up with a jolly plan. Let’s create a new language and get funding for it. Stoatin’ idea. Ulster Scots got a whack of cash from Europe, so I’m suggesting Leith Scots with Glaswegian contraction. Leithers and Glaswegians can take entire conversations and distil them into a single word.

When my auntie Ailie was living with us, she was being courted by an American. Her transatlantic beau would occasionally stay over – sleeping downstairs, of course. We had a nylon sleeping bag for such contingencies.

One morning, the lovelorn Yank asked mum what was the word she shouted up the stairs to wake his beloved from her slumbers.

It’s just one word, he said. Mum was baffled. It starts with a “Y”, he continued.

“Oh,” said mum. “That’s no a word. It’s ‘Yupyet’.” Or, as our English cousins would say, “Are you up yet?” If that’s not the basis for a new language then what is?

Putting working-class past to bed

Mum signalled our move up in the world from tenement to terrace through language. On the first night in our new house, my five-year-old self was tucked up in her new bed, which felt very far away from everyone. And I just knew there were bogles, beasties and bears under that new bed.

Mum came upstairs to find me with the candlewick up to my chin and my teddy in the brace position, ready to bolt below the covers at the first sight of scary eyes coming out of the wardrobe (they live in there as well).

“Why are you not asleep?” she demanded.

“Ah’m feart,” I said.

“No,” she said firmly. “You’re no’ feart. You’re scared.”

Thus, I knew we had elevated to the middle classes.

What do you mean it’s £14 to get in?

On Sunday, we took our son to Edinburgh Castle to see the names of his great, great uncles in the Book of Remembrance. It’s a little family ritual.

My dad took me there when I was seven. He had to lift me up to look at the names typed neatly on the yellow paper.

Outside, there was a little girl sitting on the same stone lion my brother sat on when he was about five, too. Her dad was explaining that the English had once attacked the Castle and bombarded it.

“Is that ’cos they didnae want to pay tae get in?” she asked.

Good point, well made, little sister.