University of Aberdeen Takes you to the main page for this section
Elphinstone Kist   Background and Contexts

Scots in the 21st Century     by: McGugan, Irene

Scots in the 21st Century: Extracts from a Paper Delivered at a Symposium on Language and Politics - Belfast (23rd to 25th August 2001)



Thank you for the warm welcome, and for the invitation to visit Belfast for the first time, to take part in this very important debate on our languages and the importance of political and legislative measures for their future.

I am speaking to you today principally as the Convenor of the Cross-Party Group in the Scottish Parliament, on the Scots Language and as President of the Scots Language Society.

You may not be aware that in the Scottish Parliament speaking contributions are restricted to 4 minutes - which makes a speech of nearly half an hour something of a marathon.

No one would dispute that Governments do have a role to play in preserving and nurturing the languages of the peoples whom they govern. Not to do so is offensive to human rights and to international treaties imposing obligations, sometimes very specific obligations,,on their government signatories.

Governments spend their peoples' money on education systems and in promoting the framework in which these are regulated.

Through all its channels, direct and indirect, taxation funds arts and libraries and cultural life.

Through law-making, appointments, administration and pervasive influence, governments also have a greater or lesser say in such matters as broadcasting and publishing, and crucially for languages, in making them seem to their citizens worthwhile or pointless to preserve.

There is a vast body of international experience that can inform dealing in good faith with minority and threatened language communities, through the adoption of effective policies. There is equally a sad history of the destruction of languages by discouragement and neglect.

Let me give you a little bit of Scottish political history - before the Union of the Crowns in 1603, virtually everybody in Scotland, who did not speak Gaelic, spoke Scots. Scots was the State Language. It was spoken at Court, it was the language of the Scottish Parliament and the State Records were in Scots. Oh happy days!

After Scotland lost her parliament (temporarily) in 1707, Scots came to be represented in education and in public life as a corrupt form of English. Generations of Scots have had to come to terms with a situation where the way of speech natural to them was officially regarded as unacceptable and unsuitable for formal use.

In an age of despotism at the end of the l8th century, even Robert Burns was advised by the anglicised elite at the head of Scottish society not to write in Scots, as it would be dead within a few generations. Thankfully for world literature, Burns kennt better and continued to express in his mither tongue, songs like the great radical hymn "Is There For Honest Poverty" which so movingly opened our Parliament and established a new democracy for Scotland in 1999.

Despite this establishment death wish, Scots is still alive and thriving. You can still find brilliant examples of the rich diversity of dialects within Scots all of them essential to the true expression of their own locality. Scots survives, but whereas in the past it could survive on its own, like many fragile living things, it now needs support and help.

It is reckoned that up to one and a half million Scots speak the language, yet few have access to knowledge of it and most remain ignorant of its brilliant cultural legacy.

But with the advent of the Scottish Parliament new opportunities have arisen, and perhaps it should not be unreasonable to expect a radical change in public attitudes in Scotland to what was formerly the State Language.

Surely, you would think, our new Scottish democracy must recognise the culture and speech of the mass of the people if it is to approach the ideal of inclusivity cherished by all those who have worked for the creation of the Parliament?

Because for many, their desire for a Scottish Parliament was always tied in closely with the assumption that it would naturally offer direct support and encouragement for the indigenous culture. As yet this has not happened. This core strand of Scottish culture is marginalised and our new democracy I would contend, will not be successful until Scots is brought in from the margins to play the crucial role it merits in the cultural life of the people and the nation.

I'll give you one example of this. A broad alliance of Scots language organisation supported the case to have a question on Scots included in the 2001 census. This case was successively rejected by the Scottish Office and then by the Scottish Executive apparently on the grounds that definition of terms would be too difficult, and any research conclusions on Census figures obtained might therefore be unsound. It was one of the most depressing days of my life to take part in a debate where negative attitudes towards the language remained and prevailed. No alternative research approach has yet been proposed by the Executive, although it would seem only logical that an effective policy for Scots should be soundly based on valid research.

So how can we make progress?

Well! One of the tangible benefits of the re-establishment of a Parliament in Edinburgh is that is has created an accessible political focus for interest groups on a whole range of activities. The founding principles of the SP include in fact, accessibility.

Among the mechanisms for translating ideas into long-term political strategies is the cross-party group, which works on the principle of involving outside bodies and individuals with MSPs of all parties interested in their activities.

For the first time in centuries, possibly ever, the status, condition and future of the Scots language are being given serious consideration at parliamentary level.

Because after a preliminary meeting in November 2000, the Cross-Pairtie Group i the Scottish Pairliament on the Scots Leid was established in January of this year, its purpose being "tae forder the cause o the Scots Leid, lat memmers ken aboot the cultur and heritage o the leid and shaw the need for action tae uphaud Scots".

We have made an excellent start in gathering together a large and diverse range of individuals from all areas of Scots language activism, and a small number of MSPs from across the party spectrum. MSPs who can and do speak Scots in their everyday lives. That is very significant!

Membership of this group includes those at the very forefront of the SL campaign with phenomenal expertise and talent. That being the case, it will come as no surprise to anyone in this room that when I said that we had a "diverse" range of individuals, that also applies to their views.

However, we have been busy. Four members of our group are reviewing the current status of Scots within the context of international and European statements on the language - such as the Barcelona Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights, in order to summarise the purposes and identify the articles with most relevance to the unusual but not unique situation of Scots.

This Statement of Principles will form the basis of our work in seeking to have Scots recognised and respected. We are very conscious that in setting out our aims, which we want to be ambitious for our language, we also need to be realistic about what we can achieve. Success is likely to be measured in small and incremental steps, but with no doubt about what our ultimate goal should be.

A highly useful paper on the state of educational policy and resources vis-a-vis Scots was presented and we now have a standing sub-group on this important issue. A member of the group has been asked to compile a Regional Dossier for Scots for the European Union. This is good, because it is cannot fail to highlight the vulnerability of the language, (as few official statistics exist) and will certainly underline the current lack of political and educational support for the language.

We are considering how to build on the growing interest in Scots from school students and teachers, against a background of disinterest in producing material in Scots from mainstream publishers.

In terms of Cultural Tourism, having identified serious omissions on the web-site of Visitscotland, the group initiated a dialogue with the organisation, and offered to collate information which would promote cultural tourism.
A related campaign issue is the use of English terms for traditional Scots features, which threatens to dilute our distinctive culture, e.g. the Forth Estuary.

As Convenor, I have to remember that we are not a literary group, though writers, poets, singers and broadcasters are very well represented in our membership. Nor are we an academic group, though again we have representatives from I think, every institution in Scotland with an interest or involvement in the Scots language. We are a POLITICAL GROUP. I am very particular about stressing the need to be positive and forward looking and about avoiding getting hung up on the many details of policy and opinion that might divide the Group.

The sort of thing I mean is reflected to some extent in every discussion about Scots:
Do we in fact need to go right back to basics and make the case for Scots as a language in its own right?
Should there be a Scots word for everything or can we allow the common root with English to be reflected in our spoken Scots?
Should there be a standard form of spelling?
How do we get more written Scots into the public domain?
And especially, how do we make a case, when figureheads for the language such as myself to some extent, put forward the case in English?

The discussions within the CPG are lively and on target for being really productive. But I am also aware that we will only really be making progress when these discussions are taking place OUTSIDE the Parliament and in the streets and houses and schools and pubs of every village and town in Scotland.

There is much criticism by activists of the Scottish Parliament and its perceived lack of recognition of Scots. Only three Motions have ever been lodged in Scots - all by me - and an English translation also had to be submitted. Signage throughout the buildings is in English and Gaelic only. We have had whole debates in Gaelic with translators available, but not for Scots. A Gaelic Dictionary of Parliamentary terms has just been introduced. Nae word of sic a thing for Scots. We have a Parliamentary Gaelic Officer, but not one for Scots.

Recognition by the parliament is crucial for the languages' survival and for the status it will give to those who speak it.
I quote "The Scottish Executive considers the Scots language to be an important part of Scotland's distinctive linguistic and cultural heritage". Despite this, the Scottish Executive it has to be said has singularly failed to come up with any commitment to the language -never mind anything like the high level of state endorsement and funding which Gaelic has enjoyed.

I take nothing away from the efforts of the Gaels, the very survival of whose language is threatened - the success of the Gaelic lobby in promoting its cause results in part from the fact that it has been able in recent years to present a united front, has a clear view of what it is seeking and has possessed the resolution and resource to pursue its goals. Also there can be no doubt that the popular image of the Scots language suffers in comparison with that of Gaelic.

In many people's eyes Gaelic is indissolubly linked to the romantically attractive and enduring perception of a magical Highland landscape enveloped in mists and myths. In stark and unappealing contrast, the Scots language is frequently portrayed as firmly enmired in the cauld and clairie kailyard.

So we need to be making sure that Scots has proper respect too.

It is worth noting that the National Cultural Strategy is not only printed in English and Gaelic, but is also available I understand in Urdu, Cantonese, Punjabi, Hindi and Gujerati. While I have no difficulty whatsoever with that, Scots speakers although outnumbering these five groups put together, have to make do with the English version.

What reasons could there be for this lack of governmental support? Maybe consideration of the Scots language is inextricably bound up with considerations of national identity, which might fuel aspirations for separate nationhood and the consequent fragmentation of the UK.

Maybe if the Scots language was to be accorded greater recognition by the Scottish Parliament, there might be increased political pressure for Scotland to become a signatory in its own right to the international treaties which are relevant - but foreign affairs is a matter reserved to Westminster.

And perhaps the most compelling reason of all for the Government to resist pressures to recognise Scots as an official language is financial. If implemented, the Articles of the European Charter would incur a very heavy economic cost in the areas particularly of education, culture and economic and social life.

These might sound insurmountable, but we should also remember the other initiatives currently helping to keep Scots to the forefront politically -the work that is being done for the European Year of Languages;the ratification of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages that took effect on 1st July this year. Under Part II the focus is basically one of anti-discrimination- there is no requirement which commits the UK Government to protecting and preserving Scots. However, the Government is obliged to report from time to time on progress.

These are all significant achievements, which prove we are at least going in the right direction, at last.

Another significant development recently is that the Education, Culture and Sport Committee of the Scottish Parliament decided to undertake and inquiry and report on the role of cultural and educational policy and provision in supporting and developing Scots, Gaelic and minority languages.

I have been appointed by the committee to undertake this enquiry! Evidence has already been received from a range of organisations and individuals with and interest in and knowledge of cultural and educational policy with relevance to the remit.

There will be many in the audience today who have something to contribute, and with that in mind I have some handouts giving information about how that can be submitted. We would be most appreciative of input from Ireland, Germany, Norway and Switzerland.

We know to some extent what needs to happen to improve the status of the Scots language:

The twin elements of education and the media are crucially important for the future of Scots.

In general the media in Scotland behave as if the Scots language does not exist, although a majority of the population understand and employ some Scots every day. In radio there has been some limited devolution to local radio and to BBC Radio Scotland. However, television in Scotland is almost entirely London-centred, so that even the small number of dramatic productions originating here are expected to conform to a pattern set elsewhere. Broadcasting unfortunately remains a matter reserved to Westminster, and until the Scottish Parliament has some control in this area, Scots will never be given its proper place in radio and TV.

With regard to education, for many teachers, the Scots Language component of English Language 5-14 curriculum did not cause them to change their provision of Scots Language. A Scot poem to be learned by heart around the start of term 3 with very little explanation of what the words mean and where they come from, is still in 2001 the only Scots Language provision offered by many primary schools.

A teacher recently told me that he visited primary schools whose names were comprised of some basic Scots words. At Burnbrae, the P7 children knew neither the word "burn" nor "brae" and at Bonnyholm Primary, the P6/7 composite class did not recognise the word "bonny". Even worse it has now been established that in lots of schools, many pupils are unable to pronounce the "ch" sound, using "k" - lock for loch e.g.

But there is an appetite for Scots in schools from pupils, teachers and advisers; it is now time for the Government to participate more full in the development of this essential aspect of Scottish life.

There is a general feeling that at last the opportunity exists to effect significant changes in attitude and allocation of resources to Scots, through the political process.

Wishful thinking may not yet be consigned to the midden of history, but requests for political action, particularly towards improving the treatment of Scots, can now be made with greater confidence that they will not fall entirely on deif lugs.

We need amongst other things:

* recognition by the UK Government of Scots, in parity with Gaelic under Part 111 of the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages;

* for the Scots Language to have official status and be recognised in public life, including the Courts and the Law, as a valuable part of our national heritage;

* for the Scots Language to be included as an essential and integral part of the school curriculum both at primary and secondary level;

* and in view of the fact that Scots can be understood to a varying degree by the great majority of the Scottish people, it should be given its rightful place in the media as a valuable aspect of linguistic heritage.

In this new Scotland, there is no doubt that Scots is still subject to the same tired old prejudices, but now, maybe, we have the where with all to embarrass the establishment into greater commitment to Scotland's neglected Lowland tongue.



© University of Aberdeen   Return to Home page