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Elphinstone Kist   Background and Contexts

Doric: Far dis it come fae?     by: McClure, Derrick

The distinctive set of dialects heard in North-East Scotland form one of the clearest and most cherished markers of the region’s individual identity; yet this well-founded pride often co-exists with a defective understanding of the nature and historic origin of the Doric. To dispose of a couple of misunderstandings at the outset: it is not the language of the Picts, those “happy Maglemosians” of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s imagination; and still less is it any kind of slang or careless speech (though the Doric can be spoken carelessly as can any other medium of expression).

Doric is a sub-set of Scots, and Scots is a sub-set of—? The task of filling up the blank at once presents us with a difficulty. English? In one possible sense of the word; but certainly not if “English” is taken to mean the international lingua franca of our own time. Doric has its origins in the tongue of the Anglo-Saxon invaders whose first contribution to the history of the British Isles was to bring an end to Roman Imperial rule and destroy most of the traces of Romano-British civilisation. First arriving in the South--Eastern parts of the island, those Germanic barbarians gradually spread northwards and westwards, establishing kingdoms for themselves in what had formerly been British (that is, Celtic) territories. It was the Picts who halted their northward advance, as they had previously halted even that of the Romans, by the decisive battle of Nechtansmere (probably Dunnichen in Angus) in 685. The most northerly of the Saxon kingdoms, Northumbria, thus had its northern boundary set at the river Forth.

The Picts, speaking a language whose closest modern relative is Welsh, maintained their distinctive and brilliant Celtic civilisation until their kingdom was united with that of the Gaelic-speaking Scots, in the person of Kenneth MacAlpin, in 843. Later, in 1018, Kenneth’s descendant Malcolm II (the grandfather of both Macbeth and Duncan) annexed the northern half of Northumbria and became King of, in addition to his existing domains, an Anglo-Saxon-speaking piece of territory extending southwards to the Tweed. And over the next few centuries, this Anglo-Saxon tongue spread up the East coast to Aberdeen and beyond, into the newly founded burghs, and at last into the Royal courts and council chambers. In the reign of one of our weakest kings, Robert III, Scottish magnates were using it for diplomatic correspondence with England’s Henry IV; in that of one of our ablest and strongest, Robert’s son James I, it became the language in which the Acts of Parliament were recorded (superseding Latin). The historical reasons for this long-term process are beyond the scope of this short paper; but their cumulative result was to promote what had once been simply a northern dialect of Anglo-Saxon to the official language of a small but prosperous and confident European kingdom. And in 1513, the great poet Gavin Douglas made the proud claim that for his masterwork, a complete poetic translation of Virgil’s Aeneid, he was kepand na Sudron but our awin langage — “our own language” being, he firmly insisted, Scottis.

Scots, that is, by the early sixteenth century had an unmistakeable identity of its own, within the assortment of Anglo-Saxon-derived speech forms, one of which was the London dialect soon to become the official tongue of the English kingdom, spoken over much (but by no means all) of the island of Britain. North-East Doric did not emerge till much later. Doric was not even in use as the name for any Scottish speech-form yet; and how it came to be so is interesting enough to merit a digression. In 1721, a lively and forceful figure in Edinburgh’s social and literary scene, the wig-maker and bookseller
Allan Ramsay, wrote a pastoral play called The Gentle Shepherd (“gentle” means “well-born”). This at once became enormously popular, and the dialect which Ramsay had used was christened “Scotland’s Doric” by a learned critic — appropriating the name of a classical Greek dialect which had been used in ancient times for poems and songs of rural life. “Doric” was thus adopted as a name for Scots in general: not yet exclusively the North-Eastern dialects. These were, by now, clearly different from those of the central and southern parts of the kingdom: Ramsay’s younger contemporary Alexander Ross, the schoolmaster of Lochlea, wrote a delightful pastoral epic called Helenore, or, the Fortunate Shepherdess, deriving much from Ramsay’s play, in a language which abounds in words, idioms and pronunciation features characteristic of the North-East. But Ross did not really initiate a tradition of North-Eastern dialect literature: the best part of a century was to pass before writers from this part of Scotland became committed to making the dialect an essential part of their literary technique.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a remarkable school of local journalism arose in various parts of Scotland featuring — especially, though not exclusively, in the North-East — articles in the local dialect about topics of local interest. The brilliant journalist William Alexander was the leading light in this part of Scotland; and his stories and articles (including his still-famous masterwork Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk) established an uncompromising Doric as the medium for first-class literary and argumentative prose. (Anybody who doubts whether serious matters can be discussed in the Doric need only examine the impassioned arguments on religious and political matters enjoyed by Johnny Gibb and his associates!) Doric poetry followed prose: Charles Murray’s affectionate portraits of local characters and Mary Symon’s records of her community’s response to the Great War were soon followed by the works of J.M. Caie, J.C. Milne, and in our own time David Ogston, Stanley Fisher, Flora Garry, Sheena Blackhall and many others.

Doric is not, and never was, a separate language: it is a form of Scots, though a very distinctive one. Many words used by Doric writers can be understood all over Scotland: and are no less Doric for that. (Going up a step, many Scots words are no less Scots for being shared with English; and many English words no less English for being shared by all the languages in the Germanic family.) But the spik o the fowk is instantly recognisable as a mark of the highly individual and proudly-proclaimed identity of the North-East: an identity built up by the generations of fermers, baillies, orra louns, fishers, cyaards and tinks who shaped the life of the district. As their descendants and their heirs, we would do well to cherish their mither tongue.

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