I was recently watching a fiction by writer Anne Donovan in class, and our discussion quickly shifted from what the stories were about to how they were written. What exactly were we seeing, with all those funny spellings – the “mibbos” and the “wisnaes”?
My pupils offered the usual suggestions: the stories were written in Scottish ‘slang’, or perhaps with a Scottish ‘accent’; whatever the label, it just wasn’t “proper” English. Answers familiar enough to be heard in class -wWhen I was an undergrad, I took a linguistics unit and the same ideas were discussed. The struggles with the Scots language are certainly not limited to our teenagers.
Before going any further, I should point out that Scottish is a language -notnot a vernacular or a dialect. It is a rich linguistic thread that links the history, literature and present of our country.
However, I find teaching Scots meaningfully challenging in a school environment. It’s easy enough to do a few gimmick lessons here and there, put a big tick through Burns Night on the schedule, and move on. But I don’t know who really benefits.
I have taught in various rural and inner city schools, both in the Highlands and the Central Belt, and have yet to work with a group of children who are confident or fluent in Scots, rather than standard English, in their daily lives. More often, their linguistic influences come from America or online trends. When they use Scottish it’s often meant to be comical, joking, something of a parody; Not to be taken seriously.
Yet Scottish literature is enjoying a wild renaissance, fueled largely by social media paving the way for new writers to engage directly with readers. Just look at novelists Ely Percy, Graeme Armstrong and Emma Grae, the poetry and songs of Len Pennie, Billy Letford and Iona Fyfe, and TV documentaries starring Chris McQueer, Alistair Heather and Billy Kay. Scots is alive in 2022, and it’s real.
In April, Scottish campaigner Billy Kay addressed MSPs in the Scottish Parliament, speaking entirely in Scots – you can watch it here. The online stooshie that followed (its own handle) was made difficult to watch, as a variety of roasters (my handle) piled on personal abuse. It is in this kind of climate that teachers have to justify and plan their own use and teaching of Scots in the classroom.
The Scottish language is firmly embedded in the Curriculum for Excellence, which means that educators across the country should integrate the language into their teaching and learning practices. But it can be difficult to reconcile this, particularly for teachers who are not fluent or comfortable with Scots themselves, who in turn usually work with pupils whose linguistic frame of reference is derived more from social media and reality TV.
In his speech, Kay said politicians could “signal to the school that their family culture is valued by their fathers and followers”, and that “Scots [were] turned learning into a Scottish leid”.
Theoretically, I cannot disagree with these sentiments. I know that Scottish is used wonderfully by some teachers in some classes. The Scottish Teacher of the Year award recognizes such innovation and achievement, but I would be interested to know how many (or how many) teachers feel secure enough in their teaching of Scottish to be recognized in this way .
I’m not trying to decry the position of the Scottish language in the curriculum here, or at least I don’t think I am: it belongs. Rather, I try to voice my own concerns, unease and lack of confidence, in the hope that other teachers in Scotland will share them.
It’s not that I want to ignore Scottish, but in a large curriculum, where does that fit? Perhaps I instinctively feel that Scottish is a societal skill, hard to quantify, flourishing on social factors rather than being pushed in the classroom. In terms of long-term value and skills, how many class hours is Scottish worth? And should I prioritize it over Shakespeare, classic American literature, and contemporary poetry?
Maybe I’m overthinking. Len Pennie’s wildly successful series explaining a Scottish word of the day is always fun, bright and informative, combining heritage and lore – aAnd that’s something we can all learn from.
Alan Gillespie is a head teacher of English at Fernhill School, near Glasgow, and a novelist