Mebbes Aye, Mebbes Naw: Scots Nationalism an Scots Language

Tammas Clark

Hou it aw ends. In 7th century Egypt, wi Caliph Abd al-Malik taxin the Coptic language intae oblivion. In modren Sri Lanka, wi a hunner an fifty fowk killed in riots sparked bi anti-Tamil language legislation. An in Russia an Ukraine an Cameroon, an ony place whaur there are tongues tae speak an hauns tae scrieve it doon wi, wi speakers o minority leids silenced an suppressed an sometimes warse.
Sae, aye. It’s mebbes a bittie premature tae get the knottit hankies an totey violins oot for the Scots language, a thrivin leid o some 1.6 million spikkers an anither 400,000 antrin uisers in a kintrae whaur the riots are daimen an the new taxes aw tae dae wi bevvy an carrier bags. The leid has awready tholed several hunner years o scorn, neglect, an economic an social disincentives – an cam oot swingin. Like Jake LaMotta, Scots mebbe isnae the bonniest fechter, but naebody cannae get it doon. Aw o which has makkit it awfy easy, ower the coorse, for the heid-bummers o sindry governments tae wash their hauns o the thing – tae let on Scots is gettin by weel eneuch aff its ain steam – an thereby steer the leid, bi sma degrees, aff the lifeboat an oot intae the cauld blue sea.
Visitors fae ither kintraes are aye dumfoondert bi this. Tae thaim, a leid is a naitural resoorce akin tae ony ither, like ile or watter or wund. Whit nation wad turn its forests intae tinder? Whit kintrae wad allou the poisonin o its syle? Whit geopolitical entity has twa thumbs an disnae gie a fuck aboot its ain language? The linguistic apartheid that we wad shuirly cry unacceptable onywhaur else in the warld is takkin place richt here, on oor watch, unner oor verra nebs.
Linguistic apartheid. Language discrimination. These are by-ordinar terms for somethin that is rarely, if ever, aboot the actual leid itsel. Abd al-Malik wisnae stampin oot Coptic cause he didnae like the soond o it. The Tamil literary tradition wisnae whit the Sinhalese were tryin tae get shot o. When the spikkers o yin leid set aboot the spikkers o anither, aesthetic considerations sic as yon dinnae tend tae enter intae it. Nah, when a political pairty or a social group sets sichts on a language, it isnae an alphabet or a dictionary that they’re ettlin tae gub. It’s a hale people. Pittin the boot on a language has aye been a sleekit wey tae wheesht a minority wioot bein seen tae be openly discriminatory. Ask the Tamils. Ask the Coptics, if ye can find ony left. An ask – ah suppose – the Scots.
Really? Ach, shuirly no. It disnae soond quite richt tae say that Scots, the hale jingbang o thaim, are the intended target o Scots language discrimination. Efter aw, maist o sic discrimination is cairrit oot by Scots. Sae, refine – say, as mony dae, that Scots nationalists specifically are the yins wi the bullseye on their backs. Which soonds plausible eneuch. The notion abides that Scots is some kind o nationalist ploy, an ersatz national tongue inventit tae gie credence tae the assertion that Scots is a nation at aw.
But wait a meenit. Check oot the list o places that turnt oot for Naw in 2014, an compare it wi ony demographic map o Scots spikkers. The mucklest skelpins the Aye side tholed were in Scots-spikkin stranghauds like the Borders an the North-East. If the Scots language is jist a bourach o SNP havers, naebody got the message tae these fowk; or tae the SNP themsels, for that maiter, wha hiv done hee-haw tae forder the leid this past three pairliaments. The connection atween Scots nationalism an the Scots leid micht mak intuitive sense, but gin ye strip awa the support o The National an Bella Caledonia for aw three o Scotland’s indigenous languages, there’s naethin at aw tae it. Which gies rise tae the speirin; if the target o anti-Scots discrimination isnae the Scottish people at large, an isnae the Scottish nationalists specifically, wha is it?

Ye awready ken the answer, o coorse. Awbody daes, tho they micht be laith tae cam oot wi it. Teirin lumps oot the Scots leid is, and lang has been, this kintrae’s last respectable wey o dingin doun the wirkin clesses. When Murdo Fraser craws aboot anither MSP referrin tae “thae benches”, when Neil Findlay treats Twitter tae a mistrel show parody o hou Scots spikkers scrieve their leid; wha dae ye think they’re haein a go at? The middle cless Doric spikkers o Aiberdeenshire? The ancestral lairds o the Scottish Borders, whase Scots wis haundit doon tae thaim alang wi their estates? Coorse no. It’s the wirkin clesses, an the fowk wha are warse aff even than thaim. It’s the fowk wha bide in Barlanark an Muirhoose an Ferguslie Park. It’s dug whistle politics o the warst kind. Tae single oot a social group based on some incidental quality o theirs is bad eneuch. But when that quality is as essential tae wha they are as a leid is tae its spikkers, whit ye’re daein is somethin mair than victimisation. Ye’re takkin a group o people whase voice is awready hoarse an shilpit, an ye’re silencin thaim awthegither.
Aye, okay, yinst a body has tholed the kiln o a Scots-spikkin bairnheid, there’s no much that onybody can thraw at thaim, no even Murdo Fraser or Neil Findlay, that’ll set thaim back. But but but. There’s thoosands o bairns in this kintrae, richt noo, wha are functionally illiterate in their native language. Second cless citizens o their ain kintrae, their ain schuils. Mony o thaim wi bad cairds richt aff the draw, stairtin aff every day wi the first o a yowdendrift o myndins that the wey they think an speak is cultural shorthaun for poverty an sloth. They’re the yins wha need the government’s help. They’re the balance the futur o the leid – an the kintrae – hings in.
Aw, an by the by – yon statistic aboot 1.6 million spikkers? Yon map o whauraboots they aw bide? Baith wrang, for ma money. The reason the map shaws sic a strang correlation atween Scots spikkers an Naw voters is acause the people wha’ve got the blasé self-confidence tae tell a census that they speak Scots – the people maist likely tae be representit in a census, full stop – are jist the kind o solid middle-tae-upper-class fowk wha votit Naw in 2014. The wirkin classes wha votit Aye dinnae hae the luxury o “self-identifyin” as Scots spikkers. That Scots is even a language, never mind that it’s the language they happen tae speak, is a fact consciously an deliberately withheld frae thaim. These are fowk wha’ve been raised syne birth tae be mortified o the wey they speak an the language they uise – they’re the last people in the warld tae tick the box that, if it means anythin at aw tae thaim, like as no means dolescum. They’re as invisible on oor census an as invisible on oor linguistic maps as they are everywhaur else in oor public life.
There’s nae dout that the social stigma eikit on tae Scots aff-roads wirkin cless fowk fae uisin it or even lettin on tae uise it; an ah think, in a braider wey, the same thing applies tae the SNP. Leuk at the Tories. They’ve awready nailed their cless-hatred colours tae the board. They can affuird tae dally wi Doric an slum it wi Scots because naebody wad for wan meenit think they were turnin socialist. They’re that distant fae the wirkin clesses in this kintrae that they’ve nae imperative need tae distance themsels ony faurer. But the heezin up o Scots wad come wi an implicit political cost tae the SNP. It’d involve compromise. This current government, tae cut a lang story short, are as embarrassed bi the leid as ony yin-time schemie wha’s went up in the warld. As a kintrae an as an electorate – we kent their faithers.
The SNP, unlike the Tories, widnae be alloued tae skite lightly ower the surface o the thing. Insteid, they wad hiv tae come richt tae grips wi it, like every ither wirkin cless Scots spikker has. Figur oot whit it meant tae them, an hou they were gaun tae accommodate it intae their present, an whase guid opinion they were willin tae risk in order tae dae it. Can ye imagine it? The private psychodrama o the ordinar Scots spikker, amplified bi a factor o five million, an braidcast on Pairliament TV. An is that no whit pairliaments are meant tae be aboot, onyroads? The places we tak oor personal stories tae be makkit intae national yins? Or daes that conception o things differ as much fae the reality as the National Theatre fae the Jeremy Kyle Show?
We’re no bein taxed tae deith like the Coptics. But we’re bein short-chynged nanetheless. Yin an a hauf million taxpeyers shoud buy a hantle mair bi- or tri-lingual roadsigns than it daes. Insteid, Scots spikkers get a return on their siller o yin or twa pennies a person, wi nae educational provision, nae public programmin on TV or radio, nae publishin support, nae protection at aw for the leid or its uisers, an – warst o aw – naebody like us in the spheres o national cultur or public life. Yin o these days, there will be a female President, there will be an openly gay fitba player. But there will never be a Scots spikkin First Minister. It’s no a vanishingly remote possibility. It’s something that, mair or less bi definition, simply cannae happen. O whit ither group wad we suffer the same thing tae be true wioot declarin oor democracy utterly broken? An yet, here we are.
Tae deprive a fowk o breid an watter is wan thing. Tae deprive thaim o dictionaries an literature, nae dout, is quite anither. But whit aboot things ye dinnae even ken the want o, syne ye were born wioot thaim? Tae growe up spikkin Scots is tae be a bairn wioot aspirations, an adult wioot howp. It’s tae be wrang in every wey it’s possible tae be wrang, an no ken why or hou. It’s tae be telt that the anely deal on offer is tae gie up the maist private an essential pairt o yersel, an get naethin in return but a desk at the cooncil an a haunfu o magic beans. Sae, aye. Brek oot the knottit hankies. Strike up the violins. Wha am ah tae say it’s no a tragedy? If ye think Scotland is pouerless within the UK, consider this. Wan an a hauf million people, wioot a single voice in either pairliament, whase votes are as wirthless as their stories. An wi nae mechanism for chyngin things, nae freends tae help, nae chance o ever makkin ony. Think aboot that, and tell me again; whaur is this nation that hasnae a kintrae? Wha are thae people that hinnae got dreams?

Tammas Clark is a Scots poet an scriever. His first poetry collection, Intae the Snaw, was publisht bi Gatehouse Press in 2015. He is co-editor o Scots at Bella Caledonia an a regular columnist wi The National. Forby, he is currently poet-in-residence at Selkirk Fitba Club.