A stairtit writin in Scots as an experiment. Hit wis fleysome tae me, tho A’d kent the leid for a guid bit. A wis seilie tae hae a teacher for Higher English wha haed a strang interest in Scots poetry: throu him I got to ken and luve a wee bit o Robert Garioch n Hugh MacDiarmid; Matthew Fitt pit me on tae WN Herbert at a schuil creative writin coorse; n growen up in Orkney meant A kent poems fae Robert Rendall n Christina Costie too. A treisured this mirlins o leid for a lang whiles, no that shuir hou or gif thay belangt tae me.
As A’ve wrote n spoken aboot at mebbe ower muckle, A’m a bairn of English paurents. We flit tae Westray (an ooter isle in Orkney) whan A wis 2, sae Orkney’s the anely hame A ken, but for aw that A’m yet n will for aye be an incomer. Mebbe acause o feelin that, or mebbe acause A wis niver that guid at comploutherin, or mebbe acause A wared a gey great hantle o oors in books, whan A wis a bairn A picked up mair o ma paurents English as ma freends’ n neebours’ Orcadian. Tho but the grammatical forms o ma speech n a wheen o ma wird chyces hae definitely n defiantly steyed Orcadian (‘Hou’s that?’ for ‘Why?’ n ‘Throu by’ for ‘Throu here’ bein kenable wans, tho skeely lugs will catch the mair), thare’s plainly a fouth o English in ma speakin. For aw that, ma speakin is skitie n shifty: A tak on the tuin o the fowk aboothaunds in a wey mony unhamit fowk dae.
Whan A wis a teenager, A cultivatit this Englishness a fair bit. A dandied up ma claes, haed a by-pit fascination wi Brideshead Revisited, listent tae The Divine Comedy (Neil Hannon bein a fair anglified chanter hissel), n sic n sic-like: cultivatin n identifyin wi that pairt o me wis a means o takkin strenth fae whit merkit me oot. Aw ootlin teenagers ken aboot this. A cried masel “British” steid o “Scottish”. Sae A didna really stairt explorin the Scottish n Orcadian pairts o me til A bid in England.
A flit tae London tae study theatre directing, n at lang n lenth fund A wisna English aither. A wis scunnert fae whit felt like the total wanwit o Londoners n English fowk mair braidly aboot hou Scotland wis, whit maitered thare, that hit e’en existit. Hit didna help that thare wis plenty o Americans aroond wha kept on cryin the UK “England”. A developit a wappin chip on ma shouder whit coverage o the independence referendum haes fairly beddit in. A felt mair Scottish, acause again A didna belang, n here hit wis ma Scottishness whit merkit me oot.
Hit wis aboot that time A stairtit howkin the leeterar history o Scots. A bocht a scunnersome annotatit edition o A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle. A rade n rade, whit is maistly hou A think aboot n caip wi things. A stairtit investigatin hou the Scots Renaissance happent, hou leid wrocht a means o not anely threapin identity but biggin hit, hou writin in Scots happens nou. Sae A thocht A’d gie hit a go.
My first mynts involvit uisin gey wheen o dictionars. A didna ken hou tae think in Scots. A’d smuirt the lugs n vocables A’d growed up wi. A wantit relearin. A wantit reclaimin a pairt o masel A’d deleeberately juntit oot o ma identity. Whiles A fliskit throu online thesauruses n ither fowk’s poems, A stairtit rekiverin wirds A thochht A’d tint, n A stairtit learin hou tae airt oot the Scottish syntax fae ma ain speech. A stairtit taitin oot the different thrieds o ma tongue – diction, tuin, vocables, syntax – n learin whit pairts o ma vyce articulatit whit pairts o me. I stairtit rewritin masel.
Maist fowk writin in Scots are in wan wey or anither in (or whiddin fae) the shaidae of Hugh MacDiarmid n his byous experiment in syncretism. MacDiarmid’s project can be rade as ettlin at recreautin a Scots leid the same as the Acts o Union haed niver happenit, the same as the first vernacular Bibles in Scotland haed been printit in the than-leevin Scottish tongue; hit wis a project in leevin alternative history throu leid n poetry. Hit damn naur succeedit. Something aboot MacDiarmid’s messan, maggie tak on rewritin his ain leid n history appealit tae me, ettlin at rewritin mines. A syncretist Scots whit borraed fae mony dialecks n dictionars, whit mad a stramash o soond n associe, whit pit feelin n effect first, fittit whit A wis ettlin at.
Brave wis ma first hail-heidit poem in Scots, tho but thare wis sketches afore hit. Hit’s in the rantin n flytin mode whit Scots is aft thirled tae (the stents of whit are cannily pyntit oot by Joyce MacMillan in her Scotsman review o Union). It tried tae smoosh thegither the tuilyin luves n resents A feel as an incomer Scot, as a hauf-Scot, as somebdy wha half-belangs to a half-nation. A identified ma ain twaness wi some sort o cultural antisyzgy, a Scotland whit is tryin and failin tae mak a multicultural contemporar identity wioot fawin back o tartanry, whit has tint hauf hits history n selt the ither hauf, whit luves and laithes hits ain kailyard. Hit wis n aw a randie threapin o ma Scottishness: hit wis me sayin, this is me, A’m Scottish, me n aw, this kintra belangs tae me n aw, n tae ye, n tae us, n tae this fowk, n this. A’m fain hit’s ma maist weel-sped poem tae date, winnin me a pickle (n losin a puckle n aw), n for ordinar gien audiences a grand time. A felt A wis daein somethin richt.
The upbiggit performativity o the syncretist Scots project sert ma ain performative sel-rebiggin; hits experimental howkin o whit Scotland micht be helpit me tae experiment wi whit ma Scottishness micht be. This days, mair nor hauf ma darg is Scots, n A’m conteenan tae sey the mairches o whit hit micht dae. Writin in Scots helpit me gree the different pairts o ma identity: nou A’m no sae fasht, no sae carkin, no sae wirrit aboot gif Scots belangs tae me n mair interestit in whit happens tae Scottishness the nou.
A conteena tae write in Scots firstmaist acause A’m drawed tae hits minority staundin. A luve hits soonds n pattrens, aye, but A luve thaim in English n aw. A’m interestit in hou in Scots A micht write fae the ruinds o things, n sae moot things whit micht ense be whisht. A’m drawed tae hits defeatism, tae writin in something whit’s deein or cheengin or weirin awa; I like the wey readers o Scots hae tae double-taka n reween sentences; A like hou writin in Scots gars us tae rebig wir leid on the flee sae’s tae mak the unmade. Aw this is a brade fae MacDiarmidism: hit’s bent set awa fae the biggin o a hail-n-hauden language, or a hail-n-hauden nation, or a bou-stane ideal of whit Scottishness is. Hit’s a mynt tae ledge the fotchin pluralisms o Scotland.
(A by-pit wird for academic readers: A’m kenably talkin a bit til n aroond Deleuze n Guattari here, n weenin hou Scots micht exerce as or like thir norrie o a “minor leeteratur”. Is awbdy writin on this? Is thare onything tae sey here?)
A find masel distribblit by the masculinism n conservatism o muckle contemporar Scots leeteratur. As Joyce MacMillan pointed out, Scots theatre seems to hae turnt tae bein mair stentit newlins tae mair male makars n male subjects and macho eemages. The pages of Lallans, Scots’ foremaist literar jurnal, are sturtinly owergaed wi men. For masel n ma ain readin, the maist o the poets A’ve leetit here hae been men. Nou tho but, on the wan haund, A’m deaved by a rural conservatism in Scots leeteratur whit tells n retells pub yairns n interminable selkie brides; on the ither, A’m stick-n-stowe forgnawed wi the machoness o Irvine Welsh eemitators, wha offer the ither contemporar mains o Scots writin.
A’m wantin tae airt oot queer weys of writin Scots. A’m wantin tae airt oot feminist weys of writin Scots. A’m wantin tae airt oot paistmodernist weys of writin Scots. A’m wantin tae chap up Scots wi wabspeak. A’m wantin Scots tae multipy n multiply; A’m wantin hit tae get fair fucken fremmit. A’m wantin scrievers o Scots no tae clock ower auld pasts for Scotland: A’m wantin scrievers o Scots tae cleck orra futurs.
Throu aw that but, thare’s anither tuin cantin. The MacDiarmidite tradeetion o monolithic syncretist Scots haes lang been contert by a vernacular tradeetion o hameower Scots: some swatches bein, in Orkney, Christina Costie and Robert Rendall; in Shetland, Christine De Luca; in the Doric, Sheena Blackhall. This are poets wirkin in minority kynds o Scots – leevin hamelt vernaculars – n writin poetry in the soonds o leevin speech. Futurity haes as muckle tae dae wi leevin minority tradeetions as wi camsteirie, ragglish howps.
For aw that A’ve been reengin ma ain Scottishness throu writin Scots, A yet canna write Orcadian. A mind on wirds n phrases fae ma bairnheid, but A’m strauchlin tae pit thaim thegither. A’ve been awa ower lang. Ma Scots poety has Orcadian souchs, but thay ser anither leid, n A’m growin dissytit wi that. A want tae gang hame for a stoond, n see whit’s thare for me, n see whit’s in me thare.
Scots isna in guid set. Thanks tae aw the byous wirk o the Centre for the Scots Leid n Scottish Language Dictionaries, thare’s a guid-gaun unnerstaunding o whit Scots is n brave fowk keepin hit alive, but gey few o ma young contempors as poets are writin in hit. While Lallans stodges on, the Scots warks in Gutter or New Writing Scotland are a curn n seendle fae younger writers. Ootside o Scotland A dout bit ye canna get Scots set furth at aw. A jist dinna think Scots is speakin muckle tae ma generation. Whether that’s the hank o the internet, or bein pit aff by Scots leeteratur’s ayebidin auld-carlism n machoness, or jist inevitable leid-deith, A dae ken, but A feel hit’s happenin.
A luve Scots. A feel like A’m experimentin yet. A feel like A’ve scantly stairtit antrin intae hou Scots micht maiter tae me, tae us. A feel like A’ve plenty tae lear fae thaim wha’ve wrote n are yet writin n rewritin Scots. I feel like thare’s plenty yet tae reenge. A dinna want this leid tae dee, acause A think thare’s that muckle vieve yet tae hit. Gif we get independence or no, A feel like Scottish cultur is flistin thanks tae the debate, that thare’s a guid sort o peuchleness n a sense o possibility thare: A want thay possibilities tae insnorl a leevin Scots. For that tae happen, A think we maun haud inventin n reinventin whit Scots micht be; A want tae threid minority tradeetions throu a royet n optimistic leid; A want no a stieve Scots or a haurd-mairchit Scotland, but a Scottishness whit’s birsin n remakkin hitsel ayeweys.
What Writing in Scots Means To Me
I started writing in Scots as an experiment. It was scary for me, though I’d known the language for a long time. I was lucky enough to have a teacher for Higher English who had a strong interest in Scots poetry: through him I got to know and love bits of Robert Garioch and Hugh MacDiarmid; Matthew Fitt put me on to WN Herbert at a school creative writing course; and growing up in Orkney meant that I knew poems from Robert Rendall and Christina Costie too. I treasured these fragments of language for a long time, never quite sure how or if they belonged to me.
As I’ve written and spoken about at perhaps too much length, I’m a child of English parents. We moved to Westray (an outer island in Orkney) when I was 2, so Orkney’s the only home I know, but for all that I’m still and will always be an incomer. Perhaps because of feeling that, or perhaps because I was never that good at fitting in, or perhaps because I spent so much time in books, when I was a child I picked up more of my parents English than my friends’ and neighbours’ Orcadian. Though the grammatical forms of my speech and certain word choices have definitely and defiantly stayed Orcadian (‘How’s that?’ for ‘Why?’ and ‘Through by’ for ‘Through here’ being really obvious ones, though practiced ears will pick up more), there’s obviously a lot of English in the way I speak. For that matter, the way I speak is slippery and shifty: I take on some of the accents of the people around me in a way that many unhomed people do.
When I was a teenager, I cultivated this Englishness somewhat. I dandied up my clothes, had a brief fascination with Brideshead Revisited, listened to The Divine Comedy (Neil Hannon being highly anglified himself), and so on: cultivating and identifying with this part of me was a way of gaining strength from what marked me out. All outsider teenagers know about this. I called myself “British” rather than “Scottish”. In the end, I didn’t really start exploring the Scottish and Orcadian parts of me until I lived in England.
I moved to London studying theatre directing, and finally realised that I wasn’t English either. I was appalled by what seemed like the complete ignorance of Londoners and English folk more broadly about how Scotland was, what mattered there, that it even existed. It didn’t help that there were a lot of Americans around who persistently referred to the UK as “England”. I developed a massive chip on my shoulder which coverage of the independence referendum has definitely helped to bed in. I felt more Scottish, because again I didn’t belong, and here it was my Scottishness that marked me out.
It was about this time that I started digging into the literary history of Scots. I picked up a big annotated edition of A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle. I read and read, which is generally how I think about and cope with things. I started investigating why the Scots Renaissance happened, how language functioned as a means of not only asserting identity but building it, how writing in Scots happens now. Eventually, I thought I’d give it a try.
My first attempts involved using a lot of dictionaries. I didn’t know how to think in Scots. I’d suppressed the ear and the vocabulary that I grew up with. I needed to rediscover it. I needed to reclaim a part of myself that I’d deliberately pushed out of my identity. As I flicked through online thesauruses and other people’s poems, I started rediscovering words I thought I’d forgotten, and I started learning how to pick out the Scottish sentence forms from my own speech. I started teasing apart the different parts of my tongue – diction, cadence, vocabulary, syntax – and learning which parts of my voice articulated which parts of me. I started rewriting myself.
Most folk writing in Scots are in one way or another in (or running from) the shadow of Hugh MacDiarmid and his extraordinary experiment in syncretism. MacDiarmid’s project can be read as trying to recreate a Scots language as if the Acts of Union had never happened, as if the first vernacular Bibles in Scotland had been printed in the then-living Scottish tongue; it was a project in living alternative history through language and poetry. It damn near succeeded. Something about MacDiarmid’s mongrel, magpie approach to rewriting his own language and history appealed to me, attempting to rewrite mine. A syncretist Scots which borrowed from multiple dialects and dictionaries, which played havoc with sound and association, which put feeling and effect first, suited what I was attempting to do.
Brave was my first fully-fledged poem in Scots, though there were sketches before it. It’s in the ranting and flyting mode that Scots is often confined to (the limitations of which are astutely pointed out by Joyce MacMillan in her Scotsman review of Union). It attempted to smoosh together the conflicting loves and resentments I feel as an incomer Scot, as a half-Scot, as someone who half-belongs to a half-nation. I identified my own doubleness with some sort of cultural antisyzgy, a Scotland which is trying and failing to assert a multicultural contemporary identity without recourse to tartanry, which has forgotten half its history and commodified the other half, which loves and loathes its own kailyard. It was also an aggressive reclamation of my Scottishness: it was me saying this is me, I’m Scottish, me too, this country belongs to me too, and to you, and to us, and to these folk too. I’m happy that it’s become my most successful poem to date, winning me a few things (and losing others), and generally giving audiences a good time when it comes out. I felt like I was doing something right.
The constructed performativity of the syncretist Scots project suited my own performative selfreconstruction; its experimental investigation of what Scotland might be helped me experiment with what my Scottishness might be. These days, more than half my work is written in Scots, and I’m continuing to try and push at the boundaries of what it might do. Writing in Scots helped me reconcile different parts of my identity: now I’m less worried, less anxious, less concerned about whether or not Scots belongs to me and more interested in what happens to Scottishness now.
I continue to write in Scots I think primarily because I’m attracted to its minority status. I love its sounds and patterns, yes, but I love those in English too. I’m interested in how in Scots I might write from the margins of things, and be able to say things that might otherwise go unsaid. I’m attracted to its defeatism, the sense of writing in something that’s dying or passing or changing; I like the way readers of Scots have to double-take and rethink sentences; I like that writing in Scots forces us to remake language on the fly in order to say unsaid things. All of this is a strong move away from MacDiarmidism: it is determinedly not the construction of a coherent language, or a coherent country, or a monolithic idea of what is Scottish. It is an attempt to assert the shifting pluralisms of Scotland.
(An aside for academic readers: I’m obviously talking a bit at and around Deleuze and Guattari here, and wondering how Scots might function in relation to the concept of a minor literature. Is anybody writing on this? Is there anything to say here?)
I find myself disturbed by the masculinism and conservatism of much of contemporary Scots literature. As Joyce MacMillan pointed out, Scots theatre seems to have become restricted of late to more male playwrights and subjects and macho forms. The pages of Lallans, Scots’ main literary journal, are frighteningly dominated by men. Reflecting on my own reading, the majority of the poets I’ve referenced here have been men. Now though, on the one hand, I’m bored by a rural conservatism in Scots literature that tells and retells stories down the pub and interminable seal-wifes; on the other, I’m utterly exhausted by the machoness of Irvine Welsh imitators, who offer the other main contemporary stream of Scots writing.
I want to find queer ways of writing Scots. I want to find feminist ways of writing Scots. I want to find postmodernist ways of writing Scots. I want to mash up Scots and net-speak. I want Scots to multipy and multiply; I want it to get really fucking weird. I want writers in Scots not to invent new pasts for Scotland or to interminably dig through history for answers: I want writers in Scots to invent new futures.
Though all that, though, there’s another tune singing. The MacDiarmidite tradition of monolithic syncretist Scots has long been countered by a vernacular tradition of Scots writing: in Orkney, Christina Costie and Robert Rendall; in Shetland, Christine De Luca; in the Doric, Sheena Blackhall. These are poets working in minority versions of Scots – living local vernaculars – and writing poetry in the sounds of speech. Futurity has as much to do with living minority traditions as wild and disruptive hopes.
For all that I’ve been exploring my own Scottishness through writing Scots, I still can’t write Orcadian. I remember words and phrases from my childhood, but I’m struggling to put them together. I’ve been away too long. My Scots poety has Orcadian inflections, but they’re put to the service of a bigger language, and I’m getting dissatisfied with that. I want to go home for a while, and see that’s there for me, and see what’s in me there.
Scots isn’t in a great state. Through all the magnificent work of the Scots Language Centre and Scottish Language Dictionaries, there exists a throroughgoing understanding of what Scots is and a brave body of folk keeping it alive, but precious few of my young contemporaries as poets are writing in it. While Lallans plods on, the Scots pieces in Gutter or New Writing Scotland are few and far between and rarely from younger writers. For some reason, I don’t think Scots is speaking that much to my generation. Whether that’s the influence of the internet, or being put off by Scots literature’s enduring old-fogeyism and machoness, or just inevitable language death, I don’t know, but I feel like it’s happening.
I love Scots. I feel like I’m still experimenting. I feel like I’ve barely started exploring what Scots might mean to me, to us. I feel like there’s a lot left to explore. I don’t want this language to die, because I think there’s so much life left in it. Whether we get independence or not, I feel like Scottish culture is booming as a result of the referendum debate, that there’s a confidence and a sense of possibility there: I want those possibilities to involve a living Scots. For that to happen, I want to keep inventing and reinventing what Scots might be; I want to thread living minority traditions through a wild and optimistic language; I want not a stable Scots or a tightly-bordered Scotland, but a Scottishness that’s pushing and recreating itself always.